Omar Khayyam Virtual Exhibition

The year 2009 marks the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of the English poet Edward FitzGerald, and the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the first version of his poem The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Although little read nowadays, FitzGerald’s poem enjoyed enormous popularity during the Victorian period and well into the twentieth century. The Bodleian Library takes this opportunity to display three items from its holdings which illustrate the development of this celebrated work of English literature.

Visit the complete exhibition online

MS. Ouseley 140

MS. Whinfield 33

Arch. AA e.12

Manuscript of a collection of 158 Persian stanzas (ruba‘iyat) ascribed to the astronomer and mathematician Omar Khayyam of Nishapur, died 1123.  The manuscript was copied in the year 1460 in Shiraz, Persia. It consists of 47 leaves (including endpapers/flyleaves) and is written within a gold frame in a neat nasta‘liq script, with illumination on several leaves. Its dimensions are 160 x 80 mm. It is the earliest known securely dated manuscript of Omar Khayyam’s Ruba‘iyat and is one of the manuscripts Edward FitzGerald drew upon in composing his poem. The manuscript belonged to the orientalist Sir William Ouseley (1767-1842) and was purchased by the Bodleian Library in 1844.

Edward FitzGerald did not consult the Ouseley manuscript directly but used a copy of it made for him by his friend and teacher of Persian E.B. Cowell. This manuscript is in FitzGerald’s handwriting and is his transcript of Cowell’s copy of the Ouseley manuscript. The Persian stanzas begin on folio 3. The first two leaves contain introductory notes by FitzGerald whose initials (“E.F.G.”) may be seen at the foot of folio 2 verso. The manuscript is undated but the paper is watermarked 1856 and it contains references by FitzGerald to the Calcutta manuscript, which was copied for him in that year. FitzGerald’s manuscript came to the Indian Institute Library in 1922 as part of the bequest of the Persian scholar E.H. Whinfield and later passed to the Bodleian Library.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

A copy of the first edition, published in London by Bernard Quaritch in 1859. It had been previously refused for publication by Parker, the publisher of Fraser’s Magazine. Quaritch printed only 200 copies for sale at 1 shilling (10 p.) each. Few copies were sold and most of the edition was “remaindered” at 1 penny (less than 1 p.) The first edition was little more than a pamphlet, considerably smaller, in terms of the number of stanzas, than the three later editions published during FitzGerald’s lifetime. Such was the subsequent success of The Rubaiyat that by the end of the nineteenth century copies of this rare limited edition were changing hands for sums many times in excess of the original price.

Whether the Persian stanzas ascribed to the historical Omar Khayyam are genuine or not is a matter of scholarly debate. Manuscripts differ wildly in the number of stanzas they contain. The Ouseley manuscript used by FitzGerald contains 158, whereas another manuscript in the Bodleian (MS. Bodl. Or. 367) contains 405 stanzas. In addition to the Ouseley manuscript, FitzGerald used a manuscript  which was preserved in the Bengal Asiatic Society’s Library in Calcutta. Again he worked indirectly, using a copy which was obtained for him by his friend E.B. Cowell in 1856 while he was in India.

In 1899 the Persian scholar Edward Heron-Allen published a book in which he identified the Persian sources of the stanzas of FitzGerald’s poem. The familiar first stanza in the first edition beginning “Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night, Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight ...” derives from stanza 134 in the Calcutta manuscript, a stanza that has no counterpart in the Ouseley manuscript. “I sometimes think that never blows so red, The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled ...” FitzGerald’s inspiration for this stanza is number 43 in the Ouseley manuscript, which corresponds to number 47 in the Calcutta manuscript.

Most of FitzGerald’s verses can be traced back to one or two individual stanzas in the original Persianof Khayyam; a few betray the influence of other Persian poets. Clearly FitzGerald’s purpose was not to produce a literal English translation. He freely paraphrased, combined and re-arranged the originals to create a new coherent whole while aiming to retain the spirit of the original. And he reworked his own versions. FitzGerald published four versions of The Rubaiyat  during his lifetime and a fifth, based on his notes,was  published posthumously in 1889. As an example of the evolution of FitzGerald’s thought, in the second edition (1868), the celebrated first stanza now reads: “Wake! For the Sun behind yon Eastern height, Has chased the Session of the Stars from Night ...”

After an unpromising start with the public and the critics, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, in its several versions, went on to become one of the best-known poems of the English-speaking world and one of the all-time bestsellers of English literature. It has appeared in hundreds of editions and has been translated into a host of different languages. It has also been illustrated and set to music. The poem spawned something of a cult. The Omar Khayyam Club was set up in London at the turn of the twentieth century with the aim of celebrating Omar Khayyam and Edward FitzGerald. Many well-known artistic and literary figures were members of the dining club, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells and Thomas Hardy. There was an American counterpart, The Omar Khayyam Club of America, based in Boston.