Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Edward FitzGerald

I'm still talking about a wonderful TV programme I watched the other day, about Omar Khayyam (and yes, it is a very long post; and I've had to fight with Blogger for every word).

Sir Nicholas Barrington (former British High Commissioner to Pakistan) was interviewed about the connection between Khayyam, of 11th century Persia, and the British Victorian, Edward FitzGerald. FitzGerald was the son of an Anglo-Irish family of fabulous wealth and was friends with people like Tennyson and Thackaray.

The programme didn’t go so far as to say FitzGerald was homosexual, though they described his great emotional loss when his friend, Edward Byles Cowell left England for Calcutta. It was Cowell who found an obscure book of Persian poetry at the Bodleian Library at Oxford and translated ‘Who is the Potter and Who is the Pot?’ for FitzGerald. [Or, according to Wikipedia, he found the book of poetry in Calcutta and sent it to FitzGerald].

Shortly after Cowell left, FitzGerald made a ‘disastrous marriage’. Those two words are linked both in the BBC programme and in the Wikipedia entry for FitzGerald, though no blame is placed on his unfortunate wife. It is said that FitzGerald was drawn to the poetry of Khayyam because of the latter’s understanding of the human soul, of loneliness and of the complexity of the inner self. I've always assumed that the word 'gay' was an ironic term, but apparently not.

In the late 1850’s, FitzGerald published his translation of the Rubyiat, to no great acclaim. The programme attributes its initial success to an Irish scholar, Whitley Stokes, who in 1861 found a copy of FitzGerald’s book selling for a mere penny, the bookseller keen to unload his stock. Stokes liked the poetry, went back for more copies to send to friends and the fire of fame has burned brightly ever since. I’d bet money you’ve heard the phrase, “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou”. Guess where it comes from.

One of the interviewees describes that the translation was rather loose and that FitzGerald ‘gave’ to Khayyam as many of the gifts of the notable English poets as he could. It does seem rather a stretch too far to believe that by happy coincidence the final words from the first, second and fourth lines of each of Khayyam's verses just happened to rhyme when translated into English! There are no doubt many scholarly books written to discuss the translation in further depth than I could hope to understand. I suspect, not being poetically minded, I will be challenged to comprehend even FitzGerald’s translation, but after seeing this programme I certainly plan to give it a go.

The programme gave examples of the many notable fans of Khayyam’s poetry as translated by FitzGerald. Folks like Arthur Conan Doyle, T.S. Eliot and Thomas Hardy were avid fans. The latter particularly identified with Khayyam/FitzGerald’s recognition of 'man’s inevitable defeat at the hands of the world'.
“…Make game of that which makes as much of thee…”
“…Tis all a checkerboard of nights and days where destiny with men for pieces plays…”
Dick Davis from Ohio University says this is about questioning faith. FitzGerald was also a questioner. Davis also said something to the effect that this work uncovered to the Victorians the fact that there was an enormous amount of unknown history, I think he meant as in Eastern history, about which they had not been aware. [He used the word ‘unknown’, but if it wasn’t ‘known’ somewhere in Victorian days, we couldn’t ‘know’ about it now, could we?] I suspect that most of us are still very much unaware of history of other than the Western world; I certainly am.

Another interviewee described FitzGerald’s translation as ‘shaping and re-ordering’ Khayyam’s stanzas. I don’t know what point he was making but my notes include this, which I think is beautiful, whose ever words they are:
“Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight”
Should I mention here that the interviews either took place in museum settings or at garden parties with everyone holding a glass of wine? I guess they were taking the subject to heart.

The programme went on to discuss that in Victorian times it was of course the British thing to plunder the assets of the colonies and that FitzGerald may have added a bit of ‘otherness’ to ensure that the poetry would be received as ‘exotic’. This could have been patronizing, but FitzGerald also included an element of humour or irony and thus saved the work from being … whatever it might have been with out.

There was also discussion about how the book was presented, for example the English text was written in the style of Iranian calligraphy with lots of extra dots, you know, --very beautiful, in fact -- but the supposedly Iranian illustrations were very Western.

Another Professor Davis, this time Janet from a university in Austin Texas, said that during the last part of the 19th century, America seized on the ideas of seeking pleasure, of fate and the unknowns of afterlife. The popular concepts embodied in the Rubaiyat were ‘massified’. [I thought she’d made up this word, but apparently not. This spawned such diverse products as playing cards and Omar tooth powder. (She said she didn’t get the connection with tooth powder, but I think it was so that when one was smiling from joyful living in the present, one could make sure one’s teeth looked good!).

There was also an Omar Khayyam Club of America which met for grand dinners where an ‘obscene amount of food was eaten’ and there was lots of drink. The menus and souvenirs from their meetings are collectable works of art and she showed a beautifully illustrated menu from a dinner held on 2 April 1921. Here we are back in that interwar period again!

(I would have put that picture at the top here, but Blogger wasn't having it).

The narrator commented on the American reference to ‘Omar’ and her response was that they spoke so familiarly because he so seemed to speak to them (Quick response, I thought).

Walt Whitman link was also a fan of not only FitzGerald’s translation but his introduction to the book. Whitman's 1872 edition of the Rubaiyat shows he his underlining of all the phrases about Khayyam that he felt applied to him: his poetry not appreciated in his own time, is a challenger of society’s norms, etc. I had no idea what this was about until I went and scanned the Wikipedia entry for Whitman. Turns out he wasn’t just a poet who wrote about the beauty of nature.

The Rubaiyat may well still be the most frequently illustrated book of poetry today. In the US the illustrations were some of the largest and most beautiful. However, the book was published in all shapes and sizes. A very small copy, carried in 1917 by a British soldier in Cairo, shows the soldier has underlined all the passages about the inevitability of death.

This book obviously spoke to the heart of many people and its application goes far beyond a simplistic justification for American consumerism, an interviewee stated. She went on to say how much of history we have forgotten, being caught up in the ‘contemporary geopolitical problem’ (How I would have loved playing with that phrase as a child). There is much to remember, she said, about this Persian astronomer, poet and mathematician. I think she said something about lessening the polarity between Islam and Christianity.

Mind, Khayyam’s views don’t fit well with current dogma in Iran. He might be paraphrased along the lines of ‘We have to make our own reason and to live for this life, there may not be another’. Though they celebrate an Omar Khayyam day (at which on this programme they were unveiling a statute of Edward FitzGerald), one interviewee said that the official view does not approve of Khayyam’s poetry. However, his influence in Iran is so great, they cannot really do anything about it; any attempt would only increase his popularity.
“…one thing is certain, life flies;”
Khayyam died about 1131, in his 80s. FitzGerald died in 1883, aged 74. He is buried in Suffolk. There is a rosebush growing on FitzGerald's grave which is from a cutting from a bush near Omar Khayyam's mausoleum in Neyshapur.


James said...

Dear Shelly,
I do so enjoy reading your postings with a cup of coffee in the mornings. Thank you so much and although I know it must be quite a chore please don't stop.

Shelley said...

James - Can't tell you how happy I am that you enjoy my rambling posts!