Appendix 23: Omar Khayyam as Humpty Dumpty

When one comes across an article with a title like “Omar Khayyam as Humpty Dumpty”, one cannot but sit up and take notice. The article was by Alexander Hastie Millar, a journalist (he was the reviewer, leader–writer and art critic for the Dundee Advertiser) and author (he wrote a history of Rob Roy, a book on bygone Glasgow, and various books about Scottish castles and mansions.) He was a Fellow of the Scottish Society of Antiquaries and of the Royal Society of Art, and in 1908 he was appointed the chief librarian of the Dundee City Library. He contributed articles on a wide variety of subjects to numerous journals and magazines, including Chambers’ Journal, The Academy, and The Athenaeum. (1) His Humpty Dumpty article appeared in the popular magazine The People’s Friend on 7th January 1901.

But to begin at the beginning: the Humpty Dumpty article was the last of four articles written by Millar for The People’s Friend, the others being “The Omar Khayyam Myth” (11th June 1900), “The Omar Myth Reviewed” (23rd July 1900) and “Homer, Omar and Andrew Lang” (22nd Oct 1900.) The four articles together are listed as Potter #842, and though one finds the occasional suggestion that they were published together in book form, in actual fact the ‘book’ referred to appears to be a scrapbook containing the four articles, preserved as newspaper cuttings, which is held in Dundee City Library.

As the title of his first article suggests, Millar was convinced that Omar Khayyam the poet — as opposed to Omar Khayyam the mathematician and astronomer — was a myth. The obvious chronological improbability of the three students tale, the widely varying number of quatrains in the surviving manuscripts of The Rubaiyat, the fact that all those manuscripts date from at least 300 years after Omar Khayyam’s death (the date of which, like that of his birth, was so uncertain in Millar’s day), plus the improbability of anyone writing such heretical verses in an era of strict Islamic orthodoxy, all combined to make Millar very sure of himself. He wrote:

“...certainly, upon all the available evidence, an unprejudiced British jury would pronounce the verdict that Omar Khayyam is a myth; that his quatrains are forgeries of a comparatively recent date; that Edward FitzGerald and Professor Cowell, who first made his alleged writings known, were imposed upon by some astute Oriental fraud; and that the members of the Omar Khayyam Club worship they know not what!”

And, a little later, speaking of The Rubaiyat, he wrote:

“The probability is that it is a fifteenth century forgery to which the fraudulent inventor applied the name of Omar, the algebraist and astronomer, in derision, or with intent to deceive piously, just as Ezra, as some Higher Critics would have us believe, affixed the name of Moses to the five books of the Pentateuch.” (2)

Millar found the development of the Omar Khayyam cult at the end of the 19th century a puzzle of the times, and found it even odder that the eminently respectable members of the Omar Khayyam Club should rub shoulders with fin–de–siècle poets and “utterly–too–too” art critics in their enthusiasm for The Rubaiyat. He closed his first article thus:

“There is not much comfort in the mournful pessimism of such a creed, and it seems strangely out of harmony with the spirit of an age which has witnessed many fervent religious revivals, and has carefully avoided the pitfalls of Atheism and Materialism. Hence it is probable that the Omarism which has suddenly burst forth within these few years will rapidly sink into oblivion; and the next generation, as the present, will prefer the calm, steady faith of Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ and ‘Crossing the Bar’, to the heartless, hopeless, impotent despair of the ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.’”

As it turned out, of course, the Omar Cult still had a long way to go, and FitzGerald’s verses were never to be eclipsed by Tennyson's “In Memoriam” (on which see Appendix 9.)

It seems fairly likely that Millar’s first article would have been a one–off had it not stirred up something of a literary storm, in response to which his second article appeared. “It was only to be expected,” Millar wrote at the start of his second article, “that so determined an attack would excite interest alike in Omarites and Anti–Omarites; and quite a literary storm has ensued, which has raged, not only in Scotland, England, and the adjacent Isle of Erin, but has even crossed the Atlantic to New York.” Of Millar’s suggestion of literary fraud, Country Life thought it “fitting that such a suggestion should come from the country that produced Ossian and Macpherson" (3) and Punch responded in satiric verse, advising its readers to dismiss Omar and to:

Silence vain iteration and assertion,
And cultivate a philosophic doubt
If ever there existed such a Persian.

Clement Shorter, a founder member of the Omar Khayyam Club of London, of course, was indignant; Professor Max Müller (“the very highest authority”) was supportive; Millar himself remained defiant, closing his second article thus:

“Another striking argument may here be added to those that have been already advanced. The period of Omar’s life (say 1030-1092) was that of the most devout orthodoxy in Mahometanism, when the Sons of the Faithful were contending with the Crusaders. Devotion to the wine–cup and belief in annihilation at death did not exist even as heresies. But the period of Hafiz, who died at Shiraz in 1389, was the decadent age of Mahometanism, and he was almost the first Persian poet who lauded the wine-cup. Now, the earliest Omar MS was written at Shiraz in 1460; and even then its nihilistic sensuality did not make it popular. The conclusion is obvious. Some Shiraz poet, imitating Hafiz, the laureate of Shiraz, wrote the earliest Rubaiyat, and successive misbelievers since that time have secretly added quatrains until the modest 400 lines or so of the original have been increased to over 2000 lines. Where is the critic who will separate the fifteenth century node from its accretions ? If the Omar Khayyam Club is to do anything but dine, it should begin this Herculean labour.”

Millar’s third article, “Homer, Omar and Andrew Lang” was a detailed response to Andrew Lang’s article “Omar Khayyam as a Bore” which appeared in The Critic in September 1900 (Potter #748.) Lang was a great admirer of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, but found the Omar craze itself tiresome. At one point he had complained:

“He is chattered about, written about, translated, illustrated, dined over, poetized about, to an extent which would scarcely be excessive if Omar were Homer.” (4)

But then Lang went on to assert that it didn’t much matter “whether Omar was one man, or whether the ‘Rubaiyat’ are a collection by various hands, like the Greek Anthology.” It was whether the poetry was good or bad that counted, he said, and the author, whether real or fictitious, was of relatively minor importance in comparison. This, combined with that comparison of Omar with Homer, set Millar off on another tirade, for Lang was an ardent opponent of Wolf’s multi–author theory of Homer (5), yet here he was now, being perfectly tolerant of a multi–Omar theory. As for it not mattering if the Rubaiyat were forgeries, Millar’s response was to ask how Lang would like it if he came back to the Earth in a hundred years time to find some prized work of his attributed to someone else and — worse — to find some infamous work of third–rate fiction falsely attributed to him. Millar went on:

“Yet this is very much the position of Omar the Philosopher — if he ever lived — who is made responsible by a forger for verses which he never wrote, containing sentiments which he probably would view with horror. Let Mr Lang continue to admire the ‘Rubaiyat’ from a literary point of view, and esteem the English (alleged) version by FitzGerald as much as he pleases: but as a matter of simple honesty let him relieve the devout old Omar of the odium of writing heresies four hundred years before their time. The Omar craze is silly enough in itself; it is simply contemptible when founded on falsehood, fraud and injustice.”

Whether Lang ever responded to all this, I do not know, I’m afraid. But having dealt with Lang, Millar next turned to Professor Edward Denison Ross, who, “after a cursory glance over the first article of the Omar Myth,” had written “an indignant and abusive” rejoinder in The Sphere (13 Oct 1900; not in Potter.) Professor Ross accused him of having “confused Nizam–ul–Mulk, the Vizier who predeceased Omar, with Nizam–i–Aruzi, a Persian author who met Omar in the flesh.” This infuriated Millar, who responded thus:

“Now, had the Professor read the article more carefully he would have seen that the narrative to which he objects is quoted literally from FitzGerald’s own Introduction to ‘The Rubaiyat’. So that this prospective Editor of FitzGerald’s translation does not recognise the writing of the author whose work he is to edit, though this Introduction is to be found in all the official editions of FitzGerald.”

The prospective work to which Millar refers is, of course, the edition of the Rubaiyat with a commentary by H.M. Batson and a biographical introduction by Prof. Ross, published by G.P.Putnam’s Sons in 1900. Somewhat acidly, Millar wrote:

“Professor Ross also promises in his forthcoming book to give quatrains by Omar that have been ‘quoted by writers of the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries.’ Let us hope that his criticism of Persian is more accurate than his criticism of English.”

And thus ended the third sermon.

The fourth article of the series, “Omar Khayyam as Humpty Dumpty”, appeared shortly after Professor Ross’s edition of The Rubaiyat was published. One might have expected that at this time Millar would have “crept silently to rest”, but not a bit of it. He was by now convinced that his first three articles had done so much damage to Omar as a real historical figure, that not even Professor Ross, with or without all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, could put Omar Humpty together again. Professor Ross had actually only served to prove his (Millar’s) point: “For rarely has a writer succeeded so well in proving the opposite of his foregone conclusion than has Professor Ross in this remarkable book.” Thus, for example, after quoting Professor Ross’s uncertainty as to the date of Omar’s death and his doubts both about the story of the Three Friends and of Omar’s intimacy with Sultan Sanjar, Millar wrote:

“By this candid confession, Professor Ross cuts away the last remaining refuge of the hapless FitzGerald, and reduces the story of Omar Khayyam to an absurdity. It is now perfectly plain, on the authority of Professor Ross, that we cannot tell when Omar was born — it may have been 1017 or 1040; that we know not when he died — it may have been in 1092 or 1123; that we have no clue as to his life save that (according to Professor Ross) he was the foremost astronomer of his time when he was 24 years of age; and that he is the merest shadow of a shade in literature. Poor Omar! Unhappy FitzGerald!! Deceived and betrayed Omar Khayyam Club!!!”

Millar was further emboldened by the confusion over Omar’s grave — Nizami’s version, quoted by Professor Ross, involved the scattered blossoms of pear trees and peach trees, whereas FitzGerald had quoted an account involving the scattered blossoms of rose trees. Millar wrote:

“...it is quite plain that the Omar of Nizami’s pathetic tale is not the Omar of FitzGerald. Pear trees and peach trees instead of rose trees, imply that my late esteemed friend William Simpson, the artist made a mistake in 1884, when he gathered rose–hips from a grave which he supposed was that of Omar Khayyam, and thus established the Rose–cult of Omar. (6) Another delusion gone! Hapless Omar! Inaccurate FitzGerald!! Deluded Omar Khayyam Clubbites who have chosen the wrong vegetable as an emblem!!!”

As for the other “trumpery ‘evidence’” drummed up by Professor Ross, it was of no real value, since, “The name Omar is as common in Persian literature as William is with us, and Khayyam is quite as frequent as Taylor in this country.”

And as for the varying number of quatrains in the various extant manuscripts ascribed to Omar, &lfquo;this surely sums up and dismisses for ever Omar Khayyam as the author of the ‘Rubaiyat’.” With unintended irony, Millar closed his article thus:

“The famous ‘Book of Mormon’ was a better foundation for a cult than the verses arbitrarily ascribed to Omar Khayyam.”

Little is heard of A.H. Millar’s views on Omar today as modern scholarship has overtaken him. Even so, even as a ‘believer’ in the historical reality of Omar, one can easily see why he came to hold those views. As we have seen, his articles did arouse some controversy at the time — enough for him to earn a place in Punch, in the issue of July 4th 1900 (p.8). (Miller himself actually quoted part of the last verse of this, in his second article, as noted above.) Inspired by a brief paragraph in the Daily Chronicle, which had announced that, “A member of the Scottish Archaeological Society declares that OMAR KHAYYAM is a myth and the Rubaiyat an unblushing forgery”, an unnamed wag penned the following parody of FitzGerald. It bore the title “Iconoclasm”:

Awake! For ruthless Science puts to flight
FITZGERALD’S fame and OMAR’S, in despite
Of fashionable fad, and bids us look
Upon the Master in another light.

“Whether at Naishapur or Babylon&tsquo; —
Since nought is stable underneath the sun —
Still one by one explodes another myth,
And idols keep on falling one by one.

Alike to those the banquet who prepare,
And those outsiders in the craze who share,
An expert from the north of Britain cries:
Fools! OMAR KHAYYAM’S neither here nor there.

And as for those Rubaiyat that you laud,
The cult whereof your club proclaims abroad,
Ah! leave them to oblivion, for they
Are an unblushing Oriental fraud.

Then cease to wrangle over text and version,
Silence vain iteration and assertion,
And cultivate a philosophic doubt
If ever there existed such a Persian.


Notes.

Note 1. Dr Millar (his doctorate was an honorary one, awarded by the University of St Andrews in 1909) died at his home in Dundee on February 27th 1927. A two paragraphs obituary of him appeared in The Times on March 1st 1927, and a rather longer one, giving much useful biographical information, in the Dundee Advertiser on February 28th 1927. In fact the latter is probably the most useful source of material about him, for he does not feature in the current online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, even though he himself contributed many entries to the original dictionary about other people, notably about William Simpson (see note 6 below.) There is, however, a short write–up about him in Who was Who, 1916–1928, p.731.

Note 2. There is, of course, considerable controversy over whether Omar the poet can be the same Omar as the mathematician, astronomer and philosopher, leading some to suppose that there might be two Omars in the arena. Millar’s use of the word “derision” seems to suggest that he believed that the roles of poet and algebraist and / or astronomer were incompatible. In actual fact this is not the case, though it does seem to be true that no great mathematician or astronomer has ever been a great poet, and vice versa. The great French mathematician Cauchy (1789-1857) is known to have written poetry in both French and Latin, though it has been described as best forgotten. The lesser known Italian geometer Lorenzo Mascheroni (1750-1800) was also a minor poet, notable for dedicating one of his books to Napoleon in verse. Again, the astronomer Jeremiah Horrocks (1618-1641), who predicted the transit of Venus in 1639, apparently launched into verse about it, though the verse is only of interest today for its curious subject matter! Probably the best known mathematician and poetry–with–prose writer was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll. In his case it is his Alice books that are remembered — his contributions to mathematics were relatively minor. That leaves us with Omar: how well known would he be as a mathematician and astronomer if it weren’t for his Rubaiyat ? It is perhaps telling that Omar is the only one of the eight mathematicians usually credited with the Jalali Calender reform whose name is known and cited today, and that is probably thanks to his Rubaiyat.

Note 3. In 1762 James MacPherson published Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, together with Several Other Poems composed by Ossian, the Son of Fingal, translated from the Gaelic Language. Though MacPherson claimed to have translated the epic poem, from verbal renderings heard and manuscripts found, during his travels around the Scottish Highlands and the Western Isles, the whole thing had actually been concocted by him, though it is said that it did contain a few genuine fragments of ancient poetry. Written in fine style, it fooled a great number of people at the time, and was extremely popular, to the point of being translated into several European languages, and generating a fashion for Ossianic names in the process. See, for example, John Whitehead, This Solemn Mockery (1973), ch.7.

Note 4. This is ironic, because although Lang was never a member of the Omar Khayyam Club of London, he was a guest at one of their dinners — that held at Burford Bridge on July 13th 1895 — at which he read out a poem of his own composition. Written in the format of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, it was addressed “To Omar’s friends at Burford Bridge.” See The Book of the Omar Khayyam Club — 1892–1910 (1910), p.194–5. In addition, he wrote at least two other FitzOmar–style poems, “To Omar Khayyam”, which was no.21 in his Letters to Dead Authors (1886); and “From Omar Khayyam” (“Rhymed from the Prose Version of Mr Justin Huntly M‘Carthy”), published in his book of verse, Ban and Arrière Ban (1894).

Note 5. This was the theory that The Iliad and The Odyssey were not written by any single author, ‘Homer’, but actually consisted of a collection of different ‘episodes’, composed by various different authors, possibly over several centuries. These ‘episodes’ had been handed down, orally or otherwise, until they were ‘stitched together’, in roughly their present form, in about the sixth century BC. The theory dates back to Friedrich August Wolf in last decade of the eighteenth century, and has a complicated history. Lang, however, opposed the theory — believing that there was indeed a single author, Homer, behind both works — see his Homer and the Epic (1893) and Homer and his Age (1906). In this belief he was famously preceded by the English prime–minister William Ewart Gladstone, who also held firmly to the ‘single author’ theory.

Note 6. Simpson had died in 1899, and it was Millar who subsequently wrote his entry in The Dictionary of National Biography (published in 1901, and not the same as the one in the current online dictionary.) It did not mention the matter of Omar’s grave and the rose tree! Simpson’s own account, published posthumously, can be found in The Autobiography of William Simpson, R.I., edited by George Eyre–Todd (1903), p.305–6.


Credit: My thanks are due to Iain Flett of Dundee City Archives and to Eileen Moran of the Local History Centre at Dundee City Library for supplying copies of Millar’s articles and a copy of his obituary in the Dundee Advertiser.