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“Infinite transformation”

July 24, 2012

Frontispiece and title page from The Rubáiyát of Omar Cigarettes, 1912.

The student of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám will sooner or later stand amazed at the popularity, or even craze, of poem. The countless number of translations, editions, and reissues of the work is unparalleled, Of course, there is a history of scholarly and academic interest in the Rubáiyát, but that is mainly directed to literary and historical aspects of the work. However, there is also an unsurveyable domain of artefacts, paraphernalia, consumer products and all kinds of material output that one can but imagine, related in someway or another to Khayyám. These indirect manifestations tell us an other story about the importance of the work or the layman’s understanding and perception of it, and more than that, they provide the ultimate proof of the poem’s everlasting fame.

This phenomenom has been signalled before and certain aspects or subdomains have already been studied, such as the rubáiyát-parody, as one of the first manifestations of the poem’s fame. Already Potter (# 718, 1929) listed a range of products that bore Omar’s name or a link to his rubáiyát. All these artistic and commercial products, or commerce, tell a story, but until recently, the story has never been put down in a comprehensive survey.

“Infinite transformation” is the title of the thesis that Michelle Kaiserlian wrote, that covers the period in which the Omar-craze reached its climax in the USA. It is ‘the first critical study of the Rubáiyát craze as a whole and as a creative and historical phenomenon, I examine visual and literary responses to the poem in the form of illustrations, parodies, advertisements, and religio-philosophical debates to determine the Rubáiyát’s overwhelming and enduring resonance in the culture. I argue that people’s engagement with and their myriad responses to the poem performed a kind of cultural work during a period of great social, economic, technological, scientific, and religious upheaval. I demonstrate how the Rubáiyát became a vehicle through which people processed the rapid changes of modern life and how poem and craze alike provided a tool to define and order an increasingly uncertain and fragmented world.’ (from author’s abstract)

The work is essential for our understanding of how and why the Rubáiyát gained it’s popularity. Although the craze is over now since decades, there still is a persistent interest in Khayyám, that is not in the least fuelled and facilitated by the internet and it’s blogs, clips and tweets. In my view, it would be interesting enough to follow up Kaiserlian’s work to our times.  Certainly a shift is taken place in interest, from west to east, and with it there is a more spiritual approach to the rubáiyát that also finds expression in the interest in Hafez, Rumi and others. Anyway, a commercial publication of Michelle’s thesis would be very welcome.

Michelle Kaiserlian’s publications on this subject:

“The Imagined Elites of the Omar Khayyam Club”. In: FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Popularity and neglect. London, Anthem Press, 2011. ISBN: 9780857287816
Infinite transformation : the modern craze over the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in England and America, c. 1900-1930. Ann Arbor, Proquest LLC, 2010. ISBN: 9781109586534
“Omar sells. American advertisements based on The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, c.1910-1920”. Early Popular Visual Culture, vol. 60 (2008), nr. 3, p.  257-269
“Omar and the Consumer Market.” Informatebulletin Omariana 7:2 (Nov. 2007): 1-2. Online bulletin of the Nederlands Omar Khayyam Genootschap, at

The thesis can be ordered at:

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 24, 2012 4:05 pm

    Very interesting. I tried to find the thesis on the Proquest site with no success. Pretty difficult site to navigate. If anyone has more success than I have so far I’d appreciate the guidance.

  2. July 25, 2012 9:39 am

    This is a fascinating study of the very wide ranging social and cultural impact of the Rubaiyat, pulling together a vast amount of information of which we certainly were not aware before Michelle started her work. We are looking forward to reading the final thesis report, having seen some tasters over the years.

    We love the picture with Jos’ post. Where does it come from?

    As regards finding the thesis, the attached link may help This takes you to a search form, and if you put in ‘Michelle Kaiserlian’ in Author and ‘Infinite Transformation’ in the title, it seems to come up – at least it did for us!

    • July 25, 2012 4:06 pm

      The picture is from the frontispiece of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Cigarettes : being the modern adventures of Omar Khayyam the great Persian philosopher whose poetry on the joy of life has made his fame eternal”.
      No information about publisher and year, but WorldCat gives: New York : American Tobacco Co., 1912.

  3. July 25, 2012 5:00 pm

    Thanks Jos. We must take a further look at that one!

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