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.

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?

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.”