Boyd Tonkin: Raise a glass to the Persian verses

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The Independent Culture

A British author has published a scurrilous and irreligious literary work about a leading thinker from the Muslim world. It portrays this fabled scholar – who lived in what is now Iran – not simply as a drunkard and libertine, but as a heretic who even dares to say that God should beg forgiveness from Man. But any hurlers of theological thunderbolts can keep their powder dry. This work appeared 150 years ago, and its scandalous author died in 1883.

To state that this country enjoys a volatile relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran, 30 years old this week, would be a terribly English understatement. The British Council has just suspended its work there, claiming harassment of local staff; Iran ripostes with hints of spying. On the other hand, the British Museum exhibition devoted to the 17th-century Shah 'Abbas, which opens next week, holds out the promise of a minor thaw. So is this the right time to recall the most blatant abduction of classical Persian culture in the whole of English literature? You bet.

Edward FitzGerald, Anglo-Irish linguist, poet and eccentric, was born – as was Charles Darwin – in 1809. In 1859, he published his best-remembered work – as did Darwin. FitzGerald's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám translates medieval Persian poetry, some of it probably written by the astronomer and mathematician Omar ibn Ibrahim al'Khayyám (1048-1131). But it doesn't represent a single work. Rather, FitzGerald re-fashioned almost 700 four-line lyrics into a 75-verse narrative. It takes the form of a monologue by a boozy, pleasure-loving, cleric-mocking sceptic, a devotee only of "The Grape that can with Logic absolute/ The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute".

After a slow start (the 1859 edition perhaps sold no copies at all), the Rubáiyát became one of the best-loved and most-cited poetic works in English, cherished by rebels against Victorian values for its unabashed hedonism, its carpe diem scorn for respectability, and its image-studded verse: "Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,/ A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse- and Thou/ Beside me singing in the Wilderness - /And Wilderness is Paradise enow". Through the Rubáiyát I first discovered that Victorian culture had its subversive side – and that 19th-century refugees from piety and primness often looked East.

In his handsome, richly illuminating – and keenly priced – new hardback edition of the Rubáiyát (Oxford, £9.99), Daniel Karlin denies any family resemblance between the poem and the work that shares its birthday, the Origin of Species. He sets Fitzgerald's tomorrow-we-die nihilism against the idea of Darwin as a "Victorian progressive optimist". Some specialists would disagree. And both writers do dethrone a deity: Darwin via the undesigned "grandeur" of natural selection, FitzGerald by the teasing voice that questions whether God made man, or vice versa."Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?"

Academic orthodoxy would these days write off the Rubáiyát as just another slice of 19th-century Orientalism, part of a Western gaze that covets and then pockets the "exotic" East. Karlin argues against the glib dismissal of FitzGerald as "a self-amusing amateur, skimming the surface of Persian culture". His Omar's bittersweet, tough-minded materialism contrasts sharply with the mystical clichés that marked – and mark – many visions of the East.

Irreverent verses were often ascribed to Omar precisely because the scientist was "viewed with suspicion as a freethinker and heretic". And, even as he takes aim at Victorian sanctimony, FitzGerald presents his thirsty Persian hero as a fearless reasoner, scornful of all authority. In London or Tehran, state and religion have little more affection for Omar's brand of mischief today than in the 11th or 19th centuries – one more good reason to get to know a work that still reminds the mighty "How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp/ Abode his Hour or two, and went his way".

P.S.Miserably, but predictably, Wirral Council has confirmed the plan (mentioned here last week) to close 11 libraries as part of its horribly-named "Strategic Asset Review". After a rumbustious four-hour meeting on Monday, every Labour member of the ruling Lib-Lab coalition voted in favour of this proposal to smash the local branches of an institution that has, over the past century and a half, done more for popular enlightenment in Britain than any other. Shame on the whole spineless pack of them. The culture secretary, Andy Burnham (left), has promised to keep an eye on Wirral – but, so far, no more. The Mersey bout of barbarism matters because other cash-strapped authorities may feel empowered to follow this grim lead if the mass closures do take place. In dark times, the neighbourhood library should be a brighter beacon than ever.