Looking Back on FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat

April 18, 2009

In the Telegraph, Tony Briggs considers the place of Edward FitzGerald’s once-beloved Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and laments how far it has fallen. He suggests a number of possible reasons for its dismissal by the “literary establishment”:

Has the poem proved too popular for its own good? Is it perhaps lightweight doggerel quickly seen through by experts? Does its origin (in translation) invalidate it as an independent work? Is The Rubaiyat affected by the way poetry is taught nowadays, with a ban on learning anything by heart?

He rejects all of these reasons, however, suggesting instead that the popularity of the verses in the first decades after their publication in 1859 — I memorized a few stanzas myself, as a child — has doomed them to obscurity, since “the academic world tends to be suspicious of anything that is widely enjoyed.” This seems to me a rather facile reason; Dickens and Shakespeare have suffered no such fate, although I suppose Briggs might argue that their work is of a genius surpassing FitzGerald’s, and thus exonerated from accusations of accessible mediocrity. Still, the popularity argument is a dubious one for me because it neatly lets the poetry itself off the hook. There is absolutely nothing about the stuff’s quality or content or cultural project or anything else, apparently, that would push FitzGerald’s work into obscurity.

This may be the undue weight of my well-ground ax pulling me in a predictable direction, but I do think the third question — “Does its origin (in translation) invalidate it as an independent work?” — also deserves some consideration. As Briggs notes, “For decades the poem was bedevilled by the question of translation. FitzGerald was castigated for having distorted the original verses through ignorance.” This sort of portrayal would inevitably influence our cultural memory of a work’s role. And anyway, what other work of translation have we welcomed into the English-language canon, besides maybe the Bible (the exception that proves all rules, it seems)? Keats may have attempted to induct Chapman’s Homer into the English-language poetic canon, but I’ve never encountered Homer studied as poetry in English.

FitzGerald’s verses start out at a disadvantage because of their status as translations, however liberal, and are then “bedevilled” by claims that on top of that they are bad translations. Given these handicaps, I hardly think that if even Briggs, the poem’s great defender, calls FitzGerald a poet “of the second rank,” the Rubaiyat would be a shoo-in to the English-language canon.



3 Responses to “Looking Back on FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat”

  1. mike Says:

    Dryden’s Aeneid is the big example I always think of when it comes to translations that are part of the English canon… But this may be because of my long-standing Vergil obsession? I’m guessing there’s an Ezra Pound translation or two that might qualify as well (maybe The Wanderer?).

  2. mike Says:

    Also I think that some works of literature do start out with two strikes against them (in the eyes of academic critics anyway) because of their popularity, or become unpopular in the academy after achieving wide popularity. The Lord of the Rings is the example I always think of here. A philosophically complex and *obsessively* detailed epic novel written in a frequently inscrutable mixture of archaic and colloquial English? You’d think the academy would eat that s*** up…

  3. exchangesjournal Says:

    Okay, Mike, you’re totally right that popular acclaim can diminish a work of art or pretty much anything else in the eyes of the academy, and I shouldn’t have suggested otherwise. Nevertheless, I still think it’s simplistic to suggest that popularity alone will get something tossed out of the canon. Maybe it happens sometimes but I would contend that, as you expressed it, popularity is a strike (or two) against a work, but probably not enough in and of itself to exclude something entirely. FitzGerald’s utter obscurity at this point seems to me much more likely due to the translation issues mentioned and perhaps also to a fear that older literature exoticizes foreign (particularly Eastern) cultures — to a reluctance to read Arab poetry through 19th-century white male eyes. Not that this is something I’ve contemplated in depth, blog posts being what they are, but these are some of the ideas that have occurred to me.

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