- How did a 400-line poem based on the writings of a Persian sage and advocating seize-the-day hedonism achieve widespread popularity in Victorian England? The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was written by the eccentric English scholar Edward FitzGerald, drawing on his loose translation of quatrains by the 12th-century poet and mathematician Omar Khayyám.
- Obscure beginnings perhaps, but the poem’s remarkable publishing history is the stuﬀ of legend. Its initial publication in 1859 – the same year as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and J S Mill’s On Liberty – went completely unnoticed: it didn’t sell a single copy in its ﬁrst two years.
- That all changed when a remaindered copy of FitzGerald’s 20-page booklet was picked up for a penny by the Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes, who passed it on to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who subsequently fell in love with it and sang its praises to his PreRaphaelite circle.
- … the kind of hedonism1 popularised by the Rubáiyát can help to put us back in touch with the virtues of direct experience (Web Link) in our age of mediation, where so much of daily life is ﬁltered through the two-dimensional electronic ﬂickers on a smartphone or tablet. We are becoming observers of life rather than participants, immersed in a society of the digital spectacle.
- We could learn a thing or two from the Victorians: let us keep a copy of the Rubáiyát in our pockets, alongside the iPhone, and remember the words of wise Khayyám: ‘While you live Drink! – for, once dead, you never shall return.’
- This type seems to be rather gross – wine and spliffs.
- The author refers us on to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey.
- There’s no reference to Ecclesiastes, though maybe the emphasis here is – while agreeing on the transience of life – less on hedonism that on carpe diem, and maybe not even that.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2017
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)