Nearer the Heart’s Desire: Poets of the Rubaiyat – A Dual Biography of Omar Khayyam and Edward FitzGerald by Robert D Richardson - review by Eric Ormsby

Eric Ormsby

A Silk Road of the Mind

Nearer the Heart’s Desire: Poets of the Rubaiyat – A Dual Biography of Omar Khayyam and Edward FitzGerald


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In 1902, when he was fourteen, T S Eliot came upon a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in Edward FitzGerald’s translation, first published anonymously in 1859. As Eliot later wrote, he experienced an ‘almost overwhelming introduction to a new world of feeling … It was like a sudden conversion – the world appeared anew, painted with bright delicious and painful colors.’ Many other readers, especially in adolescence, have shared Eliot’s sense of sudden discovery. I recall picking up one of several copies of the Rubaiyat in my grandmother’s house – a floppy little volume primly bound in brown velvet – and being captivated by the quatrains at about the same age. It was not the ‘colours’ of the verse but their music that entranced me then, a melodiousness at once exotic and intimate, as though uttered by a secret friend. Of course, like all teenagers, I was attracted by the world-weary tone, the genial cynicism, of the enigmatic Khayyam. And who could resist the startling imagery of the opening quatrain, with its ‘Noose of Light’, at once radiant and sinister?

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 fact, as Robert D Richardson shows again and again in his delightful ‘dual biography’ of Khayyam and FitzGerald, friendship – or ‘intimacy’, as he calls it – forms one of the dominant themes of both lives, however distant in time and place. This was pre-eminently so in FitzGerald’s case. One of the great letter-writers in English literature, FitzGerald cultivated his many friends – Thackeray, Carlyle, Tennyson and Fanny Kemble among them – with casual but assiduous aplomb. A contemporary noted that while at Cambridge, FitzGerald ‘was more addicted to friendships than to work’. In his letters his original insights are often camouflaged beneath seemingly light sallies. In one letter from 1833, some twenty years before he embarked on his translation of the Rubaiyat, he comments on Lord Bacon’s remark that among friends a man tends to ‘toss his thought’:

I feel that, being alone, one’s thoughts and feelings, from want of communication, become heaped up and clotted together, as it were: and so lie like undigested food heavy upon the mind: but with a friend one tosseth them about, so that the air gets between them, and keeps them fresh and sweet. I know not from what metaphor Bacon took his ‘tosseth’, but it seems to me as if it was from the way haymakers toss hay, so that it does not press into a heavy lump, but is tossed about in the air, and separated, and thus kept sweet … There is something of this ‘tossed’ quality about his translation; though tightly packed, the quatrains breathe and the verses flow irresistibly, each one ‘separate’ and ‘sweet’. Richardson suggests too that between FitzGerald and Khayyam a rather spectral friendship obtained in which, through some mysterious affinity, each poet created the other.

Richardson is a well-known biographer of William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau among others. (His book Emerson: The Mind on Fire remains one of the best intellectual biographies of the sage of Concord.) He has here attempted something riskier and more difficult – tracing step by step what he nicely calls ‘a Silk Road of the mind’. For we know very little about Khayyam (1048–1131) beyond the fact that he was chiefly renowned as an astronomer, mathematician and philosopher whose few surviving scientific works were written in formal classical Arabic. He seems to have been unknown as a poet to his contemporaries (and indeed there are at least four other Omar Khayyams to be found in records of the same period). According to E G Browne, whose four-volume A Literary History of Persia remains the standard work on the subject, ‘while it is certain that ‘Umar Khayyám wrote many quatrains, it is hardly possible, save in a few exceptional cases, to assert positively that he wrote any particular one of those ascribed to him’. Others, such as the English poet Dick Davis, a leading translator of Persian poetry today, are more categorical; as quoted by Richardson, Davis states, ‘I rather doubt that the historical Khayyam wrote poems in Persian at all.’

To get around the difficulties inherent in any biography of Khayyam, Richardson concentrates on the historical period in which he flourished. He gives lively and detailed accounts of the Seljuq Turks and their vast empire; of individual sultans and their viziers, such as the brilliant and ruthless Nizam al-Mulk, the vizier who controlled the dynasty for some thirty years; and of the culture and protocols of the court, the newly founded universities and the religious institutions. He recounts some of the legends surrounding Khayyam and provides good capsule descriptions of outstanding figures of the time, such as the influential theologian and Sufi Abu Hamid al-Ghazali or the formidable Hasan-i Sabbah, the leader of the Nizari Ismailis, whose campaigns of targeted assassinations of their Seljuq enemies brought down Nizam al-Mulk himself in 1092.

There is one discordant note in this otherwise excellent account. Richardson describes FitzGerald, in his love of things Persian, as exemplifying what he calls ‘reverse orientalism’. By contrast, he defines Orientalism as ‘the name given to a Western interest in Asian exoticism that subtly or not so subtly emphasizes the superiority of the rational West over the sensual East’. This is inaccurate as well as unfair. Richardson conveniently ignores the fact that all of his information about Khayyam, the Seljuqs and Persian poetry itself is derived from the lifelong labours, deep affection and superb – and uncondescending – scholarship of those very Orientalists whose outlook he lampoons. The description is inadvertently ironic too since Persians themselves only came to appreciate and study Omar Khayyam after the phenomenal worldwide success of FitzGerald’s translation.

Richardson makes much of Khayyam’s supposed ‘Lucretian’ or Epicurean world-view. He seems to be unaware that this was already a pronounced current in Iranian thought well before Khayyam’s time. In the tenth century the great Persian physician and philosopher Abu Bakr al-Razi (known in Europe as Rhazes) had already formulated a distinctly Epicurean body of thought alongside a savage indictment of institutionalised religion, denouncing all prophets as charlatans and promoters of discord. Khayyam’s scepticism was nothing new.

Richardson is very good, however, when he comes to FitzGerald himself. He is especially perceptive on his working methods as a translator. He began to learn Persian under the tutelage of his friend Edward Cowell in 1852; it was Cowell who introduced FitzGerald to the Ouseley Manuscript 140 (now known as the Bodleian Manuscript 140), which contains 158 quatrains. Cowell also provided him, in 1857, with a copy of the Calcutta Manuscript, which he drew on in later editions. There has been much discussion of the extent to which Fitzgerald altered or reshuffled his Persian originals. The consensus seems to be that only about forty-nine of the quatrains are faithful to those in the Bodleian or Calcutta manuscripts; the others are composites or, in a few cases, FitzGerald’s own original creations. One small example of FitzGerald’s adroit revision of the original occurs in one of the best-known, and best-loved, of the quatrains, which reads:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
O, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

In the Persian the picnic consists not only of a loaf of bread and ‘a jar of old wine’ but also ‘a tasty leg of lamb’, all of which ‘many a sultan would envy!’ Clearly, however attuned he was to medieval Persia, the prospect of an aromatic gigot did not correspond to FitzGerald’s rather Victorian image of paradise. He wanted to preserve the strangeness of the original while rendering it strangely familiar, a colloquy whispered, as it were, into the ear of a friend.

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