A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
The quatrain above comes from Edward Fitzgerald’s second edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1868. Fitzgerald’s treatments of Omar Khayyam’s poems brought the Persian poet to the attention of the western world more than 700 years after the poems were written.
Omar Khayyam (1048-1123) was born in Nishapur, the capital city of Khurasan, Persia, now Iran. He was born Ghiyath al-Din Abul Fateh Omar Ibn Ibrahim al-Khayyam. Little is know of his early life but the name Khayyam means “tentmaker” and signifies that either Omar or his father Ibrahim may have practiced that trade.
Omar was educated locally and completed a treatise on algebra as a youth. He came to the attention of Sultan Malik Shah who offered Omar presence in the royal court. The Vizier Nizam al-Mulk gave Omar a pension which enabled him to devote himself to research in his favorite subjects of mathematics and astronomy. He was commissioned to build an observatory in Isfahan, and he was later assigned with eight other scholars to revise the Muslim calendar. Omar published several books on astronomy and algebra which rivaled the studies of contemporary Europeans.
Though noted as a mathematician and astronomer, Omar wrote poems throughout his life. His preferred style was to write four line quatrains, and it is thought that he wrote about one thousand of them during his life. Not all of the manuscripts survived but about 600 poems have been attributed to him, though most critics agree that not all of those were written by Omar Khayyam.
The word rubaiyat is a plural noun referring to the four line quatrains that Omar wrote. Each quatrain can correctly be called a rubai. In modern convention rubaiyat now refers to a four line poem with a rhyme scheme of aaba where each line expresses a complete thought.
The major themes in Omar’s rubaiyat are the mortality of the human spirit and the fragile nature of human existence. The tone of his poems is often pessimistic. Omar writes vividly about the impossibility of understanding the universe. As a counterpoint he also writes about the wisdom of living in the moment, sharing friendship, and the conviviality of enjoying wine in the tavern.
Not surprisingly, Omar’s poems were viewed with suspicion by orthodox Muslims. Since wine and drunkenness were prohibited by Islamic law, effort was made to interpret his poems about wine metaphorically, as in spiritual or romantic intoxication.
Omar said to a student near the end of his life, “My tomb shall be in a spot where the north wind may scatter roses over it.” Omar Khayyam died in Nishapur in 1131. According to the biography by Ali ibn Azidu’l-Baihaqi, Omar called his family to hear his last wishes and said, “Oh Lord, I have known You according to the sum of my ability. Pardon me since verily my knowledge is my recommendation to You.”
Edward Fitzgerald’s Treatment
The world knew very little about Omar Khayyam’s poetry until Edward Fitzgerald’s second edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in 1868. The first edition of 250 copies was published in 1859 anonymously and unnoticed. However the 1868 edition was surprisingly well received. The edition treated 101 of Omar Khayyam’s quatrains as one long poem. Many critics believed that it was an English poem with Persian allusions.
Fitzgerald did not translate Omar’s poems literally. He freely reinterpreted them and even combined some of the poems to make a whole new poem. However his translation was inspired and skillful, faithful to the soul of Omar Khayyam’s poems if not to his words.
In fact, Fitzgerald spoke of his work not as a translation but as a transmogrification. Fortunately, Fitzgerald’s work is so good that few in the western world mind the fact that some of the work is Fitzgerald’s own creation.
Fitzgerald created quatrains with iambic pentameter. That is, the meter of each line contains five feet, and each foot is iambic with an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable. The rhyme pattern for the four lines is aaba.
Notice the last line of “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough” where Fitzgerald chose the word enow in order to produce the final iambic foot.
There are numerous sources to view and read Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat in the original Farsi language.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam has been translated into many languages worldwide. Many English translations have followed Fitzgerald’s. For interest and the sake of comparison, here are a few additional translations of the “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough” quatrain.
From the first edition by Fitzgerald, still in iambic pentameter:
Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.
From the 1882 edition by Edward Henry Whinfield:
In the sweet spring a grassy bank I sought
And thither wine and a fair Houri brought;
And, though the people called me graceless dog,
Gave not to Paradise another thought!
From the 1888 translation by John Leslie Garner:
Yes, Loved One, when the Laughing Spring is blowing,
With Thee beside me and the Cup o’erflowing,
I pass the day upon this Waving Meadow,
And dream the while, no thought on Heaven bestowing.
From the 1898 prose translation by Edward Heron-Allen:
I desire a little ruby wine and a book of verses,
Just enough to keep me alive, and half a loaf is needful;
And then, that I and thou should sit in a desolate place
Is better than the kingdom of a sultan.
Lastly, just for fun, here is Wendy Cope’s transcription of the struggling South London amateur poet, a character she created, Jason Strugnell’s translation:
Here with a Bag of Crisps beneath the Bough,
A Can of Beer, a Radio – and Thou
Beside me half asleep in Brockwell Park
And Brockwell Park is Paradise enow.
At least he got the enow part right.