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A book of verse, a jug of wine and thou. Or wine, then verse?

April 9, 2009 |  8:14 am

Rubaiyat

The poem "Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam" by Edward FitzGerald has gone interactive, courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center in Texas. Visitors to their website can compare the five different versions of the text, tag the poem and leave comments, almost as though FitzGerald had blogged his work, rather than publishing it on paper.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the poem's publication; in January, the Guardian wrote, "It is said that its effect on Victorian England was no less considerable than that of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published in the same year, 1859." In the U.S., its popularity was so broad that it was the theme of the New Orleans Mardis Gras in 1905.

The comment-ready version of the poem accompanies the Ransom Center's exhibition "The Persian Sensation," which presents an inquiry into how and why a (creatively) translated book of medieval Persian poetry became one of the most famous books in the West.

Edward FitzGerald translated writing by Omar Khayyam, who lived in the 11th and 12th centuries, and who in his time was known more as a scientist than a poet. The work that FitzGerald did deviated from the poetic structure of the original and involved both adaptation and invention. The result was described in the Guardian as "transcreation" rather than "translation."

The poem starts with wine, which continues to flow through questions of fate and death and love for 101 stanzas. After the jump, you'll find the five versions of stanza 11/12, the one with the bread and verse and wine.

So far, the comment conversations are relatively quiet, but those who aren't too shy to contribute raise interesting points: Why did FitzGerald change the original "noose of light" in the first stanza to "shaft of light" in later editions? And did you know that the Grateful Dead's logo came from an illustration of stanza 63? 

Treating each stanza like a blog post leaves the discussion space wide open; direct Arabic translations carry equal weight with comments like "this is my favorite!" That's an interesting and energizing way to approach a classic work.

But functionality-wise, it lacks a certain integration that could lead to drawing connections. To navigate from the comments on one stanza, you have to hit the back key to see the whole poem, and then drill down to see the comments on a separate stanza. This makes it unlikely that the comments themselves will interrelate (unless they're around the same four lines), and a person can't comment on multiple stanzas at once, as they might do in a classroom.

And I'm not sure that the space dedicated to presenting tag clouds and tagging the poem does much for the poetry. It's kind of nifty, but how does a tag cloud that shows "dust" and "ashes" appear with similar frequency elucidate the poem, or celebrate it, or bring us to deeper understanding?

Doubts about the exact implementation aside, experiments like this are to be commended. I like knowing arcane facts and hearing what people love about the poem as much as I appreciate the academic contributions. And if a flame war breaks out over the meaning of a turn of phrase? That wouldn't be so bad.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: watercolor by H. J. Ford, undated, courtesy the Ransom Center

Stanza 11 (1859)
Here
with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verseand Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

Stanza 12 (1868)
Here with a little Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verseand Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Stanza 12 (1872)
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Breadand Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Stanza 12 (1879)
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Breadand Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Stanza 12 (1889)
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Breadand Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!





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