Skip to content

Willy Pogany and the Rubaiyat of 1942

February 18, 2022
Pogany 1942 (Quatrain 3, FitzGerald 4th ed)

Willy Pogany (1882-1955) is one of the best known of the illustrators of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and also one of the most frequently published, with copies of his work being republished right throughout the twentieth century. He actually produced three separate portfolios of illustrations for the poem, which were first published in 1909, 1930 and 1942 respectively. Of these three, the last is quite remarkably different in style and content, and many researchers have been curious about the reasons for the changes and the place of the 1942 illustrations in Pogany’s work generally.

Bob Forrest has been studying this question and has provided important insights into the pattern of development of Pogany’s work on the Rubaiyat. In setting out the results of his investigation, Bob shows that the 1942 portfolio has links with other work being carried out by the artist, especially in the 1930’s and ’40’s, and possibly with that of other artists working in the field. He also clarifies the dating of some of the many reissues of Pogany’s work in this period.

The full presentation of Bob’s research is in an article on his web site, see http://www.bobforrestweb.co.uk/The_Rubaiyat/N_and_Q/Willy_Pogany/Willy_Pogany.htm. It contains many images of Pogany’s varied work, with interpretations, and it is well worth reading. Once again, our thanks to Bob for sharing the results of his investigations.

Harry B. Matthews: Book Designer, Illustrator, Decorator of the Rubaiyat

February 8, 2022

Joseph Howard has been investigating the work of a Rubaiyat artist previously only known by his initials HBM. In what follows, Joe identifies the name behind these initials and also provides much information on the artist’s work on the Rubaiyat and that of the publisher with whom he worked. Our thanks to Joe for sharing his research with us all. If any readers can fill in the remaining gaps in this story, particularly relating to the life of HBM about which little is still known, please comment below.

A previously unidentified decorator

In his informative book about early decorated editions of the Rubaiyat1, Danton O’Day includes the work of an artist identified only by his distinctively conjoined initials, “HBM”. These initials occur on every decorated page of a Rubaiyat published by H. M. Caldwell & Co. (New York and Boston) and marked “Copyright 1900”. Except for its size (5½x6¾ in.), this book matches the limited description of item 244 in Potter’s bibliography: Potter describes a book “9×6½ in.” with “…text in olive green dec. borders of var. designs”. However, he makes no reference to the initials HBM, nor does he comment on the binding or the endpapers. The image shown in Fig.1 is from my copy (identical to Danton’s). There are eight different decorative designs presented as mirror-image pairs on facing pages. These eight designs repeat, in sets, throughout the book, which has flexible green leather covers and endpapers containing a picture of classical ruins.

The initials “HBM” are those of Harry B. Matthews, an arts-and-crafts book designer, illustrator and author, whose work was regularly published between ca. 1900 and 1915. Evidence for this attribution is:

  • In several, non-Rubaiyat, books2 Matthews is specifically named as the illustrator/designer and his characteristic initials are included with his illustrations/designs.
  • In some books3 he extends his initials to include his full family name (Fig.2 centre and right)
  • Reference works on artist/author monograms4 assign the distinctive HBM monogram to him.

Matthews designed the front boards of many hardback books, usually with his initials impressed into their surfaces (Fig.2 left and centre). He also illustrated the works3 of other authors (Fig.2 right) or decorated their text pages with borders/frames5. In addition, he was both author and illustrator/decorator of several books. For example, in 1907, at a time when young women were attending college in increasing numbers and scrapbooks/memory books were popular, Matthews designed and illustrated6 “Alma Mater Days”. This beautifully designed and bound “memory book” includes thoughtfully designed pictorial section-headings intended to guide students with the organization of their memories.  Matthews also wrote, designed and illustrated7, a large (10×12 in.) and brightly coloured children’s book titled “Happy Day Fair” Notably, the Rubaiyat is not listed as one of his publications in any of the online sources I searched.

H. M. Caldwell & Co., Publishers

H.M. Caldwell & Co. (Caldwell) operated between 1896 and 1914.  The Company published many series of books with each individual series having some uniformity in format and style. Some of these have obvious themes (The Belgravia Series of Art Monographs, The Great Galleries Series etc.) while others are less obvious (Overton Series, Sesame Series etc.). Books were commonly featured in more than one series and many series lasted just 2-3 years. The series name is often not printed in the matching publications, though I have seen them printed on the accompanying boxes: now frequently missing.  Within a series, the physical appearance (dimensions, binding) could vary over time. These practices, when combined with the inclusion of printed copyright dates, rather than publishing dates, in the texts, create problems in determining exact publication histories. Searches of advertisements and annual catalogs can facilitate the assignment of books to their relevant series and provide insights into publication dates.

An advertisement by Caldwell in The Publishers Weekly8 is headed “Preliminary Fall Announcement 1909” and contains the entry “ALEXANDRIAN SERIES Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam etc. Ten titles. Cloth $1.00: limp leather $1.50”.

A later (also 1909) advertisement9 in the same publication provides much more detail:

 “THE ALEXANDRAN SERIES: A choice and selected list of classic poetry and prose. Printed on antique wove paper, deckle edge with original border designs and illuminated title-pages by Matthews, photogravure frontispieces. End-pieces by BARON von PALM.

  Bound in dark green T cloth. Cover design and titles in gold, gilt tops. Size 5½ X 6¾ inches. In a box matching binding. Price each $1.00. Deep green paste grain leather, cover design in gold, git top, boxed. Price $1.50.”

This advertisement also includes a photograph (B&W) of a sample cover of this Alexandrian Series. The description and photograph (except for the specific title) match, in all respects, the book shown in Fig.1. The advertisements confirm the assignment of the borders to Matthews but adds the information that he designed the unsigned frame on the title page (see Fig.4 below). It also provides the name of the artist whose work is used for the endpapers. The photogravure frontispiece is found in our copies and is the well-known image by “AD Marcel”. The book shown in Fig.1 is clearly from the Alexandrian Series.

A 1910 advertisement repeats the details of the binding options for the Alexandrian Series but adds the words “Fraternity Edition $1.50.” The corresponding advertisement for 1911 mentions only the “Fraternity Edition of the Alexandrian Series.” It is therefore likely that the copies described above (copyright 1900) were published in 1909 and possibly 1910.

A second set of decorations by Matthews

I own two additional Rubaiyats, each also marked “Copyright 1900” and published by H. M. Caldwell (New York and Boston) which are larger (8½x6 in.) than the copies described above. However, their contents and pagination are also identical to that described in Potter 244. Of particular interest is that they contain an entirely different set of decorations by Matthews (Fig.3). These decorations (yellowish in one copy and brownish in the other), form frames for the text. Once again there are eight different designs cycling through the books. Here, the positioning of the initials HBM is inconsistent: they can be found at varied locations inside and outside the frames and are omitted from some pages.  

In these two hardback books Matthews’s decorations are extended to the title pages (Fig.4b), whereas in the Alexandrian Series copy, Matthews provided a simpler design (Fig.4a). These decorations by Matthews add considerably to the charm of these editions, however, the inclusion of a complete frame on text-free pages creates the unfortunate impression that something is missing (Fig.4c). This is not the case with the simpler decorations.

These two books have very distinctive covers (Fig.5) and identical endpapers dappled in purple and white. The copy with the purple/flowery cover exhibits the usual shimmering (moiré) effects associated with the rounded triangular prism-like structure of silk threads. The second copy has gilded blue boards with a cameo at the centre. This cameo is mounted on rectangular, cream-coloured, card that is embossed in a repeated herringbone pattern with added gilded and “jeweled” ellipses.

These copies can be assigned to the appropriate Caldwell Series and to their likely publication dates by building on the results of extensive work completed10 in support of “The Lucile Project”. This project aims to detail the complete publication history, estimated at 2000+ volumes, of the book “Lucile” authored by Owen Meredith (who gave his one and only public speech at a dinner of the Omar Khayyam Club of London in 1895). In support of the Lucile project, extensive work has been done on many Caldwell series. Using this information, we can assign both books to the “Ariston-Dilettante Series” with publication dates in the range 1908-1911.

Concluding remarks

Matthews decorated many other books for Caldwell, including some entire series.

While researching this work, I’ve seen further evidence that Potter’s listings (243 and 244) of Caldwell editions of the Rubaiyat are incomplete. For example, some pre-1900 editions are not mentioned. If someone has already done the work to generate a more comprehensive analysis of the Caldwell editions, I would very much welcome it being shared. If not, I will complete the research I’ve started and share it via this blog. Please comment below.

Lately I came across a blog curated by Sarah Sunday11 which is a useful source of images of some Rubaiyat editions from Caldwell and other publishers. Additional photographs (cover, endpapers, frontispiece etc.) of the Alexandrian series Rubaiyat are provided there.

I express my sincere thanks to Roger Paas and Danton O’Day for fruitful discussions and assistance with the assignment of individual volumes to specific Series.

References

  1. The Golden Age of Rubaiyat Art 1884-1913 III, The Decorators, Danton H. O’Day, Blurb New Edition, 2021
  2. Cupid’s Middleman, Edward B. Lent, Cupples & Leon, New York, 1906 
  3. The Love That Prevailed, Frank F. Moore, illustrated by Harry B. Matthews, New York Empire Book Company Pub., 1907;
  4.   https://www.browsersbookstore.com/2019/07/publishers-bindings-book-designer-monograms-initials/
  5. The Players of London, Louise Beecher Chancellor, B.W. Dodge & Co., New York, 1909. His work with frames/borders
  6. Alma Mater Days, H. B. Matthews, G.W Dillingham Co., New York, 1907
  7. Happy Day Fair, H. B. Matthews, McLoughlin Bros. Pubs., New York, 1908
  8. The Publishers’ Weekly,Aug. 28, 1909, p.452
  9. The Publishers’ Weekly, Sept. 25, 1909, p.880
  10. http://sdrc.lib.uiowa.edu/lucile/publishers/caldwell/caldwelleds.htm; and the section with list of series dates http://sdrc.lib.uiowa.edu/lucile/publishers/caldwell/caldwell.htm
  11. https://www.therubaiyatofomarkhayyam.com/editions-by-publisher/

‘Three Great Versions of the Rubaiyat’

January 27, 2022

The author and poet Simon Gladdish has brought together several versions of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam under the title ‘Three Great Versions of the Rubaiyat’. In his Preface to the new book he writes as follows.

Here, as promised, are three great versions of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The first is by the Victorian poet Edward FitzGerald. The second is by Robert Graves and the third is by John Heath-Stubbs. I have significantly improved the second and third versions by rhyming them both throughout. I think that it will be instructive and entertaining for the reader to compare all three versions and decide which one he or she likes best.

Simon Gladdish’s rhyming versions of the Graves and Heath-Stubbs editions were published separately in 2017 and 2019 respectively. Descriptions of them and the source material can be seen using the following link https://omarkhayyamrubaiyat.wordpress.com/2019/02/01/simon-gladdish-publishes-another-rhyming-version-of-the-rubaiyat/ . Simon says ‘I have always wanted all three versions in the same volume’.

The new book is available on Amazon, both as a paperback and on Kindle. To buy, the paperback is £4.00, and the Kindle version is £1.99. One word of warning. The Kindle version that we received had some problems with the layout of the verses and pages. We hope that this may have been sorted out by now.

The Persian Poetry Channel presents the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

January 20, 2022

Charles Mugleston has alerted us to the existence of the Persian Poetry Channel. Publicity for the organisation indicates that “this is a social media channel which aims to make Persian Poetry accessible to the entire globe, by providing simple interpretations of the complex world that is Persian Poetry. The presentations cover the brightest stars of this intricate literature including Rumi, Hafez, Sa’di, Ferdousi [and Omar Khayyam].”

Typical presentations can be found in the form of YouTube films. Two recent episodes on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam are available on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20XXpLuT6zY and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jKZ1zbm5vNY. The presenter, Arash Nalchegar, speaks in clear Persian with good English subtitles. Details of the coverage of the Rubaiyat and of the Channel are shown in the descriptions below. We have not had time to listen all through but this seems to be a resource worth exploring – and a way of improving Persian listening for those who are interested. Our thanks to Charles for telling us about the channel.

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – Mysteries of Creation

Episode 1. In this video, the first of the Rubaiyat of Khayyam series, Arash examines Khayyam’s worldview and the reasons behind it. It’s clear that his poetry was an extension of this worldview and was meant to get us all thinking. Watch this video through to the end as Arash presents an interesting biography of this world renowned poet and examines three of the first quatrains from the Rubaiyat of Khayyam as edited by Sadegh Hedayat.

Episode 2. In this video, the second of the Rubaiyat of Khayyam series, Arash introduces us to Khayyam’s perspective on religious certainties.  With intelligent logic, Khayyam asks us to question everything we’ve accepted as a given and most importantly he wants us to then consider why we fight each other based on ideas, or rather, illusions we’ve imagined to be real and absolute.  Watch this video through to the end as Arash presents Khayyam’s interesting perspective as he examines four more quatrains from the Rubaiyat of Khayyam as edited by Sadegh Hedayat.

About Persian Poetry Channel. Please remember, if you like the content, the best way to support our efforts is to subscribe to our YouTube channel and to interact with us. Be sure to leave us a comment about your thoughts on this post. And stay in touch in our YouTube community with any general comments, suggestions or criticisms. We aim to improve and that will only happen with interactions with our audience. PS Don’t forget to check out our membership program. Click on the join button to learn about the different levels and perks. Many thanks 🙏🏻 The Persian Poetry Team

New Illustrations for FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat

January 14, 2022

New illustrations interpreting FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam will shortly be on show in Brighton on the south coast of England. The artist, Lois Pawson, has sent us the following details of the Exhibition and her work in it.

PRESS RELEASE Rubaiyat Illustrations at Emotive Collective Exhibition. 8th to 13th February 2022, The Regency Town House, Brighton & Hove.

Lois A Pawson is an illustrator and designer, currently a postgraduate illustration student at University of Brighton, with the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam as the focus for her MA degree project.  A selection of illustrations from her project ‘Fate and Fatalism’ will be shown as part of the Emotive Collective Exhibition in Sussex this February. 

“That ev’n my buried Ashes such a Snare
Of Perfume shall fling up into the Air”
Bearded Vulture – Silent Towers – Desert Garden

Lois’ project ‘Fate and Fatalism’ is a revisualisation of poetry attributed to ‘astronomer poet of Persia’ Omar Khayyam (1048 -1131), from the 1859 English translation by Edward FitzGerald.  These four-line Rubaiyat poems reflect on universal aspects of human existence – life, death and facing one’s fate.  At their emotive core runs the humanistic message to seize the day and enjoy life – because life can be all too short.  Readers can interpret these poems in different ways, and this project is a work of personal expression, underpinned by expansive research and participation in international symposiums, over thirty virtual guided tours of Iran, and ‘method illustration’ experiments with ancient Persian crafts.

The Emotive Collective is a group of 13 artists and designers, some recent University of Brighton MA graduates, others, current students, who have allowed their individual journeys to lead them to unpredictable discoveries and the exhibition has many themes, but they are all connected by the urge to provoke conversation about emotive topics. The process/act of exploring individual themes has led each artist to experiment with a range of media and contexts, each searching for a way to ask meaningful questions and hopefully, to answer them. In doing so, the artists hope to open dialogue on universal issues and bring this into the public realm.

COVID Safety Measures & Prior Booking Requirements Apply

Free booking in advance via Eventbrite https://emotive-collective.eventbrite.co.uk/

Lois adds that she will have another show in July, showing the completed project at University of Brighton. There will also be a book presenting her final artwork. We look forward to seeing the completion of her illustrations.

Marie Preaud Webb: Leaning more about a British Illustrator of the Rubaiyat

January 12, 2022

An edition of Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with illustrations by Marie Preaud Webb was first published by James Hewetson and Son in London in 1907. Until recently, little else was known about this artist’s life and works. But now, research by Bob Forrest has uncovered much more information on a notable contributor to Rubaiyat art in the early twentieth century.

The full report on Bob’s research is published on his website, see http://www.bobforrestweb.co.uk/The_Rubaiyat/N_and_Q/Marie_Preaud_Webb/Marie_Preaud_Webb.htm. He tells us that the artist was born in London in 1879 and died in Chichester, Sussex, in 1964. Her main period of artistic production was in the first decade of the 1900’s, mainly doing illustrations for James Hewetson and Son, the publisher of her Rubaiyat edition. Cecil Charles Hewetson, the ‘son’ in the publishing firm, provided the Foreward to the Rubaiyat edition, and, in 1910, he and Marie Preaud Webb were married.

Bob’s article provides an interesting discussion of the dates of publication of the different formats and reissues of the Webb Rubaiyat. He also shows us a detailed set of images from these books and some of the other work done by Webb for the Hewetsons. The most notable item among the latter was an edition of Carinal Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius, in formats not very dissimilar from that of the Rubaiyat which appeared at roughly the same time. Bob also documents the wider operations of the Hewetson firm, and the decline of the firm after the death of the founder, James Hewetson, in 1913, and the advent of war in 1914.

Once again Bob’s research has helped to fill in a significant gap in our knowledge of the history of Rubaiyat illustration. We are grateful to him for sharing his findings with us all.

More reflections on Siamak Akhavan’s Omar Khayyam Poems

January 6, 2022

Martin Kimeldorf, author, poet and commentator on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, initially responded positively to some of Siamak Akhavan’s new translations of Omar Khayyam’s verses (see end comment on https://omarkhayyamrubaiyat.wordpress.com/2021/12/07/siamak-akhavans-modern-translation-of-khayyams-poems/). But, having had a chance to study the complete book, he has sent us these more critical reflections.

I grew up in the 60s and 70s listening to my father recite Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat before the

fireplace in our soft-carpeted living room. While it took some time to grasp the cadence and

rhyme of FitzGerald’s translation eventually it found its way past my brain, in to my heart. Now

fast forward to the year 2013 and I am facing an uncertain brain surgery. In that moment I chose

to armor myself by returning to read the poems Edward FitzGerald translated into his book The

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám. The words gave me the courage to face what fate had tossed up

before me.

FitzGerald’s translation has stood the long steady test of time. His version of the poems have

appealed to generations of artists, writers, and everyday people looking for meaning and comfort.

I found reassurance and solace in the poetry’s wit, skepticism, and the celebration of simple joys.

Some of the lines I clung to from three different poems are listed next:

‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days

Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:

Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire

To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,

Ah make the most of what we may yet spend,

before we too into the dust descend.

I believe I was able to make the most of what was left to spend, having published two books of

quatrains. The first was entitled Sipping From The Rubaiyat’s Chalice, My Journey with The

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám and this was followed by Kibbles for the Soul—Poems and Pet

Photos About the Joy, Irony, Fatalism and Transience of Life.

Over the years I’ve read about many old and new translations. Many had merit but for me far too

many did not measure up to the FitzGerald-Omar masterpiece. Sadly the latest title by Siamak

Akhavan Omar Khayyam Poems, A Modern Translation failed on so many levels I could not

even finish his book.

I originally thought I’d like Akhavan’s poetry based on reading only a few lines in the early blog

mention. But Siamak Akhavan’s translated verse wanders and relies on esoteric words or outdated

vocabulary. I literally had to sit with a dictionary to get through the first half, and then I realized I

was in a losing game with my clock.

Here are a few sample lines:

Flowers shed, birds wail in amity.

Devotion to love is to not absolve.

What the hell are those lines about?

Too often Akhavan’s showy lines rely on a forced rhyme that destroyed any possible joy he

almost delivers, as in these lines:

Why worry if tomorrow’s aghast

Hold love’s cup, today won’t last.

————————————–

Our thanks to Martin for sharing these further thoughts with us. We should add our own regret that, while most Rubaiyat enthusiasts welcome any attempt at a new interpretation of Khayyam’s verse for the modern era, it has been hard for any of our commentators, including ourselves, to find positive things to say about this particular new version. This highlights the very special achievement of Edward FitzGerald in creating his seminal work over 160 years ago.

Futher comments on Siamak Akhavan’s Omar Khayyam Poems

December 13, 2021

Barney Rickenbacker has sent us his comments on Siamak Akhavan’s Modern Translation of Omar Khayam Poems. He writes as follows.

It’s generally agreed that the best English translations of Persian poetry come from those who know Persian and who are themselves poets. This of course applies when translating quatrains attributed to Omar Khayyam. Knowledge of Persian and at the least, a poetic sensibility, are necessary.

Next, I would argue for imagination coupled with a command of both the language and metrics to create a rich metric line. FitzGerald possessed all these attributes when he wrote his Rubaiyat.

Reading through Siamak Akhavan’s new translation of over a hundred poems attributed to Omar Khayyam, I am pleased that he chooses worthy examples from Khayyam’s corpus, primarily from the compilation of Forughi-Ghani. What’s more, the Persian text accompanies each translation. Good news for those of us who wish to compare text and translation.

My first impression is that Siamak Akhavan brings imagination to his translations. You might say that he has a lot he wishes to express. The problem is that he does not always express it well. He often expresses it poorly owing to his penchant for a forced aabb rhyme scheme, a preferred scheme that seems to direct him to use incorrect or ridiculously contrived rhymes. He needs a guide or mentor to help him. Then he might consider publishing a second, revised edition.

All Siamak’s infelicities will be quickly apparent to the reader. And rather than point them out, I wish to cite just one poorly translated quatrain, beautifully rendered by FitzGerald, not so by Akhavan.

Akhavan, p.11, “All comrades of the way parted,/with eternity merged, fate flaunted,/Light’s path we tried to unravel./Sooner some gained the mantle.” The Persian (my almost literal translation): “convivial companions all have departed/pressed by fate underfoot one by one/they drank from one cup in life’s gathering/they got drunk a round or two earlier than us.”

What to say here? He misses the simplicity and sadness of this quatrain, chiefly by departing in lines two and three from the Persian text. Compare FitzGerald (Stanza XXII4th):

                        For some we loved, the loveliest and the best

                        That from his vintage rolling Time hath prest,

                        Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,

                                And one by one crept silently to rest.

The Rubaiyat of Siamak Akhavan – Another view

December 10, 2021

Following on from the previous post on Siamak Akhavan’s Omar Khayyam’s Poems, A Modern Translation, here are some further comments sent to us by Bob Forrest. Please add your own comments below.

Akhavan hopes that his “Modern Translation” will be “a more readable and accurate version” than FitzGerald’s “outdated English prose” (p.ix), but to my mind his version is very far from being an improvement on FitzGerald. It is true that FitzGerald’s version was “an excessively free translation” (p.xiv). but that FitzGerald misrepresented Omar in picturing him as a “hedonistic / nihilist poet” (p.xv) as opposed to one who “used such code words as ‘wine’ and ‘beloved’ to make vague references to then forbidden esoteric and alchemical philosophies and practices” (p.x) is as debatable now as when FitzGerald took J.B. Nicolas’s 1867 Sufi-inclined translation to task in the preface to his second edition of 1868. As Prof. Cowell said of FitzGerald’s efforts, in a letter to W. Aldis Wright dated 19 July 1883, they are “too free to be called translations, yet what closer translations could ever give such a vivid idea of the original ?” (George Cowell, Life and Letters of Edward Byles Cowell (1904), p.283): certainly not Akhavan’s, it seems to me.

Looking at Akhavan’s translation, I am puzzled by some of his word usage, which sometimes seems to be governed more by finding a rhyme (frequently forced / clumsy) than making clear sense. Since Akhavan doesn’t number his quatrains, I will use page numbers for readers to locate the following examples, which are chosen from a much larger number.

On p.3: “Thus flowed to me this advise, /  ‘once I was you, don’t surmise’” – “advise” should be “advice”, but this doesn’t rhyme with “surmise”, of course,  “surmise” presumably being a reference to trying to fathom the “secrets for a life long” (rather than a long life ?) in line 2. All somewhat clumsy, it seems to me.

On p.8: “Mull not over what’s past and ran. / Praise presence, that’s the plan.” “Past and ran” is forced – “past and gone” would be better – but then “gone” doesn’t rhyme with “plan”. “Praise presence” presumably means, “Enjoy the present”, which makes much more obvious sense (and is “realm” supposed to rhyme with “psalm” in lines 1 & 2 ?) Then we have, “The many that rose and went under, /  then flew asleep in vanity’s asunder” – but “flew asleep” not “fell asleep” ? And does he mean “vanities asunder”, and if so, what does he mean by “asunder” ? Or did he use it largely because it rhymed with “under” ? These lines, continuing the rhyme, are followed by, “Of their fate there is no wonder, / Their words lost in aeon’s thunder” – aside from rhyming with “wonder”, I’m not sure what “thunder” is doing here.

On p.17: ”Cosmic wheel’s a cycle of ether. / Galaxies are rivers of purified tear.” Aside from the lack of “The” in front of “Cosmic”, are “ether” and “tear” (which should surely be “tears”) supposed to rhyme ? Would “ether” have been known in Omar’s day ? Certainly “Galaxies” were not, until the advent of modern telescopes (beginning with Messier in the late eighteenth century.) Likewise on p.21 we have “Pleiades and Saturn flaunt their rings”, which could never have been written by Omar: the Pleiades are a star cluster visible to the naked eye, now as in Omar’s day, but it has no rings; plus the rings of Saturn were unknown, again until the advent of modern telescopes (Galileo first saw them in 1610.)

On p.27: ”Rise oh light, to heart’s aid go / With radiance absolve its throe. / Rinse my dirt in your brightness, / so a purer ash in clay they throw.” The verse clearly follows FitzGerald’s a-a-b-a rhyming pattern (though not his 10 syllable lines – Akhavan’s consist of wobbly 7-8-7-9 pattern.) Again, I know what he means, though who “they” are, I don’t know. But is this honestly an improvement on FitzGerald ? Certainly not for me.

On p.32: “No one masters infinity’s letter. / Dirt is the fate for flesh forever./ Vain one, if not in soil yet, know, / your time’ll come too, don’t glow.” I must confess that I find the repeated use of “dirt” instead of “earth” a little irritating and not very poetic, though that view that might not be shared by others. Does “infinity’s letter” mean “infinity’s depths” or what ? And what does “don’t glow” mean here ? Again, it seems, a case of finding a rhyme for “know” in the previous line has muddied the waters.

**********

I was curious to know what Akhavan had made of Omar’s various references to pots and the potter’s shop.

Here is the one on p.15: “A potter’s I passed a fortnight. / In dim silence sat pots in sight. / Roared one silent pot with desire, / ‘where’s maker, seller and buyer ?” Here “passed a fortnight” is clearly used to rhyme with “pots in sight”, and “desire” with “buyer”, but it jars that there is no clarification of “A potter’s” (a potter’s what ? Shop ?), that there is no “at” or “in” at the front of “A potter’s”, and that one of the pots is roaring “with desire” rather than with impatience (as in v.60 of FitzGerald’s first edition.) To my way of thinking, FitzGerald version is much better, Victorian or not.

On p.43 we have: “A pot I bought from the bazar, / whispered secrets of lands afar: / ‘A king I was once, on a golden throne, / but clay now, with deeds to atone.’” Not a bad effort, this one, though “deeds to atone” seems to be there mainly to give a rhyme for “a golden throne”, and “I am clay now” would be better.

Unfortunately, just as things seemed to be improving in the potter’s shop, along came this verse on p.44 to spoil things: “Passing the potter’s one night, / saw the master’s usual sight. / Crafting clay pots without vaunt, /of beggars’ crud and kings’ flaunt.”  No “I” in front of “saw” is again a minor irritation, and does “the master’s usual sight” mean “the potter’s shop in its usual state” ? Using “vaunt” to rhyme with “flaunt”, and with neither word used in a correct sense, just doesn’t work. And “crud” ? Not for me, I’m afraid.

**********

I freely admit to being the sort of person who cannot see anyone playing Sherlock Holmes other than Basil Rathbone, or anyone playing James Bond other than Sean Connery, but it is a fairly common phenomenon, I think, to retain a particular fondness for what one grew up with. Likewise, for me, no translation I have ever seen has ever come close to the magic of FitzGerald’s and to my mind Akhavan’s comes nowhere near.

Siamak Akhavan’s Modern Translation of Khayyam’s poems

December 7, 2021

Earlier this year, we posted several blog items relating to a new publication by Siamak Akhavan entitled Omar Khayyam Poems, A Modern Translation. The most recent post is on https://omarkhayyamrubaiyat.wordpress.com/2021/07/29/omar-khayyam-poems-new-translation-now-available/.  Since then a number of readers, including ourselves, have received their copies of the book and have had a chance to look in detail at the content of book.  Here are some of our own reactions.  Comments from others will follow.  If you would like to contribute to the dialogue, please comment below, or send a short piece for posting to sandrabill@omarkhayyamrubaiyat.com

Akhavan is aiming to ‘share a more accurate and relevant presentation of Khayyam … with modern english [sic] readers.’  In trying to assess whether he achieves this aim, we have looked at three specific aspects of the book.  There are:  the choice of verses attributed to Khayyam that have been chosen for translation;  the presentation of the verses in the book;  the content and accessibility of the individual verses and what they tell us about Khayyam and his thinking.

The question of whether Khayyam, the historical figure who was an astronomer, mathematician and philosopher, actually wrote any verses, has been much discussed elsewhere.  Akhavan recognises the problem of selecting the verses, most likely to be by Khayyam, from the many hundreds that have been attributed to him.  The modern author has selected 122 quatrains that ‘in my opinion are likely genuine Khayyam poems, based on my own familiarity with Omar Khayyam’s style and mindset and with Persian literature and poetic mysticism.’  In his book Akhavan does not quote specific sources for his selection, but, in a private communication, he has indicated that he drew on the widely accepted work of Foroughi and Ghani, and Sadeq Hedayat, as well as a number of other recent American and Iranian experts on Khayyam.

Having made his selection of Persian verses, Akhavan had the problem of how to present them in his English version.  Here he made two critical decisions, neither of which is justified in his Preface or Introduction.  First he chose not to follow the AABA rhyming scheme of the original Persian which was also adopted by many earlier translators.  Instead his English verses are mostly simple rhyming couplets, which, for us, create a significantly different effect from the original.  Second, there is the question of the order in which to present the verses.  The original Persian verses are normally alphabetical, based on the end rhyme, which achieves a certain randomisation of content, consistent with the idea that each rubai is an entity on its own.  Some translators have followed this Persian order, others have grouped the verses by subject matter, while FitzGerald, whose work Akhavan uses as a critical foil for his own, chose to create a specific order generally based on the passage of time through the day from morning to evening.  In fact, Akhavan does not tell us the basis for the final order of verses in the book, nor is it easy to find any obvious grouping by subject theme.  The reader is left to pick and choose individual verses at will, perhaps an intentional effect and closer to the original Persian.  But we feel that the new, non-Persian, reader, with no previous knowledge of Khayyam’s work or other translations, would be rather bemused by this set of unrelated verses. One technical complaint about this approach is that it is very difficult to find individual verses again within the 122 quatrains shown, given that the verses have not been numbered or separately identified in any way.

Finally we come to the content of the individual verses and whether this is a ‘more readable and accurate version’ of Khayyam’s thinking for modern readers.  We have compared a few of Akhavan’s English verses first with what we know to be fairly literal translations (by Edward Heron-Allen in 1898/99), and then with Edward FitzGerald’s.  Matching up the Persian originals for different translations is not easy but some comparisons are shown at the end (a few more are available).  Our reactions from this limited exercise, is that Akhavan’s ‘modern translation’ cannot really be called a ‘translation’ in any literal sense.  Just as FitzGerald produced a version of the Persian verses, rendering what he saw as the sense of the original into good English verse of his time, so Akhavan has tried to do something similar for today’s world.

Unfortunately we do not think that Akhavan has achieved his expressed aim.  He has used reliable and accepted sources but his adoption of an alternative rhyming pattern fails to give an authentic feel of Khayyam’s quatrains, and we are worried about the lack of any guide to his intentions in selecting how he presents the quatrains to his readers.  The content of the verses that Akhavan has produced rightly reflects his own interpretation of Khayyam’s quatrains and thinking.  But we have considerable difficulty with his use of the English language and the quality of his verse.  This point will be taken up by other reviewers in later blog posts.  Quite radical modern interpretations of early Persian poets like Rumi have been notably popular among younger audiences;  some versions, like those by Coleman Barks, have a very direct and modern appeal.  But Khayyam’s more abstract quatrains are difficult to present and, to us as readers, some of Akhavan’s verses have non-sequiturs in the English which makes them even more obscure than they need to be.

Despite these comments, we welcome Akhavan’s attempt to bring the Rubaiyat to new audiences. And we look forward to finding out the response of readers of a younger generation.

Two examples of different translations

(The original Persian quatrains can be found by reference to the relevant pages in Akhavan’s book or to the numbered quatrains for FitzGerald’s 3rd edition in Heron-Allen 1899.)