THE ORIGINAL RUBAIYYAT OF OMAR KHAYAAM
History is nothing if not perverse. In the heart of Victorian England Edward Fitzgerald, an eccentric scholar, published his version of an unknown poem by a medieval Persian, Omar Khayaam. Fitzgerald's Rubaiyyat, with its mixture of fatalism and hedonistic joy, shocked his contemporaries and became famous throughout the English-speaking world. Now in our advanced jaded age, Robert Graves, drawing upon the "original" text, "an earlier and authenticated manuscript" found "in the possession of the family of Omar Ali-Shah, Sufi poet and classical Persian scholar," presents a work which would surely have been dear to the heart of every 19th century vicarage. Though hardly Christian, the new Rubaiyyat, jointly translated by Graves and Ali-Shah, now emerges as a mystic meditation without blasphemy, sexual irregularity, or carousing: "Khayaam treats wine in Sufic fashion as a metaphor of the ecstasy excited by divine love." In short, where Fitzgerald's Omar attempts to embrace "the sorry scheme of things" through exotic worldliness, the pious figure "resurrected" by the current translators is concerned with other matters: "Though dust of sin lies clotted on my brow/Yet will I not despair of mercy. When/Did Omar argue that the One was Two?" No doubt, historians will be arguing this turnabout for many moons. Purely as poetry, however, there can be no debate: Fitzgerald is the winner. True or not, his Rubaiyyat is solid gold.