We're lucky to have FitzGerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam at all. It was by chance that he met Edward Cowell, one of the few Victorians who spoke Persian, and who was friendly enough to help him. (FitzGerald was no linguist.) It was by chance also that Cowell discovered an Omar Khayyam manuscript in the Bodleian (FitzGerald had tried to stop him going to Oxford). Even then FitzGerald, who was congenitally idle, might have done nothing if he hadn't undergone what, for him, was a decade of stress in the 1850s. (The work took his mind off things.) When he was translating the poem between 1857 and '59 Cowell was in India, connected by an efficient Victorian postal service. Cowell had also introduced him to Spanish, enabling to get his translating hand in on the plays of Calderon and two other Persian poems before tackling Omar.
Who was Khayyam? He was a real man, a mathematician who lived in north eastern Persia between 1048 and 1131 (or '26). Omar Khayyam's story has its variants but is roughly agreed. He was born in Naishapur, a city about two hundred and fifty miles from present day Teheran, and not too far south of the River Oxus. His province, Khorassan, was prosperous, being both fertile and on the China-Mediterranean trade route. Being open to trade also meant being open to conquest and, eight years before he was born, the province was over run by Turkman invaders, zealous recent converts to Islam who held the territory under the authority of the Caliph of Baghdad.
Omar Khayyam (Khayyam means tentmaker, presumably his father's trade) became one of the foremost mathematicians and astronomers of his day. He was a follower of the Arab philosopher Avicenna who was, in turn, a disciple of Aristotle and Greek science. In 1074 he helped reform the Persian Calendar, though this has been disputed. As a mathematician he used geometry to solve cubic equations, and also worked on Euclid's Fifth Postulate.
Then, because of political unrest and personal spite, he lost favour and retired to write bitter-sweet verses about the consolations of wine, companionship, and the fleetingness of time. His chosen form was a four line stanza called the ruba'i, which means "foursome" in Arabic. The plural is rubaiyat. A complete English translation of the title, therefore, would be Omar Kayyam's Quatrains. This four line stanza was not used by serious Persian poets; but it is highly memorable and supple enough to carry subversive ideas; whatever else can be said about his poetry, it is certainly heretical. Some have argued he was a Sufi and that the wine and drunkenness symbolised mystical insight. Cowell wanted to believe something like this. FitzGerald didn't. Mostly we read translations for the ideas of the translated. Here the mind of the translator is what matters — and there is nothing whatsoever mystical about FitzGerald's Khayyam.
What kind of poem is it? Keats didn't like poetry that had designs on him. He'd have disliked this. It has a message. Modern poets are told to hide their meaning (if they have one) and let the reader guess. Here the meaning is open and explicit. In the Persian all the stanzas are self-contained, held together alphabetically (using the last letter of the last word of each first line). FitzGerald's poem is more like a passage through a day from pre-dawn to moonrise. "A progression," as he put it, "tracing in vague outline a soul's history." "A pretty little Eclogue," he added, "tessellated out of his scattered quatrains." In a letter to Tennyson, he characterised the verses as "savage against Destiny," "Epicurean Pathos," and "Infidel." What it expresses, he explained, is at "the bottom of all thinking men's minds; but made music of." The whole poem is an evocation of agnosticism and Epicureanism, the philosophy which seeks happiness through friendships and the avoidance of pain. It is about the brevity of life and the absence of an after one.
One Moment in Annihilation's Waste,
One Moment of the Well of Life to taste —
The Stars are setting and the Caravan
Starts for the Dawn of Nothing — oh, make Haste! [xxxviii. 1st Ed.]
The poem's advice is carpe diem — seize the day — for no other world follows this one. Not that it is entirely agnostic. A Maker of some kind, called Thou or the Potter, appears once or twice if only to be dismissed as irrelevant or rebuked.
Rebuked as in:
Oh Thou, who Man of baser Earth did make,
And who with Eden didst devise the Snake:
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blacken'd, Man's Forgiveness give and take! [lvii. 1st Ed.]
And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop'd we live and die,v Lift not thy hands to It for help — for It
As impotently moves as you or I. [lxxii. 5th Ed.]
A literal translation was not FitzGerald's goal. Rather he looked for the kernel, the nub, of the argument which he then made 'readable', as he put it. On occasion he was also prepared to twist the original to suit his own agenda. Cowell, writing from Calcutta, pointed out that the last line of what became stanza lvii (1st edition) should read "Thou who granted repentance and accepted excuses." FitzGerald put, and refused to change " . . . Man's forgiveness give and take."
The stanzas are perfectly designed for their job of delivering a message. Technically the English ones are iambic pentameter quatrains rhyming aaxa. The power of the verse — now known as the Rubaiyat stanza — lies in the tension between the two couplets. In well over half they are separated by a colon, semi-colon, exclamation or question mark. FitzGerald's Victorian biographer, A C Benson, likens them to epigrams or mini-sonnets each dealing with a single thought. With some you can draw a parallel with jokes. The first couplet sets out a thought, the second — like a joke's punch line — veers off at an unexpected angle, adding to the strength of both. That last rhyming line, on the other hand, always closes the argument with unarguable finality like a door slamming shut.
And much as Wine has play'd the Infidel,
And robb'd me of my Robe of Honour — well,
I often wonder what the Vintners buy
One half so precious as the Goods they sell. [lxxi. 1st Ed.]
Each stanza is almost indivisible. At one time in the Oxford Book of Quotations two-thirds of the whole poem was reproduced in full. (The first edition has seventy-five stanzas, the fifth a hundred and seven.) Only occasionally can you extract a couplet to stand alone:
I sometimes think that never blows so red
The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled. [xviii. 1st Ed.]
FitzGerald, Benson tells us, was not an originator. His only original work, Euphranor, is a Platonic dialogue between Cambridge undergraduates. It's in prose and said to have a little plot and poor characterisation. In his early twenties he wrote some verses which didn't seem to hold out too much promise:
'Tis a dull sight
To see the year dying,
When winter winds
Set the yellow woods sighing:
Sighing, oh! sighing.
None of his other translations was well received. He cut two characters out of Sophocles's Œdipusbecause he didn't like them. Æschylus he was temperamentally unsuited to deal with at all; he likened him to "a rugged mountain lashed by seas, and riven by thunderbolts" — the antithesis of his own nature. But with Khayyam there was a meeting of minds. His method he called 'mashing': he mashed the original stanzas, like potatoes perhaps, into something with a similar flavour but a different shape. The original is quieter and more questioning, less roistering and dogmatic. Another translation by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs gives a different — and presumably truer — flavour of the original. It's not easy to match up their translations with FitzGerald's, and mostly it's impossible. This is from Avery/Heath-Stubbs:
All the plants that grow beside the stream
Have surely grown from angels' lips;
Tread roughly on no plant,
For it has sprung out of the dust of the tulip-cheeked. 
This must be the stanza which FitzGerald turns into:
And this delightful Herb whose tender Green
Fledges the River's Lip on which we lean —
Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen! [xix. 1st Edition.]
In the extremity of desire I put my lip to the pot's
To seek the elixir of life:
It put its lip on mine and murmured,
"Enjoy the wine, you'll not be here again." 
Then to this earthen Bowl did I adjourn
My Lip the secret Well of Life to learn:
And Lip to Lip it murmur'd — "While you live
Drink! — for once dead you never shall return." [xxxiv. 1st Ed.]
Having come up with a special and distinctive poem, FitzGerald didn't seem able to stop tinkering with it. Four more editions followed. On the whole, his earliest thoughts were best although there some improvements in the fifth edition, published in 1889 exactly thirty years after the poem first appeared Here is the first stanza as translated literally by a Mr Heron-Allen:
The Sun casts the noose of morning upon the roofs;
Kai Khosru of the day, he throws a stone into the Bowl:
Drink wine! for the Herald of the Dawn, rising up
Hurls into the days the cry of "Drink ye!."
This what FitzGerald made of it in his 1st Edition (1859):
Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight;
And lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.
In the 2nd Edition (1868) he has:
Wake! for the Sun behind yon Eastern height
Has Chased the Session of the Stars from Night:
And, to the field of Heav'n ascending, strikes
The Sultan's Turret in a Shaft of Light.
The 3rd Edition (1872) reads:
Wake! for the Sun before him into the Night
A Signal flung that put the Stars to flight:
The 4th (1879) and 5th (1889) Editions have:
Wake! for the Sun has scatter'd into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heav'n, and strikes
The Sultan's Turret with a Shaft of Light.
Only in the third edition is he trying to get back to the original; flinging a pebble into a cup or bowl was, apparently, a signal for the men of the desert to mount up. This is explained in a footnote, of which, it has to be said, there are very few because they're not needed; not much gets between the reader and the thrust of the argument. Apart from the philosophy, the poem is most striking for its extraordinary readability (it's more readable than most of his prose). The glossary lists just over twenty words.
Iram indeed is gone with all its Rose,
And Jamshyd's Sev'n-ring'd Cup where no one knows;
But still the Vine her ancient Ruby yields,
And still a Garden by the Water blows. [iv. 1st Ed.]
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahrám, that great Hunter — the wild Ass
Stamps o'er his Head but cannot break his sleep. [xviii. 5th Ed.]
Iram is a legendary Arabian garden. Jamshyd is also legendary — a pre-Islamic king who is said to have brought the arts of civilisation into being. By looking in his seven-ringed cup, he could see what was going on in any part of the world. His court was at Persepolis. Bahrám Gur is another legendary king. "Gur" also means "wild ass" and "grave" — as in burial place, that is. In the original, therefore, there's a pun. There are just enough words like them to give a flavour of the exotic without clogging it all up.
The poem was published the same year as Darwin's Origin of Species, 1859, ten years after In Memoriam and eight years before Arnold's Dover Beach. People took comfort where they could, I suppose. Nor is it all that shallow. There are deeper answers to the question "what's it all about?," but nobody can prove that the poem's agnostic arguments, at least, are wrong. It's been said against the poem that it deals in truisms, but truisms, I suppose, are so called because they are true. These are every day truisms, daily truths, which few of us could find better ways of expressing. Even Martin Luther King, in a speech about US withdrawal from Vietnam (I think), quoted: "The Moving Finger writes, and having writ, moves on."
Some of it can seem juvenile or adolescent nowadays. For example:
Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would we not shatter it to bits and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire! [lxiii. 1st Ed.]
Then again we've had a century of people shattering 'schemes of things entire' and we know with hindsight how badly they always turn out. Some say the The Rubaiyat is valetudinarian, but it's valetudinarianism with vitality; you can imagine it being declaimed by Victorian 'Varsity hearties at a Rowing Club dinner. In the nineteenth century Omar Khayyam clubs sprang up throughout England and the US, and declaiming verses must have been at least part of the attraction.
Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling;
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly — and lo! the Bird is on the Wing. [vii. 1st Ed.]
In his biography Benson has a perceptive paragraph about FitzGerald:
Between the sunshine and the dark there are infinite gradations, and it is in the perceptions of these softer and more delicate emotions, these thoughts that arise and are born in between the darkness and the day, that the incommunicable essence of wonder and delight consists. And whether we approve or no, it was in this half-lit region that FitzGerald's life was spent.
What appealed to him most were evanescent things — "the gliding plunge of a ship under a press of canvas," Benson says, "the gesture of a hand, the ivy on a ruined wall." He was never a man for carousing in taverns with Khayyam, or anybody else, except perhaps in some unfulfilled wishful part of his mind. Because it's so remote from the original, some people say the poem should be treated purely as English literature. Yet Khayyam was essential. He supplied form and content, both the theme and the one stanza which could give FitzGerald's verses strength. Significantly, one of the few stanzas without that built-in tension is also the closest to FitzGerald's own quietly melancholic nature. There is no clash of ideas here, just one sad continuous thought:
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it. [li. 1st Ed.]
- "An Old Man in a Dry Month": a Brief Life of Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883)
- Arthur Christopher (A C) Benson, (1862-1925)
Aminrazavi, Mehdi. The Wine of Wisdomn. Oneworld Publications. Oxford. 2007
Benson, A C. Edward FitzGerald. MacMillan. London. 1905.
FitzGerald, Edward.Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, edited with an introduction by Dick Davis. Penguin. London. 1989.
FitzGerald, Edward.Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. HYPERLINK "http://www.gutenberg.org/text/246" www.gutenberg.org/text/246 (First Edition)
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs. Penguin. London. 1979
Last modified 16 February 2008