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Metaphor, translation, and autoekphrasis in FitzGerald's Rubaiyat.

Among the many virtues of Christopher Decker's edition of the FitzGerald Rubaiyat is its patient elucidation, not only of the various circumstances surrounding the text's multiple versions, but of what we can infer about the translator's equally various attitude toward his work. (1) Enthusiastic, torpid, apologetic, cavalier, across two decades and more between the first edition of 1859 and the final one of 1879 the anonymous agent who once signed himself in correspondence "Fitz-Omar" remains hard to read with assurance--by reason partly of a diffidence that was specific to the man's character, partly of ambivalences that haunt the translator's art generally. (2) But amid this history of many shifts and much effacement, across the variorum Rubaiyat there emerges an unswerving commitment that goes far toward explaining the work's extraordinary appeal. I mean FitzGerald's commitment to interpreting Omar Khayyam's quatrains not mystically but--in a term of FitzGerald's that becomes intriguingly complex--literally. The apparatus to each version he authorized sets at defiance all "Pretence at divine Allegory" (1859, p. 6), all trafficking "in Allegory and Abstraction" (1868, p. 35), all "Spiritual" decoction of what "is simply the Juice of the Grape" (1872, p. 67). Keeping faith with his Persian original meant, for FitzGerald, scouting any and all "Mysticism" that might distract from Omar's manifest aim, which his Victorian translator deeply embraced too. That aim was "to soothe the Soul through the Senses into Acquiescence with Things as he saw them" (1868, p. 31).

"No doubt," averred the preface of 1868, "many of these Quatrains seem unaccountable unless mystically interpreted; but many more as unaccountable unless literally" (p. 35). FitzGerald's literalist affirmation so often took a feisty form because it was embroiled from the start in a polemic against Omar Khayyam's allegorizers. They were a tribe who had been around a long time--medieval Christianity had nothing on medieval Islam when it came to wresting heretic texts into hermeneutic line--and had voluble representatives still during the nineteenth century, and even in Europe. Well before 1859 FitzGerald was politely differing with his young tutor in Persian studies, Edward Cowell, about how to take some of Omar's bitter pills, and then in 1868 he stepped into the public ring to square off against J. B. Nicolas, a French exponent to whom the poems were dark Sufi conceits disclosing an orthodox message after all. FitzGerald survived this challenge handily, but the question that lay behind it has gone on to survive him. It flared up again just a generation ago, when no less an antagonist than the poet Robert Graves placed before the public a defense and illustration of Omar's hidden and mystical meaning. The Original Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam: A New Translation with Critical Commentaries is a title whose every adjective bristles with polemic--and whose aggressively repossessive orthography prepares us to learn that counterattacks were soon mounted in polemical turn by harder-headed sons of Fitz. The latter have long since carried the day against the allegorically credulous Graves and his ignorant or unscrupulous informant, the Sufi mystagogue votary Omar Ali-Shah. (3)

I am spectacularly ill equipped to pronounce on the merits of this or any other matter pertaining to the astronomer algebrist with a nine-hundred-years-old name. But I can propose that his Victorian popularizer's firm commitment to taking old Omar at his word--taking him "literally," which is to say, in part, linguistically--had, as its cardinal literary consequence, a mode of poetic presentation to which the Rubaiyat has owed the breadth and longevity of its circulation among an anglophone public as "the most popular verse translation into English ever made" (Decker, p. xiv). For in FitzGerald's freely translating hands the this-worldly, bodily thematics of the poem found consistent correlates in its poetics. Without the rhetorical and prosodic vehicles that FitzGerald contrived for it, his translation would long ago have exhausted its capacity to shock readers or delight them either. These poetic devices are as textually materialist, performative, and signifier-focussed as the poem's themes are philosophically materialist, hedonist, and bound to the orbit of physical experience. I shall pursue here this mutually reinforcing relation between theme and method with respect to three topics: FitzGerald's handling of metaphor, his stance toward translation, and his habitual practice of a reflexive self-reference that annuls, within the performative poetic moment, those binary distinctions which ordinarily ground our thinking about metaphor and translation alike.


Start with metaphor, and the trouble it portends for even a fairly relaxed interpretive literalism. By definition as by etymology, metaphor is a rhetorical figure that finds meaning in transit from what is overtly said to what is covertly meant; and to this extent it participates in the letter/spirit dualism of allegory, enshrined now in general usage as the distinction between vehicle and tenor. (4) Yet Khayyam's fondness for metaphor--compounded by Romanticism's heavy metaphorical investments, which the Spasmodist craze of the 1850s had lately inflated to the bursting point--obliged FitzGerald despite his proclaimed hostility to metaphor to use the trope prominently. His first gambit was defensively offensive: he worked that prominence for all it was worth and then some. Within both the structural sequence of the text and its evolution across the decades from edition to edition, Fitz metaphorized like gangbusters, so as to bankrupt the allegorical tendencies of metaphor by overindulgence:
 Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
 Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
 And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
 The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light. (1859, I)

Coming as it does from an 1850s poem, this quatrain might not unfairly be described as spasmodic. Philip James Bailey, Alexander Smith, Sydney Dobell, and their numerous admirers (including Tennyson, Clough, even their later assailant Matthew Arnold in salad days) would have known how to ooh and ahh at the exclamatory fireworks of such an opening salvo. (5) And we can easily imagine the still-youthful Pre-Raphaelite Brothers, who adored the first Rubaiyat, dubbing these lines stunners.

Headstrong, with a nice brain-candy buzz, each conceit in the quatrain goes its own way. True, there is a lot of centripetal prosodic force at play here, a sheerly phonemic noosing that reins in the outward splashiness of the plunging imagery: in line 2, the chiasmus of "flung"--"Stone"--"Stars"--"Flight," and thereupon the flickering identity of this last word with the cinching rhyme "of Light" at stanza's end. Likewise, as visual figures the "Bowl" and the "Noose" both sweep horizontally around a focal point; but the circle they present to the mind is anything but hermeneutic, since the metaphors don't add up, or really have anything in common but (the spasmodist's constant friend) the element of surprise. While they share the binary, othering riddle structure of allegory--declaration : implication : : question : answer--the puzzles they pose are of a kind to be readily solved by the mind's eye and then discarded in favor of the next puzzle in line, which in this case is the equally prepossessing yet quickly exhausted trope of "Dawn's Left Hand" from stanza number two. The very extravagance of these early metaphors, with their rapid-fire delivery and ready solubility, militates against the mystic contemplation of hidden truths. One reason why, in decoding them, we pass so swiftly from the signifier to the signified is that in each case the signified is such a common phenomenon: the most everyday thing in the world, the definitively quotidian rising of the sun. If this be allegory, it is allegory on the shortest and most trivial of terms: visionary rather than mystic writing, it neither invites nor rewards the gaze of second sight.

FitzGerald backed off from this kind of hyperkinetic riddling in 1868 --when the "Stone" and "Bowl" both vanished and the "Noose of Light" paled to a more conventionally Apollonian "Shaft"--and further off again in 1872. In making these changes he acted consistently with the tessellated poetic plot that had unfolded even in the version of 1859. For that first version had found a different way of converting metaphor to purposes that an allegory-aversive literalist might endorse, a way that drew on metaphor's counter-trope metonymy. Metaphor, as classically analyzed, effects a kind of conversion: an instantaneous transformation of the vehicle into its tenor, of the thing declared into its undeclared but understood meaning. This transubstantial mystery is ultimately eucharistic in its significance for a Western audience--something that FitzGerald's wine-dark import of a poem never forgets. But in this work the metaphysics of a metaphorical poetics of conversion are expressly countered by the physics of a metonymical poetics of reversion. Here the paradigmatic transformation is what the poem names, with quite different resonance for the Anglican reader, a zero-sum transformation of "Dust into Dust" (1859, XXIII): the recycling of identity, the return of the inevitable same with no claim of value-added. (6) The phase of operation for this long-drawn relapse is not the metaphorical magical instant, but the fullness of time within which every instant is absorbed, where all instants are created equal, and every form must dissolve back into its original elements on the level.

This is preeminently the realist logic of mortality; and metonymy, as Jakobson long ago remarked, is its master trope, the figure that asserts the matter-of-fact contingencies of material existence in linear time, linking causes to effects, and processes to ends. En route, however, FitzGerald takes a special glee in tricking this master metonymy out as metaphor, only to demystify it:
 I sometimes think that never blows so red
 The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled;
 That every Hyacinth the Garden wears
 Dropt in her Lap from some once lovely Head.

 And this reviving Herb whose tender Green
 Fledges the River-Lip on which we lean--
 Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
 From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen! (1872, XIX-XX)

That blood-red roses and hyacinthine locks participate alike in a lethal ecology is a hard biochemical fact, which our sips of Omar's metonymic draught can nerve us not to forget. As for the second of these quatrains, it all but springs a metonymic trap on a metaphoric bait: the riverbank we fancied lip-like on account of an accidental downy resemblance discloses a more essential connection; the metamorphic pleasures of the surface yield to a physiological unity based deeper than allegory and its arbitrary, flimsy shape-shifting. (7) Distributed throughout the poem, such moments constitute a metonymic network articulating the lips of the poet with those of earthen urns and drinking cups (1859, XXXIV); articulating the exhalation of his grape-embalmed cognacky corpse with the "Air" that will influence his survivors in song (1859, LXVIII); and above all, or below it, articulating the human form with the clay it arose from and relapses to, as dust to dust. An anecdote newly footnoted in 1872 corroborates this last articulation of body with clay: there a thirsty traveler learns that "the Clay from which the Bowl is made was once Man; and, into whatever shape renew'd, can never lose the bitter flavour of Mortality." (8) What's the matter, then, with metaphor? Matter's the matter, replies FitzGerald. "Into whatever shape renew'd," the metaphoric transform meets its match, indeed its enabling condition, in the intransubstantiability, the counter-eucharistic declension, that underlies substance as such.

This bedrock realist vision of fatal continuity lets metonymy sponsor the most extended passage of allegorical writing in the Rubaiyat, the so-called "Kuza-Nama" section (1859, LIX-LXVI: the name, omitted in later editions, means "writing about jugs"). Here colloquizing pots stand in for the mortal sons of Adam (whose name in its Semitic root means "earth" or "clay"), inconclusively speculating as they will about the power that made, or should we say threw, them. The basis for lumping human stuff with ceramic has by this late point in the poem become well enough established to make of this comic section an ironic allegory of allegoresis. Shooting the theological breeze, FitzGerald's pot-heads are allegorical figures for those who, since they literally cannot know what they are talking about, are unwitting allegorists trading in potted thought, the idle postulation of received ideas that are ungrounded, untestable, equivalently nil--and soon exposed, once the Ramadan fast is over, as a pretext for killing time until the pubs open and a good fellow can tank up. (9) At roughly the level of allegory that breathes a short life into most editorial cartoons, FitzGerald assembles here from Omar's rubai shards a reductive performance of the all-too-human tendency to entertain questions beyond human wielding. The pot's absurd (and unanswered) interrogation of its potter is what FitzGerald derided as a "Pretence at divine Allegory," no different in kind from the Sufic or idealizing flight out of circumstance into "Abstraction" against which he launched his preface to each edition. It is a nice touch, then, that Khayyam's "loquacious Vessels" (1872, LXXXIII) should be vessels indeed. Metaphorical vehicles, their tenor is the flatulent jalopy of metaphor itself: a contraption to think with, but not very well, and at all events of no more use in Fitz-Omar's book than mere thinking ever proves to be.

The subversion of metaphor from within bespeaks FitzGerald's impatience with metaphor's impatience, its hunger to make change in a hurry.

This needy rhetorical ardor forms the target of the ironic if hypogrammatical stanza XLIII:
 The Grape that can with Logic absolute
 The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute:
 The subtle Alchemist that in a Trice
 Life's leaden Metal into Gold transmute. (1859, XLIII) (10)

The history of controversy over Omar Khayyam's worldview shows how indifferently the parties of Sufi and of scoffer have invoked irony to explain away unfriendly evidence. (11) Still, there is good cause to believe that, in context, the absolute instantaneousness of alchemy in this quatrain can only be a joke. The hope must be drunk that in 1859, the very year of Darwin and heyday of Victorian liberal gradualism, puts much stock in anything that happens "in a Trice." To credit the magic of transmutation is to be swept away by the Bacchic alchemy of alcohol or--same difference--the viewless wings of that metaphoric poesy which FitzGerald here sends up. A more sober assessment of the prospect for fool's gold has been furnished thirty stanzas before:
 And those who husbanded the Golden Grain,
 And those who flung it to the Winds like Rain,
 Alike to no such aureate Earth are turn'd
 As, buried once, Men want dug up again. (1859, XV)

The place of humanity lies not with the philosopher's stone, but within the cyclical economy whereby "Golden Grain" and "aureate Earth" produce and consume one other. In this process a man is but a middleman, "turn'd" to earth whether his hand harvests or scatters seed, directs the swerving plow (that old metaphor for verse-writing itself) or rots in the grave. In each case the "turn" bespeaks reversion not conversion, metonymy not metaphor. Nothing is transmuted after all but what is transmitted, in a slow, piecemeal, stepwise rhythm which the annual turning of the soil represents, which the enjambed turning of the last two verses enacts, and which an ear attuned by Garrett Stewart's fine book Reading Voices will hear as the phonotextual identity of the stanza's first rhyme: "like Rain" in the second line sounds enough like "Grain" above it to make FitzGerald's point: Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. (12) Which is also a point that the poem's aaxa rhyme scheme reinforces: "absolute"--"confute"--"Trice"--"transmute"; "Grain"--"Rain"--"turned"--"again." A reader habituated to couplets expects the x rhyme, the sound that terminates each third-line pentameter, to come back in line four and sew the stanza up, conveying in the process a sense that we are going somewhere in our stride from couplet to couplet. But not so: we get instead a third a rhyme that remands us to square one and reproves our illusion of progress as just that, a metrical illusion. (13)

The translator's tempered effect here is a far cry from the splashy spasmody of his opening quatrain, but its more enduring voice is one that a perusal of Decker's long first appendix ("Comparative Texts") shows the translator striving again and again to secure. Thus one juicy line of 1868, "But still a Ruby gushes from the Vine" (V), eventually mellowed to the more subtle and gradual 1879 reading, "But still a Ruby kindles in the Vine." (O for a draught--revised--of vintage!) Where the former reading is in your face, the latter dwells in your mind. Less nose, we might say, but a stronger finish, a more lasting because a more literal truth. The "Ruby" of 1868 is a raw metonymy that can only trope red grapes, and properly not even the wine they may become. But the "Ruby" of 1879 is a quality organic to the plant from seedling to maturity, spring to fall, and root to branch to fruit to beverage. Those with an earthy eye to viniculture will farsightedly discern wine's red essence in the fullness of the processional, endlessly cycling rehearsal of change which it expresses, and from which it is expressed. So it is with poetic composition in this very quatrain: over maturing time, a rubai kindles too.


That last, illegitimate pun precipitates our second topic, translation, where we shall again find Fitz-Omar nailing his colors to the mast of form. In one obvious sense, translation is a rock on which any thesis about literalism must split, since to the literally literalist eye translation, especially of poetry, is impossible. Interdit. Verboten. Tabu. Don't even think about it. And yet we can't help thinking about it. Like allegory and metaphor--the latter, remember, was taken over from Greek into Latin as translatio--translation entails conveyance from one system of meanings into another. As the literally given stands to the allegorically figured and the vehicle to the tenor, so stands more or less the translator's target language to the source language of the author: within each of these pairings, we ordinarily suppose, a reader transacts with the former so as to get at the latter. Furthermore, translation is called for only where cultural or historical distance has made systems of meaning so mutually unintelligible as to disqualify in advance even the modified literalism of a transcriptive decoding. So the translator has no choice but to go figure.

This objection is immovable, but FitzGerald implied a detour around it in a letter of 1859 to his collaborator Cowell: "I suppose very few People have ever taken such Pains in Translation as I have: though certainly not to be literal. But at all Cost, a Thing must live." (14) This sails close enough to the wind of St. Paul's mischievous if indispensable plea, about the letter that killeth while the spirit giveth life, that we should try to be clear where FitzGerald expected the life of a translation to transpire. He helped us out by what comes next in his letter: the thing needful was "a transfusion of one's own worse Life if one can't retain the Original's better. Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle" (Letters, 2:335). Translation had to make its living in the work's new linguistic and cultural habitat, where it must breathe the spirit of the age yet where, in order to do that without risk of total assimilation, it must also cleave to a certain core of identity, something unassimilably its own. For the most celebrated of translations into English from Middle-Eastern sources, the King James Bible, such a residuum of unalienated identity was preserved through a stubborn semantic fidelity ultimately rooted in pious veneration. (15) For the Rubaiyat, however, FitzGerald had no such veneration nor anything like the degree of competence in Persian studies that would have been required in order to practice such veneration had it existed.

"But at all Cost, a Thing must live." FitzGerald's translation found its modus vivendi in a stubborn allegiance, not to meanings, but to certain more or less arbitrary importations of form. A most conspicuous example of this formal allegiance is one that we were just considering: Omar Khayyam's highly effective, conspicuously un-English aaxa quatrain. FitzGerald made no secret of the way he "mashed," stretched, cut and reshuffled the contents of Khayyam's quatrains ad libitum. (16) Nevertheless, by sticking like a limpet to the proportions of the rubai form itself, he embraced as a principle of unity the functional equivalent of a persistent foreign accent. (17) In the process, he implicitly entered the lists in a robust mid-Victorian debate about how poetry written in other languages ought to be translated into English. This debate possesses great inherent interest, has lately attracted scholarly attention, and deserves still more. (18) It matters especially because so much was at stake, at more or less the time the Victoria and Albert Museum was going up down in South Kensington, in the question of the rights and duties--import duties, for such they were--attendant on the manner in which the world's fast-imperializing superpower went about looting, or was it after all rescuing, the ages and the climes. The most durable entrant in this debate was Matthew Arnold, who in the polemics he would gather as On Translating Homer constrained the translator to make proper Englishmen of all the world. (19) Although FitzGerald threw no punches in this mid-century fracas, his quiet and persistent implication in the Rubaiyat lay on the other side with Arnold's antagonists. Like D. G. Rossetti in translating Dante--Rossetti who adored the Rubaiyat early, and played a part in its dissemination once his friend Whitley Stokes had discovered it languishing unsold on the bookstall--FitzGerald respected the strangeness of his original, its resistance to Englishing. (20) He agreed, that is, with the aim articulated by Arnold's chief opponent in the Homer controversy, F. W. Newman, who had sought in his eccentric 1856 translation of the Iliad "to retain every peculiarity of the original ... with the greater care, the more foreign it may be." (21)

At a related level of interlinguistic commerce, to which the Decker edition again offers sumptuously well-appointed guidance, the translator of the Rubaiyat sprinkled his English text with a double handful of Persian terms. These unassimilated linguistic forms the canny Fitz-Omar did not translate, but merely transliterated--not always consistently from edition to edition either, and often with pretty capricious support in his supposedly elucidatory footnotes. The twofold effect of this peekaboo assistance was, first, to throw the dependent reader back for pronunciation help on the authority of the metrical quatrain, which in practice never does betray the tongue that trusts it; and, second, to keep the reader indeterminately suspended between two languages, two cultures, two histories. In all likelihood the sometimes threadbare quality of FitzGerald's annotation evinced lacunae in his learning, at least circa 1859. But, if he came to know his scholar's business better by 1879, he also knew his translator's business better than to disturb the delicate balance of managed anxiety in which a little learning, but only a little, had happily left his reader: in English, in fashionable synch with a modern temper of urbane disillusion, yet also in a limbo removed, as FitzGerald said, "from Europe and European Prejudices and Associations." (22)

Somewhere between source and target, cut off alike from the security of a European home and from the authority of a Persian origin, the reader of the Rubaiyat learns to live not lost in translation but, so to say, found in transmission. The felt pulse and ratio of an antique verse form, and the visual saliency of FitzGerald's odd, improbable transliterations, help explain what Charles Eliot Norton meant from America when hailing the poem as "not a copy, but a reproduction, not a translation, but the redelivery of a poetic inspiration." (23) Never mind that promissory note of "inspiration": better take the cash and let the credit go, stressing the descriptive rightness of Norton's "reproduction" and "redelivery" as names for the performative presence of the FitzGerald version. Somewhat as we have seen metonymy supervene on metaphor within the rhetorical tactics of the poem, so the transmission of the text conditions its translation, in such a way as to keep it from ever fully arriving, ever seeming fully accommodated at all. (Such resistance to Western naturalization surely ranked among the effects of this Victorian best-seller to which Ezra Pound paid homage half a century later when transmitting in radiant shards, with a poet's kind of faith in language's literal power, the farther Eastern matter of Cathay. (24))

One sign of an intention consistent with this betwixt-and-betweenness is FitzGerald's own redescription of the work on successive title pages. In 1859 it was "Translated into English Verse," but in 1868 and thereafter "Rendered into English Verse"--a more processive, performative verb, and one that, while still Frenchy, feels more native than the fully Latinate "Translated." Another such sign is the perverse-seeming use, consistent across all FitzGerald's versions, of roman rather than arabic numerals to designate each quatrain: translatio imperii indeed! Yet another sign is the poem's last word, "TAMAM," which means "the end" but is nowhere glossed as that or anything else in any of FitzGerald's editions. That a Persian term should signify the reader's arrival at the English terminus keeps the transit of translation permanently incomplete.
 A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries
 "Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There!" (1859, XXIV)

And that is just where we want our reward to be: neither out here in the modern West nor over there in the medieval East, but in the midst of things, where a translated "Thing must live," without dwindling into the dead letter of total comprehension or evaporating into mute, inscrutable intentionality. (25)


This transmissive utopia of interpreted semiosis, if it really lay nowhere but in the conceptual vacuum of the double negative, would be worse news poetically speaking than the "Allegory and Abstraction" that FitzGerald always derided. So let us now look again and see that it indeed does lie somewhere, and that this somewhere is the space of the poem made livable--inviting to visit and hard to leave--by an habitual practice of textual self-referentiality. I have argued elsewhere that the social pressure nineteenth-century poets faced, under new conditions of anonymously brokered publication and expanding literacy, put extraordinary stress on their handling of the formal resources of verse and trope in print; and that this stress sometimes imploded into modes of what I call "autoekphrasis." (26) In autoekphrasis a poem's description of structures in the referential world doubles as description of its own structures. These are thereby reinforced as ad hoc imaginative common places, where readers however diverse and faceless may convene and, at least for the spacetime of a reading, dwell. In the extremity of such autoekphrastic adaptations, probably no nineteenth-century work outdoes the anonymously published Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. FitzGerald seems to have let no occasion slip for making a line, a stanza, a brace of Rubaiyat its own subject, performing within the space of the page or the interval of recitation an allegory of reading whose content and form coalesce and whose meaning is, literally, itself.

For example--and in such a matter examples are everything--the poem repeatedly figures its frustration with allegorical mysticism in tropes of impasse: "There was a Door to which I found no Key" (1859, XXXII), the poet gazes in vain "up to Heav'n's unopening Door" (1868, LIV), and so on. Passages about blocked passages have a prima facie Wordsworthian appeal, which FitzGerald heightens and customizes by attaching the trope of the door to that of the dwelling, the room, or (suitable to Omar Khayyam's artisanal calling as tentmaker) the tent. To recall that stanza means room, while reading in stanza XXII (1859) about the dead that "we ... now make merry in the Room / They left," is to reflect at once on Omar's theme of life's brevity and on the vivid durability of a form like the foursquare rubai he "left" (quit in bequest) to heirs like FitzGerald. Such a form is no less durable for being portable. On the contrary, "a Tent wherein may rest / A Sultan" has the better chance of traveling across centuries and continents, when "The Sultan rises, and the dark Ferrash / Strikes, and prepares it for another guest" (1868, LXX). (Curious about that Ferrash? A servant of some kind, by reliable inference; but, as the text gives no gloss, he remains a dark conceit, an undocumented worker, the servant of two master languages and thus, in a sense, fully commanded by neither.)

By such means autoekphrasis finds the tented text a local habitation resilient and transient in equal measure. If we bear in mind the clinching effect of the rubai quatrain's delayed but sure-returning aaxa rhyme, to read a stanza like the following is to feel how a skeptic's bitter draft may hold in solution the artificial sweetener of form:
 Myself when young did eagerly frequent
 Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
 About it and about: but evermore
 Came out by the same Door as in I went. (1859, XXVII)

Even as the last line snaps off the light of wisdom, its rhyme--coming out by the same "ent" ending it went in by in line one--wittily spotlights the stanza itself as the chamber of a different enlightenment, with other and wiser claims of its own. This I suspect is what the poet means in contrasting his wisdom to the Sufi's: "Of my Base Metal may be filed a Key, / That shall unlock the Door he howls without" (1859, LV). The joke, again, is at alchemical allegory's expense: the elusive key to the Rubaiyat lies not in some distant-drumming golden wisdom at which the form gestures, but rather in the poet's craft that files verbal matter into form. Right here, in the first place, which is the place of the text, rings the true metal, with what the final quatrain of 1868 called the "silver Foot" of its passing iambic (CX).

Where rhymes are doors and stanzas rooms, we can see the sequence of joined and readjusted quatrains as a type of what FitzGerald called at one point "this batter'd Caravanserai / Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day" (1859, XVI). And I do mean type; for the poem's most sustained autoekphrases depict and envoice printed textuality. Jet ink and white paper are the "alternate Night and Day" that mark time to measured lineation; and "this Chequer-board of Nights and Days" (1868, LXXIV) that is the Rubaiyat fairly declares itself to be patterned squares of text, "Play'd in a Box" (1859, XLVI) that figures, in inlaid replication, a whole set of nested structures: the ruled line that measures beats, the neat quatrain that orders lines, the "'pretty Page'" (p. xxxvii) that arranges quatrains, and the fine art-press book that binds pages. No wonder FitzGerald described his work in terms of mosaic craft, "most ingeniously tesselated into a sort of Epicurean Eclogue in a Persian Garden." (27) When autoekphrastic conditions are right, the very characters of typography can become characters in a textual drama, choral players declaiming their alphabetic and prosodic condition:
 We are no other than a moving row
 Of visionary Shapes that come and go
 Round with this Sun-illumin'd Lantern held
 In Midnight by the Master of the Show. (1868, LXXIII)

With the astonishing opening couplet FitzGerald's anti-allegoresis goes skyhigh, or rather hits absolute zero. Its assertion is, literally, literal. What you get is what you see, and what you see is what you read, as the act of the eye sets into motion a row of type shapes whose coming and going--entering and exiting focus, forever eligible to return recombined in the next alphabetic string--is what the activity of reading primally activates. (A circumstance brought under higher magnification, no doubt, when you are Englishing left-to-right an alphabetic original whose characters run, as Persian does, from right to left.) This kinetoscopic space of the text, which is "neither Here nor There" yet before our very eyes, is where all the meanings start. And to stray too far from this space--say, to mistake its expressly "visionary" character for a mystic veil--is to forfeit the pleasures that make the text worth reading over.

"We are no other than a moving row/Of visionary Shapes that come and go." I am not so dazzled by the autoekphrastic aspect of the Rubaiyat as to deny that this couplet and others like it operate as metaphors for that disenchanted passivity which Fitz-Omar's keen sense of human transiency famously evokes. Of course they do; and on the reader who doesn't get that cool epicurean point the poem has been wasted beyond my powers of critical revival. My purpose here is to reaffirm that the passage of metaphor is a two-way street, and so to keep clear the route back to the material literality of a poem that has won so many lovers by offering to make them happy there, and by repeatedly making that offer good. To the readerly pleasures of the familiar text Decker's exhibit of "Comparative Texts" adds scholarly pleasures similar in kind if different in degree, such as the quatrains CVI and CVII that FitzGerald freshly introduced into the version of 1868. The first of these quatrains petitions for a rewrite of the page in the "Book of Fate" that has our name on it; and, as fate would have it, the quatrain was rewritten, completely--three times, in fact, as the poet struggled over various proof passes four years later. Quatrain CVII prefers, in blacker mood, to "cancel from the Scroll" our name altogether; and it was, sure enough, canceled at once and is missing from every subsequent edition. Now that we talk of canceling, enough time has elapsed since the event to warrant here a reminder about the last American President but one, as of this writing. A quondam Rhodes Scholar enmeshed in certain amatory difficulties, William Jefferson Clinton quoted for the press corps during his hour of need, in the firm expectation that they would get it--it's the metonymy, stupid--the following lines:
 The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
 Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
 Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
 Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it. (1868, LXXVI)

Well, maybe a word: the 1859 edition of these memorable lines (LI) reads thy for your; the 1868 edition in effect enlarges the address from confessional advice into oratorical rhetoric that, invoking the piety, wit, and tears not of an individual but of you-all, seems suited to publishers and presidents alike. (29)

These last instances are scholarly arcana, admittedly, but the pedantic fun they offer is not different in kind from the textual pleasure for which FitzGerald took "such Pains" on the common reader's behalf. Through closed-circuit feedback loops of theme and form, he made his prosody a subliminal plug for his message, even as the epicurean discipline of that message constituted a virtual manual for the student of his technique with eyes to see and ears to hear. The result is a poetic translation that comes close after all to meeting the impossible criterion of translational literality from which we began. However broad its departures from the letter of what Omar Khayyam wrote, the poem reads like a literal rendition of itself, message and form concurrently glossing each other. FitzGerald's Rubaiyat remains "a Thing"--a textual object--that "must live." To be sure, "The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one" (1868, VIII); yet the poem abides, "shrouded in the living Leaf" (1868, XCVIII), which is the "fairer leaf" (1868, CVI) of "Youth's sweet-scented Manuscript" (1859, LXXII) or of (oh why not?) "A Book of Verses underneath the Bough" (1872, XII). As everybody knows who knows even one rhyme of FitzGerald's--jug of wine, loaf of bread, and "Thou / Beside me singing in the Wilderness"--the sweet-leaved, long-lived space beside Omar and underneath the bough is "Paradise enow!" That space is the semantically labile spot of time where you can no longer tell whether textuality tropes life or life textuality, where art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and where poetry becomes, by virtue precisely of its absorptive momentaneousness, "the Pastime of Eternity" (1868, LIII). At least for the time being it does; and that, in Victorian Paradise, will just have to do.


Many thanks to Susan Wolfson for e-mail tutelage years ago on pertinent themes, to Jahan Ramazani for marginalia friendly and acute, and especially to Erik Gray for enabling both the original oral delivery of my argument and its publication now--not to mention numerous discreet saves, in point of scholarship, at the eleventh hour.

(1) Edward FitzGerald, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: A Critical Edition, ed. Christopher Decker (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1997). Subsequent citations of the poem are to this edition, parenthetically indicated by edition year (arabic) and quatrain number (roman).

(2) Letter of September 15, 1876 to Anna Biddell, in The Letters of Edward FitzGerald, ed. Alfred McKinley Terhune and Annabelle Burdick Terhune (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980), 3:704. This author's literary profile-in-camouflage is too well suited by the portmanteau name "Fitz-Omar" to let Graves's heckling usage (see note 3 below) spoil it for the rest of us. See Erik Gray, "Forgetting FitzGerald's Rubaiyait," SEL 41, no. 4 (2001), on "FitzGerald's Menardian knack for writing someone else's poem. Borges is not alone in refusing to ascribe it either to FitzGerald or to Omar: librarians have had the same dilemma, and anyone looking for editions or references is almost invariably required to look under both names" (p. 772).

(3) The Original Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam: A New Translation with Critical Commentaries, trans. Robert Graves and Omar Ali-Shah (Garden City: Doubleday, 1968). Various papers discrediting the alleged twelfth-century "original" (allegedly secreted with the All-Shah family in the Hindu Kush) are collected in Translation or Travesty? An Enquiry into Robert Graves's Version of Some Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Abingdon: Abbey Press, 1973) by John Bowen, who traveled expressly to Kabul for purposes of verification. That Bowen's "final letter" in the controversy (The Listener, August 3, 1972) was regarded as indeed final appears from the silence on the matter observed thereafter by an interested party, the Cambridge scholar Peter Avery. Having endorsed the 1973 expose in an introductory note, Avery when publishing his own new translation The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam with John Heath-Stubbs a few years later made no mention of Graves (London: Allen Lane, 1979). Avery does, however, underscore what the extinguished controversy highlights for us here: FitzGerald was "an exception among nineteenth-century explorers of Persian poetry, because he was not looking for a spiritual solace which, in any event, his profound scepticism would have precluded. He was clear in his grasp of the often very austere and unconsoling message" (p. 18).

(4) The term descends to us via classical and neoclassical rhetoricians from the Greek metapherein ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], to carry over), which has also, to the surprise of literary travelers but aptly, yielded metaphor as the modern Greek word for a truck or lorry.

(5) See the recent special issue of VP (42, no. 4 [2004]), guest-edited by Charles LaPorte and Jason Rudy, devoted to "Spasmodic Poetry and Poetics." FitzGerald's diary letter to Cowell of June 23-July 2, 1857 shows him free-associating as he puzzles over these tropes in the original (Letters, 2:280).

(6) See Gray, especially pp. 775-777, on the "recycling" relation among the poem's vaguely amnesiac stanzas in their rhyme-words, sequencing, and strangely pleasurable traffic in body parts.

(7) David Sonstroem, "Abandon the Day: FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam," VN 36 (1969): 11, explores (and deplores) the poem's subversive metaphorics.

(8) Decker, p. 84n 14. The materialist consequence of FitzGerald's metonymic regard for the more typically metaphurized human body is registered at maximum strength by Daniel Schenker, "Fugitive Articulation: An Introduction to The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam," VP 19 (1981): 49-64. His description of the poem as "a veritable butcher shop of dismembered flesh" needs seasoning that Gray's remarks can provide (see note 7 above).

(9) The monist or uniform reduction of the soul to "a body built of clay in a clay-built house"--expressly introduced as a "metaphor" and swiftly dismissed as a "bad" one--had already occurred to FitzGerald's collegians as they conversed about metaphor in Euphranor: A Dialogue of Youth (London, 1851), p. 29: repr. in The Variorum and Definitive Edition of the Poetical and Prose Writings of Edward FitzGerald, ed. George Bentham (1902; repr. New York: Phaeton, 1967), 1:169. See also FitzGerald's compound note on the potter-and-clay topos, which by 1879 included an anecdote about a bake-faced old man known as "the 'ALLEGORY'" and reckoned by all in the village a half-wit (Decker, p. 114).

(10) Has interpretive ingenuity resolved the grammar of the last two lines? Presumably from exigency of rhyming, the final verb "transmute" lacks a proper subject, as e.g. my nonce variant "Can leaden Metal into Gold transmute" does not. The sense is plain enough, but the technical error found in every edition remains anomalous.

(11) Thus Graves explains away Omar's apparent heresy and blasphemy as instances of reductio ad absurdum that "imitate and follow up a false line of thought in order to demonstrate its shallowness" ("The Fitz-Omar Cult," in Original Rubaiyyat, p. 21).

(12) Garrett Stewart, Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1990). Although Stewart's argument makes no use of the Rubaiyat, his attention to Victorian poets on pp. 173-184, including FitzGerald's adored Tennyson, offers a context hospitable to what we are attempting here.

(13) Sonstroem disconsolately finds in the rhyme scheme a "metric metaphor for the poem's overall movement" (p. 12). As Gray puts it, "The return of the initial rhyme is like a resignation, a refusal to try to struggle with the new terms that have been introduced" (p. 774). We might draw out here, what Gray implies, that the rhyme's return is a re-signing or contractual confirmation, in the arbitrary materiality of the word, of the arbitrary materiality of the world.

(14) Letter of April 27, 1859, to E. B. Cowell, in Letters, 2:335.

(15) While FitzGerald could not share the faith of King James's biblical translators, he more than once admired their fidelity to the strangeness of the text and affirmed his wish to imitate it, "keeping so close to almost unintelligible idioms both of Country and Era" as did the King James, and "only using the most idiomatic Saxon words to convey the Eastern Metaphor" (Letters, 2:164, 119). See Stephen Prickett, Words and The Word: Language, Poetics and Biblical Inspiration (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), for appreciation, against a nineteenth-century intellectual context, of the virtuous literality of the King James Bible.

(16) "Many quatrains are mashed together: and something lost, I doubt, of Omar's simplicity": letter to Cowell of September 3, 1858 (Letters, 2:318).

(17) The Persian rubai consists of two lines subdivided into hemistichs and thus four parts--the Arabic root of the term means "foursome"---in which parts one, two, and four must rhyme. Thus FitzGerald's quatrain stanza while not technically a rubai is manifestly a faithful equivalent in form. See Avery's analysis, together with discussion of the cultural mobility the form enjoyed in Khayyam's day, in his 1979 Ruba'iyat, pp. 7-10.

(18) Lawrence Venuti, The Translator's Invisibility: A History of Translation (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 118-135. What Venuti calls "foreignizing" translation evidently applies to FitzGerald, of whom he is not however fond (pp. 188-189). See also, even though FitzGerald does not enter the discussion, Simon Dentith's Epic and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006), pp. 48-63.

(19) Matthew Arnold, On Translating Homer: Three Lectures Given at Oxford (London, 1861).

(20) On Rossetti's approach to translation, see Jerome J. McGann, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Game That Must Be Lost (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2000), pp. 33-38, 46-65.

(21) Francis W. Newman, Homeric Translation in Theory and Practice: A Reply to Matthew Arnold, Esq., Professor of Poetry, Oxford (London, 1861), p. xvi.

(22) In the quoted letter to Cowell of January 10, 1856, FitzGerald illustrates the principle "in Translation to retain the original Persian Names as much as possible--'Shah' for 'king' for instance--'Yusuf and Suleyman' for 'Joseph and Solomon,' etc." (Letters, 2:194).

(23) North American Review 109, no. 225 (1869): 575. Schenker's characterization of Norton's review is both discerning and provocative: "the exoticism of the work impressed him with the homeliness of its sentiments" (p. 52).

(24) See Christine Froula, To Write Paradise : Style and Error in Pound's Cantos (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 154-155, on the embedded Chinese characters in Pound's text and "the unassimilable difference" betokened by "their alien mode of representation." See also Venuti's caveat against Modernist translators' effacement of "the process of domestication by which the foreign text is rewritten to serve modernist cultural agendas" (p. 189).

(25) Not that Fitz-Omar's recalcitrant intermediacy escaped complicity with the lighter-fingered, cosmopolitan side of Victorian empire-building, or even meant to. The aesthetic exoticism that savored experience at one or two removes arguably facilitated, not only respite from the conqueror's toils, but the rough business of conquest as well. Unbelief such as the Rubaiyat expresses may well have made it easier now and then, during the last century and a half, for imperial functionaries to cultivate lethal detachment from those they had power to hurt; and a searching postcolonialist analysis of the poem, when we get one, should look into the matter--perhaps by way of a global reception-history. Still, the noncommittal ideological levitation that the FitzGerald translation performed remains a remarkable feat of cultural askesis. The difficulty of thinking through issues of translation to the contingencies of nation and ethnicity finds illustration in William Cadbury's "FitzGerald's Rubaiyat as a Poem," ELH 34, no. 4 (1967): 541-563. This essay, an exceptionally thoughtful contribution at a time when the poem was attracting bland notice if any, manages on the same page to praise the poet's fidelity "to things as they are ... and not to transcending man," and then to identify this difficult position with a "full and nonethnic humanity" (p. 563). Clearly in his day Cadbury's critical frame of reference was religious-existential. Just as clearly for us in literary studies today, if the "nonethnic" is not a "transcendental" concept, then we don't know what is.

(26) Herbert F. Tucker, "Of Monuments and Moments: Spacetime in Nineteenth-Century Poetry," MLQ 58, no. 3 (1997): 269-297; for further applications see Tucker, "Literal Illustration in Victorian Print," in The Victorian Illustrated Book, ed. Richard Maxwell (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 2002), pp. 163-208.

(27) Letter to Cowell of November 2, 1858, in Letters, 2:323. The same figure of tessellation occurs in a letter from the previous year (August 6, 1857; Letters, 2:294).

(28) As reported in the Washington Post for December 12, 1998, presumably from text furnished by the White House, the quatrain for reasons best known to the Oval Office prints "moving finger" in discreet lower case. The President's recitation was delivered, as seems right, in the Rose Garden.
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Title Annotation:Edward FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
Author:Tucker, Herbert F.
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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