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Great Omar
Khayyam's debt to Edward Fitzgerald

By Cyrus Kadivar
January 14, 2000
The Iranian

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 of Omar 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 Library.

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

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