Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

The Exquisite Amateur: FitzGerald, the Rubaiyat, and Queer Dilettantism

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

The Exquisite Amateur: FitzGerald, the Rubaiyat, and Queer Dilettantism

Article excerpt

"I believe I love poetry almost as much as ever: but then I have been suffered to doze all these years in the enjoyment of old childish habits and sympathies, without being called on to more active and serious duties of life. I have not put away childish things, though a man. But, at the same time, this visionary inactivity is better than the mischievous activity of so many I see about me."

--Edward FitzGerald to John Allen,

March 9, 1850 (1)

I. The Amateur Rubaiyat

Robert Graves, in promoting his own "authentic" translation of Omar Khayyam's quatrains in 1968, slandered Edward FitzGerald, the poem's Victorian translator and popularizer, as a "dilettante faggot trying to pretend he was a scholar." (2) Graves believed he had access to an earlier manuscript of the quatrains, though literary scholars soon revealed he had instead been taken in by a forgery orchestrated by the Sufi mystic Omar Ali-Shah. To make matters worse for Graves, the forged manuscript was itself cultivated from a commentary published by the Persian enthusiast Edward Heron-Alien, who in 1899 had published FitzGerald's fifth edition with, on the opposite page, "the Persian script of the ruba'i, hah-ruba'i or ruba'iyat, which he believed had inspired FitzGerald's translation" (Bowen, p. 2). Graves, not realizing how derivative of FitzGerald's work his translation indeed was, grandiloquently titled his edition, which he released with Doubleday in 1968, The Original Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam.

Yet Graves's defamation of FitzGerald is revelatory, for it suggests how the perceived shortcomings of FitzGerald's rendition, if not exclusively his character, are both amateur and homoerotic. Indeed, Graves was correct to perceive the same-sex entanglements of FitzGerald's verse, for as Dick Davis has pointed out, the cast of characters in FitzGerald's poem appears to be entirely male. (3) Before attempting the poem in English, FitzGerald had translated it first into "Monkish Latin," for which he uses masculine forms to connote the speaker's cupbearer and beloved. (4) The second-person "Thou" of FitzGerald's English versions obscures what the verses' 1867 French translator J. B. Nicolas called "revolting sensualities which I refrain from translating," and the gender of the Persian male beloved fades into second-person, English indeterminacy. (5) In response, Graves's reconstitution of "the original rubaiyyat" straightens out the queerer, ambiguous moments of FitzGerald's verse: "some once lovely Head" (st. 28) of FitzGerald's first version transforms into "some lovely girl" in Graves's hands (st. 19), and the "Angel Shape" of a cupbearer (st. 42), admittedly FitzGerald's own poetic innovation, becomes a tedious "Old man" and "fellow toper" (Graves, p. 64) (6) Graves's "original" version required a sanitization of the more homophile moments of FitzGerald's verse and rewrote its ambiguities to tally with mid-twentieth-century homophobia. The changes are regrettable, for, as Erik Gray discusses regarding popular illustrations that regendered the poem's cupbearer or beloved as female, "something crucial is lost when all of the poem's erotic charge is automatically read as heterosexual--a sense of radical questioning of the world and its assumptions" ("Common and Queer," p. 36).

Yet, of course, FitzGerald did not print his Latin quatrains (though he very coyly shared them with Edward Cowell, his young married friend and Persian tutor), and he instead selected the ambiguity of a second-person address. The text's uncertainty is productive, for it opens up the poem to enjoyment from readers of multiple erotic investments. Certainly, early critics like Charles Eliot Norton, who celebrated the "manly independence" of Omar in a review that bequeathed the poem to the heirs of American transcendentalism while elevating it above literal translations, might balk at the suggestion of same-sex eroticism in the verse, and the turn-of-the-century Omar Khayyam Club likewise anticipated Graves by asserting the female sex of the cupbearer in numerous illustrations. …

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