of Omar Khayyam

written circa 1100

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

rendered into English verse by Edward FitzGerald

1st edition, 1859; 2nd edition, 1868; 5th edition, 1889  

the edition reviewed —
includes 1st, 2nd, & 5th FitzGerald editions complete

edited by George F. Maine
introduction by Laurence Housman
"Edward FitzGerald" by G. F. Maine
"Omar Khayyam" by Edward FitzGerald
illustrated by Robert Stewart Sherriffs

Variations in Texts
Comparative Table of Quatrains
Notes to Second Edition
Index to first lines of Quatrains
12 full-page color illustrations

Collins: London & Glasgow; 1947, revised 1952, 1954

224 pages March 2006


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.
There have been many, many editions of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, in the original Persian and in many translations, from pocket-sized to the fabulous bejeweled copy which went down with the Titanic. In English, by far the most popular always has been the translation (or "transfusion") by Edward FitzGerald, which itself went through five distinct versions beginning in 1859, and innumerable printings.

Omar Khayyam (circa 1048-1123), astronomer and mathematician as well as a poet in Persia, has in times and places been more esteemed for his science, but his poems make him immortal. FitzGerald (1809-1883) is a great imaginative poet in his own right: some translations of the four-line verses apparently come out fairly true to Khayyam's Persian, while some are mostly FitzGerald, and others recombine Khayyam's quatrains.

My own favorite source for the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is an inexpensive but multiplex edition from Collins, "Rendered into English Verse" by Edward FitzGerald. Nicely edited by George F. Maine, this includes FitzGerald's First, Second, and Fifth editions complete, with variants and assorted apparatus. It's easy to read, and the index and tables make it easy to find your way around the different versions of FitzGerald's vision of Khayyam — for you may prefer some of his earlier renderings. Introductory materials by Housman, Maine, and FitzGerald himself are helpful and interesting. The illustrations by Sherriffs are gorgeous.

Religious or skeptical? Is it Sufi, Islamic, pantheistic, mystical, hedonist?

With me along the strip of Herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown,
    Where name of Slave and Sultan is forgot —
And Peace to Mahmud on his golden Throne!

A great many people in different cultures have heard sympathetic chords in Omar Khayyam, or at least in FitzGerald's Khayyam. My father, like me a lifelong atheist, but beyond Shakespeare not so general a lover of poetry, loved the Rubaiyat and could quote appropriate quatrains in conversation. The mystic wine of the dreamers flows strong in these verses:

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
    The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly — and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

© 2006 Robert Wilfred Franson

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
  translated by Edward FitzGerald
  1st & 5th editions, biography, notes
  online from Project Gutenberg

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
  translated by E. H. Whinfield
  500 quatrains
  online from Medieval Sourcebook

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