- The Benefits of Reading the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám as Pastoral
On the publication of J. B. Nicolas' French translations of Omar Khayyám —collected in book form as Les quatrains de Khèyam in 1867, having initially appeared in the Revue de l'Orient, de l'Algérie et des Colonies four years earlier—Edward FitzGerald was provoked into a caustic disagreement with its translator. The Frenchman held that Omar's testaments to the benefits of drinking wine should not be taken literally, but should be seen in Sufi terms as representing an enlightened state of being. For Nicolas, there was little doubt that Omar "était plutôt porté à la contemplation des choses divines qu'aux jouissances de la vie mondaine" (was sooner inclined to the contemplation of divine things than to worldly pleasures).1 Edward Cowell, the man who introduced FitzGerald to Omar's work in the first place, may have shared certain aspects of Nicolas' views but, for the sake of his friend's contentment, conceded that "Omar lived in an age of poetical mysticism, but he is himself no mystic."2 FitzGerald disagreed more fully, and more ambitiously, with Nicolas, and he set about preparing a second edition partly in retaliation, the 1868 introduction to which questions Nicolas' claims to "historical Authority."3
FitzGerald had formed staunch opinions on Omar's irreligious materialism long before Nicolas' book came along. In the introduction to his first edition, he argues that Omar's "Worldly Pleasures are what they profess to be without any Pretence at divine Allegory: his Wine is the veritable Juice of the Grape: his Tavern, where it was to be had" (Rubáiyát, p. 6). However, the rest of the introduction also suggests that FitzGerald's views on this matter were more malleable than implied by that blunt sentence, which he removed from introductions to subsequent editions. Toward the end he notes that "those [quatrains] selected are strung into something of an Eclogue, with perhaps a less than equal proportion of the 'Drink and make-merry' which (genuine or not) recurs over-frequently in the Original" (Rubáiyát, p. 9).
In calling the Rubáiyát an "Eclogue," FitzGerald draws on the original [End Page 55] Greek word ekloge, meaning "selection," while playing on the Virgilian sense of the term as a series of short pastoral lyrics. From a literary-historical perspective, this classification is timely, for, according to the editors of The Penguin Book of English Pastoral Verse, pastoral, as a specific and meaningful genre in English, expired in the second half of the nineteenth century when the distinction between urban and rural life diminished.4 Critics have shown, however, that the implications of pastoral extend well beyond the realm of literature referring generally to the countryside, and specifically, though not indispensably, to the lives of shepherds. Taking his cue from William Empson's understanding of pastoral as "putting the complex into the simple,"5 Peter Marinelli, for one, defines pastoral as "any literature which deals with the complexities of human life against a background of simplicity."6 In this respect, FitzGerald's casting of his work in this manner is piquant, even if it all seems a world away from classical and renaissance configurations of pastoral. As far as his Rubáiyát is concerned, the shepherds of pastoral lore are still there in spirit, but they have been transformed into drinkers (or, more precisely, one drinker who addresses at least one other). And the setting is an idyllic tavern in which, socio-economic detail being lacking, wine flows limitlessly at no apparent cost to its clientele (no money appears to change hands). In this respect, FitzGerald's work is historically important because it paved the way for subsequent poets—notably, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, A. E. Housman—to compose imitation-drinking poems that claim pastoral status through idealizing social relations.7
The aim of this essay is to diagnose the Rubáiyát as literary pastoral. It starts from the premise that FitzGerald's tavern is an ideal arena for spirited musing, for venting complex human issues over one of the simplest human...