Appendix 5: The Kasidah – Burton & The Rubaiyat.

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) was a soldier, explorer, adventurer, orientalist, writer and linguist. He is famous mostly for his translations of The Thousand and One Nights and The Kama Sutra, but also for his pilgrimage to Mecca, which he made, disguised as an Arab, in 1853. In those days, had he been caught, he would probably have been put to death. (He published an account of his pilgrimage in 1855, which FitzGerald certainly read – see II.221.) According to Frank McLynn’s book Burton: Snow upon the Desert (1990), Burton’s aim in producing The Kasidah of Haji Abdu el Yezdi: a Lay of the Higher Law (1880) was to surpass the great success of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat (p.320.) After Burton’s death, his wife, Isabel, went to great lengths to deny this (unsuccessful) rivalry, claiming that though published in 1880, Burton had actually written The Kasidah in 1853, on his return from Mecca, and thus before The Rubaiyat had even been published. As McLynn says, though, “careful analysis reveals it beyond doubt as a work written as Burton approached sixty” (p.321), by which time he had long been familiar with FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat (he had certainly been given a copy in 1861, apparently by Whitley Stokes.) Incidentally, Lady Isabel Burton’s account of her husband’s poem can be found in her Preface to the second edition of The Kasidah, published in 1894, four years after her husband’s death, and in her book The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton (1893), vol.1, p.184ff, where she describes The Kasidah as “the most exquisite gem of Oriental poetry that I have ever heard or imagined, nor do I believe it has its equal, either from the pen of Hafiz, Saadi, Shakespeare, Milton, Swinburne or any other.” No-one else has ever shared her enthusiasm on this scale, however, and she later admitted that some ‘gentlemen of the press’ had rather ridiculed her for it. (For Burton being given a copy of The Rubaiyat in 1861, at the same time as Rossetti and Swinburne, see Lady Burton’s Preface p.4 and Life vol.1, p.184; for an account of Burton reciting Omar, whilst sitting cross-legged on a cushion, at a gathering at Lord Houghton’s house, also in 1861, see Life vol.1, p.347-8; and McLynn p.89).

How much The Kasidah owes, overall, to The Rubaiyat is debatable– as we shall see, a direct influence is unmistakeable in places (in II.8 & III.6 particularly.) Again,“Kasidah” means “couplets” (2 lines) whilst “Rubaiyat” means “quatrains” (4 lines); and undoubtedly the Sufi Haji Abdu el Yezdi was for Burton what the agnostic Omar Khayyam was for FitzGerald, save that Omar Khayyam actually did exist, whilst Haji Abdu el Yezdi was a figment of Burton’s imagination, a nom de plume, in other words. Burton’s “translation” was thus not really a translation at all (though he was certainly fluent in Persian – see McLynn p.44), and possibly to disguise that fact, Burton identified the ‘translator’ only by the initials “F.B.”, said (by his wife) to have stood for yet another nom-de-plume, “Frank Baker” –  Francis being his own second name and Baker being his mother’s maiden name. (On Burton’s reasons for this “double-barrier between his readers and his true identity”, see McLynn p.320-1, but it is curious that Burton’s anonymity parallels FitzGerald’s; for the nom de plume Frank Baker, first used to cover the authorship of his poem “Stone Talk”, see Preface p.4, Life, vol.1, p.393 and McLynn p.241 & p.320.) At any rate, it was “F.B.” who wrote the following Preface “To the Reader” of The Kasidah:

“The Translator has ventured to entitle a “Lay of the Higher Law” the following composition, which aims at being in advance of its time; and he has not feared the danger of collision with such unpleasant forms as the “Higher Culture.”  The principles which justify the name are as follows:—­

The Author asserts that Happiness and Misery are equally divided and distributed in the world.

He makes Self-cultivation, with due regard to others, the sole and sufficient object of human life.

He suggests that the affections, the sympathies, and the “divine gift of Pity” are man’s highest enjoyments.

He advocates suspension of judgment, with a proper suspicion of “Facts, the idlest of superstitions.”

Finally, although destructive to appearance, he is essentially reconstructive.

For other details concerning the Poem and the Poet, the curious reader is referred to the end of the volume.

F. B.       Vienna, Nov., 1880.”


These “other details concerning the Poem and the Poet” take the form of two lengthy Notes which serve to give Burton some “space”, as it were, to explain in some detail the philosophy of “Haji Abdu, the Man” (whom he has known for many years, he assures us!) and the meaning behind some of his verses (for which explanation many readers must have been grateful over the years!)

The Kasidah as a whole, together with its Notes, are too long to be included in full here, but the following extracts will give some idea of the similarities with The Rubaiyat, as well as some of the rather peculiar differences. The poem is split up into nine sections, so that in what follows, III.2 will mean Section III, verse 2.


The Wolf-tail sweeps the paling East
   to leave a deeper gloom behind,
And Dawn uprears her shining head,
   sighing with semblance of a wind: 

 (Burton’s Kasdidah, like FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, opens with Dawn. The Wolf-tail = the false dawn, comparable to Dawn’s Left Hand in FitzGerald’s verse 2. The epithet “Wolf Tail” comes from the lenticular shape of the zodiacal light (= false dawn), on which see the note on FitzGerald’s verse 2, and in particular the articles by Redhouse cited in it.)


But we? Another shift of scene,
   another pang to rack the heart;
Why meet we on the bridge of Time
   to ’change one greeting and to part?

We meet to part; yet asks my sprite,
   Part we to meet?  Ah! is it so? 
Man’s fancy-made Omniscience knows,
   who made Omniscience nought can know.

Why must we meet, why must we part,
   why must we bear this yoke of must,
Without our leave or askt or given,
   by tyrant Fate on victim thrust?

(“This yoke of must” is reminiscent of “this Impertinence” in FitzGerald’s verse 30; our meetings and partings are reminiscent of FitzGerald’s verses 21-22.)

II. 4-9.

As stand we percht on point of Time,
   betwixt the two Eternities,
Whose awful secrets gathering round
   with black profound oppress our eyes.

“This gloomy night, these grisly waves,
   these winds and whirlpools loud and dread: 
What reck they of our wretched plight
   who Safety’s shore so lightly tread?”

Thus quoth the Bard of Love and Wine,
   whose dream of Heaven ne’er could rise
Beyond the brimming Kausar-cup
   and Houris with the white-black eyes;

Ah me! my race of threescore years
   is short, but long enough to pall
My sense with joyless joys as these,
   with Love and Houris, Wine and all.

Another boasts he would divorce
   old barren Reason from his bed,
And wed the Vine-maid in her stead;—­
   fools who believe a word he said!

And “‘Dust thou art to dust returning.’
   ne’er was spoke of human soul”
The Soofi cries, ’tis well for him
   that hath such gift to ask its goal.

The Bard of Love and Wine in verse 6 is the poet Hafiz of Shiraz; “another boasts” in verse 8 is a reference to Omar Khayyam, and shows that Burton had indeed read FitzGerald’s translation – see his verse 40. The Kausar-cup and Houris of verse 6 relate to Paradise: whoever drinks from the Kausar-cup will never thirst again; Houris are beautiful women– a man’s supposed reward in Paradise (on which see A Note on Houris in Gallery 1), an idea clearly formulated before the advent of Equal Opportunities!

The Kausar-cup is not to be found in the Qur’an as such, but appears to be derived from the later speculations of commentators on the Qur’an. It is related to Mohammed’s famous ‘Night Journey’, when, in the course of a single night, mounted on al Buraq, a winged horse with a human face, and accompanied by the angel Gabriel, the Prophet was transported from Mecca to Jerusalem, and thence through the 7 heavens to Paradise. In the course of his journey to Paradise, he is said to have seen the pool/ fountain/ river of al Kausar or Kawthar. According to one commentator, its waters are whiter than milk, its smell sweeter than musk, and the cups for drinking it sparkle like the stars of heaven. All commentators agree that he who drinks of its waters shall never thirst again. See, for example, the articles “al-Kausar”, “Miradj” and “Buraq” in Thomas Patrick Hughes, A Dictionary of Islam.


“Eat, drink, and sport; the rest of life’s
   not worth a fillip,” quoth the King;
Methinks the saying saith too much: 
   the swine would say the selfsame thing!

Two-footed beasts that browse through life,
   by Death to serve as soil design’d,
Bow prone to Earth whereof they be,
   and there the proper pleasures find: 

But you of finer, nobler, stuff,
   ye, whom to Higher leads the High,
What binds your hearts in common bond
   with creatures of the stall and sty?

(“Eat, drink and sport”, of course, recalls Omar Khayyam’s philosophy, though the idea that mere pigs can do this is Burton’s own.)


Who knows not Whence he came nor Why,
   who kens not Whither bound and When,
Yet such is Allah’s choicest gift,
   the blessing dreamt by foolish men;

(Compare FitzGerald’s verses 29 & 30.)


The first of Pots the Potter made
   by Chrysorrhoas’ blue-green wave;
Methinks I see him smile to see
   what guerdon to the world he gave!

(Chrysorrhoas’ blue-green wave refers to the Abana River of Damascus; a guerdon is a reward. The Pot and Potter theme here recalls verses 59-66 of FitzGerald. The meaning here seems to be God, the Potter, created Adam and Eve, the first of Pots, beside this river, and then took a wry smile at his handiwork.)


How short this Life, how long withal;
   how false its weal, how true its woes,
This fever-fit with paroxysms
   to mark its opening and its close.

Ah! gay the day with shine of sun,
   and bright the breeze, and blithe the throng
Met on the River-bank to play,
   when I was young, when I was young: 

Such general joy could never fade;
   and yet the chilling whisper came
One face had paled, one form had failed;
   had fled the bank, had swum the stream;

Still revellers danced, and sang, and trod
   the hither bank of Time’s deep tide,
Still one by one they left and fared
   to the far misty thither side;

And now the last hath slipt away
   yon drear Death-desert to explore,
And now one Pilgrim worn and lorn
   still lingers on the lonely shore.

(Compare the River bank in FitzGerald's verse 19; “one by one crept silently to rest” in FitzGerald’s verse 21; and “we that now make merry in the Room” in FitzGerald’s verse 22.)


O the dread pathos of our lives!
   how durst thou, Allah, thus to play
With Love, Affection, Friendship, all
   that shows the god in mortal clay?

But ah! what ’vaileth man to mourn;
   shall tears bring forth what smiles ne’er brought;
Shall brooding breed a thought of joy? 
   Ah hush the sigh, forget the thought!

Silence thine immemorial quest,
   contain thy nature’s vain complaint
None heeds, none cares for thee or thine;—­
   like thee how many came and went?

Cease, Man, to mourn, to weep, to wail;
   enjoy thy shining hour of sun;
We dance along Death’s icy brink,
   but is the dance less full of fun?

(Compare the sentiments of FitzGerald verses 37 & 51.)


Right quoth the Hindu Prince of old,.
   “An Ishwara for one I nill,
Th’ almighty everlasting Good
   who cannot ‘bate th’ Eternal Ill:” 

“Your gods may be, what shows they are?”
   hear China’s Perfect Sage declare;
“And being, what to us be they
   who dwell so darkly and so far?”

“All matter hath a birth and death;
   ’tis made, unmade and made anew;
“We choose to call the Maker ’God’:—­
   such is the Zahid’s owly view.

“You changeful finite Creatures strain”
   (rejoins the Drawer of the Wine)
“The dizzy depths of Inf’inite Power
   to fathom with your foot of twine”;

(The Hindu Prince of old is Buddha; an Ishwara is a God; China’s Perfect Sage is Confucius; a Zahid is an orthodox believer who believes everything he is told and questions nothing because it is not “respectable” to question; the Drawer of the Wine is the Sufi or Gnostic opposed to the Zahid – Wine here is a metaphor for Divine Intoxication, rather than the literal drink of Omar Khayyam. According to McLynn, Burton “was enthralled by the mysticism of the Sufis and steeped himself in their mental world through fasting and meditation.” (p.44) The above verses can be seen as an elaboration of the “great Argument” of FitzGerald’s verse 27 and the “jarring Sects” of his verse 43. For Burton’s religious views generally, see the comments on VI.1 below.)


For Man’s Free-will immortal Law,
   Anagke, Kismet, Des’tiny read
That was, that is, that aye shall be,
   Star, Fortune, Fate, Urd, Norn or Need.

(Anagke (Greek) = Kismet (Turkish/Persian) = Destiny; Urd and Norn are Norse goddesses of Fate. This verse gives different perspective on the issue of predestination as raised in FitzGerald’s verses 53-54, for example.)


“Man’s nat’ural state is God’s design;”
   such is the silly sage’s theme;
“Man’s primal Age was Age of Gold;”
   such is the Poet’s waking dream:

Delusion, Ignorance!  Long ere Man
   drew upon Earth his earliest breath
The world was one contin’uous scene
   of anguish, torture, prey and Death;

Where hideous Theria of the wild
   rended their fellows limb by limb;
Where horrid Saurians of the sea
   in waves of blood were wont to swim: 

The “fair young Earth” was only fit
   to spawn her frightful monster-brood;
Now fiery hot, now icy frore,
   now reeking wet with steamy flood.

(These verses are a sample of something which is very different about The Kasidah, and for which there is no parallel in The Rubaiyat – the inclusion of some modern scientific knowledge, which of course, since Haji Abdu supposedly lived in the 19th century, is perfectly admissible! The Poet is saying in these verses that the ancient idea that the modern world is a corruption of a former Golden Age (the Garden of Eden is one version of this; but see also the World Ages mentioned in note 24.) is nonsense, for in the past the world was even more savage than it is now, the ultimate savagery having reigned in the Age of the Dinosaurs (the Theria and Saurians of verse 8, though Theria are actually mammals!)

We then move on to:


How long in Man’s pre-Adamite days
   to feed and swill, to sleep and breed,
Were the Brute-biped’s only life,
   a perfect life sans Code or Creed?

His choicest garb a shaggy fell,
   his choicest tool a flake of stone;
His best of orn’aments tattoo’d skin
   and holes to hang his bits of bone;

Who fought for female as for food
   when Mays awoke to warm desire;
And such the Lust that grew to Love
   when Fancy lent a purer fire.

Where then “Th’ Eternal nature-law
   by God engraved on human heart?”
Behold his simiad sconce and own
   the Thing could play no higher part.

(From the savagery of the Dinosaurs, in these verses the Poet moves on to the savagery of primitive (Pre-Adamite) Man: hardly a Golden Age, and with no indication of a God-given moral code! If anything, Man developed ‘morality’, rather than was given it by God, but then lost it again.)


All Faith is false, all Faith is true: 
   Truth is the shattered mirror strown
In myriad bits; while each believes
   his little bit the whole to own.

(A neat expression of the historical fact that believers in any particular faith believe their own faith to be the ‘true’ one, and all other faiths to be ‘false’.McLynn says of Burton that he “fundamentally despised religion as a popular opiate” (p.60); that he was “convinced that religion elicited in human beings a bubbling, bottomless well of irrationalty” (p.67); and that he “mistrusted and (except for Islam) despised all organised religions.” (p.214) He detested Christianity’s obsession with Original Sin, its hatred of the flesh, and its threats of eternal Hell-fire, and believed that Islam was “both more logical and more humane” than Christianity. (p.93-4))


With God’s foreknowledge man’s free will!
   what monster-growth of human brain,
What powers of light shall ever pierce
   this puzzle dense with words inane?

Vainly the heart on Providence calls,
   such aid to seek were hardly wise
For man must own the pitiless Law
   that sways the globe and sevenfold skies.

“Be ye Good Boys, go seek for Heav’en,
   come pay the priest that holds the key;”
So spake, and speaks, and aye shall speak
   the last to enter Heaven,—­he.

(This last verse is, of course, a criticism of hypocritical priesthood, to be found in all historical periods.)


Yes Truth may be, but ’tis not Here;
   mankind must seek and find it There,
But Where nor I nor you can tell,
   nor aught earth-mother ever bare.

Enough to think that Truth can be: 
   come sit we where the roses glow,
Indeed he knows not how to know
   who knows not also how to ’unknow.


“Of molecules and protoplasm
   you matter-mongers prompt to prate;
“Of jelly-speck development
   and apes that grew to man’s estate.”

(Another of the Poet’s modern scientific moments – here the Theory of Evolution, of course, and in particular the evolution of man from the ape! McLynn says of Burton that, “He admired Darwin but could not follow the nineteenth century all the way in its worship of science.” (p.70))


“Fools rush where Angels fear to tread!”
   Angels and Fools have equal claim
To do what Nature bids them do,
   sans hope of praise, sans fear of blame!


There is no Heav’en, there is no Hell;
   these be the dreams of baby minds;
Tools of the wily Fetisheer,
   to ’fright the fools his cunning blinds.

(A Fetisheer is a witch-doctor, medicine-man or sorcerer.)


“How comes it, then, our span of days
   in hunting wealth and fame we spend
“Why strive we (and all humans strive)
   for vain and visionary end?”

Reply:  Mankind obeys a law
   that bids him labour, struggle, strain;
The Sage well knowing its unworth,
   the Fool a-dreaming foolish gain.

And who, ’mid e’en the Fools, but feels
   that half the joy is in the race
For wealth and fame and place, nor sighs
   when comes success to crown the chase?

(Compare the sentiments of FitzGerald’s verses 14 & 15.)


Again:  in Hind, Chin, Franguestan
   that accident of birth befell,
Without our choice, our will, our voice: 
   Faith is an accident as well.

What to the Hindu saith the Frank: 
   “Denier of the Laws divine! 
“However godly-good thy Life,
   Hell is the home for thee and thine.”

“Go strain the draught before ’tis drunk,
   and learn that breathing every breath,
“With every step, with every gest,
   something of life thou do’est to death.”

Replies the Hindu:  “Wend thy way
   for foul and foolish Mlenchhas fit;
“Your Pariah-par’adise woo and win;
   at such dog-Heav’en I laugh and spit.”

“Cannibals of the Holy Cow!
   who make your rav’ening maws the grave
“Of Things with self-same right to live;—­
   what Fiend the filthy license gave?”

What to the Moslem cries the Frank? 
   “A polygamic Theist thou! 
“From an imposter-Prophet turn;
   Thy stubborn head to Jesus bow.”

Rejoins the Moslem:  “Allah’s one
   tho’ with four Moslemahs I wive,
“One-wife-men ye and (damned race!)
   you split your God to Three and Five.”

The Buddhist to Confucians thus: 
   “Like dogs ye live, like dogs ye die;
“Content ye rest with wretched earth;
   God, Judgment, Hell ye fain defy.”

Retorts the Tartar:  “Shall I lend
   mine only ready-money ‘now,’
“For vain usurious ‘Then’ like thine,
   avaunt, a triple idiot Thou!”

“With this poor life, with this mean world
   I fain complete what in me lies;
“I strive to perfect this my me;
   my sole ambition’s to be wise.”

When doctors differ who decides
   amid the milliard-headed throng? 
Who save the madman dares to cry: 
   “’Tis I am right, you all are wrong?”

“You all are right, you all are wrong,”
   we hear the careless Soofi say,
“For each believes his glimm’ering lamp
   to be the gorgeous light of day.”

(The above verses are, like IV.3-6 earlier, an elaboration of the “great Argument” of FitzGerald’s verse 27 and the “jarring Sects” of his verse 43. Franguestan is a region of the northern Caucasus; Mlenchhas is an Indian term for “Moslems or Foreigners”; “Split your God to Three and Five” refers to the Holy Trinity (3) and to the Holy Trinity plus the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph (5).)


Despite the Writ that stores the skull;
   despite the Table and the Pen;
Maugre the Fate that plays us down,
   her board the world, her pieces men?

How when the light and glow of life
   wax dim in thickly gath’ering gloom,
Shall mortal scoff at sting of Death,
   shall scorn the victory of the Tomb?

(The Table and the Pen are Emblems of Kismet, or Destiny. The board and pieces analogy is to be found in FitzGerald’s verse 49. Maugre is an old-fashioned word meaning “in spite of.”)


Finds mirth and joy in Jamshid-bowl;
   toys with the Daughter of the vine;
And bids the beauteous cup-boy say,
   “Master I bring thee ruby wine!"

(For the Jamshid-bowl, or "Jamshyd's Sev'n-ring'd Cup", see the notes on FitzGerald’s verse 5 ; the Daughter of the Vine features in FitzGerald’s verse 40, of course.)


Abjure the Why and seek the How: 
   the God and gods enthroned on high,
Are silent all, are silent still;
   nor hear thy voice, nor deign reply.

The Now, that indivis’ible point
   which studs the length of inf’inite line
Whose ends are nowhere, is thine all,
   the puny all thou callest thine.

Perchance the law some Giver hath: 
   Let be! let be! what canst thou know? 
A myriad races came and went;
   this Sphinx hath seen them come and go.

(The first verse here is reminiscent of FitzGerald’s verse 52; the second, perhaps, of the geometry in FitzGerald’s verse 41. “That indivisible point” is presumably the present moment, placed on the “infinite line” joining Past and Future. In the third verse, “a myriad races came and went” recalls the transience of human life to be found repeatedly in Omar Khayyam, though the expression here is Burton’s own.)


But!—faded flow’er and fallen leaf
   no more shall deck the parent tree;
And man once dropt by Tree of Life
   what hope of other life has he?

The shatter’d bowl shall know repair;
   the riven lute shall sound once more;
But who shall mend the clay of man,
   the stolen breath to man restore?

The shiver’d clock again shall strike;
   the broken reed shall pipe again: 
But we, we die, and Death is one,
   the doom of brutes, the doom of men.

(Death spares none, men no more than animals; the “faded flower” recalls “the flower that once has blown forever dies” in FitzGerald’s verse 26.)

A Note on another Richard Burton & The Rubaiyat.

In 1899 there appeared a little book of some 72 pages entitled One Hundred Quatrains from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – a Rendering in English Verse, by Elizabeth Alden Curtis. It was published in a limited edition of 600 copies by “Gouverneur New-York / Brothers of the Book”, and carried an Introduction by Richard Burton. Though he is occasionally identified with Sir Richard Burton of Kasidah fame, this cannot be so, for Sir Richard Burton died in 1890 and the Introduction to Miss Curtis’ book is dated October 23rd 1899! Looked at in another way, Miss Curtis was only 11 years old when Sir Richard Burton died. Quite who her Richard Burton was remains unclear, but whoever he was, he thought FitzGerald’s translation was “matchless” (p.12), and he expressed a liking for the version of Richard le Gallienne (mentioned in note 13.) As for the efforts of Miss Curtis, he thought her version “most sympathetic, firmly yet delicately touched, at times lovely in the extreme” (p.13.) Personally I find her work a pale imitation of FitzGerald’s, and in places almost a rewording of it, but even so, it is not without some interest. Here are her verses 68-70, for example:

We are but shadow-figures, rudely thrown
Upon the lanthorn-cloth, and dimly shown
In vacillation on the Master’s arm
To whirl anon into the black Unknown.

Aye, we are pawns in that portentous game
Of chess, – or life, why cavil at the name?
Soon will he sweep the pieces from the board,
And then; – the rose will blossom all the same.

A shuttle-cock is man, who lightly goes
Or stays, at Destiny’s capricious blows;
But He who tossed thee on Fate’s battledore,
He made thee – and He knows, He knows, HE KNOWS !

She was born Elizabeth Alden Curtis in Connecticut in 1879, but sometime around 1900 she married a Reverend Cranston Brenton of New York (whom she later divorced, being awarded damages against him and a physician, for her wrongful imprisonment in an asylum, in a celebrated court case of 1914!) In 1902, under the name of Elizabeth Curtis Brenton, she collaborated with Edward Heron-Allen on The Lament of Baba Tahir, Heron-Allen doing the translation into prose, and Mrs Brenton (as she now was) turning the prose into verse. The book was published by Bernard Quaritch, whose name needs no introduction in the field of Rubaiyat studies. Here is its opening verse, and, by way of explanation, Baba Tahir was “a crazy saint” of 11th century Persia:

I am a Nomad, a Fanatic Tramp,
Life has no ties for such an idle scamp;
Aimless by day I wander, and at night
A Stone’s my pillow, and the Moon my lamp.

Heron-Allen seems to have thought Mrs Brenton had versified his translations “with conspicuous success” (p.xx), adding that her “paraphrase of the accepted renderings of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” had “attracted so much attention when issued.” Today, though, it is little known except to Rubaiyat collectors.


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