Biographer Richardson (William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism) makes a noble but not wholly successful effort to unite the stories of the great 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam and the 19th-century Englishman who translated him. The first section, dealing with Khayyam, feels sketchy, partly because concrete facts about him are few; indeed, he may not even be responsible for all of the poems credited to him. Consequently, Richardson tries to describe Khayyam’s milieu, though in somewhat cursory fashion. The book’s second half, on translator Edward FitzGerald, finds Richardson on firmer ground, with more source material available to him. FitzGerald was a “perpetual student” who learned Persian for what would be his life’s defining project: a translation of Khayyam’s collected poetry, published with great success in 1859 as The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which FitzGerald revised continually until his death in 1883. Richardson’s portrayal of the Victorian writer and his era is lively, but his examination of Khayyam and the world of medieval Persia offers a tantalizing opening for further studies. Illus. (June)
Written in Persian in the eleventh century, Omar Khayyam's quatrains, known as rubai, were written individually for an audience at court, and explored the meanings of life, love, and friendship. They were almost completely unknown in the West until Edward FitzGeraldhimself a relatively obscure critictranslated and organized some one hundred of them into a unified whole that he called The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which he published anonymously in 1859. Ignored initially, it soon became a sensationand FitzGerald with it, his work now translated into seventy languagesand one of the most-read works of literature of all time.
Deftly and eloquently recounting in turn the life stories of Khayyam and FitzGerald, linking them over the span of eight centuries, acclaimed biographer Robert Richardson has crafted the story of the legendary Rubaiyat itself, illuminating a literary classic and reinforcing its place in the canon of great world literature.
"An artful analysis of the lives of two poets separated by centuries, geography, and culture, united by hope." Kirkus Reviews
"This concise, stimulating, and fluent book is highly recommended." Library Journal
"[A] graceful, sympathetic account." Booklist
"In Richardson, the philosopher has found a tireless champion and a perceptive editor. Richardson is that increasingly rare phenomenon among academics, an enthusiast, even a lover, of his subjects." John Banville, New York Review of Books on THE HEART OF WILLIAM JAMES
"A splendidly written book . . . Richardson's critical discussions of the journals, 'Walden,' 'Cape Cod,' and the other works are invariably illuminating and cast a new light on Thoreau's sometimes cross-grained but fascinating personality." The Boston Globe on HENRY THOREAU: A LIFE OF THE MIND
"To read this book is to be touched on the shoulder by a thousand years of poetry and thought . . . For those who understand Emerson, this book is unforgettable; it is essential." Mary Oliver on EMERSON: THE MIND ON FIRE
"A landmark study, certain to endure." Booklist on WILLIAM JAMES: IN THE MAELSTROM OF AMERICAN MODERNISM
"Richardson does a fine job of bringing the two poets to life for a modern audience for whom they are probably unfamiliar. Nearer the Heart's Desire is ultimately a biography not of the poets but of their shared poetry." - Shelf Awareness
"[An]elegant dual biography of Khayyam and his translator." - Wall Street Journal
Edward FitzGerald's rendering of the Rubaiyat (literally the "quatrains") of Omar Khayyam brought the 11th-century Persian poet into Western consciousness and established FitzGerald as an important, if subversive, Victorian poet. Historian Richardson, who has written intellectual chronicles of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William James (winner of the 2007 Bancroft Prize), here offers a dual biography of the poets and the Rubaiyat. Little is known of Khayyam aside from his fame as an astronomer and mathematician at the high point and decline of Seljuq Persia. Richardson constructs Khayyam's life, setting the quatrains against the thought and actions of his contemporaries. These included Nizam al-Mulk, the prime minister, and Al-Ghazali, the theologian. FitzGerald led a quiet life but had a gift for friendship, including that of William Makepeace Thackeray, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Thomas Carlyle. As with Coleman Barks's translations of Rumi, FitzGerald's pruned, edited, and concentrated interpretations of the original Persian text capture the living poet rather than the dead language. Khayyam's evocation of love and companionship in a transient and unstable world appealed to FitzGerald's own social and sexual ambivalence and Lucretian Epicureanism. VERDICT This concise, stimulating, and fluent book is highly recommended.—Thomas L. Cooksey, formerly with Armstrong Atlantic State Univ., Savannah
A biographer and former professor examines the texts and contexts of Edward FitzGerald's 1859 translation of Omar Khayyam's medieval quatrains, initially ignored but later a worldwide publishing success.Richardson (Splendor of Heart: Walter Jackson Bate and the Teaching of Literature, 2013, etc.), a winner of the Bancroft Prize, is uniquely qualified for his task. The biographer of William James, Thoreau, and Emerson and editor of anthologies of poetry, Richardson compresses these two lives into fewer than 200 tight pages, but the compression generates significant light. He acknowledges that little is known about Khayyam, but he weaves some significance from the few threads that remain. Born to a tentmaker in 1048, Khayyam later became involved with some powerful Persians and wrote myriads of quatrains, some finding their ways to the Bodleian Library, where FitzGerald (1809-1883) found them. Fascinated by what he found, he studied Persian with a friend and spent much of the rest of his life translating and tinkering. He lived to produce several editions of his book. Richardson writes about the life of each man, revealing in his sections about FitzGerald an astonishing series of influences and friends, including Thackeray, Tennyson, Carlyle, and others. The author is also curious (though not excessively so) about FitzGerald's sexuality—he had a brief marriage but far preferred the friendship of men. Richardson ruminates about the nature of translation, noting that Khayyam's quatrains were self-contained, not linked in a narrative, a situation that FitzGerald altered. The author credits FitzGerald for making the verses appeal to all sorts of modern (and, now, contemporary) readers. Finally, he lists what he sees as the values of the work—among them, its "ungendered vision of love" and its hope that maybe we can all get along. An artful analysis of the lives of two poets separated by centuries, geography, and culture, united by hope.
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