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Nightingales and Roses: the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

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Edmund Dulac, Night, illustration for the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.

Edmund Dulac, ‘Night’, illustration for the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.

Perhaps one of the best-known, best-loved and most-illustrated poems in the English language, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a unique publishing phenomenon. Translated (or, as Fitzgerald put it, ‘transmogrified’) from the quatrains of 11th century Persian poet, philosopher and mathematician Omar Khayyam by Edward Fitzgerald and first published in 1859 in pamphlet form, it has rarely been out of print since and has appeared in over 650 different editions. After an initially disastrous reception (it seems that, initially, not one of the 250 copies Fitzgerald had printed were sold, and ended up in a penny box outside bookseller and sometime-publisher Bernard Quaritch in Leicester Square) a copy was eventually passed by an acquaintance to Romantic artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He in turn passed it to his friend Algernon Charles Swinburne and it soon became a staple of Victorian reading matter, culturally ubiquitous and overwhelmingly popular.

The reason for such widespread affection may lie in the universal appeal of the themes which appear in Fitzgerald’s rendering of the verses, which meditate upon death, love, happiness, the transience of life and pleasure of imbibing:

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and–sans End!

While the Rose blows along the River Brink,
With old Khayyam the Ruby Vintage drink:
And when the Angel with his darker Draught
Draws up to Thee – take that, and do not shrink.

Such broad yet elegantly expressed sentiments, coupled with its exotic origins, rendered it almost infinitely open to interpretation and a rich inspiration for the aesthetic of fin-de-siècle hedonism, as Daniel Karlin notes in his introduction to the text: ‘nightingales and roses, sultans and sheikhs (there are no sheikhs), caravans and camels (there are no camels)’.

 

First Edition, Rubáiyat of Omar Khayyam, the Astronomer-Poet of Persia, Edward Fitzgerald, London: Bernard Quaritch, 1859.

FITZGERALD, Edward. Rubáiyat of Omar Khayyam, the Astronomer-Poet of Persia. 1859 [111542]

FITZGERALD, Edward. Rubáiyat of Omar Khayyam, the Astronomer-Poet of Persia. 1859 [111542]

One of the original 250 published anonymously by Fitzgerald and Quaritch, and that Quaritch found so hard to sell at first. This copy might well have lain in the penny barrel outside the bookshop, to be thumbed through by the contemporaries of Rossetti, Swinburne, Burne-Jones, who spoke so highly of it.

 

Rubáiyat of Omar Khayyam, Edward Fitzgerald, Illustrated by Edmund Dulac, 1909

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(DULAC, Edmund.) OMAR KHAYYÁM; Edward Fitzgerald (trans.) Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Rendered into English Verse by Edward Fitzgerald. [1909] [112049]

One of the most iconic illustrators of folk and fairy tale, Dulac’s interpretation of the Rubaiyat is possibly the most recognisable. Interpreting the verses freely, Dulac created and orientalist fantasy to appeal to turn-of-the-century tastes. His illustrations remain some of the most enchanting of all the illustrated versions.

 

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, With an introduction by A. C. Benson. Reproduced from a manuscript written and illuminated by F. Sangorski & G. Sutcliffe, [1910]

OMAR KHAYYAM; FITZGERALD, Edward. Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. With an introduction by A. C. Benson. Reproduced from a manuscript written and illuminated by F. Sangorski & G. Sutcliffe. [1910] [111195]

OMAR KHAYYAM; FITZGERALD, Edward. Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. With an introduction by A. C. Benson. Reproduced from a manuscript written and illuminated by F. Sangorski & G. Sutcliffe. [1910] [111195]

111195_3

This history of the Sangorski & Sutcliffe Rubaiyat is a curious one. Famous for the magnificence of their jewelled and gilded bindings, the bookbinders were commissioned in 1909 to produce the most lavish edition of the Rubaiyat yet. Its cover was decorated with gilded peacocks and inlaid with jewels and it was known as the Great Omar. The book was to be sent to New York but, after missing two successive ships due to customs issues, it was booked on the next available crossing, the Titanic, and went down with the ship in 1912. It has never been recovered from the wreckage. Six weeks later, the creator of the Grand Omar, Francis Sangorski, drowned in a bathing accident off Selsey Bill.

The firm continues and was able to recreate a second copy of the Great Omar six years later. Wishing to take no chances this time, the book was stored in a bank vault. The bank, vault and book were destroyed in the London Blitz during World War II.

This copy is one of a limited of 25 copies printed on Japanese vellum, reproduced from the original illuminated manuscript by Sangorski & Sutcliffe, and remains one of the most opulent copies of the Rubaiyat.

 

Ella Hallward’s copy of Ruba’iyat of Hakim Omar-i-Khayyam. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897. A photographic reproduction of the MS. written at Shiraz in the year A.H. 865 (A.D. 1460) and now in the Bodleian Library, from a transcript of which Edward Fitzgerald began the first edition of his ‘Rubáiyát of Omar Kháyyám’ (London) 1859.

(HALLWARD, Ella.) Ruba'iyat of Hakim Omar-i-Khayyam. 1897 [111395]

(HALLWARD, Ella.) Ruba’iyat of Hakim Omar-i-Khayyam. 1897 [111395]

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These two beautiful little volumes were created especially for Ella Hallward. Fitzgerald’s translation of the work of Khayyam was not the only one, and Hallward was notable for having illustrated Edward Heron-Allen’s 1898 version, published by H. S. Nichols.

Accompanying the manuscript reproduction is a second volume; Hallward’s copy of the Fitzgerald translation. Towards the back, a sprig of rose leaves have been pressed between the pages. An inscription – ‘Boulge, 9th October 1897’ – tells us that this was probably clipped from the rose bush which grows above Fitzgerald’a grave at St Michael’s Church in Boulge, Suffolk. This rose bush was planted in 1893 by the Omar Khayyam Club and was grown from a seed taken from the rose bush over the grave of Omar Khayyam at Nishapur.

 

Numerous other magnificent copies of the Rubaiyat exist and attest to its continued popularity and collectability. View our entire stock of items here.

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