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Drew, John

Whitley Stokes: first & formost cultivator of Omariana. John Drew.
Website: www.omarkhayyamnederland.com.
2009


The year 2009 does not only mark the 150th anniversary of the first edition of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and the 200th birthday of its translator. It is also one hundred years ago that Whitley Stokes, the notable Irish philologist and Anglo-Indian jurist, died. Stokes is often remembered as the man who, early in July 1861, salvaged a copy of the Rubáiyát from Quaritch’ pennybox and passed it on to the Pre-Raphaelite circle and thus paving the way to its international fame.

Whitley Stokes (1830-1909) was one of Ireland’s greatest scholars, pioneer of Celtic studies and lawyer at the same time, spending much of his life in India, where he worked on the codification of Anglo-Indian Law. In England however, he was better known as a man of letters, translator of poetry from eastern and northern Europe.
The story of the Rubáiyát’s discovery is often told but the role that Stokes played in its rise to fame is far more important than being the accidental passer-by whose attention to the little pamphlet-like booklet might have been drawn because of its unusual title. As a man of literature he must have acknowledged its importance immediately, reason why he gave copies to poets such as Samuel Ferguson and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In 1862, Stokes left for India, looking for better fortune, and as soon as he arrived he started to seed the seeds of the Rubáiyát’s future fame.

In Potter’s bibliography we find only one reference to Whitley Stokes, in number 376, apparently a reprint of the first London edition, issued in Madras, 1862.

There is no obvious link to reference number 166, which describes the same Madras edition in full detail, strangely enough without mentioning Stokes’ name. Until recently little attention has been paid to Whitley Stokes’ part in the Rubáiyát history. It was only at the recent Leiden & Cambridge conference of July 2009, that John Drew of Cambridge told its story in more detail in a paper called ‘The dog and the mongoose’. Drew unraveled the, at first sight, rather complex history of misunderstanding and false assumptions, a play in which a number of known and unknown players are introduced such as Edward Byles Cowell, Garcin de Tassy and a major Evans Bell. And though he is not the first to do so, Drew points to the fact that Edward FitzGerald was identified as the translator of the 1859 and subsequent editions, as early as 1864, in an article in the ‘Madras Journal of Literature and Science.’ It is Whitley Stokes to whom “goes the credit for recognizing, acclaiming and tirelessly promoting the Rubáiyát”, to quote John Drew.

Read the full text version of John Drew's paper.
Word Document [54 KB]
PDF Document [21 KB]

A shorter piece called 'Looking back', was published in The Hindu, December 6, 2009
A full account of this intriguing story is published by Cambridge Poetry Workshop, 2009, titled: "Empire, Piracy and Appropriation. India & the Englishing of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám".

In: Omariana [2.281 KB] , Vol. 9, Nr. 1-2, Fall, 2009