Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On Omar Khayyam's birthday

As Moby Lives once put it -

"On this day in 1048 the great Persian poet Omar Khayyam was born in Nayshapur, Iran. A brilliant polymath, Khayyam was a mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, physician and poet. Most renowned during his lifetime as a mathematician, Khayyam wrote the influential Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra (1070), which, according to this Wikipedia entry, 'laid down the principles of algebra, part of the body of Persian Mathematics that was eventually transmitted to Europe. In particular, he derived general methods for solving cubic equations and even some higher orders.'”

Of course, most English-language poetry readers know Omar through Edward FitzGerald's version of his Rubaiyat - a long poem composed in one thousand quatrains — that is, rubais. Well, who can resist quoting these famous, albeit jiggered, lines:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise now.

Khayyam is especially interesting to those of us who love Basil Bunting, as he is the subject of his 1935 typescript essay, "The Lion and the Lizard" in which Bunting remarks that Omar is (how I love this!) "the astronomer in a world that has no ears except for quacks."

Omar turns up in Bunting's long poem, The Spoils, including what Barbara Lesch calls "... an allusion to an incident that has been used as evidence that Khayyam believed in metempsychosis. Khayyam was walking with a group of students at an old college which was undergoing repairs. He encountered a donkey, being used to haul bricks, who would not enter the college grounds. Khayyam supposedly went up to the donkey and recited a quatrain to it extemporaneously, after which the donkey entered. Khayyam's students demanded an explanation. 'He replied, "The spirit which has now attached itself to the body of his ass [formerly] inhabited the body of a lecturer in this college, therefore it would not come in until now, when, perceiving that its colleagues had recognized it, it was obliged to step inside.'"

Take that, you debaters on the subject of poets who teach!

(The quatrain was: "O lost and now returned 'yet more astray,' / Thy name from man's remembrance passed away, / Thy nails have now combined to form thy hoofs, / Thy tail's a beard turned round the other way!")

A letter from Bunting to Louis Zukofsky (30 August 1933) included a transliterated and untranslated version of a rubai by Omar Khayyam - may their correspondence someday be published! - and in his introduction to Omar Pound's Arabic & Persian Poems in English, Bunting wrote:

"Persian poetry has suffered badly, Arabic rather less, from neoplatonic dons determined to find an arbitrary mysticism in everything. You would think there was nothing else in Moslem [sic] poetry than nightingales which are not birds, roses which are not flowers, and pretty boys who are God in disguise. An anthology of English verse selected exclusively from George Herbert, Charles Wesley, and Father Hopkins, plus 'Lead, kindly light' and 'The Hound of Heaven,' would be as representative as the usual samples of Persian poetry. FitzGerald's Khayyam is the only serious exception."

Indeed, Bunting felt that FitzGerald's version was "splendid and inadequate" - limited by "certain shortcomings of English poetry in general" - and called him a great adapter of a greater poet."

In one of his uncollected "Odes," Bunting wrote these lines -

Omar observed: 'Sobriety is unworthy
of anything that has life.' Supplemented
that proposition: 'Turf's pretty till
our grave's turf's pretty.'

Before the day is done, I'll be raising a glass of wine in Omar's honor, and then another in Bunting's.

My two favorite editions of FitzGerald's famous adaptation are the one by Daniel Karlin in the Oxford World Classics, and the critical edition by Christopher Decker.


Ms Baroque said...

Don, you might like to know that Omar Khayyam was played in "Son of Sinbad" by the great spiritual guru Vincent Price (who died the same day as my grandmother), with depths of sincerity that one can only wonder at. At one point he says, as they're trying to get some sleep at the base of the city wall: "All right, to sleep! Perchance to dream? I'll leave that for some other poet to embroider."

Matthew Sperling said...

Doubtless you've got this one, but I also like Bunting's remarks about Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat in his review of Modern Translation by E. Stuart Bates in The Criterion, 15:61 (July 1936), 714-716: 'Fitzgerald translated a poet who never existed...'