- FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: Popularity and Neglect edited by Adrian Poole, Christine van Ruymbeke, William H. Martin, and Sandra Mason
In “To E. FitzGerald: Tiresias” (1883), Alfred Tennyson’s belated epistolary verse to his lifelong friend Edward FitzGerald, the laureate makes gracious acknowledgement of [End Page 327] Old Fitz’s literary achievement, describing it as “A planet equal to the sun/Which cast it, that large infidel/Your Omar” (l. 35–37). The description is a useful one in that, by recognising the poem as a significant achievement that belongs to FitzGerald (“Your Omar”) without losing sight of its source and by writing FitzGerald’s poem into a new poetic composition, it points toward the matrix of texts, cultures, identities, and languages that make up FitzGerald’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1859–89) and its afterlives. A like sense of the poem’s multiple, unstable, endlessly rich textuality lies at the heart of this collection of essays, which constitutes an engaging reassessment of the Rubáiyát’s significance a century and a half after its publication.
The volume, based on a conference held in 2009 to mark both FitzGerald’s bicentenary and the 150th anniversary of his poem’s publication, is part of a small but significant flurry of publications generated by this double anniversary, including a special edition of Victorian Poetry (2008) edited by Erik Gray and a new edition of the poem itself, edited by Daniel Karlin (2009). As a number of the book’s contributors remark, it is an anniversary that is shared and overshadowed by the bicentenaries of Tennyson and Charles Darwin and by the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species (1859); but the collection both interrogates and makes a virtue of this relative marginality. While it recognises the Rubáiyát’s deliberate avoidance of the kinds of responsibility that attend on a place in the cultural limelight, it is equally sceptical of narratives of avoidance that might otherwise allow it to be overlooked by accounts of nineteenth-century poetry within the academy.
In his introduction to the collection, Adrian Poole addresses the terms of the book’s subtitle, surprisingly positing neglect, or negligence, as an acceptable fate for FitzGerald’s poem today. Poole argues that the Rubáiyát need not be burdened by its enduring identity as a school-room and drawing-room favourite, which it achieves in spite of itself rather than as the result of any conscious intervention in the cultural marketplace. Neglectful of such concerns, the poem instead embodies a carefree poetics, one that invites but can never be held to account for a heady variety of interpretations and approaches. Poole’s reading is convincingly borne out by the essays that follow, each of which sheds new light on the poem and its author without offering itself as the definitive account. The poem that emerges is one of paradoxes—“popularity and neglect,” “something and nothing,” “common and queer”—and negatives—neither a translation nor a paraphrase, not quite a narrative, not a Western poem; a poem of teasing and various difficulty that demands scholarly attention even as it conveys a careless impression of not minding the possibility of neglect (vii, 27).
A couple of the essays in the collection offer productive reflections on a key difficulty for critics of the Rubáiyát: its relationship to its Persian source material. Dick Davis provides insight on the poem’s place within a tradition of English verse translations that includes Geoffrey Chaucer and Thomas Wyatt. Essays by John Drew and Adam Talib explore alternative translations that are spawned by FitzGerald’s text. Drew’s essay on the 1862 pirated edition of the poem employs fine editorial scholarship to uncover a rich bibliographic history consisting of a complex web of authors, editors, translators, and annotators that destabilises the text’s coherent identity. Talib’s account...