1859 was an interesting year. It saw Oregon joining the United States of America, Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” was published, the ground was broken for the Suez Canal, the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster was finished and Big Ben was heard for the 1st time, the 1st oil well in the United States was drilled near Titus, Pennsylvania starting the Pennsylvanian oil rush, Charles Blondin crossed the Niagara Falls on a tightrope for the 1st time, Charles Darwin published “The Origin of the Species” and the militant abolitionist John Brown was hanged and no doubt although his body “lies amoldering in his grave” his soul still goes marching on! Births included Lord Curzon, Wilhelm ll the last Kaiser of Germany, Kenneth Graham of Wind in the Willows fame, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Alfred Dreyfus and Billy the Kid. The world said “farewell” to Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Robert Stephenson. It saw also the publication of an anonymous pamphlet “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” and yet, strangely, this is not mentioned in Wikipedia, from where I gleaned the previous information. I would have thought it had more importance than the fact that US Congressman Daniel Sickles shot Philip Barton Key for having an affair with his wife, which is mentioned.
“The Moving Finger writes” begins one of the most famous verses in English Literature and yet if you asked most people where it comes from they might guess the Rubaiyat but not that it was from the translation by Edward Fitzgerald. Is it because Fitzgerald was a literary version of Meryl Streep, interpreting a role, a work rather than creating something new? If so this is unfair. It is because of Fitzgerald that we know and love the Rubaiyat and it emphasises the importance of the translator. In recent times the works of the Scandanivian writers Henning Mankell, for the Kurt Wallender detective stories, and Steig Larsson for the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series have become popular. Yet how many know that most of the works were translated into compelling English by Stephen T Murray (or Reg Keeland to give him his real name)? Although the original scripts are essential, the books popularity in the English speaking countries is due not least to the skill of the translator and the way the work has been enhanced by the use of beautiful English prose. Yet the translators are known to just those readers who take the interest to check on the title page.
To take this further, surely the most beautiful work in the English Language is the King James Version of the Holy Bible and as a traditionalist, a pedant, call me what you will, I regret the way that in the Church of England we get now the Modern Good News Version. To me, “the greatest of these is charity” and not “love”. “In the beginning was the word”, the opening of St. John’s Gospel, still has the power to move but the reason we know it is due to King James the 1st and Vl’s team of anonymous translators. Let us not forget also the translators of Homer, Sophocles, Rabelais and the Arabian Nights. In the latter case it was a contemporary of Edward Fitzgerald, Sir Richard Burton, who suffered the indignity of most of his work being burned after his death by his wife as she didn’t think it was very nice! His final resting place is an elaborate tomb in the shape of an Arab tent in the grounds of St. Mary Magdalene, Mortlake. It is interesting that his wife chose to lie next to him there even though she disapproved of his life’s work. By the way, is Sir Richard Burton better known to the general public than Edward Fitzgerald because of the sexual aspect of his work? It’s sad if he is.
Albinoni’s most popular work is probably his Adagio and yet really it is the work of Giazotti, who found a scrap of paper with a few notes by Albinoni and enhanced it. Very little of Albinoni remains yet he inspired the work and it adds to his reputation. Slightly differently, I watched a painting of Hong Kong at the time of the Handover to China being created in the studio of the artist Ben Johnson. It was a massive work and there was a team of about 12 working on it. The finished painting, however, is indisputably by Ben Johnson.
Without Edward Fitzgerald, would the Rubaiyat have received its worldwide popularity? He is responsible for the English translation and it is his skill as an English Poet that took the Persian work and made it one of the most famous poems in the English Language. This was the result of not one attempt; in fact he revised the work about 5 times in the wish to improve on his initial version. And why not? He gave the world a perfect translation of the work and who is to say that the Persian original is better? Was, for example, Sir Edward Elgar a better conductor of his own work than Sir Adrian Boult? As for revisions, Beethoven, of course, used to write and rewrite his works several times, even after their first performance. Famously, Nelson’s signal at Trafalgar was supposed to say “Nelson expects that every man this day should do his duty” until the signals officer pointed out to him that if he changed “Nelson” to “England” it meant fewer flags!
Perhaps Fitzgerald, who was once described as one of the most unobtrusive authors who ever lived, preferred his almost anonymity and he ended his days near Lowestoft happily mucking about in boats, just like Ratty in Wind in the Willows. Maybe that is why he lies in an unostentatious grave in country churchyard rather than in Westminster Abbey where some of his less worthy contemporaries lie. Curiously, he translated many subsequent and important works after the Rubaiyat and yet that is the only one that lingers in the imagination.
However, he had one other extraordinary gift, the gift of making and keeping friends including from his time at Trinity. Thackeray and Tennyson were friends as were Thomas Hardy and J. M. Barrie. Tennyson dedicated a poem to his memory. Although Thomas Gray and A.E. Houseman are buried in the Abbey, did either of them leave behind clubs, created by some of the most famous writers and poets of their time, which celebrated their memory and continue 100 years after their deaths? This club has had some extraordinary members and speakers, such as GK Chesterton (who famously send a telegram to his wife “Am in Market Harborough, Where should I be?” and she cabled back “At home”!) and I am humbled that I am standing where once he stood but without his same command of the English language.
Friendship is something so special. I love the story Bishop Michael Marshall told at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square one Sunday. Two schoolboy friends were in the same battalion in the First World War. The order came for them to go “Over the top”; they did but only one of the friends returned. He told the Colonel that he had to go back and find his friend and was advised that it would achieve nothing and he could get killed. Nevertheless he went and he returned carrying his friend’s body although mortally wounded himself. The Colonel said “I told you it wasn’t worth it” to be told “Oh but it was. When I found him he was still alive and he said “I knew you would come for me”
“A Book of verses underneath the Bough, a Loaf of bread a jug of wine and thou, beside me, singing in the wilderness- O wilderness were Paradise enow!”
That surely is what friendship is all about?