Stephen R. Wilk
Optical projection techniques
are mentioned in several
translations of a quatrain from
the poem “The Rubáiyát of
Omar Khayyám.” What is the
true meaning of Khayyám’s
metaphor of reality as a
The “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” is the title that Edward FitzGerald
gave to his 1859 translation of nearly a
thousand poems by Khayyám (1048–
1131), a Persian poet, mathematician and
astronomer. ;e book’s name comes from
the word “rubáiyát”—
derived from the Arabic
root for “four” because
the poem is composed
of four-line quatrains.
In Mark Twain’s
revealed that he
to use an excerpt from
FitzGerald’s translation as an epigraph.
Twain admired the poem, and FitzGer-
ald’s translation of Khayyám’s work was
immensely popular at the time, capturing
the fatalist spirit of the late 19th century.
For in and out, above, about, below,
‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
Round which we Phantom Figures
come and go.
We are the puppets in
this metaphor, backlit by
the sun and manipulated
by an outside force.
Of particular interest is FitzGerald’s
use of the term “magic shadow-show.”
His version of the poem describes how
humans are merely shadow puppets projected on a screen in a magical play. But
is this the message Khayyám intended?
Other translations of the quatrain
name di;erent projection methods—
for example, a magic lantern, diorama
and screen projection. How do these
techniques change the meaning of
Khayyám’s metaphor for reality? Which
one most accurately relays the author’s
Magic shadow show?
FitzGerald’s translation uses the term
“magic shadow show”: a story told using
shadows generated by figures or hand
gestures. ;e show (or play) consists
of cut-out figures held between a light
source and a translucent screen. Puppeteers manipulate the figures by moving
them and changing the direction of the
light. We are the puppets in this metaphor, backlit by the sun and manipulated
by an outside force.
Shadow plays were first described
in China during the Han dynasty
(200 B.C.E. – 200 C.E.). However,
evidence suggests that they may date
as far back as Harappan times in India
(3000 – 1500 B.C.E.). Exactly when
such plays were first performed elsewhere
is still obscure, but there is a report that
Saladin, who died in 1193 C.E., saw
such a play, which puts it within reach
of Khayyám’s lifetime.
Edward Byles Cowell, FitzGerald’s
friend and Persian tutor, published his
own version of the Rubáiyát in which he
translates the phrase as “…the image of a
magic lanthorn.” (Lanthorn is an archaic
term for lantern.) ;e metaphor here is
similar to the shadow show, but mentions the magic lantern—an early version