Old Fitz and the mysterious Persian poet

This year marks the 150th anniversary of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam - 'probably the best-known poem in the world'. So what is it, and it is any good? Steven Russell aims to find out.

Steven Russell

This year marks the 150th anniversary of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam - 'probably the best-known poem in the world'. So what is it, and it is any good? Steven Russell aims to find out. At the heart is a quirky Suffolk translator-cum-poet, born 200 years ago this spring, who apparently didn't eat his greens

ACCORDING to the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia - ahem - Edward FitzGerald was a highly eccentric old cove: a vegetarian who loathed vegetables and existed on a diet of bread, butter, fruit and tea. The claims about his eating habits don't pop up in too many articles about this Suffolk man of letters, though there is near-universal agreement that he was one unique cookie. An East Anglian Daily Times article of 1959 talks about the time FitzGerald lived in a thatched cottage by the gates of Boulge Hall, near Woodbridge. His family occupied the main pile. Edward would “often lay on his back in the apartment now used as a drawing-room, with his feet on the window-sill or hanging out of the window”. Bob Malster, writing in the EADT in 1974, tells how FitzGerald sailed a schooner on the River Deben. It was called Scandal, named after what its owner saw as “the staple product of Woodbridge”.

Actually, the EADT went the whole hog back in the summer of 1955, when it had the writer down as number six in its series of “East Anglian Eccentrics”. James Turner wrote that Old Fitz (as he'd been tagged by poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, whom FitzGerald met at Cambridge University) was a “genial, charitable old man who used to wander about Woodbridge wearing an old black-banded tall hat tied to his head with a yellow handkerchief, in ill-fitting clothes and, in hot weather, barefoot with his boots flung over his shoulder.”

Fitz wrote Polonius - a collection of succinct lines - produced translations of the Spanish writer Calderon, and also translated Greek dramatist Sophocles' Oedipus; but it's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam that earned him a niche in history.

Historian Mike Weaver, a former Woodbridge teacher and ex-mayor of the town, put it well in a 1983 article for the Woodbridge Reporter newspaper, marking the centenary of Fitz's death: “The international fame of Edward FitzGerald rests upon a single inspired literary masterpiece, a translation of the poetic thoughts of a Persian scholar alive at the time of the Battle of Hastings.”

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Precious little is known about Omar, unfortunately, though enthusiasts Bill Martin and Sandra Mason explain he was a Persian mathematician, astronomer and philosopher thought to have lived between about 1048 and 1131 and who worked at the royal court in eastern Iran.

Many verses - four-line quatrains, or rubai - have been attributed to him. Unfortunately for us, it's not at all clear how many of these he actually composed.

FitzGerald learned about Omar Khayyam's work - or what was assumed to be his poetry - from a friend he met in 1846. Edward Byles Cowell, the son of an Ipswich corn merchant, would later become Professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge. Cowell, say Bill and Sandra, came across a manuscript of Khayyam's Rubaiyat - one of the earliest established collections of quatrains and dating from 1461 - in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. It was apparently written on yellow paper in purply/black ink and powdered with gold.

Cowell sent a copy to his friend. Later, he also supplied a larger manuscript from Calcutta. FitzGerald had the foundation of his Rubaiyat translation . . .

As with much of life, it's not that clear cut, however. Just as we can't be sure that Omar Khayyam wrote the quatrains attributed to him, so FitzGerald's translations aren't always literal. He called his efforts a “transmogrification”, and also said he “mashed” together verses. Some academic critics say the translator gave more of an atheistic slant to the poetry.

Wherever the truth lies, Bill Martin, for one, happily acknowledges the power of both the Persian verse and Fitz's versions. They're little nuggets of insight, poetically expressed.

“I think it's just the general philosophy that appeals to me. I'm not a particular believer in anything, but this had a nice, satisfying idea of 'Don't know where we came from, and we don't know why we're here, and we don't know where we're going.' It does it in so many ways and keeps a lot of interest in metaphors going.

“The whole book is a series of epigrams” - short poems, often each expressing a single idea, that are usually satirical and have a witty ending - “little nuggets of comfort, I suppose; or provocation.” There are timeless lessons and guidance we can take from the writings, “if you're a bit of a cynic about life”.

Bill, who lives near Cambridge, accepts there's been a lot of criticism that Fitz's wasn't a literal translation. “FitzGerald wasn't that way inclined. He was a bit of a cherrypicker, I suppose you could call it. He uses an expression in one of his letters that the Rubaiyat is “a paraphrase of a syllabus”.

“But all things he used to chop down to size. He chose only 100-odd verses when he could have chosen 300 or 400. He used to buy pictures and, if he didn't like part of one, he'd chop it off! He'd do the same with books; he'd think nothing of breaking up a couple of books and rebinding them! He said about some of his other translations that he thinks, for the general public, 'mine's a more popular version'!

“One of the things that interests my wife and I is the mysteries surrounding it. Did Omar Khayyam write it - or, indeed, compose a single poem? The evidence is he did write some Arabic verse. It's a tremendous Persian tradition to write poetry. I think the answer is he did, but things were very difficult. Islam was very strong, he was a philosopher, and perhaps he thought 'Hmm, perhaps I don't believe in everything they're telling me . . . In fact, he had to go off to Mecca on one occasion, to 'prove' he was a good Muslim. So there are all sorts of mysteries surrounding him, and that's interesting.”

There are events planned this year to celebrate the double anniversary of FitzGerald's birth and the publication of his Rubaiyat - not just in Cambridge, Woodbridge and Oxford (see www.omarkhayyamrubaiyat.com for details) but in America and the Netherlands.

So, 150 years on, why should we pluck Fitz's interpretation off the library shelves and leaf through the pages?

“Because it remains enjoyable reading and philosophy. It's very colourful. It still seems to hold its place. If you look in a dictionary of quotations, there are more quotations (from Rubaiyat) than there are, relatively, from the Bible or Shakespeare. One poem has more examples.

“At the beginning of the last century, when it was at the height of its popularity, it was traditionally said that the really literate gentleman would have on his shelf the Bible, Shakespeare and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Indeed, our belief is that because it's been spread worldwide it's probably the most widely known poem in the world. It might not still be, but it certainly was in the '20s and '30s. Tons of people, especially of a certain age, could quote it.”

FitzGerald's translation wasn't an instant hit. Sales were non-existent. Mike Weaver, writing 25 years ago, described how Fitz had printed 250 copies at his own expense and gave most of them to Bernard Quarich's bookshop, which specialised in Oriental works. No-one bought it at a shilling, and, two years on, Quarich piled them into the penny box in the shop doorway.

The Pre-Raphaelite arty crowd later seized upon it, as did scholarly Americans, “but for 20 years even some of Fitz's closest friends were unaware of the authorship. The dawning of the realisation of this fact finally ensured Fitz's fame”.

The poem must have been an intellectual shock for contemporary England, he said, “where Christian beliefs were so firmly entrenched and institutionalised . . . The poem was taken by a new generation, partly as an act of defiance, as a weapon or lever to shake the inflexible foundations of the belief held by late Victorian Christians, who had had their way for far too long!

“Fitz's friend, FH Groome, was in no doubt: 'It seems to me beyond question that his version of the Rubaiyat is an utterance of his soul's deepest thoughts, and that thereafter it will come to be recognised as the highest expression of agnosticism.'”

At the height of its popularity, Omar Khayyam Clubs sprang up. But it made little difference to Fitz, who carried on doing what he wanted to do, when he wanted to.

He died in June, 1883, after going to visit George Crabbe, grandson of the poet, at Merton rectory in Norfolk. A maid found him dead in bed. FitzGerald was brought back to Boulge - a Great Eastern Railway receipt for taking the body from Watton to Woodbridge read “1 corpse, 61 miles at 1s - �3 1s.”

Bob Malster, writing nearly 35 years ago, told how in the 1860s Fitz made friends with fishermen and beachmen at Aldeburgh and Lowestoft - behaviour that in those days marked him down as something of an oddity. Many folk called him Dotty.

“Today we do not think him mad. We think of him, perhaps, as one of the Great English Eccentrics, and feel a little glow of pride that he lived among us in Suffolk.”

Omar Khayyam: the man

c.1048: Born near Naishpur in Khorasan (now north-east Iran)

Full name Abdul Fath Omar ibn Ibrahim Khayyam

c.1068 Wrote treatise - a detailed account - on algebra

c.1074+ In service with Sultan Malik-Shah.

Involved with the reformation of the Persian calendar and the building of the observatory at Isfahan

Published mathematical and philosophical treatises

c.1131 Death of Khayyam.

Source: Bill Martin and Sandra Mason's website www.omarkhayyamrubaiyat.com

Persian poetry . . . via Woodbridge - three verses from FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

AWAKE ! for Morning in the Bowl of Night

Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:

And Lo ! the Hunter of the East has caught

The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.

'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days

Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:

Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,

And one by one back in the Closet lays.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Edward FitzGerald: a life less ordinary

Born Edward Marlborough Purcell on March 31, 1809, at Bredfield, near Woodbridge

His father, John, took the name of his wife's family, the FitzGeralds, in 1818

His wife had earlier inherited a fortune from an aunt. When her father died in 1818, she was left an even greater sum

James Turner, writing in the EADT in 1955, says FitzGerald's mother left him �1,000 a year - a lot of money - when she died in 1854

A 1983 media release by the Borough of St Edmundsbury said FitzGerald attended King Edward VI School in bury St Edmunds between 1819 and 1826

The council said the young man got on well with elderly eccentrics. Major Moor, a neighbour “flattered by the boy's attentiveness, wore a white hat many sizes too large for him, collected images of oriental gods, and loved to chat about his experiences in India and beyond. Edward's imagination was fired both by the exotic reminiscences and by the defiant eccentrics”

FitzGerald studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1826 to 1830

When he was 16, his family had moved to Wherstead Lodge, near Ipswich, and then to Boulge Hall, near Woodbridge

1837 saw Fitz living at Boulge, in a snug thatched cottage, beside the park gates

Mid-1840s: Meets Edward Cowell and is introduced to Persian studies by him

Cowell would later come across, and copy to Fitz, two manuscripts of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

In 1856, in his late 40s, FitzGerald married Lucy Barton. She was the daughter of his friend, the Woodbridge poet, banker and corn and coal merchant Bernard Barton, who died in 1849

The union wasn't a success. They separated in August, 1857

1859: FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam published. It was an interpretation, not a literal translation, of verses attributed to Khayyam

1860: The Rubaiyat was taken up by the Pre-Raphaelite movement and became a huge success

FitzGerald's local homes over the years also included Farlingay Hall and, towards the end of 1860, rented rooms above a gunsmith's shop on Market Hill, Woodbridge

In 1875 he moved to Little Grange in Pytches Road, a house he'd bought in 1864 and had had altered. 1883: Died on a visit to Norfolk. Buried at Boulge churchyard, near the family mausoleum. The Omar Khayyam Club planted a Persian rose on the grave in 1896 and the Iranian embassy added others in the 1970s