Omar Khayyam was a Persian astronomer and part-time poet whose career spanned the tenth and eleventh centuries. His poetic output of 280 quatrains went essentially unknown to western readers until a copy happened to, according to the most popular legend, the hands of British poets Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne. From them, Khayaam’s rubaiyat of 280 unrelated mediations on a variety of topics ranging from the mystically cosmological to the romantically melancholic eventually made its way to Edward FitzGerald, a writer notable primarily for highly regarded translations of ancient Greek drama into English. FitzGerald set himself to the task of translation Khayyam’s verse but in the process created something that stands midway between translation and entirely original work.
FitzGerald’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khaayam was published anonymously in 1859 and proceeded to do absolutely nothing to extend the knowledge of the Persian poet beyond his own time and place. At one point, the publisher was offering the pamphlets for sale at a penny each. Over the next decade, FitzGerald and Khayyam staked out a claim together as the creative minds behind the very first cult hit. By 1869, FitzGerald's quite liberal translation has managed to become a literary sensation substantial enough to mandate an expanded second edition. By the end of the 19th century, The Rubaiyat had become one of the best-selling volumes of Victorian poetry ever.
By then, FitzGerald had been dead for almost two decades, but his reputation had as a one not just a premier translator of the great works of other, but a truly unique and innovation creative writer in his own right was cemented. What FitzGerald did with Khayyam’s medieval verse went far beyond replacing the words of the original with appropriate English, he imprinted his own artistic stamp upon the language and meaning. Whereas the 280 quatrains composed by Khayyam stand independent of each other, in FitzGerald’s hands they become dependent stanzas within one long epic poem. Roughly fifty of FitzGerald’s quatrains can be effectively termed paraphrases in the traditional sense of translation. Nearly as many are hybrids that that piece together elements from two or more of Khayyam’s unconnected quatrains to create one single rubaiyat working in thematic concert with the stanzas. The first and second editions even contained quatrains that were not relevant or connected to anything found in the Khayyam’s originals, but these were excised from later editions at the request of FitzGerald.
The Rubaiyat of the Omar Khayyam is therefore not just an example of a cult literary hit, but it is also an example of how a remake can sometimes exceed the original by becoming not a simple reboot, but a re-imagining. The legacy of how FitzGerald took an existing work and made it different and accessible while retaining the essential qualities admired in the original can be felt today in 21st century entertainment ranging from the Battlestar Galactica television series to the Rise of the Planet of the Apes movie trilogy.