Khayyam's debt to Edward Fitzgerald
By Cyrus Kadivar
January 14, 2000
Several years ago whilst strolling on Charlotte
Street in London I came across a house with a blue circle which read: Edward
Fitzgerald Lived Here. For me, an Iranian living away from my beloved roses
and nightingales, this was a rather special discovery.
Few people know that Fitzgerald's "translation" into English
Khayyam's Rubaiyat is probably the best-selling book in the entire
history of English poetry. It exists in many editions probably more than
two hundred, according to one collector. Enjoying massive popularity throughout
the 20th century, many people have carried it around, taken it to war,
kept it in the car, ordered it for reading on a putative desert island.
The memorable quatrains appeal to all classes and conditions of men
and women; they are still treasured by millions. It is perhaps true to
say that with no Fitzgerald there would have been no Omar. Recovering from
the end of an unhappy marriage, this middle-aged Victorian gentleman set
himself to the task of translating into English a hundred or so lyric stanzas
(rubais) written by an 11th century Persian astronomer.
Fitzgerald found great consolation in Khayyam's skeptical, sensuous
poems, which extol the virtues of living deeply in the present moment.
Preserving the Persian poet's graceful four-line verse form, Fitzgerald
edited, embellished, and arranged the quatrains in dramatic sequence, making
his contribution far more than that of mere translator. In 1859 when he
published the Rubaiyat anonymously it was an immediate success.
My own interest in Fitzgerald was rekindled in 1992 with the translation
from French of Amin Maalouf's Samarkand, a brilliant novel re-creating
the history of the manuscript of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
Then last spring fate introduced me to Shepherd's Bookbinders. Entering
the shop on 76 Rochester Row I enquired about a poster of Fitzgerald's
Rubaiyat displayed prominently behind the window. A charming English girl
with a lovely rosy complexion informed me that an exhibition of their bookbinding
activities had been held the previous autumn and that she had chosen this
special book bound by the famous craft bookbinding firm of Sangorski &
Sutcliffe as the centre-piece.
This exquisitely bound edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was lost
when it went down with the Titanic in 1912, she said. It took two years
of continuous work to create the Great Omar, boasting over 1,000 precious
and semi-precious stones and 1,500 separate pieces of leather. The binding
is recognised as one of the finest examples of the bookbinder's craft.
The only visual record of the book is an old black and white photograph
and recently discovered glass negative. With the help of the original patterns
and contemporary descriptions the binding has been recreated digitally
to actual size by Richard Green and Trickles & Webb.
I decided to buy the poster and have it framed and hung in my living
room above my bookshelves. Today, everytime I look at the Great Omar, as
the book is affectionately known, I cannot help feeling nostalgic at the
loss of such a stunning thing. The Great Omar now lies in an oak casket
at the bottom of the Atlantic. Another copy was destroyed during the Blitz
during WW2 and the third edition is locked up somewhere in the British
Fitzgerald died on 14th June 1883 at George Crabbe's rectory, Merton,
Norfolk. In Boulge churchyard the great man's tombstone is said to be covered
by rambler roses imported from my hometown Shiraz.
Ah, my beloved, fill the cup that clears
Today of past regrets and future fears- Tomorrow? -
Why, tomorrow I may be
Myself with yesterday's seven thousand