The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
Various illustrated editions of Edward FitzGerald’s English rendering of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
When a recent visitor to Rare Books and Special Collections asked to see our 1908 copy of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, featuring illustrations by Edmund Dulac, I was struck by the artist’s enchanting style and decided to investigate our other holdings of his work. That’s how I stumbled onto The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Although I was familiar with the poem, I had no idea there were so many superbly illustrated editions from the late Victorian era, including one by Dulac. Most of these beautiful works accompany Edward FitzGerald’s well-loved, albeit loose translation.
FitzGerald, a wealthy Englishman and bit of a recluse, published his 1st edition of Omar Khayyám’s verses anonymously in 1859. Khayyám was an 11th century Persian poet, mathematician, and astronomer. A collection of four line verses, a Rubaiyat is known as quatrain in English. Khayyám’s quatrains explore the uncertainty and impermanence of life and the value of living in the moment- relishing the earthly delights of wine, song, and romantic love. A true literary phenomenon in its time, FitzGerald’s interpretation was widely read and quoted by average Brits and Americans alike. The work has inspired countless tributes and parodies including the humorous The Rubáiyát of a Persian Kitten by Oliver Herford and a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon concerning a certain ‘Ruby Yacht.’ Two handwritten passages of the poem can be found in 2010’s Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1, for the author originally intended on using the selection as the book’s epigraph.
But what about these beautifully bound and illustrated books? I learned that the period between the 1880’s and 1920’s is considered the ‘Golden Age of Illustration,’ when improvements in color printing technology permitted precise and cost-effective reproductions of art. This gave rise to the keepsake ‘Gift Book,’ (the predecessor to our coffee table books) of which The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was a favored title.
One of the most intriguing stories surrounding the text involves British bookbinders Sangorksi & Sutcliffe. Celebrated for their extravagant covers adored with precious metals and gems, the firm was commissioned in 1909 to create the most magnificent edition of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám of all time. Named ‘The Great Omar’, their finest work took two years to finish and boasted more than one thousand jewels. Unfortunately, the volume was a passenger on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic.
Artwork shown in the slideshow above includes the first illustrated version published in 1884 in Boston by Houghton Mifflin which featured drawings by American artist Elihu Vedder. It was enormously popular. An especially remarkable edition, in my opinion, originally published in 1905 by Dodge Publishing in New York, showcases sensuous photography by Adelaide Hanscom. St. Louis Public Library holds the 1912 printing in which the photographs have been colorized to stunning effect. Belgian painter Sir Frank Brangwyn and Willy Pogany from Hungary also illustrated very early editions. Which takes us back to Dulac and how we got here in the first place.
Excepting the Elihu Vedder copy, which is housed in Central Library’s vast stacks under the call number Oversize 891.5, these editions of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám are located in the RB-X classification of Rare Books and Special Collections, also at Central. While these books are all reference and do not circulate, library staff is more than happy to show patrons these items. Other editions of the title, including translations by other writers, criticism, and interpretation are available at St. Louis Public Library and can be easily found using our online catalog.
“For in and out, above, about, below,
‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
Play’ d in a Box whose Candle is
Round which we Phantom Figures
come and go.”