Friday, March 16, 2012

From Melancholia: Edward FitzGerald and Khayyam's Rubiyat

The life that it is here proposed to depict was a life singularly devoid of incident. It was the career of a lonely, secluded, fastidious and affectionate man; it was a life not rich in results, not fruitful in example. It is the history of a few great friendshps, much quiet benevolence, tender loyalty, wistful enjoyment. The tangible results are a single small volume of imperishable quality… 
Arthur Christopher Benson, Edward FitzGerald
While he was friendly with Cambridge schoolmates Alfred Lord Tennyson and novelist William Makepeace Thackery (Vanity Fair), Edward FitzGerald lacked their creative spirit and mourned that he was not a "masculine" poet but a mere "feminine" man of taste. The son of a wealthy Anglo-Irish family, FitzGerald had no need to seek gainful employment but little taste for the ostentatious living enjoyed by his peers. While his family owned several manor houses, he generally preferred living in rented rooms or modest cottages and hated the flashy dinner parties thrown by his socialite mother.

To keep himself occupied, FitzGerald engaged in voluminous correspondence, occasional writing and a series of friendships with virile young men. His homosexuality caused him no small degree of turmoil – not surprising, given the Victorian stigma against "sexual inversion." While his biographers have noted several intense emotional relationships (and FitzGerald himself said late in life, "my friendships are more like loves, I think") it is unclear whether FitzGerald ever actually had sexual relations.

But one of those friends, Edward Byles Cowell. would introduce him to the work that would make his fame. Seventeen years younger than FitzGerald, Cowell had a natural gift for language: at 16 he had published a translation of a poem by the Persian poet and mystic Hafez. At first Cowell taught FitzGerald Spanish: in 1852, they began studying Persian together. The two worked together on a translation of Salaman and Absal, an allegory by the Sufi scholar Jami. Then, in 1856, Cowell left England to take an academic post in India. As a parting gift, he gave Fitzgerald a copy of Khayyam's quatrains taken from a manuscript in Oxford's Bodleian library: later he would send a copy of more quatrains from Calcutta. Reeling from his friend's departure and the 1855 death of his mother, FitzGerald married Lucy Barton, the daughter of a late friend. The marriage lasted only a few months: his ex-wife later complained of his penchant for becoming infatuated with "any embryo Apollo." But his correspondence with Cowell continued, as did his work on the Rubaiyat.

FitzGerald's translation held to the a-a-b-a rhyme scheme of the Persian quatrains, but he frequently made departures from the literal meaning of the text in order to capture what he felt was the spirit of Khayyam's poems. While the poems were originally written as discrete works, FitzGerald strung quatrains together into a narrative describing the day of a skeptical intellectual seeking solace in wine and the comforts of the world. Devoutly agnostic with atheist leanings, he emphasized Khayyam's doubts about the nature of fate and the afterlife and downplayed any mystical interpretations.

Later scholars have found that FitzGerald's translation could best be termed an interpretation. Of the 101 quatrains included in the first edition, Edward Heron-Allen concluded that 49 were faithful paraphrases of quatrains to be found in the Bodleian or Calcutta manuscripts; 44 could be traced to more than one quatrain; two were actually poems by Hafez and two by the Persian poet Attar; three (dropped after the second edition) appeared to be FitzGerald's original work with no Persian source. But while his accuracy may have left something to be desired, the influence his translation of the Rubaiyat had on a generation was undeniable.

Printed in 1859 as a pamphlet, his first edition languished for two years at Bernard Quaritch's Bookshop. Then someone gave a copy to poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti: he bought copies for several of his friends, all of whom were impressed by Khayyam's Orlentalist melancholy and spread word of this brilliant new poet. By the time of FitzGerald's death in 1883 the Rubaiyat was the talk of England and later America: Omar Khayyam clubs sprung up to celebrate the work's timeless and yet oh-so-contemporary Epicurean agnosticism.

Interpreting Self through the Exotic Other


Exploring our painful emotions and coming to terms with our dark side can be enormously painful and difficult. It is often easier to do so by looking to the lives and tales of strangers, particularly those at some cultural remove. We can identify with them while maintaining a comfortable distance: we can learn from their story – or the parts we find useful – without triggering our defenses or our personal and social taboos.


At the time FitzGerald was first exposed to the Rubaiyat, the Victorian craze for "Orientalism" was already beginning. The stolid, conservative philosophy of a fast-expanding imperial power had little appeal to those of a more aesthetic and artistic temperament. They looked to the East, or to a lushly sensual and idyllic "East" that bore little resemblance to any Asian culture past or present. Harems offered sexual pleasures which were denied to proper European men: Asiatic villains could perform acts of titillating evil that not even the most debased Englishman would contemplate. And emotional reveries and depths of passion and despair that would be unseemly for a well-bred gentleman could be explored in a foreign setting.

Sending a copy of the Rubaiyat to a friend in 1877, FitzGerald wrote "I know you will thank me (for the book) and I think you will feel a sort of triste Plaisir as others beside myself have felt. It is a desperate sort of thing, unfortunately at the bottom of all thinking men's minds; but made Music of." At a time when doctors were beginning to classify melancholic temperaments not as superior but as neurotic, Khayyam's Rubiyat allowed readers to explore their own impulses from the viewpoint of a far-away (and far superior, if not nearly so colorful) time and space. Some used it as a template for rebellion against the dominant culture: others saw it as a new Ecclesiastes reminding us that all is vanity and that even the mightiest empires must someday crumble.

Persian poetry also gave FitzGerald an opportunity to explore his homosexual desires. Speaking aloud his love for another European man would have been unthinkable: twelve years after FitzGerald's death, Oscar Wilde was sent to prison for the crime of sodomy. But catamite cup-bearers and convivial companionship among male friends was part and parcel of the decadent East. For Victorian men, one of the temptations of the Orient was its easy acceptance of le vice contre nature, where one could explore the pleasures of doe-eyed girls and beardless boys alike.