Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

Rubáiyát are tetrastichs, independent stanzas, each composed of four lines of near equal length. In their traditional form, all except the third line rhymes, though, occasionally, all lines of the verse rhyme. Omar Khayyám’s rubáiyát are probably the most famous poems written in the form, though they were obscure in the Western world until Edward Fitzgerald translated the work. The version I read actually contains three separate translations, the well-known Fitzgerald version, as well as those by Justin Huntly McCarthy and E. H. Whinfield. Reading through each comparatively strengthens my view that a translation should be regarded as two separate things: original work by the author, and a unique creation in its own right. For, each translator took a different approach for carrying out this task. Fitzgerald and Whinfield chose to stick tightly to the structure of the original, though the former took significant liberties with the content, embracing the overall spirit he saw in the work while worrying little for finer details that may have impeded the sound and flow. McCarthy elected for more of a literal translation, casting aside the rigid rhyme-scheme in an attempt to capture more of the flavour and intricacies of Khayyám’s writing, and I’d have to say that I preferred this approach, despite the added repetition that was largely avoided with the overall pruning done by the others.

What came across after these three readings was the character of Khayyám. A scientist/philosopher/mathematician living in 11th century Persia, his poetry makes him come across as thoughtful and wise, but also troubled, largely over matters of mortality and religion. Throughout, he seems depressed, despairing under the weight of the world, often turning to alcohol to numb this emotional pain. And by far the majority of the collection is about drinking. (In the introduction to my copy as well as the preface to the Fitzgerald version, however, this is implied as being closer to bragging than to truth.) There is a suggestion, quickly discarded by Fitzgerald, that Khayyám’s references to “wine” should instead be interpreted as something akin to “spirit” in a religious sense––an idea I wouldn’t necessarily abandon completely. I’ll be the first to admit that I could be in favour of this because I’d love the potential for such delicious wordplay to have credence, but it’s also because of the frequent parallels made by the author between humans and pottery. Some of these are strict metaphors (blaming the potter’s hand rather than the pottery for misshaping the cups), but this extends into literalism, cups and bowls being shaped from humans who passed and became the clay of the earth. In this context, some of the wine imagery could easily come back to the holy spirit filling the human receptacle––though I will admit it at least as frequently seems to simply be about drinking to forget your problems.

As a whole, Khayyám’s quatrains swerve between joyous, melancholy, and even hateful, but this fact makes me hopeful, as it reads like the candid musings of a real person being true to his emotions. If you find yourself a copy, I’d recommend reading the McCarthy version if you can, in order to best understand the intricacies of the writing, but the others are a great read if you want to capture a glimpse of the music of the original.