Thursday, April 14, 2011

NPM: Sousing, screwing, and science with Omar Khayyam

Tonight we will be taking a look at the work of Omar Khayyam (1048 - 1131): renowned Persian mathematician, scientist, philosopher, and poet. Mathematicians might best recognize him for his "Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra" and "On the Difficulties of Euclid's Definitions." As an astronomer, he devised a famous (though now lost) star chart and participated in the creation of the reformed Iranian calendar, which is still in use today. As a student of the Aristotelean tradition, he contributed to the philosophy of mathematics and purportedly worked for decades as an instructor of Avicennism. And as a poet, he wrote scores of ditties about getting shitfaced and macking it to rosy-cheeked ladies.

Guess which he's most famous for today?

The term "Ruba'i" is Arabic for quatrain; the plural form becomes Ruba'iyat. Hence, "The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam" simply means "The Quatrains of Omar Khayyam." (Note: Ruba'iyat is pronounced something like "ruby yacht.") As a poet, Khayyam is a lot like an early 1990s punk band: his stuff is really short and it all sounds the same, but it's a whole lot of fun.

In the 19th century, British poet Edward Fitzgerald introduced Khayyam to Western audiences by translating a big chunk of the Ruba'iyat into English. In the 20th century, scholars and poets Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs published their own translation, feeling that Fitzgerald's Victorian flourish and rhyme schemes didn't capture the original feel of the poems as accurately as they would like. Since I'm a fan of both translations, we'll be looking at a few selections from each.

(I remember a lecture by a young Russian academic who discussed the importance of translating poetry. Not just once, but over and over and over and over again. Each successive translation brings us to a greater understanding of the piece by placing it in a different perspective. The most simple aspect of this principle could be illustrated with the English translations of The Divine Comedy. By wedging the translated version into the terza rima rhyme scheme of the original Italian, the translator has to allow for inaccuracies and clunky language in order to reproduce the content of the original lines while adhering to a strict rhyme scheme that is much easier to follow in Italian than in English. By eschewing the rhymes and drafting a more direct and eloquent translation using, say, unrhymed iambics, the translator reproduces the content of the original fails to capture the musical form and feel of the original. By reading one or the other, you're missing out on something. Unless you feel like becoming fluent in Italian, your best bet is to read both versions and let one fill in the blank spots of the other.)

Without further ado...

Excerpts from
As translated by Edward Fitzgerald (1809 - 1883)

You know, my friends, how long since in my house
For a new marriage I did make carouse:
Divorced old barren reason from my bed,
And took the daughter of the vine to spouse.

Ah, fill the cup: —what boots it to repeat
How time is slipping underneath our feet:
Unborn to-morrow and dead yesterday,
Why fret about them if to-day be sweet!

Into this universe and why not knowing
Nor whence, like water willy-nilly flowing:
And out of it, as wind along the waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.

'Tis all a chequer-board of nights and days,
Where destiny with men for pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays
And one by one back in the closet lays.

Alike for those for who to-day prepare,
And those that after a to-morrow stare,
A muezzín from the tower of darkness cries
"Fools! Your reward is neither here nor there."

And this I know: whether the one true light,
Kindle to love, or wrath consume me quite,
One glimpse of it within the tavern caught
Better than in the temple lost outright.

And much as wine had play'd the infidel,
And robb'd me of my robe of honour — well,
I often wonder what the vitners buy
One half so precious as the goods they sell.

And when thyself with shining foot shall pass
Among the guests star-scatter'd on the grass,
And in thy joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made one — turn down an empty glass!

Excerpts from
As translated by Peter Avery (1923 - 2008) and John Heath-Stubbs (1918 - 2006)

Tonight I will make myself a tun of wine,
Set myself up with two bowls of it;
First I will divorce absolutely reason and religion,
Then take to wife the daughter of the vine.

The firmament secretly whispered in my heart,
'Do you know what sentence fate laid on me?
If my revolving were in my control,
I would release myself from this circling.'

If I'm drunk on forbidden wine,* so I am!
And if I'm an unbeliever, a pagan or idolator, so I am!
Every sect has its own suspicions of me,
I am myself just what I am.

Oh you without knowledge, the corporeal shape is nothing.
And this dome of the nine charted spheres is nothing:
Take comfort, in the place of being and decay
We are creatures of a single moment — also nothing.

Since all a man gets in this place of two doors
Is only a heart of sorrow and the giving up of life,
He who never lived a moment is happy —
That man is at peace whose mother never bore him.

Do not expect much of the world and live contented,
Ignore the good and ill that time brings;
Take wine in your hand and a sweet girl's tresses
For they quickly go and these few days do not last.

Get up and leave the passing world's regret,
Be glad and make a moment pass in glee:
If the world's nature had a hint of fidelity,
Your turn would not come for you at all, as it did for others.

Drinking wine and consorting with good fellows
Is better than practising the ascetic's hypocrisy;
If the lover and the drunkard are to be among the damned
Then no one will see the face of heaven.

Every now and then someone comes along saying, 'It is I.'
He arrives with favors, silver and gold, saying 'It is I.'
When his little affair is sorted out for a day,
Death suddenly jumps out of ambush saying, 'It is I.'

Khayyám, if you are drunk on wine, enjoy it,
If you are with the tulip-cheeked, enjoy her:
Since the world's business ends in nothing,
Think that you are not and, while you are, enjoy it.

Oh, cool! The Magic: the Gathering card I once used as a bookmark just fell out of my copy of the Fitzgerald text!

See you tomorrow, kids.

*Drinking wine is forbidden by the Koran and therefore outlawed in many Muslim societies. If Khayyam and Rumi's work is anything to go by, wine prohibition in the Muslim world evidently worked (or works, rather) about as well as marijuana prohibition in the West.


  1. How sad, no one seems to be commenting on your poetry articles.... reminds me of the intro/accompanying picture Erin Finnegan wrote for her second Shelf Life article

    Perhaps if you bolded the most important things you'd like us to read?

  2. Thanks for the suggestion, but I don't think I'll be doing that. Seems like it would suggest I undervalue my readers' intelligence.

    I'm mildly disappointed at the lack of comments, but I can't say I'm surprised. I think part of it might be that people aren't sure of how they should respond?