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More on the puzzle about quatrain one – what does the ‘Stone’ signify?

December 11, 2012

1shr1086scfA couple of months ago on this blog, Bob Forrest posed a question about the meaning and sources of the note to quatrain 1 of FitzGerald’s first edition, which suggests that “Flinging a Stone into the Cup was the Signal for ‘To Horse!’ in the Desert.”.  There were several responses to the post at the time, and, since then, an informal research group of Bob Forrest (using the John Rylands Library in Manchester), Garry Garrard (in the London Library), and ourselves (in the Cambridge University Library), have been following up various leads on the topic.  Here is where the trail has led us so far.

 There are two separate questions that seem to need investigating.  One has to do with the actual text of the Calcutta MS that FitzGerald probably used as the source of this quatrain.  The second is where he found the idea of ‘flinging the stone’ as a signal.  Dealing first with the latter point, what we have found to date is as follows.

 1.  In a letter to Cowell in June/July 1857 (Terhune Letters, vol 2, pp 280-1), FitzGerald refers to the ‘stone’ and discusses the definitions of the word ‘mohreh’ in Johnson’s Dictionary.  The latter is identified as Johnson F, A dictionary, Persian, Arabic, and English, London, Wm H Allen and Co, 1852, and the mention of the stone as a signal for departure is indeed there.

 2. Johnson’s dictionary was a revision (effectively the 3rd edition) of John Richardson’s dictionary originally published in 1777. There were re-issues in 1806 and 1810, and a substantially revised second edition in 1829 with which Charles Wilkins and Johnson were both involved.  None of these earlier works has any mention of the ‘stone’ as a signal for departure under the entry for ‘mohreh’.

 3.  Johnson 1852 does not give specific sources for his meanings.  But, in one of the CUL copies of the 1829 Richardson dictionary, there are notes apparently by Cowell which, by the relevant entry, refer to the use of the stone as a signal and also to ‘striking a bell on an elephant’s back’ for the same purpose.  The latter expression is referenced by Cowell to Vullers’ Shahnameh.

 4. This has led us to a publication by Iohannes Augustus Vullers in 1833, entitled Chrestomathia Schahnamiana.  The explanatory text of the book is in Latin, which poses some problems, but it appears to be a Shahnameh reader, with an extensive glossary at the end.  On the page referenced by Cowell’s note, there is indeed a lengthy entry for ‘mohreh’, which contains both ideas of signals for departure, with specific reference to ‘stones thrown into a metal bowl’.  Vullers gives indications of his sources for these uses, as well as many other meanings.  At the moment, we are in process of investigating Vullers’ sources.

 On the other aspect of the investigation, the actual text of the relevant Persian quatrain, number 134 in the Calcutta MS, it is clear that there are (at least) two versions.  One, shown both in the transcript provided by Cowell to FitzGerald, and in Heron-Allen’s 1899 published analysis of FitzGerald’s sources, gives the word ‘mohreh = pebble or stone’ in line two.  The other has the word ‘badeh = wine’ in the same place;  this is shown in Whinfield’s translations of 1883, where it is given as the original text for his quatrain 233.  The interesting new finding on this is from Heron-Allen’s notebooks;  for this quatrain he started with the ‘badeh’ version, and later crossed this word out, replacing it with ‘mohreh’.  What we have not yet found out is which specific Calcutta MS (or other source) Heron-Allen used for either version.

 So, we now know somewhat more on the sources for FitzGerald’s note on the ‘stone’ than we did a couple of months ago.  But the search for the definitive answer continues.  If anyone else would like to join in this informal co-operative research project, please contribute.  What we especially need at the moment is the combination of a Persianist and a Classicist!  Also is there a specialist in Middle Eastern travel who could shed some light on the signals used for the departure of a caravan?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2012 6:08 pm

    Thank you. Most interesting. I possess none of the requisite skills to help in this pursuit but very much enjoy the findings. Happy Solstice to All.

  2. March 13, 2013 12:23 pm

    We have a correction to the above post, specifically to item 4 which refers to ‘a publication by Iohannes Augustus Vullers in 1833, entitled Chrestomathia Schahnamiana’. This reference was incorrect. That title exists, but the volume we consulted was actually Vullers’ Lexicon Persico-Latinum which was published in two volumes in 1855 and 1864 respectively. The information regarding the meaning of the word mohreh, which is as described in the earlier post, is contained in the second volume dated 1864. Apologies for any confusion.

    This post was updated in March 2013. See


  1. Yet more on the puzzle about quatrain one – what does the ‘Stone’ signify? | Omar Khayyam Rubaiyat

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