Louis C. Alexander & The Testament of Omar Khayyam

The above title summarises the main subject of this article, the story behind which turns out to be a very strange one. But before we can get to grips with the main subject, we need to look at quite a bit of background. First, then, who was Louis C. Alexander ?

Biographical & Chronological Sketch

Louis Charles Alexander was born in Scotland on 5 January 1839, and died in London on 23 February 1913. In Glasgow in May 1862 he married Sarah Roots.

In February 1863 their son Charles Roots Alexander was born. In September 1865 their daughter Rose Louisa Alexander was born. Both children were born in Glasgow.

We know that in 1865 Alexander was an accountant by profession, for on 4 May that year, the Glasgow newspaper The Morning Journal reported on the case of John Hamilton, who was charged with forging a promissory note for £20 which “he delivered as genuine to Louis Charles Alexander, accountant, Bath Street.” (p.2, col.7) Hamilton was found guilty and imprisoned for nine months.

By 1868 Alexander was in London, for in November of that year he was involved in the setting up of the Royal Historical Society, of which more presently.

By the time of the 1871 Census, he and his family were in London, at 1 Pentlow Street, Putney. Louis C. Alexander listed his profession as “Secretary of an Insurance Company”. They now had another daughter, Gertrude Adeline (age 1) who, sadly, was to die in 1872.

On 2 May 1872, The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent (p.4, col.4) reported that “Dr. Louis Charles Alexander, of Walton Villa, Lower Common, Putney, and secretary of the Norwich Provident Insurance Society” appeared in court as a witness against Robert M. Whibley, the Sheffield agent of the Society, who was accused of embezzling funds there. The most interesting part of this case is not the crime, however, but the questioning of Alexander by the Stipendiary as to where he got his title of Doctor of Laws. “Columbia”, came the reply. “Did you go there for it ?” he was asked. “No – it was conferred on me on application,” he replied. Then came the question, “Did you pay for it ?”, to which Alexander replied, “A few pounds for stamps, I believe.” “I thought so,” responded the Stipendiary before moving on.

On 3 November 1877, The Croydon Advertiser and East Surrey Reporter (p.7, col.4) reported on a case connected with the bankruptcy of a Mr. Macdonald of Penge, with whom Mr. Louis Charles Alexander (no Dr. here!) had formerly been a joint member of the London Investment Association. The case centred on Macdonald owing Alexander £250 – a huge amount back then. The case was referred to a superior court.

On 25 January 1879, The Kentish Mercury (p.6, col.2) reported on the appearance in court of Mr. B. Dunkels Bühler and Mr. Carl Steitz at the summons of Mr (!) Louis Charles Alexander, who was at that time acting as Secretary to the Anglo–Belgian Bank of Lombard Street (he was in fact its official liquidator.) They were accused of fraud in obtaining a loan of £27 14s 6d on the surety of a quantity of flour which turned out to be adulterated and unusable.

On 21 August 1880 The Norfolk News (p.4, col.1) reported on the failure of the Norwich Provident Insurance Society, Louis Charles Alexander acting as the Liquidator of the said company.

By the time of the 1881 Census, Alexander and his family were already living at Holly Lodge, Upper Parkfields, Putney (the address Alexander gives in his books, and where he was to live until his death.) (1) He was now 42, his wife was 40, their son Charles R was 18 and their daughter Rose L was 15. Louis C. Alexander now listed his profession as “Public Accountant”; his son was now a Solicitor’s Articled Clerk.

Towards the end of 1882, Alexander was in court again, but this time as the accused. On 9 November 1882, under the heading, “A Charge of Conspiracy”, The Leeds Mercury (p.8, col.1) reported that Louis Charles Alexander, “described as a company promoter of Pall Mall”, and Lieutenant–Colonel Petrie, of Notting Hill, “the chairman of the Anglo–Virginian Freehold Land Company”, were charged with “having conspired to obtain £11,500 by fraudulent means from a Mr. Bosch, a gentleman resident in Paris.” Mr. Bosch, however, was not at the hearing, as “he had been arrested in Paris on a purely fictitious charge.” This curious case did come to trial, however, and it was reported in The Standard on 1 February 1883. Alexander and Petrie, “persons occupying most respectable positions”, were rapidly found not guilty on the grounds that the £11,500 worth of bonds they were accused of obtaining by fraud were now in Paris, as indeed was Mr. Bosch.

In 1884, Alexander’s first literary work, The Other Half, was published.

In the 1891 Census, Alexander (age 52) and his wife (age 50) were still at Holly Lodge. Rose L was no longer there, but Charles R (age 27, now a Solicitor), his wife Agnes Louise (age 21) and their son, Louis Charles Stirling Alexander (age 5 months), were now in residence. Alexander now listed his profession as “Author and Journalist.”

On 9 December 1892, The North–Western Press (p.7, cols.5–6) reported that at Bow Street, one Captain P.J. d’Ardier Lindoe appeared at the summons of Dr (!) Louis Charles Alexander, charged with committing wilful and corrupt perjury in connection with bankruptcy proceedings related to the sale of a Cigar Club which the two of them had set up in 1881. Alexander lost the case, and was fined £100.

In the 1901 Census, the Holly Lodge household was still as it was in 1891, but with everyone 10 years older. Alexander now listed his profession as “Living on own means.” Quite where the “own means” came from, whether from a successful career in the City or from an inheritance, is not clear, but he could clearly now afford to give himself more time for writing. In the next decade he produced five books:

– in 1902, his first novel The Book of Ballynoggin

– in 1903, his second novel The Wife Sealers

– in 1907, The Testament of Omar Khayyam (The Wasiyyat), this being the main subject of this essay.

– in 1910, Echoes of Whistler, and

– in 1911, The Autobiography of Shakespeare.

In the 1911 Census, Alexander (age 72) and his wife Sarah (age 70) were still at Holly Lodge, his profession now being listed as “Private means.” Their daughter, Rose Louise, was now back with them, a widow aged 45. Their grandson was still with them, now aged 20, but his parents were not there. Since this census tells us that that Alexander and his wife had 4 children, only 1 of whom was still living – their widowed daughter Rose L – we can conclude that Charles R, like Gertrude A and another child who has not shown up in the records, were now dead. In fact, Charles R died on Christmas Day, 1905, and was survived by his wife, Agnes Louise Alexander. It is not clear where she was at the time of the 1911 Census.

L.C. Alexander is buried in Putney Common Lower Cemetery. His family grave is shown in Figs.1a, 1b & 1c. [Browse.] (For anyone seeking to find it, Fig.1a gives a good guide to its location in relation to the cemetery chapel. It is located very close to the more easterly of the two entrances to the cemetery on Mill Hill Road.)

Alexander’s obituary appeared in The Times on 27 February 1913, and it is perhaps worth quoting in full here, as it contains various details not covered in the foregoing:

The funeral will take place to–day, at Barnes Cemetery, of Mr. Louis Charles Alexander, LL.D., of Holly Lodge, Putney, who died on Sunday at the age of 73.

Mr. Alexander was known as a writer and as the founder of the Royal Historical Society. His best–known book was “The Wasiyyat: The Testament of Omar Khayyam,” which was translated by him and published for the first time in England. He also wrote “The Wife Sealers”, “The Book of Ballynoggin” and “The Other Half”. He was a great traveller and was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. As Chairman in 1867 of the Glasgow Athenaeum he received Lord Kelvin, then Professor William Thomson, on his return from the laying of the second Atlantic cable. He arranged, with Mr. Gladstone’s permission, for the translation into Russian of that statesman’s famous pamphlet on the Bulgarian atrocities. Among his philanthropic labours was the raising of a fund for the benefit of the poet Charles Mackay, and more recently he collected a substantial sum for the daughter of Bret Harte, who was at one time United States Consul in Glasgow. Mr. Alexander was a Scotsman and in the early ‘70’s formed a committee for collecting the funds for the completion of the Wallace Monument. He was one of the oldest life members of the Thames Rowing Club. (p.9, col.2)

It is not quite true that he was “the founder of the Royal Historical Society,” though he was certainly one of them. According to RHS records, the founding took place “at a meeting at Somerset Chambers, the Strand, at [the] office of Louis Charles Alexander, accountant and banker.” William Thompson, the Archbishop of York, was appointed as President, Rev. Dr. Charles Rogers as Historiographer, and Louis Charles Alexander as Secretary.

Let us now turn to Alexander’s published books.


In 1884, Elliot Stock of London published Alexander’s first literary work, a collection of eight short stories with the umbrella title, The Other Half, this coming from that well–known dictum (reproduced on the title–page), “Half the world does not know how the other half lives.” Alexander adds a curious twist to this dictum, however, for in his Preface he says that “‘the other half’ comprises the entire human family – less one’s own self, only.” He adds:

The wisest of men certainly so understood it; and a later sage said, ‘Singly man is born, singly he dies:’ and all that his fellow learns about him is, after all, but an accidental glimpse; often, a man sees no more than that of himself, unless circumstances occur to flutter open a few leaves of that closed book – his own real nature.

A reviewer in The Western Morning News of 13 November 1884, said that, “A reader who takes up the book will soon acknowledge to himself or herself that the author knows how to write fiction.” (p.7, col.3) A rather less enthusiastic reviewer in The Guardian of 12 November 1884 noted merely that, “It has the admirable merit of being in such handy portions that it can be read in a leisure hour.” (p.8, col.2)

In 1902, Grant Richards of London published Alexander’s first novel, The Book of Ballynoggin, actually a collection of interlinked short stories centring on the inhabitants of an Irish town called Ballynoggin. A reviewer in The Daily News of 14 November 1902 said of it:

The stories are rather tedious, the humour a trifle forced, and a notable feature about the characters is that while they sometimes speak perfectly correct English, they are also given to speaking in a broad Irish dialect. (p.10, col.3)

In 1903 Grant Richards also published Alexander’s second novel The Wife Sealers, a bizarre book with a Mormon–related money–making plot, the sealing of wives being, on payment of a fee, “the solemn dedication of women – celibate or otherwise, the lone, the loveless, the unmated, or mismated – as astral wives, wives in the next or spiritual world only.” (p.55)

It is perhaps worth devoting a little space here to the plot of this peculiar novel, more for the glimpse it gives us into Alexander’s imagination than for its literary worth. In the story, numerous, usually wealthy, women eagerly pay to be sealed to one man, the ultra–handsome and charismatic John Emanuel Morghan, a.k.a. The Doctor, a.k.a. The Master. Though never a Mormon himself, he had lived among them in Salt Lake City, where Mormon women became literally infatuated with him en masse. Fearing some form of rival cult forming around him, the Mormons sought to force him to join them, at which point he fled – with a $50,000 dead–or–alive tag on his head! With a couple of confederates he had met on his arrival in England, he eventually set up a lucrative wife–sealing business at Astral Hall, the manorial home of two elderly spinsters who were, of course, more than a little flattered to be sealed to him. The wife–sealing business is eventually wound–up after The Master marries one Effie Harkyn in the traditional earth–bound manner, and, by way of consolation, tells his sealed wives that they will still resume their sacred union with him in the next life. Alexander gives us no clue as to the sealed wives’ responses to this, unfortunately, merely saying, “Who can tell with what burning faces and tearful eyes this message was read by those who received it!” (p.270)

A reviewer in The Sketch of 4 February 1903 said that though Alexander “is trying most desperately hard to be humorous, the fact remains that he lamentably fails.” Adding:

Nine–tenths of the book is composed of outlandish oaths and extraordinary American slang, and that portion which is intelligible to the ordinary English reader, namely, the tedious accounts of the wife–sealing ceremonial and various meetings, creates a weariness of spirit beyond description. (p.107, col.2)

Though The Wife Sealers is heavy going (and I am still not clear whether it is intended to be humorous or is just a melodrama which is unintentionally funny in places), it would nevertheless be interesting to know how Alexander came to pick this Mormon setting for his novel. Certainly he gives the following Prefatory Note: “The author of ‘The Wife Sealers’ thinks it right to explain that he is not, himself, a Mormon, and that this story is in no way founded upon fact.” (2)

None of Alexander’s works of fiction has survived the test of time, and today they are long forgotten.

Let us turn to Alexander’s other published works now. I nearly used the phrase “works of non–fiction”, but as we shall see, many would argue they are works of fiction one and all.

The Testament of Omar Khayyam (The Wasiyyat)

By way of clarification, Wasiyyat in Persian means Testament, in the sense of “last will and testament”, and the Persian inscription on the cover of the book (Fig.2a) does translate as “The Testament of Omar Khayyam.” The title–page is shown in Fig.2b. [Browse.] This little book, published by John Long in London in 1907, is one of the most peculiar books in the Omarian canon: It is one of numerous attempts to rescue Omar from accusations of wine–bibbing and disrespect for the Almighty, and to paint him in a more respectable light. The most extreme forms of this tendency see Omar as a closet Sufi, a notion which FitzGerald himself rejected (and rightly so, in my opinion.) (3)

In effect, Alexander claimed to have brought before the world the (Last) Testament of Omar Khayyam, 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”, on which see 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”, as the saying goes, and through The Wasiyyat of Omar Khayyam, “the majestic figure of the real Omar Khayyam – the Astronomer, Poet, Philosopher and Saint – stands revealed.”

Perhaps I should add at this point that Alexander’s little book contains not just “The Testament (or Last Words)” of Omar Khayyam, but also other poems: “A Song”, “Hymn of Prayer”, “The Word in the Desert”, “Hymn of Praise” and finally “The Marathi, or Odes of the Disciples” (purportedly verses written in tribute to Omar by four of his disciples, one of whom – Disciple #2 – speaks of a time “when lands thou never knewest will proclaim thy fame” (p.57, verse ix)!) Here, for example, is verse vi of the “Hymn of Prayer” (p.39) by the post–confession Omar:

For I need Thee, oh, Lord! I need Thy hand
To hold me up, lest I fall as I stand;
To cleanse me, to lighten, to teach and raise
This cold, dark soul to Thy prayer and praise.

Again, then, we have a devout Omar totally at odds with FitzGerald’s picture of him.

Publisher John Long, not surprisingly, collected together a number of favourable reviews of Alexander’s book and used them for advertising purposes (Fig.3). But other reviewers were not so enthusiastic about it. As The Sheffield Daily Telegraph for 7 February 1907 put it, “Unfortunately the memory of FitzGerald’s quatrains haunts the reader and makes Mr. Alexander’s rendering of the ‘Testament’ seem a desecration.” (p.5, col.3) Other reviewers agreed, and The Queen for 9 March 1907 indicated that Alexander might have done better if he had had the help of Richard Le Gallienne (p.150, col.3). No reviewer (at least that I have seen) sought to question the origins of The Testament: did Alexander just make it all up or was it a translation of a manuscript? As we saw earlier, Alexander’s obituary in The Times said that it was “translated by him and published for the first time in England.”

One thing Alexander did say was 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.) Exactly what form that assistance took is not clear – it might, for example, have simply been assistance with the inscription on the front cover of the book and the meanings of various Persian words like Wasiyyat or Marathi, but it could also be taken to imply that the Professor helped him to translate a manuscript. Unfortunately, the Professor himself left no account of the proceedings, so if Alexander did get all this from some manuscript, a) he never said so, and b) so far as I know, the whereabouts of any such manuscript remains unknown.

What other information do we have ?

A long letter from Alexander to Rubaiyat collector and bibliographer H.M. Schroeter, dated 16 December 1908, has survived in the A.G. Potter archive at UCLA (Collection #378, Box 3, Folder 9.) This unique document is shown here as Figs.4a, 4b & 4c, with transcripts of key parts being given in what follows. [Browse.] Schroeter had clearly asked Alexander for a signed copy of his Wasiyyat, and Alexander was enclosing one with this letter. But, infuriatingly, Alexander gives no specific statement in his letter about the origins of his text. After some general comments about Omar and his genius, he writes:

He has been described as an Athiest! (sic)

Read Whinfield’s Omar Khayyam – over 200 quatrains – and you will find many noble passages to negative that coarse and unjust attribution.

His own recorded last prayer absolutely dispels it.

Oh, that I had been able to give to the Testament of Omar Khayyam, and to his Hymns of Prayer and of Praise a hundredth part of the gloss and glitter, the wing and the ring and the song that FitzGerald so lavishly imparted to his selection!

I have never ever dreamed of attempting to emulate the daring music of FitzGerald [with “who could ?” crossed out.]

That the “recorded last prayer” of Omar “absolutely dispels” the notion he was an atheist certainly seems to imply that Alexander, like FitzGerald, was working from some form of manuscript, but unfortunately, he does not elaborate on its nature. He goes on, somewhat cryptically:

But there are other times than those in the torrent: there are still depths in the wells – and mysterious echoes.

And if in the Wasiyyat, and in the Hymns, there be no clear answer to “the Riddle of the Universe”, there are there, at least, glimpses of a glimpse of Divinity less undisclosed, and of the higher Humanity slightly more revealed, of Truth eternal, of “the far–off Event” and Man’s place therein.

This reveals nothing specific, though the way he talks about the Wasiyyat and the Hymns again suggests that he is dealing with a product of Omar’s brain and not his own.

He next apologises for writing at such length, and expresses the wish that his book will be “widely read, by young and old: and this I say apart not only from mere questions of interest, but also from those of personal gratification.” He closes by saying:

Byron said: “Thou shalt not commit adultery with the muse of Moore.”

I would say: “Thou shalt not carouse with the muse of FitzGerald.”

Only one subsequent letter from Alexander to Schroeter survives in the Potter Collection, and it is dated 5 May 1910. It refers back to “the correspondence I had with you in Dec 1908, and your last of 27 Jany 1909.” It merely asks if Schroeter has carried out his “scheme of publication” (presumably of his proposed bibliography), and basically asks to be sent a copy, if he hasn’t already sent one. Nothing further is said about his Wasiyyat.

So where did The Testament of Omar Khayyam come from ? It is convenient to go out of chronological sequence and to deal with the last of Alexander’s books at this point.

The Autobiography of Shakespeare

Alexander went on to publish, in London, in 1911, The Autobiography of Shakespeare – a Fragment. It was published in a limited edition of 1000 numbered copies (though neither of my two copies is numbered) under the imprint of Headley Brothers, Bishopsgate, and Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co. Ltd. Though published in 1911, Alexander indicates at the beginning of his Introduction (dated 12 December 1910) that five years before this he had “laid these following papers aside” on account of ill health, adding that nothing had been “added to my texts of 1905.” The published book therefore dates from 1905, and would therefore have been roughly contemporaneous with or probably slightly earlier than The Testament of Omar Khayyam (whose introductory Note is dated January 1907.)

The Autobiography of Shakespeare 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. (On p.18 of his Introduction he hopes eventually to reproduce it in facsimile.) 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, for the problems with it were legion.

For example, the conventional view is that Shakespeare was born in Stratford–on–Avon and his father was called John. According to the opening sentence of Alexander’s autobiographical fragment, however, he was born in Warwick and his father’s name was Richard! The explanation for the ‘mistakes’ of conventional historians is, according to Alexander and the Autobiography, that there were actually two William Shakespeares who were cousins: one the playwright, the son of Richard; the other, the son of Richard’s brother John. This second William Shakespeare was, according to his cousin, the first William Shakespeare, “a wastrel and a vagabond” and according to his own father, John, a “drunken, whoring, roystering knave” who was a “worthless son.” (p.55) To add to the confusion, the second William Shakespeare was betrothed to Anne Hathaway, but never married her, though he apparently left her pregnant (p.12–13), and it was the first William Shakespeare who actually did marry her, taking on her illegitimate child in the process, which is possibly why he famously left her his second best bed in his will! (p.14–5; p.59)

Reviewers were not very kind to Alexander’s book. The Saturday Review for 12 August 1911, wondering how to classify it, said that they had rejected “an irreverent suggestion that we should put our copy among our fiction and humorous works”, adding that “we know a place truly worthy of it – for obvious reasons we do not name it more precisely – and thither it shall go without delay.” Again, The New York Times for 23 April 1911 described the book as “a piece of pure phantasm” and “one of the weirdest books ever written, even about Shakespeare.” (4)

But a major problem was that, as with the Testament of Omar Khayyam, Alexander never produced the actual manuscript, nor said where he had got it from. Both the reviews just cited did pick up on this, as did others. Thus The Yorkshire Post for 3 May 1911 complained that Alexander “disdains to inform us in any way as to how or when so transcendentally prized a treasure as an ‘autobiography’ of Shakespeare would be, came into his possession.” (p.4, col.5) Likewise the Belfast News Letter for 20 April 1911 complained that Alexander “now gives the work to the world integrally, without a word of his own, but he does not tell the world where he got it.” (p.4, col.4) The Daily News (London) for 10 May 1911 surmised that, “To Mr. Alexander, we gather, this authentic Shakespeare has vouchsafed his biography, presumably by means of spirit or automatic writing.” (p.4, col.5) As we shall see, the reviewer certainly surmised correctly, even though he might have had his tongue in his cheek when he did so.

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 strong clue in the fact that in 1910, Alexander had produced that other strange book, mentioned above, Echoes of Whistler, to which we now turn.

Echoes of Whistler

Published, like The Testament of Omar Khayyam, by John Long of London (the advert in Fig.3 faces its title page), the book opens with a dedication “To Whistler”, which I here quote in full as the book is so problematical. Bear in mind that Whistler had been dead for seven years by the time Alexander wrote this dedication, which is dated August 1910:

You have, of late, been so much with me in spirit that, a little to my own wonderment, I sometimes wish that we had met in the flesh; or that I possessed, or even had ever seen, some fragment of your material hand–writing.

The intelligent Reader will know at what stand–point he is expected to place himself so as to understand rightly, and to discriminate justly.

The more especially, as I have only just written two of the essays – the other matter having been composed between four and five years ago.

Let the ‘higher criticism’, as it is ridiculously called, discover which most, or least, reflect – or surpass – your inspiration, or influence.

To say more than this were silly vanity – or sillier humility.

In order that the thought and feeling of two men be attuned to a perfect unison, is bodily communion a necessity – or a limitation; a facility – or an impediment ?

You can supply the answer.

Perhaps I can do so – even better.

You know why.

À bientôt!

L. C. Alexander.

This makes it clear enough that the book is, at least partially, supposed to have been written under the influence of the deceased Whistler, whom Alexander had never actually met whilst he was alive. The reference to a fragment of Whistler’s handwriting is what supports the idea that Alexander received these alleged communications via automatic writing, rather than via a ouija board (5), and that he wanted to compare his handwriting, under ‘spirit influence’, with that of Whistler. As we shall see, this does turn out to be the case.

Echoes of Whistler consists of thirty three quirky essays on everything from Vanity, Proverbs, Birdsong and Hobbies to critiques of Ruskin, Carlyle and Browning, plus three equally quirky poems – the first verse of one, “On the Acceptance of my Picture by the National Gallery” (p.241–244), reading thus:

I hear that the Gallery has got
A picture done by me,
And that they have hung it high and clear
For all to come and see.

Which picture this was, exactly, we are not told, but clearly Whistler (if that is indeed who composed the poem!) was a much better painter than he was a poet!

Of the essays, most could have been written by anyone living, let alone dead, and even the one “On Myself” (p.253–258), which makes it quite clear that its author is deceased (“I am a Spirit now...I am what men call DEAD”) says nothing that really connects it with Whistler. Indeed, one wonders if Whistler himself would have ‘written’ an essay entitled “On Whistler” (p.205–211) with references to himself in the third person, let alone references saying uncomplimentary things about himself like “Whistler was a good deal of a humbug” (p.205) and “Whistler was, in his time, much of a nuisance” (p.206)! But then, in fairness to Alexander (being a total sceptic myself), Whistler in life was extremely vain and did sometimes pompously refer to himself in the third person, as, for example, when having spoilt the plate for one of his etchings, he said, “Whistler has decided to do (it) all over again” (for this and other examples see Hesketh Pearson, The Man Whistler (1978), p.95–6.) And perhaps when one crosses the Great Divide one’s modesty rating takes a turn for the better? This is not just a flippant comment of mine, either, for in the essay “On Myself” Whistler (or whoever the allegedly deceased author was) says:

I – the I of this moment – am to the I of my pre–death time as is the full grown plant to the crude and potential seed...Not that I am in anything but a preliminary or preparatory condition, with a gradually–broadening view of myself as I was, as I am, and as the Lord of all would have me to be – if I can only be rid of this proud, impatient, intolerant, arrogant, and ultra–vain mind and temper of mine. (p.254–5)

At any rate, the author of “On Whistler” says of himself:

I consider that I am in a particularly–favoured position to understand my subject, inasmuch as I have been in close personal relation with him all my life – and his; and I venture to say that he had not many thoughts or feelings which I did not share. (p.205)

But whether or not this is an unnecessarily roundabout way of ‘Whistler’ saying that it really was him that got in touch with Alexander from beyond the grave is nowhere made totally explicit.

It might be worth pausing at this point to see what the critics made of Echoes of Whistler. In The Bystander for 1 February 1911 there appeared a review by Robert Ross in which he dubbed Alexander “a gay deceiver with his charming volume of essays” adding, “but the author must not mind if I say frankly that he has nothing in common with the object of his admiration.” (p.247, col.2) Again, in The Graphic for 28 January 1911 (p.142) there appeared a half–page review of the book under the title “A Long Way after Whistler”. Written by a reviewer identified by the initials L.S.R., and who was clearly a great admirer of Whistler, it said “in these essays...I can find no echo – however feeble, far–off and unimportant – of the master.” In other words, if this was Whistler from beyond the grave – and curiously, neither of these reviews picks up on the albeit non–blatant spiritualist aspect of the book – his talents had taken a nose–dive in crossing the Great Divide.

But if its spiritualist origins are not made explicit in the book, conclusive evidence for it comes from another source, Elizabeth Robins Pennell & Joseph Pennell’s book The Whistler Journal (J.B. Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1921). By way of explanation, the book consists of quotes from the Pennells’ Diaries (Whistler had lived with them for three years), interspersed with their sometimes lengthy Notes on them.

It is a fact that towards the end of his life, Whistler did have an interest in Spiritualism. The Pennells, in a Diary entry for 29 July 1900, record him coming to dinner, on which occasion the chief talk was of spirits, Whistler harking back to séances held “in the old days” at Rossetti’s (ie the 1860s.) Whistler was sure of the existence of spirits: “For myself, I have no doubt – the very fact that man, beginning with savage, has always believed in them is proof enough.” (p.156–7) In a Note on the above Diary entry the Pennells go on to give much useful information in an account which deserves to be quoted at length:

More than this once Whistler spoke to us of spirits and his experiments with them. Probably nobody would have been more interested than he, could he have foreseen that his own spirit was to communicate with the most unlikely mediums, was even to dictate a book, Echoes of Whistler. To Dr. L.C. Alexander, whom Shakespeare had already honoured as the medium to take down his biography by dictation, revealing among other facts that his grandfather was a Jew. Whistler’s communications were presented in such un–Whistler–like fashion that critics and public failed to see in Dr. Alexander simply the medium through whom Whistler was speaking. The critics cannot be blamed. We would never have imagined the book had not been written by Dr. Alexander had not he told us so himself. We first heard of him from Clarence B. McIlvaine, then London representative of Harpers. He was lunching with us to talk over our Life of Whistler which Harpers wanted to publish in America. (p.157–8) (6)

Note that this account confirms what Alexander said in his Introduction to The Autobiography of Shakespeare, as indicated above, that though published in 1911, the text was complete by 1905, and thus pre–dated Echoes of Whistler. But to continue: next comes the Diary entry for 10 September 1906. “J” = Joseph Pennell; “He” = Clarence B. McIlvaine:

He told us of a Dr. L.C. Alexander – of whom he seemed to know nothing except that he lived at Putney – who had asked them to publish a volume of essays by Whistler which Alexander had prepared for publication. Naturally, this brought up the question of copyright, and it came out that he was a spiritualist and that the essays were communications received from Whistler after his death. It was arranged that Dr. Alexander should see Miss Philip at the Harpers’ office, and after some correspondence, the meeting came off, but McIlvaine kept well out of the way. The upshot of it was that Miss Philip objected to the publication and McIlvaine had not heard from Dr. Alexander since. (p.158)

Alexander, then, was clearly using the ‘Doctorate’ which, as we saw earlier, he had bought from Columbia for a few pounds. More than that, we learn that though published in 1910, Echoes of Whistler was largely ready for publication in 1906. (I say “largely”, because in his dedication “To Whistler”, quoted above, Alexander indicates that two of the essays were written in 1910. As we shall see shortly, the 1906 version contained thirty of the thirty three essays in the final published version of 1910.)

But to get back to The Whistler Journal, next comes a short Note:

We were therefore prepared when two or three weeks later Dr. Alexander wrote to J. An appointment was made. (p.158)

On now to the Diary entry for 28 September 1906:

J. to the National Liberal Club to meet Dr. L.C. Alexander...He neither knew nor saw Whistler during his lifetime, but since his death Whistler had communicated to him thirty essays, notes and drawings. Dr. Alexander sits down, a pen in his hand, and his hand writes of itself, at times draws, the drawings always portraits, caricatures of Whistler. He promises us to let us see essays and drawings. He declares himself no crank. He founded the Royal Historical Society and the Alexander Medal, he is a friend of Dr. Ginsberg and many men of repute. But here is a fact which he does not pretend to explain. If another man were to come and tell him the same story he would say that man was mad. But there it is, and he is the first to admit it extraordinary. His impressions from these communications is that Whistler laughed because, if he hadn’t, he must have cried. (p.158–9)

The Pennells add a Note on this:

He sent us a copy of his book when it was published. It fell flat, and we were not surprised. It is dull, the one thing Whistler never was, and we have not to this day been able to read it through. The drawings, which J. saw and which were not published, were characterless and beneath contempt, the whole thing a pathetic if unconscious fake. There is not the slightest hint of Whistler’s character in the book or the drawings. (p,159)

It is a pity that the drawings were not published, as it would be interesting to see their ‘evidential value’, but there it is. The Pennells go on to say that Alexander was not the only spiritualist to have alleged contact with Whistler – another was one D.S. MacLaughlan – but that is another story we need not go into here.

Of course, the Pennells do not indicate that The Testament of Omar Khayyam (The Wasiyyat) was also written under ‘spirit guidance’, though the foregoing certainly increases the possibility that it was, and via automatic writing. If so, it can hardly be the case that it was delivered in Persian and the whole obligingly translated by Professor Browne. It would seem much more likely that ‘the spirit of Omar’ communicated in English (spirits seem to have greater linguistic flexibility than the living), possibly in prose, which Alexander subsequently put into a verse format – hence his comment in the letter to H.M. Schroeter, quoted above, “Oh, that I had been able to give to the Testament...a hundredth part of the gloss and glitter...that FitzGerald so lavishly imparted to his selection!” That Alexander felt it best not to mention its spiritualist origins lest his readers dismiss the results out of hand, through sheer prejudice, and without giving them a fair hearing, is not surprising: he gave no such indication in The Autobiography of Shakespeare either. (As indicated above, he only revealed the spiritualist origins of Echoes of Whistler when faced with the question of copyright of the essays in it.)

Though many spiritualists openly advertise the origins of their works (in some cases to promote sales) others do conceal their spiritualist origins for fear of prejudicial dismissal and / or ridicule.

One example of the first category is Lizzie Doten’s Poems from the Inner Life, first published in Boston in 1863, in which she included poems ‘received’ from the spirits of Shakespeare (7), Robert Burns and Edgar Allen Poe. A second, more famous example, is Part the Second of the Mystery of Edwin Drood: by the Spirit–Pen of Charles Dickens through a Medium, published at Battleboro, Vermont, in 1873. The medium (and publisher) was Thomas P. James, who was allegedly contacted by the spirit of Charles Dickens to complete his unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. James’ book even had one Preface by the medium and another allegedly by the spirit of Dickens himself! (8)

An example of second category is provided by a concert given on 30 April 1895 at St. James’s Hall, London, in which Miss H.E. Green premiered a Sonata for Piano & Violin, and a Symphony, which she claimed to have been transmitted to her by the deceased Beethoven. (He had also transmitted a Mass, it transpires, but had not had time to complete the orchestration before the concert.) The concert programme, however, did not disclose their ‘spirit’ origins. As one reviewer put it, “It is only fair to state that this information was not given in the programmes distributed last night in the hall, so that possibly the composer wished the Sonata and the Symphony, for the Mass was not given, to be judged merely on their own merits.” (The Globe, 1 May 1895, p.3 col.5) Miss Green being little known today, I give this and an earlier clip from the same newspaper in Fig.5a, together with two advertisements for the concert, one from The Times and the other from The Standard (London), in Fig.5b. [Browse.] Note that in the latter the Sonata and Symphony are attributed to H.E. Green, not Beethoven. (9)

It is interesting that all of the foregoing – like Alexander’s Echoes of Whistler – have been dismissed by sceptics as poor imitations of the work done by their respective authors in life. The spiritualists, though, have an answer to this: when a talented author communicates with the world through the agency of a less talented medium, the end product is bound to suffer. By analogy, the recorded voice on a phonograph is better than nothing, but it never captures the real voice of the person recorded. (That is, of course, an analogy from the heyday of spiritualism!)

But to return to The Testament of Omar Khayyam, it is possible that it and the other poems in the book were Alexander’s own compositions, done totally without help from ‘Beyond’; that they are on a par with many other imitations and parodies of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, of the rebutting / reforming Omar type (as, for example, N.B. Ripley’s Omar or Christ ? (1914), Shane Leslie’s The Rubaiyat of the Mystics (1950) or, notably, H. Justus Williams’ The Last Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam published in 1908, almost certainly as a response to Alexander’s book of the previous year.) (10) That Alexander’s verses do not have “a hundredth part of the gloss and glitter” of FitzGerald’s then comes down to the simple fact that Alexander was no great shakes as a poet. But then why involve Prof. Browne, and in what capacity ? (Note the mention of him in Fig.4a.) Plus, his remarks in the letter to Schroeter, quoted above, like his comment in his introductory Note that “the ‘Odes of the Disciples’ are chiefly remarkable for something like inherent proof of the influence of a master–mind upon other, and diverse, ones”, certainly suggest that Alexander believed that this all came from an external source, and was not simply the product of his own imagination.

At the moment, then, we have no direct proof that The Testament of Omar Khayyam was a result of automatic writing. But given that both Echoes of Whistler and The Autobiography of Shakespeare certainly were the results of automatic writing, and that the compositions of The Autobiography, Echoes, and The Testament all date from the period 1905–1906, quite possibly in that order (the reverse of the order of publication!), it is a distinct possibility. Hopefully more information will come to light in the future, but in the meantime, if I had to bet on it, I would opt for the hypothesis that The Testament was the last of Alexander’s ‘spirit communications’. That is, being a sceptic as regards spiritualism myself, I would argue that The Testament, like Echoes and The Autobiography, was the product of Alexander’s own subconscious mind, but which he sincerely believed came from the spirit world. This may seem an odd assertion, but it is important to realise that one of the claims which repeatedly comes from spiritualists who use automatic writing is that they genuinely (consciously) do not know where their scripts come from – they seem, inexplicably, to come from some external source – and it is the ‘mystery’ of this which, more than anything else, has contributed to the belief that they emanate from the spirit world. Paradoxically, automatic writing is both a reality (it does happen, often to the complete surprise of those who find they ‘have the gift’) and, in my opinion, a delusion (when it is interpreted as coming from the spirit world instead of from the subconscious.) (11)

Thus, as I see it, The Autobiography, Echoes, and (probably) The Testament were, in a sense, made up by Alexander, though they were not consciously made up by him – they were not fraudulent productions like those of Chatterton and Ireland mentioned earlier. Each was, as the Pennells rightly said of Echoes, an “unconscious fake.”

One point remains to be addressed. If The Testament was another of Alexander’s ‘spirit communications’, why did he not mention it in his meeting with Clarence B. McIlvaine of Harpers when he mentioned both The Autobiography and Echoes ? The answer may simply be that, if it was the last of the trio of scripts to appear, it wasn’t written at that time, or it was still work in progress. But this is, of course, a guess on my part.

Finally, it is interesting that Alexander is buried beneath the epitaph: “And I heard a voice from Heaven say, Write: Blessed are the Dead that live in the Lord.” (Revelation 14.13) (Fig.1c) This is certainly apt, given his spiritualist inclinations and his practice of automatic writing. Note too the inscription across the top of the tombstone: “The family grave of Louis Charles Alexander L.L.D. F.R.G.S. F.R.Hist:S.” (Fig.1b.) Alexander took his Doctorate with him to the grave. (12)


Note 1: The address of Holly Lodge was originally 24 Upper Parkfields, but was re–numbered as no.52 in the early 1900s. Upper Parkfields was re–named Coalecroft Road in 1935 so what was Holly Lodge is now 52 Coalecroft Road, Putney, London SW15. At the time Alexander lived there Holly Lodge was at the southern end of a single row of houses overlooking green fields, but those days are now long gone, of course.

Note 2: In the nineteenth century the Mormons were a source of religious fascination, mixed with some abhorrence on account of their endorsement of polygamy. In 1860 the Mormons were of sufficient interest for Sir Richard Burton to visit Salt Lake City to make an anthropological study of them, published in his book The City of the Saints and across the Rocky Mountains to California (1861). A few years later Artemus Ward spent some time amongst the Mormons and subsequently, in London, in 1866–7, he daily delivered a highly amusing and popular lecture on his experiences. It was Ward who coined the phrase, “The Mormon’s religion is singular and his wives are plural.” He had met Brigham Young (‘the Prophet’), whom he described as “the most married man I ever saw in my life” and the following paragraph from his lecture is of particular relevance here:

Brigham Young has two hundred wives...That is – he has eighty actual wives, and he is spiritually married to one hundred and twenty more. These spiritual marriages – as the Mormons call them – are contracted with aged widows – who think it a great honour to be sealed – the Mormons call it being sealed – to the Prophet.

The text of Ward’s lecture can be found in Artemus Ward’s Lecture (as Delivered at the Egyptian Hall London), edited by his Executors T.W. Robertson & E.P. Hingston (London & New York, 1869). The quip about “the Mormon’s religion is singular &c”, which has also been attributed to Mark Twain, can be found on p.207. The two quotes about Brigham Young are both on p.130.

Mark Twain wrote in rather more serious vein about the Mormons in his book Roughing It, first published in 1872, but with many editions since. He was horrified by the Mormon practice of a man taking wives from the same family, and ranking them in importance, so that a daughter might rank over her own sister, mother and even grandmother. He referred to the result of this practice as a “foul nest of mother and daughters.” He was also disturbed by the “Destroying Angels”, Mormons “who are set apart by the Church to conduct permanent disappearances of obnoxious citizens” – literally Mormon hit–men in some cases. (There is a passing mention of them in Ward, op.cit. p.98, footnote, and they are clearly the source of the price tag on the Master’s head in Alexander’s novel.)

In practice, wife sealing seems often to have allowed physical relations in this world, not just spiritual relations in the next, and the plural wives seem to have been expected to put up with their polygamous husbands on the promise of a reward in Heaven. Not surprisingly, the jealousies of this world often overrode the promised rewards of the next, and there were numerous cases of disillusioned wives fleeing the Mormon enclave and recording their experiences. Thus Maria Ward’s Female Life among the Mormons: a Narrative of many years Personal Experience by the Wife of a Mormon Elder recently from Utah was published in New York in 1855; Mrs. T.B.H. Stenhouse’s Exposé of Polygamy in Utah: a Lady’s Life among the Mormons, a Record of Personal Experience as one of the Wives of a Mormon Elder during a Period of more than Twenty Years was published in New York in 1872; and Jennie Anderson Froiseth’s The Women of Mormonism, or, the Story of Polygamy as told by the Victims Themselves was published in Detroit in 1882. There were also, of course, denunciations of the Mormons written by men – for example John Hanson Beadle’s Life in Utah, or, the Mysteries and Crimes of Mormonism, being an Exposé of the Secret Rites and Ceremonies of the Latter–Day Saints, with a Full and Authentic History of Polygamy and the Mormon Sect from its Origin to the Present Time, issued by the National Publishing Company in several American cities in 1870; and Rev M.W. Montgomery’s The Mormon Delusion, its History, Doctrines, and the Outlook in Utah, published in Boston and Chicago in 1890. The strangest of all, though, was William Jarman’s U.S.A., Uncle Sam’s Abscess, or Hell Upon Earth for U.S. Uncle Sam, published in Exeter, England, in 1884. The book is so bizarre that I reproduce its title page here as Fig.6a and its frontispiece as Fig.6b. [Browse.] Needless to say, the contents are as eccentric as the title page, and the author was clearly as eccentric as both! (He had been converted by a Mormon Missionary in England, emigrated to America to live with the Mormons, but returned to England, a very disillusioned man, some 20 years and several wives later.) The book, however, is an eminently readable curiosity.

Note 3: Three examples of thus interpreting FitzGerald’s Omar are Norton F. W. Hazeldine’s little book The Sufism of the Rubaiyat – or, the Secret of the Great Paradox (Denver, 1902); J.S.Pattinson’s The Symbolism of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Edinburgh, 1921); and Ernest Ludwig Gabrielson’s cumbersomely titled The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (who wrote the Original Stanzas), and Edward FitzGerald (whose ‘translation’ made the poem widely popular among English–speaking people), and Ernest Ludwig Gabrielson (who has ventured to alter the order of FitzGerald’s stanzas slightly, and also the number thereof: in addition he has added his own interpretation) (Caernarfon, 1977).The strangest, though, is probably Esther O’Neill’s Omar’s Rubaiyat Re–written (New York, 1954.) Mrs. O’Neill was a medium who believed she had got in touch with the long–dead Omar and got the ‘true’ meaning of his quatrains from him. For details of this see Appendix 22.

Note 4: As regards that phrase “even about Shakespeare”, recall that from about the mid–1850s a craze had arisen for ‘proving’ that the plays of Shakespeare were not really by Shakespeare at all, but by someone else – that someone else commonly being held to be Sir Francis Bacon. The strangest of these theories were those that sought to find hidden ciphers in the plays by which to ‘prove’ their non–Shakespearean authorship. John Fiske, in his article “Forty Years of the Bacon–Shakespeare Folly”, published in The Atlantic Monthly in November 1897, called the controversy “the silliest mare’s nest ever devised by human dullness.” For a good overview see John Michell, Who wrote Shakespeare ? (1996) and for the ciphers in particular, see William F. and Elizabeth S. Friedman, The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined (1957).

Note 5: Spirits are said to be able to communicate with the Living in two ways – the first where the medium uses a ouija board, the message being spelt out letter by letter; the second (automatic writing) where the medium holds a pen or pencil over a sheet of paper, and the Spirits guide his or her hand to write out a message. One of the most famous examples of the first method was the case of Patience Worth, who allegedly began to communicate from ‘the spirit world’ through the ouija board of Mrs. Pearl Lenore Curran in 1913, and who within the space of a few years had given to the world a large quantity of poetry and prose, all delivered in what was claimed to be authentic 17th century English. The case was dealt with in detail by W.F.Prince in his book The Case of Patience Worth (1927). A good example of the second method was the “teenage psychic” of the 1970s, Matthew Manning, who claimed to have channeled a written message about life after death from Bertrand Russell, a recipe from Mrs. Beeton, and a poem from William Falconer! (See Matthew Manning, The Link (1975), p.72–79.) Manning also claimed to have channeled drawings from artists beyond the grave, notably Picasso (p.114–5) and Dürer (p.125–9).

Note 6: The Pennells’ authorized biography The Life of James McNeill Whistler was published in two volumes in 1908 by William Heinemann of London and J. B. Lippincott of Philadelphia. There is only one brief reference to Whistler’s interest in spiritualism in it, however (vol.1, p.115), and The Whistler Journal is far and away our best source for this.

Note 7: Shakespeare is a favourite communicator with mediums. Thus, in 1896 an unnamed medium believed he had received “voluminous and precise messages” from Shakespeare in which “he explained the origin of several of his plays, and dictated upwards of a hundred new songs.” (The Sketch, 2 Dec 1896, p.219 col.2) Much later came what must surely be the most peculiar work in this field: Mrs. D. O. Roberts’ privately printed booklet, Shakespeare and Co. Unlimited, published in 1950. Though compiled by Mrs. Roberts, its author is listed as “Shakespeare & Co.” as its contents (basically commentaries on the plays and their origins) were allegedly received from the spirits of Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney, the Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, & others – others including Plutarch, Aeschylus and Sir Walter Raleigh! Mrs. Roberts tells us that whilst watching a film version of Hamlet at the cinema in 1949 she was visited by the spirit not only of Shakespeare but of Hamlet himself! Elsewhere in this 104 page booklet of “such stuff as dreams are made of” she is visited by the spirits of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The Three Witches, it transpires, were not real people at all but “simply the evil in Macbeth’s own unconscious.” Let us now tip–toe quietly away.

Note 8: For a good account see Arthur Conan Doyle’s article, “The Alleged Posthumous Writings of Great Authors” in The Fortnightly Review, 1 December 1927 (New Series vol.122, p.721–735.) Doyle, who was an ardent spiritualist, also mentions the literary communications from Oscar Wilde which were allegedly received by Mrs. Hester Travers Smith (née Hester Dowden), and published in her Psychic Messages from Oscar Wilde [1924]. She also, apparently, claimed to be the recipient of various messages from Shakespeare, some relating to the Bacon–Shakespeare controversy (again, see notes 4 & 7 above.)

Note 9: Miss Green was Helen Edith Green, a professional musician. A lengthy, though musically technical, and unfavourable review (“somewhat depressing entertainment”) of her concert was given in The Times (3 May 1895, p.3 col.4.) Another such can be found in the weekly newspaper Truth (9 May 1895, p.1155-6), which found it odd that at times Beethoven came across as a bit like Wagner. For those interested, the newspapers got their background from the spiritualist quarterly review Borderland (April 1895, p.130) and the weekly spiritualist journal Light (20 April 1895, p.182.) The former is the more detailed source.

Compare the music channeled by Rosemary Brown, who claimed that the spirits of Liszt, Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms and others were using her to give more of their music to the world from beyond the grave! (See Rosemary Brown, Unfinished Symphonies – Voices from the Beyond (1971).) Indeed, Brown hoped one day to write down the missing movement of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” for him, as he had already allowed her to hear it “by telepathy”! (p.143–4).

Note 10: In his Preface, 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 1 August 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.” But the critic seems to have been unaware of the humorous intent of the work, missing, for example, the 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)! This is surely a dig at verse ix of Alexander’s “Odes of the Disciples”, quoted above: Disciple #2, speaking of the time “when lands thou never knewest will proclaim thy fame” (p.57.)

Note 11: For those interested, there is much discussion of this in Hester Travers Smith’s book mentioned in note 8 above, though of course, Mrs. Smith opts for the spiritualist hypothesis in the end. For a more detailed account of my own views on all this see my article “Gifts from the Grave ?”, published in 1978 in the Canadian journal Chaos (vol.1, no.2, p.50–54.) [View article here.]

Note 12: In the foregoing, I have deliberately left the origin of Alexander’s doctorate as “Columbia” simply because that is literally all I know about it. “Columbia” suggests, of course, Columbia University, New York, but it seemed so unlikely that, back in the 1870s, one could simply buy a doctorate from there, “on application”, on payment of “a few pounds for stamps”, that I dismissed the idea early on without having an alternative to put in its place. Fred Diba wonders if, back then, Columbia University ran something akin to today’s Open University Degrees or Correspondence Courses, but this too seems unlikely given the “on application”, on payment of “a few pounds for stamps.” It seems rather more likely that it was what we would now call a “Fake Degree” or “Vanity Diploma”, though who offered anything like this, through what channels, and how “Columbia” (New York or otherwise) came into it, is not known at present.


My thanks are due to Gillian McGrandles, Senior Library Assistant at the Wandsworth Heritage Service (Battersea Library) for the information about Holly Lodge given in note 1. I must thank Michael Behrend for photocopying for me key parts of Alexander’s rare work of fiction, The Other Half; and the late Douglas Taylor for the images of the letter from Alexander to Schroeter shown in Figs.4a, b & c. Finally I must thank, as usual, Roger Paas, Joe Howard, Fred Diba and Sandra Mason & Bill Martin for proof reading this article and making various helpful suggestions, as well as spotting the inevitable gremlins.


To return to the Index of the Rubaiyat Archive, click here