Raise a Glass to the Persian Verses

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THE WEEK IN BOOKS

A British author has published a scurrilous and irreligious literary work about a leading thinker from the Muslim world. It portrays this fabled scholar - who lived in what is now Iran - not simply as a drunkard and libertine, but as a heretic who even dares to say that God should beg forgiveness from Man. But any hurlers of theological thunderbolts can keep their powder dry. This work appeared 150 years ago, and its scandalous author died in 1883.

To state that this country enjoys a volatile relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 30 years old this week, would be a terribly English understatement. The British Council has just suspended its work there, claiming harassment of local staff; Iran ripostes with hints of spying. On the other hand, the British Museum exhibition devoted to the 17th-century Shah 'Abbas, which opens next week, holds out the promise of a minor thaw. So is this the right time to recall the most blatant abduction of classical Persian culture in the whole of English literature? You bet.

Edward FitzGerald, Anglo-Irish linguist, poet and eccentric, was born - as was Charles Darwin - in 1809. In 1859, he published his best-remembered work - as did Darwin. FitzGerald's Rubiyt of Omar Khayym translates medieval Persian poetry, some of it probably written by the astronomer and mathematician Omar ibn Ibrahim al'Khayym (1048-1131). But it doesn't represent a single work. Rather, FitzGerald re-fashioned almost 700 four-line lyrics into a 75-verse narrative. It takes the form of a monologue by a boozy, pleasure-loving, cleric-mocking sceptic, a devotee only of "The Grape that can with Logic absolute/ The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute".

After a slow start (the 1859 edition perhaps sold no copies at all), the Rubiyt became one of the best-loved and most-cited poetic works in English, cherished by rebels against Victorian values for its unabashed hedonism, its carpe diem scorn for respectability, and its image-studded verse: "Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,/ A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse- and Thou/ Beside me singing in the Wilderness - /And Wilderness is Paradise enow". Through the Rubiyt I first discovered that Victorian culture had its subversive side - and that 19th-century refugees from piety and primness often looked East.

In his handsome, richly illuminating - and keenly priced - new hardback edition of the Rubiyt (Oxford, 9. …