Ancient book of Persian poetry
I received a copy of this book via one of Beyond Q’s care packages they were offering during the height of the social distancing measures in Canberra. I had quite an exciting experience when I realised that this was one of the books in the pack, because it is of some significance to an unsolved mystery. I don’t read much poetry, to be honest, but this looked both interesting and succinct.
“Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” translated by Edward FitzGerald and illustrated by Edmund J. Sullivan is a collection of poems by Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and poet Omar Khayyám. FitzGerald provides a brief introduction to the collection before the poetry begins. The style of poetry is ruba’i: Persian four line rhyming poetry. The poems are arranged in a sort of narrative sequence and are largely concerned with life, death, faith, philosophy and hedonism.
This is a well-edited and nicely illustrated book that transitions smoothly from poem to poem with a clear, over-arching narrative. Khayyám includes himself as an older man grappling with his own morality, mortality and the love of a younger woman. This book has quite a nihilistic perspective, with Khayyám concluding that we’re all going to die anyway, so we might as well enjoy ourselves and love and drink to our heart’s desire. The poems present an almost equal balance between existential dread and enjoyment. The illustrations are incredibly evocative and with one per poem, I think that the contribution they have to the overall impact of the book cannot be understated.
There is quite some debate on how authentic FitzGerald’s translations are and, in fact, to how much of the poetry can truly be attributed to Khayyám himself. Not being any kind of expert in Iranian poetry, I cannot comment on this with any kind of authority. However, with possibly hundreds of poems at least thought to have been written by Khayyám, and only 75 selected for inclusion in this collection, I think that it is sensible to consider this largely FitzGerald’s work inspired closely by Khayyám.
It’s unsurprising to me that this volume was so popular. Even for someone who is not much of a poetry aficionado, it is very readable, clear and complex with universal, timeless themes.