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FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: A Canadian Connection in the Early 1900s

March 17, 2015

We have received this interesting post from Danton O’Day in Canada.  There are also great illustrations, to follow in due course – see next item posted.

As a Canadian collector of FitzGerald’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, I was interested in what my country had contributed to the early history of this publication. Sadly the first encounter I had with that history turned out to be a joke. The Rubáiyát of Canada or Omar Up-to-Date was written by Stanley Wisdom and published circa 1928 by Consolidated Distilleries, Ltd., Montreal, Canada (see Figure 1). This tiny (5” x 4”, 15pp.) brown stapled booklet with a title in gold inside a black rose-adorned design on the front cover was clearly a promotional item.  While it was profusely decorated and illustrated, the artist was not listed. While some might consider this an ignominious contribution to the glorious history of the Rubáiyát, this ignominy was enhanced by the quality of the poetry itself.

Dreaming when Dawn’s left hand was in the sky./ I heard a voice within the next room cry, /   “Wake my little ones, and fill the cup/ Before the ‘Hill’s & Underwood’s’ runs dry.”

 The question remained, was Canada just a historical joke or was there more to the story. A little bit of searching revealed that Canadian publishers did produce books on FitzGerald’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, not only as co-published volumes with British and American publishers but also as separate Canadian publications of books originally issued by others.

Clearly the country of Canada was just emerging as a self-ruling entity as the Rubáiyát poetry itself was first released upon the English speaking world. In 1859 when Edward FitzGerald anonymously published his first edition of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Canada was still a self-governing colony of Britain. Around this time Canada was facing invasion both by American armed forces and by farmers hoping to claim sparsely settled lands. But in 1867, the British were happy to relinquish their dwindling political and economic hold on the distant colony and Canada was happy to oblige. Through Confederation the original “Kingdom of Canada” evolved into the less presumptuous “Dominion of Canada” two years later in 1869. During those two years, FitzGerald’s second anonymous edition (1868) was published in Britain although this was not due to finances being loosened up by getting rid of the distant North American colony. Still, Canada’s entry into the Rubáiyát publishing world wouldn’t occur for another 35 years.

As early as 1903, the first versions of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat were listed as published in Canada but these were books co-published simultaneously in different countries typically including England and/or the USA. The Sufistic Quatrains of Omar Khayyam as translated by Edward FitzGerald, E.H. Whinfield and J.B. Nicolas was published in London and Toronto by L. Beling Tetens. Blanche McManus illustrated a copy of FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát that was published in London and Toronto by The Musson Book Co. Seven years later, around 1910, a 1st edition of the book was published by The John C. Winston Company of Philadelphia, Chicago, and Toronto. That book contains a full colour frontispiece plus three additional illustrations by Charles Robinson. In 1911, another printing of FitzGerald’s first edition illustrated with four water-colour drawings by A.A. Dixon was published by Cassell & Company, Ltd., London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne. A later 1934 publication of the 1st and 4th FitzGerald editions by Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., lists Toronto along with London, Edinburgh, Melbourne, and New York. These early co-publications revealed that Canada was involved in the early publishing history of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám but not as a stand-alone publishing entity.

Canada retained close ties with Britain over the years and its geographical location beside the USA meant that the sharing and reprinting and co-publication of books weren’t unexpected. More to the point, the population of this vast country was so comparatively small it couldn’t sustain a uniquely Canadian publisher. But that would slowly change. Around 1909, The Musson Book Co., Ltd. of Toronto, published an illustrated copy of FitzGerald’s 2nd edition (second version) of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám illustrated by Edmund Dulac. Although this was a reprint of a 1909 book published by MacMillan in London, this book is considered to be the first Canadian Edition of FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam (see Figure 2).

Around this time, Musson also independently published at least two versions of the 1st edition of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám as translated by Edward FitzGerald that included illustrations by Gilbert James. Although their exact date of publication is not indicated, the subject, design and overall appearance of the books suggest publication prior to 1920 and possibly as early as 1910.

The first and larger book (7” x 5”) with 12 black and white illustrations, including frontispiece, has a reddish-brown soft leather cover with title and design in gold on front and spine. The second book is smaller. Again, no publication date is given for this 5½” x 3½” book with its red soft leather cover and embossed design and title in gold on the front and spine plus a red silk bookmark (see Figure 3).  Judging by the books themselves it appears that the larger book was published prior to the smaller one but that is conjecture of the author based on each book’s attributes. It is not known if any other versions or reprints of this book or any other editions have been published but these books represent the first documented Canadian-only publication of Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. To date no other Canadian publications of Omar’s Rubáiyát by any other translator appear to have been identified during this early time period.

Danton H. O’Day

Oakville, Ontario CANADA


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Karin Kierstead permalink
    March 5, 2020 3:00 pm

    I have a Musson copy (2nd, smaller version) that is dark green leather with a green silk bookmark. I wonder how many colours they released with this publication.

  2. March 10, 2020 4:38 pm

    Thanks for your comment Karin. It is difficult to respond without knowing more about your copy like which illustrator is it (James or Dulac) and what is the publication date? Would you be able to let us know more, maybe with some images?

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