Willy Pogany and the Rubaiyat of 1942.

There have been many editions of The Rubaiyat illustrated (or “presented”) by Willy Pogany (1) published over the years, and it would be a daunting task indeed to catalogue all of them. But one edition stands out like the proverbial sore thumb among the rest – that published by David McKay of Philadelphia in 1942 (Coumans #155.) Its illustrations are completely different in style to all other editions; they are all in black and white; and they are more overtly erotic, for, as is well–known, Pogany delighted in drawing naked young women, an enthusiasm he shared with the likes of Rubaiyat illustrators Ronald Balfour (1920), John Buckland–Wright (1938) and John Yunge–Bateman (1958). Nudes sell books, of course, and the ‘exotic orient,’ with its houris and dancing girls, is always a good excuse to weave a few in. But as we shall see, there is more to it than that.

Some Background: The Beginning

The first edition of The Rubaiyat illustrated by Pogany was that published by George G. Harrap & Co., London, in 1909 (2a), marking the centenary of FitzGerald’s birth (Potter #69), and also, coincidentally, the fiftieth anniversary of the first edition of his Rubaiyat. Using FitzGerald’s first version it contained 24 tipped–in coloured illustrations, some fairly literal and unimaginative interpretations of the text, whilst others show some imaginative symbolic touches. The colouring of most is rather insipid, giving them a somewhat dream–like aura. Four of the more interesting examples are shown here.

Fig.1a: Illustrates quatrain 29 (“Into this Universe and why not knowing”), Omar being represented as ‘at sea’.

Fig.1b: Illustrates quatrain 32 (“There was a Door to which I found no Key”.) The Door is visible, but the naked young woman at the foot of the steps to it, blowing bubbles, adds a nice touch, bubbles being a symbol of the transience and fragility of life (see Fig.2o below.) Notably this is one of only two illustrations in this edition to depict a naked woman (the other is for quatrain 75), and neither illustration can be hailed as erotic.

Fig.1c: Illustrates quatrain 46 (“For in and out, above, about, below”) and depicts a “Magic Shadow–show” of people revolving around the Candle which is the Sun. The ‘misty’ colouring again gives it a rather dream–like air.

Fig.1d: illustrates quatrain 57 (“Oh Thou who didst with Pitfall and with Gin”) depicts Omar being tempted by a female wraith, holding out a cup (of wine ?), towards a chasm – a literal pitfall – at the bottom of which is a skeletal figure of one who has previously been trapped.

A parallel edition of the 1909 Harrap Rubaiyat was issued in the same year (2b) by Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. of New York. Thereafter a multitude of editions, in a bewildering variety of covers, were printed on both sides of the Atlantic using varying numbers of illustrations (24, 16, 12, 8 & 4), mostly in colour, but occasionally in black and white (using photographs of the colour versions.) Harrap seems to have continued such reprints up to the 1980s, whereas Crowell continued only up to the mid–1940s.

The Rubaiyat of 1930

In 1930 Harrap & Co. first published another Pogany edition (Coumans #272) with 12 new tipped–in colour plates and 46 mounted gold and black vignettes, This edition was actually dated 1930, unlike later reprints, which were not. A parallel edition was issued at the same time by Crowell & Co. in the USA, both sharing the same characteristic cover shown in Fig.2a.) This used both FitzGerald’s first and fourth versions, and in what follows quatrain 4.12, for example, will refer to quatrain 12 in the 4th version. Notably, with this edition a somewhat erotic element emerges, occasionally in the colour illustrations, but more notably in some of the vignettes. The colour illustrations are less ‘misty’ than those in the 1909 edition, and more boldly coloured. Seven examples are given here.

Fig.2b: Illustrates quatrain 1.2 (on p.22) (“Awake! my little ones”.)

Fig.2c: Illustrates quatrain 1.38 (on p.54) and shows a naked young woman drinking from the Well of Life, the camel and its driver being there to provide an oriental flavour.

Fig.2d: Illustrates quatrains 1.42 & 4.58 and is the Frontispiece of the book. Curiously, it depicts the “Angel Shape / Bearing a Vessel on his Shoulder” as a young woman (an error made by other illustrators.) The flames around her head are presumably here intended to emphasise her angelic nature, though elsewhere Pogany seems to use a similar device for merely decorative purposes (eg. Fig.2i below.)

Fig.2e: Illustrates quatrain 4.12 (on p.98) and is a literal representation of Omar and his singing Beloved with “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough”. The bough is very curiously depicted, presumably decoratively rather than realistically.

Fig.2f: Illustration quatrain 4.29 (on p.112), which depicts a young woman seated on a river–bank pondering the theme of the quatrain (“Into this Universe, and Why not knowing”.)

Fig.2g: Illustrates quatrain 4.45 (on p.126) and represents a transient Sultan, with (presumably) “the dark Ferrash” (Death’s Executioner) ready to strike.

Fig.2h: Illustrates quatrain 4.94 (on p.168), an interesting if rather clumsy depiction of the naked Spring, “Rose–in–hand”, with Omar his “thread–bare Penitence” being torn to pieces by her. Note the memento mori skull on the book behind him.

Figs.2c, 2d, 2f & 2h are all of the four nudes among the coloured plates.

In many ways, the vignettes are more interesting than the colour plates. Of the 46 of them, 24 are decorative designs not related to the quatrains on the same page; 12 depict naked young women; 6 depict men; and 4 depict pots in the Potter’s Shop – the last three types being related to a quatrain on the same page. Seven examples are given here:

Fig.2i: This young woman seems to relate to the Hyacinth of quatrain 1.18 (p.37.)

Fig.2j: The ropes biding this naked man clearly relate to the “many Knots unravel’d by the Road” in quatrain 1.31 (p.49), with the blindfold representing the impenetrability of “the Knot of Human Death and Fate.”

Fig.2k: The young woman here is presumably raising her hands to “the rolling Heav’n” of quatrain 1.33 (p.51) and asking what Lamp has Destiny to guide us.

Fig.2l: One of the four pot–based illustrations in the Kuza Nama, this one associated with quatrain 1.61 or 62 (p.75.)

Fig.2m: The young woman here relates to the Nightingale and Rose in quatrain 1.72 (p.85.)

Fig.2n: This appears to be an unusual representation of a Muezzin proclaiming, “Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There” in quatrain 4.25 (p.111), but without the Tower of Darkness.

Fig.2o: The young woman here is clearly the Eternal Saki in the act of pouring “Millions of Bubbles like us,” as in quatrain 4.46 (p.127.)

[The illustrations can be browsed here.]

Harrap and Crowell both issued a signed limited edition of this 1930 Rubaiyat, containing the same twelve colour plates, but also containing an original etching by Pogany, inserted so as to face the title page. It is shown in Fig.2p and is clearly an extension of Fig.2d, with a death–like figure in the background, somewhat like “the dark Ferrash” in Fig.2g. The same vignettes were used as in the regular edition, but, curiously, printed in black and white as opposed to the more ‘luxurious’ black on gold in the regular edition. The characteristic cover of this edition is shown in Fig.2q, though colours vary.

Is the nudity in these vignettes justified ? Probably not, but it is clear from the generality of them that symbolism was a major concern in their construction, not just titillation. The key thing to notice at this point is the effectiveness of the vignettes.

The Rubaiyat of 1934

In 1934 Harrap & Co. first published what was effectively a revised partial reprint of their 1930 edition. Using only FitzGerald’s fourth version, it featured only eight of the twelve original colour plates, with the black on gold vignettes dropped, but all twenty two of the non–decorative ones replaced by full page black and white illustrations printed directly onto the page. Unlike some later reprints, this edition was actually dated. It is characterised by the peacock dust–jacket shown in Fig.3a beneath which is the cover shown in Fig.3b (colours vary; cf. the design of Fig,2q). Two examples of its black and white ‘enlarged vignettes’ are shown in Figs.3c & 3d, these replacing Figs.2i & 2j in the 1930 edition. Incidentally, in some editions the peacock dust–jacket design, which is based on one of the decorative vignettes from the 1930 edition, is embossed on the cover of the book itself – one such copy in my collection is dated 1934, but two others, in the collection of Roger Paas, are dated 1939.

The Rubaiyat of 1935

The foregoing Harrap edition of 1934 was not for once directly paralleled by Crowell in the States, for the firm published its own revised 1930 edition, retaining both FitzGerald’s first and fourth versions. Its characteristic cover, also peacock–related, is shown in Fig.4a (though colours vary widely.) It too featured eight colour plates, but only five were taken from the original 1930 edition, and it contained three new plates, which were basically three of the originals re–drawn. The three new plates were:

Fig.4b: Illustrates quatrain 1.2 (p.8 – “Awake! my Little Ones”) and replaces Fig.2b, though it is not clear why it needed replacing, as the original seems just as good as its replacement.

Fig.4c: Illustrates quatrains 1.29 (p.22 – “Like Water willy–nilly flowing”) and replaces the rather lack–lustre Fig.2f.

Fig.4d: Illustrates quatrains 1.70 & 4.94 (“Indeed, indeed, Repentance oft before”) and is the Frontispiece of the book. It replaces the more clumsy Fig.2h, though is itself still rather ‘staged’.

As for the mounted black on gold vignettes of the original 1930 edition, some of these (including decorative ones) were replaced by black & white copies printed directly onto the page, but others were re–drawn to replace the earlier versions. Thus Fig.4e replaces Fig.2i; Fig.4f replaces Fig.2j and Fig.4g replaces Fig.2m. Some vignettes were entirely new – like Fig.4h which seems to be Omar’s Beloved, in the nude, drinking the Ruby Vintage of quatrain 1.48. Another feature of this edition was a set of eleven large ’vignettes’, similar to those in the 1934 Harrap edition, but new. An example is shown here as Fig.4i. The young woman here is tasting of the Well of Life in quatrain 1.38, the colour illustration of which in the 1930 edition (Fig.2c) was moved to illustrate the equivalent quatrain in the fourth version (quatrain 4.48.) Of the eleven large vignettes, five were naked young women, but to redress what many would see as this imbalance, Fig.4j shows Pogany in a reflective wine and roses mode.

[The illustrations can be browsed here.]

The key thing to notice again here is the particular effectiveness of the black and white vignettes, large and small, more so than the colour plates.

This edition is undated, and as a result its dating is contentious. It has been widely dated as “c.1945” by many book dealers, for example, and certainly one copy in the collection of Roger Paas bears a gift inscription dated 12/25/1946, which would seem to bear this out. However, Roger has another copy with an inscription dated June 1958, which is clearly too late for a first edition, and must therefore relate to an undated reprint or to a first edition bought many years after publication. And if that is true of the 1958 copy, it might also be true of the 1946 one. Personally I think that the first edition was actually published in 1935, as would certainly seem to be indicated by the contemporary newspaper advertisement shown in Fig.4k. This actually pictures the cover of Fig.4a, and tells us that it was a new edition published in that year. Nor am I the first to claim this date – Robin Greer, in the bibliography cited in note (1), also assigns a date of “ca.1935” to it (entry #121e.) Finally, a publication date of 1935 makes it a suitable Crowell parallel for the 1934 Harrap edition, which a publication date of c.1945 does not.

There is, however, one cautionary note to be sounded here, for in the collection of Jos Coumans there is what is certainly a reprint of the 1930 Crowell edition, with 12 colour plates, but with the vignettes in black & white, and with a cover like that of Fig.4a, not that of Fig.2a. Furthermore, its end–papers consist of a copy of Fig.2p on the right, with a mirror image of it on the left. Unfortunately it is undated, as is a second copy known to me. Could this be the new edition announced in Fig.4k, or is it simply a reprint of the old 1930 edition, and a precursor of what I have dubbed, in this section, the Rubaiyat of 1935? Both of the aforementioned copies, like the original 1930 edition, were printed on one side of the page only. Yet another reprint known to me, with the same style cover and the vignettes in black and white, but with plain endpapers, was printed on both sides of the page, making it a much slimmer volume, so could this too be a candidate for the advert in Fig.4k ? Whatever the verdict, the similarity of the subject of this section to the dated 1934 Harrap edition surely implies that its date of publication, if not actually in 1935, was not much later. Hopefully more information will come to light in due course.

The next major stage of Pogany’s Rubaiyat ‘evolution’ is the edition which sparked off this essay.

The Rubaiyat of 1942

As stated at the outset, this more adventurous Pogany Rubaiyat was published by David McKay & Co., of Philadelphia, in 1942. It contained 20 black and white illustrations. Using FitzGerald’s fourth version, this is the most overtly erotic edition to be illustrated by Pogany, and it was the transition to these illustrations from the earlier illustrations for Harrap and Crowell that intrigued me. How had it come about ? Artists change their styles over time, of course (3), and nudity that is taboo in one era or country, or to one publisher, can be acceptable in another era or country, or to another publisher. Again, black and white can sometimes be a more effective medium than colour – recall the impact of Aubrey Beardsley’s output, for example. But also the style of the drawings is so different: in addition to being in black and white, they are more symbolically adventurous. I give a representative sample of twelve of the drawings here, with some commentary.

Fig.5a (quatrain 3): A fairly literal interpretation of the quatrain, but with three wonderfully insistent drinkers, one of whom is a bare–breasted young woman.

Fig.5b (quatrain 7): Here we have a naked young woman who has cast off her “Winter–garment of Repentance.” Some may find the pose here too theatrical and the facial expression too doll–like, but I must admit to finding them rather appealing. After all, many classical paintings of a religious nature commit the same ‘sins’ – including the elaborate drapery, which serves to preserve her maidenly modesty. (cf. Figs.5d & 5g below.)

Fig.5c (quatrain 12): The frontispiece of the book, a fairly literal interpretation of the famous quatrain with Omar’s Beloved, topless, of course, “singing in the Wilderness.”

Fig.5d (quatrain 14): Here “the blowing Rose” is a semi–naked young woman scattering her Treasure of petals on the Garden.

Fig.5e (quatrain 25): A move away from nudes with a stern–faced “Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness” crying “Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There.”

Fig.5f (quatrain 44): The Soul flinging the Dust aside to “naked on the Air of Heaven ride.” The Soul here is a naked young woman, of course, though the quatrain itself has it male. It is interesting that the soul is here depicted as breaking free from its old worn–out body, which I would assume to be that of ugly old crone in contrast to the beautiful young soul emerging from it.

Fig.5g (quatrain 55): The young and topless “Daughter of the Vine” with the disgruntled figure of “old barren Reason”.

Fig.5h (quatrain 58): The “Angel Shape / Bearing a Vessel on his shoulder” – here correctly depicted as a young man, in accordance with the quatrain, and not as a woman, as in the Frontispiece of the 1930 edition (Fig.2d.)

Fig.5i (quatrain 72): Back to naked young women again, here with one lifting her hands to “that inverted Bowl they call the Sky.” The naked young man to the lower left and the one almost hidden behind the young woman are presumably “crawling coop’d” in accordance with the quatrain, though their extreme fatigue invites a more amusing interpretation on which I will not dwell.

Fig.5j (quatrain 76): A fairly literal interpretation of this quatrain, with a howling dervish outside the Door which the kneeling Omar, wine–cup in hand, has managed to open. It is not clear why he is naked, or what the wreath around his head is supposed to represent (one assumes they are vine leaves poking fun at the traditional laurel leaves of the poet!), but the light shining from behind the door presumably indicates the state of enlightenment denied to the dervish.

Fig.5k (quatrain 83): Away from nudity again with this amusing look at the Potter’s Shop, with pots of “Shapes of all Sorts and Sizes, great and small.” Compare the Potter’s Shop vignettes in the 1930 edition (exemplified by Fig.2l.)

Fig.5l (quatrain 90): An unusual depiction of “the Porter’s shoulder–knot a–creaking” with “the little Moon” in the background.

[The illustrations can be browsed here.]

Here again it is the symbolism that Pogany weaves into his drawings which rescues them, like the vignettes in the 1930, 1934 and 1935 editions, from a simple charge of “soft porn.”

Another good example of Pogany’s use of nudity, here justified by the nature of the text, was published much earlier, in 1911, when he illustrated, again for Harrap & Co. of London, an edition of Tannhäuser with a parallel edition again being published by Crowell of New York. It is worth devoting a little space to this here.


The text was a translation by T. W. Rolleston of Richard Wagner’s dramatic poem, and basically tells the story of the Christian knight and minnesinger Tannhäuser, who ventured into the subterranean kingdom of the pagan goddess Venus, situated beneath a mountain, the Horselberg or Mountain of Venus. There he was seduced into staying for a whole year of lustful pleasures, until he repented of his sinful over–indulgence and yearned to see the surface world again. His wish was granted by a somewhat disgruntled Venus, and he found himself transported back to the surface world, where he eventually returned to the castle of the Landgrave of Wartburg, whose court he had deserted before his sojourn with Venus. Here he met again Elisabeth, the Landgrave’s niece, who had pined for him during his absence. But when he took part in a Festival of Song on the subject of Love, Tannhäuser’s song revealed just what he had been doing during his absence; the assembled court was horrified; and, though defended by Elisabeth, he was banished from the court and forbidden to return unless he was given absolution by the Pope. But, on reaching Rome, the Pope said that he could no more grant Tannhäuser absolution from such grave sins of the flesh than his papal staff could sprout leaves. Seemingly with no chance of absolution, and facing eternal damnation, Tannhäuser set out to return to the Mountain of Venus, but on the way encountered the funeral procession of Elisabeth, who had heard the news and died of grief in his absence. Realising how much he had loved her and not Venus, he too died of grief. It turned out that within a short time of his leaving the Pope, the papal staff did indeed miraculously blossom, and so the Pope sent out messengers to find Tannhäuser and bring him back for the absolution of his sins. But it was too late: Tannhäuser was already dead.

The following are examples of Pogany’s illustrations, with commentary.

Fig.6a: The frontispiece and title–page, the former showing Elisabeth being led through a door by a putto, with florally decorated hearts of love, the large one at the base being further decorated with medallions containing the images of birds. These are the doves sacred to Venus – Tannhäuser is guided to Venus by such a bird – but here perhaps they serve a dual purpose, for they are associated with purity in Christian art, so may also represent the purity of Elisabeth compare with Venus. (The frontispiece is repeated at the beginning of Part IV, in which Elisabeth is reunited with Tannhäuser, before the Festival of Song.) The title–page shows Tannhäuser as a pilgrim (bottom left), Venus (bottom right) and the soul of Elisabeth ascending to heaven. Note again the dove–medallions, and the thorny circle which joins them – the thorns represent the snares of Venus, as we shall see.

Fig.6b: The contents–page, with a Sphinx holding a Skull; a Cross with a Heart at its foot; and a number of dove–medallions like those in Fig.6a. Venus is the Sphinx, viewed, as in Oscar Wild’s poem, “The Sphinx” (1894), or in Franz von Stuck’s painting “The Kiss of the Sphinx” (1895), for example, as a lascivious sexual predator who lures her victims to their doom (cf. Fig.6g below; also the aptly named plant, “the Venus Fly–Trap.”) (4) She is presumably here made ugly and muscular to contrast with the beautiful and slender figure of Venus, the Goddess of Love, in Fig.6d, for example. On the facing page we have, in black, a monk–like figure holding aloft a crucifix, possibly Tannhäuser the pilgrim again, and behind him, in red, the image of the Venus de Milo atop a column with, at the bottom right, the figure of Tannhäuser the minnesinger playing his harp. Why the Venus de Milo ? She is an instantly recognisable figure of the Goddess, of course, and it may be as simple as that, but note the Venus in Fig.6f below, who seems also to be stood on a column, as if she is the Venus de Milo before she lost her arms. Note also the black thorns, denoting the entrapment of Tannhäuser – seen again in Fig.6c.

Fig.6d: Tannhäuser at the feet of Venus, with floral decorations (not unexpectedly, the rose is said to have been the favourite flower of Venus), and three dove–medallions.

Fig.6e: Venus and Tannhäuser, back to back, shielding their eyes, presumably from the Gorgon’s head above, superimposed on a black heart – love – or lust – turned sour. The traditional snakes from the Gorgon’s head presumably here also denote sinful temptation, as with the Serpent in the Garden of Eden. Note also the red thorns of entrapment. Another Gorgon’s head appears in Fig.6f, this illustration relating to Tannhäuser’s departure for Rome as a penitent pilgrim. He has turned his back on Venus (in red) and the Gorgon’s head is presumably nullified by the Cross below it, though peril from a multitude of black serpents remains, possibly representing the threat of Hell if he does not get absolution.

Fig.6g: This is the tail–piece of the book. The predatory Venus–Sphinx is here clutching the doomed Tannhäuser, and holding him back from reaching the heaven–bound soul of Elisabeth (cf. Fig.6a). The black flames are the Fires of Hell. Note again the dove–medallions and also the floral decorations (a device used in Figs.6a, 6b & 6d.)

To compare with the foregoing I here give two of Pogany’s colour plates. Fig.6h shows a bacchanalian revel in the palace of Venus, and Fig.6i a disconsolate Tannhäuser seeking his release from her.

[The illustrations can be browsed here.]

It has to be said that Pogany’s black and white illustrations (with some contrasting red detail) are far more effective than his coloured plates, which of course has a bearing on the effectiveness of his his Rubaiyat vignettes of the 1930s and his black and white drawings of 1942. Incidentally, Pogany’s sparse use of nudes in his 1909 edition of The Rubaiyat can hardly be put down to initial prudery on the part of Harrap and / or Crowell, for both publishers were happy to publish Tannhäuser a mere two years later.

As indicated above, the nudity in Tannhäuser is justified by the text, and it is clear that Pogany was not simply drawing naked women for the sake of it, or to sell books, for the nudity is relevant – the drawings are rescued by the involved contextual symbolism surrounding them.

But lest this seems like too much of a whitewash, the same can hardly be said of the following, which is Pogany in soft porn mode, albeit a culturally dressed–up mode. Nevertheless, I must confess to finding Louÿs’ brazen imposture, and Pogany’s enthusiastic and unashamed illustrations for it, alike rather engaging. It is certainly worth a little space here.


In 1894 the Belgian–born poet and writer Pierre Louÿs published Les Chansons de Bilitis (The Songs of Bilitis), in which he claimed to have translated a collection of lesbian (though arguably bisexual) poems, written in the style of Sappho, by a courtesan called Bilitis, on the walls of whose tomb in Cyprus they were discovered. Louÿs prefaced his ‘translations’ with “The Life of Bilitis” in which he tells us that she had actually known Sappho. The songs were really fabrications by Louÿs himself, some being re–workings of material in the Greek Anthology, others being based on the surviving fragments of Sappho’s poems, others being just made up, and very skilfully so. “The Life of Bilitis”, too, of course, was pure fiction.

Under the title The Songs of Bilitis, an English translation by Alvah C. Bessie was published, in a limited edition of 2000 copies, by Macy–Masius of New York in 1926 (5). Privately printed for subscribers only, it was profusely illustrated by Pogany. Being for subscribers only as well as a story of lesbian life, meant that, even in 1926, Pogany could ‘go to town,’ as indeed he did, with Bacchic end–papers, an illustration for each of the two title–pages, 9 full–page illustrations, and numerous (repeated) head–pieces to the Songs, all of an erotic nature. I give five varied examples of the full page illustrations here:

Fig.7a: Illustrates “The Flute” (p.50) – a bisexual moment, very neatly drawn: “He teaches me to play, I seated on his knees...” Note the grinning satyr in the tree behind the lovers.

Fig.7b: Illustrates “Mnasidika’s Breasts” (p.82) – a clear lesbian encounter: “Carefully, with one hand, she opened her tunic and tendered me her breasts...”

Fig.7c: Illustrates “The Priestesses of Astarte” (p.122) who “engage in love at the rising of the moon.” The statue to the upper right is that of Astarte, the Middle–Eastern forerunner of the Greek Aphrodite.

Fig.7d: Illustrates “The Vendor of Women” (p.165): “Approach, Anasyrtolis, and undress yourself.”

Fig.7e: Illustrates “True Death” (p.174) – Bilitis mourning the death of Mnasidika: “Can it be that all is ended now...”

But to get back on track, Pogany’s fondness for drawing naked young women, so clearly demonstrated here, is obviously only one part of the story behind The Rubaiyat of 1942, and there must have been other factors at play. What, for example, of its publisher ?

David McKay & Co.

McKay was born in Scotland in 1860, emigrated to the States with his parents in about 1871, and in 1882, having worked for other publishers, set up his own publishing company in Philadelphia. It was a great success, publishing children’s books, classics (ancient and modern), poetry, foreign language dictionaries, books on history, travel, hunting, fishing, cookery, basketry, conjuring, chess, and so on. The firm was very much a mainstream publisher, then, but it did also publish some off–beat material: books on astrology, numerology, palmistry, (including one co–authored by Edward Heron–Allen), and fortune telling, for example. More relevant to what follows, the firm also published Charles Wase, The Inner Teaching and Yoga (1921); Light on the Path and Karma, “written down by M.C.” [Mabel Collins ?], published in 1923; J.F.C. Fuller, Yoga: a Study of the Mystical Philosophy of the Brahmins and Buddhists (1925); and The Story of Confucius and The History of Buddha and Buddhism, both by Brian Brown, both published in 1927.

David McKay himself died in 1918, but the firm continued as David McKay & Co. under the management of his son, Alexander. Pogany, having spent a decade in London, moved to New York at the outbreak of the First World War, and from 1917 on into the early 1920s was heavily involved in the design team of the Metropolitan Opera there, though he did also continue to illustrate books. Whether he actually ever met David McKay is not clear, but his first association with the firm seems to have been in 1929, when he wrote the Foreword to Adelbert von Chamisso’s strange fantasy story Peter Schlemihl, translated from German by Sir John Bowring. Oddly, it was illustrated, not by Pogany, but by John Gincano, and it is not clear why. It is the story of a man who, at the instigation of the Devil, exchanges his shadow for untold wealth, only to find that the lack of a shadow incites such prejudices and aversions in people that, despite his wealth, he must effectively live the life of a recluse. A link with the Hungarian–born Pogany is that the story can be interpreted as prejudice against “foreigners,” which Pogany had experienced in London at the outbreak of the First World War. It seems, too, that both Chamisso and Gincano had experienced similar racial prejudices at some point in their lives.

But turning to books which Pogany illustrated for David McKay & Co. there are three key ones which have a bearing on The Rubaiyat of 1942, each of which merits a section to itself, running from the earliest to the latest.

The Kasidah

McKay’s edition of Sir Richard Burton’s long Rubaiyat–like but Sufi–related poem The Kasidah (6) was published in 1931. Pogany did twelve black and white illustrations for it, of which I give six examples here, with some commentary, though the relevant verse is printed beneath each illustration. The overall similarity of style to his future Rubaiyat illustrations is readily apparent.

Fig.8a: (Book 1, verse 7) An imaginative depiction of an airborne camel with its ghostly rider, a ghoulish face in the background.

Fig.8b: (Book 2, verse 17) This curious illustration depicts two naked men, one reaching for heaven, the other seemingly holding him back, presumably relating to the High and Higher levels (of consciousness ?) to which the verse refers.

Fig.8c: (Book 4, verse 9) It is difficult to see what this naked young woman has to do with this verse, though presumably she is floating in Time. (In some ways this illustration is better suited to the Soul riding “naked on the Air of Heaven” in quatrain 4.44 of The Rubaiyat, though the Soul in that quatrain is male – cf. Fig.5f above.)

Fig.8d: (Book 5, verse 11) An interesting illustration depicting two naked lovers, with a musician in attendance, and with the Moon represented as “a corpse upon the road of night.” It invites comparison with Omar and his Beloved beneath the bough (Fig.5c).

Fig.6e: (Book 8, verse 4) Clearly depicts the perversion by the Priest – the enslavement of the naked couple, the rope binding them to the Priest’s left hand, while his right delivers a benediction. Notice that the priest’s vestments are adorned with the symbols of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism & Buddhism, Judaism and Ancient Egyptian religion – that is, effectively, all religions. (Ens, incidentally, is an old English word for a being.) Compare the bonds in Fig.2j.)

Fig.8f: (Book 9, verse 21) Another, rather different, condemnation of the bonds of religion, with the Self breaking free from the images associated with various World Religions.

[The illustrations can be browsed here.]

The Light of Asia

McKay’s edition of Sir Edwin Arnold’s Buddhist poem The Light of Asia was published in 1932. It is the story of the life of Buddha, and his teachings, as told by an imaginary Buddhist votary, starting from his birth in a Royal Household, to his travels in search of enlightenment and, ultimately, of Nirvana.

Pogany did twelve black and white illustrations for it, and again I give six examples here with some commentary, though the relevant lines are printed beneath each illustration.

Fig.9a: The frontispiece, showing the new–born Buddha and his mother Queen Maya (Book 1, p.3.) Note the resemblance to the Christian Madonna and Child (7).

Fig.9b: A composite picture of the seven dreams of King Suddhodana, Buddha’s father, revealed by a strange hermit to foretell Buddha’s greatness (Book 3, p.47–51.)

Fig.9c: Buddha abandons the luxury of the palace (Book 4, p.76.) This sleeping harem scene gives Pogany a good excuse to depict several naked women.

Fig.9d: Buddha and a gathering of ‘Holy’ Men or Yogis (Book 5, p.87) who believe that mortification of the flesh brings them closer to God, practices which Buddha condemns as misguided. There is another parallel here with the Christian Desert Fathers, notably St. Antony of the Desert.

Fig.9e: The enlightened Buddha visited by demonic forces which try to distract him from his mission, notably by inciting lust (Book 6, p.118.) Again, compare The Temptation of St Antony, and the numerous paintings depicting them by the likes of Martin Schongauer and Matthias Grünewald.

Fig.9f: Buddha’s vision of Sorrow, the First of the Noble Truths, showing it to be a necessary adjunct to life – the concept of “sad delights and pleasant griefs” (Book 6, p.127.) Pogany’s illustration seems to be more of an erotic “Death and the Maiden” type.

[The illustrations can be browsed here.]

The Song Celestial

McKay’s edition of Sir Edwin Arnold’s translation of the well–known Hindu philosophical poem Bhagavad Gita was published under the title The Song Celestial in 1934, and subtitled “A Discourse between Arjuna, Prince of India, and the Supreme Being under the Form of Krishna.” Embedded in the great Hindu epic The Mahabharata, it begins on a battle field with Prince Arjuna discussing with Krishna the follies of war and the senseless violence it entails. It then extends into a more general philosophical dialogue concerning life, death and rebirth, the problem of evil, the importance of faith in God, spiritual development and such like.

Pogany did eighteen black and white illustrations for it, and again I give six examples here with some commentary, though the relevant lines are printed beneath each illustration.

Fig.10a: (Book 4, p.30) Depicts the subjugation of the self (central figure), and the warding–off of outside influences, here Grief (left) and Joy (right), the latter as much Lust as Joy, though arguably the two are related!

Fig.10b: (Book 5, p.36) Similar to the previous illustration, the Joys arising from the World of the Senses are fleeting, and sure to end in Grief. Joy is again a naked woman.

Fig.10c: (Book 7, p.49) The caption here is said by Krishna to Prince Arjuna, and lists the four types of mortal who are pleasing to the God. Bottom to top they are: one who weeps, one who helps others, one who seeks to know, and one who is enlightened.

Fig.10d: (Book 9, p.59) Again said by Krishna to the Prince. At the end of each Kalpa (a World Age of prodigious length), all things return to the Godhead, to be reborn from the Godhead at the start of the next Kalpa. Pogany depicts this as a very old man, approaching a corner, after which he will be reborn.

Fig.10e: (Book 13, p.99) Though the body is mortal, the spirit is not – the spirit is supreme, the body a prison. Here we have a naked young woman, her bodily prison indicated by the bonds which bind her to the hands of the material world (Nature). Compare the bonds / chains in Figs. 2j & 8e.

Fig.10f: (Book 16, p.115) Here the central figure is resisting the Sins (Doors of Hell) of Lust (upper left), Wrath (right) and Avarice (lower left).

[The illustrations can be browsed here.]

Other books illustrated for McKay

Pogany illustrated at least ten books for McKay, The Kasidah, The Light of Asia and The Song Celestial being the three which are relevant to the development of the style of The Rubaiyat of 1942. For the record, the others were Peterkin, a children’s book written by Pogany’s second wife, Elaine, published in 1940; The Frenzied Prince, a collection of Irish tales by Padraic Colum, published in 1943; Running away with Nebby, a story about a horse and the two children who own it, by Phillis Garrard, published in 1944; and three art–instruction books by Pogany himself, Drawing Lessons (1946), Watercolor Lessons (1950) and Oil–Painting Lessons (1954), each of which bore a naked or semi–naked young woman on its cover, perhaps indicative of the skills which many male buyers hoped to acquire!

Sonnets from the Portuguese

Another book curiously relevant to The Rubaiyat of 1942 and its antecedents, was an edition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, first published by Thomas Y. Crowell of New York in 1936, with later reprints. Pogany did eight tipped–in coloured plates and five black and white drawings for it, the latter standing in stark contrast to the former.

Mostly the colour plates are what I would call ‘traditional Pogany’ – the type of illustration to be found in his early books of fairy tales, for example. Fig.11a illustrates Sonnet 28 and Fig.11b illustrates Sonnet 32. There is little nudity in the coloured plates, one mild exception being Fig.11c which illustrates Sonnet 12, and which is hardly erotic.

This cannot be said of the black and white drawings, however, which bear a similar relationship to the colour plates as the vignettes in the 1930 Rubaiyat do to its colour plates. Fig.11d adorns the half–title page. Though a guitar does not feature in the Sonnets, the poetess does refer to herself as a “wandering singer” in Sonnet 3, so the illustration can certainly be seen as a woman serenading her lover – the Sonnets, remember, were not translations from the Portuguese, but poems written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning for her husband Robert Browning (8). Fig.11e, which faces the Index to First Lines, shows the naked guitarist enmeshed in the thorny stems of a rose bush – there is a rose on top of the guitar, note. This theme is repeated in Fig.11f, which faces the Introduction, but now minus the guitar, and presumably represents Love as an occasionally painful ‘prison’ – Elizabeth’s elopement with, and marriage to, Robert led to her permanent estrangement from her father, remember. (Recall also Pogany’s similar bondage scenes in Figs.2j, 6c, 8e & 10e.) In Fig.11g (facing Sonnet 1), in contrast, the young woman has become not so much a prisoner, as part of the Rose itself – a more blissful, peaceful state ? Finally, right at the end of the book, after Sonnet 44, we have the decorative Rose tail–piece shown in Fig.11h – interpret that as you will, but Sonnet 44 centres on flowers, and though the Rose is not specifically mentioned in it, the red Rose is traditionally associated with Love and Romance (recall the flowers of Venus, in Tannhäuser above.)

[The illustrations can be browsed here.]

Some concluding remarks

Pogany being long dead it is now quite impossible to determine the precise genesis of the 1942 Rubaiyat, but I hope that the foregoing gives us at least some indicators. The chronology is key, starting with The Rubaiyat of 1930. It would appear that somebody somewhere decided that the vignettes in that edition deserved greater prominence, and that resulted in the Harrap edition of 1934 and the Crowell edition of 1935, in both of which they were printed in black & white instead of black on gold. But clearly these editions did not directly result in the McKay Rubaiyat of 1942, for the style of this had its genesis in The Kasidah of 1931, The Light of Asia of 1932 and The Song Celestial of 1934. . (Of course, the more sensuous nudes in the vignettes of the 1935 Rubaiyat may well have led to those of the 1942 Rubaiyat.)

Was it perhaps that very effectiveness of the vignettes in the 1930 Rubaiyat (combined with an appreciation of Pogany’s earlier work in black & white, such as Tannhäuser) which attracted the attention of McKay ? But if so, why engage Pogany to start with The Kasidah rather than The Rubaiyat ? Aside from an unillustrated edition published in c.1925, there appears to have been no McKay Rubaiyat on the market before 1942, though one wonders if the Crowell 1930 Rubaiyat might have had something to do with McKay’s decision to start elsewhere, it being such a recent and therefore rival publication. But for whatever reason, the start was with The Kasidah, then, following Sir Edward Arnold’s poems The Light of Asia and The Song Celestial, The Rubaiyat finally appeared in 1942. Of course, though we can see the genesis of Pogany’s Rubaiyat the problem remains: whence came his Kasidah ? It is possible, of course, that the inspiration came from another artist: an interesting edition of The Kasidah, illustrated with twelve black & white drawings by John Kettelwell, had been published by Brentano’s in New York in 1926. It too involved an intruiging mix of symbolism and nudes, and forms an interesting comparison with Pogany’s edition.

Again, how the sequence of McKay’s Pogany publications in the 1930s was related to his earlier publication of the likes of Fuller’s book on Yoga (1925) and Brown’s books on Confucius and Buddha (both 1927), mentioned above, is not known. Was McKay interested in Eastern Mysticism ? A publisher can publish something simply because it will sell and make money, not because he believes in it; and a publisher can publish something simply because the author pays him to do it, so we can be sure of nothing, and many questions must remain unanswered at present.

But to return to the issue of black and white versus colour, my mind goes back to that curious mix of two styles in Sonnets from the Portuguese. Speaking for myself, I like the black and white more than the colour; they are less directly related to the text than the colour, as if the artist was using black and white for a symbolic view of the authorship and genesis of the sonnets, rather than illustrating the sonnets themselves. Is that perhaps a key to Pogany’s general usage, that when it came to his own symbolic interpretation of a text, he found black and white a better means of expression than colour ? Remember Tannhäuser as far back as 1911; plus his illustrated edition of de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, published by Collins Clear–Type Press in 1908, was, perhaps not surprisingly, symbolically illustrated in black and white – its title–page is shown in Fig.12a and one of its illustrations in Fig.12b – note the Gorgon’s head in the former (cf. Figs.6e & 6f) and the Eastern association of the latter, a precursor of his work for McKay many years later. This is not to say that he used black and white only for symbolic purposes, of course, for his illustrations for A Treasury of Verse for Little Children, published by Harrap in London in 1908, and by Crowell a few years later, used black & white and colour illustrations on an equal footing (and, of course, with no nudes in attendance.) Nor is my support for his symbolic black and white work to decry his work in colour, for it is certainly true that the coloured illustrations he did for the various editions of The Rubaiyat, for Tannhäuser, and indeed for Sonnets from the Portuguese, were very skilfully done, as they were in literally dozens of other books illustrated by him. It is just that when I look at the colour illustrations in these books, I admire the skill; whereas when I look at his symbolic black and white illustrations, I admire the ingenuity as well as the skill. Of course, this is just my personal opinion. Others may prefer the misty dream–like colour illustrations of the 1909 Rubaiyat and the 1911 Tannhäuser; others again, the more intensely coloured illustrations of the 1930 Rubaiyat. But one thing is for sure: as stated at the outset, the McKay Rubaiyat of 1942 stands out like the proverbial sore thumb amongst all other Pogany editions of FitzGerald, or as Sandra Mason and Bill Martin put it, “like the cuckoo in the nest.”



Note 1: Pogany’s life is so well documented online that only a brief outline need be given here. He was born in Hungary in 1882, studied in Budapest, Munich and Paris before moving to London in 1904, in time to cash–in on a booming book–illustration industry. In 1908 he married his first wife, Lillian. In 1914 he and his wife emigrated to America where, in addition to book, magazine and newspaper illustration, he became involved in costume and set designs for the theatre, and later for the cinema. He also became involved in interior decoration (notably murals), and became a portrait painter to the wealthy and famous. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1933, and the following year he married writer Elaine Cox. He died in New York in 1955. A brief biography of him along with a good cross–section of his book illustrations, can be found in Jeff A. Menges, Willy Pogany Rediscovered (Dover Publications, New York, 2009), with useful articles in, for example, Book and Magazine Collector issue 93 (December1991) & issue 302 (Christmas 2008), both by Richard Dalby. There is also an excellent illustrated article on Pogany,with an extensive bibliography of 159 entries, by Robin Greer in the Imaginative Book Illustration Society Journal (vol.1, 1999). Fig.13 is a photograph of Pogany taken in 1938.

Note 2a: It was announced and praised by Clement K. Shorter in his “Literary Letter” column of The Sphere on 18 September 1909, for example, and my own copy bears an ownership inscription dated 30 August 1909.

Note 2b: Its publication was announced in The Los Angeles Times on 22 August 1909, for example.

Note 3: One of the most remarkable examples in Rubaiyat history is that of William George Stirling, whose extraordinary opium–related illustrations for the Lotus edition of 1918 stand in stark contrast to his conventionally illustrated Malay Rubaiyats of the 1940s.

Note 4: The development of Sphinx imagery and symbolism is very complex. For the transition from the male Egyptian sphinx of Giza to the female Greek sphinx of the Oedipus legend, and thence to the likes of the female sphinx as a lascivious sexual predator, see Paul Jordan, Riddles of the Sphinx (1998) and Willis Goth Regier, Book of the Sphinx (2005). The former is useful for developments in the ancient world, the latter for more modern developments in literature and art. See also Gallery 3J on the present site.

Note 5: At least two reprints of Bilitis, illustrated by Pogany, have been issued by Dover Publications, starting in 1988. The original 1926 edition is now rare and expensive.

Note 6: According to Frank McLynn’s book Burton: Snow upon the Desert (1990), Burton’s aim in producing The Kasidah (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 first published in 1880, Burton had actually written it 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, probably by Whitley Stokes.) For more details see Appendix 5.

Note 7: The similarity between the Miraculous Star which appeared in a dream of Queen Maya and entered her womb, and images of the new–born Buddha and his mother, have naturally invited parallels with the Star of Bethlehem and Christian images of the new–born Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The use of the rosary in both East and West has invited similar attention. For more information see Appendix 6 & Gallery 7C.

Note 8: The Sonnets were written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the mid–1840s and were effectively a poetic record of her love for Robert Browning, who was unaware of their existence until his wife gave him the manuscript of them in 1847, shortly after they had eloped to Italy. She was reluctant at first to publish them on the grounds of their intensely personal nature, but her husband persuaded her otherwise, and they were first published in 1850. The title Sonnets from the Portuguese was chosen to give the impression that they were indeed translations, thus concealing their true authorship, but the title has a double meaning, for “the Portuguese” was also a nickname given to her by her husband, apparently on account of her olive complexion.



My thanks are due to Roger Paas, Joe Howard, Sandra Mason & Bill Martin, Jos Coumans and Fred Diba for supplying scans of, and information about, the various Pogany Rubaiyats in their collections, as well as for sharing their thoughts on Pogany’s work and the issues of their chronology. I must particularly thank Joe Howard for his observations on some of the symbolism used by Pogany in his Rubaiyat and Tannhäuser illustrations.


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