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Why is it a ‘Lizard’ in quatrain 17 of FitzGerald’s first edition?

May 17, 2017

Namdar Fereidooni has just posted the following query as a comment on the Background Page of this blog.  We think his query is an interesting and provoking one.  He writes as follows.

Hello, i wanted to know your opinion on why Mr. Fitzjerald used the word Lizard , in the quatraint about Jamshid’s court?

The quatrain referred to is number 17 in FitzGerald’s first edition.

They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshýd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahrám, that great Hunter—the Wild Ass
Stamps o’er his Head, and he lies fast asleep.

According to Heron-Allen (1899), the literal translation of the Persian original, from the Calcutta MS Q99, is the following.

In that palace where Bahrám grasped the wine-cup;
The foxes whelp, and the lions take their rest;
Bahrám who was always catching wild asses,-
To-day behold that the grave has caught Bahrám.

Comparing this literal version with FitzGerald’s verse shows that he turned the original fox(es) (rube in Persian) into a Lizard.  Like Namdar, we wonder why he did this?  The alliteration of ‘Lion and Lizard’ might have been a reason.   It is just possible that the issue arises in one of the many letters in which FitzGerald consults Edward Cowell about the details of translation, but we haven’t had time to look yet.  Incidentally a quick look at Jos Coumans’ invaluable Concordances website, shows that other translators have also used different animals in their versions of the same Calcutta quatrain – see  But the Persian text also varies slightly between manuscripts – Whinfield’s original has the Persian Ahu (= gazelle) in place of the fox(es) elsewhere.

Does any reader have better ideas on this?  Please comment below.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. martin kimeldorf permalink
    May 17, 2017 6:17 pm

    I think sometimes Iambic Pentameter makes one sacrifice meaning or clarity for melody or sound. You’ve got to rhyme 3 of 4 lines and stick to 10 syllables and on top of that use the Iambic soundings???? I know poor FitzGerald was even criticized for being too transparent, too direct and not mysterious or esoteric enough for the pedants and “experts”. I’m too dumb to know better and like the FitzOmar collaboration just as it is…

    • Barney Rickenbacker permalink
      May 18, 2017 4:25 pm

      Just a few thoughts. Martin and I have talked a few times about metre and specifically the iambic pentameter. He rightly does not wish to have his ideas, his words straitjacketed by some rigid formula. No poet would wish that. Metre, however, should reflect the way we speak and need not restrict what we wish to express. When I look at FitzGerald, this is the case. Take:
      Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
      The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
      The Bird of Time has but a little way
      To fly–and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.
      This is an iambic pentametric template but it has variation which avoids the singsong iambic pentameter line many of us learned when we were ten or eleven here in the States.
      (Written on May 18: all good birthday wishes to Omar Khayyam. And a nod to my Ancestry DNA results when my spelling “metre” reveals 80% of my origins.)

  2. F.Diba permalink
    May 17, 2017 9:49 pm

    We have to keep in mind that, with the assistance of Prof.Cowell, Fitzgerald ADAPTED the Bodleian manuscript, rather than translating it.
    In this particular verse, the main theme is about the futility of power and how the weak become the empowered, such as the wild ass, once hunted, now reversing the role. Thus, Fitzgerald believes that the hapless lizard represents a better contrast to the mighty lion than a fox.
    For a very clear description, see:
    “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained” by Paramhansa Yogananda. California, 1994.

  3. May 17, 2017 9:54 pm

    No idea at all! The MS sources so far as I can tell don’t have lizards. But I like the alliteration suggestion of Sandra and Bill’s, and I trust FG’s judgment here. After all, lizards have a better chance with lions than hares and foxes 🙂 For those interested, check out my website, and go to stanza 24 where you’ll find this very stanza of FG.
    Will be interested to see if FG discussed the Calcutta source MS with Cowell.

  4. namdar permalink
    May 18, 2017 1:17 pm

    what is surprising is to attach the lizard and lion to the character of Jamshid, the same Jamshid that in ancient Persian mythology is a Noah like figure.

  5. namdar permalink
    May 19, 2017 5:30 am

    in Persian, it is mentioned….”that Qasr (palace) where Jamshid Jam gereft” …this is the first line ..translated as ‘the courts where Jamshid gloried and drank deep” by FG ….however the original text could mean 2 things separtely or together; Jam gereft meaning, getting drunk, and it can also be alluding to Jamshid being gifted with the magical seven-ringed cup called Jām-e Jam which was filled with the elixir of immortality that allowed Jamshid to observe the universe. This was gifted to him by Ahura Mazda and Yaztas…sor it could mean both…that he was drunk and also the holder of this magical cup.

    Then the Persian goes to say ” ahoo bache kard va roo be aram gerfet”..litterally meaning, the deer had offspring (ahoo bache kard) and was begotten to peace (aram gereft): . this can however also be alluding to the caves as mentioned below for the birth of the new deer. Adding the word ‘roo’, which means, to look towards …so it is the palace where the deer had its offspring, and looked towards aram…(aram meaning peace and tranquility, but also being defined as …Aram , a grandson of Noah and a reveared figure for the Mandaeism, or the word means high, or highlands, and as the name of a country denotes that elevated region extending from the northeast of Palestine to the Euphrates…. so overall could be alluding to the Noah’s biblical flood tale…which Jamshid also had his own…

    (The next part of the story tells of a meeting of Ahura Mazda and the Yazatas in Airyanem Vaejah, the first of the “perfect lands”. Yima attends with a group of “the best of mortals”, where Ahura Mazda warns him of an upcoming catastrophe: “O fair Yima, son of Vivaŋhat! Upon the material world the evil winters are about to fall, that shall bring the fierce, deadly frost; upon the material world the evil winters are about to fall, that shall make snow-flakes fall thick, even an arədvi deep on the highest tops of mountains.”

    Ahura Mazda advises Yima to construct a Vara (Avestan: enclosure) in the form of a multi-level cavern underground, two miles (3 km) long and two miles (3 km) wide. This he is to populate with the fittest of men and women; and with two of every animal, bird and plant; and supply with food and water gathered the previous summer.)

    *Yima is Jamshid.

    So…perhaps something to consider…..could FG have thought that Khayam was referring to the flood tale…and so used the lion and lizard to refer to the angels and deavas / or Yazatas that mingled and helped Jamshid?

    • May 19, 2017 3:56 pm

      That’s an interesting comment, Namdar, but we think we have to accept that there are at least two versions of the Persian text for this quatrain. One is that shown by Heron-Allen sources as Calcutta Q99, which contains the references to Bahram in the first line and to fox and lion in the second – see our original post above. Whinfield (1901) in the Persian text for his quatrain, also has Bahram in the first line, but with the gazelle/deer and lion in the second (Ahoo and Shir). Barney Rickenbacher’s article on this quatrain is really interesting see, and he points to the Hedayat and Furughi collections of Khayyam quatrains which may contain further variants. We’ll look when we have more time. But we do wonder why FitzGerald chose to use Jamshyd in his second line rather than Bahram?

  6. namdar permalink
    May 19, 2017 5:00 pm

    Thanks Guys for your reply. I had no idea that there could have been 2 versions of this quatrain in the original persian text as everything I have ever seen has been Jamshid first, and Bahram second. Also, it makes less sense to attach Jam to Bahram as in Iran Jamshid and his Jam are almost interdependent throughout its history. Anyhow, I will study further to find original texts , as I am not sure which persian text Whinfield (1901) had used. Anyhow, there is still no mention of Lizard in any of it all 🙂 , thanks again for your good advice. Is Heron-Allen, 33, Calcutta MS, C 99 the first person to use Bahram first and Jamshid 2nd? ….this is all so confusing …

    and lastly, the phrase Ahoo bache kard, is also a reference to a long time…meaning….for example…it took so long, that the deer had its a reference to a long time …

    thanks so much for your attention.

  7. May 22, 2017 2:49 pm

    Thanks for your further comment, Namdar. It is particularly valuable to have your insight into the nuance of the Persian expressions which escape those of us less familiar with Farsi and Persian idioms. As regards which Persian text had was the earliest to have Bahram first and then Jamshid, this requires a bit of research and it will take a while to get to it. If anyone else has an immediate answer, please add your comment. Otherwise, more in due course, we hope!

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