Sunday, 23 September 2018


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.

Friday, 8 June 2018

The Cup that Clears…

“Ah! my beloved, fill the cup that clears
To-day of past regrets and future fears-
To-morrow? – why, to-morrow I may be
Myself with yesterday’s sev’n thousand years.”

With this verse, FitzGerald makes explicit his carpe diem theme. In a sense, this verse is a summation of several others that have gone before. In re-arranging Khayyam’s epigrammatic ru’bai, FitzGerald creates a definite framework for the sentiments. Thus we have some image-heavy verses one after the other and then we hit a fixed point – like this one – which makes explicit what the foregoing verses were driving at. There’s a lot packed into this particular quatrain, so let’s take it apart.

First, we have the Beloved. In the first translation, this figure is quite nebulous, but it firms up in the later versions. In one sense, the Beloved is simply an audience for the voice of the writer to address; in another, it becomes more personal and spiritual. Sufi belief identifies the ‘Beloved’ with God, the one who – out of love – created humanity and the world and for whom love in return is the highest form of worship. Sufism strives towards an ecstasy of love for the Divine into which one loses oneself as a form of mystical reuniting. As with many elements of FitzGerald’s translation, there are multiple readings at work here.

The later translations identify the Beloved explicitly as “Saki” – the cup bearer – kind of an Arabian Nights wine-waiter. The Saki ensures that the drinker’s cup is full and that the wine keeps flowing. Years of pop songs have taught us to recognise that ‘filling one’s cup’ is a metaphor for making one feel fulfilled and content; often the cup-filler is the one who is loved, or who is otherwise an object of affection. The Sufi mystics, notably the Whirling Dervishes, recognised the trance-like states that they entered through their dancing as being filled up with the ecstatic essence of God. We have a long poetic debt to Omar Khayyam and FitzGerald here.

It’s noteworthy here to point out that the Saki is never identified as either male or female. Some, like Robert Graves for instance, have chosen to use this as ‘evidence’ for the fact that FitzGerald was homosexual (something that has never been definitively determined). Given that, as we’ve seen, the Saki, the Beloved, might well be an image of God, the importance of gender for this figure is rendered completely beside the point. On the other hand – more prosaically – by rendering the Saki sexless, it allows the reader – regardless of their own persuasion – to bond seamlessly with the “I” of the authorial voice. In short, it allows everyone to read the work equally. The fact that most artists depicting the Rubaiyat choose to show the Saki as female, is another issue altogether…

The verse addresses the Beloved, telling them to fill their cup in order to remove regret caused by past actions and also the fearful anticipation of the unforeseen events to come. “The Cup that Clears” is a symbol of making peace with the past and releasing hesitation about the future; it’s a Persian-Medieval-by-way-of-the-Victorian-Era injunction to practise mindfulness; to live in the present. It’s quite possible that Charles Dumont and Michel Vaucaire were channelling just such sentiments when penning “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien” for Edith Piaf in 1960.

Now that we’ve cleared ourselves of regret for our past actions, that leaves What Comes Next. Here again the authors are explicit – nothing may change. Nothing untoward might take place. There is no point in worrying about what might happen, or what might not. Tomorrow, they say, you might simply be the same as you are today, with the same seven-thousand years of history behind you as before. (Both Khayyam and FitzGerald were raised with notions of the Earth only having been around for a few thousand years.) Amazingly, everything might stay exactly the same, as much as anything might change. There’s no point in fretting.

At this stage in the poem we’ve almost reached a point where the thesis changes over to a new tack. For those interested, there are six more “Seize the Day” verses to go before another subject enters the field; however, we should take the time to savour each of these as they pass and try not to worry about where we’re headed next.

Monday, 25 December 2017


“It is an amusement to me to take what Liberties I like with these Persians who (as I think) are not Poets enough to frighten one from such excursions, & who really do want a little Art to shape them.”
-Edward FitzGerald

Throughout his tenure as the re-interpreter of Khayyam and his point of entry into the English-speaking world, FitzGerald came up against a wall of criticism and outrage. The constant refrain from his detractors is that of his lack of fidelity to the source material and his loose handling of the verses. It has to be said that there’s no real answer to these charges and – something that is generally overlooked in the discussion – FitzGerald never tried to defend himself against them. He did take liberties; he did play fast and loose; he never claimed to be doing otherwise. And yet there is this tidal surge of outrage against him.

The first to voice opposition was the man who actually invited FitzGerald to take a stab at Omar. Professor Edward Byles Cowell was FitzGerald’s tutor at university and taught him Medieval Spanish, before encouraging him to venture from the Mozarabi into the Arabic. Part of Cowell’s instruction was of a vested nature: the Calcutta Manuscript had languished untranslated in the Bodleian Library, considered an unimportant work, and, as far as scut-work was concerned, Cowell decided it was scut-work that FitzGerald could do. Whatever it was that he expected from his pupil, it certainly wasn’t what he got.

The Calcutta Manuscript had a chequered story, being purchased in Kolkata and then ignored by the British and yet of significance to the French, particularly a French academic named J.B. Nicolas, the one-time French consul at Resht in Teheran. Professor Nicolas had made copies of the work and had gone out into the world, recognising that other collections of the poetry existed, waiting to be found. He spent time gathering verses of the original, trying to pin down a definitive number. This proved to be a largely fruitless pastime:

According to the legend (and, like so many aspects of this story, it might not even be true), Omar wrote his ru’baiyah while in class, overseeing his students. As they toiled over the mathematical exercises he set them, he would work on his poems and, as often as not, crumple them up and toss them, as keep them. His students began to look for the rejected poems and collect them together. This had two effects: first, it exposed Khayyam’s heterodoxical thinking and got him into politically-hot water; second, it meant that the collation of his verses was arbitrary and piecemeal, no two copies of the collected poems the same, or indeed forming any kind of philosophical or thematic framework. The Calcutta Manuscript is simply one of these collected strings of poetry, albeit sumptuously put together. The idea is that there are as few as 70+ verses attributed to Omar Khayyam, or as many as 200+; there’s just no way to be sure.

Anyway, in retaliation to FitzGerald’s success with his release of the poem in English, Nicolas appointed himself the self-proclaimed ‘Keeper of the Rubaiyat’ and lobbied to have FitzGerald called-out as a fraud, even writing to Professor Cowell for support. To this end, he also encouraged other students (notably, Jessie Cadell) to turn their hands to the verses and come up with something better. No-one ever came close.

The clue here lies in FitzGerald’s statement, above. The original verses lacked that elusive quality which he calls “Art”. In re-combining the verses into a consistent framework that elevates and emphasises their message, and by highlighting a handful of the available symbols and metaphors, FitzGerald brings a level of clarity to the poetry that is clearly lacking in the original. In short, he turns a string of unrelated epigrams into a cohesive whole. You’d think his detractors could surely grant him that, but no – once they began their derision, it had to be all or nothing.

FitzGerald had access to a whole range of Persian poetry to which he could have turned his hand, and to which he often did. It’s clear that he felt there were ‘Poets’ among the “Persians” and that there were ‘poets’. In talking about Hafiz, he refers to him as the “most Persian” and talks of his verses as being too beautiful in the original to ever be translated – this is surely high praise. In terms of Omar, he often talks of his themes as being “the true metal”; his poetry? Not so much.

This allows me to take a little diversion into the world of Rabindranath Tagore. When he first came to the West, his poetry went through the hands of several editors and translators before appearing in print, in English. The main translator of his works was W.B. Yeats, a poet whose own work might be considered a good match to Tagore’s in terms of its mystical insight (although not that Golden Dawn rubbish) and lyricism. Tagore became the first non-European winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature as a result and received a Knighthood (which he later rejected). There is however, as we have seen, translation and then there is translation: I have read Yeats’ version of “Gitanjali” and another version by another translator – the second is almost wincingly bad. Given the variation, it begs the question that the quality of the original must lie somewhere between the two extremes, or somehow, in some ineffable fashion, transcend both. Can the same be said of Khayyam?

Inevitably, given the heat generated by this debate (and we haven’t even gotten to Robert Graves yet!), a Peacemaker stepped into the ring. The arbiter in the discussion was the academic, Professor Edward Heron-Allen.

FitzGerald, Edward, & Edward Heron-Allen (Ella Hallward, illus.), Edward FitzGerald's “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” With Their Original Persian Sources Collated from His Own MSS., and Literally Translated, L.C. Page & Company, Boston MA, 1900.

Quarto; hardcover, in decorated cloth, with gilt spine and upper board titles and decorations; 164pp., in English and Arabic, top edges gilt, all opened with decorations, with a monochrome frontispiece and tissue guard. Mild wear; covers well-rubbed with some marks; corners and edges bumped; spine extremities softened; spine head pulled; discolouration to the upper board bottom corner; text block edges toned; very mild offset to the endpapers; previous owner's inscription to the flyleaf, erased; very light scattered foxing throughout, mainly to the preliminaries; top joint cracked; spine cracked. No dustwrapper. Very good.

His method of approach was a simple one: lay out the material – translated and not – in a single format wherein the quality of the translations could be compared and contrasted and the relative merits calculated by the reader. This wasn’t a new practise: translations of writers such as Plato and Aeschylus have been put through this mill since there have been university presses to publish them. However, in this instance, the objections and celebrations of the various factions surrounding the work could be put into perspective by the one party that really mattered – the Reader.

(It’s noteworthy to mention here that this copy of the work was published in England by Bernard Quaritch, the original publisher of FitzGerald’s “Rubaiyat”, and licensed to L.C. Page of Boston to produce for the American market. Maybe all the controversy was bad for business?)

Anyway, this book – and many like it to come – attempted to pour soothing oil on very troubled waters and, perhaps, put the discussion into some kind of perspective for the population at large. How do you reconcile a piece of writing that, in the case of Graves, creates apoplexy on the one hand, and provides extreme comfort on the other – specifically referring to the fact that Thomas Hardy had the poem read to him on his death-bed? This production goes some of the way towards providing that resolution.

Friday, 10 November 2017



“And this delightful Herb whose tender Green
Fledges the River’s Lip on which we lean –
Ah! lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!”

Carrying on from the previous quatrain, Omar and Edward push the thought of death and what happens next to its logical conclusion – in the end, we are all dirt.

Once perished and placed in the ground, we become once more part of a greater unity - the Earth. And having gone back to that point of origin, the cycle begins once more: the ground puts forth grass; the grass is eaten; the eater nourishes its consumer; the consumer generates more of its kind. It’s basic science; but something which we – in our lives removed from the natural progression of things – oftentimes forget, or overlook. We all, as they say, “go down to dust”; we all serve “the Force that through the Green Fuse drives the Flower”.

To me, this verse is a reminder that, despite all of our accomplishments and deeds, we are all connected by the fact of being a part of this system. It’s an exhortation to be aware of the cycles that envelop us and the systems which produce us and return us and recycle us. I’m sure that both Omar and Edward didn’t think in terms of “the Environment”, or “Green movements”, but then they were both far more connected to Nature than we are today.

Poisoned ground brings forth nothing; Nature is capable of sparking life in the most arid, desolate and inhospitable places. Unfortunately, we have reached a stage where we can create places where even Nature gets stumped. Plastic has been found at the bottom of the ocean’s deepest chasms. Antarctic rookeries regularly produce fewer penguin chicks than can be counted on the fingers of one hand. In the face of rising sea-levels, the Maldives has reserved a whole island of their chain to heaping up the garbage left behind by their tourist industry, an industry decreasing due to the constant odours of decay and rafts of floating refuse. Are we leaning lightly upon our river-bank in the universe? I don’t think so.

Climate deniers carry on about “the facts”, and simultaneously cherry-pick those same facts to support their personal opinions. Not the Truth; their Opinions. Opinions which can be dramatically altered by a simple Facebook advertisement. Behind these folk you will find vested interests based upon Industrial Investments and Cash-Flows in every instance. There is never any notion of Preservation, or Conservation, in their rhetoric. It’s talk which supports a greedy agenda to consume and use every available resource, turning it all into cold, hard, cash. Even people. Once you kill all of the Tigers and Sharks and Rhinos though, there’s nothing left. And you can’t eat money.

Listen to what Omar and Edward are saying. Lean lightly upon the Earth: it’s a part of us; all of us. And the thing that’s killing it (and us) is our greed.

Saturday, 29 October 2016


“I sometimes think that never blows so red
The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled;
That every Hyacinth the Garden wears
Dropt in its Lap from some once lovely Head.”

There is always joy in unearthing something wonderful, discovering something heretofore unknown. Treasure comes in different forms and its discovery elicits a frisson of excitement and an exquisite sense of pleasure. Oftentimes the process of finding treasure is its own reward and far outweighs the treasure itself.

I have recently returned from a holiday in New Zealand and, while there, I discovered some treasures of my own. Some of these returned with me but others were not the kind of things that can be purchased, much less re-located. My greatest discovery was an amazing bookshop in Dunedin – south of the Octagon, if that means anything to you – called “Dead Souls”, after the novel by Gogol.

The place has recently moved from its original location to a new place on Princes Street, but you’d never know it: it already has that lovely worn-in feel that all the best bookshops have. The front of the store gleams with bright leather and gilt lettering; there are fresh flowers in vases and Persian rugs; and the ceiling and walls are decorated with a mosaic of old torn dustwrappers, slowly creeping over all the blank space. And yes, there is a giant Jesus in the front window.

Architect of the emporium is Dean, bibliophile and publisher, with whom I enjoyed a long conversation about all things book-related, comparing notes on our particular markets and the current trends in sales. I was amazed to learn on this trip, that most NZ booksellers eschew the Internet in favour of a more personalised, face-to-face approach, and the Godzone is very much the type of place where such endeavours can absolutely thrive. Let’s hope it stays that way.

While with Dean, I asked about copies of the Rubáiyát and he threw me an absolute winner:

FITZGERALD, Edward, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, Rendered into English Verse by Edward Fitzgerald, The Riccardi Press for Philip Lee Warner publisher to the Medici Society, London, 1913.

Quarto; hardcover, quarter-bound in papered boards with gilt spine and upper-board titles and a green ribbon; 50pp. [i-xxiv + 1-26], on laid paper with wide margins, all opened, top edge gilt. Moderate wear; boards mildly rubbed with some scattered foxing and light bumping to the edges; text block edges lightly spotted; mild offset to the endpapers; ribbon lightly frayed; previous owners’ ink inscriptions to the front pastedown and the half-title; numbered in ink on the limitations page. Number 66 of 1,000 copies. Very good.

The Riccardi Press of London was established in 1909 by Herbert Percy Horne (1864-1916), a poet, typographer, designer, art historian and antiquarian, who also edited magazines of art appreciation through the Edwardian era. In his later years he re-located to Florence and restored an old palazzo into which he moved, living there until his death. The Riccardi Press published books on behalf of The Medici Society, a London operation started in 1908 by Philip Lee Warner and Eustace Gurney, whose avowed purpose was to bring reproductions of fine art to the masses "for the lowest price commercially possible". Initially, the Riccardi Press produced all the Society’s books until they began to focus exclusively on prints and cards, which they do to this day.

Given their various peccadilloes, it’s not surprising that these guys would bring a copy of the Rubáiyát to light. I had heard of this edition before, but finding a copy of it in Dunedin wasn’t even on my radar. Buried treasure indeed! To make things better, this copy includes a printed leaflet advertising other works produced by the Riccardi Press, a bookmark with advertising information about the Medici Society, and two black-and-white box-brownie photographs belonging to the previous owner. This kind of stuff, for me, adds all kinds of value and interest to the business of collecting.

One photo is of a studious young fellow posing before some stone edifice with a sheaf of papers tucked under his arm; the other shows a laneway bordered by Tudor architecture, with the phrase “Chef d’oeuvre” (“masterpiece”) in ink on the back. The oldest inscription in the book is by “M. Saxton” and dated November 1913, so one might assume that the previous owner was an ex-pat Kiwi studying in either Oxford or Cambridge.

Of course, such conclusions cannot be taken as read, based as they are upon such nebulous fragments; but such tiny sparks are apt to set off a raft of fiery imaginings. The Rubáiyát, as we have seen before, is a book into which its owners impress a wealth of meaning and import, and these windows into past lives are the main reason that I collect my copies.

“M. Saxton” may not be some “buried Caesar”, but his or her Rubáiyát is definitely one of the brightest roses to fall into my garden!

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Lions & Lizards...

“They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshýd gloried and drank deep;
And Bahrám, that great Hunter – the Wild Ass
Stamps o’er his Head, and he lies fast asleep.”

There’s been quite a lot in the news lately about lions, so I figured this was a good time to contribute my two-cent’s worth.

What is this stanza saying? Essentially, it’s reinforcing previous rubai’s by saying that the works of individual humans are short-lived and impermanent. Jamshýd was a legendary ruler of yore to the Persians and created many great works, including a famous cup which was referenced in stanza 5. He built magnificent palaces and entertained lavishly in them. Now he’s dead and his castles are all in ruins.

FitzGerald is playing the Romantic card with this verse. Not the melodramatic, treacly, Hallmark-card of Romance, but the Nineteenth Century aesthetic movement one, which cleaved to all things natural – after the teachings of Ruskin (who, ironically, couldn’t cope with “natural” when he saw it) - especially the wilder, moodier, gloomier side of the Old Dame.

“Nature is eternal”, say the Romantics; “after we are gone, only nature will remain to erase all our achievements”. That was all well and good, back in the day, but now, humanity has all kinds of methods to ensure that, once we’re done with the planet and our time upon it, Mother Nature is not going to be a sure bet to lift herself off the canvas. Lions are an ever-diminishing quantity and Lizards are being out-gunned by climate change.

Bahrám, the other guy mentioned in this verse, was a famous hunter in ancient Iran, and the “Wild Ass”, or Onager, was his quarry of choice. In his time, being a hunter of high repute was something that could be called employment, and it was seriously dangerous: arrows, swords, and spears really levelled the playing field between all parties in those days, making the contest decidedly more equal. If it were possible for Bahrám to run into a certain American Dentist of ill-fame, I’m sure he would have a few things to say about his technique, like hunting actual, wild, undomesticated lions, without hi-tech, laser-sighted bows, and without guys in train carrying high-powered rifles to pull your fat out of the fire when you screw up. Not that I’m lauding any kind of hunter; let me be clear: nowadays, the Onager is extinct in Europe and Asia, and certainly Mr. Bahrám had a hand in that. Unfortunately, we live at a time when anything natural that isn’t being passively destroyed en-masse by our mere presence, is being actively slaughtered by testosteronal A-holes with performance issues to address. If only these morons would be content with watching DVDs of bikini-clad women shooting automatic weaponry in quarry pits, it would be okay; but no, they have to get out there and have a go themselves.

Here’s a thought, especially since it’s a Shark Year, that cyclical time when sharks roam further afield than usual and folks in Byron Bay and Perth forget that it happens every 4-5 years, get all twitchy and start talking about “culls” and “netting”: round up all the “he-man” hunters out there and dump them in the oceans with a steak knife each. Problem solved.

There are two copies of the Rubaiyat from which I’ve drawn images for this post: the first is illustrated by Robert Stewart Sherriffs, whose set of illustrations is one of my favourites; the other is taken from Margaret Caird’s set of pictures and is taken from an octavo Collins copy of the poem – usually, I come across the duodecimo version with a single image used as a frontispiece, so obtaining this volume was a definite bonus.

FitzGerald, Edward (G.F. Maine, Ed.; Robert Stewart Sherriffs, illus.), Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Rendered into English verse with an Introduction by Laurence Housman, Collins Clear-Type Press, London, 1947.

Quarto; full royal-blue leather, with gilt spine and upper board titles and decorations on red labels, and a royal blue ribbon; 222pp., all edges gilt, with a full-colour frontispiece and 11 plates likewise. Some sunning to the board edges and spine; chipping to the leather at the spine head; retailer’s bookplate to the front pastedown; mild scattered foxing to the preliminaries; corners bumped with some minor fraying. Very good.

FitzGerald, Edward (Margaret Caird, illus.), Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Rendered into English verse with an Introduction by Laurence Housman, Collins Clear-Type Press, London, nd. (c.1920s).

Octavo; hardcover in decorated cloth, with decorative endpapers; 56pp., with a monochrome frontispiece and four plates likewise. Mild sunning to the board edges and spine; spine lightly cracked; softening to the spine extremities; some mild toning to the text block edges. Lacks dustwrapper. Very good.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Arthur "The One-Man Army" Szyk...

FITZGERALD, Edward (Arthur Szyk, illus.), Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, rendered into English verse, The Heritage Press for the George Macy Companies Inc., New York, NY, USA, 1946.

Quarto; hardcover, quarter-bound in illustrated boards; unpaginated (24pp.), printed and bound orihon style, with a full-colour, gilt-decorated frontispiece and 7 plates likewise. Boards rubbed with mild bumping; spine extremities softened; mild spotting to the text block edges and endpapers. Lacks dustwrapper. Very good.

“Art is not my aim, it is my means.”
-Arthur Szyk.

Arthur Szyk, like Willy Pogany, was born in Eastern Europe and, unlike many other illustrators, seemed fated to make a living in that profession from his earliest days. Unlike Pogany, however, who was mostly easy-going and positive, Szyk was contentious, darkly-humoured and, with a pencil in his hand, downright antagonistic.

Born in Łódź, Poland, on the 16th day of June 1894, Szyk (pronounced “Shick”) was the son of wealthy textile merchants, of Jewish extraction but non-Orthodox. Throughout his life, Szyk was proud of his heritage, both national and religious, and used his skills to promote pro-Polish causes and to fight anti-Semitism wherever he found them. During the Łódź Insurrection in 1905, Szyk’s father lost his eyesight when a disgruntled worker flung acid in his face. Despite this, Solomon Szyk staunchly supported his son’s artistic leanings, sending him to the Académie Julian in Paris for his education.

There, Arthur was exposed to all the great artistic movements which arose during the start of last century. However, it seemed that the more he encountered the New in terms of art, the more he chose to cleave to the traditional, Eastern-influenced styles of his homeland, as well as developing a liking for the stylistic forms of medieval manuscripts. From 1912-1914, he was regularly published in the Łódź magazine “Śmiech” (“Laughter”), providing many politically-charged cartoons and caricatures. By this time he had left Paris and had taken up studies at the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków studying under Teodor Axentowicz. In 1914 he went to Palestine with several associates to observe the efforts of jewish settlers in constructing a Jewish state; however, the trip was cut short due to the outbreak of World War One. Palestine was in the control of the Ottoman Empire and Szyk, being Polish, was considered Russian and therefore unwelcome in Ottoman territories.

Returning home to Łódź, Szyk was conscripted into the Russian army and fought in the battle to defend his hometown in November/December 1914. Whilst in the army he drew many images of Russian soldiers which were sold successfully as postcards. At the commencement of 1915, he fled the army and returned to Łódź, where he waited out the War. In September of 1916, he met and married Julia Likerman, with whom he had two children, George in 1917 and Alexandra in 1922.

Poland regained its independence from Russia in 1918. In response to the German Revolution of 1918-19, he illustrated a satirical work, co-authored by himself and poet Julian Tuwim, entitled Rewolucja w Niemczech (Revolution in Germany). The book poked fun at the German people for requiring the permission of their Kaiser to enact a revolutionary proceedings. Shortly afterwards, Szyk was back in battle himself in the Soviet-Polish War of 1919-20, which he began by working as a propagandist, and then as a Polish cavalry officer. In 1921, he re-located to Paris once more.

In France, Szyk began illustrating in earnest. Previous to this period, his work was mainly executed in black and white; now he began to prefer colour and his book illustrations took on the jewel-like aspect which became characteristic of his style. While based in Paris, he travelled extensively returning frequently to Łódź. In Marrakesh he drew the portrait of the Pasha, and he went to Geneva to illustrate the Statute of the League of Nations. For the Pasha’s portrait he received the Ordre des Palmes Académiques, for being a goodwill ambassador; he left the Statute incomplete, turning in disgust from what he perceived to be half-hearted efforts by the League.

Also during this period, he began illustrating the Statute of Kalisz, a charter of liberties which were granted to the Jews by Boleslaw the Pious, the Duke of Kalisz, in 1264. Work on the project gained widespread recognition and, before it was even finished, postcard reproductions of certain pages and a travelling exhibition cemented Szyk’s popularity in the lead-up to the publishing of the work in Munich in 1932. He was awarded the Polish Gold Cross of Merit for his effort in showcasing the Jewish contributions made to Polish culture.

At the same time, Szyk was embarked upon illustrating a history of George Washington and the American Revolutionary War entitled Washington and his Times. This series of 38 watercolour images was begun in Paris in 1930 and was exhibited in 1934 at the Library of Congress in Washington, at which time Szyk was awarded the George Washington Bicentennial Medal.

Starting in 1932, Szyk began to illustrate a version of the Jewish text The Haggadah, which contained 48 full-colour illustrations and many other decorations. It is considered to be his magnum opus. With the unsettling reverberations which were coming out of Germany however, Szyk was compelled to add many modern flourishes to the work – evil characters in the work depicted in German clothing and with Hitler moustaches, caricatures of Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring, and many images of swastika-bearing snakes proliferated. In 1937 while in London, Szyk was forced by his publishers to amend these details before the work went to print: at the time the British Government was actively pursuing a policy of appeasement with Germany and didn’t want anything to sour the deal. Three years of compromise later, Szyk dedicated the book to King George VI and walked away from it. The Times review of the final work declared it “worthy to be placed among the most beautiful of books that the hand of man has ever produced”.

Probably compelled by the compromises he made to this work, Szyk held an exhibition of 72 caricatures held at the London Fine Art Society, entitled War and “Kultur” in Poland. A reviewer in The Times rated the display in 1940 as follows:

“There are three leading motives in the exhibition: the brutality of the Germans – and the more primitive savagery of the Russians, the heroism of the Poles, and the suffering of the Jews. The cumulative effect of the exhibition is immensely powerful because nothing in it appears to be a hasty judgment, but part of the unrelenting pursuit of an evil so firmly grasped that it can be dwelt upon with artistic satisfaction.”

Shortly thereafter, Szyk left England to travel to America, charged by the Polish government in exile to spread the word in the US about the fate of Poland and the Jews under Nazi rule.

Szyk felt a spiritual affinity with the United States and declared that he felt completely free to speak his mind (through his art). He was inspired by various governmental proclamations and pieces of legislation to illustrate these and to create works of art to celebrate them. He designed stamps and official documents, but primarily he created illustrations propagandizing the Axis powers and celebrating Allied victories. These were published in various magazines and turned into posters which, it is said, were even more popular amongst the US troops than their pin-up girls. Eleanor Roosevelt said of Szyk, “This is a personal war of Szyk against Hitler, and I do not think that Mr. Szyk will lose this war!”

Szyk’s unwavering moral compass was not reserved only for the Axis enemies. He also created many works critical of the American culture, particularly the entrenched racism that he perceived there. In one cartoon he has two US soldiers – one white and one black – discussing what they would have done with him if they had captured Hitler. The black soldier says “I would have made him a Negro and dropped him somewhere in the U.S.A.” The Ku Klux Klan were another hated organisation who felt his acerbic barbs.

Szyk’s popularity waned after the War and he eventually died of a heart attack in New Canaan in September 1951. He left behind an incredible legacy of illustrative work, not only of his war propaganda but also many meticulously designed books, immediately recognisable due to his minute, jewel-like work. Recent exhibitions have revived interest in his work and re-established him as one of the most driven and passionate illustrators of the Twentieth Century. After his death Judge Simon H. Rifkind summed up his life with this eulogy:

"The Arthur Szyk whom the world knows, the Arthur Szyk of the wondrous color, and of the beautiful design, that Arthur Szyk whom the world mourns today—he is indeed not dead at all. How can he be when the Arthur Szyk who is known to mankind lives and is immortal and will remain immortal as long as the love of truth and beauty prevails among mankind?”