Essay | The Moving Finger: Edward FitzGerald and the consolation of Omar Khayyam by James Tarik Marriott

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' The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, / Moves on . . .' , Edmund J. Sullivan's illustration to verse 51 of FitzGerald's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1913)

James Tarik Marriott


The Moving Finger: Edward FitzGerald and the consolation of Omar Khayyam


It is bad practice to search for a single moment in the life of an artist to explain their greatest work, but for Edward FitzGerald such a moment calls out for itself. In 1856 Edward Byles Cowell, FitzGerald’s companion and close friend, decided to leave for India following his graduation from Oxford to pursue a professorship in Calcutta. Up until this point in his life FitzGerald had been listless, finding little to enthuse him during his university days at Cambridge except friendship. He lived the ephemeral life of a gentleman. Cowell had introduced FitzGerald to the study of Persian, and it was his passion for Cowell as a companion that engaged him to persevere with it even after he left.

After his short-lived marriage to Lucy Barton ended in 1857 and Cowell had left for India, FitzGerald found in his Persian translation a voice of consolation. Writing to Cowell in June of that year, FitzGerald included his first translated stanza from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in Latin. ‘Omar breathes a sort of Consolation to me,’ he wrote. Keeping alive their common interest, FitzGerald’s work became a genuine passion of his by accident of his attachment to Cowell. His correspondence led to the translation of selected stanzas from the manuscripts of Omar Khayyam’s poetry, which he compiled into a cohesive whole to be published in 1859.

The success of FitzGerald’s published translation followed a similar path of accident and passion; this time on the part of readers. The first edition’s publication was paid for by FitzGerald himself and printed anonymously. He insistence on anonymity, he thought, was unnecessary as it remained almost completely unread until its discovery in the penny bin by two Irish barristers working in London.  The discovery was shared among literary circles of the time but had not reached the popularity it would find in future editions. By 1877 FitzGerald was in the unique position of trying to convince his publisher, Bernard Quaritch, against publishing a third edition in light of growing demand, but eventually yielded to a popular edition, insisting again on his anonymity, which was now unnecessary on account of his fame.

For FitzGerald, translating Omar Khayyam was a matter of personal rather than scholarly interest. It is why Daniel Karlin, in his introduction to the 2009 edition of the Rubaiyat, said that FitzGerald was carried ‘past the point at which better-informed scholars and translators have become bogged down in what they know’.  A poetic translation is perhaps truer to the original than a literal one, and more befitting, since the poem itself is about opposing underserved authority. The act of translation also complicates notions of authority and authorisation in literature, between the translator and the translated. While FitzGerald’s own introduction to the life and history of Omar Khayyam has only one inaccuracy: an apocryphal schoolboy pact in which the young polymath and two other boys promised to help the one another should they rise to positions of prominence in adulthood. In Fitzgerald’s telling, Omar Khayyam was offered a position in Sultan Alp Arslan’s court, but refused, asking only for the means to carry on his studies. This falsehood still revealed more about Fitzgerald’s view of Khayyam—as a kindred scholar of leisure—than any truth ever could.

Scholars are conflicted over how to interpret FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat. Some have built on the Orientalist interpretation of him offered by Edward Said, stating that his lack of knowledge and imperial conceit meant his translation was shallow. Annmarie Drury and Daniel Karlin would later rescue his masterpiece from disrepute by showing him to be a sensitive translator, aware of his own failings in technical matters, focusing instead on the aesthetic merit of imperfection. He was not part of an institution or academy; his translation was not motivated or aimed at any purpose or profit (so far as his attitude towards publication). He instead found a voice in the past which he wished to converse with, as consolation during an extreme age of religious orthodoxy and industrial revolution.

The theology of the nineteenth century was influenced by the Oxford Movement’s attempt to reintroduce hierarchy and orthodoxy into Christianity in Britain. The Oxford Movement sought to reign in the centrifugal forces of modernity by reviving a pre-Reformation spirit. They extolled old readings of the apostolic succession, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, a sin-obsessed morality. The Anglican churchmen before then were gentlemen of leisure, whose only occupation was good conversation and country strolls. Now they were under siege by young, unrelenting students of theology who wanted to look at what the books actually said and meant. Newman, Keble, and Manning represented a new rift in the religious character of Victorian Britain.

Though their eventual solace in Catholicism only reinvigorated the ongoing tensions between Protestant and Catholic thought, their movement was particular as a response to modernity. New cross-cutting Christian identities found in the legacies of the Rational Dissenters and the teachings of George Whitfield and John Wesley had widened Christian thinking beyond the hierarchies of the church. The Church of England discarded most of the dogma to be inclusive, a broad church for all people. On top of this, the deism of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason and the materialism of the burgeoning sciences destabilised old notions of people’s place in the world. The political response to the Oxford Movement’s dissident ‘papalist’ doctrines took the form of Gladstone’s Vaticanism, which reasserted the need for national civil duty in the face of the ‘giddy heights of despotism’. But where was Victorian Britain to find its atheistic and epicurean response to such returns to medievalism?

One place was the past. If the Oxford Movement was to revive ideas from a bygone era, so too could others. G.K. Chesterton once said of Carlyle that one of his great contributions to the study of history was to view the present as a foil to the past. FitzGerald found in Omar Khayyam a voice from the medieval Arab world to refresh those struggling between the religious orthodoxy and dogmatism of the Oxford Movement on the one hand, and the yearning materialism of scientific advancement on the other. In his translations, FitzGerald tried his upmost to preserve Omar Khayyam’s voice from any anachronism. Writing to Cowell, he was adamant to keep the reader out of the nineteenth century. As FitzGerald put it, ‘it is better to be orientally obscure than Europeanly clear’. But he had not realised how much of the nineteenth century resonated with the twelfth-century poet.

Omar Khayyam appealed to the aesthetic nature of fin-de-siècle Britain. FitzGerald said of ‘my Omar’ (as he affectionately called him) that he wished to ‘soothe the soul through the sense in acquiescence with things as they were’. This almost mirrors Oscar Wilde’s refrain in The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which Dorian Gray attempts ‘to cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul’. This was all he could hope for from an age that had purged itself of forgiveness but allowed brief moments of individual forgetfulness through hedonism. Wilde’s character slinks off to an opium den, but Omar Khayyam offers a much simpler panacea: wine.

Owing in no small part to the legacy of Hellenic culture in the Arab world, wine holds a central part in FitzGerald’s version of the Rubaiyat. It begins the poem with the tavern’s cry and ends it with one’s ‘turn[ing] down an empty glass’. It is also the solution to the problem of existence; mid-way through the story wine comes to the rescue of one beset by the uncertainty of life:      

The Grape that can with Logic absolute
The Two-and-Seventy jarring sects confute:
     The subtle Alchemist that in a Trice
Life’s leaden Metal into Gold transmute.

What better way to counter the extreme temperance of Victorian Britain than to raise a glass to them?

Traditionally, the Ruba’i as a poetic form carries with it the revolutionary temperament that Omar Khayyam intended. Comprising quatrains with a fixed metrical, rhyme scheme (either AABA or AAAA), the form continues to be perfect for memorisation and recitation in gatherings of like-minded people. Dissident ideas could be retained and recited without recourse to the printed word, and anonymity was common among compositions. Given that a popular form of poetry in the Abbasid period was panegyrics to the rulers of the time, the Rubai was a departure from the reliance on and praise of authority.

FitzGerald recognised that Omar Khayyam gave name to rebelliousness. He said that in a letter to Mowbray Donne that its ‘not that the Persian has anything at all new: but he has dared to say it’. Dared so much in fact that FitzGerald’s translations had the honour of not being published in the Tory and Anglican-read Fraser’s Magazine. Even though FitzGerald had left out the more provocative stanzas it proved too much for the editor, John Parker, to dare to publish.

The form, however, poses one weakness which FitzGerald attempted to remedy through his editing. The manuscripts that contained the quatrains listed them in a haphazard or alphabetised fashion, with no real reference to their content. FitzGerald’s greatest achievement was to unify a collection of separate stanzas into a cohesive story, an achievement later rendered moot by piecemealing. Near the time of his death the Rubaiyat had become vogue, and as is always the case with popular poems it was torn apart for quotation by its wide readership. Since each quatrain in its original form stood alone as an epigrammatic statement, the tendency of popular readers at the time was to commonplace single quatrains that they enjoyed and quote or memorise only those.

A popular quatrain of the poem that lived separately from the rest evokes a famous image of fate:

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.

This evocation of fate is one that has endured. It enjoyed a second life in twenty-first-century fiction, for example, in Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity, as well as in the works of Agatha Christie and Stephen King who each wrote a story titled The Moving Finger. The idea of fate permeates much of classical Arab literature, including The Arabian Nights which had its own Victorian revival. It’s likely N.J. Dawood had this quatrain in mind when translating the introduction of Sinbad the Sailor’s Seven Voyages, which ends with the line ‘All that which befell me had been pre-ordained; and that which the moving hand of Fate has written no mortal power can revoke’. Mortal fate is unsettling when presented so bluntly.

Fitzgerald’s assembling selected quatrains into a narrative arc settles the unsettled. The nineteenth century destroyed many of the stories that had been certainties for centuries. Alas! (as Fitzgerald would write) old orthodoxies are revived, and new ones are created. Identities continually shift: all that is certain is uncertainty, and there is consolation in this. Fitzgerald found it through the Rubaiyat when Cowell left for India. He found in Khayyam a voice reposed in idle study, passionate and comfortable with this life, in need of no other. And above all other consolations the Rubaiyat provides, there is always the final one of good company:

But leave the Wise to wrangle, and with me
The Quarell of the Universe let be:
     And, in some corner of the Hubbub coucht,
Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee.

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       James Tarik Marriott is a featured writer for the online publication UK Politics Today, as well as a writer on literary topics. He is a Master’s Student studying Middle East Politics and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).


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