Fitzgerald on Omar Khayyam

Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in its various editions, first appearing in 1848, has often been identified for its Epicurean aesthetic and worldly philosophy, fitting the mood of British intellectual life and art in the late nineteenth century, with its interest in antiquity, romantic exoticism, and fatalism. The pessimism of the era reflected that of ancient Rome at a comparable stage, the nearest counterpart to the British Empire, with Omar Khayyam a similar-minded thinker in a fossilized imperial society.

Historical Epicureanism represented a skepticism of the gods extrapolated to the state, to society, and to institutions so revered by both the powerful and the foolish. The alternative to duty, service and belief was an aesthetic point of view, a seeking out of what was not transient — art, poetry, music, modes of expression both genuine, enduring, and universal. In Omar Khayyam, however, the aesthetic life actively enjoys sensual pleasures, especially wine:

How long, how long, in infinite pursuit
of this and that endveavour and dispute?
Better be merry with the fruitful Grape
than sadden after none, or bitter fruit. (1st., 39)

To the catalog of sensual pleasures are added those pursuits which wine embodies.

While Khayyam may have been shunned by contemporaries as blasphemous, the poetry of the Sufis often used sensual imagery presented as mysticism — and a French priest and translator of Khayyam, contemporary of Fitzgerald, pleaded likewise for this view. [Interestingly, this view has also been applied to Chinese poets such as Tao Chien and Li Po who also celebrate wine.]

But while Fitzgerald does not accept the mysticism argument, neither does Fitzgerald believe that the astronomer Khayyam was an adherent of science and reason as an alternative to intellectual skepticism. Rather, he imagines Khayyam’s sensualism to be an exaggerated poetic device, for he is too smart to not further apply philosophy to the presumed Epicurean solution, let alone a hedonist one. Fitzgerald instead identifies Khayyam with Lucretius, seeing Khayyam less patient of an entirely Stoic view of the universe. Notes Fitzgerald:

Omar, more desperate, or more careless of any so complicated system as resulted in nothing but hopeless necessity, flung his own genius and learning with a bitter or humourous jest into the general Ruin which their insufficient glimpses only served to reveal; and pretending sensual pleasure as the serious purpose of life, only diverted himself with speculative problems of Deity, Destiny, Matter and Spirit, Good and Evil, and other such questions, easier to start than to run down and the pursuit of which becomes a very weary sport at last!

In rehabilitating Khayyam, Fitzgerald sought to rescue the skeptic Persian poet from those who would embrace his apparent hedonism and disperse with any moral sensibility. Such is the hazard of publishing an overtly Epicurean work, shrouded in mysterious antiquity, embraced by readers of this or that quote celebrating pleasure but missing any irony about pleasure’s futility.