Edward FitzGerald and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Chapter 1 – Introduction.

The Rubaiyat is a strange phenomenon in the history of literature. Without Edward FitzGerald, few people would ever have heard of Omar Khayyam, and without Omar Khayyam, few people would ever have heard of Edward FitzGerald (1), and yet, though they lived in different times and came from different cultures, between them they created one of the most famous works of literature in the western world, and one which, over the years, has been translated into many languages, including Irish, Esperanto, Russian, Swahili, Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu, Thai, Chinese and Japanese! (2)

Omar Khayyam was born in 1048 AD at Naishapur in Persia (in what is now north-eastern Iran.) He died and was buried there in 1131, his grave now being marked by an impressive monument. He was a mathematician – he wrote a treatise on Algebra, in which he detailed geometrical methods of solving cubic equations using intersecting circles, parabolas and hyperbolas – effectively the equivalent of today’s graphical methods using co-ordinate geometry. He was an astronomer – he was one of the eight learned men employed by Sultan Malik Shah to institute the so-called Jalali calendar reform (3a); he is also sometimes said to have advocated that the apparent rotation of the Heavens is actually a result of the rotation of the Earth (3b), and even to have advocated a Sun-centred (Heliocentric) model of the Universe, as opposed to the more ‘obvious’ Earth-centred (Geocentric) one, though both of these claims are doubtful, particularly the latter. (3c). He was a philosopher – in mathematics, he studied what ranks as axiomatic in geometry – in particular the fifth postulate of Euclid (3d) – and the significance of Mathematical Order in Nature; in theology, he wrote treatises dealing with the existence of God, free will and determinism, the problem of evil, and life after death – all of which we shall return to later in connection with his poetry. It is tempting to suppose that he also engaged in debate with those who preached the orthodox dogmas of Islam, though in the religious climate of the time, that would probably have laid him open to charges of heresy. Finally, of course, he was a poet. Today, he is most famous for his poetry – his “Rubaiyat” (the word simply means “quatrains”, meaning verses with four lines.)

Edward FitzGerald was born in the village of Bredfield, near Woodbridge, Suffolk, England in 1809. He died in 1883, and was buried in the hamlet of Boulge (also near Woodbridge). At the head of his modest grave there is now a rose bush. It was originally grown from hips picked in 1884, by the artist-traveller William Simpson, a devotee of The Rubaiyat, from a rose bush next to the grave of Omar Khayyam at Naishapur. (Roses are a recurring symbolic feature of The Rubaiyat; see also the note on verse 75.) FitzGerald was a man with inherited wealth and therefore had no need to work for a living. Consequently he spent much of his life indulging in his interests in gardening, literature, art and music, not to mention murder trials and sailing! Fortunately for us, too, he spent a considerable amount of time writing letters to his friends, which, as he himself once said, he wouldn’t have been able to do if he had had “a proper occupation” (IV.53-4).(4) It was in 1853 that he began to study Persian, mostly teaching himself from Sir William Jones’s Grammar of the Persian Language, backed up by John Richardson’s Dictionary of Persian, Arabic and English, both of which were first published in the 1770s. But he was also helped in his studies by his friend Edward Byles Cowell (5) whom he had first met in 1844, and who, surprisingly, was about 17 years his junior! Cowell was a brilliant linguist, who was at that time studying for a Classics degree at Oxford University. He gained a first class degree in 1854, after which, whilst waiting for a suitable academic post to turn up, he took a job cataloguing manuscripts in the Bodleian Library. Thus it came about that Cowell, in 1856, found the so-called Ouseley Manuscript of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in the Bodleian Library, and drew FitzGerald’s attention to it. That same year, Cowell took up a Professorship in Calcutta, India, and in 1857 he sent FitzGerald a copy of another manuscript of the Rubaiyat that he had found there – now known as the Calcutta Manuscript. Omar Khayyam’s verses struck such a chord in Edward FitzGerald, that, in 1859, he published, anonymously, the first edition of his now famous translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It contained 75 verses, and these are the ones that are referred to in the following notes: unless otherwise stated, quoted verse numbers refer to the first edition of 1859.

Actually, this rather oversimplifies things. There are a large number of very old Persian manuscripts of Omar Khayyam’s verses, but all of them were written long after his death. (6) For his translations of the verses, for example, Edward FitzGerald used the two different manuscript editions mentioned above, the Ouseley Manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, which was dated to AD 1460/1 – some 330 years after the poet’s death – and the Calcutta Manuscript, which was undated. (In fact, it seems likely that the Ouseley manuscript is the oldest surviving manuscript known today. About 60 years ago a couple of seemingly much earlier manuscripts turned up, now known as the Chester Beatty and Cambridge Manuscripts, but these turned out to be forgeries (7).)

The problem is that the various known manuscript editions all contain different numbers of verses – for example, the Ouseley Manuscript contains 158; the Calcutta Manuscript 516! (6) Not only that, but any common ground seems not to be very well defined either. What may well have happened is that Omar Khayyam gave his verses to the world verbally, possibly on special occasions among friends, where he would not be in danger of charges of heresy from the strict Moslem regime of the time; that many of these were written down (possibly from memory) by other people at a later date; that other poets were inspired by these written versions to write verses of their own in a similar style; and that many of these subsequently became mixed up with Omar Khayyam’s ‘originals’. It all gets very messy. The result of this is that no-one knows exactly what Omar Khayyam himself wrote – or rather, since he is not known to have written down anything at all – what he himself composed! But whatever, somewhere in the middle of it all it is assumed that there is an original Omar Khayyam, who inspired others enough to write down his verses and imitate them, and who came to the attention of Edward FitzGerald. (There have been various attempts to identify which of the many extant verses are actually by Omar Khayyam, all of them being based to some extent on the subjective judgement of their authors. For those interested, Dashti (as note 1j, p.185ff) is probably the most readily available example today. On a more extreme, if rather eccentric, front, there has been at least one author – Alexander Hastie Millar – who has claimed that Omar wrote none of the verses attributed to him, and that all are forgeries dating from some three centuries after his death. See Appendix 23 for details.)

But though FitzGerald’s translation is famous today, it actually attracted very little attention when it was first published in 1859. In fact, it was, as we would say today, “remaindered” – that is, sold off cheaply, at a penny a copy (!), just to get rid of it! To add insult to injury, it is said a number of copies even ended up being recycled as scrap paper, which is ironic when one considers that when a copy of the first edition came up for sale a few years ago, it fetched $65,000! (At the time of writing – June 2010 – another copy is up for sale at $45,000!) The story goes (8) that it achieved fame because a copy came to the attention of the famous Pre-Raphaelite artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in 1861, and that its fame spread rapidly after that, thanks largely to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their friends. But in fact that is a bit of an exaggeration, as it wasn’t until 1868 that a second edition, containing 110 verses, was published, and even then, as we shall see later, its publication owed little or nothing to popular demand, whether generated by the Pre-Raphaelites or otherwise. A third edition appeared in 1872, a fourth in 1879, and the fifth, and final, in 1889 after FitzGerald’s death (9a). We shall come back to its publication history later. Meanwhile, the third, fourth and fifth editions all contained 101 verses, with slight variations in translation or interpretation. (The first edition is still regarded by many as the best one, its sheer originality not really being improved by subsequent additions and revisions – see the comments on verse 1, for example. However, the fifth edition is also very popular (9b).) Edward FitzGerald and Omar Khayyam thus became famous, though it was a peculiar sort of fame in the case of FitzGerald, because for a long time he chose to remain anonymous! (His identity only became widely known after 1876. (10))

But, as stated earlier, each was famous thanks to the other. The odd thing is that FitzGerald’s translations are fairly free, to say the least (11). He would combine lines from one verse with lines from another, and sometimes make up the odd line himself. One verse (verse 5) is even said to be “no translation at all” – it appears to relate to no particular quatrain of the original, and it actually uses an idea from another Persian poet, Jami! Again, on one occasion Professor Cowell pointed out an actual mistranslation to FitzGerald (verse 58), and yet he kept the mistranslation in place as it somehow seemed to fit in with the spirit of the original! (Appendix 1a) FitzGerald’s methods of “translation” were certainly unorthodox, then (12), and yet it all works so wonderfully well in capturing the essence of the original verses of Omar Khayyam and “bringing them to life”, for it has to be said that literal translations of the original verses (and there are several of these by other translators) tend to be relatively dull compared with FitzGerald’s free translations of them (13). Consequently, FitzGerald’s little book The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is neither wholly Edward FitzGerald’s nor wholly Omar Khayyam’s (with possible thanks to some of his imitators!) In fact, it is sometimes referred to, jokingly, as “The Rubaiyat of FitzOmar”, a joke initiated by FitzGerald himself, it seems, in a letter to his publisher, Bernard Quaritch, written in 1870, and which he signed “Edward FitzOmar.” (III.232) (4)

In a letter to Professor Cowell, written in 1857, well before the publication of the first edition of The Rubaiyat, FitzGerald saw clearly what he was about to do with Khayyam’s original verses: “I see how a very pretty Eclogue might be tessellated out of his scattered Quatrains.” (II.294) Tessellation is the perfect word for it, though it is also to be stressed that behind the tessellation there is some serious translation. The Rubaiyat is a peculiar hybrid phenomenon, then, and, as indicated earlier, it is probable that neither FitzGerald nor Khayyam would have achieved such popular appeal without the other. Indeed, it is probably true to say that Omar Khayyam would not have much of a reputation as a poet in present day Iran had he not achieved fame in the west through Edward FitzGerald’s translations! (In 1906, Prof. E.G.Browne wrote that Omar was “not ranked by the Persians as a poet of even the third class”! (1k, p.84)) One of the reasons for this seems to be that the Rubaiyat verse form was not regarded as “proper poetry” in traditional Persian literature – by analogy, it was seen as a bit like the limerick in relation to the sonnet in English poetry (cf. Browne, op.cit. p.258.) As for FitzGerald, well, it has to be said that none of his other works shows anything like the spark of genius which characterises The Rubaiyat, so that without the ‘tessellated quatrains’ of Omar Khayyam, FitzGerald would be virtually unknown today. As J.H.McCarthy, a devotee of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, put it in 1889: “I drank the red wine of Omar from the enchanted chalice of FitzGerald, and gloried as joyously as Omar himself in the intoxication.” (14) It is a good metaphor. (McCarthy, as mentioned in note 13, also produced his own prose translation of Omar Khayyam’s rubaiyat.)

Chapter 2 – Who said what?

First, then, what did Omar Khayyam himself have to say? This is not as simple a question as one might suppose. In addition to the problem, mentioned above, that some of ‘his’ rubaiyat might not actually be by him, there is also the problem that some of the things he wrote in his philosophical works don’t quite square up with the message of the verses (cf Appendix 1f), to the point where some scholars have wondered if there were two Omar Khayyams – the philosopher and the poet! The most notable example of this is the problem of Evil (on which see Appendix 2b & c) – how could a Good God create or allow Evil in his Creation? Omar the Philosopher, in effect, excuses God, arguing that Evil is simply the absence of Good, and that God could not create Good without of necessity creating its absence. Omar the Poet, on the other hand, simply expresses dismay at the very existence of Evil, questioning what on earth God is up to (15). Since such contradictions are perhaps explicable via the orthodox Moslem persecution of all heresy at the time – what Omar said in his published treatises had to be cautious in comparison with his inner thoughts expressed privately to friends in his verses – I think we can reasonably assume a single Omar Khayyam, Philosopher and Poet. In any case, it is the Omar who shines through the verses, and in particular through FitzGerald’s rendering of them, that concerns us here – FitzOmar.

Concentrating on the verses, then, it would seem that though Omar Khayyam – or FitzOmar, rather – was an orthodox philosopher, with some particular leanings towards theology, he became disillusioned with the inability of philosophers and theologians to make any real sense of human existence: the puzzles and paradoxes posed by Free Will and Predestination, the existence of Sin and Evil, of Ageing, Death and Life after Death, and, of course, the Nature of God, if indeed there is a God, all remained unresolved, despite centuries of investigation and argument (verses 27 & 28). Indeed, if the verses are to be believed, he became so disillusioned that he found more sense in drinking wine, than in the pursuits of philosophy and theology (verses 39 & 40), and it is even possible that wine eventually cost him his reputation (verses 69 & 71), though FitzGerald believed, as he stated at the end of the introduction to his third edition, that Khayyam probably wrote more about wine than he actually drank it. (It is possible, of course, that the Omar in the verses is not literally Omar the Philosopher, but Omar the Philosopher playing Devil’s Advocate.) Be that as it may, a recurring theme of the verses is “Drink!” – “Live for today!” (verses 20, 23 & 34) – for tomorrow you may be dead and gone forever (verse 26), and not just you or I – not just ordinary people – but all of us, no matter who we are, Sultan or Slave, for the former fares no better than the latter in the mortality stakes. Kings, no matter how great they are, must come and go just as you or I do, and with them must come and go their kingdoms (verses 8 & 17.) In the cosmic scheme of things, everything is transient, and the world will carry on just the same whether you or I are in it or not. And where is God in all this? Though Omar Khayyam was not an atheist – he is commonly described as an agnostic, though he seems to have believed in God as the necessary Creator of the Universe (the “he” of verse 50) – he had little trust in organized religion (verse 56), with all its dogmas and hypocrisies, and though he believed in a God, he was, as it were, “dubious of his motives.” In particular, he seems to have been very dubious about any Divine Plan behind the so-called Scheme of Things – if Plan there was, there seemed to be too many things wrong with it for it to be Divine (verse 73); too much seemed to be the result of mere chance (verse 49); too much was unjust – everything ends in nothing (verse 14); Man seems predestined to Sin and then be punished for it (verses 57 & 58); and some seem to be born to suffer through no fault of their own (verse 63). God might have created the world, but he seemed not to care much about the details of its day to day running, and Omar the Poet was not averse to expressing his dismay! In addition, he seems to have been skeptical about the existence of any sort of afterlife, preferring to believe that this earthly life is all there is, and so while you are here, you may as well make the most of it (verse 3)! As for the so-called after-life, well, Omar the Poet never tires of reminding us that no-one has ever actually come back from there to tell us that it really does exist! (16a)

As regards the real Omar, as opposed to FitzOmar, on checking out the above-quoted verses of FitzGerald’s first edition (or rather, their equivalents in the fifth edition) in Heron-Allen’s book (11a), we find that almost all have antecedents in the original Persian. (17) True, FitzGerald has arguably created, or at least over-emphasised, the real Omar’s professed loss of reputation through drinking wine (see the notes on verse 69 and verse 71 for details) and there is no Persian antecedent for his verse 63, with its “Vessel of a more ungainly Make”. However, the Persian original behind verse 88 of his 5th edition (developed from verse 64 of his 1st ) does talk of God’s faulty creations, and the idea for verse 63 may well have come from this. In short, FitzOmar transmits pretty much what the real Omar said (bearing in mind that some of the Persian antecedents might well have been written by imitators of the real Omar!)

Actually, the real Omar remains something of a mystery. Aminrazavi (as note 1h) has the real Omar as a devout Moslem (p.56) whose verses were a response to the religious dogmatism of his time, with its stifling of free-thought (p.69), and who was not really a heavy drinker (p.127). Dashti (as note 1j), meanwhile, has the real Omar as taking no definite stand on religion (p.97), and claims that, as a man who was a dignified scholar and not a frivolous drunkard (p.157), Omar probably never actually set foot in a tavern at all! (p.162) Teimourian (as note 1i), on the other hand, has the real Omar as a possibly closet Zoroastrian (p.264), who was rebellious, openly challenged religious authority, and frequently drank himself silly (p.161).

It is as well at this point to address the issue of whether or not Omar was a Sufi mystic whose verses are to be interpreted symbolically, not literally. In other words, when Omar talks of drinking Wine does he really mean drinking the Juice of the Grape, or does he use the drinking of wine as a symbol of achieving the divine intoxication of a revelation from God? Are the Taverns in his verses really taverns, or are they symbolic of the psychic state in which one achieves communion with God? Are the cups he drinks from physical ones, or are they symbolic of the means to achieve that communion with God? And is his “Belovéd” in verse 20 actually symbolic of God? (18a)

My own view is that of FitzGerald himself, as expressed as early as the introduction to his first edition of 1859, and in more detail from his second edition onwards (following the publication of the Sufic Les Quatrains de Khèyam by J.B.Nicolas in 1867): namely, that Omar was no Sufi:

“…his Worldly Pleasures are what they profess to be without any Pretence at divine Allegory; his Wine is the veritable Juice of the Grape; his Tavern, where it was to be had; his Saki (=server of wine), the Flesh and Blood that poured it out for him; all which, and where the Roses were in Bloom, was all he profess’d to want of this World or to expect of Paradise.” (First Edition.)

Indeed, as FitzGerald says earlier in his introduction, Omar “is said to have been especially hated and dreaded by the Sufis, whose Practice he ridiculed” (eg. “a Sufi-pipkin – waxing hot” – see the note on verse 60.) Omar’s scientific interests are quite inconsistent with Sufism, which, like so many brands of mysticism, had no need of ‘science’ in its quest for God, though it is true that, at the time of Omar, Sufism still had a healthy respect for learning. (In its later stages, from the later 15th century or so, it developed an unhealthy contempt for learning.) (18b)

One problem is, yet again, that the verses of the original Omar have been mixed in with those of his imitators, some of whom may well have been Sufis who used Omarian imagery to their own symbolic ends. Some verses certainly do admit of a Sufic interpretation. But to go from a possible Sufic ‘contamination’ of Omar’s original verses to the view that everything in the original Omar is necessarily Sufic is, quite simply, unjustified. The original Omar was not a Sufi, and the wine of his verses was real wine, not some symbolic vintage!

Nevertheless, there are those who persist in reading elaborate symbolism into all the verses – Omar’s as well as FitzGerald’s clearly Epicurean translations of them! (On Epicureanism, see Appendix 2a.) Those readers curious for a taste of such things might care to try Paramhansa Yogananda’s book The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained, first published in book form in 1994, but written in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Here, for example, is Yogananda’s interpretation of the famous opening verse of FitzGerald’s first edition:

“For the dawn of wisdom has flung into the dark bowl of your unknowing the stone of spiritual discipline – that weapon of divine power that can break the bowl and put to flight the paling stars of earthly desire.

Behold, Wisdom – ‘the Hunter of the East’ – has cast a noose of light to encircle the kingly minaret of your egoic pride; wisdom to free you at last from the long night of spiritual ignorance!” (p.3)

FitzGerald would have had a field day responding to this 355 page interpretation of his first edition, for he had a ready reductio ad absurdum answer to any Sufic interpretation, given at the end of the introduction to his second edition: when anyone has finished with their Sufic interpretation of Omar, they “may proceed to the same Interpretation of Anacreon – and even Anacreon Moore.” (Anacreon was an ancient Greek “poet of love and wine”; Anacreon Moore was Thomas Moore, who translated many of Anacreon’s verses into English and even wrote some of his own in the same style. For the origin of this nickname see note 44c.) In fact, FitzGerald would have been kept very busy on this score, for Yogananda’s book is only the tip of an iceberg! (19)

Whether or not Omar was a Sufi does not concern us much here, for again it is the Omar who shines through FitzGerald’s verses that concerns us – FitzOmar – and he was certainly no Sufi!

Chapter 3 – Omar and the 19th Century.

The next question then is: what was it about Omar Khayyam’s verses that so inspired Edward FitzGerald, and WHY has this little book achieved the astonishing level of fame it has? The two questions are interlinked. There are certainly many contributory factors, but much surely has to do with a decline in religious faith – or, better, an increase in religious uncertainty – in England in the 19th century, which doubt/uncertainty Edward FitzGerald and many others felt and found expressed in the verses of Omar Khayyam.

Generally speaking, of course, the 19th century was a pious age in which the great Missionary Societies – the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and the London Missionary Society (LMS) – were all active throughout the British Empire and beyond, many missionaries using tracts printed by that other great organisation, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK). It was an age, too, in which the-end-is-nigh evangelists like Rev John Cumming (Appendix 4c) and fiery preachers like Charles Haddon Spurgeon (20a) could preach to packed houses to rival those of a modern pop group! At the same time, though, it was an age in which Dr Pusey could complain, in 1855, that in the alleys of London, the Gospel was as unknown as in Tibet (21), a state of godlessness that was addressed by William Booth in his founding, in 1865, of the East London Christian Mission, which in 1878, became the Salvation Army. And in tandem with the SPCK publishing their religious tracts, the Ipswich Temperance Tracts – nearly three hundred of them, with cheery titles like Alcohol generates a Tendency to Death (no.129) and Dirt: and a Word about Washing (no.228) – were specifically produced for some of the much needed missionary work at home. Of course, these godless-at-home were the poorer working classes, many a by-product of the Industrial Revolution (itself seen by many as the Worship of Mammon and a manifestation of godlessness! See Appendix 3), who would have been blissfully unaware of anything as esoteric as FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat. We must look here to the Middle and Upper Classes, to which FitzGerald belonged, for it was among them that religious doubt/uncertainty – as opposed to religious ignorance – was on the increase, and among them that The Rubaiyat would find its appeal. It is interesting that when one tries to pin down the religious beliefs of so many prominent figures of the time who are involved in the background story of The Rubaiyat – figures like Ruskin, Carlyle, Tennyson or Rossetti, to name but four in addition to FitzGerald himself – the picture is a confused mixture of faith and doubt. They somehow felt that there was a God who had created all things, but they were not at all sure that organised religion had got a correct perspective on Him.

Religious controversy was very much in the air before the nineteenth century had even begun, of course, with the appearance of such controversial books as Joseph Priestley’s History of the Corruptions of Christianity, published in 1782, and, worse – not just for its content, but as much for its readable style – Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology, published in 1794 (Part1), 1795 (Part 2) and 1807 (Part 3). [Richard Carlile’s 1819 edition included a Part 4, consisting of various odds and ends by Paine, most curiously an essay on the druidical origins of Freemasonry. However, most modern editions tend to contain just parts 1 and 2, and Parts 1 to 3 are generally dubbed the complete work.]

Paine was not an atheist. He firmly believed in God as the Creator, but he did not believe in the Bible, which he regarded as a self-contradictory, violence- and vice-ridden collection of fables, many of which he denounced as patently absurd. He was scathing about the Church, which he regarded as an institution which terrified and enslaved its members for the all-too-worldly purposes of power and profit. The Church hierarchy, he felt, put a needless distance between Man and God. “My own mind is my own Church,” he wrote, very early in his Part 1. He accepted the moral code of Christianity, but rejected Christ’s Divinity, his Miracles, his Virgin Birth and his Resurrection, as mere fabulous inventions. Interestingly, Paine was one of those for whom the vastness of the Universe, as revealed by Science, had had a great effect on his beliefs: it made no sense to him for God to choose this tiny planet, one world amongst literally millions, on which to set up the Garden of Eden with the intention of having his own Son crucified on account of Adam and Eve eating an apple there! What about all those other planets, he asked, let alone the absurdity of the Biblical story itself? (In similar vein, Shelley wrote, in his notes on his poem "Queen Mab", of which more presently, that, "It is impossible to believe that the Spirit that pervades this infinite machine begat a son upon the body of a Jewish woman", adding that "the miserable tale of the Devil, and Eve ...is irreconcilable with the knowledge of the stars.")

There had also, of course, been Voltaire. Contrary to popular opinion, Voltaire was not an atheist – like Paine, he believed in God as the Prime-Mover or First Cause (22a). Indeed, it was Voltaire who famously said, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” (22b) But, like Ruskin, Carlyle et al mentioned above, he rejected Organised Religion and the absurdities of its Dogmatic Prejudices, be they between one religion and another (most notably, between Christianity and Islam) or between one sect and another within the same religion (most notably between Catholic and Protestant). How could any Christian approve of the mutual slaughter of Catholics and Protestants in the name of a Saviour who had instructed his flock to love one another? More blood had been shed – and more suffering and misery caused – in the name of religion than almost anything else. In fact, Voltaire’s poem La Henriade (22c) (which FitzGerald had read (22d)) contained, in its fifth canto, a mini-history of religious fanaticism. Again, in Le Pour et le Contre, Voltaire put into print those questions about God’s mysterious ways which others of his time hardly dare think about: for example, why did God make life’s guiltier pleasures so enticing if only to condemn and punish those who indulged in them too freely?(22e) Elsewhere Voltaire asked why God allowed the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 to happen and to wipe out so many thousands of innocent people at one fell swoop? (The main problem for the faithful was that the earthquake happened on the morning of November 1st, All Saints Day, when God’s own worshippers were gathered together in church. Over twenty parish churches collapsed on their congregations that day, killing hundreds of men, women and children, and yet, ironically, a number of brothels in the city were mysteriously spared! (22f)) Elsewhere again, Voltaire puzzled over the Catholic Communion: what can be said of a religion that advocates eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of its God, only to discharge them later into a common chamber-pot? (22g) It was all, frankly, absurd – “the ridiculousness (as he saw it) of Christianity and the Church.” (22h)

As the 19th century unfolded, religious doubts multiplied on two fronts – those of Science and Biblical Criticism. Science – principally geology and the theory of evolution – challenged the very foundations of the Book of Genesis, showing that it simply could not be literally true. The human race was not descended from Adam and Eve, and the world was not created in 4004 BC as Archbishop Ussher had calculated on the basis of the literal truth of the Bible. The problem for many was that if the Old Testament was admitted to be suspect, the New Testament might come under attack as well, and this was precisely what happened. Forming a sort of pincer movement with Science, the School of Biblical Criticism argued that, like any other religion, Christianity must have generated its own mythical elements – not just in the Old Testament, but in the New as well – and that it was necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff. In a nutshell, the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection – both cornerstones of the Christian Faith – might be as suspect as the stories of Adam and Eve or Noah’s Ark. For many devout Christians such claims were destabilising and very alarming.

It has been pointed out many times that the year 1859, in which The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam first appeared, was also the year of publication of Charles Darwin’s book The Origin of Species (23a), the book which came as the greatest body blow to orthodox Christian faith. It is said that the wife of one bishop, on hearing of Darwin’s theory, was heard to exclaim, “Let us hope that it isn’t true, and if it is, that it will not become generally known.” In fact, this story is probably apocryphal, but it does serve to highlight, in a curious way, the destabilising effects which Darwin’s theory had on the comfortably pious Victorian England (23b).

In fact, evolutionary trouble had been brewing since well before the appearance of Darwin’s famous book – Robert Chambers’ book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation had appeared in 1844, and it too had advocated a theory of natural evolution as evidenced by fossil layers. By 1884 it had run to no less than 12 editions. FitzGerald had certainly read it when it first came out (I.469 & 471), and had been impressed by it, as in indeed he was (I.192) by Charles Lyell’s book Principles of Geology, which had been published in 1830-1833, and which advocated the development of the Earth’s geology over immense periods of time, not the mere thousands of years supposed by Biblical Creationists. As a result, in a letter to Edward Cowell written in 1845, FitzGerald wrote:

"The present day teems with new discoveries in Fact, which are greater, even as regards the Soul and prospect of Men, than all the disquisitions and quiddities of the Schoolmen. A few fossil bones in clay and limestone have opened a greater vista back into Time than the Indian imagination ventured upon for its Gods: and every day turns up something new." (I.476)

Two years later, he again wrote to Cowell (who was a devout Christian, and who later came to regret, in many ways, having introduced FitzGerald to the verses of Omar Khayyam (Appendix 1b)):

“Yes, as I often think, it is not the poetical imagination, but bare Science that every day more and more unrolls a greater Epic than the Iliad; the history of the World, the infinitudes of Space and Time! I never take up a book of Geology or Astronomy but this strikes me. And when we think that Man must go on to discover in the same plodding way, one fancies that the Poet of today may as well fold his hands, or turn them to dig and delve, considering how soon the march of discovery will distance all his imaginations……. Lyell, in his book about America, says that the falls of Niagara, if (as seems certain) they have worked their way back southwards for seven miles, must have taken over 35,000 years to do so, at the rate of something over a foot a year! Sometimes they fall back on a stratum that crumbles away from behind them more easily; but then again they have to roll over a rock that yields to them scarcely more perceptibly than the anvil to the serpent. And those very soft strata which the Cataract now erodes contain evidences of a race of animals, and of the action of seas washing over them, long before Niagara came to have a distinct current; and the rocks were compounded ages and ages before those strata! So that, as Lyell says, the Geologist looking at Niagara forgets even the roar of its waters in contemplation of the awful processes of time that it suggests. It is not only that this vision of Time must wither the Poet’s hope of immortality – but it is in itself more wonderful than all the conceptions of Dante and Milton.” (I.566)

Later the same month (July 1847), FitzGerald again wrote to Cowell about his “Epic theory”:

“Surely the mere affectations of the Homeric Heroes are not so august as the expanse of intellect by which we men take in these vast computations of History and Change and Time! We have not only tradition (Religious and other) but positive scientific demonstration that Man’s foot did not walk this Earth for yogas and yogas, while Great Nature was as it were trying her prentice hand on large and blundering shapes of creatures, who gradually disappeared away from the catalogue of living things as the more complex and perfect being Man was ready to be born into the World….and the fabric of Earth rolling round the Sun before Beasts were; and Earth itself one with the Sun before that….Therefore I think that Geology which has certainly discovered to us so much of the Past – and the Being of this Earth when we were not; is a more wonderful, grand, and awful, and therefore Poetical, idea than any we can find in our Poetry.” (I.569)

Incidentally, by yogas he means yugas, which are immensely long periods of time into which Hindu Mythology divided the history of the world, this being the great vista of Time that “the Indian imagination ventured upon”, referred to in FitzGerald’s earlier letter to Cowell, quoted above. They have an interesting parallel in the four ages of the world hypothesised by Classical Greece, and as described by Hesiod in his Works and Days. (24)

As the insignificant place of the Earth in the universe unfolded with the advances of Astronomy – in the 19th century the Earth had long been dethroned from the centre of the universe, and interstellar distances were being measured (25a) - and as it became clearer and clearer that the Earth was millions upon millions of years old (25b) (and, worse, that Man might simply have evolved from a common ancestor with the Ape!) it became increasingly difficult to accept the portrayal of Man as the Centrepiece of Creation as given in the Biblical Book of Genesis. FitzGerald’s skepticism was shared by increasing numbers of people (and indeed had been voiced much earlier, as we saw above, by Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason and by Shelley in his notes on "Queen Mab".)(25c)

At the same time, though, others saw Science’s revealed immensity of Space and Time as testimony to the Glory of God and the sheer magnificence of his Handiwork. Alfred Lord Tennyson was one such (see Appendix 9), and Professor Cowell had no difficulty reconciling geological time scales with his faith. (Appendix 1c) Some – like Rev. Charles Kingsley (he of Water Babies fame) – even saw Darwinian evolution as a testimony to the Glory of God and a demonstration of the intricacies of His Creation. But mostly, the True Believers fought back – most notably, perhaps, at a debate on Darwin’s Theory of Evolution held in Oxford in 1860, when Bishop Wilberforce asked Thomas Huxley – or, at least, is reputed to have asked Huxley – if it was on his grandmother’s or his grandfather’s side of the family that he was descended from an ape! Huxley’s reply was to the effect that if he was given a choice between an ape for a grandfather, or a gifted academic who used his gifts to argue by ridicule rather than reason, then he’d prefer the ape. It is said that a woman in the audience was so shocked by this that she fainted! (Curiously there are various versions of just what was said that day, and the encounter, as it is usually reported, seems to be in large measure legendary! (26).) Again, C.H. Spurgeon’s most notable performance was in 1861, when he took a stuffed gorilla called “Mr Darwin” on stage with him as a visual aid to his diatribe against the evolutionists’ rejection of the Book of Genesis! (20b) (One suspects, though, that many people attended such lively meetings as much for the entertainment value as for religious enlightenment, much as people today still find amusement at Hyde Park Corner in London!) Likewise, Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society, who had no faith at all in orthodox science, had, in her New York home, a stuffed monkey which wore a cravat and spectacles, and which carried a copy of Darwin’s book The Origin of Species (20c).

An earlier and more reasoned example of the ‘battle’ against Science was the publication, in the 1830’s, of the so-called Bridgewater Treatises. These were named after the 8th Earl of Bridgewater who died in 1829 and who left a bequest in his will to cover the publication of eight scientific treatises designed to illustrate “the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as manifested in the Creation.” (27a) Even earlier, in 1802, William Paley D.D. had published his Natural Theology, or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, collected from the Appearances of Nature. The book catalogued some wonderful adaptations of animals in Nature, and sought to show that their design implied the existence of a Great Designer. After all, if you found a watch lying on the ground, someone somewhere must have made it. It didn’t ‘just happen’. Paley’s book had great popularity throughout the 19th century, and, ironically, gave Charles Darwin a few ideas! (Darwin’s reply to Paley’s watch analogy was, of course, that ‘design’ in Nature was simply the result of a chain of innumerable adaptations to changing natural circumstances. The ‘watch’ didn’t happen all at once, in other words.) Paley’s book, incidentally, also inspired the Earl of Bridgewater to launch his treatises. (FitzGerald was certainly familiar with both Paley and the Bridgewater Treatises, but rather curiously, in view of his later fascination with Omar Khayyam, he wrote, in a letter to George Crabbe written in 1849: “You know that I have very little taste for metaphysics or argument. I never read even Paley’s ‘Natural Theology’, only two of the Bridgewater Treatises.” (I.653) – those of Chalmers (I.176) and Buckland (I.248).) Be that as it may, the debate between Science and Religion was fierce, and occasionally eccentric! (27b)

It is difficult for us today, when doubt is widely tolerated, to appreciate fully the religious climate of the 19th century into which FitzGerald launched his Rubaiyat. A famous indicator of the times, though arguably a case of student bravado gone wrong, was the poet Shelley’s pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism, published anonymously in 1811, a publication which resulted in him being sent down from Oxford once he had admitted its authorship to the university authorities (28a). Two years later, his previously mentioned poem Queen Mab cemented his reputation as “the Archdemon of Atheism”. (To give one Omar-related example for those not familiar with the poem, in Canto VI Shelley accused God of setting up Hell for "the unhappy slaves/ of fate, whom He created, in his sport,/ To triumph in their torments when they fell!") The poem was, as one review put it, “nine cantos of blasphemy and impiety, such as we never thought that anyone, on the outside of bedlam, could have uttered” (28b) In such a religious climate, Shelley’s early death by drowning in July 1822 naturally invited some uncharitable comments in the so-called Christian press about “divine vengeance”, with one newspaper adding, “now he knows whether there is a God or no.” (28c).

Another, rather later, literary indicator of times was the novel The Nemesis of Faith by James Anthony Froude, published in 1849. The novel was about a young priest’s crisis of faith, which crisis mirrored that of Froude himself, and of many others at the time. The book was regarded as blasphemous, and Froude had to resign his fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford, as a result. (29a) Yet another indicator of the times is provided by F.D. Maurice’s book Theological Essays, published in 1853. In his book Maurice, who was Professor of Theology at King’s College, London, dared to argue that eternal punishment in Hell, for sins committed here on Earth, might not be as eternal as orthodoxy supposed (eternal damnation, after all, does not sit easily with the Christian ideals of Love and Forgiveness!) He was forced out of office for his efforts, not so much as a heretic as for promulgating views “calculated to unsettle the minds of theological students at King’s College”! (29b) Again, there is the case of Robert Chambers’ book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, mentioned above. Though it advocated evolution, that evolution proceeded according to natural laws initiated by God. It did not advocate a universe without God – it was not atheistical – and yet so unorthodox was it that Chambers published it anonymously and in great secrecy. In fact, his name was not attached to it until the 12th edition of 1884, thirteen years after his death, and when one sees some of the hostile reaction to it from the orthodox, one can see why: for example, the Anglican divine Adam Sedgwick, who was Professor of Geology at Cambridge, expressed his utter loathing for the book, saying that if it were true, “religion is a lie…morality is moonshine.” (30) (Sedgwick was also later to become bitterly opposed to Darwin.) The same was true of J.R.Seeley’s book Ecce Homo, first published anonymously in 1865. Seeley’s great sin was not actually to deny the divinity of Christ but merely to emphasise his humanity – the Christian moral code was just as valid if Christ was a historical figure – a Man. Though such claims are considered mild today, they weren’t back then, and Lord Shaftesbury famously condemned the work as “the most pestilential book ever vomited from the jaws of Hell”! (31) (It is said that one of Seeley’s reasons for publishing his book anonymously was to avoid upsetting his devout father. Likewise, that Thomas Carlyle adopted the tortuous metaphorical format of his Sartor Resartus, because a more direct expression of his views might upset his devout mother. As Ruth ApRoberts says in her book The Ancient Dialect: Thomas Carlyle & Comparative Religion (1988): “We might speculate that many promising young Victorian atheists went mute and inglorious to the grave for fear of paining a fundamentalist parent.”(p.60 & 62).)

Seeley’s book was actually just the tip of a “Biblical Criticism” iceberg. Even more pestilential had been David Friedrich Strauss’s book Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus), published in Germany in 1835-6. It scandalised devout Christians by denying the divinity of Christ, and reducing his miracles to mere mythical stories. The book was translated into English by Marian Evans, later to become known as George Eliot, and published in England in 1846. (Unorthodox as Evans herself was in her religious views, even she was shocked by parts of Strauss’s book! (32a)) This was followed, in France, by a similar work, Ernest Renan’s Vie de Jésus (Life of Jesus) published in 1863, and described as “a profound offence to orthodoxy all the world over.”(32b) Ironically, Renan had been educated to the highest levels in the heart of Catholic Orthodoxy, and yet he was driven to the conclusion that Christ was, after all, a man, and his so-called miracles just stories. Renan’s book, which was quickly translated into English, was immensely popular – the ‘scandal’ attached to it no doubt contributing to its popularity! It is still in print today.

Further attempts were made to reconcile Science and Christianity, besides The Bridgewater Treatises mentioned earlier. In 1860 appeared a book entitled Essays and Reviews, which was a collection of seven essays (27c) on religion, written by prominent churchmen. It sought to be both religious and rational, bringing Christianity into harmony with the advances of Science. The book sold very well at the time, and stirred up much controversy, but die-hard traditionalists saw it as heretical, and two of the contributors lost their jobs as a result. Indeed, the seven well-intentioned contributors came to be known as “The Seven against Christ”!

Later, in 1889, came the publication of Lux Mundi, a collection of 12 essays by a group of Oxford theologians which typifies later 19th century attempts to reconcile Christian faith with both Science and Biblical Criticism (27d). Literal adherence to the Bible was by now recognised as impossible by many, but Christian faith was nevertheless entirely possible: Christ was divine, but the Bible was not literally true. It was a simple compromise, but one which had been more difficult to accept only three decades earlier, when Essays and Reviews was published. The book was very popular and ran through ten editions in its first year of publication. Interestingly, in the fifth essay by J.R. Illingworth, evolution was neatly woven into the Christian scheme of things: whereas Science saw undirected, random evolutionary processes, the Christian could now see these as part of God’s Grand Design. Evolution was not undirected, it was directed by God. Furthermore, evolution made sense of ancient religions like Zoroastrianism, for these were evolutionary stages paving the way for Christianity (others, though, saw things differently, as we shall see a little later.) Finally, Christianity itself could be seen as an evolutionary development of the higher (“divine”) faculties in Man.

Chapter 4 – Omar and Controversy.

But getting back to The Rubaiyat, in 1857 FitzGerald had sent 35 of what he called the “less wicked” (II.419) verses to John Parker, the editor of Fraser’s Magazine with a cover note saying that some of his clergyman readers might find them “rather dangerous”(II.323) (even though he did not include the more openly blasphemous verses!) “Wicked” and “dangerous” are not words that we would use to describe them today! For whatever reason, Parker did not publish them, and effectively just ignored them for a whole year. FitzGerald then asked for the manuscript back, added another 40 verses, “which I kept out for fear of being too strong” (II.323) and, as we saw earlier, published them himself in 1859, blasphemies and all. Though many, like some of the Pre-Raphaelites, of whom more later, thought the verses so perfectly encapsulated the doubts that they themselves felt – encapsulated “the spirit of the age”, even – others thought them a real danger to the moral fabric of society. (33) If people took to living for today and denying God, it could only end in tears. One clergyman, Rev. John Kelman, for example, said that one had better take The Rubaiyat as nothing more than fascinating poetry, otherwise it might become “a sort of Eastern plague” (33a, p.263)! Others regarded it as “a species of subversive thought.” For example, Richard le Gallienne, writing in The Book of Omar and Rubaiyat, published in 1900, said that Omar’s verses had been “dynamic as a disintegrating spiritual force in England and America, as no other written words have been during the last twenty-five years” (p.16). In 1912, an article entitled “The Failure of Omar Khayyam” appeared in The New York Times (33b). Its author, James J. Daly, who was a Jesuit priest, wrote of The Rubaiyat:

“There is nothing in it to shock elementary sensibilities: its blasphemies are veiled; its chirping staccato of agnosticism sounds harmless enough; the sensualist and materialist in his singing wears an engaging air of sad mysticism; the ‘minstrel of smiling nihilism’, as Lionel Johnson called him, is too pleasant and entertaining to be obviously dangerous. And yet we doubt whether any poem of our times has wrought greater spiritual havoc.”

The trouble was that Omar sought to drown life’s troubles in wine, and to complain about the injustices of Fate, instead of seeing life’s challenges of part of God’s Plan and a path to spiritual development. That was the problem with Omar, “the Mahometan Blackguard” as Thomas Carlyle referred to him in a letter written in 1873 (III.418.) [Even FitzGerald himself referred to Omar as “an Epicurean Infidel” in a letter to George Borrow written in 1857 (II.277); and later as “the old Offender” (III.370) and “the Old Reprobate” (III.576) in letters to his publisher written in the 1870s.]

G.K. Chesterton, writing in his book The Victorian Age in Literature (1913), chapter 3, expressed great admiration for FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, saying it was “much too good to be a translation” and “as personal and creative a thing as ever was written”. He even went so far as to call it “one of the most remarkable achievements of that age; as poetical as Swinburne and far more perfect.” But for all that, it was still “a sort of bible of unbelief” and still

“….pessimism, a thing unfit for a white man; a thing like opium, that may often be a poison and sometimes a medicine, but never a food for us, who are driven by an inner command not only to think but to live, not only to live but to grow, and not only to grow but to build.”

This merits some clarification. Chesterton had gone through a state of agnosticism and even nihilism in his late teenage years, but in his twenties had discovered for himself a traditional Christian faith which caused him to look back on his nihilism – and anyone else’s, including Omar’s – as “pessimism…that may often be a poison.” His views on Omar were more fully set forth in his essay “Omar and the Sacred Vine”, published as chapter 7 of his book Heretics (1905). In it he wrote:

“For more than thirty years the shadow and glory of a great Eastern figure has lain upon our English literature. Fitzgerald's translation of Omar Khayyam concentrated into an immortal poignancy all the dark and drifting hedonism of our time. Of the literary splendour of that work it would be merely banal to speak; in few other of the books of men has there been anything so combining the gay pugnacity of an epigram with the vague sadness of a song. But of its philosophical, ethical, and religious influence, which has been almost as great as its brilliancy, I should like to say a word, and that word, I confess, one of uncompromising hostility. There are a great many things which might be said against the spirit of the Rubaiyat, and against its prodigious influence. But one matter of indictment towers ominously above the rest– a genuine disgrace to it, a genuine calamity to us. This is the terrible blow that this great poem has struck against sociability and the joy of life. Some one called Omar ‘the sad, glad old Persian.’ Sad he is; glad he is not, in any sense of the word whatever. He has been a worse foe to gladness than the Puritans.”

In particular, for Chesterton the problem with Omar’s urging us to “Drink!” was this:

“It is the drinking of a man who drinks because he is not happy. His is the wine that shuts out the universe, not the wine that reveals it. It is not poetical drinking, which is joyous and instinctive; it is rational drinking, which is as prosaic as an investment, as unsavoury as a dose of camomile.”

Putting the Rubaiyat into the context of his own time, Chesterton went on:

“In this cult of the pessimistic pleasure-seeker the Rubaiyat stands first in our time; but it does not stand alone. Many of the most brilliant intellects of our time have urged us to the same self-conscious snatching at a rare delight. Walter Pater said that we were all under sentence of death, and the only course was to enjoy exquisite moments simply for those moments' sake (76a). The same lesson was taught by the very powerful and very desolate philosophy of Oscar Wilde (76b). It is the carpe diem religion; but the carpe diem religion is not the religion of happy people, but of very unhappy people.”

Chesterton closes his essay with an interesting contrast between Omar urging us to “Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why” (verse 74 of the 3rd, 4th & 5th editions; verse 80 of the 2nd), and Christ, offering us the wine of the Eucharist and urging us to “Drink, for I know of whence you come and why.” [For another eucharistic response to Omar, see Appendix 12i.]

Rather later than Chesterton, an Australian by the name of Alfred Fox felt moved to pen his own Reply to Omar (no date, but c.1957.) His reply was a poem written in the format of FitzGerald's verses, in the introduction to which he explained that his aim was to provide folk with "a healthier and happier Christian challenge to the gloomy and godless philosophy of Omar", which, he said, had been "made music of by the equally sad and hopeless FitzGerald." According to Fox, "To be Oft Merry with the Tainted Grape,/ Is but a Fool's short journey of escape" (p.18) and all of Omar's Rubaiyat are as nothing compared to "The Saving Grace" of Christ (p.4). Here are two examples of Fox's verses (p.12-13):

No Veil of mesh so fine could ever hide
The Truth from Me, of how The Saviour Died
Upon The Hallow'd Cross at Calvary -
That I may Evermore in Him Abide.

The Door is open wide, for You and Me
To Enter There, and Jesus is The Key
Which Turns the darkness of The Lost to light
The Way for all His Straying Flock to see.

And in the spirit of true Christian charity he added (p.21)

Much for Your Unrepentance have I grieved,
While Trusting that In Leaving You Received
The Holy Spirit, that Your Soul would Rest
With Those: Who had in Christ The Lord believed.

Omar’s recourse to drink naturally aroused much opposition from the Temperance Movement, more particularly in America during the Prohibition era. To the Temperance Movement The Rubaiyat became known as “The Drunkard’s Bible”. The American poet Vachel Lindsay wrote a poem “On Reading Omar Khayyam”, apparently during an anti-saloon campaign in central Illinois. It was published in a book with the cheery title General William Booth enters into Heaven, and Other Poems, published in 1913. Taking a break from the anti-saloon campaign he dipped into a copy of The Rubaiyat:

‘Twas a book of the snares of earth
Bordered in gold and blue

he tells us, and though in some ways he “envied the grape stained sage” he was in the end rescued by “the wine of God”, for:

Fair is the serpent-cup,
But the cup of God more fair.

But the Temperance Movement – and the Prohibition Laws – did not go poetically unchallenged, and Omar had his defenders. Thus, in 1922 J.L.Duff reacted by penning The Rubaiyat of Ohow Dryyam, illustrated by “Benjamin Franklin (Not of Philadelphia)”. Its opening verse, a parody of the opening verse of FitzGerald, ran thus:

Wail! for the Law has scattered into flight
Those Drinks that were our sometime dear Delight;
And still the Morals-tinkers plot and plan
New, sterner, stricter Statutes to indite.

An earlier poem which poked fun at the Temperance Movement was entitled “Omar on the Waggon”, and appeared in a volume of atrocious puns entitled The Log of the Water Wagon, or the Cruise of the Good Ship Lithia. (Two examples for the curious: at one point the ship passes through the Beering Straits; and nightly concerts are given in the ship’s main saloon by the Band of Hope! Most of the humour, though, is now very dated.) The book was by B.L.Taylor and W.C.Gibson, and was published in Boston in 1905. One of the verses of the poem (which can be found on p.89-94 of the book) parodied verse 70 of The Rubaiyat, thus:

Indeed, indeed, Repentance oft before
I swore, and I was honest when I swore.
And then the Wagon bumped the Curb, and I
Was jolted off into a Liquor Store.

Somehow, the Temperance Movement never quite won the Omarian battle – indeed, it never looked like winning it at all – but then, as is so often said, the Devil has all the best tunes! [For more on Duff’s parody, see Gallery 2H.]

At this point we should also mention Richard Le Gallienne’s rather curious little book of rubaiyat-style verses entitled Omar Repentant, published in 1908. It is set in a Broadway bar, and in it a middle-aged Omar-type drinker warns a much younger man of the dangers of the demon drink – the “death and damnation” that the barman sells. Seeing that the young man carries a copy of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, the middle-aged drinker exclaims:

Boy, do you know that since the world began
No man hath writ a deadlier book for man?

But Omar Repentant was not a Temperance Movement poem. Rather it seems to have been born out of Le Gallienne’s personal battle with the demon drink. He once said of himself, “I am, by sad inheritance, a drunkard” (34a), elsewhere referring to his problem as “that old troublesome family devil of mine…you know what I mean…let us call him Omar Khayyam!” (34b); and on at least one occasion went into what we would now call “rehab” in a doctor’s house which he dubbed “The House of Ramadan” (34c) Perhaps his attitude to Omar is best summed up by the title of one of his summer lectures of 1901: “Omar Khayyam – an Appreciation and a Warning” (34d)

Le Gallienne wrote a rather interesting book relevant both to his attitude to Omar Khayyam and to the times in which he lived – the time of the Aesthetes and the Decadents. It was entitled The Religion of a Literary Man and was first published in 1893. In it he is at odds both with Orthodox Religion and with Science (p.2); he rejects the creeds of the Wesleyan, the Baptist, the Anglican and the Catholic on the one hand, and the irreligious views of the literary man, who sips his absinthe and reads Huysmans, on the other (p.9). Like Omar he rejects organised religion:

“Organised Christianity has probably done more to retard the ideals that were its Founder’s than any other agency in the world.” (p.61)

And again:

“To abolish all the churches and to make a bonfire of prayer-books would be a sure way to discover the truly religious.” (p.84)

Of course, he struggles with the age-old problems of Sin, Pain, Free-Will and the Hereafter, and in many ways treads familiar ground – for example that rheumatism, if nothing else, teaches us patience and forbearance (p.29) and adding that our forefathers “went to battle with stouter hearts than we take to the dentist.” (p.35) But he does not reject God, or despair of God’s Plan, as Omar does. Rather he believes that we have got our perspective wrong – we should learn to take our place as The Servant instead of The Lord of Creation (p.40). That perspective should have come through the discovery by Copernicus that the Earth was not the centre of the Universe – “the most truly Christian discovery ever made.” (p.67) But it didn’t. Despite Copernicus, the world remains sadly Geocentric in outlook (p.41) He writes:

“We still practically believe that the whole of the firmament is an immense candelabra for lighting this bit of an earth; that it revolves round us instead of our revolving with it round some inconceivably remote centre. We are accustomed to talk as though God is our servant, and that His laws must needs square with our desires. We are silly enough to talk of our rights. Man has no rights in regard to God. He has only mercies. He exists for God, and not God for him. The incorrigible presumption and irreverence of man! It never seems to occur to him that the joy and good things of life, which he undoubtedly possesses, have come to him all unasked and unworked for – a free boon. It is as though, invited to a great feast as a favour, we should quarrel with the host because he had not consulted us as to the menu, which, nevertheless, was seen to please greatly the majority of the guests. Our rights! our grievances – against God! When we have given due thanks for our mercies; for the mere sky and the sunshine, for the wonder of love, for the miracle of beauty, for the humblest joys of sensation – then it will be time to talk about those.” (p.41-2)

In addition to introducing this idea of a shift in perspective to re-align ourselves with God’s Plan, he adds the interesting thought that:

“If man were once an ape, there is all the more likelihood that he will some day be an angel.” (p.112)

This type of idea is also hinted at in Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam (see Appendix 9)

Finally, as regards the “deadliness” of Omar’s verses, this consists of misleading the Aesthete and Decadent away from the foregoing realisations, and into a shallow life of live-for-today:

“…when the talon is free of the sheath forever, and lust may run without his muzzle; when every one may be as indecent as his heart wishes, and he who loves the gutter may lie therein without reproach; when no man takes off the hat to a woman or a church, but all may wear it jauntily on one side, through the length and breadth of the land, may smoke and drink unmoved before the sacred passion-play of life, and expectorate with a fine carelessness, none daring to make them afraid!” (p.103-4)

We shall return to Le Gallienne and his other book, The Romantic ‘90s (1926) below.

Chapter 5 – More Controversy.

Meanwhile, it is interesting that as early as 1879, in the May edition of Fraser’s Magazine (p.650-659) – the very magazine that twenty years earlier had not accepted FitzGerald’s translation for publication – Mrs Jessie Cadell had produced her own translation of some of Omar’s verses, with a commentary, and with some comparisons with FitzGerald’s versions. It certainly wasn’t a hatchet job, for she concluded that “though we have at times disagreed with Mr Fitzgerald in reading Khayam, we are not much the less grateful for his poem and the introduction.”(p.659) But she did seek to show that “The True Omar Khayam” (the title of her article) had more religious belief than FitzGerald gave him credit for:

“The leading ideas are pleasure, death, and fate, and his predominant states of mind are the sensuous, the gruesome, and the rebellious. He mocks, questions, laments, enjoys; is a person of varying moods, strong feelings, and remarkable boldness; but he has some sort of belief at the bottom of it all.” (p.652)

In particular she disputed FitzGerald’s rendering of verses 78-81 of the third edition (an expanded version of verses 57-58 of the first), concluding in that memorably irreverent line “Man’s Forgiveness give – and take!” She wrote that, “Khayam was bold enough at times, but we do not think he reached the point of offering forgiveness to God for man’s sins.” (p.658) As for “the constant recurrence of the praise of wine”, Mrs Cadell didn’t believe in the Sufistic view that this was “simply a figure for Divine love”, but then neither did she believe that it was indicative of mere “sensual pleasure” (p.653). Rather she saw the wine parties of Omar’s day as “the nurseries of all the intellectual life of the time” which “did much to counteract the dullness of orthodox Mohammedan life.”(p.654) Thus, in idolising wine he was celebrating the intellectual freedom that flourished at the wine parties. “This seems to us to account for a great deal of Khayam’s wine,” she wrote (p.654) Thus Omar was no mere wine-bibbing blasphemer, as FitzGerald seemed to suggest But why mention Mrs Cadell here? The answer is that in 1899, fifteen years after Mrs Cadell’s death (at the tragically early age of 39), a much edited form of her article, incorporated into an introduction by Richard Garnett, was prefaced to many more of her translations of Omar’s verses than were included in that article, and was printed in the form of a 52 page book: The Ruba'yat of Omar Khayam –Translated by Mrs H.M. Cadell, with an introduction by Richard Garnett. It was this book which caught the attention of the Temperance Movement, for as John D. Yohannan (33a, p.264) explains:

“When Mrs Cadell’s article was republished as a book in 1899, it was welcomed by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union as an antidote to the popular Fitzgerald Rubaiyat. Here was ‘an Omar which may be read in young ladies schools without any apprehension of inflaming the cheek of outraged modesty’.”

Quite why there was so much welcome is not entirely clear, since “the goblet’s praises” and “the tavern door” feature as early as verse 2, even in Mrs Cadell’s version, and the entire collection of 144 verses is as peppered with references to wine as FitzGerald’s was, with the alarming statement from Omar, in verse 137, that “I know how to value drunkenness”! But perhaps it was Mr Garnett’s reassurance that he was “much inclined to believe” that Mrs Cadell had “the real explanation of Omar’s apparent attitude towards the wine cup”, namely, that it was “an abbreviated symbol for all the excellent things from which Mohammedan bigotry debarred the free and genial soul.” To which he added:

“A man of his intellectual superiority – an astronomer too, whose pursuits especially required sobriety and method – cannot have been a mere Epicurean…” (p.xviii)

Having met a fair few boffins with a marked liking for “the wine cup”, I would dispute this view, and I rather suspect myself that Omar’s attitude to drink may well have been that expressed by the Roman poet Horace, namely to “mix brief sottishness with wisdom while ye may” (Odes 4.12; translation by W.G.Shepherd.) But whatever, it would appear that as the fame of FitzGerald’s hedonistic version spread to almost cult status in the 1890s, Mrs Cadell’s article/book came in useful as a moral brake, as it were.

Incidentally, FitzGerald got wind of Mrs Cadell’s forthcoming efforts in Fraser’s Magazine, via The Athenaeum, as early as March 1877, telling Mrs Cowell of “some Lady’s Edition of Omar which is to discover all my Errors and Perversions.” (IV.16-17) In a letter to H. Schütz Wilson, written in April 1877, FitzGerald expressed a mild fear that, after some increase in Omar’s popularity (partly generated by Schütz Wilson), people would turn against him again “when the Lady’s Version exposes his Infidelities.” (IV.24) (FitzGerald could never remember Mrs Cadell’s name.) He needn’t have worried. When the article appeared, he found it “temperate and just.” (IV.225) And even if it hadn’t been “temperate and just”, one doubts that it could ever quite have caught up with the wicked appeal of Omar the Epicurean Infidel!

A more scathing account of FitzGerald’s “Errors and Perversions” is to be found in William Hastie’s book, The Festival of Spring, from the Divan of Jelaleddin, rendered in English gazels after Ruckert’s versions, with an Introduction and a Criticism of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1903). Actually, Hastie’s displeasure was not with Omar Khayyam but with FitzGerald’s rendering of him. Basically, the real Omar, according to Mr Hastie, was a Sufi (Hastie was a fan of both J.B.Nicolas’ and E.H.Whinfield’s Sufic translations), and FitzGerald had turned him into a mere drunkard. Writing of FitzGerald’s admitted tendency to put his own stamp on Omar’s verses, he said:

“He has not hesitated even to eke out his vapid pessimistic song with verses of his own, and to make his poor old Omar’s voice more cracked, querulous and quavering than it ever really was. And he has therefore rightly enough separated his Bacchanalian Rhymster from the holy Choir of the sweet-voiced Persian Songsters who ever made all the grove vocal with devout praise of God. Mr Fitzgerald’s Omar – he himself declares – is not a Sufi poet at all; he is but an old tipsy toper, whose drink is literally, and really that of Bacchus; and he drinks – and drinks! – and drinks! till we hear him snore even in broad day, and till his dimm’d eyes and fuddled brain cannot distinguish the plainest things even in the clearest light.” (p.xxxiii)

It is no surprise, then, to read that Hastie “hated this new-patch’d Omar Khayyam of Mr Fitzgerald” and was “tempted to scorn the miserable, self-deluded, unhealthy fanatics of his Cult” in their “spurious idolatry” and indulgence in “the mad mid-night debauch”! (p.xxxiii)

Another attempt to rescue Omar from accusations of wine-bibbing and disrepect for the Almighty is to be found in what must surely be one of the most peculiar books in the Omarian canon: Louis C. Alexander’s book The Testament of Omar Khayyam [The Wasiyyat] (1907). (Wasiyyat in Persian means Testament, in the sense of “last will and testament.”, and the Persian inscription on the cover of the book – see Gallery 7F (Fig.1) – does translate as “The Testament of Omar Khayyam”)

Alexander claimed to have brought before the world the Wasiyyat or (Last) Testament of Omar, in which the astronomer-poet painted quite a different picture of himself to that painted by FitzGerald. Thus, in his verse 72 we read:

No more Wine-shops for me – no more that disgrace;
Nor false lips to kiss, nor lips falser to speak;
Nor half-gay despairs. I uncover my face–
The masked mask it wore it is time that I break.

In other words, we have here a sort of “Final Confession of Omar”, his revelation that The Rubaiyat was just a mask. All the verses which he wrote before his Testament, and which FitzGerald took at face value, were, in Alexander’s words, “of the nature of satire, or rejoinder, or counter-attack” (presumably to the religious dogma of the time, and in particular to attacks on him by the Sufis.) Again, as regards the death of the physical body, the real Omar did not believe it was the End. Nor did the real Omar see the ills of this life as a cause for berating God. On the contrary, he believed that Death was a gateway to a Life Beyond, for which the ills of this life were a spiritual training ground. (In this he was pretty much in line with Browning’s Rabbi ben Ezra – see below and Appendix 8.) Thus in his verse 76 he writes:

For Good is the end for which the Universe
Travails by Knowledge and Love with Pain entwined;
And Joy is its music, and Death, ah! no curse–
For the enlarged Soul, through it, itself doth find.

His verses 77-8 assure us that though the body may “moulder and slumber” in its grave, the day will come when the Trumpet of the Day of Judgement sounds (as indeed is promised in the Qur’an, Surah 39.68 – this is not just a Christian idea), and “Humanity puts on Immortality.” In his introductory note Alexander freely admitted that:

“To those who conceive of Omar Khayyam only as the Sot and Agnostic – if not the despairing Materialist and Infidel – of the Rubaiyat, these poems will come as a surprise and a revelation.”

But truth will out, and through The Wasiyyat of Omar Khayyam, “the majestic figure of the real Omar Khayyam – the Astronomer, Poet, Philosopher and Saint – stands revealed.” (35a)

But from which manuscript did Alexander get this Testament? He never said, and, so far as I know, the whereabouts of any manuscript remains unknown, but he did say that he was “greatly indebted to Professor E.G.Browne, of Cambridge, for the most kind and ready assistance which he was good enough to give me – though a personal stranger to him.” (The second volume of Browne’s classic work The Literary History of Persia had just then been published – see note 1k.) Unfortunately, Professor Browne himself left no account of the proceedings, and so we are left to try a bit of guesswork.

Louis C. Alexander went on to publish, in 1911, The Autobiography of Shakespeare – a Fragment. This purported to be part of the actual manuscript of Shakespeare’s autobiography, covering the years between his birth and his setting pen to paper on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Fragment ends, inexplicably, in the middle of a sentence, and the whole is, by Alexander’s own admission, a pretty rough draft which Shakespeare must have intended to revise, but never did, for some reason (p.15.) Nevertheless it displays, to Alexander at least, “the inimitable voice of Shakespeare” (p.18.) Alexander intended to issue a further small book including “some pages of extraordinary related interest” (p.18), but apparently he never did (possibly because he died in 1913.) Alas, but perhaps not surprisingly, the world of Shakespearean scholarship remained singularly unmoved by the revelations of this hitherto unknown autobiographical fragment (35b). One problem, certainly, was that, as with the Testament of Omar Khayyam, Alexander never produced the actual manuscript, nor said where he had got it from.

To find one literary revelation like The Wasiyyat is extraordinary enough, but to find a second, like The Autobiography of Shakespeare, arouses suspicion. So, what is going on, if Alexander isn’t just making it all up, or it isn’t literary fraud, on a par with Thomas Chatterton’s ‘medieval’ works of Thomas Rowley, or William Henry Ireland’s ‘lost’ Shakespeare play, Vortigern and Rowena? There is a possible clue in the fact that in 1910, Alexander produced another strange book entitled Echoes of Whistler from which it would appear that Alexander was a spiritualist who believed himself to be in touch with the deceased artist (Whistler had died in 1903.) (35c) One is therefore left wondering if The Testament of Omar Khayyam and The Autobiography of Shakespeare were delivered from ‘beyond the grave’ by the practice of automatic writing, but that Alexander felt it best not to mention this fact lest his readers dismiss the results out of hand, through sheer prejudice, and without giving them a fair hearing. When considered in the context of the spiritualist practices that prevailed from the 19th century and on into the 20th this is actually a plausible idea (35d).Unfortunately, as yet, it must remain merely plausible, not proven.

But this was not quite the end of the Alexander saga, for the revelations of The Testament of Omar Khayyam did not go unchallenged. In 1908 H. Justus Williams published his book The Last Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. In his Preface, presumably in response to Alexander’s book of the previous year, Williams wrote that his aim was “to dispel those rumours, that have gained some credence, regarding the alleged conversion of Omar Khayyam.” Williams went on to say that it was “not unlikely that Omar temporarily discontinued his mode of living”, but that it was only temporary, and he had some new verses to prove it. Here is a sample (his verse 13):

In foolish mood long years ago I swore
To bar the taste of wine for evermore;
But by Thy patient wooing Thou hast made
The vows of no account against Thy lore.

In other words, Omar went back to the Daughter of the Vine again – and not without a jibe at the Temperance Movement (his verse 50):

Some tell of one strange Sect that never drink,
How poor their lives one does not have to think,
But with their vows of total abstinence,
I wonder now how oft they near the Brink.

A critic in The Academy for August 1st 1908 (p.105) was distinctly unimpressed by Williams’ efforts. Writers of Omarian quatrains, he said, are “almost hopelessly handicapped” by the inevitable comparisons with FitzGerald. “Few of them succeed in the least”, he concluded, “and Mr Williams is scarcely one of the few.” Even so, there is a rather neat twist to the poem when “a stranger from the west” seeks out Omar, tells him that “the land I come from rings loud with your fame”, and asks him to sign his copy of The Rubaiyat, which he does, “with some outlandish pen” (verses 24-27)!

Chapter 6 – The Erotic Rubaiyat?

Yet another perceived moral danger of The Rubaiyat was given by the author Peter de Polnay (note 1g, p.181.) He recalled that as a boy he had not even been allowed to read the poem, not on account of its blasphemies, but because “it was too sexy for a boy”! It is difficult for us today to see anything like eroticism in the verses, and yet it has to be said that some illustrators of the verses (particularly John Yunge Bateman and Ronald Balfour, but also Willy Pogany, for example (36a); Gallery 1C) have seen them as a good opportunity for depicting scantily clad, and even naked, women – in fact, de Polnay’s family may well have been referring to some illustrations of the verses rather than to the verses themselves. At first sight, it is not clear why The Rubaiyat should attract erotic illustrations, as the verses hardly prompt it. One’s immediate reaction is that they were there to spice up the perceived hedonistic sinfulness of the poem, made all the more sinful because it was ‘oriental’ – in Art, the exotic orient, with its harems and its dancing girls was, as we shall see later, often a good excuse for a female nude (see Gallery 1A and commentary on it). The Rubaiyat, it seems, became “too sexy for a boy” simply by association. Plus, the more cynical might say, the naked and semi-naked women were there to help sell copies of The Rubaiyat! Be that as it may, some of the menus for the meetings of the Omar Khayyam Clubs of both England and America, which flourished in the first two decades of the 20th century (though the former started earlier, in 1892), were sometimes similarly adorned with naked and semi-naked women who were more spicy than the food on the menu! (Again, see Gallery 1C, Folder 9, and the commentary on it.)

What counts as “too sexy” is very much a function of the times, of course, as the unlikely combination of the dance of Isadora Duncan and the verses of Omar Khayyam demonstrates. The story is well told in Allan Ross MacDougall’s book Isadora: Revolutionary in Art and Love (1960). Isadora had been introduced to FitzGerald’s translation, when young, by her mother (p.25). The idea of dancing or striking poses to the verses of Omar Khayyam appears to have been Isadora’s own – originally the verses having been read either by her sister or her brother. Then, in 1899 she met Justin Huntley McCarthy, the Anglo-Irish author of a successful play, now long forgotten, but who just happened also to be the author of a prose rendering of Omar (see note 13). Thus it came about that in New York in 1899 Isadora did her stuff whilst McCarthy read out his version of the verses. MacDougall tells it thus:

“Mr. McCarthy, together with the young dancer, certainly drew a large and interested audience, mostly of women as theatrical matinees usually are. Well-dressed, well-fed, well-corseted, well-bred women, very proper ladies indeed, there to do honor to a poet whose pagan poem probably lay on their drawing room tables bound, as was the fashion, in limp leather. Settling down as placidly comfortable as they could, the ladies listened to Mr. McCarthy's rich Anglo-Irish voice lecture them on the life and times of the Persian poet. When he began to read his version of Omar's words and a slip of a girl, a hussy, some termed her later, came forward to illustrate the words with her pretty poses, many of the staider, more Victorian members of the high-brow audience received a galvanic shock. The creature before them had not only bare arms and neck, but when her legs- pardon, limbs – stretched out from under the lacy frock, they too were bare!

The youth of today find it difficult to conceive of the vestimentary conditions imposed on performers over fifty years ago. No actress would have dared to appear then on the stage with any part of her anatomy save the face uncovered. Accustomed as we now are to seeing figures both male and female parading on a public beach clad in the most abbreviated bikinis or slips, we find it droll that for well into the twentieth century ladies went trippingly into the sea covered from neck to toe-tip with voluminous garments which left everything to the imagination. Even in the privacy of the home, the proper attire for sleep had to cover the body from the neck to the wrists and to beyond the ankles. The "limbs" of the Steinway were covered, and in conversation among gentlefolk such a word as "leg" was indecent and unutterable.

In one newspaper account of the performance, the dancer's partner was exonerated:

It was no fault of Mr. McCarthy's that certain society women of New York got up and left the theatre. … Mr. McCarthy was properly garbed and conducted himself in every respect as an elocutionist and a gentleman should. Notwithstanding this, a matron arose, and giving a horrified look at Miss Duncan's beautiful bare arms and lovely legs, unchecked and unobscured by stockings, left the house. She was followed by a bunch of vestals, and within five minutes as many as forty women had withdrawn.” (p.42-3)

Later she was to repeat the performance in England, notably at the studios of William Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones, G.F.Watts and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema! (p.52) Isadora never did things by halves.

Again, it is instructive to remember that when Thomas Hardy’s novels Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure appeared in 1891 and 1895 respectively, they were regarded as too sexually explicit, and greeted with scandal as a result! (References for this and what follows can be found in note 66b below.) The Bishop of Wakefield burnt his copy of the latter in protest, and one critic, who turned out to be a Miss Jeannette Gilder, wrote of Jude in The New York World:

“I thought that Tess of the d’Urbervilles was bad enough, but that is milk for babes compared to this….Aside from its immorality there is coarseness which is beyond belief….When I finished the story I opened the windows and let in some fresh air.”

Nevertheless, Miss Gilder could not resist engineering a meeting with Hardy, without his knowledge, on a later visit to England. Scandal shocks, but it also attracts, and maybe this too should be borne in mind when considering the appeal of The Rubaiyat.

As regards The Rubaiyat being “too sexy for a boy” (let alone a girl!), it is interesting that Mrs Cadell, in her article in Fraser’s Magazine, mentioned earlier, did not deem it necessary to ‘defuse’ FitzGerald’s famous verse 11 (“Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough….”). All she says about the love verses in Omar, of which she quotes four, all of them innocuous and none of them used by FitzGerald, is that they “might be claimed by those who hold the mystic interpretation of Omar’s wine and love as proof of their theory.” To which she added, “He certainly wrote little about love.” (loc.cit. p.653) Thus, Omar’s poetry-reading “beneath the Bough” with his (unchaperoned) beloved was not shocking enough to warrant a mention, either in the article of 1879 or the book version of 1899 (where the equivalent of FitzGerald’s verse 11, minus the Book of Verse, is verse 25)! Indeed, in the book version of 1899 we read in verse 20 (cf verse 65 of FitzGerald’s 2nd edition):

“If all who love, and drink, in hell are thrust,
Then heaven as empty as my hand will be.”

And in Mrs Cadell’s verse 105:

“Drink wine, love beauty, in this world of men.
What place for pious deeds? What need for prayer?”

None of this seems calculated to inspire virtue in the blushing young ladies of 1899, but there it is. It would seem that the “too sexy” reputation of The Rubaiyat was a somewhat later development (though actually Peter de Polnay was only born in 1906, which would have made him 14 when Ronald Balfour’s illustrated edition came out – about the right age to be told it was “too sexy for a boy”!)

Chapter 7 – More on Religious Doubts.

But getting back to religious doubts, as we have already seen, in the mid nineteenth century religion was losing the hold that it had once had, and FitzGerald’s own doubts, which he had had since his undergraduate days at Cambridge, and which resonated with those expressed by Omar Khayyam over seven hundred years before, were shared by a growing number of the educated population of England. Indeed, as he grew older, FitzGerald himself became more and more disillusioned with Christianity. Not that he disbelieved in God – he was merely, like Omar Khayyam, skeptical of the way God was presented through the dogmas of “organized religion.” Eventually, he gave up attending regular Sunday church altogether (II.366-7), which disillusionment finds a direct parallel in Omar Khayyam’s disdain for the Mosque – see the comments above and on verse 56 below.

FitzGerald’s skepticism, and in particular of “miracles”, which was again shared by many (notably via the books of Strauss, Renan and Seeley, mentioned earlier, though FitzGerald himself appears to have read none of these), is well illustrated by the following passage from a letter he wrote in 1831 to the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray:

“Religious people are very angry with one for doubting: and say, ‘You come to the question determined to doubt, not to be convinced.’ Certainly we do: having seen how many follow and have followed false religions, and having our reason utterly against many of the principal points of the Bible, we require the most perfect evidence of facts, before we can believe. If you can prove to me that one miracle took place, I will believe that he is a just God who damned us all because a woman ate an apple; and you can't expect greater complaisance than that to be sure.” (I.103)

This disparaging comment about “a just God who damned us all because a woman ate an apple” finds resonance in those verses of Omar Khayyam which deal with the problem of Sin – can we really stand accused of Sin if God predestined us to sin? (verses 57 and 64.) As for miracles, the likes of Robert Chambers’ book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, mentioned above, strongly suggested that God had created the world to run on Natural Laws, and that if God needed occasionally to suspend these to work timely miracles, it showed a lack of Divine Foresight incompatible with a perfect God. In similar vein, the Reverend Baden Powell (father of the famous founder of the Scouts), who was much influenced by Chambers and later Darwin, went further and argued, first in his book The Order of Nature, Considered in Reference to the Claims of Revelation, published in 1859, and later in his essay “On the Study of the Evidences of Christianity” published in the controversial book Essays and Reviews (1860), mentioned earlier (27c), that since God is the Great Lawgiver, and since miracles by definition break the Laws issued by God at the Creation, therefore belief in miracles must be atheistic! (One suspects that Omar Khayyam would have relished this debate, even if Edward FitzGerald didn’t!) It is interesting that, for many, the physical phenomena of Spiritualism – the teleportations, levitations, ectoplasmic heads, astral music and spirit messages etc – offered a path to a renewed belief in miracles. Thus, William Howitt, writing in his book The History of the Supernatural (1863) said, of the phenomena produced by the famous medium D.D.Home(16b), that “Mr. Home's mission seems to have been to go forth and do the preliminary work of restoring faith by the performance of these outward marvels” adding that he is “the herald of a coming restoration of faith in the indissoluble union of the natural and supernatural.” (vol.2, p.202-3) Of course, the Orthodox Church viewed things differently, regarding the phenomena of Spiritualism as a form of sorcery. (16c).

But getting back to what it was in Khayyam’s verses that so resonated with FitzGerald himself, it was not only Khayyam’s disenchantment with organized religion that resonated with him. Khayyam’s “live for today!” philosophy resonated with him too. He once said, in a letter to Professor Cowell, written in 1857 (II.262), that Omar Khayyam’s verses “ring like true metal” insofar as “today is ours”. In another letter to Professor Cowell, written in 1858 (II.323), he referred to the Rubaiyat as “a sort of Epicurean Eclogue in a Persian Garden”. And almost echoing his translation of Omar in advance, as early as 1850, he had written, in a letter to Frederick Tennyson (the brother of the famous poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson), "I am all for the short and merry life"(I.695), though actually it would appear that, unlike Omar as portrayed in The Rubaiyat, FitzGerald did not drink a great deal of alcohol, though when he did, he clearly enjoyed it to the full (37) – sometimes to excess! – and with a good cigar! (This, of course, was a luxury which Omar Khayyam never had the chance to enjoy, but if he had, then I sometimes fancy that he would have included a cigar in his Rubaiyat, along with the famous flask of wine, the book of verse, and his lady-love, as immortalized in verse 11!) Be that as it may, one of the things which particularly stuck in FitzGerald’s mind in the early days of his translating The Rubaiyat was Omar Khayyam’s line: “God gave me this turn for Drink, perhaps God was drunk when he made me.”(II.291-2) And it is true: an all-knowing God must have known what he was doing when created the Grape, and must have been fully aware of its effects! Oddly enough, FitzGerald did not use this line in any editions of his Rubaiyat, though he did express similar thoughts in verse 61 of his 3rd, 4th and 5th editions (verse 63 of the 2nd):

Why, be this Juice the growth of God, who dare
Blaspheme the twisted tendril as a Snare?
A Blessing, we should use it, should we not?
And if a Curse – why, then, Who set it there?

(“This Juice” is wine, and “the twisted tendril” is the vine on which the grapes grow.) Another translator of Omar Khayyam’s verses, Edward Henry Whinfield, writing in his more literal translation of 1882, expressed similar sentiments, in verse 107 of his translation (verse 197 in his 1883 edition):

“True I drink wine, like every man of sense,
For I know Allah will not take offence;
Before time was, He knew that I should drink,
And who am I to thwart His prescience.”

As might be expected, another source of resonance between FitzGerald and Khayyam was their thoughts on mortality and the transience of human life. In a letter to Mrs Alfred Tennyson, written in April 1864, he talked of “a Winter of Sickness and Death” in which his sister Isabella had died of apoplexy. He wrote, “I see Mourning, and hear Bells tolling, wherever I go.” (II.517) Church bells were always an ominous sign for FitzGerald: “a muffled bell from the Church here began to toll for somebody’s death: it sounded like a Bell under the Sea.” (III.130). Likewise he wrote of “the confounded Bell of a neighbouring Church announcing a Death, day after day.” (IV.211)

As regards approaching old age, and its aftermath, FitzGerald wrote, in a letter to W.Aldis Wright, written in July 1875:

“I fancy I am finding out Old Age at last: not to be called Old Age by some in these days of Immortality, but, on the other hand, getting close to the Psalmist’s Measure.” (III.590)

Later, in August 1875, in a letter to Professor Cowell this time, FitzGerald wrote, with grim humour:

“I have not been very well all this Summer, and fancy that I begin to ‘smell the Ground’, as Sailors say of the Ship that slackens speed as the Water shallows under her. I can’t say I have much care for long Life; but still less for long Death: I mean a lingering one.” (III.592-3)

“Smell the ground” was to be a phrase he would use again – in a letter to Thomas Carlyle (III.598) and in another to Fanny Kemble (III.609).

Again, in a letter to John Allen written in March 1866, FitzGerald wrote:

“Death seems to rise like a Wall against one now whichever way one looks. When I read Boswell and other Memoirs now, what presses on me most is – All these people who talked and acted so busily are gone. It is said that when Talma (a French actor) advanced upon the Stage, his Thought on facing the Audience was, that they were all soon to be Nothing.” (II.576)

This passage clearly reflects the words of Omar – “some we loved, the loveliest and best” (v.21) and “the Nothing all Things end in” (v.47).

It seems likely, too, that Khayyam’s verses on the transience of human life struck a particular chord with FitzGerald when his young friend William Kenworthy Browne died as a result of a riding accident at the end of January 1859. He was only 43 years old. Verse 21, with its line “some we loved, the loveliest and best” must, in retrospect, have seemed particularly poignant to FitzGerald. But more than this, there occurred in 1859 one of those strange coincidences of history that make us think about fate and destiny. FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat was ready to go on sale by February 15th of that year, but sales had to be delayed until the British Museum Library had received its statutory copy for legal deposit purposes (essentially the same as today’s copyright purposes.) This it did on March 30th, the very day that William Browne died, and the day before FitzGerald’s 50th birthday. (Curiously, too, FitzGerald had had a presentiment of Browne’s early death – see I.225-6.)

As for the after-life, as early as 1830 FitzGerald had written to his friend John Allen, who was a devout Christian:

“It is useless wading again into the subject: I do not wish to convince you, nor any one else: and I am afraid I cannot be convinced. I wish that the not being happy without the prospect of Heaven were a proof of Religion: but alas! ‘tis no more so, than a beggar’s not being happy without a penny in his pocket is a proof that there soon will be a penny in his pocket: it will make him happy to believe so, but the penny is as far off as ever. But I am sorry to have said thus much about it. I shall never renew the subject without your wish: but I will hear all you have to say, very candidly: why not, since it would make me happy to be of your persuasion?” (I.130-1; compare the guinea-in-the-pocket version in I.119.)

This, of course, resonates with Omar Khayyam’s views on the finality of death, which FitzGerald rendered as: “the flower that once has blown forever dies.” (verse 26)

One might have thought that FitzGerald would have taken great interest in the debate over whether or not there was such a thing as an afterlife, but he didn’t. As he wrote in a letter to Bernard Barton in May 1846:

“I met Carlyle last night at Tennyson’s; and they two discussed the merits of this world, and the next, till I wished myself out of this, at any rate. Carlyle gets more wild, savage, and unreasonable every day; and I do believe, will turn mad.” (I.534; see also I.581 n.1 for an account of the same meeting taken from the Tennyson Memoir, which is quoted in Appendix 9.)

Writing to W.M.Thackeray in November 1852, FitzGerald talks of receiving a letter from Frederick Tennyson:

“The old fellow really believes that the better men will meet in another world under their own vine and figtree, in an atmosphere pure of Cloud, and talk over the joys and sorrows of this anterior life, as of a journey past, in cheerful converse, over moderate cups….What a thing it would be if we could be sure, or even have a good hope, that we could, by striving, meet again – you and I – I am sure I could endure all conflict – with myself and the world – if I could but have such a hope as any poor old woman hereabout has.” (II.75-6)

Chapter 8 – The Transience of Empires.

As important in the nineteenth century as the scientific awareness of Man’s tiny place in the cosmic scheme of things was the increasing historical awareness of the transience of whole civilisations. This realisation had begun much earlier, of course, in the contemplation of the ruins of the once great city of Rome. In the 16th century a Sicilian poet known as Janus Vitalis had composed a Latin epigram of fourteen lines on the theme, and which became very popular throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries (38a). The epigram as a whole, together with an English translation, were given in Basil Kennett’s Romae Antiquae Notitia: or, the Antiquities of Rome, first published in 1696. Part of Kennett’s translation reads thus:

See here the craggy Walls, the Tow’rs defac’d,
And Piles that frighten more than once they pleas’d:
See the vast Theaters, a shapeless load,
And Sights more Tragick than they ever show’d:
This, this is Rome. Her haughty Carcas spread.
Still awes in ruin, and commands when dead

Four lines from Vitalis’s epigram were used as a preface to John Dyer’s poem “The Ruines of Rome”, probably written largely during his stay in Rome in 1724-5, but published in 1740 (38b). Lines 15-20 of Dyer’s poem read thus:

Lo! the resistless theme, imperial Rome.
Fall’n, fall'n, a silent heap; her heroes all
Sunk in their urns; behold the pride of pomp,
The throne of nations fall'n; obscur'd in dust;
Ev'n yet majestical: the solemn scene
Elates the soul,

The epigram of Janus Vitalis also inspired the 16th century French poet Joachim du Bellay’s set of sonnets Les Antiquitez de Rome (38a), which in their turn inspired the English poet Edmund Spenser to pen what was effectively a translation of them in his poem, “The Ruines of Rome, by Bellay”, first published in 1591, though probably partly written in his undergraduate days (1569-1572) (38c). The ruins were, in Spenser’s words, “the pray of time, which all things doth devowre.” (Sonnet 3: “pray” is here an obsolete form of “prey”)

The ruins of Rome – indeed, ruins generally – early entered into the poetic imagination, then. Shelley, for example, was mightily impressed by the ruins of Rome – indeed he was inspired to write parts of “Prometheus Unbound” within the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla. (In 1845 Joseph Severn painted a posthumous picture of him sat amid the ruins of the baths, reproduced in Gallery 5A, Fig.18.) Shelley also wrote two lengthy letters to Thomas Love Peacock about Rome and its ruins, on his two visits there in 1818-9. In the first of these he described the ruined temples within the precincts of the forum as “the wrecks of what a great nation once dedicated to the abstractions of the mind,” just one aspect of what he called Rome’s “mines of inexhaustible contemplation.” (38d) Curiously, though, given his letters to Peacock, his two poems on “Mutability” (see notes on verse 26), and his famous “Ozymandias” (see notes on verse 17), Shelley put little of his contemplations of Rome into actual verse – we have merely “A Roman’s Chamber” and the following three lined snippet, “Rome and Nature, 1819”:

Rome has fallen, ye see it lying
Heaped in undistinguished ruin:
Nature is alone undying.

The sentiment here is similar to that of verse 5 of the Rubaiyat – the Work of Man, be it Rome or Iram, must decay, but Nature continues on regardless.

Again, in the 4th Canto (stanza 145) of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, written between 1812 and 1818, Lord Byron refers to “Rome and her Ruin past Redemption’s skill” and gives a translation of the famous lines attributed to the Venerable Bede:

While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand;
When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall;
And when Rome falls – the World.

Actually there is some controversy over whether or not it was Bede who wrote these lines, and whether they refer to the Colosseum or to the Colossus – a huge statue of the Emperor Nero which formerly stood nearby (38e), but here it hardly matters, for it is the idea behind Byron’s lines which counts.

Another romanticized excursion into ruins is, of course, Robert Browning’s poem “Love among the Ruins” (1855), which, at least in part, may have inspired Edward Burne-Jones’s 1894 oil painting of the same name (see Gallery 3A, Fig.4.) Burne-Jones had done a watercolour version of this painting some 20 years earlier, but it was severely damaged when someone cleaning it mistook its watercolours for oils! (38f)) Actually. despite their identical titles, Burne-Jones’ painting(s) almost certainly owed their inspiration more to Francesco Colonna’s strange allegory of love, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, first published in 1499, than directly to Browning’s poem (38g) The allegory involves Poliphilo and his love Polia, and at one point the lovers come hand-in-hand upon a ruined temple. Here Poliphilo becomes “all inflamed with love” whereupon Polia urges him to examine some ancient epitaphs nearby. One of these relates to the Rape of Proserpine, and it is this which gives Poliphilo moral cause to reign in his passions. Whether or not Browning was inspired by the same source I have been unable to discover. Certainly he seems to have been inspired by some real ruins, though his poem probably involves a fictional amalgam of the Roman Campagna, Babylon, Nineveh and Thebes. (38h)

Finally, in prose this time, Charles Dickens in Chapter 10 of his Pictures from Italy, first published in 1846, talked of “such a Rome as no one can imagine in its full and awful grandeur.” It was, he added, “a desert of decay, sombre and desolate beyond all expression; and with a history in every stone that strews the ground.” It was “the ghost of old Rome.”

The haunting power of ruins had great appeal to artists, too, Rome being a favourite, as it was with poets. Again, the fascination began early. In the 17th century Claude Lorrain produced several paintings of the ruins of Rome. In the 18th century came Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose etching of an imagined view of the Colosseum from the air remains a classic, and also the man who was probably the most prolific painter of Roman ruins – Giovanni Paolo Panini (38i). Many of Panini’s paintings (and a number of Claude Lorrain’s, for that matter) are interesting as examples of “capriccios” – paintings which bring together on a single canvas ruins which could not possibly be seen together as depicted (Canaletto often used the same technique in his views of Venice.) They are fantasies, painted for romantic effect, and Panini produced them, basically, as souvenirs for visiting tourists in the days before the camera. They were very popular (as indeed were Canaletto’s!) – for those who could afford them, that is.

In the 19th century, J.M.W.Turner painted watercolours of The Colosseum by Moonlight and The Roman Forum with a Rainbow (both in 1819); Samuel Palmer produced several paintings of Rome on his visit there in the 1830’s, as did David Roberts (more famous now for his views of Egypt and the Holy Land) in the 1850’s. Curiously, Edward Lear, who was a talented artist but is now more famous for his nonsense verse (notably The Owl and the Pussycat), also produced many paintings of Rome from the 1830s onwards. His book Views in Rome and its Environs was published in 1841, with a more ambitious two volumed work on the same theme following five years later (38j.) (Not that everyone was so enthused. John Ruskin, far from getting out his sketch book, as he did so often on his travels, simply dismissed the ruins as “a nasty, rubbishy, dirty hole”! (38k))

A selection of paintings on the theme of ruins, with commentary, can be found in Gallery 5.

Moving from poets and artists to historians, at the end of the eighteenth century Edward Gibbon wrote, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, of how in AD 1430 the learned Poggius and a friend climbed up the Capitoline Hill to view the ruins of ancient Rome. The view, says Gibbon, gave them “ample scope for moralizing on the vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his works, which buries empires and cities in a common grave.” (Chapter 71) (FitzGerald had read Gibbon “till I have got a headache” (I.265) and indeed he quotes him in his “Life of Omar Khayyam”, at the start of the first edition of The Rubaiyat, in connection with the accuracy of the Jalali Calendar.)

Again, the French writer and historian Chateaubriand, in the Introduction to his Travels in Greece, Palestine, Egypt and Barbary, during the Years 1806 and 1807 (1814) (39a) quotes Æneas Sylvius, who became Pope Pius II in 1458, on the subject of the ruins of Athens, at that time under Moslem control (“the yoke of slavery” in what follows):

“O, the deplorable vicissitudes of human things! O, the tragic change of human power! A city once renowned for its walls, harbours, buildings; pre-eminent in arms, wealth, citizens, wisdom, and every species of learning, is now reduced to a petty town, or rather a village. Formerly free, and living under its own laws, now oppressed by the most cruel monsters, and bowed down by the yoke of slavery: Go to Athens, and instead of the most magnificent works, behold heaps of rubbish, and lamentable ruins. Beware, beware of confiding too much in thine own strength, but put thy trust in Him who says, I am the Lord your God." (p.20, footnote)

Chateaubriand himself visited Athens in the course of his travels, and he mused over its ruins along similar lines:

“Every thing passes away, every thing must have an end in this world. Whither are fled those divine geniuses, who reared the temple on whose ruins I was seated? This sun which, perhaps, beamed on the last moment of the poor girl of Megara, had witnessed the death of the brilliant Aspasia. This picture of Attica, this spectacle which I contemplated, had been surveyed by eyes that have been closed above two thousand years. I too shall soon be no more, and other mortals, transitory as myself, will make the same reflections on the same ruins. Our lives and our hearts are in the hands of God; let him then do with both what he pleases.” (p.150-1)

Again, in 1791, writing in the thick of the French Revolution, C.F. Volney, in his book Les Ruines: ou Méditation sur les Révolutions des Empires (translated into English as The Ruins: or Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires (39b), wrote of contemplating, albeit at second-hand (39c), the derelict state of the once great city of Palmyra (the Biblical Tadmor in the Wilderness, in Syria – named, for example, in 1 Kings 9.18 and 2 Chronicles 8.4):

“And now behold what remains of this powerful city: a miserable skeleton! What of its vast domination: a doubtful and obscure remembrance! To the noisy concourse which thronged under these porticoes, succeeds the solitude of death. The silence of the grave is substituted for the busy hum of public places; the affluence of a commercial city is changed into wretched poverty; the palaces of kings have become a den of wild beasts; flocks repose in the area of temples, and savage reptiles inhabit the sanctuary of the gods. Ah! How has so much glory been eclipsed? How have so many labours been annihilated? Do thus perish then the works of men – thus vanish empires and nations?” (Chapter 2)

Shelley, too, referred in similar terms to “Palmyra’s ruined palaces” in Part II of his “Queen Mab”, written in 1813 (lines 115-120):

“What is immortal there?
Nothing – it stands to tell
A melancholy tale, to give
An awful warning; soon
Oblivion will steal silently
The remnant of its fame.”

Volney’s thoughts are strikingly echoed in FitzGerald’s verses 16 and 17, even to the lion and the lizard of the latter verse, though I do not know if FitzGerald ever read or was aware of Volney’s book (he is not mentioned in any of his extant letters). But the implication was simple: what had happened to the ancient city of Palmyra yesterday could happen to London or Paris tomorrow (40), and if the great empires of Rome and Babylon could fall, so too – unthinkably – could the British Empire. (Volney’s book was written in the midst of the French Revolution, remember, and there was considerable unease in England that what had happened in France could happen here too. The threat was made more real by Britain’s loss of her North American colonies in 1783.) At the end of his Chapter 2, Volney went on to say:

“Ah! Hapless man…a blind fatality sports with they destiny! A fatal necessity rules with the hand of chance the lot of mortals! But no: it is the justice of heaven fulfilling its decrees! – a God of mystery exercising his incomprehensible judgments. Doubtless he has pronounced a secret anathema against this land: blasting with maledictions the present, for the sins of past generations. Oh! Who shall dare to fathom the depths of the Omnipotent!”

Such thoughts are very reminiscent of the sentiments contained in FitzGerald’s verses 49 (“Where destiny with Men for Pieces plays”) and 50 (“He knows about it all – He knows – He knows”), and yet Volney himself did not actually share Omar Khayyam’s and Edward FitzGerald’s fatalism – he believed that Empires failed because of the failures within their peoples, and that it was wrong to accuse either Fate or God for the calamities that beset Mankind. It was all a matter of deducible Natural Law that Science could unravel using Reason; then, by harnessing that Natural Law, one could produce the Ideal Society. Back in 1791 that must have seemed much more reasonable than it does now, two centuries later, and with so little progress in that direction! But that is another matter. There are some striking parallels between Volney and FitzGerald, not least of which is Volney’s imagined elevation to “the aerial heights” from which he could view the Earth as “a globe like that of the Moon” (Chapter 4), and which parallels Omar Khayyam’s viewing of the Earth from the Seventh Sphere in FitzGerald’s verse 31. Again, Volney specifically mentions, in his Chapter 20, the seventy two feuding sects of Islam, which feature in FitzGerald’s verse 43. Again, Volney’s view on Original Sin, expressed in his Chapter 21 (“What!...because a man and a woman ate an apple six thousand years ago, all the human race are damned?”), likewise finds a parallel in FitzGerald’s verse 58, where God effectively damns the human race by the creation of the Snake that induced Eve to eat that apple. Indeed, FitzGerald’s own comment, made in the letter to Thackeray, quoted above, about “a just God who damned us all because a woman ate an apple”, might almost be quoted from Volney! (Note, though, that Voltaire said much the same about that fateful apple in his entries “All is Good” and “Original Sin” in his Philosophical Dictionary, as indeed did Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason, as mentioned earlier.) Yet again, Volney’s representation of the “great controversy respecting God and his Nature” between the theologians of different faiths, to be found at the end of his Chapter 21, finds a ready parallel in FitzGerald’s verse 27, where, after all the controversy, Khayyam comes out none the wiser. Note, though, that Omar Khayyam’s “Drink!” philosophy does not find a parallel in Volney, for in his sequel to Les Ruines, which was published, in 1793, under the title La Loi Naturelle (translated under the title The Law of Nature and included in the volume cited in note 39b) Volney referred to drunkenness as “a most vile and pernicious vice” (Chapter 6.) It is not so much that the “Natural Law” under which (according to Volney) Man should live to maximise his happiness forbids the drinking of wine, it merely forbids the abuse of it, but since use can so easily lead to abuse, it is best left alone.

The ruins of Palmyra, like those of Persepolis (see notes on verse 5), were well known to the travellers of the 18th century, and Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798-1801, resulting in the publication of the famous multi-volumed Description de l’Égypt, opened up the Land of the Pharaohs to wider western contemplation than was hitherto possible. (The degree of interest can be gauged by the wave of ‘Egyptomania’ it inspired: a passion for things – from jewellery and pottery to furniture – in Ancient Egyptian style! (41).) As the nineteenth century unfolded, many other great discoveries were made – the ruins of Babylon were first described in Claudius J. Rich’s Memoirs on the Ruins of Babylon (1815), and the ruins of Nineveh in A. H. Layard’s Nineveh and Its Remains (1849). Most romantic of all, of course, was the publication of Heinrich Schliemann’s Troja und seine Ruinen (Troy and its Ruins) in 1875. What made the 19th century particularly exciting, too, was Champollion’s decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics from the Rosetta Stone, first published in his book Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens Égyptiens (1824) and the decipherment of cuneiform from the Behistun inscription by Henry Rawlinson, first published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland in 1848 and 1849. Contemporary interest can be gauged by the popular journals of the time. By 1850 The Gentleman’s Magazine (July issue, p.61f) was enthusiastically reviewing W.S.Vaux’s Nineveh and Persepolis: an historical sketch of Ancient Assyria and Persia, with an Account of the Recent Researches in those Countries as a full and yet popular account of what was going on, including the decipherment of cuneiform “which may justly be reckoned amongst the wonders of the present age.” Again, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in October 1854 appeared an anonymous article entitled Records of the Past – Nineveh and Babylon. In its philosophical prelude to an account of Nineveh and Babylon, the article opens with thoughts which are typical of our present concerns:

“History must ever possess an undying fascination for the minds of men, for its subject is the story of their race, and its interest is ever human to the core. Its burden is now a song of rejoicing at the triumphs, or a wail of lamentation over the errors and sufferings, of mankind. How history, in gifted hands, exults as it reaches those blooming points in a nation’s career – those eras of Pericles, of Augustus, of Haroun-Alraschid, or of our own Elizabeth, – or, piercing back through the veil of time, discerns with joy the brilliant era of a Vicramaditya in the old world of the Hindoos, – the grandeur of a Rameses, or still remoter monarchs in Egypt – or a rule of then unequalled justice and benificence extending back for countless ages in the early history of secluded China. And how it saddens to see these old empires pass away, – to behold Rome, and Greece, and Nineveh, and Egypt, Susa and Persepolis, and the grand old cities of India, withered, rolled up like a scroll, and vanishing from the face of the earth. Yet with what quiet hopefulness, with what assured resignation, does it contemplate all these changes. ‘Passing away,’ it knows, is written from the first upon the brow of empires as well as of men; and even when the mighty fabrics of human power are seen crumbling into dust beneath internal decay or external assault, – when the stores of knowledge, the monuments of art – in fact, a whole civilisation – seems rushing into oblivion before an onslaught of barbarism, the philosophic historian, with an assuredness of faith stronger than other men’s, knows that the human race is but on the eve of some new and higher development – that all is ordered by One without whom not a sparrow falls to the ground, and that from out of the present chaos will emerge new kingdoms of men, purged from the dross of the old, yet inheriting the larger part of their wisdom.” (p.458)

A little later, the author touches on the subject of history repeating itself:

“Hegel and Spinoza are but Hindoos reviving in the eighteenth century. Auguste Comte, with his boasted new science of Positivism, is but a systematiser of the doctrines of Confucius and the old philosophers of China – and what are magnetism, clairvoyance, and such-like researches at present making into the spiritual powers of man, but unconscious repetitions of what has been known or imagined in India for three thousand years?” (p.459)

On a more prosaic level, the review of Vaux’s book, mentioned above, tells us that when some of the sculptures unearthed by Layard were exhibited “in a dark cellar of the British Museum”, the museum authorities were caught out in their choice of location for the exhibition, for they had greatly underestimated the interest they would arouse, as “unexampled thousands flocked to inspect the relics of a far-off antiquity” (p.62) As an interesting aside here, it was the delivery of a Winged Bull sculpture from Nineveh to the British Museum which inspired Rossetti’s poem “The Burden of Nineveh.” (For more on this poem, see note 40.)

Chapter 9 – Orientalism.

But there are yet other reasons for the extraordinary popularity of FitzGerald’s work as the nineteenth century unfolded. Partly through increased travel and exploration, partly through colonization and missionary work (accounts of travels and missionary work in foreign lands were very popular (42)), 19th century Europe, and in particular Victorian England, had developed a fascination for “the Orient”, a term which covered everything from the Middle East (with its Biblical connotations) to the Far East.

The fascination had begun well before the 19th century – the first English translation of The Travels of Marco Polo was made by John Frampton in 1579, for example, and Marco Polo found a place in Purchas, His Pilgrimage, an early and popular example of travel writing by Samuel Purchas, which ran to several editions in the first quarter of the 17th century. One off-shoot of Purchas, in literature, was to be Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opium-induced dream-poem Kubla Khan written in 1797/8 (probably the latter) but first published in 1816. (Coleridge had been reading Purchas’s account of Kubla Khan – in Book 4, Chapter 13 – at the time when he fell asleep and had his dream-vision.) In the literary field, it was Lord Byron’s six poems, collectively known as his Turkish Tales, published between 1813 and 1816, which consolidated the fame he woke up to one morning as a result of the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Less well known today are William Beckford’s novel Vathek (1786), Robert Southey’s epic poem Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Thomas Moore’s fantasy-poem Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance (1817) and James Morier’s novel The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan (1824).

Byron’s influence on everything from poetry and drama to fashion (recall the famous portrait of Byron in Albanian dress by Thomas Phillips - see Gallery 7D, Folder 3, Fig.1) and social behaviour (notably the pose of the pale and tortured Byronic hero) are so well known as to need little elaboration. (43) But the huge influence of some of the now almost forgotten lesser lights should not be underestimated. Moore’s Lalla Rookh is a good example. According to Miriam Allen de Ford’s biography of Moore, the poem “burst upon the world like a benignant bomb” She goes on:

“This series of four narrative poems interspersed with prose – pseudo-Oriental, lush and semi-Byronic (though actually written, if not published, before either The Giaour or The Bride of Abydos) – catapulted Moore from ‘Irish Bard’ to the idol of what would now be called the middle-brow public. Lalla Rookh went into innumerable editions; it was translated into almost every literate tongue, including Persian, whence it allegedly sprang; everything was named for it, from ships to ice cream; girls – a few of whom, named for great-grandmothers, are still living – were christened Lalla. Everything from or about the Near East became the raging fashion of the time. It was Moore’s great fortune in his own lifetime – and his misfortune in ours – to be exactly fitted to his era. Not even Byron meant as much to his first readers as Moore in his heyday meant to his.” (44a)

Actually, Moore had never been to the Near East, and all the oriental flavour of his poem had been gleaned from detailed research of travel books! In this he was not alone! (44b) Oddly enough, FitzGerald makes no reference to Lalla Rookh, though he does mention “Tommy Moore’s Irish Melodies” (I.231), these being the source of Moore’s fame as “the Irish Bard”(44c).

On a different front, the first translation of the Qur’an into English (it was then known as the Koran, of course) was made by George Sale in 1734, a translation, with “Preliminary Discourse”, that was to be republished many times down into the 20th century. Sir William Jones’s Grammar of the Persian Language was first published in 1771, and John Richardson’s Dictionary of Persian, Arabic and English in 1777 – both these reference works being used by FitzGerald, as mentioned earlier. In 1801 there appeared the first edition of The Flowers of Persian Literature by Samuel Rousseau. The book contained “Extracts from the Most Celebrated Authors, in Prose and Verse”, featuring Persian texts and their English translations in parallel. The book was intended as “A Companion to Sir William Jones’s Persian Grammar.” In a different field, Robert Morrison’s Dictionary of the Chinese Language appeared in 1822 and his translation of the Bible into Chinese in 1823; Charles Wilkins’ Bhagvat Geeta (now generally known as the Bhagavad Gita) appeared in 1785; Mountstuart Elphinstone’s book The History of India appeared in 1841; and Thomas Patrick Hughes’ Dictionary of Islam appeared in 1885 – the latter is still in use as a reference book today. Again, educated English people had at their disposal the likes of Bathélemy d’Herbelot’s Bibliothèque Orientale, which had been published in Paris in 1697. FitzGerald certainly had a copy and found it “delightful” (II.254). He also refers to it in his introduction to the various editions of The Rubaiyat.

On another front, The Asiatic Society (of Calcutta) had been founded by Sir William Jones as early as 1784, and its British counterpart, The Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, in 1823. Recall that in his various introductions to The Rubaiyat, FitzGerald quoted Cowell’s article “Omar Khayyam”, which had been published in the journal Calcutta Review, in March 1858 (Appendix 1f).

In art, from the 18th century and on into the 19th, paintings of oriental scenes by European artists became very popular. Some of these were factual scenes painted in the country which they depicted, like the paintings of David Roberts in Egypt and The Holy Land (45a), those of Jules Laurens in Persia (45b), or those of George Chinnery in India and China (45c). (It is said of Chinnery that he fled to India to escape his wife, then fled to China when she followed him to India!) Others, like some of the paintings of John Frederick Lewis in Egypt (45d), or Eugène Delacroix in North Africa (45e), were imagined scenes but based on actual personal experience; and yet others were imagined scenes based purely upon the experience of others, like the Turkish pictures of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, who never once set foot in Turkey! (45f) The Orient was exciting and exotic, and, on account of its harems, its slave markets, and its dancing girls, often an excuse for thinly veiled eroticism – Ingres’ “Turkish Bath” and “Odalisque with a Slave” are classic examples of this, from an artist who was noted for his love of women and the female form. Jean-Leon Gérôme’s paintings “The Slave Market” and “Moorish Bath: Lady of Cairo bathing” are of a similarly erotic nature.(45g) (Artists also used ancient Roman decadence to similar ends, of course: for example, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema in his singularly erotic painting “The Tepidarium.” (45h)) For a selection of these erotic paintings, with further commentary, see Gallery 1A.

In addition, there was great interest in native paintings imported from the Orient. Miniature paintings from Turkey, Persia and India (46a); watercolours from China, and prints from Japan were all, at one time or another, eagerly sought after. Perhaps the longest lasting fad was for Chinese art (including porcelain, jade carving and such like, as well as paintings), and home-grown imitations of it (so-called “chinoiserie” (46b)), which probably began as early as the 17th century, and which inspired huge interest through to the 19th, and even beyond. Such was the market for Chinese art in the west that it got to the point where native artists were ready to produce work “on demand”, with western-style touches to please western tastes! (46c) After “chinoiserie” came “japonisme” (46d) – the craze for all things Japanese or in Japanese style (fans, lacquerware and silk kimonos, as well as prints), and which began following the opening up of Japanese ports to western trade in 1854.

On a literary front, in addition to Samuel Rousseau’s book The Flowers of Persian Literature mentioned above, first published in 1801, and popular enough for a second edition to appear four years later, James Atkinson’s prose-with-poetry translation of parts of the great Persian epic The Shah Nameh appeared in 1832. It was still popular enough to be reprinted in a slightly edited form by his son, Rev J.A. Atkinson, in 1886. (Matthew Arnold’s poem Sohrab and Rustum, based on an episode from the Shah Nameh, was published in 1853. He probably used Atkinson’s translation as one of his sources, though his initial inspiration seems to have come from an account of the story in Sir John Malcolm's History of Persia, published in 1815.) In 1852 appeared the first edition of Edward B. Eastwick’s translation of the Persian classic, The Gulistan; or, Rose-Garden of Shekh Muslihud-Din Sadi of Shiraz. A second edition was published in 1880 as one of Trübner’s Oriental Series, and it is an interesting sign of the times that Trübner’s Catalogue of Oriental and Linguistic Publications for 1888 ran to no less than 108 pages!

Again, there was the fascination of the strange gods of India as revealed in Edward Moor’s book The Hindu Pantheon, published in 1810 (47a). Later in the century, from the late 1830s, came reports of the erotic sculptures of India, notably those at Khajuraho, which both shocked and titillated western readers (47b). Most famously, Sir Richard Burton’s exotic – and in places, erotic – Arabian Nights (more properly known as The One Thousand and One Nights – a collection of stories in Arabic from a variety of sources, including Persia and India), was first published in ten volumes in 1885, though it is now known to most people today through the stories of Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad the Sailor (48a), or through the music of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, composed in 1888! (48b) Nor must we forget Burton’s famous translation of the Indian sex-manual, The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, first published in 1883, whose popularity, it has to be said, has probably had more to do with its explicit sexual content than its oriental literary worth!

Burton, incidentally, was an early fan of FitzGerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat, though later, it would seem, he became somewhat envious of its success. It seems likely that Burton’s Sufic poem, The Kasidah of Haji Abdu el-Yezdi, was an attempt to out-do FitzGerald, but if so, it never succeeded. Burton possibly began his poem in 1853, but it is far more likely that he began it long after FitzGerald’s poem had already appeared. At any rate, it was only published in 1880 and never achieved any great degree of popularity. (See Appendix 5 for some extracts from the poem, with notes on it, and comments on likely dates of composition etc.)

On a more academic level, the first English translation of the great Hindu epic The Mahabharata, by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, was published between 1883 and 1896; and between 1879 and 1910 interest in the Orient had led to the publication, in no less than 50 volumes, of translations of The Sacred Books of the East, a massive undertaking. (The whole set can now be read on-line.)

Finally, of course, there was Buddhism, with its tales of reincarnation and the enticing legend of Buddha. William Francklin had published his Researches on the Tenets and Doctrines of the Jeynes and Boodhists in 1827; Samuel Beal published his book The Romantic Legend of Sakya Buddha in 1875; and FitzGerald’s mentor, Professor Cowell, with others, translated the The Jataka Tales (stories of the various incarnations of Buddha), published in six volumes between 1895 and 1907 (Appendix 1e).)

The Rubaiyat, then, emerged into a world fascinated by the orient, and, it is to be noted (recall here de Polnay’s comment on The Rubaiyat, quoted above, as “too sexy for a boy”), by an orient that was sometimes erotically charged.

On a more eccentric front, an off-shoot of the interest in Oriental religions was the founding, first of all in America in 1875, and about four years later, in England, of Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society. The famous medium D.D. Home, in his book Lights and Shadows of Spiritualism (1877), said that it was “destined to occupy a niche in history between the Laputan College of Swift and the philosopher who planned to extract gold from sunbeams” (p.295), adding, a little later, that “we may look with pitying indifference…on these English-speaking Fetichists” who invite us to:

“Come and worship Mumbo Jumbo
In the Mountains of the Moon.” (p.297)

Ironically, D.D. Hume was the medium on whom Robert Browning poured such scorn in his poem “Mr Sludge the Medium”, as mentioned in note 16.

One is tempted here to draw parallels between the later 20th century and the later 19th – an age of advancing Science and Reason, yet at the same time an age of Mysticism. Whilst the 19th century eagerly adopted the ‘wisdom’ of Madame Blavatsky, the 20th adopted that of T. Lobsang Rampa. (Indeed, Agehananda Barati, in his scathing essay “Fictitious Tibet: The Origin and Persistence of Rampaism”, which appeared in The Tibet Society Bulletin in 1974 (vol.7), said that Lobsang Rampa’s book The Third Eye (1956) “smacked of Blavatskian and post-Blavatskian hogwash”!) Likewise, whilst the 19th century eagerly embraced communication with the spirits of the dead, the twentieth century eagerly embraced communication with aliens from outer space, brought to earth in Flying Saucers. The parallels are very striking, and would form a study in themselves – but not here!

Chapter 10 – The Rise of Comparative Religion.

Another result of this interest in the Orient takes us back to religion rather than mysticism: it was an increased awareness of other religions, often far older than Christianity, and with that awareness a somewhat alarming revelation: that Christianity might be just one religion amongst many, and one, furthermore, which seemed suspiciously – and mysteriously – like others in some of its details. An interesting early example is provided by a letter written by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu from Adrianople in 1717. It is interesting not only for its remarkably tolerant view of Islam (or Mahometism as it then was), but also for its glimpse of the Islamic attitude to wine, and for its drawing of parallels between the “jarring sects” (verse 43) within both Christianity and Islam:

“I was going to tell you, that an intimate daily conversation with the effendi Achmet-beg, gave me an opportunity of knowing their religion and morals in a more particular manner than perhaps any Christian ever did. I explained to him the difference between the religion of England and Rome; and he was pleased to hear there were Christians that did not worship images, or adore the Virgin Mary……Mahometism is divided into as many sects as Christianity; and the first institution as much neglected and obscured by interpretations. I cannot here forbear reflecting on the natural inclination of mankind, to make mysteries and novelties.—The Zeidi, Kudi, Jabari, &c. put me in mind of the Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, and are equally zealous against one another. But the most prevailing opinion, if you search into the secret of the effendis, is, plain deism. This is indeed kept from the people, who are amused with a thousand different notions, according to the different interest of their preachers.—There are very few amongst them (Achmet-beg denied there were any) so absurd, as to set up for wit, by declaring they believe no God at all. And Sir Paul Rycaut is mistaken (as he commonly is) in calling the sect muterin, (i. e. the secret with us) atheists, they being deists, whose impiety consists in making a jest of their prophet. Achmet-beg did not own to me that he was of this opinion; but made no scruple of deviating from some part of Mahomet's law, by drinking wine with the same freedom we did. When I asked him how he came to allow himself that liberty? He made answer, that all the creatures of God are good, and designed for the use of man; however, that the prohibition of wine was a very wise maxim, and meant for the common people, being the source of all disorders amongst them; but, that the prophet never designed to confine those that knew how to use it with moderation; nevertheless, he said, that scandal ought to be avoided, and that he never drank it in public. This is the general way of thinking amongst them, and very few forbear drinking wine that are able to afford it. He assured me, that if I understood Arabic, I should be very well pleased with reading the alcoran, which is so far from the nonsense we charge it with, that it is the purest morality, delivered in the very best language. I have since heard impartial Christians speak of it in the same manner……….But of all the religions I have seen, that of the Arnounts seems to me the most particular; they are natives of Arnountlich, the ancient Macedonia…….These people living between Christians and Mahometans, and not being skilled in controversy, declare, that they are utterly unable to judge which religion is best; but, to be certain of not entirely rejecting the truth, they very prudently follow both. They go to the mosques on Friday, and to the church on Sunday, saying, for their excuse, that at the day of judgment they are sure of protection from the true prophet; but which that is, they are not able to determine in this world.” (Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M–-y W–-y M–-e, written during her travels in Europe, Asia and Africa, Letter XXVII.)

This last paragraph, though amusing to most people today would have been far from amusing to the devout Christians of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s day – or indeed to the devout Christians of the Victorian era – to whom Islam was, generally speaking, but one form of blasphemy! (49a)

Another observation of this type was made by Voltaire in his entry “Idol, Idolater, Idolatry”, in his Philosophical Dictionary, when he drew a parallel between the ancient Greek image of Diana (Artemis) of Ephesus and the modern Italian image of Our Lady of Loreto: there were many images of both “goddesses”, but some were more famous than others. Indeed, there are more alarming parallels for the devout Christian, for images of the Virgin Mary with the Infant Christ find ready parallels in images of the Ancient Egyptian goddess Isis with the infant Horus, of the Hindu goddess Devaki with the infant Krishna, and of Queen Maya with the infant Buddha. (For some examples of these images, see Gallery 7C, Figs.1-4.) One implication of these parallels was not just that Christianity was like other religions, but, more disturbingly, that Christianity might actually die out, as the ancient Greek / Roman cult of Artemis / Diana had done, and as the ancient Egyptian cult of Isis had done. A poetic form of this realisation is to be found in Thomas Hardy's poem "Aquae Sulis" (the title being the ancient Roman name for the present-day city of Bath.)

Hardy had been driven by Science and Biblical Criticism into a state of agnosticism by about 1870 (when he was 30 years old), though, oddly enough, he did retain a fondness for traditional Church services. In the poem he imagines the complaints of a Roman goddess whose temple has been buried beneath a Christian Church. The goddess complains of Christian priests trampling carelessly over her former precinct, to which complaints God (or Christ) replies:

Repress, O lady proud, your traditional ires;
You know not by what a frail thread we equally hang;
It is said we are images both - twitched by peoples' desires;
And that I, as you, fail as a song that men time agone sang!

Related to this, though rather more obscure in content, is Hardy's other poem, with the self-explanatory title of "The Graveyard of Dead Creeds."

A more extreme reaction to such sacred parallels is to be found in James Thomson's essay "Great Christ is Dead!", written in 1875 and published in his book Satires and Profanities in 1884. Thomson, who is probably best known today for his bleak, melancholic poem "The City of Dreadful Night" (1874), wrote:

"More than 1800 years have passed since the death of the great God Pan was proclaimed: and now it is full time to proclaim the death of the great God Christ. Eighteen hundred years make a fairly long period even for a celestial dynasty: but this one in its perishing must differ from all that have perished before it, seeing that no other can succeed it; the throne shall remain void forever, the royalty of the Heavens be abolished. Fate, in the form of Science, has decreed the extinction of the Gods. Mary and her babe must join Venus and Love, Isis and Horus; living with them only in the world of art."

We shall return to sacred parallels again shortly. Meanwhile, going back to Islam, rather later than Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, but equally enlightened for her time, was Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, who for health reasons (she had TB) went to live, first in South Africa and later in Egypt, whilst her husband continued to live back in England. Unfortunately, she died in 1869 at the early age of 48, but not before she had written numerous letters home, mostly to her husband. Her Letters from Egypt, published and re-published in variously edited editions from 1865 onwards, are of particular interest here. The most striking demonstration of her enlightenment has nothing to do with religion, but with her son, Maurice, who visited her in Egypt in 1867. Maurice liked the ladies, it seems, and his mother was rather worried about the possible consequences of his encounters with the local ‘ladies of easy virtue’. So, as she wrote to her husband in a letter dated November 19th, 1867, “I told Maurice plainly that I dreaded the worst diseases and that if he must have an outbreak, I would give him a pound or two now and then to have a good dancing girl, rather than a lot of fourpenny women.” But to get back to religion, in a letter to her mother written on December 23rd 1864, she wrote:

“There is no hope of a good understanding with Orientals until Western Christians can bring themselves to recognise the common faith contained in the two religions, the real difference consists in all the class of notions and feelings (very important ones, no doubt) which we derive – not from the Gospels at all – but from Greece and Rome, and which of course are altogether wanting here”

Again, in a letter to her husband, written sometime in April 1865, she wrote:

“I was talking the other day with Yussuf about people trying to make converts and I said that eternal bêtise, ‘Oh they mean well.’ ‘True, oh Lady! Perhaps they do mean well, but God says in the Noble Koran that he who injures or torments those Christians whose conduct is not evil, merely on account of religion, shall never smell the fragrance of the Garden (paradise). Now when men begin to want to make others change their faith it is extremely hard for them not to injure or torment them and therefore I think it better to abstain altogether and to wish rather to see a Christian a good Christian and a Muslim a good Muslim.’”

Such thoughts, of course, would not have endeared her to those who supported or were involved in missionary work, and yet how true it all is, as much today as back in 1865! Within thirty years – in 1893 – there would be held, in Chicago, the world’s first inter-faith conference designed to promote religious tolerance. This was the so-called “Parliament of Religions” (49b), but that too met with great disapproval in more devout Christian corners (49c).

Incidentally, FitzGerald had clearly read the first edition of Lady Duff Gordon’s letters, for in a letter to Cowell dated September 5th, 1865, he wrote:

“Read Lady Duff Gordon’s Letters from Egypt: which you won’t like, because of some latitude in Religious thought, and also because of some vulgar slang, such as Schoolboys, and American Women use, and it is now the bad fashion for even English Ladies to adopt. But the book is worth reading notwithstanding this.” (II.560)

So far as I know, Cowell never did read Lady Duff Gordon’s letters.

Another good example of the effects of widening religious awareness is provided by Harriet Martineau.

Martineau, the first woman sociologist, wrote a large number of books and articles, very popular in their time, relating to social institutions, including religious belief. In 1846 she toured Egypt, Palestine and Syria with a group of friends, and in 1848 published an account of her travels, Eastern Life, Present and Past. Her encounters with ruined temples and the remnants of ancient religious belief impressed upon her that the human conception of God had evolved with time, and that, as the ages unfolded, the conception of God had become less and less concrete and more and more abstract, this realisation nudging her towards what she came to call a stance of “philosophical atheism” which caused her to “dissent from the world’s theologies,” and made her feel (as she wrote in a letter to H.G.Atkinson dated 7th November 1847) “that the theological belief of almost everybody in the civilized world is baseless.” Ancient tombs and evolving views of an afterlife, likewise roused her scepticism of Christian viewpoints and focussed her thoughts on her own mortality. Such were the “infidel tendencies” of her travelogue that the publisher John Murray rejected it for publication, describing it as “a conspiracy against Moses” (presumably because of claims like “the doctrine of Moses would have excited horror as the Atheism of those days” – vol.2, p.268.) This is ironic, since the firm had previously published Byron and would later publish Darwin! Compare Parker’s rejection of The Rubaiyat for Fraser’s Magazine. Incidentally, of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Martineau wrote, in a letter to George Holyoake, written in late 1859: “What a book it is! – overthrowing (if true) revealed Religion on the one hand, & Natural (as far as Final Causes & Design are concerned) on the other.”

In 1855, Martineau developed heart disease and, anticipating death, wrote her autobiography. As it happened, she didn’t die until 1876, her autobiography being published posthumously in the following year. In it she reiterated the thoughts prompted by her travels in the Middle East. She wrote:

“It was evident to me, in a way which it could never have been if I had not wandered amidst the old monuments and scenes of the various faiths, that a passage through these latter faiths is as natural to men, and was as necessary in those former periods of human progress, as fetishism is to the infant nations and individuals, without the notion being more true in the one case than in the other. Every child, and every childish tribe of people, transfers its own consciousness, by a supposition so necessary as to be an instinct, to all external objects, so as to conclude them all to be alive like itself; and passes through this stage of belief to a more reasonable view: and, in like manner, more advanced nations and individuals suppose a whole pantheon of Gods first, – and then a trinity, – and then a single deity; – all the divine beings being exaggerated men, regarding the universe from the human point of view, and under the influences of human notions and affections. In proportion as this stage is passed through, the conceptions of deity and divine government become abstract and indefinite, till the indistinguishable line is reached which is supposed, and not seen, to separate the highest order of Christian philosopher from the philosophical atheist.” (Sixth Period, Section 3; vol.2, p.279-280)

(Note that Martineau had been brought up in a Unitarian family, and so regarded the Holy Trinity as a fiction akin to a godly pantheon! See her vol.1, p.36-7.)

Martineau’s view of her impending death are also worth quoting, both for the way they typify growing Victorian doubt, and for their resonance with views expressed in The Rubaiyat (though I should add that she appears not to have been aware of FitzGerald’s translation, though FitzGerald was aware of her autobiography, having bought a copy when it first came out in 1877 (IV.33), and been “greatly interested in her” (IV.38) and her atheism (IV.44). In her time it was said of Harriet Martineau that, “There is no God, and Harriet Martineau is his Prophet”, just as today the same is said of Richard Dawkins.):

“I have not acquired any dread or dislike of death; but I have felt, for the first time, a keen and unvarying relish of life. It seems to be generally supposed that a relish of life implies a fear or dislike of death, except in the minds of those shallow and self-willed persons who expect to step over the threshold of death into just the same life that they have quitted, – with the same associates, employments, recreations, – the same everything, except natural scenery. But this does not at all agree with my experience. I have no expectation of that kind, – nor personal expectation of any kind after death; and I have a particularly keen relish of life, – all the keener for being late: yet now, while in daily expectation of death, I certainly feel no dislike or dread of it; nor do I find my pleasant daily life at all overshadowed by the certainly that it is near its end. If this seems strange to people who hold other views than mine, their baseless conclusions, – that I must dread death because I enjoy life, – appear no less strange to me. They surely do not refuse to enjoy any other pleasure because it must come to an end; and why this? And if they feel sad as the end of other pleasures draw near, it is because they anticipate feeling the absence and the blank. Thus, we grieve, and cannot but grieve, at the death of a friend, whose absence will leave a blank in our life: but the laying down our own life, to yield our place to our successors, and simply ceasing to be, seems to me to admit of no fear or regret, except through the corruption introduced by false and superstitious associations.” (Sixth Period, Section 1; vol.2, p.206.)

And a little later:

“Once one becomes aware of how little consequence it is, and how the universe will go on just the same, whether one dies at fifty or seventy, one looks gaily on the last stage of one’s subjection to the great laws of nature, – notes what one can of one’s state for the benefit of others, and enjoys the amusement of watching the course of human affairs from one’s fresh and airy point of view, above the changes of the elements with which one has no further personal concern. The objective and disinterested contemplation of eternity is, in my apprehension, the sublimest pleasure that human faculties are capable of; and the pleasure is most vivid and real when one’s disinterestedness is most necessary and complete, – that is, when our form of its life is about to dissolve, to make way for another.” (Ibid; p.208)

Compare, for example, FitzGerald’s verses 21, 22 & 26.

But getting back to the increasing awareness that Christianity might just be yet another religion amongst many, John Ruskin, in his Time and Tide (1867) came to the conclusion that Christianity and its Bible, really, have “no more authoritative claim on our faith than the religious speculations and histories of the Egyptians, Greeks, Persians and Indians.” (Letter VIII) All religions, he thought, represented a sort of “best effort” of their time and place to understand God and the spiritual world. He concluded that, “This has been, for the last half century, the theory of the soundest scholars and thinkers of Europe.” Again, such tolerant views were frowned upon by the more devout as ethnic rubbish, and potentially dangerous ethnic rubbish at that, if you looked at the threat of a heathenish China! (49d)

A very different type of example of the impact of Orientalism on western Christianity is provided by the experience of two French Roman Catholic Missionaries, Evariste Regis Huc and Joseph Gabet, who arrived in Tibet in 1845 to be confronted by some startling parallels between their own Catholic rituals and those of the Buddhist monks they found there: amongst other things they found the use of the crosier, the mitre, the dalmatic, the cope, censers, prayer beads and holy water, not to mention the method of blessing using the right hand, celibacy, fasting and the worship of saints, So striking were such parallels that some people suspected the workings of the devil! (50) (Huc and Gabet went on to write Souvenirs d'un voyage dans la Tartarie, le Thibet, et la Chine pendant les années 1844, 1845 et 1846, published in 1850. An English translation appeared in 1851, and the work proved popular enough for it to be subsequently translated into German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Swedish and Russian.)

Nor were such striking parallels found only in Tibetan Buddhism. Other missionaries and travellers found similarly striking parallels between Christianity and Hinduism in India. Again, scholars found other parallels between Christianity and Mithraism. How were such parallels to be explained if it wasn’t indeed the devil at work?

Such observations led, ultimately, to the modern field of Comparative Religion (51), and turned out to be as explicable as the similarly striking linguistic parallels which led to the concept of the Indo-European family of languages. (Likewise the striking parallels that emerged from studies of myth and folklore – some of which were noted by Prof. Cowell (see Appendix 1d) – led ultimately to the likes of Stith Thompson’s Motif Index of Folk Literature, published in 6 volumes between 1932 and 1937.) Basically the similarities could be explained by the cultural borrowing of ideas carried far and wide by migrant settlers, travellers and missionaries. Taking the Buddhist–Christian parallels mentioned above, for example, Max Müller pointed out, in his essay “Coincidences” (50) that Nestorian Christian missionaries were active in China as early as the 7th to 8th century AD, and that Buddhist missionaries were active in Persia as early as the 2nd century BC – plenty of time for mutual religious influences to have taken effect and to provide the parallels rediscovered by the French missionaries in the mid-19th century. (Huc and Gabet themselves believed the parallels arose from the activities of 14th century Catholic missionaries in Tibet – see their vol.2, ch.2; for other views, see Appendix 4f & Appendix 12g.) Similarly with the parallels between Christianity, Hinduism, Mithraism and other religions: the legend of the St Thomas Christians makes it clear that Christian missionaries were in India as early as the 3rd century AD, for example, and Plutarch, in his Life of Pompey (section 24) tells us that Mithraism was probably first introduced into the Roman Empire in the 1st century BC (by Cilician pirates, of all people!). Again, then, plenty of time for a mingling of religious ideas to take place. But in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the mechanics behind these parallels were not yet properly or widely understood, and as a result they led some to proclaim that the “One True Religion” of Christianity might not be as unshakably and uniquely True as the faithful had hitherto supposed. At best it might have ‘borrowed’ some of its details from earlier, pagan faiths; at worst it might be nothing more than an off-shoot of Buddhism, Hinduism or Mithraism, all of which predated Christianity!

Rightly or wrongly, such revelations destabilised the religious status quo for many, and resulted in some rather strange theories and some outright denunciations of Christianity. (See Appendix 6.) Eventually, of course, as we saw earlier, Christianity was able to accept that not every story of Christ’s life given as in the New Testament was literally true, and that some of them were indeed borrowed from pagan mythology, but this did not affect the basic historicity of Christ nor his message to the world. But it was a hard pill to swallow at a time when every detail of the New Testament was implicitly believed in, by so many, on the Authority of the Church.

Another influence on attitudes to Christian belief, brought about by archaeological exploration this time, came about in 1872 when George Smith first published his translations of the Chaldean account of the Great Flood, now more familiarly known as the final chapter of the Epic of Gilgamesh. These were translations of cuneiform tablets discovered at Nineveh (modern-day Mosul in Iraq) in the 1840's. Further tablets were discovered at Nineveh in 1873, subsequently leading to Smith's publication, with A.H.Sayce, of The Chaldean Account of Genesis, published in 1880. It was now clear that the Chaldean story of the Great Flood was much older than the Biblical story of Noah's Flood. The conclusion drawn by many was that the story of Noah was simply copied from an earlier source, and didn't happen exactly as the Bible said, another blow for many Christians to add to their problems with Darwin's theory of evolution. Of course, it was suggested by many that the Flood of Noah and the Chaldean Flood both preserved the memory of some real catastrophic event, even if it didn't occur exactly as the Bible said, but as time went by, and archaeology failed to find any traces of any universal flood deposits, even that theory became untenable. By 1918, with the publication of Sir James Frazer’s Folklore in the Old Testament, which garnered hundreds of accounts gathered by the missionaries and travellers of the 18th and 19th centuries, Noah’s Flood had to be seen against a background of widely different flood stories from around the world. There was a phenomenon here to be explained, to be sure, but it had nothing to do with an actual Biblical Flood of Noah and everything to do with the nature of mythopœic thought (52)

All this, then, was bubbling away in the background when FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat made its first appearance, and as it ran through its subsequent editions.

Chapter 11 – The Rubaiyat and the Pre-Raphaelites.

There is also the interesting question of what it was about The Rubaiyat that appealed so much to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelites, and their circle of friends, as mentioned earlier. It is a fact that Rossetti was the first to get hold of a copy, in 1861, thanks to his friend, the Celtic scholar, Whitley Stokes, who had found it “remaindered”, and who had bought a few copies of it to give to his friends (amongst whom was the explorer and orientalist Richard Burton). Rossetti then bought copies to give to his friends, amongst whom were the poets Algernon Charles Swinburne and Robert Browning. It was apparently Swinburne who then bought copies for Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, who between them went to the trouble of producing hand-written and illuminated copies of the verses (see Gallery 3A, Fig.5 and Fig.6.) Thus The Rubaiyat came quite quickly to the attention of an influential circle of artistic and literary figures.

Firstly, the reasons why The Rubaiyat found its earliest devotees where and when it did is probably no more than an accident of history, for its discovery by Whitley Stokes was certainly a chance encounter. In some ways The Rubaiyat was like a dandelion seed floating around in the breeze. If it hadn’t landed in the Pre-Raphaelite garden, it would have eventually have landed in someone else’s. And yet the Pre-Raphaelite garden was certainly the ideal place for it to land!

Actually, this requires some elaboration, as the history of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) took place in two phases. The first was the foundation in 1848 by the core members William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Though usually represented with reverence in art history books, it was, by Hunt’s own admission, “a little boyish”(53a) in its inception (Hunt was the oldest, at 21!) Their use of the “secret” initials PRB on their paintings (53b) (at one point they even used PRB to replace Esq on their letters! (53c) led one critic to dub them “juvenile” (53d and even Rossetti later described their antics as “the visionary vanities of half a dozen boys.” (53e) Nevertheless, the PRB was to destined to become one of the most famous movements in art history, despite its “boyish” beginnings,

The original group rather tended to drift apart in the early 1850s, and second, very different (53f) phase may be said to have started when William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones joined the Brotherhood in 1856. The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne joined them a little later, in 1857. It was during this second phase, in 1861, that The Rubaiyat came to attention of the PRB, at which time Hunt was the oldest at 34, and Swinburne the youngest at 24. It may or may not be significant that in 1861 two other poets involved in the saga of The Rubaiyat, Browning and Tennyson, were, respectively, 49 and 52 years old – much older than the members of the PRB, and with very different attitudes to life as a result. We shall have more to say about Browning and Tennyson in due course, as “youth’s sweet-scented manuscript” is very much a part of the saga of The Rubaiyat (verse 72). (Not that we should make too much an issue of age: FitzGerald himself was approaching 50 when he translated The Rubaiyat!)

Secondly, the Pre-Raphaelites give the story of The Rubaiyat such a romantic gloss that one must beware of overestimating its importance within their group. For example, in Oswald Doughty’s book, A Victorian Romantic: Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1949), there is only one paragraph devoted to FitzGerald and The Rubaiyat in the space of some 680 pages. Doughty simply says that FitzGerald “became one of the Pre-Raphaelite idols”, without, however, FitzGerald returning the compliment! (p.492) (In fact, FitzGerald seems to have regarded Pre-Raphaelite art and poetry as a modern fad, much as most of us today regard the candidates for the Turner Prize. (54a); for other “Pre-Raphaelite idols”, see note 54b). Again, Donald Thomas, in his book, Swinburne: The Poet in his World (1979), p.80, mentions FitzGerald, in a single paragraph, only in respect of Swinburne’s facility for composing verses very quickly – in particular, his poem Laus Veneris, which was inspired by The Rubaiyat, and of which we shall have more to say presently. Again, in Esther Meynell’s Portrait of William Morris (1947), Morris’s production of an illuminated manuscript of The Rubaiyat takes up a mere two lines (p.108), far less coverage than that devoted to his Icelandic adventures. As for Penelope FitzGerald’s book Edward Burne-Jones: A Biography (1975), it devotes a single paragraph to a second illuminated manuscript, with calligraphy & ornamentation by Morris, and illustrations by Burne-Jones, and then only to say that Burne-Jones gave it away as a present to his young friend Frances Graham in 1872 (p.146). (55a) It perhaps gives some perspective to realise that all four of the books just mentioned (Doughty, Thomas, Meynell and FitzGerald) see fit to mention the Pre-Raphaelite decoration of part of the Oxford Union in 1857, devoting more space to it than to FitzGerald and The Rubaiyat. Again, neither Millais nor Hunt, the two other founders, besides Rossetti, of the initial Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood back in 1848, seems to have taken much, if any, interest in The Rubaiyat on its ‘discovery’ in 1861 (though by then they had rather moved away from Rossetti.) Yet again, it is a fact that no major Pre-Raphaelite artist ever produced a painting directly inspired by the verses of The Rubaiyat. In fact, the only Pre-Raphaelite painting that I know of in this vein is Walter Crane’s work “The Roll of Fate”, completed in 1882, and based on verses 98 and 99 of the 3rd or 4th edition (see Gallery 3D, Fig.1) Finally, it is a fact that though William Morris’s Kelmscott Press published 53 books between 1891 and 1898, including some of the poetry of Rossetti and Swinburne alongside the more illustrious names of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat was never amongst them, despite Morris’s enthusiasm of thirty years earlier. (55b) And for what it is worth, when Swinburne was asked by the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, in 1886, to supply a list of his hundred favourite books, FitzGerald (specifically his first edition of 1859), came in at number 19, behind Shakespeare, Lucretius, Dante and Chaucer, but ahead of Milton, Shelley, Coleridge and Keats. (55c) Nevertheless, it had been Swinburne who was so excited about The Rubaiyat that he arrived, waving aloft a copy of it, at the house of the poet and novelist George Meredith. In a letter to The Times on the occasion of Swinburne’s death in April 1909, Meredith described the occasion thus:

“It happened that he was expected one day on a visit to me, and he being rather late I went along the road to meet him. At last he appeared waving the white sheet of what seemed to be a pamphlet. He greeted me with a triumphant shout of a stanza new to my ears. This was FitzGerald’s Omar Khayyam, and we lay on a heathery knoll beside my cottage reading a stanza alternately, indifferent to the dinner-bell, until a prolonged summons reminded us of appetite. After the meal we took to the paper-covered treasure again. Suddenly Swinburne ran upstairs, and I had my anticipations. He returned with feather-pen, blue folio-sheet, and a dwarf bottle of red ink. In an hour he had finished 13 stanzas of his ‘Laus Veneris’, and rarely can one poet have paid so high a compliment to another as FitzGerald received.” (56a)

There is a problem with dates here, though, for the impression one gets from Meredith’s account of Swinburne’s excited state is that this visit must have taken place shortly after the discovery of The Rubaiyat by Whitley Stokes in early July 1861 (8). However, the visit to Meredith’s house is generally reckoned by the novelist’s biographers to have taken place in June 1862, nearly a year later, and Swinburne scholars too generally seem to date the origins of the poem to this year. This is curious, to say the least, and the issues involved are covered in some detail in Appendix 16. But basically, the difficulty of dates would be resolved if two different visits to Meredith’s house took place – one close to the discovery of The Rubaiyat in July 1861, when Laus Veneris was begun amid feverish inspiration, and a second in June 1862, when Swinburne may have visited Meredith in the company of Rossetti. (56b) Nor is this issue of dates the only puzzle about “Laus Veneris”. In addition, as we shall see later, though the poem might have been inspired by The Rubaiyat, it had nothing whatever to do with Omar!

But if the interest of The Rubaiyat to the Pre-Raphaelites was not as pronounced as is sometimes supposed, it was nevertheless there, and it is interesting to consider the reasons for its particular appeal to this circle of artists and poets.

The reasons are probably many and varied. First and foremost its appeal was almost certainly, quite simply, the sheer poetry of the thing. Swinburne, in, of all places, a footnote to his essay on “Matthew Arnold’s New Poems”, described FitzGerald’s Omar as “that most exquisite English translation, sovereignly faultless in form and colour of verse, which gives to those ignorant of the East a relish of the treasure and a delight in the beauty of its wisdom.” Again, so much of the imagery of The Rubaiyat is superb by any standards (“’Tis all a chequer board of nights and days”; “the flower that once has blown forever dies” etc etc), and these images come thick and fast. Their impact is immediate, and not clouded in poetic obscurities. Furthermore, the message and symbolism of the verses has elements in common with some of the things which the Pre-Raphaelites themselves sought to express in their art. So, how much was this a factor in the poem capturing their attention? How significant was the common symbolic ground?

A good example is provided by Burne-Jones’s painting “The Wheel of Fortune”, painted between 1875 and 1883, which symbolises that Kings and Beggars alike must take their place upon the Wheel of Fortune, and, powerless to stay its motion, be carried along by it to their ultimate fate, attended by the figure of Fortune, her eyes closed in disregard (57a; Gallery 3A, Fig.1.) This certainly invites comparison with the evanescence of worldly hopes in verse 14 (see the notes on verse 14 for an account of the Roman goddess Fortune and for Burne-Jones’s symbolic painting, “Hope”.) Not only that, but the painting recalls the powerlessness of Man in verse 50 & 51; and the relentlessly rolling heavens of verse 52. However, it should be noted that though some Omarian symbolism is to be found in the paintings of Burne-Jones, it can hardly be said to be a major feature: far more dominant are the themes of medieval romance and Arthurian legend. A good snapshot of Burne-Jones’ ‘order of priorities’ is provided by “The Story of Troy”, otherwise known as “The Troy Triptych”, which he began in 1870, but never quite finished (Gallery 3A, Fig.7.) This is, in effect, a painting of a fictional altarpiece. The main part of the ‘altarpiece’ is “The Troy Triptych” itself, which consists of three paintings, side by side: “Helen carried off by Paris”, “The Judgement of Paris” and “Helen captive at the burning of Troy.” The principal theme, then, is one of Classical Mythology. Below these, set into the base of the ‘altarpiece’ are three smaller paintings, side by side: “Venus Concordia”, “The Feast of Peleus” (the wedding feast of Peleus and Thetis, the parents of Achilles) and “Venus Discordia”. The theme here, then, is one of harmony and discord in Love and Marriage. These three paintings are flanked by four so-called predella panels (part of the simulated frame of the ‘altarpiece’): “The Wheel of Fortune” (from which the above-mentioned painting of the same title was derived), “Fame overcoming Fortune”, “Oblivion conquering Fame” and “Love subduing Oblivion.”(57a) Here Omarian themes do come in – Fortune and Oblivion – but they are mixed in with the other themes of Fame and Love – Fame being transient (conquered by Oblivion), but Love triumphant (conquering Oblivion.) In fact, Love themes are common in Burne-Jones’ work – witness that strange work “The Car of Love”, begun in 1872, but never finished, and his paintings “Love among the Ruins” (1894) (Gallery 3A, Fig.4), mentioned earlier, and “Love and the Pilgrim” (1896-7).

The case of Rossetti’s Omarian symbolism is similar, but rather more complicated by virtue of the fact that he was both poet and painter. Thus, the flowers which surround the goddess Venus in his painting “Venus Verticordia” (Gallery 3B, Fig.1), painted between 1864 and 1868, are said to symbolise “the transitoriness of youth and life” (57b), which is, of course, precisely the message of the first two lines of verse 72:

Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth’s sweet-scented Manuscript should close!

But “Venus Verticordia” is loaded with much more symbolism than this, for Rossetti’s main preoccupation, in both his poetry and his painting, was always more with Woman, Beauty, Love and Desire than with Omarian issues of Life, Death, Fate and God. The picture’s overall message is one of “the dangerous consequences of sexual compulsion” – the apple is the Apple of Discord (or Temptation, after Eve’s Apple in the Garden of Eden?); the golden arrow is Cupid’s Dart; the flowers, in addition to being symbolic of transience, enhance the sensuality of the goddess; and the butterflies that surround her head represent “the fleeting pleasures of beauty and love” – transience again. (57b) Likewise, one of Rossetti’s many sonnets closes with the Omarian line “the wind of Death’s imperishable wing”, but the sonnet is entitled “Lovesight”, is addressed to his “beloved one”, and centres on “the worship of that Love through thee made known.” Again, the line “Yearning, ‘Ah God, if again it might be!’”, which occurs in “The Song of the Bower” and which bears comparison with FitzGerald’s luring back “the Moving Finger” in verse 51, is actually a line in a poem whose main preoccupation is a love that never was. So, Omarian lines are to be found within Rossetti’s verses, though the context is very often one of Love rather than Life. More directly Omarian is his poem “The Card Dealer”. This pictures Life as a hand of cards dealt by an unnamed dealer, the end of the game being death, and it thus bears some comparison with FitzGerald’s “chequer board” image of verse 49. But even here the dealer is a sort of femme fatale, and the poem opens with the line, “Could you not drink her gaze like wine?” Returning to Rossetti’s paintings, more directly Omarian than the likes of “Venus Verticordia”, though much less well-known, is Rossetti’s drawing (for a painting never completed) entitled variously “The Sphinx” or “The Question”, done in 1875 (Gallery 3B, Fig.4.) The drawing shows the figures of Youth, Manhood and Old Age approaching the Sphinx “to question the Unknown” as Rossetti put it in one of his two sonnets written several years later to accompany the drawing (cf “the secret Well of Life” in FitzGerald’s verse 34). But the Sphinx makes no answer, her face remaining inscrutable, her eyes looking beyond the insistent figure of Manhood. Youth in the drawing is dead, incidentally, representing the mystery of early death, the figure possibly being inspired by the early death, at the age of only 19, of Oliver (“Nolly”) Madox Brown, the son of Ford Madox Brown (57c). In fact, Rossetti wrote a sonnet about his tragically early death (“Untimely Lost”) whose closing lines ponder on whether or not the youth lives on in some world beyond (“Does he see on and strive on…or… must Night be ours and his?”) But as he said in his poem “The Cloud Confines”:

… no word comes from the dead;
Whether at all they be.

This, of course, echoes the sentiment of verse 64 of FitzGerald’s 3rd, 4th and 5th editions (verse 67 of the 2nd): “Not one returns to tell us of the Road”. But, by way of emphasising Rossetti’s main priority, let us remember that his most famous poem today, “The Blessed Damozel”, has as its theme Love and Death: the Blessed Damozel looks down from Heaven, yearning for reunion with her lover back on Earth. Rossetti’s painting bearing the same title illustrates the poem, of course (Gallery 3B, Fig.5.)

Turning to the poetry of Swinburne, we find much the same pattern, typified by his poem “The Triumph of Time” (1866). The title is Omarian, and indeed there are Omarian elements in it:

Is it worth a tear, is it worth an hour,
To think of things that are well outworn
Of fruitless husk and fugitive flower,
The dream foregone and the deed forborne?

But the poem’s main theme is one of failed or rejected love – “Had you loved me once, as you have not loved / Had the chance been with us that has not been” – and the role of Time is made clear in the opening lines of the poem:

Before our lives divide for ever,
While time is with us and hands are free
(Time, swift to fasten and swift to sever
Hand from hand, as we stand by the sea)

“The Triumph of Time” was, in fact, Swinburne’s response to a real case of rejected love – according to Donald Thomas (as note 58a, p.77), the thoughtless rejection of his proposal of marriage to Jane Faulkner.

Again, in “The Garden of Proserpine” (1866) there are Omarian elements, for this Garden is essentially a garden that is well summed up by FitzGerald’s line, “The Nothing all Things end in” (v.47). It is a lifeless place presided over by Proserpine “Who gathers all things mortal / With cold immortal hands.” But it is a garden not just of physical death, but of endings generally. Thus, in true Omarian vein, “To-day will die to-morrow; / Time stoops to no man’s lure” (compare FitzGerald’s verses 20, 37 & 51) but equally we again have a love theme in,“There go the loves that wither, / The old loves with wearier wings.” This is followed later by:

And love, grown faint and fretful,
With lips but half regretful
Sighs, and with eyes forgetful
Weeps that no loves endure.

This in its turn leads Swinburne to thank “Whatever gods may be / That no life lives for ever; / That dead men rise up never.” “The Garden of Proserpine”, then, is Omarian in parts, if not really as a whole, except insofar as its general theme is the transience within human life.

Swinburne is actually unique among the early Pre-Raphaelites insofar as he was the only one to produce an original art-work directly inspired by The Rubaiyat (in circumstances described by George Meredith above), namely, his poem, “Laus Veneris” (The Praise of Venus). As we saw above, though Meredith’s account suggests this was begun shortly after the ‘discovery’ of The Rubaiyat in July 1861, it was actually first published only in 1866. Though it uses the same metre and rhyming pattern as The Rubaiyat, it is not at all Omarian – far from it! Essentially it is Swinburne’s improvisation on the Tannhäuser legend, whose theme is that of a mortal Christian Knight doomed to Hell by his hopeless, all-consuming, lustful – and therefore sinful – passion for the sexually devouring Pagan Goddess, Venus. How the verses of The Rubaiyat came so immediately to inspire such an erotically charged poem as Laus Veneris, even given Swinburne’s sexual proclivities (he was a devotee of the Marquis de Sade – see Thomas, as note 58a, p.89-90), is a bit of a mystery. Inevitably one recalls the more erotic illustrations of The Rubaiyat by the likes of J.Y.Bateman, Ronald Balfour and Willy Pogany, mentioned earlier, and the eroticism of the ‘Oriental’ paintings of Ingres and others (see note 45 and Gallery 1A). But this alone seems rather an inadequate explanation of something as erotically charged as “Laus Veneris”, and in any case, how did Tannhäuser come into it?

The most logical possibility is that Swinburne had recently read an article or poem about the Tannhäuser legend. But what and when? There are two likely candidates. The first was the poem, inspired by Wagner’s opera (which Swinburne himself could not have heard at this stage), Tannhäuser; or, the Battle of the Bards by Neville Temple and Edward Trevor. These were the pen-names of Julian Fane and Robert Lytton respectively, the latter being the son of Bulwer Lytton the novelist, and later to become the Viceroy of India (at which stage he was a fan of The Rubaiyat, incidentally, probably via Whitley Stokes (III.706).) Their Tannhäuser poem was certainly on the market in July 1861 (coincidentally with the ‘discovery’ of The Rubaiyat) and earned enough recognition to run to a fourth edition by 1862. (For more detail, with references, see Appendix 16.) The second possible candidate for Swinburne’s inspiration was a poem, actually a translation of an old German ballad, by “L.D.G.” (Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, from whose Letters from Egypt we quoted earlier, in chapter 10.) This had appeared in the literary publication Once a Week on August 17th 1861 – in other words, only about a month after the ‘discovery’ of The Rubaiyat. Certainly, this was a publication with which Swinburne was familiar. (Again, for more detail, with references, see Appendix 16.) But of course, though either or both of these poems might have been Swinburne’s source of inspiration, neither of them has anything whatever to do with The Rubaiyat. So why did reading The Rubaiyat set Swinburne off on a Tannhäuser theme particularly?

In the absence of any connection of themes, one wonders if it was nothing more than the captivating metre and rhyming pattern of The Rubaiyat that so excited Swinburne; that it came at just the right time to provide him with a perfect vehicle for a Tannhäuser theme which he was mulling over (from whatever source) at that time! After all, it was probably metre and rhyming pattern (rather than any Epicurean content) that was largely responsible for the number of parodies of The Rubaiyat that were to appear much later: nothing else really explains The Rubaiyat of a Golfer, for example! (On this and other parodies, and for a note on the definition of parody, see note 65.) In the same way, the metre and rhyming pattern of Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” led to numerous parodies, probably the most famous of which today is Lewis Carroll’s “Hiawatha’s Photographing”. But getting back to more serious poetical matters, a possible modern parallel for Swinburne’s course might lie in Robert Frost’s poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (1923), which similarly uses FitzGerald’s rhyming pattern on a totally unrelated theme. [A much earlier but less well known example is Edmund Gosse’s “Prelude” to his first solo book of poems, On Viol and Flute (1873). Gosse, of course, was to become a member of the Omar Khayyam Club in 1893, and, coincidentally, was later to write his well known book The Life of Algernon Charles Swinburne (1917).]

Be all that as it may, “Laus Veneris” serves here to forcibly remind us that one of Swinburne’s main concerns, like Rossetti’s, was Love, Spiritual and Temporal – Love and Lust, in other words! (For an account of the Tannhäuser legend and its appearance in art, including its famous incarnation in Wagner’s opera and Pogany’s illustrations of it, see Gallery 7E, and the notes on it.)

Swinburne’s “Laus Veneris” brings us neatly to our next major Pre-Raphaelite of the second wave, William Morris, for he too published his version of the Tannhäuser legend: “The Hill of Venus: the Medieval Tale for February”, as part of his mammoth poetic collection The Earthly Paradise, first published between 1868 and 1870. The Earthly Paradise, in fact, serves to typify Morris’ priorities, for it consists of a collection of 24 Tales, two associated with each month of the Year (one Classical, one Medieval), starting in March (the Spring month, and beginning of ancient calendars), and working through to February. “The Story of Cupid and Psyche” was the Classical tale for May, for example. Morris’ earlier collection, The Defence of Guinevere and Other Poems, first published in 1858, likewise serves to typify Morris’ interests, with titles like “King Arthur’s Tomb”, “A Good Knight in Prison”, and “Near Avalon” – Arthurian preoccupations that he shared with Swinburne [“Tristram of Lyoness” (1882), “The Tale of Balen” (1896)]; with Rossetti [his watercolour “Arthur’s Tomb, or the Last Meeting of Launcelot and Guinevere” (1855), which may have inspired Morris’ poem of the same title]; and with Burne-Jones [“Merlin and Nimue” (1861), “The Beguiling of Merlin” (1874-6).] Burne-Jones, incidentally, produced a painting of “Laus Veneris” (1873-8), partly inspired by Swinburne’s poem, but with less overt eroticism. (The painting is reproduced in Gallery 7E, Fig.2.)

There is little that is Omarian in Morris’ work, then, despite the fact that he, along with Burne-Jones, was sufficiently inspired by The Rubaiyat to produce illustrated manuscript copies of it in the early 1870s. All one finds are occasional Omarian details – like “a tale of woe…ending where all things end, in death at last” or “while ye live take all the gifts that Death and Life may give” (both from The Earthly Paradise) – almost lost in a sea of medieval and classical imagery.

Moving back to the first-wave Pre-Raphaelites, now, to Holman Hunt and Millais, neither of them seems to have been involved in the saga of The Rubaiyat, perhaps because by the time of its ‘discovery’ in 1861, both had rather drifted away from the second-wave Pre-Raphaelites. At any rate, I can find no evidence that either of them was ever particularly captivated by the poem at any time. Certainly, by 1861 Hunt had already had a spiritual conversion through painting “The Light of the World” (1853) (57d), and had been to the Holy Land where he painted that extraordinary work “The Scapegoat.”(two versions, 1854-6), so it is perhaps hardly surprising that he showed no particular enthusiasm for The Rubaiyat, let alone produced any paintings remotely associated with it. Nevertheless, he is known to have been a dinner guest at the Omar Khayyam Club on at least one occasion, and to have been given a copy of The Rubaiyat by Edward Clodd as a birthday present in 1899 (57d).

As for Millais, though there is apparently no record of him having any interest in the poem, nevertheless Omarian themes do occur in his work. This need not be surprising, of course. Any artist or poet dealing with the issues of Life is almost bound to use Omarian symbolism, with or without Omar’s help: Omarian symbolism does not necessarily indicate the influence of either Omar or FitzGerald. Be that as it may, the case of Millais is interesting. His famous painting “Bubbles” (Gallery 3C, Fig.1), originally entitled “A Child’s World” and painted in 1885, is often said to indicate transience, though here one wonders how much the artist intended, and how much has been read into the painting since: the bubbles, it is said, symbolise the beauty and fragility of life, whilst the broken pot at the bottom left of the painting symbolises death (57e) – cf. “The Book of Pots” in The Rubaiyat, verses 59 to 66, and the “Millions of Bubbles like us” of verse 46 in the 3rd, 4th and 5th edition (verse 47 in the 2nd) (57f). Again, Millais did dwell on the survival of bodily death in his picture “Speak! Speak!” (painted in 1895), in which a young Roman is confronted by the apparition of his dead wife, and on the subject of Man’s mortality in his painting “Time the Reaper” (also painted in 1895), in which “Time, an aged man, with scythe and hour glass, enters the House of Life.” (57g) Millais’ most famous picture concerning death is, of course, his “Vale of Rest” (1858-9), and his painting “Autumn Leaves” (1855-6) is commonly held to be, at least in part, symbolic of human transience. (57h) As Roger Bowdler says, “Millais was to return again and again to the solemn themes of death and mutability throughout his half-century-long career.” (57i). Given Bowdler’s comment and the levels of child mortality in Victorian England it is possible, then, that an apparently innocent painting like “Bubbles” does have more to it than meets the twenty-first century eye. (See Gallery 3C for the above-mentioned paintings of Millais.) Again, though, one cannot reliably draw too many conclusions from this, for the majority of Millais’ paintings are distinctly non-Omarian in content, as a representative cross-section of them readily shows: “Lorenzo and Isabella” (1849), “Ophelia” (1852), “A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford” (1857), “The Boyhood of Raleigh” (1870) and “The North West Passage” (1874). Indeed, seen against a full background of Millais’ paintings, one wonders again if “Autumn Leaves” is really any more Omarian than “The Blind Girl”, painted in the same year and to which it is stylistically similar. Likewise one wonders if “Bubbles” is really any more Omarian than the “charming” child pictures “My First Sermon” (1863), “My Second Sermon” (1864) and – most famous of all after “Bubbles” – “Cherry Ripe” (1879)! But then as Bowdler indicates, perhaps the Victorians, with an experience of child mortality which we today do not have, would have looked at these child pictures very differently to us today.

Thus though there are elements of Omarian symbolism in Pre-Raphaelite art and poetry, that symbolism is by no means dominant, and in particular, it was not dominant enough at the time of the ‘discovery’ of The Rubaiyat in 1861 to explain the popularity of the poem with the Pre-Raphaelites. In fact, there is more Omarian symbolism in the later Pre-Raphaelite art of the 1880s and 1890s (notably Walter Crane) and in the art of the Symbolists (notably G.F. Watts), but that is an issue for later. (See the Notes on Gallery 3.)

Chapter 12 – The Appeal of, and Reactions to, The Rubaiyat.

Returning to the general appeal of the poetry of The Rubaiyat to the Pre-Raphaelites (and to subsequent generations, for that matter!), the opening verse of The Rubaiyat (particularly of the first edition) is magnificently evocative – I know of no other poem in English which starts with such a “bang”, and it rarely lets up until the poignant last verse. Finally, there is the captivating rhythm of the thing which is somehow so perfect for its message. It all works wonderfully well – it did so back in the 1860’s and it continues to do so today. But then, of course, a wide variety of other literary works have worked wonderfully well in their time, but the majority of them somehow seem to lose their appeal as the years go by, so that in the present day they are largely forgotten. Few now read the novels of Bulwer Lytton or the poetry of Mrs Hemans, for example. Some things just disappear with changing outlooks – some of the patriotic gung-ho poetry of someone as famous as Rudyard Kipling is a case in point – it was hugely popular in its day, but unlike his Jungle Book and the occasional poem like “If”, it is relatively rarely read now. But other works seem to hold perennial appeal – the Alice books of Lewis Carroll, for one, and, of course, The Rubaiyat for another, the latter almost certainly because its captivating style enshrines such basic and perennial issues of human existence – the Meaning of Life. There was an extremely interesting article published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1899 which compared and contrasted the contemporary fame of Kipling’s The Seven Seas with FitzGerald’s The Rubaiyat, and which is fascinating to look back on now for the insight it gives on the literary scene of the late 1890s. For extensive extracts from this article, with comments see Appendix 7.

Yet other reasons are probably personal to individual artists or poets. In the case of ‘the wild child’ Swinburne (58a), for example, and possibly also the bohemian Rossetti (58b), part of the appeal was probably the perceived irreligious hedonism of the verses. (FitzGerald preferred to use the term Epicureanism rather than Hedonism  in connection with The Rubaiyat, as in his “Epicurean Eclogue” quote above. (Appendix 2)) In addition, Swinburne never needed much of an invitation to “Drink!”, being noted for his consumption of brandy in huge quantities, his drunken antics often becoming a source of alarm of his friends. (At the time of the discovery of The Rubaiyat, Rossetti seems to have been relatively temperate. It was only some years later that he developed his famous addiction to chloral and whiskey.) In the case of Morris (58c) and Burne-Jones (58d), the appeal is more likely to have been that the rejection of organised religion in the verses reflected their own religious turmoil. Both came from an Evangelical background and both reacted strongly to it. Both initially developed strong Catholic leanings, to the point of contemplating priesthood, but both eventually steered away from that too, and though Burne-Jones retained a strong non-denominational belief in God, Morris lost his faith altogether. Another possible source of appeal to the Pre-Raphaelites generally might well have been that the oriental background of the verses served, like the Arthurian legends, as an escape route from the grim modern industrial world. (Both Burne-Jones and Morris, for example, had a particular aversion to the industrial world around them – see Appendix 3 – and Burne-Jones certainly had a fascination for Arabian and Persian stories (58d).) However, we must also bear in mind that though many artists in the second half of the 19th century were influenced by Japanese art (some examples are given in Gallery 7D, Folder 1), the Pre-Raphaelites were not among them, even though Rossetti, for example, had an affection for both Chinese and Japanese art (Doughty, as note 58b, p.337.) Possibly also the Pre-Raphaelites found in FitzGerald’s verses echoes of their own reaction to the aesthetically unpleasing impersonality of hard Science, reflected, perhaps, in the “blind Understanding” of “the rolling Heav’n” in verse 33 and the “old barren Reason” of verse 40. Rossetti in particular had “an indifference” to science, and “neither knew nor cared whether or not the earth revolved about the sun.” (Doughty, as note 58b, p.136)

Turning from the Pre-Raphaelite reaction to The Rubaiyat, now, in contrast to the enthusiasms of Burne-Jones and Morris in producing their illuminated manuscripts of the poem, and the enthusiasm of Swinburne in penning his “Laus Veneris”, Robert Browning’s reaction was very different. Though he never explictly said so, it seems highly likely that he was inspired to write his poem Rabbi ben Ezra as a rejoinder to what he saw as the shallow “live for today” sentiments of FitzGerald’s Khayyam. (In other words, Browning was one of those people mentioned earlier who saw The Rubaiyat as spiritually subversive.) For Browning’s Rabbi, the pleasures of today were nothing compared to the spiritual maturity and proximity to God that the weathering of life’s trials and tribulations brought with it. Youth was a training ground for the wisdom of old age, and death the grand finale (being the gateway to the Life Beyond.) The poem, published in 1864, is given in an edited form, with some comments, in Appendix 8. It has to be said, though, that the complexity of Browning’s verses lacks the charm and immediacy of FitzGerald’s, so that one is rather more tempted to follow Omar Khayyam and to “Drink!” and “Live for today!” than one is tempted to follow Rabbi ben Ezra and patiently to suffer the ills of today in the hope that they are improving our souls for tomorrow! (59)

The idea that through life’s trials we achieve spiritual evolution and greater understanding of God’s Wisdom had earlier been expressed in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s long, rambling and frequently obscure poem (but which was nevertheless immensely popular in its day, and still remains a classic) In Memoriam, published in 1850. Faith was the key – if you could find it – not Doubt, which had to be fought: “He fought his doubts and gather’d strength…to find a stronger faith his own” (Section 96). Again, in his Prologue to the poem Tennyson wrote, of “our little systems”, meaning different religious beliefs:

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.
We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see;
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow.

And yet Tennyson’s own faith was shaky – later in life he confessed to leanings towards agnosticism, though he seems to have believed in (or hoped for!) an Afterlife.

For more details of the poem and Tennyson’s beliefs, see Appendix 9.

Rather different is Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach, published in 1867, but largely written in 1851, which captured well the decline of faith in the Victorian England in which he and Tennyson found themselves. (Arnold himself was not, as is sometimes claimed, an agnostic. Though he lost his faith in orthodox Christianity, he remained what his biographer Nicholas Murray called "an unorthodox Christian and a church-goer." (60a)) In this haunting poem, Arnold links “the grating roar of pebbles”, made as “the waves draw back and fling them…up the high strand” of the moonlit beach, to the ebb and flow of “The Sea of Faith”, adding that the world:

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.

Arnold also dealt with issues of faith in his “Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse” (1855), which arose from his visit to that monastery in 1851. In it he refers to the erosion of his simple childhood faith by Science and Biblical Criticism:

For rigorous teachers seized my youth,
And purged its faith, and trimm'd its fire,

What, then, is he doing in a Carthusian monastery (“this living tomb”) inhabited by cowled monks whose wooden beds will one day be used to make their coffins?

Not as their friend, or child, I speak!
But as, on some far northern strand,
Thinking of his own Gods, a Greek
In pity and mournful awe might stand
Before some fallen Runic stone –
For both were faiths, and both are gone.

As for Browning’s rosy-view of old age as glorified by the achievement of spiritual maturity, Arnold would have none of it. He wrote his poem “Growing Old” (1867) as a direct counter to Browning’s “Rabbi ben Ezra.” (60b) For Arnold, to grow old is to lose the physical beauty of our youth; to feel our strength decay and our limbs grow stiffer; to weep for the past; and to become at last “the phantom of ourselves.” In short, growing old is a pretty miserable process and at best Browning is seeing it “mellowed and softened as with sunset-glow.” Mark Twain, in his parody of FitzGerald, Age – a Rubaiyat, written in 1898 but not published until 1983 (60c), agreed with Arnold, though he was considerably more forthright on the subject. Old Age, he complained, is a time when “one by one / Life’s Pleasures perish and make place for Pains.” He bemoans tooth-loss, chest complaints, bunions, problems in walking, deafness, involuntary farting, and rheumatic gout. He laments, too, the loss of youth’s sexual prowess – the organ that was once the “Handle of a Hoe” is sadly now naught but a “Thing of Dough”. Can old age really be better than the Hell that priests threaten us with after death, he asks? [There is nothing new under the Sun, of course. Juvenal, in his 10th Satire (lines 188ff), pictures old-age as a time of “a faltering voice, a weak and trembling pace, an ever-dripping nose, a forehead bare, and toothless gums..” on top of which “the rites of love” are little more than a fond memory! (Translation by William Gifford.)] Realistically, it is hard for most of us to disagree with such sentiments – particularly those of us who are actually growing old!

Victorian poetry, then, was picking up the uncertainties generated by Science, as indeed was Art. Whilst John Martin’s huge canvas “The Last Judgement” (1851-3) represents orthodox Christian belief, with Christ and his Angels coming to deliver Judgement on an expectant humanity, the Plain of Heaven above, the Pit of Hell below, Henry Bowler’s “The Doubt: can these dry bones live?”(1855) represents the opposite end of the spectrum. Bowler’s painting shows a young woman leaning on a gravestone and meditating on the bones that have risen to the surface of the grave-soil. Can these pitiful remnants really resurrect for any sort of Last Judgement? Likewise, whilst Francis Danby’s huge canvas “The Deluge” (c.1837) shows in graphic detail the onslaught of the Biblical Flood of Noah, as the devout believed it to have literally occurred, William Dyce’s “Pegwell Bay” (1858-60), with its fossiliferous cliffs and its comet hanging in the sky, hints at the geological and astronomical realities that were eating away at any faith in the literalness of the Book of Genesis. (For these paintings and others, with further commentary, see Gallery 4.)

But getting back to Omar Khayyam, through the Pre-Raphaelites (61a) The Rubaiyat eventually reached the attention of the great art critic and social reformer John Ruskin, who in 1863 was moved to write to the translator of these extraordinary verses (who at this stage, remember, had chosen to remain anonymous!):

“I do not know in the least who you are, but I do with all my soul pray you to find and translate some more of Omar Khayyam for us: I never did – till this day – read anything so glorious, to my mind, as this poem (10th, 11th, 12th pages if one were to choose) – and that, & this, is all I can say about it – More – more – please more.” (III.416)

Whether Ruskin’s fascination for the poem was in any way connected with his infatuation with the young girl Rose la Touche, whom he had met in 1858 when she was only 10 years old, and who was to die in 1875 at the tragically early age of 27, is a fascinating point for speculation. The infatuation had certainly taken hold of him by the time he wrote his letter to FitzGerald, and in 1866, on her 18th birthday, he proposed marriage to her (he was then nearly 48). She turned him down, and though there were many contributory reasons for this – the age difference, the disapproval of her parents, and the notorious failure of his first marriage – a major reason was certainly the irreconcilibility of her (and her parents’) deep Christian faith with Ruskin’s agnosticism. The reasons for Ruskin’s agnosticism – as given in a letter to his friend Henry Acland, written in May 1851 – are well worth quoting here as symptomatic of the time:

“You speak of the Flimsiness of your faith. Mine, which was never strong, is being beaten into mere gold leaf…..If only the Geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses – and on the other side, these unhappy, blinking Puseyisms, men trying to do right and losing their very Humanity.” (61b)

Ruskin here uses “Puseyisms” as a hostile term for the dogmatic stance of the High Church – the antithesis of rational scepticism – which Ruskin saw as lacking in basic humanity. (On the state of Ruskin’s faith, see also the references to his links with Spiritualism in note 16a.)

Incidentally, the 10th, 11th and 12th pages Ruskin mentions in his letter to FitzGerald (which, having been left with Burne-Jones, took nearly a decade to reach him on account of his persistent anonymity!) cover verses 44-58 of the first edition, so the question of Rose la Touche must remain an open one. I am sometimes inclined to wonder, though, if, at the back of his mind somewhere, Ruskin saw the Rose of verse 48 as symbolic of Rose la Touche. Certainly his obsession with her intruded symbolically into his work: “rose metaphors, puns upon roses and drawings of roses abound.” (61c) Be that as it may, we know that Ruskin found verse 33 of the first edition (“Then to the rolling Heav’n itself I cried”) to be “such a jolly stanza” (61d), and that, later, from his fourth edition of 1879, he expressed his dissent to verse 34 (“Then of Thee in Me”) but his energetic assent to verses 21 (“Ah my Beloved”), 25 (“Alike for those”), 45 (“Tis but a tent”) and 46 (“And fear not.”) (61e) Interesting, too, is Ruskin’s comment on the poem as a whole, contained in a letter to Charles Eliot Norton, written in August 1869:

“Omar is very deep and lovely. But the Universe is not a shadow show, nor a game, but a battle of weary wounds and useless cries, and I am now in the temper that Omar would have been in, if somebody always stood by him to put mud in his wine, or break his amphora. You don’t quite understand the humour of thirsty souls, who have seen their last amphora broken…” (61f)

How true it is I am not sure, but Peter Quennell in his book John Ruskin: the Portrait of a Prophet (1949) says that “charmed by the poem’s pessimism, he did not demur at the incitements to hedonism with which it was embroidered.” (p.204)

Chapter 13 – Publication History and Growth in Popularity.

At this point we need to look at the publication history of The Rubaiyat. As we have seen, the Pre-Raphaelites latched onto it in 1861, but the second edition did not appear until 1868, and even then it had nothing to do with a popular appeal generated by a ‘trendy’ circle of artists. (FitzGerald had, however, thought of re-vamping Omar as early as 1866 (II.572).) A reading of FitzGerald’s letters reveals that it was the appearance of Nicolas’s French translation (from the original Persian) of The Rubaiyat in 1867 which revived his own interest in the verses (III.81); plus Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s approval of his first edition which gave him an added “spurt” to see if he could do a bit more with old Omar (III.59-60). As for the third edition of 1871, it becomes clear that that was produced in response to a market in America, not in England (III.370-1)! As FitzGerald put it, he seemed to have become popular among “strong-minded American ladies”. (III.389) The fourth edition of 1879 (62a) seems, again, to have been produced largely in response to an increased demand for copies in America, for his publisher, Bernard Quaritch, feared that the demand would be satisfied by pirated American editions if he didn’t reprint it (IV,158-9). One such pirated edition, published by Osgood and Co of Boston, had already appeared in 1878 (Potter, as note 2, p.67, #200), to which FitzGerald’s surprisingly mild reaction was that “Messrs. Osgood, who are, I believe respectable Publishers, might have apprized me before they brought out their Edition” (IV.93; see also IV.73 n.2 & IV.94). Even so, sales of the fourth edition appear not to have been brisk (see IV.326 & 534 n.2.) By FitzGerald’s death in 1883, there were probably only slightly over 2500 copies of his translations in existence (62b), mainly in England and America, a surprisingly small number given that it was now 24 years since its first appearance, and given the vast number of copies that were yet to appear !

The exponential increase in the popularity of The Rubaiyat, then, came after FitzGerald’s death and long after its “discovery” by the Pre-Raphaelites. The popular notion that The Rubaiyat achieved its fame because of the Pre-Raphaelites is, when one looks at the time scale, little more than a romanticised legend. The ball really only started to roll with the publication, in 1884, of an American edition (a reprint of the third edition), illustrated by Elihu Vedder and published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co of Boston (Potter #201). This was the first illustrated edition ever to be published, and it set the stage for “things to come”. Its popularity was such that it was followed by a Phototype edition in 1886, published in association with FitzGerald’s old publisher, Quaritch (Potter #202) – presumably Quaritch was the London outlet for this American publication. Later, in 1894, there appeared a Popular Edition (Potter #203) and a Vedder Text edition (Potter #204), neither of which bore the name of Quaritch. In addition, in 1887, Houghton, Mifflin & Co of New York and Boston – again in association with Bernard Quaritch of London – published an edition, in two volumes, of Works of Edward FitzGerald, translator of Omar Khayyam (Potter #152). Following on the heels of these came W. Aldis Wright’s Letters and Literary Remains of Edward FitzGerald, published in three volumes by McMillan & Co of London and New York in 1889 (Potter #153). Aldis Wright was FitzGerald’s literary executor (IV.578), and it was he who first published, in this work, the fifth edition of The Rubaiyat – essentially based on a copy of the fourth edition which had been amended, by hand, by FitzGerald himself (see the note on Potter #153) (9a). From 1890 onwards, the number of editions published proliferated, with a pronounced peak roughly between 1890 and 1920 (36b), and the rest, as they say, is history.

By the later 19th century the work of the Pre-Raphaelites – particularly Rossetti and Burne-Jones, it seems – had inspired that of the Symbolists – otherwise known as the Decadents, the Aesthetes or the Fin de Siècle movement – amongst whom, in England, feature the names of James McNeill Whistler, Walter Crane (also counted as a Pre-Raphaelite!) and Aubrey Beardsley, plus, more famous than any, Oscar Wilde. By then The Rubaiyat, it has been said (allegedly by G.K.Chesterton, though I can find no trace of the quote), “summed up the drowsy, over-ripe, self-indulgent spirit of the age.” In fact, The Rubaiyat was well enough known for Wilde to include a passing reference to Omar in chapter 3 of his hedonistic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)(76c), a novel said by some to have been partly inspired by the soul-baring portraits painted by Whistler. Actually, the inspiration probably had more to do – albeit indirectly – with an Omarian lament at the closing of “Youth’s sweet-scented Manuscript” (verse 72), for in 1887 Wilde had had his portrait painted by a young Canadian artist named Frances Richards. After the sittings were over, Wilde told the Pall Mall Gazette, in an “Occasional Note” printed in their issue of September 23rd 1890, that he looked at the result and said, “What a tragic thing it is! The portrait will never grow older, and I shall. If it was only the other way!”(76c) Incidentally, Wilde was not only fascinated by FitzGerald’s rendering of The Rubaiyat, but had a particular fondness for that of J.H.McCarthy as well – see the comments at the end of Appendix 10. But as with the Pre-Raphaelites, one must beware of overestimating The Rubaiyat’s influence on the Aesthetes: for whatever reason, Aubrey Beardsley never illustrated it, for example. Had he done so, we would probably have had some interesting additions to Gallery 1C! (It is interesting speculate about whether or not Beardsley, had he lived longer, would have illustrated The Rubaiyat. However, Ronald Balfour’s illustrations, and also those of Mera K. Sett, arguably fill the gap left by Beardsley. For Sett, see Appendix 17 & Gallery 2E.)

The spirit of the 1890s, specifically in relation to The Rubaiyat, is well described by Richard Le Gallienne, who had himself produced a rendition of Omar (see note 13), in his book The Romantic ‘90s, first published in 1926 (though page numbers cited here refer to the 1951 reprint). There was in place, he says, “a genuine and serious revolt against Victorian conventionalities, and even moral standards.” Plus, he goes on, “the theological conceptions of our fathers had suffered serious disintegration and the social sanctions and restrictions founded upon them were rapidly losing their authority.” (p.129) He then continues in a passage worth quoting at some length:

“Pleasure was no longer being regarded as suspect, nor natural functions as evil; while all the social conventions founded on such arbitrary misinterpretations of human energy were under fire. All forms of authority, indeed, were challenged to stand and deliver. Women, too, were beginning to assert the right to a larger freedom, and in the relations of the sexes a new and wholesome camaraderie was beginning to obtain. In this the part played by the humble bicycle, which inaugurated a freer intercourse between men and women, should not be forgotten in any survey of the time. Younger people were no longer restricted to the frigid exchanges of the Victorian drawing-room, but were able to adventure together along country roads and wide commons, and fraternize humanly over intimate meals at country inns. The vote was not far off for women, and the type-writer girl was soon to invade the sacred precincts of masculine offices. The world was beginning to realize that work and duty were not everything, and that life was meant at least as much for play. I myself had written: ‘A New Spirit of Pleasure is abroad amongst us, and one that blows from no mere coteries of hedonistic philosophers, but comes on the four winds.’ Indeed, on the sadder side, perhaps the pessimism inherent in Fitz-Gerald’s ‘Omar’, the wide popularity of which was another symptom, was, in an age that had lost its old faiths, finding expression in a widespread philosophy of carpe diem. Life was brief and uncertain, death was sure, and the future dark. Therefore, why not ‘gather ye rosebuds while ye may’?” (p.130-1.)

By the First World War, The Rubaiyat had become famous enough to be one of those books which some troops carried with them into the trenches for poetic comfort, as others carried copies of the Bible, Kipling’s ballads, or A.E.Housman’s poem, A Shropshire Lad (first published in 1896) (63a). Rupert Brooke quotes from Omar in a letter to Dudley Ward, written from his battalion camp in Dorset, in December 1914, after having witnessed some appalling events at Antwerp two months earlier, and when he was facing going into action again (63b); Ivor Gurney, in a letter to Mrs Voynich, written from the trenches in 1916, writes of talking with his fellow soldiers of “Omar Khayyam, Borrow, Burns, Wordsworth, Oscar Wilde etc etc.” (63c); and Siegfried Sassoon, in his Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), which, though fictional (Sassoon himself features as George Sherston), is based largely on his war diaries, quotes a couplet from Omar as “the only prayer which seemed worth uttering” at the time. (63d) In France, the same purpose was served by Thérèse of Lisieux’s book L’Histoire d’une Âme. First published, in French, in 1898, it was translated into English in 1901, and into five other European languages by 1906. It was a hugely popular work of spirituality, and in fact, Thérèse was canonized in 1925, largely through popular pressure on the Vatican. In the First World War, Thérèse was widely adopted as the special protector of the French army, and soldiers went into battle wearing her medal for protection. (63e) In English her book became widely known as The Autobiography of a Saint, and I would not be in the least surprised if copies of it went with some British troops into the trenches. Nothing could be further from The Rubaiyat, and yet, curiously, both were taken to war, and, even more curiously, both use roses as a prominent symbol! Be that as it may, it is an interesting issue for psychologists as to why anyone would carry something as nihilistic as The Rubaiyat into the trenches with them. The Bible, yes; Kipling’s patriotic gung-ho barrack-room ballads, yes; A Shropshire Lad, with its images of rural England, of separated lovers, its “lads” stuff and its soldierly verses, yes; St Thérèse of Lisieux’s book, with its spiritual uplift of faith, yes; but The Rubaiyat ? A book of verse which posited living for today and poured scorn on the idea of any life after this one? Why would anyone carry that to the trenches?

Part of the answer may be shared by A Shropshire Lad, for the various images from it listed above are laced with a bleak fatalism. Rubaiyat-like images are in there as well. Indeed, the poem has been dubbed “the English Rubaiyat” (63f), though actually Housman does not appear to have been greatly influenced by FitzGerald (63g). Thus we find in A Shropshire Lad the transience of human existence: “Ah, life, what is it but a flower?” (V); the short-lived Lenten Lily “that has not long to stay” (XXIX); and the lines

“I shall have lived a little while
Before I die forever.” (LVII)

In there, too, is Housman’s version of Omar’s “Drink!” philosophy:

“Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man” (LXII)

There is also the fleeting nature of youth and fame:

“And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.” (XIX)

But the greatest point of contact with Omar is provided by Housman’s frequent references to death:

“Lastly to the bed of mould
Where there’s neither heat nor cold.” (XXX)

And the lines which surely resonated with so many troops

“Far from his folk a dead lad lies
That once was friends with me.” (LIX):

Perhaps, then, the appeal of The Rubaiyat in war, like that of A Shropshire Lad , signifies a stark recognition of the dictum from the Book of Common Prayer, that “in the midst of life we are in death”; a sentiment most keenly felt in times of war, of course. It is as if in reading these fatalistic verses, the reader somehow confronts death and, by doing so, to some extent comes to terms with it. (Compare Edmund Blunden’s comments on reading Young’s Night Thoughts in the trenches, in Appendix 12c.) But more, when death is closer, as it is in times of war, it is a well known phenomenon that many social conventions are thrown aside, and people live for today, exactly as Omar proposed. (See, for example, Frederick Lewis Allen’s comment, quoted below, that the Great War infected “a whole generation” with an “eat-drink-and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-die spirit.”) Perhaps, then, there is some strange sort of comfort in fatalism after all!

But there is another possible reason behind the appeal of The Rubaiyat to troops engaged in trench warfare, and it echoes Sassoon’s comment, quoted above, about a couplet of Omar’s being “the only prayer which seemed worth uttering”, at the time, in the midst of all the carnage. The reason emerges from a little book, published pseudonymously by De C (64) in 1917: A Rubaiyat of the Trenches. The book, which consists of 100 verses, preceded by “A Friend’s ‘Foreword’”, is an oddity. On the one hand, it is the most unusual of the many parodies of FitzGerald, insofar as it is deadly serious rather than comic (65); and on the other, it is a poem which, though seemingly written from the trenches, never seems to have found its way into any of the many anthologies of poems of the First World War. Its basic message is one of religious skepticism, or rather, skepticism of the Church, induced by war, for in every war, it seems, God is claimed to be on both sides, and His well-meaning priests are thereby rendered powerless. Thus verse 24 reads:

Ah, Omar, Pagan, art thou in the skies
A-laughing at what now beneath thee lies?
God’s Will on our side, and God’s Will on theirs,
And Priests a-praying hard with upturn’d eyes.

And in verse 26:

Try: Try: Ye Priests, one miracle to bring
To stay one shell upon its deadly wing.
You mouth excuses. Were’t it a German shell:
The German Priests would hallelujahs sing.

In verse 77 de C repeats the oft repeated prayer:

This nightmare War! The last, God let it be,
And ne’er again the World such horrors see.

But is it a matter for God or Man? Verse 79 reads:

Who says that God was ever God of Peace!
Who blames on God the toll of blood’s increase!
Who maketh War? No war is made by God:
And God will ne’er decree that war shall cease.

And finally, verse 86, a verse of which Omar would surely have approved:

The War has prov’d that dogma is a fraud,
That manly worth alone is what to laud.
No fulminations clerical we dread;
‘Tis by the shell and bullet we are aw’d.

Nor are we finished yet with Omar as a strange source of comfort in the face of death, for it is a fact (66a) that Thomas Hardy, on his death-bed in January 1928, asked his wife to read a verse from The Rubaiyat for him:

Oh Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,
And ev'n with Paradise devise the Snake:
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blacken'd–Man's forgiveness give – and take!

 This is verse 81 of the 3rd, 4th and 5th editions (verse 88 in the 2nd) – a slightly reworded version of verse 58 in the 1st, the verse which Swinburne described as “the crowning stanza” of the whole poem (see note 8.) Not only that, but in April 1859, following W.K.Browne’s death, FitzGerald wrote to E.B.Cowell:

“It is one of the things that reconcile me to my own stupid Decline of Life – to the crazy state of the World. Well – no more about it. I sent you poor old Omar who has his kind of Consolation for all these Things.” (II.334)

Somewhat cryptically, the italicised “his” is FitzGerald’s own. Again, in September 1876, FitzGerald wrote to Anna Biddell, telling her:

“I was told the other Day that Mr Leslie Stephen, who lately lost his wife, who was Thackeray’s youngest Daughter, positively found Consolation in Wordsworth’s Excursion, and – Omar K! And he who told me – an American Professor (C.E.Norton) – said the same thing had happened to him! This is a little Mystery.” (III.704)

Chapter 14 – FitzGerald’s Homosexuality.

As regards FitzGerald’s own fascination with the verses of Omar Khayyam, it remains to mention the issue of homosexuality. There is little doubt, as the British sexologist Havelock Ellis pointed out in his book Studies in the Psychology of Sex, published in 1921, that Edward FitzGerald was a latent homosexual, despite his marriage to Lucy Barton in 1856. (The marriage, which he seems to have entered into out of a misguided feeling of obligation to her late father, lasted less than a year before they separated, and it is sometimes said that translating The Rubaiyat served as a refuge for FitzGerald from his unhappy home life.) It seems highly unlikely that FitzGerald ever had any physical relationship with another man (and indeed, highly unlikely that he ever consummated the marriage to Lucy Barton), but his interest in the young and handsome William Browne, who was only 16 years old when FitzGerald first met him in 1832, seems very likely to have been of a latently homosexual nature, at least on FitzGerald’s part. His later interest in the young fisherman ‘Posh’ Fletcher has invited similar speculation, and FitzGerald’s habit, between the death of Browne and his meeting with Fletcher, of roaming the beach at night “longing for some fellow to accost me who might give some promise of filling up a very vacant place in my heart” (III.40) is suggestive by any standards. (67). These things are strongly suggestive of homosexual leanings, certainly, but we must bear in mind Victorian attitudes to male friendships. Very close male friendships – with expressed love – were common in Victorian times, and did not necessarily betoken homosexual leanings (68). Plus, in any assessment of FitzGerald’s sexuality, we should take into account the fact that he had a genuine love for Elizabeth Charlesworth, before she became E.B.Cowell’s wife in 1847. FitzGerald is certainly on record as being “slightly in love” with her. (69a) It is also said that FitzGerald fell in love with Caroline Crabbe at one stage.(69b)

So, the situation is a little more complicated than is sometimes supposed. Be that as it may, it has been suggested (for example, by de Polnay, as note 1g, p.96ff and more recently by Erik Gray, as note 1m, ch.3) that another source of resonance between Edward FitzGerald and Omar Khayyam was also of a homosexual nature. In the original verses of Omar Khayyam, in amongst the references to wine, women and song, are interspersed references to young boys, the servers of wine in taverns (sakis). Pederasty was a widely accepted vice in Persia and in the Middle East generally, as indeed it was in Ancient Greece, so in the verses of Omar Khayyam we do have to accept the possibility – distasteful as it may seem to many today – that though his attentions were often directed towards dark-eyed, tulip-cheeked or heavenly faced girls – they were sometimes also directed towards ‘pretty’ boys. Indeed, according to A.J.Arberry (as note 7, p.22), in the original Persian, the “Thou” who accompanies Khayyam to the wilderness with the famous loaf of bread, flask of wine, and book of poetry, in verse 11, is a “pretty young boy” and not the girl that most of us suppose from FitzGerald’s translation (and which all illustrators suppose, we might add – see Gallery 2C!) To cite some actual examples from Arberry’s Cambridge Manuscript, in v.30 Omar’s wine is poured by his “darling Magian boy”, and in v.32 Omar is urging his “pretty boy” to “drink wine, and cull the blossoms fair.” In v. 39, though, his “dear darling” is a she who “pressed her ruby lips” to his, and in v.83 he drinks wine with “a lovely maid beside a stream.” Again, referring to Heron Allen’s facsimile edition of the Ouseley Manuscript (as note 11c), the “sweet-faced Cup-bearer” of v.52 is of indeterminate sex; the Cup-bearer in v.84 is definitely male; whilst the goblet of wine in v.25 is served by one who is “houri-shaped” and thus female. Likewise, in v.32, Omar drinks wine on the bank of a river with “a playmate houri-shaped”, and certainly modern Persian illustrations of this image from The Rubaiyat opt for very feminine houri-shaped playmates, rather than pretty young boys – again, see Gallery 2C. Much depends on how on how one wants to see it, of course. Personally, I have always thought that the lines:

And lose your fingers in the tresses of
The Cypress-slender Minister of Wine

from v.41 of FitzGerald’s 3rd, 4th and 5th editions (v.55 of the 2nd), preserve a female houri-shaped playmate rather than a pretty young boy. But since sakis – the ministers of wine – were generally young boys, we certainly have to face the possibility not just of homosexuality in Omar’s verses, but of pederasty as well.

One further clue comes from FitzGerald’s Latin rubaiyat (9a). Here, as Erik Gray has pointed out in his essay “Common and Queer” (as note 1m, p.33 & p.42), Omar addresses his wine-server as “saki mi” – the “mi” indicating a male saki – but, more significantly, he addresses his Beloved as “dilecte mi”, this indicating a male beloved (a female would have been “dilecta mea”.) This does not come across in FitzGerald’s English translations, of course, without the gender guides of Latin to guide us. What is interesting, though, is that, as Martin (note 1e, p.207-8) points out, FitzGerald’s English translations make no explicit reference to Omar Khayyam’s beloved being a woman (see verses 20 and 73, for example.) Was this deliberate, or is it just a coincidence? It is at least a possibility that it was deliberate, if no more than that, not just on account of his latent homosexuality, but also on account of his disastrous marriage to Lucy Barton. And though there is no suggestion that FitzGerald had any remotely sexual interest in “pretty young boys”, it is certainly possible that Omar’s affectionate references to his beloved reminded FitzGerald of his much loved William Browne. But much of this must remain speculation, for there is nothing overtly erotic in the original verses, either of a heterosexual or a homosexual nature – “the Cypress-slender Minister of Wine” mentioned above is as overt as gets, be the saki male or female. And of course, it is not surprising that either boy wine-servers or beloved young men feature in FitzGerald’s translations in anything like an erotic context – his homosexuality was probably only latent at most, and, in any case, any reference to such things in respectable Victorian England would have been unthinkable.

But if there was indeed a homosexual strand to FitzGerald’s personal fascination with The Rubaiyat, it would seem to have been relatively minor compared with the more marked strands associated with religious doubt, the transience of all earthly things, and the Omarian philosophy of “live for today, for tomorrow we die.” What is certainly true is that FitzGerald had an affinity with Omar on several levels. Taking the various points of resonance into account, R. B.Martin wrote that FitzGerald saw himself reflected in the verses of Omar Khayyam “as clearly as in a mirror” (as note 1e, p.207.) (70a) Much earlier, in 1893, M.D.Conway, an American admirer of The Rubaiyat, had gone even further when he said of FitzGerald’s translation and interpretation, that “it is almost like the re-appearance of Omar Khayyam in an English heart and an English brain.” (70b) In 1951, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges went one stage further again, in his essay The Enigma of Edward FitzGerald. Citing the Jewish scholar Isaac Luria’s belief that the soul of a dead man can enter the body of a living man in order to nourish or instruct his soul, Borges wondered if, sometime around 1857, the soul of Omar Khayyam had perhaps taken up residence in the body of Edward FitzGerald! A fanciful notion, of course, though one which would certainly explain a lot! But for those not overly-keen on the reincarnational hypothesis, Harold Lamb, in the Notes at the end of his novel Omar Khayyam (1936), took another view. “Perhaps,” he wrote, “in brooding over Omar’s quatrains, that taciturn Englishman had for a brief moment the gift of knitting cobwebs together, of weighing thistledown, and weaving a magic tapestry of dragon-flies’ wings.”(p.316) (70c)

Chapter 15 – Into the Twentieth Century.

But to return to the publication history of The Rubaiyat, having earlier tracked it from its discovery by Whitley Stokes and the Pre-Raphaelites in 1861 up until the period of the First World War, it remains to track it on into the nineteen twenties and beyond. To begin with, as we saw earlier, The Rubaiyat achieved its peak popularity between about 1890 and 1920, so the first question has to be: why did it peak then in particular? Nothing can increase in popularity for ever, of course, if for no other reason than that the novelty of the old wears off in the face of up-and-coming new things. Even so, it is worth looking into the possible reasons.

Certainly the climate of religious doubt that in part fuelled the rise in popularity of The Rubaiyat had not lifted, and, if anything, had intensified because of the Great War. As Frederick Lewis Allen put it in his book Only Yesterday (1931; 1959) “a whole generation had been infected by the eat-drink-and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-die spirit.” (p.66) (He was talking specifically of America, but pretty much the same applied to England.) A.C.Ward, in his book The Nineteen- Twenties – Literature and Ideas in the Post-War Decade (1930) was more expansive. He pointed out that though unbelief was indeed no new phenomenon, its manifestation in the post-War world differed from that in previous generations. He wrote:

“Faith in religion and in human authority was fatally injured by the War: first, because millions of men and women found it impossible to reconcile the horrors of war with what they had been taught to believe of God; second because they could not stomach the apologetics of the Churches, which (however the fact may be explained or disguised) made religion secondary to military expediency; third, because they discovered before long that leadership (both in the army and the State) had lost whatever directive power it might ever have possessed and was wandering in a frenzied maze of improvisation. The straying sheep looked up but were not led.” (p.13; compare de C’s Rubaiyat of the Trenches, in fact.)

From that point of view, one might have expected interest in The Rubaiyat to continue unabated, rather than decline, following the Great War. Certainly it still remained an acknowledged threat to the Christian Faith, as is witnessed by the publication of Condé B Pallen’s book, The New Rubaiyat & Other Poems (in London) in 1920.

Pallen was an American – he was born and buried in St Louis, and indeed his poem “The New Rubaiyat” was first published in St Louis, in 1898. Its republication in London in 1920, then, was 22 years on from its first appearance. Nevertheless, the fact of its republication, and “up front” in the book, tells us that it was still relevant. Pallen is known today mainly as one of the editors of the great Catholic Encyclopedia, a definitive reference work first published in 16 volumes between 1907 and 1914 (and now available online.) As is to be expected, then, his poem “The New Rubaiyat”, which runs to 81 unnumbered stanzas, following FitzGerald’s metre and rhyming scheme, is written from a Catholic viewpoint.

The poem opens with an address to:

Old Omar, subtle weaver of the skein
Of doubt entangled in thy muddled brain.

It then goes on (p.12) to accuse Omar – and all skeptics, in effect – of being arrogant in their presumption in even trying to fathom the ways of God:

You thought to compass with your little span
The wide abysses of creation’s plan,
And finite measure infinite design;
You – you would be God, who are but man.

When Omar “divorced old barren Reason” from his bed (FitzGerald’s verse 40), he was quite wrong, for Reason with Faith is the key (p.15):

Divorce not Reason from thy failing house
To make with concubines a vain carouse,
But take her, prudent partner of thy years,
To cherish chastely as a faithful spouse.

She, too, is of celestial origin,
And knows how close to Faith she is akin,
Faith, her elder sister, in whose eyes
Dissolves the secret, death, the riddle, sin.

The final verse reads thus (p.18):

And all the garden blossoms, and the Vine
Into Love’s chalice pours diviner Wine:
Faith holds the secret of the sacred sign;
Her eyes search deep and long, and make it thine.

Nothing had changed much, then, since Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” and Browning’s “Rabbi ben Ezra”.

It is true, then, that The Rubaiyat was still very popular in the period following the First World War – Ronald Balfour’s and Anne Harriet Fish’s wonderfully illustrated editions appeared in 1920 and 1922, for example, and many fine editions were still to appear – but the arguments were old and the rubaiyat format too was old (though testimony to its continued popularity lies in the fact that parodies of it continued to appear in the 1920s and beyond – see note 65,) New and more exciting poetic trends were emerging by which the same – and new – things could be said.

Thus, in the years leading up to the First World War there had been the avant-garde Imagist School of Poetry. Arguably founded by T.E.Hulme in 1908, but brought to prominence by Ezra Pound in about 1912, it was a reaction against the “flabbiness” of older poetic forms, one target being the work of the Georgian Poets (amongst whose ranks were Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon), who can be regarded as half-way between Victorian poetic standards and those of Modernism. (71) Incidentally, Pound called his son Omar, seemingly out of regard for FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, which he regarded as “the only good poem of the Victorian era” (72). Pound was also associated with Vorticism, another modernist movement of painting and poetry, founded by Wyndham Lewis in about 1913. The Vorticists didn’t last long, though – after only two issues of their literary magazine BLAST, published in 1914 and 1915, and which contained work by Ezra Pound and the up-and-coming T.S. Eliot, the movement seems rather to have dissolved. In part, of course, this was down to the onset of the Great War, which disrupted everything, poetry included. Not that the avant-garde was any more a majority taste then than it is now: a poll conducted in the Journal of Education in 1913 showed that the man and woman in the street preferred their Rudyard Kipling, William Watson, Robert Bridges (who became poet laureate that year) and Alfred Noyes (who came top of the poll) to the anthologies of the avant-garde. (73a)

The effect of the Great War on poetry is interesting. War poetry does, of course, have a lengthy history going back, via the Boer War, to the the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolutionary Wars before them, so war poetry in itself was nothing new (74a). But the First World War was very different in nature to anything that had gone before: it was the beginning of Modern Warfare. It was only to be expected, then, that the war would become a major source of inspiration for poets, the more so, it seems, after the romanticised death of Rupert Brooke in 1915. But what was rather less to be expected was that it would become a source of inspiration for such a plethora of mediocre and less than mediocre poets – presumably in part related to the fact that by 1914 the soldiery was mostly literate, so the troops were able to write of their own experiences at the Front, albeit not very expertly! (73b) Another unexpected side-effect of the emerging war poetry, or at least,of the best of it, was that it brought with it the hope, at least to some, that it would sweep away the avant-garde “rubbish”, and bring us all back to “proper poetry”. (73c) (It never did, of course!) But of particular interest to us here is that the likes of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen – the first of whom, as we saw earlier, had quoted The Rubaiyat from the trenches – had found a new brand of existential futility, undreamt of by FitzGerald: the existential futility induced by the new horrors of modern – mechanised and chemical – warfare, as experienced in the mud of the trenches. There had never before been a war like it, and there had never before been anything written quite like (74b) Sassoon’s “Does it matter?” (“Does it matter? Losing your legs?/ For people will always be kind…”) or Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est” (“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge…”) Both poets, like de C, were scathing about the Church – Sassoon in “They” and Owen in “Le Christianisme.” In the former, Sassoon pictures a bishop imagining the troops coming back from the Great War almost elated from their battle against the Anti-Christ. The troops correct him (“George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind; / Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die…”) thus forcing the bishop to admit that “The ways of God are strange!” Owen’s “Le Christianisme” is worth quoting in full:

So the church Christ was hit and buried
Under its rubbish and its rubble.
In cellars, packed-up saints lie serried,
Well out of hearing of our trouble.

One Virgin still immaculate
Smiles on for war to flatter her.
She’s halo’d with an old tin hat,
But a piece of hell will batter her.

For more on religion and the poetry of the Great War, see Appendix 18.

But the War Poets were only part of the changing literary scene. A.C.Ward’s book, cited above, is particularly useful for the view it gives us of the literary world of the nineteen-twenties: Arnold Bennett, Robert Bridges, Robert Frost, Aldous Huxley, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Sean O’Casey, Marcel Proust, H.G. Wells and Virginia Woolf are ten now-famous names featured in it. In there, too, in chapter 3, are the stranger poetic realms of Edith Sitwell, E.E.Cummings (or “e.e.cummings” as he is often styled, in accordance with his sometimes bizarre use of typography), and, of course, T.S.Eliot, most particularly his poem “The Waste Land”, published in1922.

Aptly described as an urban ‘Lamentations of Jeremiah’, The Waste Land is delivered in the form of a collage of images, and as a result it is every bit as obscure as the outpourings of any Biblical Prophet. Despite its obscurity, though, it came to be regarded by many as a modern classic, and one which not merely broke, but shattered, previous poetic moulds. Not all agreed with this view at the time of its publication, however (75a), and some suspected that it might be another parody of avant-garde poetry (75b) or another product of the so-called Spectrist School of Poetry – a literary hoax, in other words (75c). Indeed, there are still many today who think that it doesn’t warrant the status of a classic, and that Eliot should not be classed with the likes of Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth or Tennyson. As a cautionary note, though, we should recall that FitzGerald and others thought exactly the same about the “Cockney upstart”, Robert Browning! Whatever one’s personal view, Eliot was certainly a ‘20th century literary phenomenon’, and it is that which counts here. Incidentally, given our main concern in this essay, it is interesting that Eliot, like Pound, owed some influence to FitzGerald, though perhaps not as much as has been claimed in some quarters. (On Eliot in relation to The Rubaiyat, as portrayed in D’Ambrosio’s book Eliot Possessed, see Appendix 13.)

But, getting back to A.C.Ward’s book, most notably for us here, there is no mention at all of The Rubaiyat in it.

We need not track The Rubaiyat further than the 1920s, for basically it had by then become a classic whose fame would endure, subject to the usual literary ebbs and flows. But it was a work that was no longer “in” – or least, not as “in” as it once had been. The poetry reading public – or at least, those of them who regarded themselves as “modern” or “progressive” – had moved on, as indeed had the gallery visiting public, for much the same had happened in Art in the early twentieth century as had happened in Poetry – Pre-Raphaelitism and Symbolism became “old hat” as Post-Impressionism, Surrealism, Cubism, Dadaism, Fauvism, Abstract Expressionism and a host of other “isms” came to displace them. Victorian Painting went into limbo, as was reflected in the steadily declining prices it achieved at auction. [Music had suffered similar upheavals, of course, typified by Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du Printemps , first performed in Paris in 1913 (on which occasion, as is well known, it caused a riot) and, even more radically, by the atonal music of Schoenberg and, later, by John Cage’s 4’33”.]

Whether all this ‘moving on’ in Art and Music was a good thing or not, remains very much a matter of opinion, just as it does in the case of Poetry. Many were glad to see the back of the ‘Old Ways’ and to venture into ‘Pastures New’. But many argued that the likes of Eliot, Duchamp and Schoenberg had, like modern Pied Pipers of Hamelin, simply led the public into realms which at times seemed dangerously akin to those of the Emperor’s New Clothes – as indeed, the Spectrist School of Poetry set out to demonstrate, and as The Turnip Prize for Art still does (75d). But this is not the place to pursue the arguments involved, and even if we did, we should probably all come out by the same door as in we went! Time will tell.