Graves, Robert, & Omar ali-Shah (trans.), The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – A new Translation with critical commentaries, Cassell & Company Ltd., London, 1968.
Octavo; hardcover, full cloth with gilt spine titles and decorative endpapers; 86pp. Mild wear; some softening and wear to the spine extremities; offset to the endpapers. Price-clipped dustwrapper mildly rubbed; some staining to the lower panel; now protected by non-adhesive plastic wrap.
The famous British writer, poet and translator Robert Graves had a contentious relationship with Edward FitzGerald and the Rubaiyat. All through his life, Graves derided FitzGerald for being homosexual; this from a man who professed undying affection for his fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon during the Great War and then embarked upon a resolutely heterosexual existence after his overtures were rebuffed. From the outside, it smacked of a serious case of overcompensation in the face of rejection.
From textual and eye-witness evidence – along with the nature of FitzGerald’s unusual domestic situation – on balance, he was probably gay, or at least, somewhere on the non-hetero spectrum. Not that it matters. Unfortunately, for Graves it did matter. An awful lot.
Graves had a stellar career as a literary figure and his contributions can be measured by the fact that he was nominated for a Nobel Prize for Literature. There is no question that his contributions are jewels in the crown of the English literary tradition. However, the vitriol that he spewed on FitzGerald was excessive and led him down a seedy and sorry path that all but ruined his career.
In 1967, Graves was approached by a Persian man named Omar Ali-Shah who claimed to have a copy of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat that had been in his family for 800 or so years. He proposed that both Graves and he – and his younger brother, Idries, a long-time protégé of Graves – could translate the quatrains into a ‘more faithful’ rendition, and thus ‘set the record of Omar Khayyam straight’. They began work upon the project, none more eagerly than Graves, and they produced a translation of the verses which was released in the same year. During the process, Shah travelled back and forth from Persia and, on one of these trips salted away the advance monies that had been provided by the publisher, after which he and his brother fell out of contact with Graves.
He had been conned. The book came out, but all the money which his lofty reputation had attracted had vanished in the production. The Shahs had chosen their dupe well – if Graves hadn’t been involved, the cash which had been ante’d up would have been much less; and Graves’s well-known distaste for FitzGerald had ensured that he would have talked the project up for anyone interested in listening to the possibility of ‘correcting’ FitzGerald’s efforts. If he’d been less egotistical and less well-known as a FitzGerald hater, the scheme might not have worked at all.
The Graves-Shah version of the Rubaiyat was met with acrimony. Graves was staunchly accused of trying to ruin FitzGerald’s work and of deliberately trying to destroy FitzGerald’s reputation. The academic world moved quickly to the conclusion that the Shah’s copy of the verses was actually a forgery. The book was a critical failure. Graves left England shortly after and spent the rest of his life hiding in Majorca.
A particular sore point for Graves was that he had long aided Idries Shah in getting his works on Sufism and Witchcraft (among other subjects) published in England. In the aftermath of the scandal, Graves repeatedly wrote to Idries asking him to come forward with the original family document from which they’d made their translation, in order to vindicate their work; however, Idries Shah claimed that it was no longer in his possession and that his father (the owner) was not prepared to come forward with it, due to the anger he felt at its translation’s poor reception by the academic community. In time, the fraudulent source material of the Graves-Shah effort was identified as having been culled from some preliminary notes penned by a Victorian student who’d attempted to organise an early translation of the work. Ironically, these were the same notes that FitzGerald had used when he had first embarked upon his own endeavours.
Graves lost out badly on the venture. The translation was spurned and the sales of the rest of his books went into a nose dive. It took years for him to recoup anything of his former reputation. He had created a “stuffed eagle” which had savaged him mercilessly, with little power left over to affect FitzGerald’s “live sparrow”.
Graves, Robert, & Omar ali-Shah (trans.), The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – A new Translation with critical commentaries, Penguin Books (Aust.) Pty. Ltd., Ringwood Vic., 1972.
Octavo; paperback; 95pp. Moderate wear; covers rubbed and lightly edgeworn; mild creasing to the spine; text block and page edges toned; offset to the preliminaries; some early pages starting. Good.
But let us not depend merely upon the word of distant academics for judgement; let’s take a close look at the verses translated by Graves and Shah and compare them to FitzGerald’s versions. Here’s FitzGerald’s translation of the first stanza, from his first published version:
“Awake! For Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! The Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.”
Here’s the Grave-Shah attempt:
“While Dawn, Day’s herald straddling the whole sky,
Offers the drowsy world a toast ‘To Wine’,
The Sun spills early gold on city roofs –
Day’s regal Host, replenishing his jug.”
What the…? And now here’s another famous 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.”
Which Graves transforms into:
“A gourd of red wine and a sheaf of poems –
A bare subsistence, half a loaf, not more –
Supplied us two alone in the free desert
What Sultan could we envy on his throne?”
A review of the translation from Time Magazine in 1968 accused Graves roundly of deliberately trying to strip the beauty out of FitzGerald’s verses and I think the charge is justified. The efforts all through the version are pedestrian in tone and lack any sort of poetic vibrancy. They read like literal transpositions from the Persian into English without any acknowledgement of the Art that FitzGerald alluded to when he set out to shape the poetry. Even the presentation of the book – severe in design without any ornamentation – reads like an attempt to transform the Poetic into the Spartan, to suck the joy right out of the verse. If nothing else, Graves and Shah revealed that perhaps the original verses just aren’t that poetically magical, and that FitzGerald’s was the secret ingredient that really made them sing.
The rest of the book is full of bitchy ‘criticism’ with screeds of venom-inflected details about what FitzGerald left out, what he added and where he was 'wrong'. For the most part these are completely subjective and entirely pernickety, stemming from Graves’s years of pent-up frustration and – I suspect – jealousy. There is an extended essay too, entitled “The Fitz-Omar Cult” which derides fans and supporters of the FitzGerald translation as wanting in their critical faculties – surely not the best way to endear one’s efforts to that same public?
Graves's eagerness to trash Edward FitzGerald led only to his own skewering by the literati, and the embarrassment of being seen to have been duped by con-men in the full glare of the public view. It’s a tawdry episode in the long and interesting history of the enduring Fitz-Omar collaboration which suffered in the imbroglio not at all.