In Chapter VIII of The Rings of Saturn (trans. Michael Hulse), W. G. Sebald touched upon the life of Edward FitzGerald, one of the many literary portraits that populate his books and lend them an encyclopedic quality. FitzGerald dabbled in many writing projects but only ever completed one:
The only task FitzGerald finished and published in his lifetime was his marvellous rendering of the Rubaiyat of the Persian poet Omar Khayyam, with whom he felt a curiously close affinity across a distance of eight centuries. FitzGerald described the endless hours he spent translating this poem of two hundred and twenty-four lines as a colloquy with the dead man and an attempt to bring to us tidings of him. The English verses he devised for the purpose, which radiate with a pure, seemingly unselfconscious beauty, feign an anonymity that disdains even the least claim to authorship, and draws us, word by word, to an invisible point where the mediaeval orient and the fading occident can come [together in] a way never allowed them by the calamitous course of history. For in and out, above, about, below,/'Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-Show,/ Play'd in a Box whose Candle is the Sun, / Round which the Phantom Figures come and go. The Rubaiyat was published in 1859, and it was also in that year that William Browne, who probably meant more to FitzGerald than anyone else on earth, died a painful death from serious injuries sustained in a hunting accident....
That last sentence is Sebald's characteristic way of delivering unannounced, like "Phantom Figures," shifts in his narratives.
In my edition of Rubáiyát (Castle Books, illustrated, undated) , the preface mentions that FitzGerald's translation was a "paraphrase" of the 12th century poem. The first published translation contained a total of 75 rubáiyát (plural of rubái). A rubái is a self-contained quatrain, an epigram on its own and a popular form of Persian poetry. FitzGerald's version is not literal but rather a liberal rendering into verse of only a selection of Omar Khayyám's rubáiyát. About half of FitzGerald's 75 quatrains are faithfully rendered. The rest are formed as combinations of other rubáiyát, by Omar Khayyám's or by other poets.
The English text brought Omar Khayyám into the attention of many scholars. The poem in English is now considered a masterpiece in its own right. Its loose interpretation of the spirit of oriental poetry was seen as an artful appropriation of the original. The first readers of the 1859 Rubáiyát were struck by its accessibility and beauty. Even today, reading it could generate excitement for the reader. Its rhythms and content bring one to an understanding of poetry that is timeless in its fleeting passages, to emotional states both evanescent and lasting, borrowed for the duration of reading until the words "Tamám Shud" (The Very End).
The following are some of my favorite rubáiyát, mostly from the second half of the sequence, numbered as they occur in the book. The titles are mine.
46. Brief candle
For in and out, above, about, below,
'Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
Play'd in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop't we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to 'It' for help—for It
Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.
With Earth's first Clay They did the Last Man's knead,
And then of the Last Harvest sow'd the Seed:
Yea, the first Morning of Creation wrote
What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.
60. Free will
And, strange to tell, among that Earthen Lot
Some could articulate, while others not:
And suddenly one more impatient cried—
'Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?'
Then said another with a long-drawn Sigh,
'My Clay with long oblivion is gone dry:
But, fill me with the old familiar Juice,
Methinks I might recover by-and-bye!'
Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth's sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!
Ah Love! could Thou and I with Faith conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits—and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!