Oh my, Omar …

I watched an interesting programme about Omar Khayyam last night which chimed with some of the things we have been looking at in our Theory and Authorship module.

One of the first things you need to know about Omar Khayyam is that he was super smart. He was a mathematician and did something cool with the ‘cubic equation’. This means absolutely nothing to me; even after a demonstration with two rods, a length of string and a hula hoop, but apparently it was groundbreaking.  Khayyam was also a meticulous astronomer responsible for the calculations that provided a calendar year more precise than our Gregorian version, and still in use in Iran today. Talk about an overachiever. He reminds me of the cute guy I met at salsa class who had a PhD in Artificial Intelligence and who explained to me one evening – quite seriously – that occasionally he needed to use a pencil to work out complex physics problems. I explained that occasionally I needed to use a pencil to make sure I wasn’t spelling physics when I was trying to write psycho.

By the 11th century, just in time for Omar to turn his hand to something else, the four line stanza or Rubaiyat was well established in Persia. Like their Western counterparts, the Persians revered poetry, especially when it was accompanied by music; performance poetry. I am very interested in the history and tradition of oral story-telling as opposed to writing and we have looked at this through our inspection of some of the theories of authorship. One thing I noticed about the written word as opposed to the spoken word during this programme; the written work in Arabic is a thing of beauty itself, without any knowledge of what it says.

Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat was written around 1092. There was a small volume printed in 1460 which was sold to the Bodleian Library in 1884 where it was discovered by a young, self-taught linguist called Edward Cowell. Cowell passed it to his friend Edward Fitzgerald who, distressed at Cowell’s departure for Calcutta and a miserable marriage, consoled himself with translating the Rubaiyat into English.

He published the book himself and couldn’t give them away. Eventually an editor called Whitley Stokes bought a copy, raved and infected the rest of Victorian Britain. And a bestseller was born.

Fitzgerald was friends with Thackery and Hardy, and there are echoes of Milton, of Shakespeare, of the Bible, of Tennyson throughout the translation. How much did Fitzgerald translate and how much poetry did he write himself? He also rearranged the stanzas from the basic alphabetical grouping to a narrative. Fitzgerald is a secondary author; he is the author of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat in English.

One thing I want to know is when they are printing the Rubaiyat in Iran today, are they translating from the English or from the original manuscript? Are there two versions of the Rubaiyat – the original and the translation; or the Eastern and the Western?

And here is the BBC4 iplayer link to the programme in case you are interested:

The Genius of Omar Khayyam

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