Issue 1 | Mini Essay | Three Creations of Omar Khayyam, by John Clegg
But nothing's lost. Or else: all is translation And every bit of us is lost in it… James Merrill
It’s a nice trick to get famous in two diametrically opposed fields, especially when the fame is as weird as Omar Khayyam’s, who isn’t primarily remembered for his work in mathematics – where his achievements are undisputed – but rather for his poetry, which he may never have written. The first references to him as an author of quatrains occur about 50 years after his death, and the earliest collections of his poems (compiled about 200 years after his death) are full of misattributions and doubtful attributions. A core of 16 or so quatrains appears to be the work of a single author from the proper time period, and maybe this is some or all of the real Khayyam, but maybe it’s someone else. In any case it’s the best kernel we have.
The first creation of Omar began sometime not long after he died. He had a reputation for unorthodoxy, perhaps undeserved; his philosophical treatises argue from a mystical Sufi perspective. After his death, anonymous verses which edged on blasphemy were attributed to him (in the same way as anonymous witticisms are often attributed to Oscar Wilde, or a huge body of existing proverbs was attributed to King Solomon). As these attributions piled up, the burgeoning reputation of Khayyam drew more and more material into its orbit (incidentally, Khayyam had described a heliocentric solar system decades before Copernicus). By 1600, collections of Khayyam’s poetry contained as many as 1000 quatrains. Omar was suddenly enormous and important; 16 quatrains, perhaps the work of an afternoon, had exploded into an oeuvre.
But the second creation of Omar is the more well-known. Borges described it best, with his usual technique of turning all literary history into a Borges story: ‘A miracle happens: from the fortuitous conjunction of a Persian astronomer who condescends to write poetry, and an eccentric Englishman who peruses Oriental and Hispanic books, perhaps without completely understanding them, emerges an extraordinary poet who does not resemble either of them.’ One effect of this was a smoothing out; as befits an anthology containing hundreds of authors, the original Rubaiyat didn’t hang together in any way. Fitzgerald added a narrative and, perhaps more importantly, a tone: not an artificial exoticism but a distinct London idiom, one of the reasons for his poem’s enduring popularity. (‘O, take the Cash in Hand and waive the Rest.’)
Over the next century came another creation: a wave of re-translations, correcting Fitzgerald’s egregious errors, sometimes presented as definitive (in the case of Robert Graves, with the backing of a forged manuscript and some phony scholarship), other times presented as additional (in the case of Frank Kuppner, say, whose version is for my money the best recent Rubaiyat). Sixteen short poems had become a thousand, which had become one long poem in a different language, which had become thirty-odd long poems from different authors. Working backwards it reminds me of the opening credits to the BBC’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: a series of Russian dolls climaxing in a doll without a face, and finally emptiness. As a mathematician, Khayyam’s greatest innovation was [x], the algebraic symbol for an unknown quantity.