Introduction to the Rubáiyát

For those who have come to accept Omar Khayyam’s the Rubáiyát from the translation of Edward FitzGerald my quatrains may come as a disappointment. The reclusive Victorian poet- scholar took great liberties with the original and yet created a standard by which the work of Omar Khayyam has ever since come to be compared. It is an irony. Never mind FitzGerald’s work can stand on its own. FitzGerald did not take the richly colored similes of the original entirely. What he gave us instead was an equivalent from the sensibilities of an Englishman, highly gifted in his learning and poetic sensibilities at that, to make the reader accept his translation at its face value.  The excellence of Edward FitzGerald was in making the West seem as East and to pass the European theology  for the coloring of an Eastern mind that accepts the curious workings of fate with equanimity.

This unflappable acceptance of destiny can either make man resign and throw his life to excesses or close into abject asceticism. But in the highly gifted astronomer-mystic poet his philosophy must surely come to rescue. This is what happened with Omar the tent-maker. His philosophy puts distance between life and his own case. On account of this his poetic fancies do benefit. He is neither a lush  for all the quatrains that advocate ‘drinking to oblivion,’ nor is he an ascetic.

It surely is the gift of the man as philosopher and also as a poet to take whatever position he may choose. Whoever tries to make a case  either for self-indulgence or for a particular way of life  for example a Sufi or as Calvinist, is likely to miss the point. FitzGerald’s growing skepticism as with other Victorian poets is evident in his translation. What was valid for Omar Khayyam in his medieval times for Sufism need not necessarily restrict FitzGerald’s poetic fancies.  With this in view my quatrains are not bound by any but my own world view.

I have made as many quatrains according to the traditional rhyme pattern as free verse. Each quatrain is a separate poem, more as an epigram, an idea compressed within four lines each of 10 syllables. When we consider the Rubá’í, the movement is a succession of double Bayts or four-lined stanzas rhyming ab+cb. The Kit’ah is a fragment , either as an occasional piece or as part of Ghazal(ode) or Kasídah( elegy). It has a rhyming pattern ab+ab.

The entire output of Omarikhayyam, one may never exactly how many. Think of each quatrain as stay rope with pegs to hold up a tent, in the sense of a tent is set up in any place for the indweller’s enjoyment and ease. It is rooted however as a tent onto the ground and has certain volume. Using this analogy Omar Khayyam has a tent of certain size ,-600 quatrains  or more, and it is not what FitzGerald  followed. Never mind the English man of letters made a body of poems as any other poet, -meaning Omar or any other poet writing in this form. It is Rubaiyat and it can be set up anywhere. Only that it is built on life experience of the poet and has a feel of life about. In my opinion Omar Khayyam is relevant for the present age since life experience of this visual generation can be aptly transcribed in quatrain.

Suppose the poet recreates word images just as one would surf channels with remote control he is speaking a certain life experience  his reader will understand.  An Arab may use the words to the rhythm of camel trudging the way or a potter in Basra as though he is slapping clay on the moving wheel. Life experience given a rhythm, whether rolling or jagged, compressing man’s relationship to universe shall always resonate in the hearts of his readers.

(ack: Richard F. Burton’s terminal essay on poetry-Alf Laylah wa Laylah and Omar Khayyam ed.George F. Maine Intro. Laurence Housman pub. Collins’72)



About bennythomas

I am a Dutch citizen. An architect by profession I am married and have six grandchildren. I am still keen on expressing myself and each day is new and an occasion where I might bring out from within something worthwhile.
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1 Response to Introduction to the Rubáiyát

  1. Looking forward to them all, Benny.

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