"The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam" translated by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs is available in two Penguin editions. This edition (ISBN 01400595447) comes in a larger format with 32 beautiful colored illustrations of Persian miniature paintings from the 16th and 17th century, and an essay on the history of the miniatures that points out the influence of Chinese painting on Persian graphic arts (an interesting subject in itself). The other edition is the Penguin Classics edition (ISBN 0140443843), which is identical to this edition but lacks the illustrations and the essay on Persian graphic arts. The illustrated, larger sized edition is definitely worth the slightly higher price, in my opinion.
A reader who is familiar with FitzGerald's classic "re-creation" - "translation" is a term that is too weak in this context - will be surprised at the defiant materialism of Omar Khayyam's quatrains in Avery's literal translation stripped of the poetic spark of FitzGerald's work.
For example, while the Victorian gentleman Edward FitzGerald chose to translate Omar Khayyam's praise of simple joys and poetry in his famous "A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, / A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread - and Thou / Beside me singing in the Wilderness - / Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!", Peter Avery gives us not only a more literal translation (#98) but also a much more worldly (and spicy) version of the same theme:
If chance supplied a loaf of white bread,
Two casks of wine and a leg of mutton,
In the corner of a garden with a tulip-cheeked girl
There'd be enjoyment no Sultan could outdo. (#234)
In his introduction, Peter Avery points out that the ruba'i (quatrain) was the favorite verse form among intellectuals, "those philosophers and mystics in eleventh- and twelfth-century Persia who were in some degree non-conformists opposed to religious fanatism, so that they have often been called Islam's free-thinkers." And a free-thinker Omar Khayyam was. He did not believe in the cardinal Muslim tenet of the resurrection of the body after death, and he suggested that drinking wine was better than worrying about abstruse religious theories and dogmas. In an instance that must have been particularly enraging for orthodox Muslims he turned the argument for future rewards in paradise on its head by thinking it through to its logical end:
They promise there will be Paradise and the houri-eyed,
Where clear wine and honey will flow:
Should we prefer wine and a lover, what's the harm?
Are not these the final recompense? (#88)
(the "houri-eyed" are beautiful girls, by the way)
In another slyly funny (and self-critical) quatrain, Omar Khayyam pushes his skepticism and blunt honesty even further:
A religious man said to a whore, "You're drunk,
Caught every moment in a different snare."
She replied, "Oh Shaikh, I am what you say,
Are you what you seem?"(#86)
Peter Avery's translations stress the worldly, materialistic side of Omar Khayyam, which is rooted in his conviction that nothing lasts but the joys experienced in the present moment. What I missed in Peter Avery's translations, though, was the joy Omar Khayyam must have felt when he created a new quatrain to remind himself to seize the day, to change his state of mind (that's a polite way of describing "to get drunk") or just to invent a polished metaphor or rhyme. FitzGerald captured this redeeming poetic beauty of Omar Khayyam's work so well that his rendition of the Rubaiyat remains a benchmark true to the spirit if not the letter of the Persian poet:
And that inverted Bowl they call the Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop'd we live and die,
Lift not your hands to It for help - for It
As impotently moves as you or I.
(while Avery translates with the intention "to give as literal an English version of the Persian originals as readability and intelligibility permit":)
The good and evil that are in man's heart,
The joy and sorrow that are our fortune and destiny,
Do not impute them to the wheel of heaven because, in the light of reason,
The wheel is a thousand times more helpless than you. (#34)
Buy this edition for the invaluable introduction, for the contrast to FitzGerald's rendition, and quite simply to get a feeling for Omar Khayyam's blunt honesty; but do buy a book with FitzGerald's version, preferably the out-of-print edition with English novelist A.S. Byatt's introduction ("Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam", ASIN 0965231240).
And lest anyone should think Omar Khayyam was only a frivolous, inebriated hedonist, here are two of my favorite quatrains from Peter Avery's and John Heath-Stubbs's book:
If the heart could grasp the meaning of life,
In death it would know the mystery of God;
Today when you are in possession of yourself, you know nothing.
Tomorrow when you leave yourself behind, what will you know? (#5)
It is we who are the source of our own happiness, the mine of our own sorrow,
The repository of justice and foundation of iniquity;
We who are cast down and exalted, perfect and defective,
At once the rusted mirror and Jamshid's all-seeing cup. (#211)
(Avery explains that to the Persian culture hero Jamshid or Jam was attributed a magic cup in which he could see time past, present and future and all the world, and by which like Joseph with his silver cup, he could divine (Genesis xliv, 4-5).)