Our wonderful writer of fabulous stories, Stuart Miller-Osborne has blessed us again with another gripping story and some fabulous illustrations. Sit yourself down, with a nice cup of tea and a biscuit then when you are sitting comfortably, begin your journey with Stuart.
Things Often Found - (an occasional series)
About three years ago my wife and I had tea with some close friends As they lived near Carlisle, they had not had occasion to visit Hungerford or even West Berkshire before. I showed them Hungerford with pride, a task which most people who live here must often do when relatives or friends come to the town. After a trip on The Rose towards Kintbury and a visit to Littlecote (Wild Will Darrell and all) we retired to the town once more.
Before they left (they were lodging in Bath) both my friends expressed a wish to visit the antique establishments in the town. If I remember correctly they purchased some prints of Devizes and the Marlborough Downs and a rather delicate copy of a selection of poems which in their originality dated from the twelfth century. This was a gift for my wife and I. These poems were of course the much famed Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
As they departed to the city resting in a volcano, I thanked them again for our gift and Tom noted “ You will always find a copy of the Fitzgerald in any antiques shop” and this is what prompted this short article. As we walked back to our cottage I thought about the remark and indeed when you visit most antique establishments you will find certain things without fail. In my experience The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is one of them.
But what was The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and why would you be so likely to find a copy and what does this chap named Fitzgerald have to do with the whole thing?
A ruba’i is a two line stanza with two parts per line (Rubaiyat roughly in Arabic means four). These selection of poems were attributed to a certain Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) a Persian poet who in his spare time was also a mathematician and an astronomer. His collection of quatrains were very much like a selection of coloured shapes, they could be arranged in certain ways depending on the interpretation required. Some translations found a great deal of mysticism in the work, whilst others found degrees of atheism and others on the other side saw the works as very orthodox in the Islamic sense.
Edward Fitzgerald for what ever reason is one of my favourite Victorians along with Richard Burton but they could not be more different. Whilst Burton was a larger than life character who did not really care who he offended. Edward was the opposite, he is remembered as being a very gentle man who as he came from a privileged background needed no employment. There was a degree of insanity in his family and he once memorably quipped “ that all his relatives were mad; further, that he was insane as well, but at least he was aware of the fact” This I believe summed him up. He married the daughter (Lucy) of the Quaker poet Bernard Barton in 1856 after making a promise to look after her when Bernard died in 1849. The marriage did not last long although Lucy and Edward did collaborate on a book of her father’s work shortly after his death. Whilst Bernard Barton is all but forgotten, Edward Fitzgerald is not and forever associated with The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam .
As with a lot of things, it began quietly. In January 1859 a small rather anonymous pamphlet was issued. At first, apart from a few friends this publication attracted little attention. Its asking price was reduced from 4d to 1d at the bookstalls (if you find a copy of this work, then cherish it as it is quite valuable) and nothing really happened until 1861 when the poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti discovered it and shortly after the even more eccentric poet Algernon Charles Swinburne also read and praised it. Slowly the work gained more gravity and the translation became even more famous, although it was not until 1868 that Edward produced his larger revised translation. The rest it might be said is history.
As with any translation, it is the interpretation of the translator and Edward took many liberties, indeed the translation was mocked in some quarters as being The Rubaiyat of FitzOmar as he was accused of adding his own creation. Edward was aware of this and called it his “ transmogrification” . He took pieces of various quatrains and mixed them together (this is not true of the whole translation though) but he was writing in a style. If the work had been translated a few centuries earlier then it is likely it would have been viewed in the style of the day. There were five editions and Edward’s translation often varied from edition to edition as did the length. The first edition of 1859 contained seventy five quatrains, whilst the second edition of 1868 contained one hundred and ten quatrains. This was reduced in the following three editions to one hundred and one.
Although by no means a scholar I have read Edward’s translation in contrast to Robert Graves controversial 1967 translation (there have been many others) and deep down I prefer Edward’s slightly fatalistic version. There is something dreamlike about Edward’s translation (it is very much of its era) and I can see what attracted Rossetti and Swinburne to it. I will not presume to offer my opinion of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam it is like a good meal, one should enjoy it for what it brings to the individual reader. My enjoyment will be different to yours. As a short taster I will include a sample of some of Edward’s work on the The Rubaiyat so that you may judge for yourself.
Some for the glories of this world; and some
Sigh for The Prophet's Paradise to come;
Ah, take the cash and let the credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant drum
And much as Wine has played the Infidel
And robbed me of my robe of Honour, well ...
I often wonder what the vintners buy
One half so precious as the stuff they sell
For some we loved, the loveliest and best
That from His rolling vintage Time has pressed,
Have drunk their glass a round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to rest
But helpless pieces in the game He plays
Upon this chequer-board of Nights and Days
He hither and thither moves, and checks ... and slays
Then one by one, back in the Closet lays
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.
These verses and others are freely available on the internet and well worth studying, but if you want to do something very special then pop into your local antiques shop or arcade and look for a copy. You may pay very little for a commonly produced one or if you are slightly more ambitious then there are some very nicely bound copies to be found. I actually like comparing the first and fifth translations as I think Edward’s translation matured as he went on, but again this is a matter of taste. If you are really hooked then compare Edward’s translation with others, the results are pretty interesting.
One thing that I will guarantee is that you will be in for an interesting read and unless the title of this piece is a fiction then you will not have much of a problem locating a copy.
|Algernon C. Swinburne|
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