A biographer and former professor examines the texts and contexts of Edward FitzGerald’s 1859 translation of Omar Khayyam’s medieval quatrains, initially ignored but later a worldwide publishing success.
Richardson (Splendor of Heart: Walter Jackson Bate and the Teaching of Literature, 2013, etc.), a winner of the Bancroft Prize, is uniquely qualified for his task. The biographer of William James, Thoreau, and Emerson and editor of anthologies of poetry, Richardson compresses these two lives into fewer than 200 tight pages, but the compression generates significant light. He acknowledges that little is known about Khayyam, but he weaves some significance from the few threads that remain. Born to a tentmaker in 1048, Khayyam later became involved with some powerful Persians and wrote myriads of quatrains, some finding their ways to the Bodleian Library, where FitzGerald (1809-1883) found them. Fascinated by what he found, he studied Persian with a friend and spent much of the rest of his life translating and tinkering. He lived to produce several editions of his book. Richardson writes about the life of each man, revealing in his sections about FitzGerald an astonishing series of influences and friends, including Thackeray, Tennyson, Carlyle, and others. The author is also curious (though not excessively so) about FitzGerald’s sexuality—he had a brief marriage but far preferred the friendship of men. Richardson ruminates about the nature of translation, noting that Khayyam’s quatrains were self-contained, not linked in a narrative, a situation that FitzGerald altered. The author credits FitzGerald for making the verses appeal to all sorts of modern (and, now, contemporary) readers. Finally, he lists what he sees as the values of the work—among them, its “ungendered vision of love” and its hope that maybe we can all get along.
An artful analysis of the lives of two poets separated by centuries, geography, and culture, united by hope.