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The Ouseley brothers: their links to Persia and the Rubáiyát

July 16, 2018

Many readers of this blog will be aware of a manuscript of verses attributed to Khayyám which is in the Bodleian Library and is often referred to as ‘Ouseley 140’  (the library shelf mark). This is one of the two Khayyám manuscripts that Edward FitzGerald used as the basis of his famous version of the poem, published in 1859.

Some years ago, we became curious about the name Ouseley and the reason why it was attached to this copy of the Rubáiyát. This led us to William and Gore Ouseley, two brothers living in the late Georgian and early Victorian periods, both of whom were important collectors of Persian and Arabic manuscripts. Their collections largely ended up in the Bodleian Library, the so-called Ouseley 140 coming from the elder brother, William. The brothers were also notable writers and scholars, particularly William, and they separately travelled and worked in India in the period between 1787 and 1805. Subsequently they together undertook one of their most important journeys, an official visit to Persia between 1810 and 1815.

Sir William Ouseley 1767-1842                                        Sir Gore Ouseley Bart. 1770-1844

This journey has been the core focus of some research that we have recently completed.  The results of this work have now been published in a short book which tells the story of the two Ouseley brothers and how they came to be part of an important mission to Persia in the early nineteenth century.  Using four different reports of the journey east between 1810 and 1815, two by the Ouseleys and two by other members of the mission James Morier and William Price,  we describe where the travellers went, their experiences and what they found in Persia and the other countries they visited.  There is much to be learned about the way life was lived some 200 years ago, and the book contains verbatim quotations from the individual reports, giving the reader an idea of personal reactions and priorities on what was an extraordinary and eventful journey.

Full details of the book are shown below.*  It has been privately published and is for limited circulation to libraries and researchers.  If you are particularly keen to have a print copy, please contact us on sandrabill@omarkhayyamrubaiyat.com , giving an indication of the nature of your interest in the subject.  A PDF version of the book can be accessed online via the link shown. **

One thing that disappointed us personally in studying the reports on this early mission to Persia is the lack of any mention of Omar Khayyám, his writings or his tomb.  Other major Persian poets are mentioned, notably Háfiz and Sa’di, but at that period, before FitzGerald brought him to worldwide fame, Khayyám was not important in Persian culture.  We also do not actually know whether William Ouseley acquired his copy of the Ouseley 140 manuscript of the Rubáiyát on this trip.  But thanks to research by Douglas Taylor, communicated to us by Bob Forrest, we do know that William Ouseley became well acquainted with the Rubáiyát and its contents and he discussed this work in a paper presented to the Royal Society of Literature in 1826.  It is possible that further research will lead to the discovery of more links between the Ouseley brothers and Khayyám and his Rubáiyát

* Martin, William H. and Mason, Sandra, The Ouseley brothers and their journey to Persia 1810-15: Insights into the world of the traveller in the early nineteenth century  (Dry Drayton, Cambridge: Leisure Consultants, 2018).  ISBN 978-1-873450-03-1.

** PDF version available on https://1drv.ms/b/s!AjchErtiuRImgqRh09rVJZq2mCOr5Q

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Patrick Skinner permalink
    July 16, 2018 2:06 pm

    One comment stood out particularly for me in the above: the relative absence of fame of Khayyam in his own country. In the 1970s I visited Iran a number of times when working for the then Iran National Tourism Organisation. On my first briefing tour, I suggested seeing Khayyam’s tomb. “Why?”, I was asked, “He is not one of our best poets”. My hosts found it difficult to understand that he, alone, was known in Britain to non-specialist people. I think it possible that Khayyam’s tomb was “improved” when the awareness of foreign interest was noted.

  2. July 16, 2018 3:05 pm

    Your comment is so true, Patrick. Even today few visitors to Iran get the chance to visit Khayyam’s tomb in Nishapur. We were lucky to find a rare tour that went over to that part of the country. Certainly the idea of visiting Mashad and other places in the east did not appear in the Ouseley programme.

  3. July 19, 2018 4:26 pm

    Fred Diba has queried the accuracy of our brief comment above that ‘… before FitzGerald brought him to worldwide fame, Khayyám was not important in Persian culture.’ We recognise that this remark oversimplifies a more complicated situation and we are glad to clarify matters. As Fred put it to us, ‘Khayyám’s poetry was only about 1/10th of his output. He was an established authority on mathematics and algebra, astronomy and the solar calendar, metaphysics…and then poetry. Of course, as you correctly state, [he was] not on the same level as Hafiz or Sadi. In Europe, only a handful of orientalist scholars were acquainted with his poetry, before that manuscript [Ouseley 140] was shown to Fitzgerald and “translated”.’

    As regards the tomb of Khayyám in Nishapur, there are early Persian references to it, but, as far as we know, the first Western travellers to visit it were in the late 19th/early 20th century. In an article in INDIRAN, the newsletter of the Ancient India and Iran Trust, no 7, Winter 2012 *, Anna Collar refers to the visit by William Simpson in the 1880’s (he collected seeds of a rose near the grave), and also to an account of a later visit to Nishapur by Professor A V Williams and a painting of the tomb by the American artist Jay Hambridge. If any reader has more information about these or earlier visits and descriptions, we should be glad to know.

    * the article is available on line via https://indiairantrust.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/downsized-indiran.pdf

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