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Harry Quilter and the pirate Rubaiyat of 1883

September 1, 2021
Portrait of Harry Quilter

A while back, Fred Diba sent us scans of some material relating to Harry Quilter and his interest in Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.  Quilter was an English art critic, writer and educationalist, who was born in 1851 and died in 1907.  Among the documents, was an article entitled Omar Khayyam which appeared in What’s What, a kind of encyclopaedia, edited and substantially written by Quilter and published in 1902.

The full text of the article is shown as an image at the end of this post;  the image can be opened and enlarged to make it more readable.   It deals primarily with aspects of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, rather than with the original Persian verses and their supposed author.  We comment briefly below on three particularly interesting points raised in the article. 

The first of these is Quilter’s reference, early on, to his involvement in the publication of a pirated edition of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat.  To quote from the article ‘… we printed, quite unlawfully, the plain, unannotated text of the poem, bound in brown cardboard, and printed on sugar-loaf paper, in big Old English type …’.  This pirated edition has been identified as the one mentioned in Potter’s Bibliography as number 138.  We know of some copies of this edition which exist in the hands of collectors and libraries and we hope to be able to post images from the pirated version in due course.

The second point of interest are Quilter’s claims in the article of a possible link between his pirate edition and the Omar Khayyam Club of London which was founded in 1892.  Quilter writes ‘Possibly the club grew through this very edition.’  He states that several copies of the pirate were bought by a gentleman who was ‘… very prominent in the cult of Omar.’  This person has been identified as J H McCarthy who was a founder member and first President of the Omar Khayyam Club.  The thing we find strange, given Quilter’s comments, is that there is no sign that he himself had anything to do with the London Club.  In particular, he does not appear as a member or guest at any of the Club’s regular dinners.  Whether he chose not to be involved, or was not invited, we do not know.  But members would have known of him as a frank critic of some artists’ work, notably J M Whistler with whom he had a well-publicised feud.

The final point in Quilter’s article that stood out to us is his comment, towards the end, that Mr Gladstone [W E Gladstone, British Prime Minister] ‘… had been the first to make the poem [FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat] famous.’  Quilter goes on to suggest that the Prime Minister had discovered the book at Quaritch’s bookshop, taken a copy home, and ‘… talked it into almost instant popularity.’  He dates this event to 1878-9.  Such a date may well be when Gladstone discovered the Rubaiyat for himself, and he is known to have been a customer of Quaritch.  But the more generally accepted, and well attested, story is that the first edition of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat was ‘discovered’ in Quaritch’s penny box much earlier in 1861, by Whitley Stokes and Jack Ormsby, and was gradually taken up by other writers and artists, notably the poet A C Swinburne, D G Rossetti the pre-Raphaelite painter and poet, and John Ruskin the artist and art critic. 

In our view, Quilter’s story about Gladstone is simply incorrect.  But the fact that he repeated it in print as late as 1902 suggests that the story must have had quite wide currency and acceptance at the time.  It would be interesting to explore the media and other writings of the time to see whether this account of the discovery of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat appears in print elsewhere.

Beyond these three specific points, Quilter’s article is an interesting example of the turn of the century view of FitzGerald and his poem and the link between the verses and the concept of the ‘modern epicurean’.  It is worth reading in full.  We welcome any comments our readers may have on the article and the issues it raises.  Our thanks to Fred Diba for sending it to us, and for reminding us of the interesting pirate edition of the Rubaiyat of 1883 – incidentally the year of Edward FitzGerald’s death.

Article from What’s What (1902) on Omar Khayyam

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