In 1882 Edward Henry Whinfield (d. 1922) brought out a bilingual Persian and English edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, based on eight medieval manuscripts. It is really his own selection, since he admits he played down the wine poetry (!), and several of his manuscripts are late and Indian.
Whinfield did not know that the Rubaiyat or Quatrains of Omar Khayyam were not the work of a single author but rather were a genre contributed to by many hands over centuries, with the astronomer, who died around 1132, made into a frame author. Khayyam functions as Scheherazade did for the 1,001 Nights Tales.
Still, it is interesting that this genre, which included religious skepticism and advice to seize the day before death annihilates us, along with love poetry and praise of wine, was clearly a staple of medieval Persian literature and such manuscripts were much copied, added to, and prized. The Mughal emperor Akbar commended reading a quatrain of Omar Khayyam after a ghazal (Persian sonnet) by Hafez, sort of like an after-dinner aperitif.
I have for some years been translating these quatrains into contemporary English. The famous versions were by Edward FitzGerald, published in 1859, and they are lovely. They are nevertheless often in a diction rather distant from our own times.
My book, published in April, contains a modern translation of the first coherent book-length collection of something entitled “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” mostly in free-verse quatrains, though I experimented with some metered stanzas. I almost never attempted a rhyme. The original was collected and copied out by one Mahmud Yerbudaki in Shiraz in 1460. The poems below were not in that anthology.
Now that I have that out of my system, I’ve gone to what I think are the relatively late poems in Whinfield’s collection, and picked back up the late nineteenth and early twentieth century custom of rendering them in meter and rhyme. FitzGerald favored iambic pentameter, and defined what Rubaiyat are in English, inspiring T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost, among many others. Sometimes I use iambic hexameter. I’ve also experimented with trochaic, but not in what follows. Where I use rhyme, often it is abcb in this series. But sometimes abca, and sometimes I play instead with internal rhymes and half-rhymes. Having published the book, which I wanted to be close to the originals for scholarly reasons, I don’t mind now experimenting with some more traditional forms of poetry.
So here are a few of my recent versions. I had attempted some of these in the past on the internet, but am happier with these translations. As I did in my book, I am trying for relatively simple contemporary English diction, to convey the simplicity, directness and boldness of the original. I also did some cultural translation, making, e.g., a dowry into a wedding ring. The number is the number Whinfield gave the Persian original.
Selected Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
Translated by Juan Cole
At dawn a shout awoke us in that dive:
“You crazy rascal in this run-down shack,
get up and finish up our vow to wine–
before our time is up and we’re called back.”
Tonight, who brought you from behind the veil;
who brought you, tipsy, to me, drawing near?
–to one on fire because you had been gone–
one like an arid wind; who brought you here?
Get up and come to me, for my heart’s sake–
your beauty takes my troubles all away.
And bring clay cups of wine, to quench our thirst–
before they fashion cups from our own clay.
When I am dead, please wash me with red wine;
and raise a fine Shiraz in eulogy.
On Resurrection Day my restless dust
will stir on the floor of a drinkery.
True lovers always are out of their minds:
They are disgraced, distracted and crazy.
When we are sober, life annoys us;
but when we’re drunk, what things will be, will be.
Although we look and smell magnificent–
red tulip cheeks, and standing cypress tall–
we’re clueless as to why we’ve been decked out,
and set to dancing at this earthly ball.
I’ll drink so much red wine that from my grave
a fragrant, fine bouquet will waft abroad,
so sober mourners visiting my tomb
will pass out from the vapors, drunk and awed.
That day when my hand grasps a glass of wine,
and when I’ve gotten wasted happily,
I will perform a hundred miracles,
with soul afire, words flowing like a sea.
My faith is drinking wine and happiness.
My worship lacks belief and unbelief.
I asked my bride of fate what ring she needs:
She said, “My diamond is your ecstasy.”
No matter if they pray in mosque or church,
all hearts that shine with passion’s wild advice–
all those whose names are written in love’s book–
have been set free of hell and paradise.
Wine’s not for going rogue or faithlessness:
A search for good times isn’t why we drink.
It is to bring ourselves to selflessness.
That is the secret of my drunkenness.
Now that the bloom is on rose of bliss,
Don’t hesitate to raise a wine glass high.
Drink up, for your determined foe is time:
You won’t again come by a day like this.
An old man issued from a drinkery,
his wine flask full, his prayer rug threadbare.
I asked him what he meant by it. He said,
“Drink up! The works of this world are hot air.”
Into the garden flew a drunken nightingale,
delighting in the cup of wine that was its rose.
It whispered with its mystic voice into my ear:
“Grab hold, for life is gone when once it goes.”