Rubaiyyating With Robert Graves

The Original Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam
in a new translation with critical commentaries by Robert Graves and Omar Ali-Shah
(Doubleday, $5.00)
No work by Robert Graves can be ignored. Not even when he fails to improve on what someone else — in this instance Edward FitzGerald — has done before him. And certainly not when, with faulty judgment, he takes the liberty of blaming FitzGerald for silliness and inaccuracy. It is the place for surprise rather than anger when a poet so frequently ready to instruct lesser breeds in the processes of poetry and workings of the poet’s mind refuses FitzGerald his sure instinct in poetic matters, and in a pompous, “scholarly” piece of show-off with references to Latin Mass controversies in the sixteenth century and Henry VIII, charges FitzGerald with being like the “old English parish priest” who preferred his misreading mumpsimus to the correct sumpsimus.
There is everything to be said for each successive age’s translating really great poetry in remote languages and from distant eras afresh in the idiom of the day. To accomplish this, however, the translator must keep clear of theories about the content and purpose of the poetry and stick to the words. Above all others, Mr. Graves should know that poetry is better left to speak for itself. Mr. Graves’s image in the first stanza is nevertheless probably as good as might be expected of him. Whether it is an improvement on FitzGerald’s (first edition) “Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night/ Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight . . .” is questionable.
While Dawn, Day’s herald straddling the whole sky,
Offers the drowsy world a toast “To Wine,”
The Sun spills early gold on city roofs —
Day’s regal Host, replenishing his jug.
Less questionable, sad though it may be for the hosts of us who have been happily brought up on FitzGerald’s inspired renderings of them, is the fact that, as Persian poetry goes, the Khayyām originals are not really very great poetry. Edward FitzGerald had special reasons for liking them enough to experiment, first with Latin translations, later with often revised English versions.
His reasons lay, apart from his simply enjoying the way the ruba’iyāt “went,” in the Victorian man of insight’s anxieties, nicely paralleled by those of an eleventh-century Persian mathematician in Nishapur in northwest Iran under the Saljuqs. In those times Nishapur was a hothed of tensions among different Islamic juridico-theological schools. Freethinkers and doubters of the rigid tenets of orthodoxy and traditionalism were worsted and persecuted. The great philosopher alGhazzali had to resign his professorship at Nishapur in about 1106 A.D. in trouble for opposition to the prevalent fanaticism. ‘Umar Khayyām was born in the same city circa 1021-1022.
It is a pity that Mr. Graves’s collaborator did not concentrate more on these matters, for which there is ample historical documentation. Instead he is advertised as the descendant of a line of Sufi leaders, sectarians who, in the Afghan setting to which he apparently belongs, often go to great lengths to prove their Muslim orthodoxy; whereas Sufism in Persia and elsewhere, indeed at its peril often in Afghanistan also, has generally been the refuge of those who seek more in religious experience than legalism. The pharisaical element in Omar Ali-Shah’s position is reflected in Graves’s quite untenable assertion that “hard liquor was unknown to twelfth century Persians.” His collaborator should have been more honest, not to say accurate. Also, numerous eyewitness accounts of the rewarding of poets in twelfth-century Persia with jewels sufficient thrice to fill the mouth and strings of camels required to carry a poet’s golden vessels should have prevented Mr. Graves’s believing that “in Khayaam’s day, authorship ... of a poem that won general acceptance was held to be its own reward.”
There is, of course, no reason why Omar Ali-Shah’s particular sect of dervishes should not have chosen ‘Umar Khayyām as their poet. This does not mean that Khayyām was necessarily any more a genuine Sufi than — the evidence of the Persian and Arabic biographies aside — for example, the shrewd FitzGerald took him to be. It would, moreover, be a rather backward, mountain or upcountry, kind of Sufism that would prefer the quatrains of ‘Umar as its quasi-liturgical textbook to some of the real Sufi poetry with which Persian literature abounds.
Claims that the quatrains represent some sort of “temporal pattern from dawn to the dead of night . . . its central verses recording the metaphysical noontide torments of a passionate mind” are nonsense. The stanzas are disconnected epigrams, and it is exceedingly curious that the ancient manuscript of them in the family of Graves’s collaborator should open with the same verse about daybreak that FitzGerald, in his “mashing together” of the quatrains, chose for his first stanza. Such a coincidence makes this manuscript just as suspect, if not a little more so, than all manuscripts of verses of this type. The suspicion grows on noticing that what Mr. Graves calls Omar’s “awesome culminating verse” was the four-versed stanza found by a traveler, R. B. M. Binning, carved on a stone in the ruins of Persepolis. Binning published it in his travel narrative in 1857, and FitzGerald mentions it in a letter of January 13, 1859.
How dubious “ancient manuscripts” of ruba’iyāt are can be explained by the adeptness of Iranian forgers and by the ease with which this verse form comes to Persians. I once knew a cabdriver in Shiraz who made up ruba’iyāt to amuse his fare on a long journey. Hence there is nothing very strange about finding, in FitzGerald’s version,
The Palace that to Heav’n his pillars threw,
And Kings the forehead on his threshold drew —
I saw the solitary ringdove there,
And “Coo, coo, coo!” she cried, “Coo, coo, coo,”
on a slab in the rubble of Persepolis. In Persian the word means “Where?”, whence the onomatopoeia. Graves with his
A ring-dove perches on its battlements;
“Where, where?” it coos, “where, where?”
shows, whether he likes it or not, some debt to FitzGerald, and a good deal of accuracy. But what is strange is that this “awesome culminating stanza” should have cropped up in the truly “marvelous” text Mr. Graves’s friend found for him.
As for Omar Ali-Shah having all his life spoken “classical Persian,” since so far as one can tell this was something invented to make Persian studies respectable in England’s older universities, it is hard to know what it means. Presumably Omar Ali-Shah spoke Persian all his life, but it is difficult to say that he is always any surer about the correct renderings of Persian idiom than was FitzGerald, who never claimed to be a complete Persianist anyway. And with his private brand of religious interpretation of the stanzas, one would have expected Omar AliShah to be more precise about the fact that the fate-struck polo ball in the Persian original is ordered to go “straight,” not to oscillate hither and thither. Chap mīro (though by itself chap means “left,” as in “left hand”) means “roll over.” Rāst mīro (though rāst by itself means “right”) means “go straight” or simply “keep going.” FitzGerald has:
The Ball no Question makes of Ayes and Noes
But right or left as strikes the Player goes.
And He that toss’d thee down into the Field
He knows about it all, He knows — He knows.
Literally the stanza means:
You revolved by the polo-mallet of fate like a ball
Roll over, go on and say nothing,
For that person who threw you into a spin,
He knows, he knows, he knows, oh!

Graves makes it:

Poor ball, struck by Fate’s heavy polo-mallet,
Running whichever way it drives you, numbed
Of sense, though He who set you on your course,
He knows, He knows, He knows. Perhaps after all, Graves is here near enough the mark, though FitzGerald at least did not add the evaluators “poor,” “heavy,” and “numbed of sense.” But who knows about Mr. Omar Ali-Shah’s Persian? One fact that is clear is this, that FitzGerald remains closer to the spirit and therefore, ultimately, to the text of the Persian titan Graves does. Graves began with a theory and, one suspects, a petulant dislike of “poor old Fitz.” FitzGerald merely found Omar’s verses fun, and so discovered what they said.