My introduction to Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat was–like many good things in life–an accident.
I was required to take a keyboarding course. Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. After learning the basic strokes, I mostly typed the same literature passages over and over again, including several from the Rubaiyat. Like this one:
The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
I’m not sure how many times I typed that, but it was enough for me to remember Omar Khayyam’s name, if not his poetry. So I randomly picked up his Rubaiyat from a shelf at the library (I usually leave with more books than I ever intended) and took it home. I’m halfway through it now. And it–combined with the two apocalyptic novels I had originally intended to pick up–made for a somewhat sleepless night. Something about the rhythm of the individual rubaiyats themselves stuck to the part of my brain that produces cases of mental ADHD.
It certainly was not the message of the Rubaiyat. Omar Khayyam–and his (rather free) translator, Edward FitzGerald–held a fairly bleak view of life, creating the rather Epicurean fatalism that pervades the poems. G.K. Chesterton sharply critiqued Khayyam in Heretics, devoting a chapter to all of the reasons that all person should not drink wine out of despair.
Was Chesterton right? Yes. But the Rubaiyat is still worth reading–not just because it is a translation of Middle Eastern literature, but because it is a Victorian translation of Middle Eastern literature. Many Victorian writers found the Middle East fascinating. They viewed it as a place of sensuous, unearthly beauty (in my opinion, they mostly revealed that few Europeans really understood the Middle East at the time). But their impression, correct or not, influenced their poetry. Alfred Lord Tennyson, in particular, reflected some Eastern influences–his “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” is only one example. At one point, in fact, he was so caught up with the poem that he decided that he was going to learn Persian.
His wife disliked that idea and sent him off to learn badminton instead.