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The history of Edward FitzGerald's magnum opus, The Ruba'iyát of Omar Khayyám, is too well known to need more than a brief recapitulation. The collection of quatrains - ruba'iyát - was first brought to his notice by Professor E. B. Cowell, lately Professor of Arabic and Sanskrit in the University of Cambridge, in the year 1855, when the earliest known manuscript of the ruba'iyát was discovered by the latter among the uncatalogued MSS. of the Ouseley Collection, in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. From a copy of this manuscript, made for him by Professor Cowell, FitzGerald translated, by means of a system of adaption little short of marvellous, this early record of Antinomian Persian philosophy, or ethics, into English quatrains, of the same metric construction as the originals.
The same manuscript, which was solely responsible for the first edition of FitzGerald's work, was reproduced in photographic facsimile, and literally translated into English prose, by Mr. Edward Heron-Allen, in the year 1898, with a view to showing how far FitzGerald's work was a correct rendering of the original, and how far an adaption.
It is now generally admitted that much of FitzGerald's beautiful poem was born of his own inventive genius, and is not to be found in the original. Nor does that admission detract from the merit of a work that has bestowed so many gems of thought and expression upon the English language, and earned for its author undying fame.
The Author of the present volume has cast Mr. Heron-Allen's literal prose translation into a metric form, also adhering to that of the original, and his aim has been to give as literal a rendering as possible. With what fidelity and what success that task has been accomplished, the Author must leave to the judgement of those readers whose interest in the matter may lead them to compare his work with the literal prose translation referred to.
The Author cannot close this brief note without thanking Mr. Heron-Allen for his great kindness in making many valuable suggestions, and in collating these quatrains with the original Persian.
A.. B. T.
LEICESTER, September, 1908
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"He has set about producing a literal rendering in verse, based upon Mr. Heron-Allen's literal rendering in prose, and he has produced a translation, not only remarkable for fidelity, but of genuine poetical value. One has only to turn to a page or two to acknowledge one merit with gratitude, for it is one which few of the quatrain-spinners share - he is wholly bent on rendering Omar for Omar's sake, and never makes him a vehicle for his own moods and conceits. Here is a stanza in Mr Heron-Allen's prose and in Mr. Talbot's verse:-
Of those who draw the pure date wine
and those who spend the night in prayer,
not one is on the dry land, all are in the water -
One is awake; the others are asleep.
For those who from the date its vintage take,
And they who all night long devotions make,
All are submerd'd, not one remains on Earth,
All are asleep; One only is awake.
There can be no question of the fidelity of the translation of that stanza, and yet it has, particularly in the last line, the heightened meaning, the telling quality of genuine verse. Mr Talbot, then, has one characteristic which inspires confidence from the first; and one's confidence is enhanced by the discovery of how resolutely he has also set himself against FitzGerald's mesmerism in keeping to the spirit as well as the letter of the text."
"Mr. Talbot has taken it simply as it came. His version opens, therefore, not with FitzGerald's magnificent réveillé, but in the deepest and most contrite mood which Omar attains:-
Although I have not served Thee from my youth,
And though my face is mask'd with Sin uncouth,
In Thine Eternal Justice I confide,
As one who ever sought to follow Truth.
Perchance within the tavern I may see
The inmost secret of Thy Mystery,
While at the Shrine in ignorance I bow;
Burn me or bless me; I am part of Thee.
These two opening verses in Mr. Talbot's version are, in point of fact, nearer paraphrase and further from literal translation than the greater part of his work; but they have just the strength and sincerity which seem to inspire the original, and they give the key to that side of Omar which FitzGerald most ignored, but which Mr. Talbot has rendered best."
"It is curious, indeed, that through all the sudden changes of mood and manner which characterise the original the leading trait of the poet's mind is a certain sad lucidity, which never really deserts him, however much he may pretend to fuddle his wits with wine; and this quality is more impressive in the desultory arrangement of stanzas in the text, faithfully reproduced by Mr. Talbot, though of necessity ignored in our quotations, than in the cumulative eloquence of FitzGerald's argument."
"That is, no doubt, no more than to say that, very wisely, he resists all temptations to draw the bow of Odysseus; but a result is that the general character of his verse is more faithful than FitzGeralds's to the character of the original.
"Mr. Talbot does, however, in his own way often produce stanzas which one would find beautiful and wish to remember, even if one met them unattended, so to speak, and without references:-
If thou could'st sit beside a rippling stream,
With her of all thy thoughts the constant theme,
Quaffing the Sunshine and the Wine of Morn,
No call to prayer, methinks, would break thy dream,
Give me a scroll of verse, a little wine,
With half a loaf to fill thy needs and mine,
And with the desert sand our resting-place,
For ne'er a Sultan's kingdom would we pine.
It is something to have written that last stanza afresh after FitzGerald, and to have not absolutely failed. Mr. Talbot has, in fact, achieved a version of undoubted value to those who wish to know more of the real Omar and cannot read him in his own tongue.
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Omar was one of the most remarkable, as well as the most distinguished, of the poets of Persia, at the latter part of the twelfth century. He was altogether unprecedented in regard to the freedom of his religious opinions - or, rather, his boldness in denouncing hypocrisy and intolerance, and the enlightened views he took of the fanaticism and mistaken devotion of his countrymen.
He may be called the Voltaire of Persia, though his writings are not calculated to shock European notions so much as those of the followers of the Prophet. The priests were his great enemies, and he was peculiarly hated by the false devotees, whose arts he exposed. His indulgence to other creeds gave great offence, and his liberty of speech drew down upon him continued censure; yet was he extremely popular, and his compositions were read with avidity by those who were not bigots, and the admiration of this class consoled him for the emnity of the other.
He was born at Naishápúr, and devoted much of his time to the study of astronomy, of which science he was a learned professor; but it is asserted by his ill-wishers, that instead of his studies leading him to the acknowledgement of the power of the Supreme Being, they prompted him to disbelief. The result of his reflections on this important subject is given in his poem, much celebrated, under the title of Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.
He was the friend of Hassan al Sabbah, the founder of the sect of the Assassins; and, it has been conjectured, assisted him in the establishment of his diabolical doctrines and fellowship. Some allowance must, howver, be made for the prejudices of his historians, who would, of course, neglect nothing calculated to cast odium on one so inimical to their superstitions.
Omar Khayyám seems particularly to direct his satire against the mysticism of Mo-asi, and the rest of the mystic poets.
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