- Metaphor, Translation, and Autoekphrasis in FitzGerald's Rubáiyát
Among the many virtues of Christopher Decker's edition of the FitzGerald Rubáiyát is its patient elucidation, not only of the various circumstances surrounding the text's multiple versions, but of what we can infer about the translator's equally various attitude toward his work.1 Enthusiastic, torpid, apologetic, cavalier, across two decades and more between the first edition of 1859 and the final one of 1879 the anonymous agent who once signed himself in correspondence "Fitz-Omar" remains hard to read with assurance—by reason partly of a diffidence that was specific to the man's character, partly of ambivalences that haunt the translator's art generally.2 But amid this history of many shifts and much effacement, across the variorum Rubáiyát there emerges an unswerving commitment that goes far toward explaining the work's extraordinary appeal. I mean FitzGerald's commitment to interpreting Omar Khayyám's quatrains not mystically but—in a term of FitzGerald's that becomes intriguingly complex—literally. The apparatus to each version he authorized sets at defiance all "Pretence at divine Allegory" (1859, p. 6), all trafficking "in Allegory and Abstraction" (1868, p. 35), all "Spiritual" decoction of what "is simply the Juice of the Grape" (1872, p. 67). Keeping faith with his Persian original meant, for FitzGerald, scouting any and all "Mysticism" that might distract from Omar's manifest aim, which his Victorian translator deeply embraced too. That aim was "to soothe the Soul through the Senses into Acquiescence with Things as he saw them" (1868, p. 31).
"No doubt," averred the preface of 1868, "many of these Quatrains seem unaccountable unless mystically interpreted; but many more as unaccountable unless literally" (p. 35). FitzGerald's literalist affirmation so often took a feisty form because it was embroiled from the start in a polemic against Omar Khayyám's allegorizers. They were a tribe who had been around a long time—medieval Christianity had nothing on medieval Islam when it came to wresting heretic texts into hermeneutic line—and had voluble representatives still during the nineteenth century, and even in Europe. Well before 1859 FitzGerald was politely differing with his young tutor in Persian studies [End Page 69] , Edward Cowell, about how to take some of Omar's bitter pills, and then in 1868 he stepped into the public ring to square off against J. B. Nicolas, a French exponent to whom the poems were dark Sufi conceits disclosing an orthodox message after all. FitzGerald survived this challenge handily, but the question that lay behind it has gone on to survive him. It flared up again just a generation ago, when no less an antagonist than the poet Robert Graves placed before the public a defense and illustration of Omar's hidden and mystical meaning. The Original Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam: A New Translation with Critical Commentaries is a title whose every adjective bristles with polemic—and whose aggressively repossessive orthography prepares us to learn that counterattacks were soon mounted in polemical turn by harder-headed sons of Fitz. The latter have long since carried the day against the allegorically credulous Graves and his ignorant or unscrupulous informant, the Sufi mystagogue votary Omar Ali-Shah.3
I am spectacularly ill equipped to pronounce on the merits of this or any other matter pertaining to the astronomer algebrist with a nine-hundred years-old name. But I can propose that his Victorian popularizer's firm commitment to taking old Omar at his word—taking him "literally," which is to say, in part, linguistically—had, as its cardinal literary consequence, a mode of poetic presentation to which the Rubáiyát has owed the breadth and longevity of its circulation among an anglophone public as "the most popular verse translation into English ever made" (Decker, p. xiv). For in FitzGerald's freely translating hands the this-worldly, bodily thematics of the poem found consistent correlates in its poetics. Without the rhetorical and prosodic vehicles that FitzGerald contrived for it, his translation would long ago have exhausted its capacity to shock readers or delight them either. These poetic...