FitzGerald's Omar and Hardy's Jude: A Humanistic Kinship

By Al-Ghalith, Asad | The Midwest Quarterly, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

FitzGerald's Omar and Hardy's Jude: A Humanistic Kinship


Al-Ghalith, Asad, The Midwest Quarterly


Edward Fitzgerald's poem, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, focuses on some of the major humanistic issues of the Victorian period: What is man? From whence did he come? What is his purpose in life? In FitzGerald's translation of the poem, Omar appears to be strongly preoccupied with the fatalistic vision of man's existence. This vision was one that emerged again and again in Victorian writers. Thomas Hardy, in Jude the Obscure, wrestled with a fatalistic view of man not unlike FitzGerald's. This article will draw parallels between the two literary works not only to suggest a matter of influence, but also to stress the common intellectual heritage of humankind.

Thomas Hardy was a young man of nineteen roaming London two years after FitzGerald's translation of the Rubaiyat was published in 1859. Hardy's biography, written by Michael Millgate, reveals enough details of his life at that time to show that Hardy was developing a great appetite for all types of literature. Millgate also notes that Hardy presented a copy of FitzGerald's translation of the Rubaiyat to Miss Florence Dugdale in 1907, giving us reason to believe he had read it, relished it, and could have been influenced by it when he wrote Jude the Obscure. I will not attempt to provide external evidence to establish a matter of influence; instead, I will look at the texts of both FitzGerald's translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and Hardy's Jude the Obscure to reveal that both works possess a Victorian humanistic kinship.

Briefly, FitzGerald's Rubaiyat portrays the Persian poet Omar as a religious skeptic who advocates that humans make the most of their lives by partaking in all that it has to offer: wine, music, companionship, and all kinds of pleasures. Individuals should not plague their minds with speculations about where they came from and where they will go because neither philosophy nor religion has ever provided proof of existence beyond this one. In the quatrains concerning the Clay Vessels and Potter--symbols for individuals and their Maker--the poet gives the notion of people as helpless results of an unexplainable creation wherein they play no part in their own formation. He treats the question of good and evil; if God created the world and everything in it, he also created evil, so evil in life is God's own responsibility. If only good comes from God, wine and the pleasures associated with evil cannot be evil, for God created them.

One might ask if FitzGerald's translation is not merely an adaptation of the Persian script into aesthetic rhyme and form. The answer must be no; Iran Jewett provides enough evidence to illustrate that FitzGerald felt a powerful kinship with Omar Khayyam and only concerned himself with the skeptical and fatalistic aspects of Omar's poem. The quatrains of Omar did lend themselves to a lyric form in the hands of FitzGerald, but only after FitzGerald singled out and condensed those quatrains that professed the skeptical, fatalistic, and epicurean points of view. These he composed into an "Epicurean Eclogue in a Persian Garden" (Untermeyer, x). FitzGerald gave the quatrains a unity and dramatic form missing in the original manuscripts.

What was the original poem like, then, and why did FitzGerald use only the dark, fatalistic quatrains of that poem? Although the authenticity of Omar's work has never been clearly established, the manuscripts which FitzGerald used are generally attributed to Omar. Jewett points out that the original quatrains of Omar are not merely confined to the themes of fatalism and Epicureanism. Rather, Omar's verses are lighthearted, frequently revealing jokes in logic. The free form of the verses "allowed Omar to indulge in satire, parody, veiled jokes ... and in piety as well as skepticism. His changes of mood are one reason for his popularity, for every man can find a corroboration of his own state of mind in Omar" (100). One quatrain from a fourteenth-century manuscript attests to the paradoxical nature of the original verses:

    Unless you learn to live as beggars do,
   Endure yourself the pains of common men,
   Your labours vain; and if you cannot suffer
   And bid yourself farewell, you're nothing worth. … 

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