A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
… Has flung the stone that put the stars to flight:
And Lo! The hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s turret in a noose of light.”
Did you immediately know where that comes from? That unmistakeable, fractured, mixed metaphor (or is it?) is the first stanza of a unique literary phenomenon: Edward Fitzgerald’s version of ‘The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’. What does it mean? How does it work? It does, though, doesn’t it – it is so dramatic – and I have to say, to my mind, about the best thing in the poem.
Daniel Karlin has newly edited The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and, thanks to his bibliographical thoroughness, scholarship and immensely readable commentary, I have been delighted to find out about a poetical work that I have completely taken for granted until now. It is easy to think of it as an inauthentic piece of Orientalism, appealing to a late Victorian taste for the exotic; a piece of free-thinking that could be read with a frisson by the otherwise respectable and devout. This edition fills in so much of the background, explains the cultural context of the original, and collects into one place the complicated publishing history of the Rubáiyát, and all the variant versions.
What interests me most about the Rubáiyát is what has been its impact on me, my parents’ and my grandparents’ generations, as one of the best known literary works ever, and what is left of that reputation now. I have never inhabited a house, or a library, without a copy. Often, these editions became a vehicle for orientalism and exoticism – elegantly bound, beautifully illustrated, the book as exquisite object. I now have my mother’s copy of the 1907 Routledge edition, luxuriously printed with one stanza per page, and lavishly illustrated with photogravures of drawings by Gilbert James – the book is somehow intended to be a beautiful casket to contain a gem of a single poem. The Rubáiyát instantly summons up an aesthetic and intellectual image of the late Victorian and Edwardian era.
Why is it so loveable and beloved? Why has it been such an inspiration for artists and book designers? It is never anthologised, always published alone, with Fitzgerald’s Preface, in which he sets out a more or less legendary biography for Omar, and sometimes with his own distinctly personal endnotes. He worked at the text for the rest of his life, through four editions, but it is the first edition of 1859 that remains the favourite. It does everything that you expect a poem to do – it is the poetical equivalent of the perfect house we draw as a child, with a hipped roof, four windows and a big front door in the middle. Fitzgerald worked intently to create an English poetic idiom to capture the Persian original, without pastiche. The quatrains scan, and rhyme – my, how they do rhyme! The ‘Ruba’i’ form is epigrammatic, and has the rhyme scheme a a b a. How easily it could turn into doggerel, without this blank rhyme in the third line – which often contains the pivot of the stanza: the pointed observation or the shaft of wit. Fitzgerald allies this to a masterly, flexible iambic pentameter. Read a few stanzas, and the rhythm and the rhyme stick in the mind like a burr – like The Song of Hiawatha does in a different metre.
So, what do we have here? Edward Fitzgerald was the archetypal Victorian Man of Letters with private means, able to explore literary byways at his own pace, and publish at his own expense. His inspiration for this work was an intense friendship with a younger man, a naturally talented linguist and scholar, who learnt Persian and encouraged Fitzgerald to do the same. Edward Cowell, without means, took up an academic post in Calcutta, and Fitzgerald intensified his study of Persian language and literature almost as a form of mourning, and certainly as a means of continuing a strong link with his friend, who, long-distance, supplied him with transcripts of manuscripts and answered his questions about translation and cultural context. Through this friendship, Fitzgerald was introduced to the Rubai’yat, and took on the project of translating and arranging them. Fitzgerald finally produced a polished sequence in 1859 that he had published at his own expense, by Bernard Quaritch. It is legendary that no-one bought it at the original price, and Quaritch progressively reduced it in price, until it was discovered in the 1 penny box. An American admirer, having found it there, came back for more and more copies, and it was gradually disseminated through the literary world, on both sides of the Atlantic. It began to receive critical acclaim; Charles Eliot Norton wrote an influential critical study of it, and by the last years of Fitzgerald’s life, it had captured the imagination of the English speaking world. A reclusive, unsociable man, he found it hard to cope with the fame. After his death, the enthusiasm for Omar Khayyám (Fitzgerald’s version) almost assumed the dimensions of a cult, and its popularity as a book to own, along with the Bible and Shakespeare, persisted into my lifetime. William H Martin and Sandra Mason: The Art of Omar Khayyam; illustrating Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat (I B Tauris, 2007. ISBN 978-1845112820) charts over 130 illustrated editions of the work, demonstrating what an inspiration it has been to the imagination of painters and illustrators.
The work is a version of a collection of quatrains, in the form called ‘Ruba’i’, attributed with more or less authenticity to Omar, an astronomer and mathematician of the late 11th/early 12th century. His mathematical work is still extant, but the Rubai’yat, probably in origin an oral form, stuck to him by reputation, after his death. Each quatrain encapsulates a thought, and stands alone (I suppose, in a way, it is not unlike the Haiku). The Persian tradition was to collect and arrange them in written form in order of their rhyme, which lends a certain random charm to the whole, a ‘strange Farrago of Grave and Gay’, in Fitzgerald’s words. His decision was to place 75 of them in a more narrative order, to creat an Eclogue with an arc that carries the main voice of the poet through a day (starting with that arresting wake up call in Stanza I). And what happens during this day is that the poet contemplates the world, and is inspired to propound a bleak materialistic philosophy. This is all we can be certain of – the here and now. He watches the day’s comings and goings, and sees nothing to give him hope for an unknown future.
One Moment in Annihilation’s Waste
One Moment, of the Well of Life to taste –
The Stars are setting, and the Caravan
Starts for the Dawn of Nothing – oh, make haste! (Stanza XXXVIII)
There are consolations along the way – wine being the foremost. Omar seems to seek more and more oblivion as the day wears on, but nothing can blunt his clear sight that this is all there is, that we must seek our pleasures around us, and above all in the simple joys of life. Towards the end, there is a hint of degradation, leavened with a shaft of wit that has made me smile every time it has been quoted to me by someone in my family, or when it has popped unbidden into my mind:
And much as Wine has played the Infidel
And robbed me of my Robe of Honour – well,
I often wonder what the Vintners buy
One half so precious as the Goods they sell. (Stanza LXXI)
So, it is a bleak, agnostic view of life, that rails against the numinous, redeemed from self-pity by a sardonic tough-mindedness and tolerance. Why is it therefore so wildly popular? Probably because very few people read it from end to end. Daniel Karlin, in this new edition, explores the ways in which the Rubáiyát has been consumed:
“Then the fever died down, and as it did so, something odd happened to the fabric of the Rubáiyát. It became brittle, and collapsed into a heap of phrases. The last generation for which the poem was a standard was probably the one born in the 1920s, and its taste is reflected in the 1953 edition of the Oxford Book of Quotations, in which, as Dick Davies observes, “there are 188 excerpts of the Rubáiyát … virtually two-thirds of the total work.”
So, it dissolves into a piece that is full of quotes, like the Psalms, or Hamlet. How easy to extract one of the most famous, and least bleak of the stanzas, and write it on a delicate card to include with a dozen red roses for one’s true love:
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. (Stanza XI)
Somehow, I cannot see anyone sending Stanza XXXVIII to the beloved.
I am guilty of having read it as a series of brilliant gems, unconnected to a whole. I cannot recall ever reading it at a stretch before I started to prepare this piece. Now I have, I am left with a wholly different view of it. It seems much stronger, much more honest, and I don’t know how it can have picked up this accretion of oriental charm if read with a clear eye. My Edwardian forebears (our copy must have belonged to one of my pious and romantic grandparents) could not face the literal interpretation that Fitzgerald insisted upon. Written in pencil on one of the pages is “Tavern = the soul of the Philosopher” and on another “Wine is Truth to Omar. The Cup = the Universe”. I am not at all surprised – if anyone had told them they were reading a work displaying a stark, agnostic, materialistic worldview, they would not have wanted to know that.
Karlin, though, ends his introduction on a note of hope. Speculating on the reason for its wild popularity at the turn of the 20th century, he says:
“Perhaps the poem was popular because people sensed its intellectual and emotional integrity, and its courage. In return for the gift that we bring to a work of art, bringing it to life by our intelligent and passionate apprehension, we ask it to face life (some aspect of life) on our behalf, and we are never fooled for long when the work wriggles out of the bargain. It is hard even for new readers to approach the Rubáiyát today without some pre-conceived idea of it being little more than a decorative frieze of poses and gestures. On the contrary, it will take us as far as we care to go with one particular response to ‘Human Death and Fate’. If this is so – if the poem keeps its word – then it should be recoverable; the spell under which it has lain can be broken and its tongue untied.”
On Saturday, I wondered aloud if anyone reads the Rubáiyát these days. I’ve asked around, and the answer, on the whole, is no. This year is the 200th anniversary of Fitzgerald’s birth in 1809, and the 150th of the publication of the first edition of ‘The Rubáiyát’ in 1859 (I think that shadows Darwin and ‘The Origin of Species’, doesn’t it?). This new edition is a valuable (and beautiful – see the jacket illustration) tribute to a unique literary work. Perhaps it will contribute to its rediscovery by a new generation.
Edward Fitzgerald. Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Edited by Daniel Karlin. Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 9780199542970