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More replies to Omar

January 13, 2014

Bob Forrest sends the following post in response to an earlier post Reply to Omar

I hadn’t heard of Alfred Fox’s Reply to Omar before Jos’s posting about it, and thankfully I managed to acquire a copy of it for my own collection, as it is certainly an interesting example of a Christian response to Omar’s agnosticism and Epicureanism. There is another such which, alas, I haven’t been able to acquire – N.B. Ripley’s Omar or Christ? (New York, 1914), so if anyone reading this has a copy, I would be very grateful if I could buy or beg a photocopy or scan of it (it is only 20 pages long.) Meanwhile, I do have a few others, and the following is extracted from my forthcoming website.

Condé B Pallen’s book, The New Rubaiyat & Other Poems was published (in London) in 1920, though it was first published America in 1898. Pallen is known today mainly as one of the editors of the great Catholic Encyclopedia, a definitive reference work first published in 16 volumes between 1907 and 1914, so, not surprisingly, he was more than a little aghast at FitzOmar. (I use FitzOmar deliberately, for though Pallen addresses Omar, he does so in the format of FitzGerald; plus it was precisely FitzGerald’s rendering of Omar which was seen by many as a great moral threat.)

Pallen’s New Rubaiyat opens with an address to:

Old Omar, subtle weaver of the skein
Of doubt entangled in thy muddled brain.

It then goes on (p.12) to accuse Omar – and all sceptics, in effect – of being arrogant in their presumption in even trying to fathom the ways of God:

You thought to compass with your little span
The wide abysses of creation’s plan,
And finite measure infinite
You – you would be God, who are but man.

RoseRubaiyatAnother, rather different type of example is Rose Roy’s Rubaiyat of the Rose, privately published in America in 1941, in which the author undertakes to paraphrase every verse of FitzGerald’s fourth edition. The book is printed with FitzGerald’s verses on the left hand pages and Roy’s parodies of them on the right hand pages. The book’s cover bears an image of the Holy Bible with a rose clasped within its pages (see illustration), this being indicative of the intention of the author to take her readers on a spiritual reinterpretation of The Rubaiyat. But this is not a critical reinterpretation. Rather it is one which sees in Omar’s verses, at least if you squint a bit and think laterally, a strangely Christian spiritual outlook. Not that she claims that Omar was a closet Christian – rather she sees that Omar’s (or FitzGerald’s) verses, given a bit of a tweak, can convey a Christian message. To that end her own verses are accompanied by Biblical references for the more dedicated of her readers to follow up, if they so wish.

Here, for example, is verse 21, whose meaning changes dramatically when FitzGerald’s “Cup that clears” becomes “Faith that clears”:

Ah, my Beloved, give me the Faith that clears
Today of past Regrets and future Fears;
Tomorrow ? Why, Tomorrow I shall be
Myself with Yesterday’s unnumbered years.

Again, verses 63 – 64 read thus:

Oh, threats of Hell, and Hopes of Paradise!
One fills with fear, the other seeks the Prize:
Divine Laws are certain – the rest is Lies:
The Spirit once created – never dies.

‘Tis not strange that there are myriads who
Have pierced this Veil of Darkness through
For One returned and told us of the Road,
That we may fill our Lamps and travel too.

That is, Christ’s return from the dead is all the proof a Christian needs of the promise of an afterlife.

Another example of a spiritual reaction to The Rubaiyat, but more hostile to FitzOmar than Rose Roy’s, is George Frederic Viett’s New Rubaiyat from a Southern Garden (New York, 1915.) Viett’s theme is “Man and his Destiny …the Pageantry of Time” (v.2), and for him “the Rising of the Sun of Faith” will smite “the hosts of Darkness and of Doubt” (v.3) – including, of course, Omar. “Bring thou old Khayyam’s Verse”, he urges his readers in v.9, “and let us seek / With him, the Pathway to the Heart’s Desire.” But he warns his readers (v.25):

Beware this Persian rhyme! And here confess
We pore the Page but for its loveliness,
Holding our Faith despite the siren chant
That lures to Doubt with Melody’s caress.

One of the major complaints again FitzOmar, of course, is that the sublimity of the poetry masks the moral dangers of its carpe diem philosophy. Here again is v.30:

When then his luring Lines you pensive read,
Beware the Spell that would thy foot-steps lead
Adown the paths unblest of Faith and Hope!
Take them but for their Beauty – not their Creed.

One of Viett’s primary concerns is the reality of an Afterlife, on which score he refutes Omar’s fatalistic “Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie” with his verse 43:

Thus much, old Omar, I’ll not yield to thee –
I will nor hail nor praise thy blasphemy;
I do protest – by Love’s Immortal Soul
Protest – the Dust is not my Destiny!

The body might go to dust, but not the soul. Here is verse 124:

Life’s meaning! Hast thou not read it – why then
Thou hast not lived! These multitudes of Men
That went Before, they left the Record clear –
That Clay is of the Earth, the Soul of Heav’n.

GravediggerA different type of example again – it doesn’t use FitzGerald’s format for a start – is Fred Emerson Brooks’s The Gravedigger. The first edition of the poem was published (again in America) in 1916. By 1922 it had acquired the subtitle: “An Answer to the Rubaiyat” (see illustration.) Set in a graveyard, and purportedly involving the poet in conversation with a gravedigger there, Brooks covers many familiar Omarian issues of human life and death, morality, the after-life and, of course, the existence of God. Thus, for example, verse 36 looks at the limitations of Man’s conception of God:

Why doubt that which we can not understand?
We can not comprehend the things that be:
The ant upon the barren desert land
Believes the world is flat and made of sand,
Because, forsooth, it never saw the sea.

As for anyone who doubts the existence of God (already dismissed in verse 15 as “the boasting fool”), he surely cannot be serious. Here is verse 38:

This monster world was made to swing in air
By that Electric Will that bids it go.
The Skeptic knows, when reason plays him fair,
Those countless myriad planets everywhere
Are moved by some Celestial Dynamo.

There must be many more such replies to FitzOmar out there, and as Jos says, the field seems not to have been systematically explored, so it is to be hoped that readers will send in accounts of their own encounters with such stuff. Finally, it is worth bearing in mind that Robert Browning’s poem Rabbi ben Ezra was one of the earliest – if not the earliest – reply to FitzOmar, being first published in 1864. Though Browning never actually said so, his poem was almost certainly written in response to reading the first edition of FitzGerald, a copy of which he had been given by Rossetti in 1861.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2014 12:59 pm

    Thanks to both Jos and Bob for shining some light on another dimension of the influence of the Rubaiyat on its readers. There must have been some fascinating discussions going on between believers and agnostics from the late nineteenth century through into the 1930’s. We are struck by the fact that most of the Christian commentators still use the structure of the rubai (in FitzGerald’s interpretation into English) to make their points, and that Viett in particular fears the seductive power of the verse itself. The medium is the message ….!

    We look forward to seeing what other treasures Bob Forrest has for us on his forthcoming website.

  2. Chris Hager permalink
    October 31, 2016 8:26 pm

    Mr. Forrest, in case you are still looking for a copy of OMAR OR CHRIST, I do have a copy that I would be willing to sell to you for a nominal fee. It is in excellent condition. I will soon list it on eBay if I don’t hear from you. I have enabled notifications on this blog.

    • Bob Forrest permalink
      November 1, 2016 1:33 pm

      Hello Chris, I am indeed interested, and many thanks for getting in touch. I sent an email to you earlier (alerted by Jos Coumans) before I saw this posting, but now I’ve seen this I’ll reply from here as well. I look forward to hearing from you in due course..

      • Chris Hager permalink
        November 1, 2016 1:56 pm

        I got Jos’ email, but not yours. Please check my email address again for typos; I’d rather correspond with you in a less public forum for the sake of this site’s sense of decorum. I look forward to hearing from you.

      • November 1, 2016 5:28 pm

        I used the email address, copied and pasted, that came through with Jos’ email, so I don’t know why it didn’t work. Try contacting me via the contact box at the bottom of the Home Page on my website (see below.) We’ll get there eventually.

  3. November 2, 2016 1:47 pm

    Chris, My last post was misleading – if you click on my name on this reply it should take you to the home page of my website.

  4. November 3, 2016 5:26 pm

    Chris, We don’t seem to be getting very far very fast for some reason. I got your message via my website and replied to you via the email address you gave, which was exactly the same as the one you gave to both Jos and Bill & Sandra. Also I tried forwarding the email I sent you before. If you didn’t receive at least one email message from me yesterday, something is wrong. Since I can receive messages via my website, why don’t you use its contact box to tell me what you want for the book and to give me your address and / or phone number ? My postal address is on my home page and my phone number is 0161-798-5801 (I assume you are in the UK ?) Fingers crossed!

  5. November 9, 2016 11:42 am

    Hello Chris,

    Message received via website. Yes, I do have a PayPal account, but can I get the money to you that way if your email address won’t receive messages from me ? Otherwise, cash by airmail if you send me your postal address via my website ?


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