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05/04/09

150-year anniversary of translation of Khayyam'sRubaiyat by Fitz Gerald

By  A. J. Cave

 

Up from Earth's center, through the seventh gate,

I rose and on the throne of Saturn sate,

And many knots unravel'd by the road,

But not the master-knot of human fate.

 

 

Many lovers of Persian poetry may recognize these lines as one of the famous Rubiyts of Omar Khayym, as translated by the 19th century British writer and poet, Edward Fitz Gerald (1809-1883).

 

But few might know that coordinates of 58.0 N, 102.1 W and colongitude of 104 at sunrise are the designation of a lunar crater on the far side from the Earth, named in 1970 after Hakim Omar Khayym (1048-1123), the Iranian astronomer, mathematician, philosopher, and yes, poet par excellence.

 

Among those who know are the Editorial Board of Scientia Iranica, International Journal of Science and Technology, published by Sharif University of Technology (SUT), who are offering "Omar Khayym Award" to the author of the best original technical paper submitted for their consideration by the engineers, researchers, scholars, and scientists globally.

 

Founded in 1991 and online since 1998, Scientia Iranica provides a scholarly forum for the presentation of original scientific works, and promotes broad, multi-disciplinary communication between scientists globally without regards to geographical boundaries, nationality, race or gender.

 

The rules for submission of papers are strict. Only original full papers, research notes and review articles are considered.  Papers are evaluated by an editorial review board, whose members are distinguished international scholars and professionals with outstanding reputations in their respective areas of expertise.  What matters the most is scientific excellence, dialogue and collaboration in fields of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Computer Science and Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Industrial Engineering.

 

The following quote, attributed to Fitz Gerald, nicely sums up goals of Scientia Iranica:

 

"Science unrolls a greater epic than the Iliad.  The present day teems with new discoveries in Fact, which are greater, as regards the soul and prospect of men, than all the disquisitions and quiddities of the Schoolmen.  A few fossil bones in clay and limestone have opened a greater vista back into time than the imagination ventured upon for its gods.  This vision of Time must not only wither the poet's hope of immortality, it is in itself more wonderful than all the conceptions of Dante and Milton."

 

Year 2009 marks both the 200-year anniversary of birthday of Edward Fitz Gerald and the 150-year anniversary of the first translation of Khayym's poetry by him.

 


Selected miniature editions of The Rubiyt of Omar Khayym, the largest of which is under three inches tall (publication dates ranging from 1900-1916)
Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center

 

 

Born to a prominent and wealthy Anglo-Irish family in Suffolk in 1809, Fitz Gerald took up study of Persian literature at the University of Oxford with a friend, Edward Cowell, in 1853. 

 

Reportedly, Fitz Gerald and Cowell stumbled on Omar Khayym's poetry.  Fitz Gerald was fascinated and Cowell encouraged him to take on the translation of the poems by suggesting that there was some connection between the Persia of Khayym and Ireland of olden years.

 

In 1857, Cowell discovered a set of Persian quatrains by Khayym in the Asiatic Society Library in Calcutta, India (modern Kolkata), and sent them to Fitz Gerald. 

 

Fitz Gerald embarked on the translation.  When refused by a publisher, about 250 copies of a little anonymous pamphlet was published as The Rubiyt of Omar Khayym on January 15, 1859, by Fitz Gerald himself. 

 

The poems did not attract much attention at first.  As Fitz Gerald boasted himself years later, his poetry pamphlet was an instant failure and ended up in the penny box in the bookstores.  Apparently a copy of the first edition sold for $8,000 at an auction in 1929.

 

In 1860, a number of British writers and artists discovered the anonymous pamphlet and started to promote and quote it, without knowing the writer.  Their circle of friends and readers started to search through London bookstores in search of the mysteriously tantalizing Rubiyt.

 

And the rest is history. 

 

Fitz Gerald published three more revised versions of The Rubiyt of Omar Khayym anonymously, finally fixing the number of quatrains to one hundred and one, selecting from among 1,000 to 2,000 verses attributed to Khayym in Persian. 

 

Fitz Gerald died in 1883 and the fifth edition of The Rubiyt of Omar Khayym was published posthumously in 1889 and is the only edition that bears Fitz Gerald's name.

 

The Rubiyt of Omar Khayym became so popular that by 1900 Omar Khayym Clubs reportedly gave dinner parties and celebrated Fitz Gerald's birthday.  Apparently a hand-illuminated copy on vellum and bound in inlaid leathers and jewels, valued at $5,000, went down with the Titanic in 1912.

 

While poetry of Khayym has been translated into many different languages by many admirers and translators since then, The Rubiyt of Omar Khayym of Fitz Gerald is arguably the best selling book of poetry in English.  It is said that Rubiyt influenced the late Victorian and Edwardian British poetry.

 

Although it is commonly acknowledged that Fitz Gerald's version of Rubiyt departs by various degrees from Khayym's Persian originals, the enormous success of Fitz Gerald's work broadened the appreciation of the incomparable beauty and essence of Persian poetry to a wider audience globally.

 

Hakim Omar Khayym, born in 1048 in Neyshapur, then capital of Seljuk Dynasty, in modern day Khorasan, was famous as a mathematician during his own life time, nearly a thousand years before he became a famous poet in the West through the hands of Fitz Gerald.

 

It is nearly impossible to cover the depth and breath of Khayym's fundamental contributions to and his impact on the science and mathematics throughout history here.  The followings are among numerous such contributions and represent only the tip of the iceberg of Khayym's genius.

 

In 1070, Khayym wrote the influential Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra, which laid down the principles of algebra, where he derived general methods for solving cubic equations and even some higher orders.

 

Khayym was the first mathematician to call the unknown factor of a mathematical equation x, transliterated, translated and abbreviated later from shiy meaning something.

 

In 1073, the Seljuk Sultan invited Hakim Khayym to build an observatory, which enabled Khayym and other eminent Iranian scientists to measure the length of the solar year as 365.24219858156 days (correct to six decimal places), with only a one-hour error every 5,500 years. 

 

In 1079, Khayym's work as an astronomer led to the creation of Jalali calendar which is the basis of the Iranian calendar used in Iran today.

 

In 1980, Soviet astronomer Lyudmila Zhuravlyova discovered the minor planet 3095 and named it omarkhayyam after Omar Khayym.

 

Khayym would have been pleased.

 

Omar Khayym died in 1123 in Neyshapur, the place of his birth, where he lived most of his life.

 

Today, a magnificent open air structure marks his tomb in Neyshapur.

 

 

With them the seed of wisdom did I sow,

And with mine own hand wrought to make it grow,

And this was all the harvest that I reap'd,

I came like water, and like wind I go.

 

 

 A. J. Cave is an Iranian-American writer based in California, USA.  She is a member of Northern California Chapter of Sharif University of Technology Association (SUTA) and Stanford University's World Association of International Studies (WAIS). 

 

She is currently working on her second historical novel Cyrus Romance: Kuru Nmeh.  Information about her first historical novel Roxana Romance: Roanak Nmeh is available at www.pavasta.com.

 

Related Article: The Persian Sensation: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in the West
 

 

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