From the Vault: The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

Fri, 01/06/2017 - 2:11pm -- mfarias

The fact that not all editions of a work are created equally is a lesson that can be learned by exploring any collection. There are some literary works that have been reproduced in countless editions, varying in translation, illustration, size, and binding, with a diverse range of results. In our own vault collection, we have two very different copies of the same popular poem, the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám as translated by Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883). 

                        The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1909) /// The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1946)                     


The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was originally composed by Ghiyāth al-Dīn Abū al-Fatḥ ʿUmar ibn Ibrāhīm al-Nīsābūrī al-Khayyāmī (1048-1131), a Persian astronomer, mathematician, poet, and philosopher who is widely considered to be one of the most influential thinkers of the Middle Ages. It is believed that he wrote roughly one thousand four-line verses, or rubáiyát, which were adapted and translated into English, and thus popularized, by Edward Fitzgerald. 


Omar Khayyám bust in Nishapur Iran (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Omar Khayyám was born in Nishapur, in northeastern Persia (modern-day Iran). When he was twenty, he moved to Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan to continue his education. In 1070, at age 22, he produced the Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra in which he derived several methods for solving cubic equations, making use of geometry as well as algebra. He was most famous during his life as a mathematician, but he has become well-known since then in the western world for his poetry. Although Fitzgerald himself acknowledged that his translation was not a faithful copy of Khayyám’s work, Khayyám is considered the originator of much of the poetry. Fitzgerald chose selectively from the quatrains Khayyám  had written to create a particular story of a day in Khayyám’s life, paraphrasing and occasionally crafting his own lines to fit his chosen narrative. While not quite literal, Fitzgerald’s poem became incredibly popular through the nineteenth century and necessitated the printing of consistently more and more editions, the most common of which are based on the four versions of the translations done by Fitzgerald, in which he increased the number of stanzas and changed some of the words and punctuation as the translations progressed. Other scholars have translated Khayyám's original poetry, but Fitzgerald's translations remain the most popular. 


Illustration by Edmund Dulac from the 1909 edition. 

The more ornate book in our collection is based on the second translation from 1868, which had 110 quatrains, and was illustrated by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), a French artist known for his illustrations. The book was printed in 1909 by Hodder and Stoughton, out of London, and bears a note printed on one of the first few pages that reads: “This Edition is limited to Seven hundred and fifty Copies, signed by the Artist and numbered, of which this is No. 610.” The signature of Edmund Dulac appears just below this note. The work features twenty tipped-in color plates surrounded by decorative borders printed in bronze ink and is bound in vellum. On the cover is the title in gold, Arabic-inspired lettering and an elaborate decorative border of peacocks, flowers, and elephants, as pictured above. The first illustration shown above accompanies the first quatrain in the book, which reads:


WAKE! For the Sun beyond yon Eastern height

Has chased the Session of the Stars from Night;

And, to the field of Heav'n ascending, strikes

The Sultán's Turret with a Shaft of Light.


Illustrations by Edmund Dulac from the 1909 edition.

Illustration by Arthur Szyk from 1946 edition.

The second version of the poem in our vault is bound in a much smaller book, as pictured above. Printed in 1946 by the Heritage Press of New York, it features illustrations by Arthur Szyk and is a printing of the first edition of the translation, rather than the second. The blue cloth-covered spine bears the title in gold, while the cover shows a blue on tan middle-eastern-inspired design. This second copy is newer, smaller, and less ornately displayed, but it is proof of the enduring popularity of the poem, inspiring new editions and new illustrations well into the twentieth century.