Monday, 6 April 2020


It’s almost inevitable really. People coming together over wine and poetry, maybe with a few candles and something toothsome to nibble. At some point, the intimacy becomes too distracting and, the next thing you know, the “Book of Verse” is going up in smoke. Obviously, if the intimate moment is taking place upon the “delightful Herb whose tender Green Fledges the River’s Lip”, then it’s a simple expedient to bung the Book into the River to quench the flames. Poetry saved; problem solved.

I have a couple of copies of the Rubaiyat which have had this happen to them – or rather, which I imagine have experienced this – moisture damaged and a little singed around the edges. I call them ‘Ophelias’ because, like the character from “Hamlet”, they too have been burned by love and then drowned.

FITZGERALD, Edward (Willy Pogany, illus.), Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., n.p. (London), n.d. (c.1925).

Duodecimo; limp suede wrappers, with blind-stamped spine titles and upper board decoration, gilt upper board titles and a cream ribbon; unpaginated (96pp.), top edges gilt and all pages untrimmed with decorative borders, with a tipped-in colour frontispiece and three plates likewise.

Moderate wear: covers well-rubbed and edgeworn with charring to the front cover; spine head pulled; text block edges toned with some smoke damage; spine cracked; endpapers moisture damaged with some creasing; previous owners’ contemporary ink inscriptions to the half-title page; ribbon detached; some pages loose; tears to the fore-edges of a couple of the last pages. Fair.

This example bears all of the hallmarks. The front cover is completely singed, with the suede burned down to the leather along the bottom edge; the corners and spine head are chipped where the scorched sections have flaked off and the whole text block is starting to come apart. Basically, it’s a mess, with little or no re-sale value: it’s not even worth getting it repaired. Still, the story it tells of an eventful evening (possibly) is something I find endearing.

FITZGERALD, Edward (Gilbert James, illus.), Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, R.F. Fenno & Company, New York NY, n.d. (c.1910).

Octavo; full red morocco, with gilt upper board titles and decoration and watered-silk bonded endpapers; 118pp., untrimmed, top edges gilt and all pages with decorative coloured borders, with a colour frontispiece (with tissue guard) and 11 plates likewise (no guards).

Moderate wear: boards rubbed and edgeworn with some fraying to the corners; spine extremities pulled and spine sunned; text block edges toned with some staining; spine cracked; moisture damage – rippling and staining to most pages; fore-edges of some pages lightly torn from being separated after being dried; some light scorchmarks to a few page fore-edges. Fair.

In this instance, it’s clear that this was a case of over-compensation. The amount of fire damage here is very slight, but obviously, someone panicked and dunked the book more than was absolutely necessary. I keep this copy around because it contains a selection of the Gilbert James illustrations which have been copied using a kind of photogravure process: this has made the otherwise light and ephemeral drawings rather harsh and flat with a kind of effect similar to the poster work of Alphonse Mucha. It’s also typical of the rampant piracy that the Americans were into back then, in terms of copying this work from across the Pond.

Again, the condition of this book means that it has no real monetary value; but for me, it serves as a demonstrative example of not only James’ collection of Rubaiyat images (which have rarely been published all together in the same edition), but also as a concrete indicator of the publishing story of this poem. And I simply can’t bring myself to throw her away!

Saturday, 4 April 2020


FitzGerald, Edward (trans.), The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam – Fitzgerald Translation, Gornall the Publisher, Sydney NSW, nd. (c.1946).

Duodecimo; paperback, staple-bound with decorated snakeskin-embossed paper wrappers in a yapp binding; 80pp., all decorated, with 4 monochrome plates.

Moderate wear; covers rubbed and edgeworn with some marks; some light spotting to the text block top edge; light spotting to the preliminaries; previous owner’s contemporary ink inscription to the first page, along with the retailer’s ink stamp; “Caboolture Historical Society” ink stamp to several points within the text block. Very good.

The history of publishing in Australia abounds with occasions of censorship, especially in the Twentieth Century. There are instances of well-known infamy of which most people are aware, and which seem - to the untrained eye – to be standalone occurrences rather than irruptions of an entrenched policy, locked firmly into place. The importation and dissemination of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for instance, was squelched within these borders (no surprise there – it was suppressed in most parts of the world), but it caused extra tension here due to the fact that he also penned another book entitled Kangaroo, set amongst union organisers in Sydney: why then, it was asked, can we print this book and not that one? The arguments went back and forth… Ulysses by Joyce was also unremarkable in being targeted for suppression and spent time here in limbo, along with Lolita by Nabokov.

Some incidents became stellar news events. When Sir Eugene Goossens returned from Europe with a bunch of material in his luggage deemed to be “pornographic”, his sexual and mystical preoccupations were dragged screaming into the light of day by the Fourth Estate - he lost his job as the conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and was hounded out of the country. His time in the spotlight highlighted the works of Sydney witch Rosaleen Norton (with whom Goossens had an intense association) which had also been withdrawn from sale, denied distribution rights and subsequently censored. Later, in the 1970s, the debacle surrounding the publication of “Oz” magazine emerged – a lampooning journal founded, ironically, in the spirit of that bastion of Australian periodicals “The Bulletin” – which led to court cases and headlines and (with the passage of time) guaranteed the future careers of those who produced it as leaders of the Australian art and publications scene. Time apparently does heal all wounds…

These few instances, while shaking the headlines, were the stressed expressions of a more far-flung and pervasive policy. In the post-World War Two era, Australia was wary of being financially bitten, as it had been by Mother England after the First World War – British demand for War reparations at that time crippled the country economically and drove it deep into the Depression. Decisions were made that were aimed at preventing money leaving the country, in order to prop up the local economy in the post-War boom. Comics, pulp fiction – both books and magazines – women’s journals on cooking and craft: it was deemed judicious to prevent such material coming into the country from overseas, with the idea that, if the punters wanted to buy this stuff badly enough, they would create homegrown versions of it, inside Australian borders. There were many ramifications from this decision.

Many standard genre fiction magazines, showcasing works by up-and-coming writers, suddenly developed “Australian editions” with local entrepreneurs buying the re-print rights for local manufacture. Companies like Gordon & Gotch, quickly snapped up Australasian rights for things such as Marvel and DC Comics, “Archie” and “Katy Keene” magazines, even Donald Duck comics, and produced cheap (often only black-and-white) versions from printing bases in Singapore. Local author “Carter Brown” – penner of over 300 pulp titles of exploitative gumshoe fiction - became so popular that his work began to be exported overseas, especially to the US. Anything brought into the country that was deemed a competitor to homegrown versions was quickly denied distribution. The sector most affected by these strictures was the "trashy" end of the literary scale - comics, pulp, ephemera - and so, for the most part, went unnoticed as MIA by the general populace.

However, there was an extra layer to this process as well. On top of considerations about the local economy, there was also a moral tone to these events, and it was these wranglings which invariably hit the headlines. Norman Lindsay spent his last years railing against “wowsers” in Australian artistic circles, referring to those people liable to be shocked by liberal attitudes in personal expression and who, contrarily, prudishly seek it out in order to quash it and deny others their own opinion. The censorship regime which took over Australian print media in the post-War era was laced with this wowser attitude and the times when it was seen to over-reach its ambit were usually the times when the public became pointedly aware of its purse-lipped moral crusaders.

With this particular version of the Rubaiyat, we can see the process in action. To kick off with, the format is quite a cheap one: many publishers looked at this poem as a cost-effective item in their stables. The poem was hugely popular; people would always be prone to shell out for a nice pocket copy of it, for themselves, or as a token of affection for some significant other. As well, it was literature, lauded at the highest levels of academia and considered one of the Western canon’s great works – who could object to its dissemination? Publishers could make small cheap copies of it in ongoing sizable print-runs and still recoup their overheads – we have to remember that there were strict restrictions on paper usage during the War, and for quite some time afterwards too. It was a solid cash cow essentially, and every publisher worth the name was doing it.

As we’ve seen already, the poem lends itself extremely well to illustration and decoration. It costs little more to add two-tone colour effects to the pages, or to insert plates at various points along the way; even to shell out for a fancy cover effect, such as the one utilised here. The only thing you really have to keep an eye on is your illustrator.

In this instance, the artist is simply referred to as “O’Brien”, either because he was well known in magazine circles (possibly a newsprint illustrator), or because he wished to retain a sense of anonymity. His illustrations for this edition are somewhat racy it has to be said (given the time period), and this might have caused the publisher some concern. As we’ve seen before, often an artist creates a whole suite of images for the work and these are published in a deluxe edition; subsequent, usually smaller, editions, edit out some of the plates as the size format dwindles. That might have happened here – I’m not sure. The plates that remain are somewhat orgiastic, in that they mainly depict drinking parties peopled with mostly naked individuals, and in the post-War censorship atmosphere, that might have been a headache for the publisher.

That’s not to say that the publisher might not have approved of the artwork or the illustrator; quite the contrary: they might even have been wishing to create a stir by bringing this version out on to the market, with its risqué doodlings. Equally, there might have been many tortuous discussions as to which plates could be included and which ones would have to go by the wayside: it’s just not clear. What is clear though, is that the publisher decided to whack the following trademark on the back cover:

This imprimatur“Gornall Instructional Publications” – seems to me to be deliberately designed to take the curse off the whole venture. Gornall could easily claim that “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” was literature and, as such, they had every right to get it out there to the masses – for “instructional” purposes. So, their artist got a little carried away with the theme – was it that bad? It could surely have been worse, like that stuff that Lindsay bloke comes up with, say. This is clearly a strategy, and many Australasian publishing houses were probably dancing this little two-step at the time.

I have a bunch of these kinds of editions of The Rubaiyat cheaply made in large quantities to serve the market demand, which was surprisingly high. Interestingly, the most ‘edgy’ of them (including many spoofs of the poem) seem to have originated from Queensland: this one, while published in Sydney, has a Brisbane retailer’s stamp on the first page, so maybe there was a concerted effort to flout censorship from up there? Who can say? Regardless, this one seems to have squeezed its way past the notice of the censorship board and to have made its way out into the light on its “instructional” rationale.

The days of the censorship of printed material for economic (and, just quietly, other purposes) has passed us by – it all came undone in the early 80s – but its impacts upon the Australian readership cannot be understated. Maybe it did become the spur for many local authors who - due to the presence within the local market of foreign versions of the stories they wanted to tell - might never have put pen to paper. Maybe, though, they would have started writing regardless. Magazines like “The Women’s Weekly” might never have grown as much as they did, in the face of imported journals like “Better Homes & Gardens” and “Town & Country”. If foreign journals, foreign thinking, foreign writing had been freely available here, we might never have experienced the 60s 'brain-drain' which saw many of our greatest minds - Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes - flee these intellectually-deprived shores for greener pastures. The whole issue goes to prove that our freedoms of printed expression are often not as free as we like to believe and that they’re certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Saturday, 9 November 2019


“The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” was a pervasive text throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras and continued to have influence over the War years and into the modern era. It continues to be quoted today and remains one of the most instantly-recognisable of English texts. We’ve seen that it has inspired illustrators, book designers and publishers, but its influence moves even beyond these. There are many occasions where lines from the “Rubaiyat” have been used as inspiration, or as touchstones to action or cogitation. Here is a musical instance.

Charlie “Bird” Parker lived a life that seems to have taken its cue from Khayyam’s Carpe Diem philosophy. He grew up in hardscrabble conditions and managed to soar above the limits of his origins to become the greatest jazz-player and innovator of all time. He is credited with defining the scope of modern jazz music and for the creation of the bebop style, along with “Dizzy” Gillespie and others. Unfortunately, Parker had serious mental problems stemming from substance abuse issues, involving heroin and painkillers, and his output was thus reduced to a short and intense 15-year period. After dying of an overdose in the New York apartment of his patron Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, the Rothschild heiress and jazz fan, doctors thought they were investigating the body of a man in his late 50s or early 60s; Parker was only 35.

As a black musician in less-than-tolerant times, Parker was exposed to all of the thoughtless cruelty inflicted upon performers of colour during his career, and it is no wonder that he chose to “seize the cup that clears Today of all regrets” in order to keep on going. He was often found to have sold his saxophone or his train tickets in order to pay for his next fix, and these instances were alternatively the making or breaking of him.

Ironically, just as Parker and Gillespie were formalizing the identity of the bebop sound, a two-year strike broke out to address inconsistencies in the payment of royalties received by musical performers. This led to a period where music was forbidden to be recorded for the purposes of re-playing by television or film companies, or for sale as vinyl discs. Some bodies were exempted – such as the authority that created vinyl discs for US troops stationed overseas (so-called “V-discs”) but, for the most part, the creation of bebop was not recorded at its birth and would have to wait until the ban had been lifted to begin its proliferation.

Another ironic instance concerns what was, perhaps, Parker’s greatest live performance. An ad hoc production ensemble somehow convinced Parker, “Dizzy” Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell and Max Roach to play the Massey Hall in Toronto on the 15th of May in 1953. There were legal, personal and logistical problems galore in getting the five players there (Parker was contractually forbidden to attend – he performed as “Charlie Chan”) and, in the end, a championship boxing bout across the street between “Rocky” Marciano and “Jersey Joe” Walcott meant that the concert was so poorly attended that the producers were unable to pay the musicians for showing up. Nevertheless, it remains a defining moment in the history of jazz and perhaps Charlie Parker’s best live performance. Fortunately, Charles Mingus recorded the event, unbeknownst to many present, and, despite having to later dub in his own bass lines which were lost in the process, managed to capture an ephemeral moment in jazz music.

On top of all this, Parker showed up without his sax, having sold it to buy drugs en route, and he played a borrowed plastic instrument.

Like many performers of the time, Parker felt quite at home in France, where jazz and its performers – regardless of background – were well received. In 1949, he toured there and ended up on the Left Bank of the Seine, holding court for his admirers with the literati of the day. As Geoffrey Haydon has it in his book Quintet of the Year:

“The late-night jam sessions, in the cabarets on the Left Bank of the Seine, were blessed by the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Pilgrims flocked across Europe to engage Parker in intellectual debate. Champagne was the all-day drink. Obtaining drugs was no problem. A critic from the ‘Melody Maker’, bible for Great Britain’s syncopated music fans, hastened from London bearing a questionnaire he had compiled on behalf of his readers. Parker, no doubt charmed by the English accent, rewarded each question with a quotation from the ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’

And there you have it: it seems that FitzGerald’s and Omar’s philosophies were a guiding influence upon the life of Charlie “Bird” Parker and the development of jazz music.

This “Bird of Time” had “but a little way to fly”, but he was on the wing…

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.