Edward Fitzgerald, Omar Khayyam, and the Rubaiyat

I have been an admirer of the Ruba’iyat for many years, but was never aware that Edward Fitzgerald’s version was substantially different from the original verses by Omar Khayyam and others until I picked up the recent translation by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs.  The original quatrains were meant to stand on their own, whereas Fitzgerald’s poem is much more a unified statement of his own philosophy.  As often happens with poets who catch the fancy of so many lay readers, Fitzgerald has been widely panned by academics and professionals.  Unjustly, I think, because his poem is a concise, clear, and telling attack on the Judeo-Christian-Moslem religions.  In much of the poem, the author dwells on the absurdity of human existence;

      The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon

      Turns Ashes – or it prospers; and anon,

      Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face

      Lighting a little Hour or two – is gone.


However, he also launches a telling, and, in my opinion, unanswerable attack on the notion of eternal punishment in Hell for the paltry sins we commit during our short existence on earth, a belief characteristic of many Christian sects, and of Moslems in general;

Oh, Thou, who didst with Pitfall and with Gin

Beset the Road I was to wander in,

Thou wilt not with Predestination round

Enmesh me, and impute my Fall to Sin?


What!  Out of senseless Nothing to provoke

A conscious Something to resent the yoke

Of unpermitted Pleasure, under pain

Of Everlasting Penalties, if broke!


What!  from his helpless Creature be repaid

Pure Gold for what he lent us dross-allay’d—

Sue for a Debt we never did contract,

And cannot answer – Oh the sorry trade!


Nay, but for terror of his wrathful Face,

I swear I will not call Injustice Grace,

Not one Good Fellow of the Tavern but

Would kick so poor a Coward from the place

The poem deserves lasting fame for these quatrains, if for nothing else.  Certainly, belief in eternal punishment after death can be of great value to those who derive their livings by imposing on the credulity of their fellow mortals.  Logically, however, it is absurd.