A jug of wine, and thou

ساقی| Cup bearer (Saghi)

The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam
translated by Robert Graves and Omar Ali-Shah.
Appendix: Edward Fitzgerald translation.
Penguin Books 1972 (1967)

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.
— Fitzgerald, 11 (1859 edition)

The collection of quatrains, or rubaiyat, attributed to Omar Khayaam (‘Omar the tentmaker’) have been made famous by Edward Fitzgerald’s English version, published in the middle of the nineteenth century, so much so that his rendition is what English-speakers usually think of whenever Rubaiyyat is mentioned. But it has long had a controversial aspect as misrepresenting what the poet is supposed to have both written and indeed meant.

And there is more. Fitzgerald, who wasn’t a Persian scholar but largely taught himself, working from dictionaries to produce the work associated with him, wasn’t as assiduous in conveying the sense of the quatrains as he may have been, and mixed and matched texts as suited his tastes, even stitching together lines from different quatrains. And when he couldn’t understand a word or phrase, he liberally interpreted it.

In the middle of the twentieth century the poet Robert Graves and the Sufi Omar Ali-Shah (Graves had worked with his brother Idries Shah) produced this annotated text in English, claiming it to not only present the original more accurately to an English-speaking audience but also to restore the poet’s Sufic credentials. Have they been successful?

Before I talk about the poetry or the Englishing of the text let me, as briefly as possible, mention the critical response to this volume when it first appeared. Ali-Shah and Graves’ contention was that they were working from a medieval manuscript in the Shah collection, and that the 12th-century poet’s rubaiyyat displayed subtle indications that Khayaam was a Sufi or Islamic mystic. (I use this text’s spellings of poet and poem for consistency.) However, Islamic scholars have disputed that Khayaam — who was a noted mathematician, astronomer and philosopher as well as a poet — was a Sufi, pointing to texts that suggest he was critical of or even inimical to Sufism; moreover there is a mystery concerning the manuscript that Ali-Shah said he’d produced his literal translation from and which Graves used to turn into a more poetic form.

The fact is that the alleged manuscript was never offered for examination by independent scholars, leading to suspicions that its claimed existence was a hoax. Secondly, experts pointed to similarities with the wording of precise verses an English polymath, Edward Heron-Allen, had chosen to include in his late 19th century literal translation, taken from a manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Compare this verse (not included by Fitzgerald) produced by Heron-Allen from the very start of his version with the verse numbered 110 in the Graves/Ali-Shah version:

If I have never threaded the pearl of Thy service,
and if I have never wiped the dust of sin from my face;
nevertheless, I am not hopeless of Thy mercy,
for the reason that I have never said that One was Two.
— Edward Heron-Allen, 1898

Though pearls in praise of God I never strung,
Though dust of sin lies clotted on my brow,
Yet will I not despair of mercy. When
Did Omar argue that the One was Two?
— Graves/Ali-Shah, 1972

Though Ali-Shah gave a general bibliography of Islamic texts, no such bibliography is given by Graves who seems to solely reference Edward Fitzgerald’s text, and then only to criticise it. I follow the critics who find this all highly suspicious, wondering if Ali-Shah merely gave his collaborator Heron-Allen’s translation to re-render in blank verse.

And yet the introduction and notes to this translation are correct to find fault with Fitzgerald’s version, first for its cavalier treatment of the medieval texts and secondly for its poor versifying. Fitzgerald was hamstrung by his attempts not only to produce quatrains of ten syllables each line, matching the medieval tradition, but also to stick to his chosen strict rhyming scheme, aaba. One of his more successful rhyming quatrains (16) goes thus, followed by the Graves rendition (17):

Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai
Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultân after Sultân with his Pomp
Abode his Hour or two, and went his way.

This ruined caravanserai, called Earth —
Stable of Day-with-Night, a piebald steed;
Former pavilion of a hundred Jamsheeds;
A hundred Bahrams’ one-time hall of state; …

However, I for one am less comfortable with Fitzgerald’s clumsy phrasing in his quatrain 46; compare Graves’ 44 which follows, and Heron-Allen’s equivalent, no 102.

And if the Wine you drink, the Lip you press,
End in the Nothing all Things end in — Yes —
Then fancy while Thou art, Thou art but what
Thou shalt be — Nothing — Thou shalt not be less.
— Fitzgerald

Khayaam, should you be drunk with love, rejoice!
Or bedded with your heart’s delight, rejoice!
Your end is no more than the whole world’s end.
Fancy yourself no longer there; then smile.
— Graves

Khayyam, if thou art drunk with wine, be happy,
if thou reposest with one tulip-cheeked, be happy,
since the end of all things is that thou wilt be naught;
whilst thou art, imagine that thou art not,—be happy !
— Heron-Allen

Fitzgerald’s rhyming just feels forced, and his given meaning too free: Graves’ rendering sticks with unrhymed decasyllabic lines, which I think work better than rhymed; and Heron-Allen’s literal version, though apparently accurate, seems to lack something in translation.

I am no scholar, let alone one with any familiarity with Persian poetry, Iranian history or Islamic studies. All I can say is that the many contentions surrounding what may be authentic verses by Khayaam, his alleged Sufic allegiance, and whether Victorian claims that he was an advocate of hedonism are based in reality, are each and every one matters beyond my whit of understanding. However, although Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat didn’t make an immediate impact it quite soon allowed new fans to indulge in a renewed craze for oriental exoticism, just at a time when the still-expanding British Empire had not long since contended with Iran in the Anglo-Persian War (1856-7).

These languid verses in praise of wine and roses, the doe-eyed houri and a cupbearer — Saki or Saghi — and deserts, and taverns, and potters’ workshops, all somehow struck a chord at the very height of Empire. Perhaps the end of Empire, a century later, helped encourage Graves and Ali-Shah to produce a different Rubaiyaat with their revisionist interpretation. But more than that, there is one final aspect of this slim publication I want to consider and conclude with.

Robert Graves was a writer with a not altogether trustworthy sense of humour. A novelist as well as a poet, one of his best known works, The White Goddess, was subtitled ‘a historical grammar of the language of poetic myth’ — a description which cunningly combined the illusion of factuality with a clear indication of creative thinking. Relying on his poetic intuition he made assertions about links between mythologies separate in time and space, claimed spurious etymological origins for similar sounding words, and recreated a universal prehistoric religion to his apparent personal satisfaction — but it is unclear whether he in fact believed any of it.

This ‘historical grammar’ (various editions appeared in 1948, 1952 and 1961) raised much controversy; and I suspect that a similar sense of mischief urged him to collaborate on The Rubaiyaat of Omar Khayaam a few years later. Whether he was aware of any subterfuge, if it existed, over Omar Ali-Shah’s missing medieval manuscript we may now never know. As for this particular publication, it seems to me that it is well past the time that I yield it up — I’ve had it for nigh on fifty years — for something more reliable.

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!
— Fitzgerald, 12 (1872 edition)

A gourd of red wine and a sheaf of poems —
A bare subsistence, half a loaf, not more —
Supplied us two alone in the free desert:
What Sultan could we envy on his throne?
— Graves, 12 (1972)

6 thoughts on “A jug of wine, and thou

    1. The final Fitzgerald quote is certainly old school poetic and isn’t bad until, and I quail at it, we get to the archaic ‘enow’ — it just spoils it for me, and all for the sake of a forced rhyme. I agree translation is complex, and I rather think that increases tenfold when it comes to poetry — how close to metre, rhyme, imagery, and alliteration, and how literal or accurate should it be?

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Like you I am wary of a lot of Graves’ assertions. Did you see the photo of him wearing a kind of turban? Playing at Sufism? He played free with all areas of knowledge.

    There is that ungainly ‘straddling’ of the sun rising over rooftops, at the beginning.

    Graves’ White Goddess was tidied up a little by Grevel Lindop a few year’s back. It’s one of those books, like Yeats’s Vision, and I suppose Ted Hughes’ Goddess of Complete Being. They are like late outpourings from the biggies of The Golden Bough (think of Casauban in Middlemarch?), Origin of Species, even Das Capital. They were like ‘theory of everything’ works.

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    1. Yes, I registered there was a edited reissue a little while ago but I haven’t bothered to replace my aging copy of The White Goddess as it’s there as a curiosity and occasional reference, like his volumes on Greek myths. (He did something similar with Hebrew myths, did he not?) And I agree that his is part of a megalomaniac tendency that some authors have, visionary almost so long as one takes what they offer with generous pinches of salt.

      I’m not a great reader of poetry, but I did like some of his short stories in The Shout, and I’ve got some essays of his published as The Crowning Privilege. Certainly an opinionated oddball who cultivated his eccentricity.

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  2. Fascinating! As an almost total monoglot I’m always intrigued by the question of how much of what I’m reading is the original author’s work and how much the translator’s, and I find comparing translations always just leaves me more bamboozled than before. All the way through this I was ready to say that, accurate or not, the Graves was the one that was calling to me most. Until that last verse, where I think the Fitzgerald translation is vastly superior – Graves’ sounds so dull and unpoetic in comparison.

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    1. I slightly regret not including a few of Graves’s happier renderings — the occasional felicitous turn of phrase or image, the odd alliteration — but I’m afraid they were outweighed in my estimation by the less than honest approach which had subsequently come to light.

      My smattering of modern Western European and dead languages meant I’m unable to comment on how close to the medieval Persian any of the Englished versions are, but I suspect Graves’s insistence on decasyllabic lines for his version led him to also compromise on le mot juste a few times here.

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