Here with a little Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse -- and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness --
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
A pretty quatrain, isn't it? It's from Edward FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. FitzGerald's Rubaiyat can just barely be called a translation of a large collection of four-line poems attributed to the eleventh century Persian mathematician and philosopher Omar Khayyam. FitzGerald, in his own words, "mashed together" many quatrains, and given still further that FitzGerald put his translated quatrains in deliberate order and even had them run into each other sometimes, despite the fact that the originals were all stand-alone, it might almost be sensible to call FitzGerald's translation a separate work of art, inspired by and heavily based upon the original. Notwithstanding the looseness of the translation, it is undisputably the most popular one, perhaps because FitzGerald allows his more modern (Victorian) viewpoint to change the original somewhat, thereby creating something that resonates more strongly with us as an audience.
The word ruba'i, plural ruba'iyat, actually means 'quatrain', literally speaking; it's derived from the Persian word for 'four'. Traditionally, the first, second and fourth lines rhyme; sometimes (especially in earlier Persian poems) all four lines end in the same rhyme. Modern poems which continue the form for several stanzas occasionally use a form known as interlocking ruba'iyat in which the third line of one stanza rhymes with the first, second and fourth of the next.
You might think the final line of the verse I quoted above is hyperbole. However, FitzGerald continues:
Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet's Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Promise go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!
Were it not Folly, Spider-like to spin
The Thread of present Life away to win --
What? for ourselves, who know not if we shall
Breathe out the very Breath we now breathe in!
How much of FitzGerald's translation is in the originals? I found this literal translation by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs quite useful. There is one, for example, that runs as follows:
I need a jug of wine and a book of poetry,
Half a loaf for a bite to eat,
Then you and I, seated in a deserted spot,
Will have more wealth than a Sultan's realm
Or this one:
They say houris make the gardens of Paradise delicious,
I say that the juice of the vine is delicious,
Take this cash and reject that credit --
The sound of a distant drum, brother, is sweet
The literal translations can be quite beautiful in their own right. I particularly like this one:
The good and evil that are in man's heart,
The joy and sorrow that are our fortune and destiny,
Do not impute them to the wheel of heaven because, in the light of reason,
The wheel is a thousand times more helpless than you.
Exactly what we'd expect from a brilliant astronomer. Mind you, distinguishing which poems were actually written by Omar Khayyam himself is perhaps just somewhat less difficult than figuring out which fables were originally spoken by Aesop. To be sure, we have the apparent advantage of several works known to have been written by Khayyam. However, Khayyam's own writings on mathematics and philosophy say little of the sort of thinking given in the ruba'iyat. Indeed, his contemporaries speak of him as religiously orthodox -- and we could have predicted that from the simple fact that he died of old age. It is only after his death that we find writings which speak of him as heretical or dangerous, attributing poems to him such as this one:
Since the Upholder embellishes the material of things,
For what reason does He cast it into diminution and decay?
If it turned out good, why break it?
If the form turned out bad, whose fault was it?
FitzGerald saw Khayyam as a nonbeliever and hedonist with whom he could identify, but some have argued that Khayyam was a doubting believer. There is also a tradition among followers of Sufism that Khayyam was one of their own, and that the references to wine and such in his poetry are entirely metaphorical. The contradictions are strong enough that some have suggested that the poems were written by a different Khayyam who was then confused with the famed mathematician.
So it's partly FitzGerald's translation that makes these verses seem to cry across the centuries:
Ah, with the Grape my fading Life provide,
And wash my Body whence the Life has died,
And in a Windingsheet of Vine-leaf wrapt,
So bury me by some sweet Garden-side.
That ev'n my buried Ashes such a Snare
Of Perfume shall fling up into the Air,
As not a True Believer passing by
But shall be overtaken unaware.
Pretty, and more than pretty, aren't they?