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Omar in the Media: some recent examples from North America

May 22, 2017

When people seek to prove that the Rubaiyat is still alive in popular idiom and culture, the examples of quotes by Martin Luther King and Bill Clinton are often used.  Danton O’Day has sent us two splendid examples of more up to date references to the poem.  He writes as follows.

 Recently Rubáiyát enthusiasts have been working on ways to bring more attention to Edward FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam. It seems that a famous US author might be lending a hand. Over the past several years I’ve noticed with pleasure that James Lee Burke has alluded to content and lines from the poems. In 2014, in his book Wayfaring Stranger, he was more direct with the quote, “Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!” (quatrain 12, 2nd Version). His next book, House of the Rising Sun reflects on the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam as one of the items owned by a lead character who was a soldier in WWI. While this might seem like minor support for the Rubáiyát cause, it is important to recognise just who this author is. James Lee Burke is considered by a multitude of major newspapers, critics and other authors to be America’s best living author. Words like “master”, “genius” and “American treasure” are often used to describe his ability as a writer of fiction about the Detective Dave Robicheaux and a, more or less, historical series on the Holland family. To have someone of his stature mention the Rubáiyát will hopefully encourage some Google enthusiasts to learn more about Fitz and Omar’s poetry.

A second example comes from the world of television.  Of all the nightshirts one might expect the American Secretary of State to wear, it would not be one bearing the image of a skeleton. To be fair, we are talking about the most interesting Secretary of State or, more simply, “Madame Secretary” Elizabeth McCord, wonderfully played by Téa Leone in the eponymous TV drama. On a recent 2017 episode titled “Convergence” she is preparing for bed while talking with her husband. What stands out in this interaction is not her words but the fact she is wearing a nightshirt bearing the image of a skeleton. But not any old skeleton—it is one from the cover of a Grateful Dead album cover. You’d have to be from the same generation as this writer to remember the famous double album from 1971. Known formally as the Skulls and Roses album, it became the band’s first gold album. The cover image of a skeleton with a wreath of roses on its head became an instant classic. While the Grateful Dead gets the credit for the picture, the artist who did the work was Edmund J. Sullivan. He did the picture to illustrate verse 26 from Edward FitzGerald’s first edition.  (Our image is of the Sullivan original.) 

So, the Rubaiyat still lives in the world of 21st century popular culture.  Does anyone else have other examples or quotes to share on this?

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