20th March 2014

Omar Khayyām
A ‘Greek’ stranded among aliens?
‘The Fitz’ of Mar 20, 2014
Delivered by Hazhir Teimourian
 

Honoured guests, Mr President, brother Omarians!

I’d like to begin by thanking our president and our Secretary for what they don’t know they’ve done. Being human, they might expect me to thank them for their hard work in arranging our affairs.  But no! I speak from on high! I want to thank them for their timing. They do now know they have chosen an evening for our gathering which is so dear to millions of people around the world. As we sit here, the evening is being also celebrated for reasons that have everything to do with our Master, the great Omar.

You may know that it is the Spring Equinox. But you may not know that it is also the eve of the ancient festival of Norouz – New Day, in Persian. Norouz was first instituted, formally, by Darius the First, the Great King of the Achaemenid dynasty of ancient Persia in the 6th Century BC. It has been continuously celebrated ever since, around this time of year, but not always, and not always officially. When in the Seventh Century AD, the armies of Islam overthrew the much more civilised Persian empire, they also banned all manifestations of the separate identity of the Iranian peoples, by which I mean not just the Persians, but also others, less well known, such as the Kurds, the Pashtuns, etc.

And so Norouz was suppressed and this meant that there was no government or institution to insert the necessary leap years. So Norouz became dependent on the memory of the old and gradually drifted away from the Spring Equinox. As a result, by the time of the Master in the eleventh century, Norouz had so drifted out of place that it was celebrated in the autumn.

Fortunately, there came an enlightened king – with an even more enlightened chancellor – to the rescue. The king’s name was Malik Shah, and the chancellor’s name was Nizām al-Mulk. Together, they showered money and honours on a young genius of a mathematician they found in the city of Bokhara in central Asia and they commissioned him to gather around him a team of his brightest fellow mathematicians to calculate, anew, where Norouz ought to be.

As a result, but after several years of intense research, in 1079, Omar and his team came up with the right answer, and there is where Norouz has rested ever since.

A point before I pass on:  In order to reform the calendar so that it would need as little adjustment as possible in the centuries to come, Omar and his team had to determine, first,  the exact length of the year, and this they achieved extremely accurately,  to the astonishment of mathematicians and physicists today.  Without our modern instruments, without telescopes and even accurate clocks, they calculated the time it took the Earth to make one revolution around the Sun to within five seconds of what an atomic clock would have given them. This is according – not to us, fans of the Master who are naturally biased, but – they august Institute of Physics in London.

So tonight, from the Tajiks of central Asia and the Pashtuns of eastern Afghanistan to the Persians of Iran and the Kurds of Syria, millions of people are gathered together,  exactly as we are, to celebrate the coming of the New Year according to the labours of our Master, the great Omar.

So, well done Chairman and well done Secretary! You had tricks up your sleeves you didn’t even know you had!

That was my preamble. Now to the 30 seconds I have left for my main speech!

Who really was Omar Khayyām, this man who left such a deep mark of himself on his age and on the ages to come? For ever since his time, many people have tried to claim him for their own, and his reputation has suffered for it. As he himself says in one celebrated quatrain:

Gar man ze maye Moqāneh mastam, hastam!
Gar kāfaro Gabro bot-parastam, hastam!
Har tāife’i be man gamāni dārd.
Man zāne khodam, har ānche hastam, hastam! 

Lost to the wine of the Magus? I am!
Pagan? Zarathustrian? Haereticus? I am!
Every nation has its notion of me,
I am my own man, whatever I am.

Brothers in the Master, this question of who really Omar was has intrigued me since my childhood in the 1950s in the Kurdish highlands of western Iran, when I first found his little book of poems in my father’s library of bulging and pompous, mystic and theological books. I found the little book irreverent, joyous, giving two fingers to all those who had a ready answer to all complex questions and who hanged you if you didn’t say you were convinced by their arguments. He also used simple language, in the style of the Anglo-Saxons of that same eleventh century, who resented their language being downgraded by Norman warlords, for although Persian was no longer banned by his time, it had nevertheless accumulated so many Arabic and Turkish loan words that little evidence remained of its origins in its daily vocabulary. This meant that official, literary Persian had become almost impenetrable to most people.  But by using only basic Persian words, Oman was not just trying to reach many more people. He was also, in a secretive, deniable way, was telling his audience that he was a rebel,  that he not accept the claims of the mullas to moral superiority, and that he was not glad of the vanquishing of his people, that in fact he regarded the triumph of fanatical Islam over the region a historic disaster.

I found, also, that Omar had a strong sense of social justice. He was critical of many aspects of the government of the king who had bestowed so many honours on him and who had become a close friend and protector.

Gar bar falakam dast bodi, chon Yazdān,
Bar dāshtami man in falak ra ze miān.
Vaz no falaki degar chenān Sakhtami
Kāzādeh be kāme khod rasidi āsān 

If I had Mazda’s omnipotent hand,
I would destroy each and every land.
A whole new world would I then start
In which not a soul nursed a broken heart. 

So here was a man who not only dared to refer to God by his ancient Persian, that is by his Zarathustrian name, Mazda or Yazdān, which offended the Muslims all around him, but also someone who was pained every day to see the injustices being done to his fellow men, the suppression of the free and the joyous by avaricious tax collectors, as well as by dark-robed, pompous, hypocritical mullahs. No wonder the Mullahs passed a fatwa of death against him as soon as his friend and protector, the Shah, was assassinated in 1092:

Lord of the fatwa, what a rogue you are!
Drinker I may be, I prefer by far,
From the juice of grapes to secure a thrill
Than to cheat orphans of their fathers’ will! 

I am glad to report to you that the ten years of intense research that went into my English-language biography of Omar a decade ago did not change this early impression. The biography had, of course, to be a credible work. It had to stand up to the scrutiny of publishers and scholars. But above all, it had to have respect in my own eyes, for I was no longer a child, nor a nationalist of any kind. Truth, or as much truth as is possible to us who are dependent on the evidence of our senses and the reasoning of our minds, came first.

So, what did I find about the life and mentality of Omar Khayyām that was new as a result of my years reading obscure books and manuscripts in dusty libraries. Amazingly, no-one had had written a proper biography of him before, in any language, only cursory sketches of his life or weighty domes on his rubaiyat.

I found that the poor man had had two lives. One, up to the age of 44, was full of fun and hope and laughter and adulation. As an extremely bright child in the city of Nishapur in the north-east of Iran today, he had impressed his father, a herbal physician, so much that he had employed the best teachers in the city for him to be taught the secular arts and sciences of his day, particularly music and mathematics. Then, when his father died when he was 18 years of age, he had inherited the surgery, but instead of continuing in his father’s shoes, he had uprooted himself to the city of Samarkand in central Asia in search of even better teachers. There he had quickly charmed the king, who had made him a regular companion of his family – much like Beethoven nearer our time when he arrived in Vienna to study under Haydn. But this had hardly begun when the region was captured by the Saljuq emperor, young Malik Shah of Isfahan, who, together with his chancellor, ordered Khayyām to migrate to their own capital to work for them. And there, as I mentioned earlier, several years of research resulted in a new solar calendar that is the most accurate there has ever been, even more accurate than the Gregorian calendar that was devised 500 years later and which we use here. Omar’s calendar needs fewer adjustments every 10,000 years than does the Gregorian.

Then, when he was 44 and at the height of his fame and wealth and freedom, disaster struck. In 1092, Malik Shah was poisoned in middle age during a visit to Baghdad, which he was trying to turn into his summer capital, and the queen, who had been a close friend to Omar since her own childhood in Samarkand and Bokhara, grabbed the throne for herself – though in the name of her her infant son – and thus plunged the empire from Jerusalem to Samarkand into a deep dynastic war. (By doing so, of course, she also, unwittingly, created a military vacuum in the region and paved the way for the first Crusade, four years later). Anyhow, the queen needed allies now, and so had to disown her heretical friend in order to appease the Mullahs. They had resented Omar’s influence over the royal family for years. As a consequence, Khayyām was forced to flee back to Nishāpūr and – like Salman Rushdie in our time – declare that he had at last seen the light of Islam, that he was a reformed character now.

And as with Rushdie, the mullahs didn’t believe him and knew he was lying. But fortunately they couldn’t get their hands on him there, as the local prince was a fan of his. But for the rest of his life, he had to refrain from teaching or engaging in any serious debate or correspondence of a philosophical nature. All that he could do was to add the occasional heretical quatrain to his little secret collection for the private gatherings of his friends. I believe he wrote them to be sung, rather than be recited as poetry.

For a more detailed study of his life, particularly for my theses that Omar was a creature of the philosophers of ancient Greece, rather than a product of a Muslim environment, for my evidence that he read Greek, that at times he felt trapped among aliens, please see whether you can find a second-hand copy of my biography of him (Omar Khayyam : Poet, Rebel, Astronomer,  Sutton, London 2007).

I shall leave you with a little reminder of the art of the great FitzGerald who brought Omar to the attention of the world and who is, ultimately, responsible for our being here tonight.  Having examined the selection he made of the rubaiyat, which had by his time become corrupted, and seeing the quality of his translations which are a wonderful poem in English in their own right, I can tell you that Old Fitz caught the spirit of Old Omar perfectly.  May I therefore, in his memory, and in order to give us an excuse to raise a glass to him, too, our other master, may I recite the last quatrain of HIS rubaiyat?

And when Thyself with shining foot shall pass
Among the guests star-scatter’d on The Grass’
And in Thy joyous Errand reach the Spot
Where I made one – turn down an empty Glass! 

Let us please drink to both Omar and Edward.

Bennet Maxwell – Some notes on the history

At the dinner in March 2008 I casually mentioned to our esteemed Secretary that I, and presumably other recent members, knew little, if anything, about the origins and history of the Club. With his infallible instinct for the main chance, he immediately said; “Why don’t you give us a paper on it at the next dinner?” So here I am and here it is. I apologise to the more long-standing members for covering ground with which they have long been familiar, but, who knows, I may have unearthed some facts that even they will find interesting. So here we go.

Despite the fact that the the Club has existed for more than a hundred years it appears to have no archives other than a collection of menus dating back to the early 1900s, which Charles Hodgson curated and augmented for many years. However, the first eighteen years of the club were commemorated in The Book of the Omar Khayyam Club, a limited edition for members with illustrations from the menus along with a selection of poems and lists of members and guests, and in 1931 The Second Book of the Omar Khayyam Club brought the record up to 1929. Since then no further volumes have been published.

Philip Guedalla, writing in the first of these volumes, boasted that “with no rules to restrain an irresponsible committee, with no official archives whence a future chronicler could have drawn materials for its history, the Omar Khayyam Club proudly rests on unsullied traditions.”

Nevertheless, it is surprising how much about the Club is on record. A number of members have mentioned it in their memoirs, the archives at Kew Gardens proved fruitful, and some minutes of the club and associated correspondence, together with a fascinating table plan for the dinner in March 1939, exist in the library of McMaster University in Canada.

So let us begin at the very beginning. The first edition of Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat was published by the London book dealer Bernard Quaritch in 1859. Although only 250 copies were printed, it did not sell well and was quickly remaindered. Nevertheless, there were one or two enthusiasts, among them Dante Gabriel Rossetti., and 36 years later the poet Swinburne described in a letter to the Club how Rossetti: had introduced him to the delights of the Rubaiyat :

“At that time the first edition was being sold off at a penny a copy, having proved hopelessly unsaleable at the published price of one shilling. We invested in sixpennyworth apiece, and on returning to the stall next day for more, found that we had sent up the market to the sinfully extravagant sum of twopence, an imposition that evoked from Rossetti a fervent and impressive remonstrance.”

I like Swinburne’s use of the word “invested”. He cannot have had any idea how good an investment it was. A first edition is currently on the market for £28,000, so between them Rossetti and Swinburne’s dozen copies are now worth well over a quarter of a million.

Quaritch didn’t produce a second edition for another nine years, and even then it was limited to only 500 copies. All the same, enthusiasm for FitzGerald’s version gradually grew and one enthusiast was William Simpson, an artist working for the Illustrated London News, who in 1884 travelled from Tehran to Central Asia with the Afghan Boundary Commission, an expedition hoping to resolve a border dispute between Russia and Afghanistan. Their route passed near Naishapur, and Simpson took the opportunity to visit Omar Khayyam’s grave. Omar had told his friend Kwajah Nizami that his tomb should be “on a spot where the north wind may strew roses upon it”, and Simpson was delighted to discover that roses were still blossoming by the grave. He collected some hips and sent them to Bernard Quaritch, who passed them on to Kew Gardens, where the Keeper raised new plants from the seeds.

The 1880s and 1890s saw a fashion for founding literary dining clubs: amongst others the Johnson Club began in 1884 (Edmund Clodd was a co-founder and George Whale a member), the still extant Pepys Club of which George Whale was a founder, and the Titmarsh Club devoted to Thackeray.

Although I never came across it myself, I believe there was at Oxford University a dining club called the Mermaid, which was devoted to the memory of William Shakespeare, and I understood that the first item of business at each meeting was the proposal of the motion “that the Bard be not read tonight.” This was always seconded and passed nem. con., after which the members got down to the serious business of the evening.

And it was in the wake of that fashion that three friends, Frederick Hudson, Clement Shorter and George Whale met in 1892 and deplored the fact that they did not dine together often enough. Shorter was the editor of the Illustrated London News, and he went on to found the Sketch, the Sphere and the Tatler. Whale was a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Chairman of the Rationalist Press Association and a friend of H. G. Wells. They agreed to dine together at stated intervals, and on 13th October 1892 they invited some friends to a dinner at Pagani’s Restaurant in Great Portland Street. Their guests included Edward Clodd, William Simpson and the poet William Watson. All three were Omarians. Clodd, who was to pay a major role in the early days of the Club, was a remarkable man; largely self-educated, who had arrived in London at the age of 22, walked into the London Joint Stock Bank and asked for a job. There he rose rapidly from a minor clerical post to Secretary of the Bank, a position he held until his retirement at the age of 75. In 1873 he had published his first book, a primer on evolutionary anthropology, which quickly passed through four editions and was translated into six European and two African languages. He went on to write biographies of Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace and Herbert Spencer and a score of other books on a vast range of subjects. He had been a co-founder of the Johnson Club, of which Whale was a member and later a founder of the Pepys Club.

At that dinner in Pagani’s the Club was founded, and it was decided that membership should be restricted to 59 in commemoration of the year FitzGerald’s version of the Rubaiyat.was first published. Pagani’s, which survived until the Second World War, became a regular venue for Club dinners. At one point the Club deserted it for Frascati’s, which is described as a large and handsome establishment with winter garden, café and numerous billiard tables, but motor omnibuses having rendered Oxford Street unsuitable for the Club’s reflections it returned in 1911 to its birthplace at Pagani’s in search of quiet.”

Although Pagani’s remained the venue of most club dinners, it was the custom most years to hold a summer Dinner outside London, often at the Bull in Woodbridge in Suffolk, where Fitzgerald’s house still stood, but sometimes at other even more exotic hostelries. There are menus for the Spaniards Inn in Hampstead, Skindle’s Hotel in Maidenhead, the Great White Horse Hotel in Ipswich, and even, on one occasion, Magdalene College, Cambridge.

The most famous of these summer dinners was the Burford Bridge Dinner in 1895 when the President persuaded George Meredith, who lived locally, to be his guest, and who spoke in public for the first, last and only time in his life. The Dinner was reported at length, not only in the London press, but in papers as far afield as New York and Sydney.

Although summer Dinners in the country may be a thing of the past, many of the Club’s customs remain to this day. Philip Guedalla described them in 1910:

The ritual is quite unchanging. A poem recited by its author, a drawing explained (where possible) by its designer, a Speech from the discursive throne, the search for something new to say about Fitzgerald that succeeds astonishingly often, and a respectful vilification of the guests – these are the simple ingredients of the Club’s evenings.

Not quite everything, however, remains the same, and I shall shortly mention some changes that have occurred over time. Meanwhile, back to the roses.

A year after its foundation, the club decided to obtain a cutting of Simpson’s Persian rose from Kew Gardens and plant it at the head of FitzGerald’s grave, so on Saturday  October 7th 1893 a small party consisting of Bernard Quaritch, William Simpson, Edward Clodd, Clement Shorter, George Whale, Edmund Gosse, Colonel Kerrich who was Fitz’s nephew and executor, and an American, Moncure Conway, descended on the churchyard at Boulge, a few miles from Woodbridge. Conway was a pillar of the South Place Ethical Society after whom Conway Hall, , the Society’s headquarters in Red Lion Square, is named. The Rector of Boulge church had not been enthusiastic, however, and had written a letter studded with italics expressing his reservations. He wrote:

“I personally cannot object to your proposal of planting a rose tree with a fence or rail for its protection at the head of Mr Edward FitzGerald’sgrave in Boulge churchyard, though I would much prefer the proposed plate of inscription having no reference to a heathen philosopher which I cannot but think out of place in a Christian churchyard.”

Fortunately the Rector of a neighbouring parish had no such qualms and willingly conducted the little ceremony. Simpson told the story of his pilgrimage to Naishapur, Gosse read a poem and they all made speeches.

Afterwards the group repaired to Clodd’s house in Aldburgh, where they stayed for the rest of the weekend.

The ceremonial planting of Simpson’s rose inspired Edmund Gosse to organise a petition from the members of the Club to the Shah of Persia asking him to help with the restoration and maintenance of Omar’s tomb.

The British Ambassador, Sir Mortimer Durand, later to become President of the Club, presented the letter to the Shah, who burst into uncontrollable laughter, then said: “Why all this fuss about poor Omar? Don’t you know that Persia has a hundred poets much greater than Omar, and who bothers about their tombs?”  adding: “Let the club come over to Persia and look after this poet’s tomb for themselves.”

The membership in the 1890s included an impressive number of convivial writers, including Thomas Hardy, Andrew Lang, Arthur Pinero, J.M. Barrie, John Buchan, Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins (the author of The Prisoner of Zenda), Henry James, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edmund Gosse, and the long list of guests was equally impressive, including G.K. Chesterton, A.E. Housman, W. B. Yeats, Max Beerbohm, and Herbert Asquith, later Prime Minister. A particularly notable guest was the American Ambassador, John Hay, who had been Abraham Lincoln’s secretary, and who spoke so impressively that his speech was reprinted several times. The club is described in one early account as “both literary and bibulous” and another source says that “their meetings furnished excuses for rumbustious drinking and the composition of appalling doggerel”. Omar Khayyam dinners seem to have changed little since then.

In 1899 Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote the last of his comic operas entitled “The Rose of Persia”. By this time he and W.S. Gilbert were no longer on speaking terms, and the book and lyrics were written by Basil Hood, a former Army officer, who went on to write a number of successful West End shows. The plot, a piece of oriental fantasy with echoes of “The Mikado”, has nothing to do with Omar Khayyam, the “rose” in question being a Persian princess who pretends to be a commoner. However, there is an intriguing side to it. Basil Hood had been, at least once, a guest of the Omar Khayyam Club, and one wonders whether the idea for the title at least might not have come from that association.

At the beginning of the First World War it was decided to continue to hold occasional dinners, but only three actually took place, in December 1914 and in June and December 1915. No pictures or poems adorned the menus, and no guests were invited.

And so to return to the matter of roses. As you know, members wear red carnations at dinners and guests wear white ones. However, Guedalla mentions wearing “roses white and red” and a poem on one of the menus states:

Red is the Wine, and Red the Rose we wear,
And though our Secretary takes good care
To say ‘another colour’ for our guests,
On damask cheeks there are the Roses there.

So it seems that any colour, so long as it was not red, was acceptable for the guests, and this is confirmed by a notice that was sent to members in 1919, which states that “Members will wear red roses, and their guests roses of another colour.”

I have been unable to discover when or why the roses were replaced by carnations, but I would suggest that, cost permitting, we should revert to the former.

And there are also a couple of references to the President wearing a myrtle wreath on his head, but I suspect that custom died out fairly early, for obvious reasons.

Sources

The Book of the Omar Khayyam Club, 1892-1910. pp. 220. London, 1910.

The Second Book of the Omar Khayyam Club, 1910-1929. Printed for the members for private circulation.  London, 1931.

ASQUITH, H. H. (Herbert Henry), 1852-1928 Uniform title [Works ] Title The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam … An address delivered to the Omar Khayyam Club, April 27, 1898. London, 1917. Physical descr. 4º. General note One of 25 copies printed for Clement Shorter.

CLODD, Edward.: Concerning a Pilgrimage to the Grave of Edward Fitzgerald. [With a portrait.]; pp. 18. Printed for private distribution to the members of the Omar Khayyam Club: London, 1894.

CLODD, Edward. Memories … With portraits. pp. xi. 288. Chapman & Hall: London, 1916.

CONWAY, Moncure Daniel. Autobiography. Memories and experiences of Moncure D. Conway. With two portraits. 2 vol. Cassell & Co.: London, 1904.

DE LA MARE, Walter, 1873-1956. [A menu of the Omar Khayyam Club, with a poem by W. de la Mare, beginning “Six and thirty years gone.”] [London, 1920.]

DOBSON, Austin, 1840-1921. Verses read at the Dinner of the Omar Khayyam Club on Thursday, 25th March, 1897. pp. 11. Printed at the Chiswick Press: London, 1897. 8º. An edition of 100 copies printed for Edmund Gosse.

GISSING, George, 1857-1903; “The letters of George Gissing to Edward Clodd. Edited and with an introduction by Pierre Coustillas, etc. London: Enitharmon Press, 1973. pp. 120: plates; facsim, port. 22 cm. Series (Enitharmon Press Gissing series. no. 7.)

HAY, John Milton.; In praise of Omar. An address before the Omar Khayyam Club. (Second edition.). pp. 10. T. B. Mosher: Portland, Maine, 1898.

HAY, John Milton: In praise of Omar. An address before the Omar Khayyam Club (1897). Berkeley Heights: Oriole Press, 1961.

HENDERSON, John, Papers as Secretary of Omar Khayyam Club c1899 (Cambridge University: Trinity College Library).

MOLONY, Senan, Rubáiyát reflections on Titanic.

PLIMMER, Henry George, ; “Omariana. Dedicated to the members of the Omar Khayyam Club on its twenty-first birthday. pp. 20. Privately printed: London, [1913.]

SADLEIR, Michael, Only Collect: Passages From The Autobiography Of A Bibliomaniac, London, 1951

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam of Naishapur. (Rendered into English verse by Edward FitzGerald, and printed for the Omar Khayyam Club … under the care of C. R. Ashbee.) [With an introduction by Clement K. Shorter.] pp. vii. 26. Essex House Press: London, 1905.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam / Rendered into English Verse by Edward FitzGerald; with the address of John Hay at the Omar Khayyam Club, London. Publisher/year ] : [s.n.], [1909]

Rubaiyat … Parallel texts of the first and second editions, etc. [With an essay on Edw. FitzGerald by Edward Clodd.] London : Selwyn & Blount, 1921.

Twenty Years of the Omar Khayyam Club of America. [Edited by Charles Dana Burrage. With facsimiles.] pp. 105. pl. 102. Rosemary Press: [Boston,] 1921. Privately printed. An edition of fifty copies.

George Whale, 1849-1925. (In Memoriam.-Essays by G. Whale.-The Life and Death of George Whale. Address … by J. M. Robertson.-The Last Speech of George Whale.) Edited by Edward Clodd, Clement Shorter and Winifred Stephens Whale. [With a portrait.] pp. 270. Jonathan Cape: London, 1926.

The Ralph Straus fonds: Series 1, Box 2, Vol.20; Series 7, Box 11, F.4, F.5; Series 10, Box 12, F.3, Archives and Research Collections, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Daily Chronicle, 4 October 1893.

New York Times, 31 July 1897, 10 June 1899, 25 July 1900, 25 August 1900, 3 November 1900, 28 July 1901, 8 March 1902, 11 June 1904, 14 March 1909, 28 May 1910, 3 December 1910, 24 December 1916.

The Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Brief for Omar Khayyam Club speeches

Note. If contributors are unsure how long their talk will last, they can do a simple calculation: divide the total word count by 120. The answer will be the rough duration in minutes.

Justification

The speech

Prospective members outline why they are eligible to become full members of the Omar Khayyam Club.

Successful ones

They need to demonstrate a firm grasp of the Club’s ethos (as outlined in the short introduction to the Club, above). They may also wish to show some familiarity with Omar Khayyam, Edward Fitzgerald and the rubaiyat. The speeches that work well are amusing and brief.

When they work less well

Less successful speeches mistake this exercise as a test of their achievements to date or their competence (the opposite is generally preferred), and go on too long.

Duration

Guide: 3 mins

Absolute maximum: 5 mins

Poem

Written specially for each Dinner and printed on the Menu.

Drawing

Or artwork, created specially for each Dinner and providing the menu decoration.

The Fitz

The speech

The task is to talk interestingly about some aspect of Omar Khayyam and/or Edward Fitzgerald, for instance his life, the Rubaiyat, his other works, his friends.

Previous subjects have included….

2007: John Ranelagh on the differences between Fitz’s adaptation of the Rubaiyat vs Heath-Stubbs’.

1992: Jamie Priestley on Fitzgerald’s attitude to politics. The evening took place on the day of a general election.

Note that the speech ends with the speech maker proposing a toast to “The Master”. All stand.

Successful ones

This is the scholarly part of the evening which – at best – sheds new light on Fitzgerald and the rubaiyat. The Fitz can be fascinating and entertaining. And the best ones end while the audience is still interested.

When they work less well

The Fitz suffers when the speech giver does not edit the good research he has undertaken. Many Fitz speeches go on far too long.

Duration

Guide: 10 mins

Absolute maximum: 15 mins

Guests

The speech

The aim is to poke benign fun at each of the guests in turn.

Note that the speech ends with the speech maker proposing a toast to the guests. The members stand while the guests remain seated.

Successful ones

They walk a tightrope between being too kind and being too critical. The audience needs to understand why each guest is deeply flawed, but no critique should cause discomfort. The purpose of the speech is to embrace the unfortunate guests, not exclude them, still less offend them.

When they work less well

The speech maker falls off the tightrope and/or dwells too long on one or more of the guests. ‘Too long’ depends on the subjective view of the audience, to which the speech maker needs to be sensitive.

Duration

Guide: about a minute per guest

Absolute maximum: this will depend on the number of guests of course. This speech should last 15 minutes at the most. Preferably less.

Response

The speech

This is the response of one guest to the speech which has just been made about the guests. He talks on behalf of all of them.

Note that the speech giver traditionally proposes a toast to the members. The guests stand while the members remain seated.

Successful ones

The guest making this speech can either suggest that the guests richly deserve the purgation they have just endured, or he can exact revenge by gently tweaking the Club’s tail. The best versions of this speech are gracious and funny, and are given in the spirit the evening has been trying to achieve: convivial and amusing.

When they work less well

This speech is less successful when it goes on too long.

Duration

Guide: 2-3 mins

Absolute maximum: 5 mins

History

SOME NOTES ON THE HISTORY OF THE OMAR KHAYYAM CLUB

The Omar Khayyam Club has existed since 1892, interrupted only by the First World War.

The first edition of Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat was published by the London book dealer Bernard Quaritch in 1859. Only 250 copies were printed, and even those didn’t sell well and were quickly remaindered. Nevertheless, there were one or two enthusiastic supporters, among them Dante Gabriel Rossetti., and 36 years later the poet Swinburne described in a letter to the Club how Rossetti had introduced him to the delights of the Rubaiyat:

“At that time the first edition was being sold off at a penny a copy, having proved hopelessly unsaleable at the published price of one shilling. We invested in sixpennyworth apiece, and on returning to the stall next day for more, found that we had sent up the market to the sinfully extravagant sum of twopence, an imposition that evoked from Rossetti a fervent and impressive remonstrance.”

When Swinburne used the word “invested” he cannot have had any idea how good an investment it was as a first edition was recently on the market for £28,000.

Increasing interest in the poem encouraged Quaritch to produce a second edition nine years later  even then it was limited to 500 copies. All the same, enthusiasm for FitzGerald’s version gradually grew and one enthusiast was William Simpson, an artist working for the Illustrated London News, who in 1884 travelled from Tehran to Central Asia with the Afghan Boundary Commission, an expedition hoping to resolve a border dispute between Russia and Afghanistan. Their route passed near Naishapur, and Simpson took the opportunity to visit Omar Khayyam’s grave. Omar had told his friend Kwajah Nizami that his tomb should be “on a spot where the north wind may strew roses upon it”, and Simpson was delighted to discover that roses were still blossoming by the grave. He collected some hips and sent them to Bernard Quaritch, who passed them on to KewGardens, where the Keeper raised new plants from the seeds.

The late Victorian age saw a fashion for founding literary dining clubs and it was in the wake of that fashion that three friends, Frederick Hudson, Clement Shorter and George Whale met in 1892 and deplored the fact that they did not dine together often enough. Shorter was the editor of the Illustrated London News, and he went on to found the Sketch, the Sphere and the Tatler. Whale was a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Chairman of the Rationalist Press Association and a friend of H. G. Wells. They agreed to dine together at stated intervals, and on 13th October 1892 they invited some friends to a dinner at Pagani’s Restaurant in Great Portland Street.

At that dinner in Pagani’s the Club was founded, and it was decided that membership should be restricted to 59 in commemoration of the year FitzGerald’s version of the Rubaiyat.was first published. Pagani’s, which survived until the Second World War, became a regular venue for Club dinners. At one point the Club deserted it for Frascati’s, which is described as “a large and handsome establishment with winter garden, café and numerous billiard tables, but motor omnibuses having rendered Oxford Street unsuitable for the Club’s reflections it returned in 1911 to its birthplace at Pagani’s in search of quiet.” Starting in the 1930s the dinners were held at Kettners in Soho and they moved to their current menu of the Savile club in the 1970s.

Although Pagani’s remained the venue of most of the early dinners, it was the custom most years to hold a summer Dinner outside London, often at the Bull in Woodbridge in Suffolk, where Fitzgerald’s house still stood, there are also menus for the Spaniards Inn in Hampstead, Skindle’s Hotel in Maidenhead, the Great White Horse Hotel in Ipswich, and Magdalene College, Cambridge.

The most famous of these summer dinners was the Burford Bridge Dinner in 1895 when the President persuaded George Meredith, who lived locally, to be his guest, and who spoke in public for the first, last and only time in his life. The Dinner was reported at length, not only in the London press, but in papers as far afield as New York and Sydney.

Many of the Club’s customs which Philip Guedalla described in 1910 remain to this day:

The ritual is quite unchanging. A poem recited by its author, a drawing explained (where possible) by its designer, a Speech from the discursive throne, the search for something new to say about Fitzgerald that succeeds astonishingly often, and a respectful vilification of the guests – these are the simple ingredients of the Club’s evenings.

The membership in the 1890s included such writers as Thomas Hardy, Andrew Lang, Arthur Pinero, J.M. Barrie, John Buchan, Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins (the author of The Prisoner of Zenda), Henry James, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edmund Gosse, and the long list of guests was equally impressive, including G.K. Chesterton, A.E. Housman, W. B. Yeats, Max Beerbohm, and Herbert Asquith, later Prime Minister.

The club is described in one early account as “both literary and bibulous” and another source says that “their meetings furnished excuses for rumbustious drinking and the composition of appalling doggerel”. Omar Khayyam dinners seem to have changed little since then.

In 1899 Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote the last of his comic operas entitled “The Rose of Persia”. By this time he and W.S. Gilbert were no longer on speaking terms, and the book and lyrics were written by Basil Hood, a former Army officer, who went on to write a number of successful West End shows. The plot, a piece of oriental fantasy with echoes of “The Mikado”, has nothing to do with Omar Khayyam, the “rose” in question being a Persian princess who pretends to be a commoner. However, there is an intriguing side to it. Basil Hood had been, at least once, a guest of the Omar Khayyam Club, and one wonders whether the idea for the title at least might not have come from that association.

At the beginning of the First World War it was decided to continue to hold occasional dinners, but only three actually took place, in December 1914 and in June and December 1915. No pictures or poems adorned the menus, and no guests were invited.

The Club has continued uninterrupted and unchanged in format ever since.

November 2012

John Ranelagh
November 2012

I have become imprisoned, O beloved, by the mole on your lip!
I saw your ailing eyes and became ill through love.
Delivered from self, I beat the drum of “I am the Real!”

Like Hallaj, I became a customer for the top of the gallows.
Heartache for the beloved has thrown so many sparks into my soul

That I have been driven to despair and become the talk of the bazaar.
Open the door of the tavern and let us go there day and night,
For I am sick and tired of the mosque and seminary.
I have torn off the garb of asceticism and hypocrisy,
Putting on the cloak of the tavern-haunting shaykh and becoming aware.
The city preacher has so tormented me with his advice

That I have sought aid from the breath of the wine-drenched profligate.
Leave me alone to remember the idol-temple,
I who have been awakened by the hand of the tavern’s idol.

(The New Republic, September 4, 1989)

That was written by Ayatollah Khomeini and published by his family after his death. It goes to show that his public image was not the whole man. “I am the Real” was taken to mean “I am God”, a blasphemy, and in 922 Mansur al-Hallaj, a mystic poet and teacher, was executed in Baghdad – which had become Muslim 300 years earlier – for saying this.

Poetry that simultaneously examines man’s erotic relationships to this world and to the mystical world has been a hallmark of Persian – and through Persian of Islamic – culture. Our Omar is a clear example, as is Khomeini.

One thousand years ago knowledge of Islamic poetry was brought to us by Petrus Alfunsus (1062-1110), a remarkable man. A Jew who converted to Christianity; physician to Alfonso I of Aragon and then probably to Henry I of England; a scholar learned in Hebrew, Latin, Spanish and Arabic; a contemporary of Omar Khayyam (1048-1131). Time has almost forgotten him: he did not even have an entry in Wikipedia until February this year. Around 1106 he produced the Disciplina Clericalis. He called it his ‘little book’. It was the first deliberate import of Muslim and Arabic tales to the West and it gave – and gives – a fascinating window to the Muslim world at the height of its glory. From it we can trace phrases, situations, parables that Omar also used. ‘The Hermit Who Admonished His Soul’ is illustrative:

Where are the kings? Where are the princes, the rich men who gathered treasures and were proud because of their wealth? Now they are as if they had never existed; now they are dead, as if they had not lived.

Then this thought in Fitz’s Omar:

Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai
Whose Portals are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp
Abode his destined Hour, and went his way.

Another – anonymous – early Persian poet traversed the same ground:

The arch is broken and the splendour fled
Where every aspect once was brave and fair,
The Palace none inhabits save the dead
Whose ivory bones the desert breezes stir.

The Hall of Audience lies –
Though Princes came to make obeisance here –
And from a ruined tower an owlet cries:
‘The glory is departed -where? where? where?’

(John Bowen, Poems from the Persian, 1961)

The question resonates. Where did the glory go? Omar was a member of the House of Wisdom when, as Borges wrote, ‘on an island to the north and west that is unknown to the cartographers of Islam, a Saxon king who defeated a king of Norway is defeated by a Norman duke’. This was not quite right: the cartographers of Islam did know about the island. The House of Wisdom, founded in Baghdad in the early ninth century, was a massive library and centre of debate and research, a theatre of the intellect, somewhat akin to the Royal Society. Omar had lived within a four centuries long Muslim golden age of intellectual, scientific and artistic life far ahead of ideas and imaginations in the West.

The Mongol Golden Horde, created by Genghis Khan (1162-1227), ended this age 127 years after Omar died. These inter-continental nomadic invaders came to control a sixth of the earth’s land area in the greatest contiguous empire the world has ever seen, extending into China, Korea, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, dominating an estimated 100 million people. By 1240 they had destroyed Moscow and Kiev. In 1258 they invaded Iraq and razed Baghdad, wiping out much of Middle Eastern civilisation. They did not become Muslims until a century later.

Iraq in 1258 was very different from present day Iraq. Its agriculture was supported by canal networks thousands of years old. Baghdad was arguably the most brilliant centre of learning in the world. The total destruction of Baghdad 750 years ago was a psychological blow from which Islam has never recovered. Islam had already been turning inward, preferring faith to reason and becoming more conservative. With the sack of Baghdad, the intellectual power of Islam was snuffed out. The House of Wisdom was destroyed. It was reported that its books were thrown into the Tigris and that the river ran black with ink.

Not least because ink on paper was the method of recording, Omar and others were swept away. Indeed, hardly anyone knew about Omar until FitzGerald recreated him. In the Preface to his First Edition, he drew attention to the fading of Omar from the Muslim world and the consequent difficulty of finding him in the West:

Omar Khayyam … has been but scantily transmitted abroad. The MSS. of his Poems, mutilated beyond the average casualties of oriental transcription, are so rare in the east as scarce to have reached westward at all … There is no copy at the India House, none at the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris. We know but of one in England: … at the Bodleian, written at Shiraz, A.D. 1460. … One in the Asiatic Society’s Library at Calcutta … [Von Hammer’s copy and] …the Lucknow MS.

The Austrian Joseph von Hammer was an early orientalist who translated many texts from Persian, Arabic and Turkish in the first half of the nineteenth century.

In Fitzgerald’s grim assessment of the paucity of Omar texts lies the answer to where the glory had gone: the fragility of transcription. Omar’s Muslim world had ready access to paper (from China), centuries before Europe, and scribes copied books and poems. Thousands of texts were regularly sold in bookshops. Authors had standing and distribution and worked in an intellectual environment. Transcription was a huge industry. It was the last time the Middle East enjoyed superiority over the West.

Inevitably, after so many centuries, few if any of these transcripts survived. The earliest surviving record of Omar’s Rubaiyat is the copy in the Bodleian made about 325 years after the original and almost certainly corrupted over time. Without sustained accurate recording, texts and knowledge gradually disappeared.

In the West, texts and knowledge were saved by printing. Perhaps ironically, much of what we have today of the Middle Eastern golden age – let alone the Koran itself – that might otherwise have had a Baghdad fate, survived because of Western interest and technology. The first Koran was printed in Hamburg in 1694: closer in time by about 450 years to Muhammed than the Gutenberg Bible was to Jesus. Movable type printing was known in the Ottoman Empire as early as 1483 when the sultan made the use of books a capital crime. But until the eighteenth century, sultans explicitly forbade Muslims from printing in Arabic script, though non-religious printing came to be accepted. There were no Muslim presses in the Empire until 1727, and the Koran and other religious texts were not allowed to be printed.

Outside the Empire printing spread even more slowly in other Muslim countries. Religious authorities claimed that printing diminished the importance of the oral transmission of the Koran. The mass production of books threatened their control of the educational and legal systems, and of course threatened the livelihood of thousands of transcribers. Probably the first Koran printed by Muslims was in St. Petersburg in 1787. In the nineteenth century the use of presses became widespread in the Muslim world, and in 1828 in Kazan the Koran was printed and distributed by Muslims. Not until 1877, however, was a Koran printed in the Ottoman Empire.

Politicians in theocracies depend upon conforming to the strictures of religious authority to maintain their legitimacy. Violating these strictures risks gaol, fines, banishment, sometimes death, and for unbelievers in Muslim worlds the misery of the realm of Iblis where, depending upon your circumstances, you may also be tortured with every conceivable use of fire. Few in the Muslim world – politicians or otherwise – are prepared to break Islam’s strictures, and accordingly religious authorities have had little incentive to reinterpret or change. Thus inter alia the decline of science and arts in favour of an anti-intellectual culture of religion with ossified rules that has now had over five centuries of traction. Kemal Ataturk recognised the damage to welfare and advancement that this had caused and overturned the remaining bans on printing, including religious books, after overthrowing the Caliphate.

Sadly, Ataturk’s legacy is being eroded: part of the evidence against the pianist, Fazil Say, presently on trial in Turkey for insulting Islam, is that he tweeted a message based upon a verse of Omar suggesting that angels, taverns and drinking are combined:

And lately, by the Tavern Door agape,
Came shining through the Dusk an Angel Shape
Bearing a Vessel on his Shoulder; and
He bid me taste of it; and ’twas–the Grape!

Any version of the Rubaiyat – printed or not – has long been a challenge to the monochrome view of the mullahs and their cohorts. Sensuality, pleasure, laughter in theocracies is invariably political and threatening.

Indeed, one of Ayatollah Khomeini’s first decrees upon driving out the Shah in 1979 was that the writings of Omar Khayyam should be burnt. And they were. Khomeini’s family came, like Omar, from Nishapur. It’s probably fair to say that Khomeini was acutely aware of what he was doing.

Today, in the Muslim world, along with many other notable Middle Eastern literary figures, Omar is difficult to come by. Some editions have been published in Iran since the 1979 revolution there: as usual, there is no clear black-and-white with censorship. But in Cairo, Alexandria and Istanbul I have tried in bookshops to find Omar and have had no luck.

Omar’s Rubaiyat was rejected by Khomeni because of its heritage, its veiled homosexuality, and its joie de vivre. It is probably not in bookshops for these reasons that are seen by mullahs as undermining Islamic values and because, with time, awareness of the work has faded – as it had in the centuries before FitzGerald retuned it. Its heritage is a counterweight to eternal religious claims and attitudes; its joy defies fundamentalism. As Fitz said of Omar, ‘He sang, in an acceptable way, it seems, of what all men feel in their hearts but had not had expressed in verse before.’ The expression of a single intense heart living entirely in this world, and not of an impersonal code proclaiming heaven and other absolutes, is the red flag for fundamentalists. Quatrain 72 from the second edition embodies this:

Heav’n but the Vision of fulfill’d Desire,
And Hell the Shadow from a Soul on fire,
Cast on the Darkness into which Ourselves,
So late emerged from, shall so soon expire.

‘We seem to have the Man–the Bon-homme–Omar himself,‘ wrote FitzGerald, ‘with all his Humours and Passions, as frankly before us as if we were really at Table with him, after the Wine had gone round.’ Given that his passions may have been familiar to the Greeks, and his humours too rational to be swayed by mere assertions, it is not surprising that 9 centuries later he should be banned and burnt by men wedded to overbearing certainties.

His humours and passions generated disagreement in Omar’s own lifetime. There is some debate as to whether he was a mystic, a devoutly orthodox Muslim, or an atheist. FitzGerald’s view was clear:

Omar’s Epicurean Audacity of Thought and Speech caused him to be regarded askance in his own time and country. [The Sufi] poets … borrowed largely, indeed, of Omar’s material, but turning it to a mystical use more convenient to themselves and the people they addressed; a people … delighting in [floating] luxuriously between heaven and earth, and this world and the next … Omar was too honest of heart as well of head for this. Having failed (however mistakenly) of finding any providence but destiny, and any world but this, he set about making the most of it.

And Omar’s view as presented by Fitz:

Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain–This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Sensuality is a major driving force of curiosity. The exploration of a body is naturally thrilling, and the exploration of thought runs a close second. Omar was a man of sensuality, knowledge and mathematical precision. Fitz was similar, without trained numeracy. Their curiosity was and is subversive to any inflexible authority and to any calcified order. Their determination to look life in the eye, to call a spade a spade, is creative, challenging and finally life enhancing. Thus the mullahs’ antagonism. But few – if any – of us, let alone Omar and Fitz, take an anarchistic position. We need social and political structures. The tension that curiosity generates is not destructive: it is supportive, like a flying buttress on a Cathedral, and healthy structures know this. Omar clearly enjoyed jockeying with a political and social order confident of its realm and within which disagreement, challenge, irreverence and individuality were a part that he made his own. Let us hope that generosity in our world survives.
Scanned Image 140440000
I have passed around a photograph of two men. The one on the right, it may astound you to know, is Omar Khyam (with one ‘y’), a British citizen born in Crawley in 1982. This is his actual name, chosen by his parents, raising an interesting question about their awareness – or lack thereof – of our Omar in the Muslim world. They were not religious and probably did not connect the name with Ayatollah fire. At school, Omar captained the cricket team. Two weeks after 9-11 he trained in Pakistan to make bombs, and then planned to detonate a massive explosion in London. He was forestalled by MI-5, arrested, tried, found guilty and gaoled in 2007. The photograph was taken by a surveillance team in a Heathrow car park showing him meeting a Canadian fellow conspirator to receive an electronic trigger for his bomb.

Let us give Omar the last uplifting word as he moves in a rubaiyat from darkness to living life:

Yesterday This Day’s Madness did prepare;
To-morrow’s Silence, Triumph, or Despair:
Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why:
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.

March 2012

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?

Tony Briggs – The Rubaiyat

Tony Briggs looks back at Edward FitzGerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
By Tony Briggs, 
Published: 6:00AM BST 18 Apr 2009

Edward FitzGerald

This year marks the bicentenary of the birth of Edward FitzGerald, an outstanding writer who has done more than anyone to popularise English poetry. His best-known work, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859), began by being remaindered as a penny pamphlet, but it soon took off and swept across the world. To date it has appeared in 650 different editions, with illustrations by 150 artists. It has been translated into 70 languages and set to music by 100 composers.

More importantly, it has been enjoyed by thousands of readers, and has been memorised and widely quoted. A correspondent of mine recently described how his father learnt the whole poem, stanza by stanza, as a prisoner in a Japanese camp; another’s father did the same in a Rangoon outpost.

Learning this poem was nothing unusual then. Two generations ago every educated person could have continued from memory any of these lines from The Rubaiyat:

“Awake, for Morning in the Bowl of Night …
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough …
The Moving Finger Writes; and, having writ …
Myself when young did eagerly frequent …
Ah, Moon of my Delight that know’st no wane …”

But something has gone wrong. FitzGerald, far from being recognised as a leading poet, has been disregarded by the literary establishment. There could be several reasons for this. Has the poem proved too popular for its own good? Is it perhaps lightweight doggerel quickly seen through by experts? Does its origin (in translation) invalidate it as an independent work? Is The Rubaiyat affected by the way poetry is taught nowadays, with a ban on learning anything by heart?

None of these reasons has any validity. Laurence Housman saw the dangers of popular acclaim and worried that The Rubaiyat might be “acceptable to all but scholars and pedants”.

The academic world tends to be suspicious of anything that is widely enjoyed, which may be why there is no single monograph devoted to this poet. A recent study of English poetry ran to nearly 1,000 pages and 1,000 poets without even mentioning The Rubaiyat.

Let no one assume that the poetry of The Rubaiyat is of slender value and achievement. These verses are highly accomplished. The stanza alone, called rubai in the original Persian, is an astonishing innovation in English poetry. Who would have believed that the most common of all our poetic forms could have been reinvented as late as the mid-19th century?

Admittedly it is borrowed from another culture, but the asymmetrical quatrain, rhyming aaba, was adapted and individualised by FitzGerald. The last line (instead of completing the expected aabb sequence) loops back and adds another rhyme to the opening couplet, creating a frisson that sharpens the end of every stanza, even when you know it is coming. And the rhymes themselves are so discreet that it is easy to overlook how adept they are at not rhyming similar parts of speech.

FitzGerald’s poem is an elegant day-long meditation on life, death, happiness and the pleasures of imbibing. The carpe diem theme has never been more succinctly or movingly expressed than in this gem of a stanza:

“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!”

Note the unusual rhymes; note the list of essentials for paradise – poetry, nature, food and wine, company (including love and sex no doubt) and music – a more satisfying catalogue than the celebrity, riches and power that are the aspirations of today.

In addition to this, the poem stirs up a delicious blend of English in different forms: colloquial speech, archaisms, exclamations, asides, superb and exotic metaphors (some of them extended), direct speech, apostrophe, rhetorical questions, repetitions, lists, emphases, interjections, even typographical innovations. This bravura display is richer than anything in the scanty Persian originals; it identifies the poem instantly as the work of one man, the modest bard from Suffolk.

For decades the poem was bedevilled by the question of translation. FitzGerald was castigated for having distorted the original verses through ignorance. In fact, he was deliberately altering, combining and developing the verses of Omar Khayyam, a 12th-century poet who is remembered as a talented astronomer-mathematician, but not as a great Persian poet like Sadi or Hafiz. Many of the quatrains attributed to him have been falsely ascribed.

The best thing to do with Omar Khayyam is to acknowledge him as an invaluable source and then to leave the 19th-century verses to be judged in the context of English poetry.

It is we who have provided the Persian/Iranian nation with a literary celebrity of worldwide renown (whose “tomb” in Nishapur is now visited by thousands) rather than the other way round.

Another source of controversy surrounding The Rubaiyat has concerned their meaning. Are they a gentle call to hedonism in the face of our inexorable mortality? Or is the “wine” that is mentioned so frequently a symbol of divine love?

The answer is that these open-ended verses will support a metaphorical reading if that is what the reader wants.

But most people encountering the immortal lines,

“Drink! for you know not whence you came nor why:
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where”

will tend to take the remarks at face value. From these 20 monosyllables alone (including a neat chiasmus) you can see why A S Byatt has claimed that “FitzGerald’s verse is insidiously memorable. It sings in the mind.”

One mistake has been to link The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (also published in 1859 by a man born in 1809) and Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850), and suggest that these three works together broke down religious certainty and ushered in an age of pessimism that is still with us.

We should leave FitzGerald out of this. His Rubaiyat is so gently resigned and beautifully amusing that there is no scale of pessimism on which it would register. Perhaps its deepest message is: “Make game of that which makes as much of thee.” When you read The Rubaiyat you are sure to remember it with a smile.

So where are we now? FitzGerald wrote some of the best-known and best-loved poetry in our language, the quality of which leaves its Persian origins far behind. Yet he is without honour in his own country. FitzGerald can be compared to Thomas Gray or A E Housman.

All three men were reclusive, melancholic, modest, conservative homosexuals, serious classical scholars and translators, and they all produced a single famous short work of poetry in quatrains, and little else.

Gray and Housman have been showered with honours and memorials, in Westminster Abbey and elsewhere, and celebrated in books.

FitzGerald, who has outsold and outcharmed them both, lies largely forgotten in a churchyard you will struggle to find.

This is not to say that FitzGerald is an unrecognised Shakespeare or Milton. But he is of a stature equal to that of a long string of acknowledged English poets of the second rank. The fact that he is not so accepted makes him the most seriously undervalued of all the English poets, and something should be done about it.

Let us hope for the solid acceptance of FitzGerald’s poetic achievement and, somewhere, a lasting memorial.

His reputation deserves better than to remain as tatty as his forsaken grave.

Tony Briggs has written the introduction to a new edition of ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’, published by Phoenix at £5.99

POETSGRAVES.CO.UK

Edward FitzGerald

1809-1883
‘It is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves’

Edward FitzGerald is buried in the churchyard of the small, isolated Church of St Michael & All Angels, Boulge, Suffolk, England. (Follow the road from Bredfield to Debach and then turn left onto a concrete track). (See map…ref no. 24) His grave is situated next to the FitzGerald family mausoleum.

FitzGerald refused to live at Boulge Hall with the rest of his family and chose instead to live in a single story thatched cottage on the family estate for 16 years. He was a great friend of Alfred Tennyson.

Fitzgerald is mainly remembered today for his translation from the Persian of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. He first published it anonymously in 1859 and then enlarged it in subsequent editions in 1868, 1872 and 1879.

Fitzgerald made translations of other Persian works including: Bird Parliament by Attar and Salaman and Absal by Jami. He also made a selection of the work of fellow Suffolk poet George Crabbe.

He was married to Lucy Barton – the daughter of the Quaker poet Bernard Barton for a brief period, but the couple were unsuited. Lucy was extremely fussy while FitzGerald seldom shaved and was chronically untidy. After the collapse of the marriage he became friendly with a Lowestoft fisherman called Joseph ‘Posh’ Fletcher. The two men bought a herring lugger named the Meum et Teum but the venture soon collapsed due to Fletcher’s alcoholism and FitzGerald’s lack of business acumen.

FitzGerald died in his sleep at the Old Rectory at Merton in Norfolk while visiting George Crabbe – the grandson of the poet.

A clipping from a rose tree which grew on the tomb of Omar Khayyam at Nishapur in Iran (previously Persia) was planted at one end of Fitzgerald’s grave in 1893.  Six more rose trees were planted around the grave in 1972.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

From The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (complete poem)

Links:

March 2007

John Ranelagh
22 March 2007

I chanced upon a new book yesterday;
I opened it, and, where my finger lay
‘Twixt page and uncut page, these words I read –
Some six or seven at most – and learned thereby
That you, Fitzgerald, whom by ear and eye
She never knew, “thanked God my wife was dead.”
Aye, dead! and were yourself alive, good Fitz,
How to return you thanks would task my wits.
Kicking you seems the common lot of curs –
While more appropriate greeting lends you grace,
Surely to spit there glorifies your face –
Spitting from lips once sanctified by hers.

That was Robert Browning – “To Edward Fitzgerald.” What a poem. What cold anger. What physicality. And how unexpected that Fitzgerald should stir such a passion. In a letter Fitz wrote when Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in 1861, he had declared:

“Mrs. Browning’s Death is rather a relief to me, I must say … A woman of real genius, I know; but what is the upshot of it all? She and her Sex had better mind the Kitchen and their Children: and perhaps the Poor: except in such things as little Novels, they only devote themselves to what Men do much better, leaving that which Men do worse or not at all.”

Ho hum. Browning came across the letter in Fitz’s posthumously published correspondence, and took it straight. And Fitz meant it straight, which tells us about Fitz.

He was fairly openly of homosexual inclination, living with a fisherman – Posh Fletcher – on the Norfolk coast, and causing much suspicion amongst the locals as he roamed the beaches in search of sailors. But there was no direct evidence of actual homosexual practice. He engaged at a distance through marvellous, intimate letters with a wide range of friends where his learning and his misogyny oozes through almost every friendship, as one of his biographers has pointed out. But it is in his Rubaiyat, quatrains, that his veiled heart beats most loud.

I say “his” Rubaiyat because he did not translate Omar’s text, but was inspired by it. His was somewhere between a translation and being original. About 500 quatrains are attributed to Omar. Fitz first took 75 and over 20 years in four editions rewrote, added and subtracted verses, ending up with 101 in the fourth edition, and rearranged them in an order to fit his view of Omar’s philosophy, and to fit his own. He called himself FitzOmar – son of Omar. In our toast to, “The Master,” there is a pleasing ambiguity as we hail them both.

Fitz, through Omar, produced a great poem in English. It is a canonical work. It wouldn’t have made a difference if he had invented Omar. Our wonderful, Christian, Brother Heath-Stubbs was going up against something like the King James Version when he translated the Rubaiyat with Peter Avery over thirty years ago. He did so because he thought – rightly – that apart from Omar’s call to seize life while we have it because it won’t last, which all those inspired by Omar have reflected, it was not Omar that Fitz had signed his name to, and he wanted to bring out Omar’s essence rather than Fitz’. We see it right away. Fitzgerald’s:

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”

Becomes with Heath-Stubbs a more literal and much more realistic translation, far less fantasy-driven and oblique:

 

“If chance supplied a loaf of white bread,
Two casks of wine and a leg of mutton,
In the corner of a garden with a tulip-cheeked girl
There’d be enjoyment no Sultan could outdo.”

Two exemplary Heath-Stubbsians, demonstrating his relentless determination to get Omar right, are:

“If the heart could grasp the meaning of life,
In death it would know the mystery of God;
Today when you are in possession of yourself, you know nothing.
Tomorrow when you leave yourself behind, what will you know?”

And, perhaps the essence of Omar’s Rubaiyat:

“It is we who are the source of our own happiness, the mine of our own sorrow,
The repository of justice and foundation of iniquity;
We who are cast down and exalted, perfect and defective,
At once the rusted mirror and Jamshid’s all-seeing cup.”

The mid-nineteenth century was a boom time in Europe for Egyptian and Arabian imagery and fashion. Persian culture then, and now, never had European imagination captured to such an extent. Perhaps one other Persian writer, Hafiz, enjoys an awareness, but I suspect that’s it. So, by taking up Omar it is fair to say that Fitz’ drive was to be quite different from his contemporaries. He knew that he could not establish himself with a poem on the subject of Persian dreams. The images were new to English, and the references obscure. Most of his readers did not know what a stone in a bowl was. And, after all, no-one knew Fitz: he did not have a literary reputation, let alone one as a poet. But he realised that in the name of Omar, he could establish himself and hide his sensibility by pretending to be an ancient Persian. And he did so, memorably. His Rubaiyat grew like a pearl, and the more Fitz wrote, the less there was of Omar. Fitzgerald’s is one of the most densely used texts in English. He captured Omar’s racing joy of life better and more eloquently than anyone else, and made it his own.

Why didn’t Fitz write more for publication? The question hovers all the time. He lived in an age of plentiful versifying – one only has to think of Tennyson’s or Browning’s output.

Well, while transience takes different forms in different cultures, an emphasis on transience generally tends to be an aggressive posture in that its pulse is the statement that we are all going to die. There is, I think, a great deal of suppressed aggression in Fitz.

“And if the Wine you drink, the Lip you press,
End in the Nothing all Things end in – Yes –
Then fancy while Thou art, Thou art but what
Thou shalt be – Nothing – Thou shalt not be less.”

Fitz had a healthy sense of self-preservation and was on the run all his life. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that he was worried that his Rubaiyat would give him away – would “out” him.

To Edward Cowell, the man who introduced him to the study of Persian and to Omar, Fitz revealingly remarked, “In truth, I take old Omar rather more as my property than yours: he and I are more akin, are we not? You see all [his] Beauty, but you don’t feel with him in some respects as I do.” Fitz described his Rubaiyat as “wicked” and “dangerous” and had his first version printed and bound in brown paper without his name attached. He clearly thought his veils might be swept aside.

Perhaps others did too. Saki took his writing name from Fitz’s Omar, and there is a sense of a hidden text to the poem.

An example of the differences between Omar and Fitz, and of Fitz’s heart, comes in verse 32 of the first edition:

In direct translation Omar’s quatrain reads:

The secrets eternal neither you know nor I
And answers to the riddle neither you know nor I
Behind the veil there is much talk about us, why
When the veil falls, neither you remain nor I.

Then Fitz:

There was a Door to which I found no Key:
There was a Veil past which I could not see:
Some little Talk awhile of ME and THEE
There seemed – and then no more of THEE and ME.

He bought a boat for Posh Fletcher and named it the “Meum and Tuum,” and time and again in his Rubaiyat he turns Omar’s phrases into quests for love. Thus Omar’s:

When the clay into a cup is moulded
Its breaking, the drunk scolded;
Many limbs and heads are enfolded
Through whose love unfolded, by which decree folded?

Becomes with Fitz:

“Another said – “Why, ne’er a peevish Boy
Would break the Bowl from which he drank in Joy;
Shall He that made the Vessel in pure Love
And Fansy, in an after Rage destroy!”

Throughout, Fitz introduces passions, echoing his personal longings and conflicts and the veil behind which he lived, pouring out emotion in his letters and in his Rubaiyat while remaining physically distant from nearly all his peers. “I have a very young-lady-like partiality to writing to those that I love,” he said to one friend, and disliked what he called, “the espalier of London dinner-table company.” He was on the margin in many ways, not really part of the Establishment, perhaps consciously forcing himself to stay apart in order to survive. “Tell Thackeray,” he wrote, shortly after graduating from Cambridge, “that he is never to invite me to his house, as I intend never to go. . . . I cannot stand seeing new faces in the polite circles.” Later on, he named his own boat “Scandal.”

With his Rubaiyat, Fitz achieved something remarkable and almost certainly unintended: he produced a companion, a verse collection we have all found warming and happy-making: it has the presence of a friend. His and Omar’s insistence that life should be lived to the full and should be lived in a fun-filled and joyful way, give us all a gentle prod to have a go ourselves. I must say that the same insistence is in Hafiz’s poetry, written 250 years later than Omar, so this may be a Persian hallmark.

On 7 October 1893, our Club planted a clipping from a rose tree which grew on Omar’s tomb at Nishapur in Iran on the grave of Edward Fitzgerald at the Church of St Michael & All Angels near Woodbridge in Suffolk. The rose is named the Omar Khayyam.

Brother Hodgson has said goodbye. He was representative of what we hope we may also be: warm, generous, kindly, delighting vicariously in the achievements of others, aware that a stone is a stone and a guinea a guinea, but perfectly happy for the one to play the other, rejoicing with each spin, delighting in success, uplifting in failure.

A verse of Fitz, I think, suits:

“For in and out, above, about, below,
‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.”

Let us in turn take pleasure in Charles’ errant nature and see him skamping round us crying, “Rejoice! Rejoice!” And so let us rejoice in the warmth that assuredly surrounds him now.

“The Sharqi stirs, then wails. Then stops.
So take the coil and bounce and pull and twist and heave –
Glasses full, eyes bright, skin pricked, all strained.
And when the Master calls, “Time’s Up!” roll in and grasp that unending cup.”