The Omar Khayyam Club was founded in 1892 and today meets regularly every year in March and November for celebratory dinners at the Savile Club, London.
The Club was formed to celebrate a Victorian writer, Edward Fitzgerald, and the poem – The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – that he made famous around the world. Omar Khayyam was an 11th century Persian astronomer and mathematician, who also wrote a rubaiyat (poem) of 158 four-line verses. A millennium later it has appeared in 650 different editions, it has been illustrated by 150 artists, set to music by 100 composers and translated into 70 languages. The reason is Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883) who came across a manuscript of the Rubaiyat, and set about translating, reordering and adapting the verses until they became his own. A run of 250 copies was published in 1859 at a shilling, but it was soon remaindered at a penny. Collectors now pay £30,000 for a first edition, and Fitzgerald’s version of the Rubaiyat is among the best known and most loved poetry in the English language. During the first World War it was as likely as the bible to be among the possessions of a British officer. A.S. Byatt said, “It is insidiously memorable; it sings in the mind.” Swinburne thought it as beautiful as the book of Ecclesiastes.
Fitzgerald has never been accorded the status of Thomas Gray or A.E. Housman (who
also produced a single, famous poetic work in quatrains), or his friend Tennyson. His body
lies not in Westminster Abbey but a small graveyard in Suffolk. They’re also unconvinced
in Iran: the Shah of Persia asked an early president of the Omar Khayyam Club, “Why all
this fuss about poor Omar? Don’t you know that Persia has a hundred poets much greater
than him?” But Fitzgerald’s interpretation of the Rubaiyat has enduring appeal because it is
such a beautiful meditation on life, death, happiness and the pleasures of imbibing.
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness -
O Wilderness were Paradise enow!
The essentials for paradise (‘enow’ is an old form of ‘enough’) are poetry, nature, food,
wine, music, and company. Fitzgerald’s outlook is an antidote to the illusions of fame and
fortune, and in the age of Big Brother, Heat magazine and a world recession, this feels
more relevant than ever. In contrast to Housman’s agonised pessimism, Fitzgerald is for
calm resignation. His verses are amused and amusing, never cynical.
The Club has a literary mission to expose newcomers to the pleasures of the rubaiyat, but
it is just as anxious to convey the spirit of the poem and its two creators. The underlying
purpose of the Club’s dinners is conviviality, because Fitzgerald had a talent for friendship,
and friendship is celebrated throughout the Rubaiyat. The Club also quietly promotes the
view that life is not be taken too seriously. Each dinner includes a speech which
‘respectfully vilifies’ the guests, as one commentator put it in 1910. But the exercise is
affectionate – not biting – or the joke would be on the Club.
One more detail. Tradition dictates that roses are worn at every Club dinner. In part this is
about the rose plucked by members of the club 100 years ago from Omar Khayyam’s
graveside in Persia, brought to England and planted next to Fitzgerald’s grave. The rose
also reminds members and guests that they must seize the moment, because they too are short-lived. Roses repeatedly make the same point in the Rubaiyat. Fitzgerald’s message is that saving ourselves for heaven is uncertain, so we must enjoy pleasures while they last.
Drink! for you know not whence you came nor why:
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.