Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Omar Khayyám
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Let me share the Pork Bun Theory of academic editions. I love me some cha siu bao -- aka BBQ pork buns -- specially the shiny brown baked kind. (There's a little bubble-tea joint that sells them, right across the road from the bookstore where I work. Yum.) What I like best about the good ones would be the good BBQ, and the right ratio of pig to bun, or Zhū ròu to Bao, if I've got that right -- no idea if I do, but that's the thrill of the Internet, ain't it? I've had some bad Bao in my time; inferior filling, sometimes, but mostly, too much bun. Get the idea?
FitzGerald's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, with his preface and notes, in this edition, runs to fifty-three pages. Throw in some variants, and the whole thing, unillustrated could maybe be made to total, what? Seventy-five? This edition from Oxford? What with sixty-nine pages of front matter, end-notes and the rest, I put the total at 236. Too much bun, right?
Normally, I would say yes. Anyone can pick up any used copy of the Rubáiyát for cheap from nearly any used books stall and read it, with variant versions, and maybe illustrations by Edmund Joseph Sullivan, or Willy Pogány, or most famously Edmund Dulac. I've come to love Edward Fitzgerald mostly for his letters -- among the best and most entertaining in English -- but this means I also own already at least three editions of his Rubáiyát. Well, now I own a fourth.
The lengthy introduction by editor Daniel Karlin was actually one of the better things I've ever read on Fitzgerald, let alone his poem. Dry, incisive and surprisingly enthusiastic about a work the popularity of which peaked well before the professor was born, I can't remember the last time I enjoyed such a brief so much. That wouldn't have been enough to make me buy yet another copy, even with the best notes on the poem I've ever read, including even FitzGerald's own -- which can make as many mysteries as they solve, by the way. What sold me finally were all the really interesting supplemental materials: the few, fascinating, contemporary reviews, under "Critical Responses," and Alfred Tennyson's lovely poem, "To E. FitzGerald." Makes for a pretty handy object, all that. Sold.
The poem itself, admitting it was widely held, even in it's own day to be as much or more Edward FitzGerald's rather than Omar's, has actually come to matter more to me than I ever imagined it might. Frankly, I couldn't much care for anyone's Omar but this, faithful or false. Getting to know Fitz through all those letters, and a biography, and some more obscure reprints, I've come to very much to appreciate not just the rather weary attitude and philosophy of the piece but even more, the fine and delicate balance of FitzGerald's great Victorian verse. A wonder, that, considering this is a poem I was warned against in my youth. Older folks, of my parents generation roughly, had long since dismissed the Rubáiyát as the very worst sort of Kiwanis Club recitation; bouncy orientalism, no longer suitable to any purpose but mocking theatrics, in imitation of those dusty saps, the Homo Sapiens Victoriana. Maybe that disdain for all things mid-nineteenth had to pass before the Rubáiyát became readable again. Maybe I just had to get over myself. At any road, I now own four editions so clearly I like it fine.
This Oxford edition of 2009, I would recommend to any with a curiosity about Fitz, or for whom the poem may otherwise not mean as much as it might with some good end-notes.
Turns out? Good Hum Bao.
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