Aug 10, 2016

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is probably the most famous work of Middle Eastern literature worldwide, except maybe The Arabian Nights.   You're probably familiar with some of the passages.  But do you know what the poem is about?

Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) was a Persian poet, astronomer, and mathematician who may or may not have written the ruibaiyat (4-lined verses)  ascribed to him.  The compilation came three hundred years after his death.

It became famous in the English-speaking world with the translation by Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883), based on original manuscripts in the Oxford Bodleian Library.  The first edition (1859) contained 75 quatrains.  New editions increased the number to 101.

The plot is simple: a scholar abandons his studies for a romantic interlude with a young friend.

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse - and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness -
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

After all, life is short: we should seize the day:

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and - sans End !

Who is the Poet seizing the day with?  Translators and illustrators tried their hardest to make it a heterosexual romance, but some of the quatrains describe a young man.

Up, smooth-faced boy!  The daybreak shines for thee!

Translator Edward FitzGerald was gay.  He was with William Kenilworthe Browne from 1832 to 1859, in spite of their both being married.  His romance with his second lover, a fisherman named Joseph Fletcher, or Posh, lasted from 1865 to 1873.