The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

rubaiyat cover rubaiyat title page

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

Author/Translator

The author of the Rubáiyát, Omar Khayyám, lived between 1048 and 1131 in what then was Persia. In his time, he was most famous as a mathematician, but today he is mostly known for his poetry. He wrote quatrains, or rubaiyaas, with some estimates of how many reaching as high as 1000 (“Omar Khayyám”). The Rubáiyát was first translated into English by Edward FitzGerald in the 19th century, and this translation remains the most popular. FitzGerald published the first edition in 1859, with three more editions following before his death in 1883 (“Life of Edward Fitzgerald”). FitzGerald translated many works in many different languages, but translated them in his own style; according to George Saintsbury, FitzGerald gave “himself the widest licence of paraphrase, omission, and addition,” leading one to wonder how much of Khayyám’s original thoughts and intent still exist in the FitzGerald translation (Saintsbury 9). Overall, it seems that FitzGerald may have been more concerned with the aesthetic or literary value of his translations, rather than how faithful they were to the original works.

Illustrator

Willy Pogány illustrated this edition, providing twelve colored illustrations and many more ink illustrations. Pogány was famous and very prolific in his day, creating illustrations for over 150 books including the Rubáiyát, Sonnets from the Portuguese, The Song Celestial, The Adventures of Odysseus, and Gulliver’s Travels (“Guide to the Willy A. Pogány Papers”). In this edition of the Rubáiyát, his illustrations do not necessarily exactly represent the poems they sit next to. Some are relevant to varying degrees, but Pogány seems to have had no clear intent to sway readers into imagining the poems in any certain way. Overall, the illustrations seem mostly to be for decoration or to make the book more desirable for potential buyers.

Publisher

This edition was published by the Thomas Y. Crowell Company, based in New York. The company began publishing books in 1876, after Crowell bought the company from the previous owner’s widow in 1870, and ended up part of Harper & Rowe in 1979 (Huttner). During its day, “for more than a century” Thomas Y. Crowell Company “was a major player in the publishing world” (“Thomas Y. Crowell and Company”). Along with this edition of the Rubáiyát, the Thomas Y. Crowell Company published reference books – their “strongest interest”, to the point where, in the 1960s, they were one of the few publishing houses that had a distinct division just for reference books (Tripp) – fiction, children’s books, and gift volumes (Huttner). In 1964, the publisher announced that they had published 80 different editions of the Rubáiyát since 1896 (Mason 8).

Poems

The style of poetry in the Rubáiyát is maintained from Persian to English; that is, the poems are written in quatrains in both languages. Unfortunately, FitzGerald’s translation takes quite a few liberties with the content of the poems. For example, poem number two in FitzGerald’s First Edition reads:

Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
“Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.” (Shahriari)

There is nothing technically wrong with this translation, but it does not quite say the same thing that a literal translation would. One possible literal translation of the same poem reads:

At dawn came a calling from the tavern
Hark drunken mad man of the cavern
Arise; let us fill with wine one more turn
Before destiny fills our cup, our urn. (Shahriari)

The meaning is essentially the same, but FitzGerald swaps Khayyám’s words for ones that sound more literary, also manipulating the rhyme scheme. He values style over faithfulness. Khayyám simply speaks of a drunken man calling out to others to join him, and it all sounds very mundane and simple. FitzGerald’s interpretation makes dawn sound dreamy instead of just a time of day, and seems to paint the “drunken mad man” as some sort of authority by having him address the public as his “Little Ones.” Ultimately, however, the quality of the translations is up to the individual to judge.

rubaiyat illustration

Book as Object

Now on to the book itself, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: The First and Fourth Renderings in English Verse. This copy of the Rubáiyát has a salmon-colored cotton cloth cover. There is minimal external damage; the most visible damages are a few small scuff marks and a water spot on the back cover. The cover is gold-stamped with the title and a bit of art – a pot with flowered vines coming out of it, with a peacock among the vines – and the spine also has the title of the book stamped on. The pages are even and stacked cleanly and the book has been case bound. The top edge of the pages is stained with red ink. The title page is decorated with an ink-print illustration, inside of which there is a blank space that contains the title, author, translator, and illustrator, with the publisher’s name slightly below. The book has no publish date inside, but the Ringling Museum Library estimates that it may have been published around 1930. The book also does not have an introduction, unlike another very similar copy that was probably published a few years later. The pages have print on both sides, with printed ink illustrations mixed in with the poems and tipped-in colored illustrations on opposite pages from the poems. The text is printed with a serif typeface, possibly Garamond or Bembo. Serif typefaces read easier in print, and both Garamond and Bembo are from the same family of faces that remain classic for printing books. The book contains the first and fourth editions of FitzGerald’s translations, as the title indicates. There are minimal signs of internal wear, aside from yellowed paper, which is likely due to age. In fact, the spine even still creaks when the book is opened, creating further evidence for light use. This book has clearly been kept on a shelf for most of its life, resulting in it remaining a very nice, well-preserved copy.

 

Works Cited

Guide to the Willy A. Pogány Papers 1910-1967, Willy A. Pogány papers, Coll 199, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon. Web. 16 Jan.2015. http://nwda.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv14381

Huttner, Sidney. “T. Y. Crowell editions of LUCILE.” The LUCILE Project. 2010. Web. 16 Jan. 2015. http://sdrc.lib.uiowa.edu/lucile/publishers/crowell/cr_intro.htm

Life of Edward FitzGerald. Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and Salámán and Absál, Together With A Life Of Edward Fitzgerald And An Essay On Persian Poetry By Ralph Waldo Emerson.Trans. Edward FitzGerald. By Omar Khayyám and Ralph Waldo Emerson. London: Peacock, Mansfield, & Co. Web. 16 Jan. 2015. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22535/22535-h/22535-h.htm

Mason, William, and Sandra Martin. The Art of Omar Khayyam: Illustrating FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat. I.B. Tauris, 2007. Google Books. Web. 18 Jan. 2015. https://books.google.com/books?id=4TkZdeLqg8oC&source=gbs_navlinks_s

“Omar Khayyám.” Omar Khayyam PERSIAN: Poetry, Mathematics, Philosophy, Astronomy. n.p, 2009. Web.  16 Jan. 2015. http://www.khayyam.info/english/default.htm

Saintsbury, George. Introduction. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: The First and Fourth  Renderings in English Verse. Trans. Edward FitzGerald. By Omar Khayyám. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company. Print.

Shahriari, Shahriar. “Page 1.” The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. n.p., 2010. Web. 16 Jan. 2015. http://www.okonlife.com/poems/page1.htm

“Thomas Y. Crowell and Company (1879-1902).” The Tom Brown Series by Thomas Hughes. n.p., 2012. Web. 17 Jan. 2015. <http://www.henryaltemus.com/TomBrown/publishers/crowell.html&gt;

Tripp, Edward. “Thomas Y. Crowell.” RQ. 6.1 (1966): 13-6. JSTOR. Web. 17 Jan. 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25823042

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