Saturday 18 May 2024

From Omar Khayyam to Charles Causley, via Edward FitzGerald and Dick Davis

 Born on this day in 1048 (by our calendar) was Omar Khayyam. A Persian polymath – astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and poet – his name would barely have impinged on the English consciousness had it not been for a remarkable feat of translation: Edward Fitzgerald's version of the collection of quatrains known as The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, first published, anonymously, in 1861 to near universal indifference, but rescued from oblivion by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Swinburne and others impressed by its distinctive beauty. Rossetti apparently found FitzGerald's book languishing among the unsold unsaleables on a book stall, priced at a few pence. After various revisions, the Rubaiyat was republished, and within a few years became one of the most popular and widely read poems in the English language, reaching a peak of popularity at the end of the 19th century. With its easy melodic flow, its air of Romantic melancholy and thrilling but safe exoticism, it has retained its popularity to this day, at least in terms of being present in the public consciousness and widely quoted, if not widely read. Like most popular poetry, it is unfashionable, and like most translations it is contentious: it could hardly be otherwise when FitzGerald himself called it a 'transmogrification' rather than a straight translation. It is clear too that at least some of the quatrains owe nothing to any Persian original – a measure of how completely FitzGerald had made an English poem of it. 
   A poet closer to our own time, Dick Davis, was known as a brilliant translator of Persian verse – and one who recognised the greatness, for all its infidelities, of FitzGerald's Rubaiyat. In his 'A Letter to Omar', he stands at the tomb of Omar Khayyam (pictured above) and reflects on the Rubaiyat, on his own life, and on the strange but gifted man who turned those quatrains into English poetry: 

I stood beside the ghastly tomb they built for you
And shuddered with vicarious, mute guilt for you;
Are concrete columns what they thought you meant?
I wanted wine, a glass turned down, drops spilt for you.

A sick child reads (his life is not imperilled – 
He sucks the candied death-wish of FitzGerald);
I was that child, and your translated words
Were poetry – the muse's gaudy herald.

Was it for you I answered that advertisement
Before I knew what coasting through one's thirties meant?
If so I owe my wife and child to that
Old itch to get at what your English verses meant.

Thus in your land I doled out Shakespeare, Milton –
Decided I preferred sheep's cheese to stilton
But knew as much of Persia or Iran
As jet-lagged fat cats sluicing at the Hilton.

My language teacher was a patient Persian Jew
(I pray that he survives), a techno-person who
Thought faith and verse vieux jeus; he thought me weird –
He learnt my loyalties and his aversion grew.

Love proved the most effective learning lure and not
His coaxing tact: my girl required the score and plot
– Explained in halting, pidgin syllables – 
Of our first opera (which was – aptly – Turandot).

When I had said, in crabbed words bare of ornament,
What La Bohème, The Magic Flute and Norma meant
She married me; my Persian was still bad
But now I knew I knew what 'nessun dorma' meant.

We set up home ... but I feel more than sure you
Would not assent to Dr Johnson's poor view 
Of tulip streaks* (Damn all particulars...)
And I desist – I wouldn't want to bore you.

You left the busy trivia unspoken:
Haunted by vacancy, you saw unbroken
Miles of moonlight – time and the desert edge
The high-walled gardens, man's minute, brief token.

And if I revelled in your melancholy
(Like mooching through the rain without a brolly)
It was the passion of your doubt I loved,
Your castigation of the bigot's folly.

Besides, what could be more perversely pleasant
To an ascetic, hungry adolescent
Than your insistent carpe diem cry
Of let conjecture go, embrace the present?

And all set out (I thought so then, I think so now)
In stanzas of such finely wrought, distinct know-how
They were my touchstone of the art (it is
A taste our pretty literati think low-brow).

Such fierce uncertainty and such precision!
That fateful metre mated with a vision
Of such persuasive doubt ... grandeur was your
Decisive statement of our indecision. 

Dear poet-scholar, would-be alcoholic
(Well, is the wine – or is it not – symbolic?)
You would and would not recognise the place – 
Succession now is quasi-apostolic,

The palace is a kind of Moslem Deanery,
But government, despite this shift of scenery,
Stays as embattled as it ever was – 
As individual, and as sanguinary.

The warring creeds still rage – each knows it's wholly right
And welcomes ways to wage the martyrs' holy fight;
You might not know the names of some new sects
But, as of old, the nation is bled slowly white.

Listen: 'Death to the Yanks, out with their dollars!'
What revolution cares for poet-scholars?
What price evasive, private doubt beside
The public certainties of Ayatollahs?

And every faction would find you a traitor:
The country of the Rubaiyat's creator
Was fired like stubble as we packed our bags
And sought the province of its mild translator.

East Anglia! – where passionate agnostics
Can burn their strictly non-dogmatic joss-sticks,
And take time off from moody poetry
For letters, crosswords, long walks and acrostics;

Where mist and damp make most men non-committed,
Where both sides of most battles seem half-witted,
Where London is a world away and where
Even the gossips felt FitzGerald fitted;

He named his boat The Scandal (no misnomer...)
And fished the coast from Lowestoft round to Cromer,
One eye on his beloved Posh, and one
On you or Virgil, Calderon or Homer;

Then wrote his canny, kind, retiring letters
To literature's aggressive, loud go-getters –
Carlyle and others I forbear to name
Who had the nerve to think themselves his betters;

You were the problems (metrical, semantic)
From which he made an anglicised Romantic – 
The perfect correspondent for his pen
(Inward, mid-century, and not too frantic);

As you are mine in this; it makes me really sick
To hear men say they find you crass or merely slick;
Both you and your translator stay my heroes – 
Agnostic blessings on you both!
                                               Sincerely, Dick.
November 1982

* 'The poet does not number the streaks of the tulip' (Samuel Johnson, Rasselas). 

FitzGerald's 'beloved Posh' was a young fisherman called Joseph Fletcher, with whom FitzGerald bought a herring lugger and spent many happy hours fishing the Suffolk coast (in today's reductive terms, he was probably 'gay'). Despite being born into one of the wealthiest families in the land, FitzGerald lived a quiet, retired life, seldom venturing far from Suffolk. He died in 1883, and is buried in the remote churchyard of Boulge, where another poet, Charles Causley, visited his very plain grave (below), and marked the occasion with a short poem, 'Boulge' –

Edward FitzGerald sleeps
Under this sheet of stone,
Neat as never in life,  
Innocent, alone.

The earth that he lies in is his.
Grass and willow-herb drown
The wilderness path through the trees.
The great house is down.

He longed to lie in birdsound.
To be ash. To dare
The salt of the ocean and find 
Lodging there.

Flint-eyed, the church, the tower
Shadow his page.
Thinly the Persian rose
Frets in its cage.

It is He that hath made us. And he
Who is lying among
Hard voices of pebble and shard
Holds his tongue.


  1. Thanks Foose. I think the Dick Davis poem is really very fine... By the way, my use of the past tense might suggest that he is no longer with us – happily he is, and not yet 80. He deserves to be better known, esp on this side of the Pond.