Omariana Eccentrica - part 1. Bob Forrest.
Everyone reading this will be familiar with the debate over whether or not Omar was a Sufi mystic whose verses are to be interpreted symbolically, not literally. Put simply, when Omar talks of drinking Wine does he really mean drinking the Juice of the Grape, or does he use the drinking of wine as a symbol of achieving the divine intoxication of a revelation from God? And are the Taverns in his verses really taverns, or are they symbolic of the psychic state in which one achieves communion with God? My own view is that of FitzGerald himself, namely, that Omar’s “Worldly Pleasures are what they profess to be without any Pretence at divine Allegory; his Wine is the veritable Juice of the Grape; his Tavern, where it was to be had.” But my purpose here is not to debate how true or false this might be, it is merely to point out that the very fact of there having been a debate at all is sufficient to explain why some rather eccentric books have been written relating to The Rubaiyat.
Many readers are no doubt already aware of – though they might not actually have read it - Paramhansa Yogananda’s book The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained, first published in book form in 1994, but written in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Here, for example, is Yogananda’s interpretation of the famous opening verse of FitzGerald’s first edition:
“For the dawn of wisdom has flung into the dark bowl of your unknowing the stone of spiritual discipline- that weapon of divine power that can break the bowl and put to flight the paling stars of earthly desire.
Behold, Wisdom – ‘the Hunter of the East’ – has cast a noose of light to encircle the kingly minaret of your egoic pride; wisdom to free you at last from the long night of spiritual ignorance!” (p.3)
FitzGerald would have had a field day responding to this 355 page interpretation of his first edition, for he had a ready reductio ad absurdum answer to any Sufic interpretation, given at the end of the introduction to his second edition: when anyone has finished with their Sufic interpretation of Omar, they “may proceed to the same Interpretation of Anacreon – and even Anacreon Moore.” (Anacreon was the ancient Greek “poet of love and wine”; Anacreon Moore was the nickname of the Irish poet Thomas Moore, who translated many of Anacreon’s verses into English and also wrote some of his own in the same style.)
There are a number of other curiosities of interpretation of The Rubaiyat, like J.S.Pattinson’s little book The Symbolism of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1921), which offers “a spiritual interpretation”(p.6) in which Wine is a symbol of the spirit (p.30) and the Grape a symbol of divine wisdom (p.31). This interpretation is very similar to that of the Sufis, of course. Other Sufi-like interpretations come from the Theosophists, who readily find karmic law, the Door of Brahma and the non-reality of Time in Omar’s verses – see, for example, Leo L. Partlow, “The Rubaiyat” in The Theosophist (Sept-Dec 1930), p.809-816, and Alice Leighton-Cleather, “Omar Khayyam” in Theosophical Siftings, vol.5, no.4 (1892-3), p.18-20. Then there is The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with Interpretations by E.L.Gabrielson, whose full title, as given on the title-page of the book, is: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (who wrote the Original Stanzas), and Edward FitzGerald (whose ‘translation’ made the poem widely popular among English-speaking people), and Ernest Ludwig Gabrielson (who has ventured to alter the order of FitzGerald’s stanzas slightly, and also the number thereof: in addition he has added his own interpretation) (1977). If you fancy an interpretation which involves reincarnation, karma, astral and etheric bodies, the alchemy of the ego, the Akashic Records and Guardian Angels, then this book is for you, though be warned: despite its recent date it is surprisingly rare. Perhaps not surprisingly, Gabrielson believed that Omar Khayyam was indeed a Sufi, but that FitzGerald totally misunderstood this and misrepresented his rubaiyat as a result (p.86 & p.109.)
But strangest – and rarest - of all – and a totally different brand of interpretation to any of the foregoing - is Life’s Echoes by ‘Tis True: a Possible Elucidation of the Mysteriously Cryptic Tessellations made mostly by Byron, FitzGerald and others from Omar Qayyam’s Rubaiyat. This was a privately printed book which was published in Paris in 1923. Being so rare, the only copies I have seen are those in the British Library and in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. The first problem with this curious volume is finding the beginning, which turns out to be in the middle of the book! The first page of the book is p.62, followed by p.61, 60, 59 etc down to p.1, then after p.1 comes p.128, then p.127, 126, 125 etc down to p.63, right at the back of the book! This suggests that the book consists of two halves which have been bound together the wrong way round, and that actually the first page of the book should be p.128, then p.127, 126, 125 etc down to p.63, and then comes p.62, followed by p.61, 60, 59 etc down to p.1 at the back of the book. This would fit with the fact that its author wanted it to be read “in Mohammedan style”(p.24a). Having sorted that out (I think!), I should add that another oddity of the book is that there is a p.22a as well as a p.22, and there are pages 24a and 24b, but no p.24. Note, too, that a single page number covers both the left hand leaf and its facing right hand leaf. Right hand leaves are labelled “Life” and their facing left hand leaves are labelled “Echo.” “Life” leaves usually bear three rubaiyat, whilst their facing “Echo” leaves bear illustrations (eg Persian miniatures) and/or lines by Byron (occasionally other poets – Cowley, Rochester & Dryden, notably) which relate to and elucidate those rubaiyat. It is to be noted, though, that the lines by Byron are from a collection of verses allegedly written by him in Pisa in 1822 and “found by an English traveller at Pisa in an Italian’s hut” (p.24a). Being of a sexual nature, shall we say, in addition to having turned up in suspicious circumstances, these verses do not appear in his collected works. Furthermore, the quoted rubaiyat are allegedly taken from “a hitherto unrecorded manuscript of Omar Qayyam’s rubaiyat” transcribed by one Muhammad Issan in AD 1743 (p.9), a manuscript which also has a decidedly sexual slant to it, at least if the translations offered are to be believed. Certainly, I have never seen any translation like this one before! But whatever, in eastern poetry, we are assured, “the most erotic thoughts are invariably expressed in symbolic terms”(p.23), for which reason the author and compiler of Life’s Echoes fully expects his unlocking of the symbolism to induce blushes in some quarters. What we have in this book, then, are a set of hitherto unknown mildly pornographic rubaiyat illuminated by a set of hitherto unknown mildly pornographic Byronic verses. Not only that, but the English renderings of these rubaiyat are framed as a sort of sexual parody of FitzGerald’s verses, so that one is left wondering if, in fact, this whole book is a very elaborate literary hoax. Here, for example, is one of the rubaiyat from p.38:
Oft ere the Phantom False at morning Died,
Methought, a Voice within Love’s Tavern Sighed, -
When Temple’s Altar’s all Prepared – and Waits –
Why Nods the Drowsy Worshipper outside ?
This is a clear parody of the second verse of FitzGerald’s 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th editions. Part of the poem of Byron which accompanies this parody reads:
How oft in dreams, that ape the hour of bliss,
Youth’s passions wander, till they, waking, miss
The lovely phantom, clasped in their embrace,
And find a lost emission in her place!
As to whether or not this book is a literary hoax of some sort, the book’s covers (see the accompanying illustrations) may contain a clue. One cover – intended, I think, to be the front cover when read “in Mohammedan style” - bears an elaborate monogram of the name Omar, the date 1123 (at one time held to the year that Omar Khayyam died) and the verse:
The other cover - the back cover when read “in Mohammedan style” - bears an elaborate monogram of the name Qayyam, the date 1923 (the date of publication) and the verse:
Ope me ? – I’m but the guardian shell
To spurious pearls, which hidden dwell,
Dull Dunce, on ev’ry page within;
Though p’raps forbidden – break the spell.
These pearls of wit in Eastern climes were bred;
Each philosophically’s true, and sound:
Thus Omar satirised the life men led,
And them ‘’Tis True’s’ so mis-FitzGeralded!
Copyright images “Life’s Echoes” by Trinity College
So who was ‘Tis True, the author of Life’s Echoes? According to two letters tucked inside the copy in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin, he was Robert J. R. Brown, and it seems he was a retired colonel in the Indian Army, who had taken up residence at Houilles, just outside Paris. Unfortunately, I have been unable to discover any more about him than this, though I am hoping that more might be discovered through his army career. His extraordinary book was published as a limited edition of 600 copies, priced at 15 guineas per copy (a huge amount at the time), and intended “for the private amusement of philosophical bibliophiles only”.
In response to this article, Garry Garrard has provided some clarification, particularly regarding the identity and career of the compiler of the book, who goes under the pseudonym of ‘Tis True. Garrard's comments can now be read on the Omar Khayyam Rubaiyat blog.