Charles Petzold

1859 Books: “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám”

January 15, 2009
Utica, N.Y.

In our attempt to make sense of the past, we often subdivide history into convenient decades, centuries, and millennia, only occasionally reflecting that these periods of time are fairly arbitrary, based on the number of fingers on two human hands and the Earth’s revolution around the Sun.

Less arbitrarily — but under the assumption that historical eras are engraved with the influence of powerful leaders — we give periods the names of kings and queens (Elizabethan, Georgian, Victorian) or American Presidents (the Age of Jackson, the Clinton Years). If we’re instead looking for deeper sweeps of ideas and trends, we might favor the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution.

Sometimes individual years are so laden with significant events that they seem like hinges in the otherwise continuous flow of history. One such year in Continental Europe was 1848; another was 1968 with its uprisings in Paris, Prague, Chicago, and two American assassinations.

I think 1859 might be regarded as one of these unduly significant years. At first it seems unpromising, being relatively free of screaming front-page headlines. Perhaps the most famous event of 1859 was John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and his subsequent execution. The 1859 event with the greatest long-term impact might very well be the beginning of the American petroleum industry with a commercial well in Pennsylvania.

But 1859 weighs heavy in history in quite a different way: with the publication of a number of profoundly influential books, mostly in England.

What number of profoundly influential books am I talking about precisely? Well, if you want to be picky about it, just two: On Liberty and Origin of Species, and I don’t think anyone would deny how these books both heralded and shaped the modern age.

But if you assume that these two books are part of larger patterns and trends, very many other books published in 1859 can be viewed with the same perspective and revealed to have similar themes. I believe it was in 1859 that Victorian Belief began losing its battle with Victorian Doubt, making the year a milestone in the transition from a religious perspective of the world to a secular perspective.

The year 1859 was 150 years ago, and while sesquicentennial celebrations are as arbitrary as anything else, the 150th anniversary of that momentous year provides me with a convenient excuse to examine several books published at that time.

The first of these books was published on January 15, 1859, but it was a tiny book, more like a pamphlet, just 36 pages with a title page that announced:

Translated into English Verse.


Or maybe it wasn’t published on January 15. Some sources indicate that the book was published on February 15. The British Museum received a copy on March 30.

No translator was indicated on the cover of the book or inside its pages. After an 11-page Introduction was the first of 75 numbered four-line poems:

Omar Khayyám (literally “Omar the Tentmaker”) was born in Nishapur, Persia, in 1048 and died in 1131. At the time of Omar’s birth, Persia had largely been converted to Islam, but some remnants of Zoroastrianism remained. Omar was familiar with the mathematics and philosophy of Ancient Greece, and wrote works on algebra, geometry, astronomy, and philosophy. He is believed to have been responsible for the Jaláli calendar, which significantly reformed the Islamic calendar in accordance with very accurate estimations of the length of the solar year.

Omar does not seem to have been a pious Muslim. It is very likely that among the Greek philosophy he studied was that of Epicurus, which incorporated an agnosticism regarding the governance of the universe and the existence of an afterlife with recommendations for a happy and tranquil life through moderation and the friendly company of others.

His poetry is in a form called the rubái (the plural is rubáiyát), which is roughly equivalent to a quatrain with a rhyming scheme of AAAA or AABA.

In the year 1461, someone created an exquisite little hand-written rubáiyát with 158 of Omar’s poems. Several centuries later it was purchased by Sir William Ouseley (1769 – 1842), a collector of Persian manuscripts, who then left it along with many other items to the Bodleian Library at Oxford. In 1856, a scholar named Edward Cowell (1826 – 1903) encountered this book. Cowell had taught himself Persian and other languages at a very young age. He had recently been persuading his friend Edward FitzGerald (1809 – 1883) to learn Persian, and showed FitzGerald the book.

Edward FitzGerald came from a well-to-do family and might have easily spent his years in a life of pure leisure. Certainly he had many illustrious friends, including Thackeray, Tennyson, and Carlisle. He wrote some poetry and prose but in his forties FitzGerald found his true calling in translation, beginning with six plays by the seventeenth-century Spanish dramatist Calderón.

FitzGerald’s philosophy of translation was at the far end of the literal-to-free continuum. He struggled to convey the overall spirit of the work.

In the poetry of Omar Khayyám, Edward FitzGerald seemed to discover a kindred spirit. FitzGerald responded to Omar's special mix of fatalism, skepticism, and carpe diem attitude, and strove to bring that out even if it were necessary to take such liberties as mashing two of Omar’s quatrains together into one. While the poems within a Persian rubáiyát are traditionally organized by by alphabetizing the last letter of the rhyming syllable, FitzGerald arranged them in a dramatic arc that begins with morning and ends with the setting Moon.

In the broader context of Persian poetry, Omar Khayyám is not considered first rate; it is often said that FitzGerald’s sympathetic translations actually improved the poems.

FitzGerald clearly recognized the subversive nature of these poems in the context of Victorian piety. In January 1858, he submitted 35 of the “less wicked” quatrains to Fraser’s Magazine, but there was still some question whether the religiously skeptical poems were suitable material for a family publication. Fraser’s Magazine never published the poems so FitzGerald decided to have them published himself. He added 40 more to bring the total to 75, and arranged with the publisher Bernard Quaritch to print 250 copies. The book did not indicate that he was the translator; FitzGerald chose to remain anonymous.

That first edition of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is obviously very rare now. Scans of one copy can be viewed here. (Quatrain XIV has what appears to be a hand correction of a known misprint.) This provides a fine way to read the first edition as it was originally printed.

Over the 150 years since there have been zillions of other editions of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, but unless you indulge in the Critical Edition edited by Christopher Decker and published by the University of Virginia Press in 1997, you might unknowingly be missing something. I have a St. Martin’s Press edition of 1983 with lovely woodcuts by Edmund J. Sullivan that reproduces the first edition, but with a somewhat different Introduction and none of FitzGerald’s Notes. A Penguin Poetry Library edition of 1989 omits FitzGerald’s Introduction as well as most of the Notes. A 1990 Dover Thrift Edition claims to be “an unabridged and unaltered republication of the first and fifth editions” but omits FitzGerald’s Introduction and abridges the Notes.

Of the 250 printed copies of the first edition, FitzGerald took 40 and left the other 210 for Bernard Quaritch to sell. The price was 1 shilling and nobody was interested. Apparently some copies where used for scrap paper. In 1861, the price was reduced to 1 pence and the books were put outside the store in a bin. At that price, fortunately someone bought a copy and got it to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who then bought copies for his friends Algernon Swinburne and Robert Browning, and from there copies landed in the laps of George Meredith, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, Richard Burton, John Ruskin, and others, and from there the popularity increased, eventually influencing Thomas Hardy, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, among many others.

If that sounds a little “off” it is because FitzGerald constantly fiddled with his translations. In the second edition (1868) he changed it to “Here with a little Bread beneath the Bough / A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse — and Thou…” and for the third edition (1872) it became the more familiar “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, / A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou…” Side-by-side comparisons can be found at, but many people prefer the first edition to later ones. FitzGerald’s identity as the translator was not publicly disclosed until 1875.

You can see how readers accustomed to finding strict Christian piety in their literature and poetry might be unnerved to see a recommendation to ignore any thoughts of the afterlife and live instead for today.

In the years since FitzGerald’s translation, other translators have attempted to bring Omar Khayyám into English and other languages. Some of these translations are much closer to the literal sense of the original, but it was FitzGerald’s genius to combine specifically English locutions while maintaining an aroma of the exotic:

While the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is no longer nearly as popular as it was a hundred years ago, many phrases are still recognizable and the poems are quoted in special circumstances. This one was recited by President Clinton to the Washington Press Corps in the midst of Monicagate:

In FitzGerald’s ordering, it is followed by another that portrays a universe indifferent to human needs or suffering:

In an article “The Failure of Omar Khayyam” in the June 9, 1912 New York Times, James J. Daly, S.J. disapprovingly quoted that quatrain as an example of the irreligion, skepticism, cynicism, materialism, and pessimism that Omar Khayyam and Edward FitzGerald had brought to the modern world. He acknowledges, of course, that the Rubáiyát has its charms

In this essay we can get a little taste of the Culture Wars of the not-too-distant past, and perhaps understand better the nature of the subversive seeds Edward FitzGerald sowed in his Persian garden.

Harold Bloom, ed., Edward FitzGerald’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Chelsea House, 2004.
Garry Garrard, A Book of Verse: The Biography of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Sutton, 2007.
Robert Bernard Martin, With Friends Possessed: A Life of Edward FitzGerald, Atheneum, 1985.
Victorian Poetry, Volume 46, Number 1, Spring 2008.