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A Book of Verses From the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
A book of poems under the bough,
A bottle of wine, a loaf of bread, you
Singing in the desert beside me…
Oh, the desert was truly a paradise!
The above quatrain is from the Edward Fitzgerald Second Edition Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1868. Fitzgerald’s treatment of Omar Khayyam’s poem brings the Persian poet to the attention of the Western world more than 700 years after he wrote the poem.
Omar Khayyam (1048-1123) was born in Nishapur, the capital of the Persian state of Khurasan in present-day Iran. He was born Ghiyat al-Din Abul Fateh Omar Ibn Ibrahim al-Khayyam. His early age is unknown, but the name Khayyam means “tent maker”, suggesting that Omar or his father Ibrahim may have acquired this profession.
Omar was educated locally and at a young age completed a treatise on algebra. He attracted the attention of Sultan Malik Shah, who offered to keep Omar in the royal court. Vizier Nizam al-Mulk granted Omar a pension, allowing him to devote himself to his favorite subjects of mathematics and astronomy. He was tasked with establishing an observatory in Isfahan, and he was later appointed to edit the Muslim calendar along with eight other scholars. Omar published several books on astronomy and algebra that rivaled the research of contemporary Europeans.
Although Omar is best known as a mathematician and astronomer, he also wrote poetry throughout his life. His preferred style was four-line quatrains, and he is believed to have written about a thousand in his lifetime. Not all manuscripts have survived, but about 600 poems have been attributed to him, although most critics agree that not all of them were written by Omar Khayyam.
Word rubai is the plural noun of a four-line quatrain written by Omar. Each square can be called correct rubai. In modern convention, a rubaiyat refers to a four-line poem with a rhyme scheme ahh Here, each line expresses a complete idea.
The main theme of Omar’s Rubaiyat is the impermanence of the human spirit and the fragile nature of human existence. The tone of his poems is often pessimistic. Omar writes vividly about the impossibility of understanding the universe. As a counterpoint, he also writes about the wisdom of living in the moment, sharing friendships, and the pleasures of drinking wine in a tavern.
It is no wonder that Omar’s verse was suspect to orthodox Muslims. Because wine and drunkenness were prohibited by Islamic law, his verses about wine were tried to be metaphorically interpreted as spiritual or romantic drunkenness.
At the end of his life, Omar said to a student, “My grave will be a place where the north wind can scatter roses over it.” Omar Khayyam died in Nishapur in 1131. According to Ali ibn Azidu’l-Bayhaqi’s biography, Omar called his family to listen to his last wish, saying, “My Lord, I have known You to the best of my ability. Forgive me, for my knowledge is my advice to You.”
Edward Fitzgerald’s treatment
The world knew very little about the poetry of Omar Khayyam until Edward Fitzgerald brought out the second edition. Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam The first edition of 250 copies in 1868 was published anonymously and unnoticed in 1859. However, the 1868 edition was well received. The publication considered Omar Khayyam’s 101 quatrains as one long poem. Many critics considered it an English poem with a Persian accent.
Fitzgerald did not translate Omar’s poem literally. He freely interpreted them and combined some of them to make completely new poems. However, his translation is inspired and skillful, faithful to the spirit of Omar Khayyam’s poem, not its words.
In fact, Fitzgerald said that his work was a translation, not a translation transform. Fortunately, Fitzgerald’s work is so good that few people in the Western world consider some of this work to be Fitzgerald’s own.
Fitzgerald created quatrains with iambic pentameter. In other words, the meter of each line contains five feet, and each foot is iambic with an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable. The motif of the four-line poem is aaba.
Note the last line of The Book of Poems Under the Cane, where Fitzgerald chose this word. now to produce the final iambic foot.
There are many sources for viewing and reading the original Farsi version of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat.
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam translated into many languages of the world. There are many English translations that follow Fitzgerald’s translation. For interest and comparison, here are a few additional translations of the “Book of Verses Under the Shrub” quatrain.
Iambic pentameter from the original edition by Fitzgerald:
Here is bread under the branch,
A glass of wine, a book of poems – and you
Singing in the desert next to me –
The desert is paradise.
From Edward Henry Winfield’s 1882 edition:
In the beautiful springtime I was looking for a grassy bank
Wine and good khuri were brought there;
Even though people called me a gentle dog,
Heaven gave no other thought!
From John Leslie Garner’s 1888 translation:
Yes, my love, when the laughing spring blows
With you by my side, while the cup is flowing,
I spent the day in this Sea Meadow,
Dream without thinking about what is given to you by heaven.
From Edward Heron-Allen’s 1898 translation of the novel:
I want some ruby wine and a book of poems,
Enough to keep me alive, half a loaf of bread;
And you and I should sit in a deserted place
Better than Sultan’s Kingdom.
And finally, for fun, here’s a translation of Wendy Cope’s self-created character, Jason Strugnell, a struggling poet from South London.
Here’s a bag of crisps under a branch,
A can of beer and a radio – and you
Half asleep in Brockwell Park next to me
Brockwell Park is Heaven.
At least he got that part right.
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