In Boozo Veritas #36 by Teege Braune
The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
It is a shame that no one can talk about Edward FitzGerald’s best selling nineteenth century poem The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám without weighing in on the famous controversy surrounding the former’s admittedly un-literal translation of the Persian poets original quatrains. The never ending debate about FitzGerald’s poetic license and the accusations that he puts blasphemies in the mouth of a highly moral and devoutly religious intellectual by way of espousing alcoholism as means of overcoming life’s existential dilemma are perfect examples of scholarship missing the poetry by focusing on the minutia surrounding it, and indeed, FitzGerald by way of Khayyám, comments on the uselessness of such activities in the very poem inspiring them:
Why, all the Saints and Sages who discussed
Of the Two Worlds so wisely – they are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
Are scattered, and their Mouths are stopped with Dust.
What’s more, attempts at “proper” translations, such as Robert Graves’ clunky, self-righteous blunder, have routinely failed to match the poetic beauty of FitzGerald’s own. On the other hand, Sufi scholar Abdullah Dougan has championed FitzGerald’s translation as the instrument Allah chose to introduce Sufism to the west. While I have deep respect for Sufism and find Dougan’s assertion that the poem is “divine inspiration… a miracle,” appealing on some levels, I do not care for interpretations of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám as a religious text and would, in fact, argue that it is the opposite.
Others who revere FitzGerald’s translation, or “transmogrification” as he referred to it, for its poetic achievement often misinterpret it as pessimistic and fatalistic, summing it up as an elaborate expression of the sentiment, “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we’ll die.” Never mind that truncating a 404 lined poem into a cliche misses the point and joy of poetry in the first place, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is much more than the barroom philosophy of some simple-minded hedonist. While the poem certainly does come to the conclusion that perpetual indulgence in wine is the best way to live, it only does so after rigorous attempts to understand the nature of life and death, God, and our own purpose in this world have proved futile. Omar, as the narrator of FitzGerald’s interpretation, if not the historical and original poet, spends as much time discussing his own folly as a student of philosophy and theology, referring to the afterlife as “the Veil through which I might not see” and comparing humanity to clay pots in that both are made of earth, exist as empty vessels, and one day are returned to the dust and forgotten, as he does in drunken revelry.
When I discovered this poem as a young man of nineteen, I was going through a similar existential crisis as FitzGerald’s Khayyám. I had recently left Christianity due to a personal lack of faith, which I saw as a rejection by a Calvinist God, and discovered my own love of all things fermented including, if not especially, the grape. The certainty of my own death was terrifying to me.
For the first time in my life I could not cling to some approximation of Heaven to cushion the blow of its mystery. Alcohol, I found, eased the discomfort of this anxiety. Studying The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám allowed me to see drinking not as an easy escape hatch, but rather the ecstatic celebration of life that it can be. Omar is not hiding from hard truths and difficult questions. When he says,
Indeed, indeed, Repentance oft before
I swore – but was I sober when I swore?
And then and then came Spring, and Rose-in-hand
My threadbare Penitence apieces tore.
we can see that he is past fear. He has left those concerns behind to revel in the hear and now. What better way to do this than by drinking wine?
In class I grew frustrated with my colleagues who interpreted The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám as a symbol of communion, who equated the wine with the blood of Christ. This interpretation ignores Omar’s regular and devastating criticisms of religion and a legalistic deity who would “Sue for a Debt he never did contract, / And cannot answer…” And yet, communion may be closer to Khayyám’s or FitzGerald’s meaning than base hedonism. I have always found it disturbing that scholars of English literature, a group trained to look for metaphors and symbolism, are so quick to take Omar’s wine at face value. Perhaps every reader of The Rubáiyát will not be an oenophile. I do not think that this needs detract from the value or beauty of the poem; wine is the perfect stand-in for joy. Around the same time FitzGerald was transmogrifying Khayyám’s Rubáiyát, the French poet Charles Baudelaire was commanding his readers to get drunk “with wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please!” Neither poets are equating drunkenness with sloppy inebriation; on the contrary, it is associated with an all-encompassing, passionate exuberance.
His contributions to algebra, geometry, and astronomy are widely celebrated, but little is known about the personal life of the historical Omar Khayyám. He was a skilled poet in his native Persian and wrote over a thousand quatrains, some that look like this. When FitzGerald’s translation of a few of these quatrains introduced Khayyám to the western world, undoubtedly a romanticized interest in Orientalism in Victorian England led to its immense popularity. The exoticness of Omar Khayyám’s name was all these early western readers needed to know about him. Over a century later, scholars continue to argue whether or not he was a deeply religious orthodox Muslim, a mystically inclined Sufi, or FitzGerald’s fellow agnostic, a man who, like myself, craved earthly joy is lieu of cosmic security. Wine is often used as a symbol for divine communion in Sufi poetry as it is in Christian liturgy and pagan Dionysian-cult rituals, and yet for Omar, at least FitzGerald’s Omar, wine is not transcendent. It is of earthly origin for the pleasure of humanity, ourselves earthly beings made of the same clay as the cups from which we drink, in which the grape grows. Understanding this struck me as pessimistic at one time in my life, but now I see it as mysticism and materialism in perfect synchronicity. Religion, a promise of heaven, these may bring joy to lives of other people, but for me:
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, of Loaf of Bread – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
Teege Braune (episode 72, episode 75, episode 77, episode 90) is a writer of literary fiction, horror, essays, and poetry. Recently he has discovered the joys of drinking responsibly. He may or may not be a werewolf.