Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain X

According to A Book of Days for the Literary Year, "Poet and translator Edward FitzGerald (the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) dies at 74 in Merton, Norfolk" on this day in 1883.

Quatrain LXXV

And when Thyself with shining Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
And in thy joyous Errand reach the Spot
Where I made one--turn down an empty Glass!
Tamam Shud

I thought it appropriate to quote the last stanza of the First Edition on this day.

Now for Quatrain X

First Edition: Quatrain X

With me along some Strip of Herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown,
Where name of Slave and Sultan scarce is known,
And pity Sultan Mahmud on his Throne.

Second Edition: Quatrain XI

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?

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XI

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!

This quatrain is closely tied to the previous one in which Old Khayyam openly in the First Edition and implicitly in the Second and Fifth invited us to come along with him. That quatrain spelled out what was to be left behind, but not where Khayyam was going. That is the role of this quatrain. We are to go with him to that spot where the desert ends and the cultivated areas begin. Just what we are to do there is left for the next quatrain.

FitzGerald again made some changes that doesn't affect the meaning so much as it modifies the tone to some extent.

The first line: one change
"Some" in the first version becomes "the" in the second and also in the last. The change eliminates the vagueness of the first and makes it appear now as Khayyam had some particular spot along the boundary between desert and cultivated area in mind, perhaps one that he has visited in the past.

The second line: no change from the first to the last edition.

The third line: one change

the first version--"Where name of Slave and Sultan scarce is known"
the second and last versions--"Where name of Slave and Sultan is forgot--"

I think the first implies that while some do recognize the distinctions between Slave and Sultan, it is for the most part unimportant. Class distinctions, for Slave and Sultan would constitute the bottom and the top of the social structure, don't exist here. The line in the second and fifth versions make a stronger statement--that the distinctions no longer exist or disappear once we have arrived here.

The fourth line: several interesting changes here.

First version And pity Sultan Mahmud on his Throne.
Second version And Peace to Mahmud on his Golden Throne?
Third version And Peace to Mahmud on his Golden Throne!

The first change is that "pity" is replaced by Peace" in the second and last version. We are no longer to pity Mahmud but to wish him peace. I think "pity" implies some sort of superiority on the part of the one doing the pitying, for we pity those who are somehow less than we are. It is a view from above looking down on someone. This is quite different than wishing someone "Peace" which can be seen as a more positive attitude toward the other. To wish someone "Peace" is to wish that person well.

The second change is the removal of the title of Sultan from the first version and replacing it with "Golden" as a modifier of "Throne," which would most likely indicate that this Mahmud is the Sultan, for who else would dare have a "Golden Throne."

The third change removes that inexplicable question mark at the end of the last line in the second version and replaces it with an exclamation point, which makes, to me anyway, much more sense.

This quatrain is closely related to the previous one as it answers the question of where we are to accompany Old Khayyam. It seems to be a simpler place, right on the border between civilization and the wilderness, where there are few, if any, of the distinctions that are important to the more complicated ways of civilization.

The next question then would be about what we are to do when we arrive at this border land. I guess we'll have to wait for the next quatrain to answer that one.


  1. Why did this translator decide to keep on reinterpreting this work? Did he gain insight about the author's intent from other sources? (Forgive me if you've mentioned this in a previous post.) I guess I'm trying to understand a translator's motivation - especially when other translations of that work already exist.

  2. Cheryl,

    That's a hard question to answer and especially difficult when talking about Edward FitzGerald and the Rubaiyat.

    Many commentators have pointed out that his translation includes many of his own ideas, some of which don't exist in Khayyam's _Rubaiyat_. It's probably why the work is called Edward FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, while other translations are titled _The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam_, translated by xxxxxx. In one of my copies it is stated that the Rubaiyat is "rendered" into English, not translated by FitzGerald.

    There are other translations, besides FitzGerald, and I've glanced through some of them. I prefer FitzGerald's.

    I don't know whether his changes were based on a different understanding of the work, or were made for poetic/aesthetic reasons, or even, perhaps, for a combination of both. Some seem clearly to be based on poetic considerations while I'm not sure about others.

    Below is a link to the Wikipedia article about Edward FitzGerald, which may or may not answer your question.

  3. I read the Wikipedia article. FitzGerald was quite a character. I love this quote: "Edward FitzGerald later commented that all of his relatives were mad; further, that he was insane as well, but was at least aware of the fact.".

  4. Cheryl,

    Yes,FitzGerald was a unique one, but madness almost seems to be the norm for the Victorians.

    But, they produced Darwin, the Huxleys, Thomas Hardy, Ford Madox Ford, HG Wells, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Tennyson, and even dragged in a few foreigners--two Americans, TS Eliot and Henry James, and a Pole, Joseph Conrad.

    Henry James and Joseph