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  • 8/2/2011

Edward Fitzgerald

part 3


Cowell began to teach FitzGerald Persian in December of 1852. The first extended text they studied together was Jami’s Salaman o Absal, a version of which became FitzGerald’s first published translation from Persian (1856).

FitzGerald retained a great affection for this translation, preferring it to his much more successful Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and the reason is undoubtedly because he had actually worked through the Persian with Cowell. As he himself frankly wrote to Cowell, “Should I care much for it if I had not had the pleasure of poking it out with you in the original?” (Terhune, II, p. 189) and he called the printing of his version, “a little Monument of our Studies together” (ibid., II, p. 160).

Salaman and Absal is written mainly in blank verse, though separate stories within the frame tale are put into trochaic tetrameters (the so-called “Hiawatha meter”). There is no warrant in the Persian for this metrical variation. As in his versions from Calderon, FitzGerald cuts heavily. The sections where he seems most engaged are those that deal directly with the poem’s philosophical allegory; here he translates freely but fully. Passages of sensuous description on the other hand are often severely curtailed. Most interesting is his clear predilection for sections involving allegorical and metaphysical reflection; he registers their poetic intensity and attempts with some success to convey it. This metaphysical concern would seem to be one of the reasons for his later sympathy with Khayyam.

FitzGerald reissued Salaman and Absal in 1879, having rewritten much of the text. The many changes are instructive, in that they almost always take the English further from the original Persian. As with the Khayyam quatrains it is clear that, once FitzGerald had satisfied himself as to the literal meaning, as soon as the work began to live in his mind as an English poem this reality became paramount, and the Persian gradually receded. In the case of the Khayyam translation the process happened before the first edition of the English poem was printed, though it is traceable in FitzGerald’s letters on the subject to Cowell (e.g. Terhune, II, pp. 280-81).

In 1856 Cowell left to take up an academic post in India; his parting present to FitzGerald was a copy he had made of a manuscript, in the Bodleian Library Oxford, of quatrains by Omar Khayyam. From Calcutta he sent FitzGerald a copy of a second manuscript. FitzGerald began to read and translate from the poems, reporting to Cowell on his progress in frequent letters, and asking many questions concerning scansion, possible errors in the texts, syntactical difficulties and so forth (e.g. Terhune, II, pp. 234-35, 275, 279-83, 285-89). The translation was clearly his way of being close to his absent friend and mentor (see for example the opening of his letter of February 1857 to Cowell, ibid., II, p. 252.)

The late 1850’s were the most momentous period of FitzGerald’s life: his mother had died in 1855; his disastrous marriage and its breakup occurred shortly after Cowell left; he worked on the ?ayyam translations while he was temporarily without a home (he was staying with his friend Kenworthy Browne) and sorely missing Cowell (Martin, pp. 205-7.) This sense of emotional crisis—of estrangement from sources of possible happiness, and of a momentary general loss of direction in his life—was undoubtedly a factor in the extraordinary concentration of pathos and complaint that FitzGerald was able to infuse into his Khayyam translation.

FitzGerald fundamentally changes the formal status of Khayyam’s poems; these are discrete entities in Persian, but FitzGerald strings them into a continuous narrative. As he wrote to Cowell, “I see how a very pretty Eclogue might be tesselated out of his scattered Quatrains” (Terhune, II, p. 294); FitzGerald’s quatrains take the reader through the day of a quietist skeptic whose solace for the sorrows of the world is the carpe diem pleasures of drinking and like-minded companionship. Inserted into this narrative is the Episode of the Pots in which pots brood on the inscrutability and apparent injustices of fate. FitzGerald emphasizes the religious skepticism he found in Khayyam and rejects all notions of a sufi inter pretation of the poems. The sexual ambiguity of the saqi (the cup-bearer) of Persian poetry is also undoubtedly a factor in the translation; no women are mentioned in the poem, the “angel shape” (stanza XLII, 1st. edition) is male, and it seems reasonable to suppose that the companion invoked (the “Moon of my Delight,” stanza LXXlV, 1st. edition) is meant, at least privately, as male.

The success of FitzGerald’s translation, as English poetry, comes partly from his adoption of the Persian rhyme scheme (aaba), and from his relatively rigid metrical habits. Metrical regularity is used to convey a sense of ineluctable law, while the returning final rhyme functions as a last emphatic underlining of the insight offered. The sense of inescapable certainty this gives the verse is used to convey a content of great metaphysical uncertainty, and this, together with the work’s surface exoticism for a Victorian audience, largely accounts for the very distinctive and paradoxical atmosphere of the poem; FitzGerald is saying with absolute conviction that no convictions can be absolute.

FitzGerald’s frequent and often radical departures from Khayyam’s text have received a great deal of attention. The issue is thoroughly explored in Edward Heron-Allen’s FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, with the Persian Originals (London, 1899).

 He concludes that “forty-nine [of FitzGerald’s quatrains] are faithful and beautiful paraphrases of single quatrains to be found in the Ouseley (i.e., Bodleian) or Calcutta MSS., or both. Forty-four are traceable to more than one quatrai?” while others have their origin in verses by ?afe? (two quatrains) and ?A??ar (two quatrains). Three (dropped after the second edition) appear to be FitzGerald’s original work and to have no source in Persian (Heron-Allen, pp. xi-xii). When considering this question it is as well to bear in mind FitzGerald’s intention, which was to produce what he took to be a “readable” version of a Persian poet, i.e., one that would appeal to a Victorian audience. In this he was triumphantly successful, and his Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, has been estimated to be one of the, if not the, best selling books of poetry ever to appear in English (see e.g., the brief survey of editions in FitzGerald, 1997, p. xiii). He did not claim to be producing a literal crib (he left that kind of thing to Cowell), and it is certainly true that no other translation from Persian into English verse succeeds so well in conveying aspects of the tone and atmosphere of the original; it is also true that interest in Persian literary studies in the West increased enormously as a result of FitzGerald’s work. Easy though it is to fault his scholarship it seems, in the light of this achievement, somewhat churlish to do so.

To be continued ...

Source: iranica

Other Links:

Beheshti, Martyr of the True Path (Part 1)

Beheshti, Martyr of the True Path (Part 2)

Edward Fitzgerald (part 1)

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