“The Epicureans…believed that teaching is by personal contact; knowledge and wisdom pass from teacher to student, one by one.”
I wasn’t a great student. I was a better than great scholar, but student? No. I was lucky in graduate school, however, to have found a teacher who understood me and supported my style of learning and advised me in the writing of my thesis. He was also an extraordinarily demanding teacher of writing. I revised my thesis eleven times under his kind but critical instruction.
Because the department did not give me a third year appointment as a teaching assistant, when I finished my classes, I got a full-time job. I had no reason to go on campus while I was writing my thesis, so our meetings about my thesis usually took place at his house, in his study. It was lined with books and had a big desk, of course. There was a Victorianish red velvet sofa where I sat flanked by two black great Danes while he read and red-lined the current draft.
I graduated and we remained friends and in contact, but life carries us on. I read all the books he wrote in the interval, but had no contact with him for twenty or so years.
A few weeks ago, I was thinking of him so I googled him and found an obituary, but only one, and no confirmation anywhere that he had actually died. Instead I found he’d written a book that piqued my interest even more than it would have been piqued just finding a new book by him, Nearer the Heart’s Desire: Poets of the Rubaiyat: A Dual Biography of Omar Khayyam and Edward FitzGerald. It’s unlikely this book (beautiful and readable though it is) will ever be a best-seller, but my father’s favorite work of literature was the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and I was raised on it. It was my early introduction to the importance of literature and the power of writing. It was also the main factor that led me to my personal philosophy which is that life is short, incomprehensible, often, but beautiful, and nature is my teacher and most stalwart friend. That Bob Richardson (Dr. Richardson to me in spite of everything) would have written this book was a wonder.
I found a contact form on his website, and I wrote him asking if he were dead or alive. I mentioned the book and my father’s love of the Rubaiyat and sent him a link to my website. He answered that he was very much alive and told me he was sending me a copy of the book and buying one of mine.
I finished the book last night. It’s full of beauty and appreciation both for Omar Khayyams verses and for the passion of Edward FitzGerald in learning Persian and transforming Omar Khayyam’s poetry into English. Omar Khayyam was a poet, mathematician and astronomer who lived in the 11th and 12th centuries, during the glorious times of the Persian Empire. Coincidentally, Edward FitzGerald was an Englishman living in England during the “sun never sets” period of English history. Both were quiet iconoclasts.
The book is organized into three main parts; the first introduces the reader to Omar Khayyam, his life, verses and philosophy. The second follows a similar pattern with Edward FitzGerald. In the third part, Richardson puts the two together and discusses how and why the Persian poet spoke so powerfully to this rather eccentric Victorian gentleman scholar.
Richardson’s book is beautifully written. He uses stanzas from the Rubaiyat to help his readers understand Omar Khayyam the man. The court and era in which Omar Khayyam lived are vividly portrayed, and we really get to know the people and some of the political machinations of the time. There are parallels between Omar Khayyam’s time and ours — a period of intellectual flowering and liberal thinking gave way to a reign of repressive conservatism. Richardson does the same thing with FitzGerald’s life, and we are introduced to a “colorful” character who followed his own star.
The book is accessible literary analysis that is also very timely. Richardson writes:
FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat shows us an approachable eleventh-century Iranian, a nominal Muslim, of probable Zoroastrian heritage, thinking about life and love in terms immediately comprehensible to an Internet-adept, scientifically inclined modern person. In the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam one civilization speaks to another, as equals, across a thousand-year gap.
He makes the point that words have the power to unite sympathetic hearts across time and that the spirit in the Rubaiyat of sharing the “cup of wine” could be the spirit that brings peace to the world, and while it might not happen nationally, it can happen personally.
I thought about that, and about my own life which has been filled with people from most of the world’s nations. I thought of many parties at my house and the houses of students, most of whom were perfectly happy to relax their prejudices for the sake of a good time. I thought of how much that was the result of their having been in a classroom together for months learning the words with which they could share ideas with each other.
I then thought of some of my favorite poems. In his book, Richardson writes about the probable influence of FitzGerald’s work on that of modern poets particularly Yeats and Eliot. I’m afraid my mind doesn’t bend that way any longer, but there is a theme in the work of some poets that shares Richardson’s claim that words are bridges linking people existing across time. One is Yeats’ poem, “The Song of the Happy Shepherd:
Go gather by the humming seaSome twisted, echo-harbouring shell,And to its lips thy story tell,And they thy comforters will be,Rewarding in melodious guileThy fretful words a little while,Till they shall singing fade in ruthAnd die a pearly brotherhood;For words alone are certain good…
Richardson also shows how FitzGerald’s literary background and philosophical loves influenced his appreciation of Omar Khayyam. It seems that FitzGerald admired — and took to heart — the thinking of Lucretius. I don’t have a background with which to evaluate this claim, but it makes sense to me. One of my favorite passages in the book is where Richardson explains the general perspective of Lucretius, saying, “…Lucretius looked for answers in Nature, not in Religion. What Lucretius knew and what FitzGerald loved in him was the fact that Nature IS the law.”
I love that a Roman writer was the key with which a British gentleman opened the words of a Persian poet. That is, for me, precisely how literature opens the world.
I loved the book and there was only one point made with which I had to take serious umbrage.
“FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat points unmistakably to the poety and philosophic superiority of eleventh century Persia over the prosaic, superstitious, intellectually primitive eleventh-century West, a West still sunk in poverty, overrun by barbarians, confused, illiterate, depopulated and primarily rural.”
To my surprise (and probably to Dr. Richardson’s) I grew up to be a medievalist, so I have my biases, too. 🙂
If you’re interested, here is a link to buy the book