Omariana Eccentrica - part 2. Bob Forrest.
Another source of Omarian eccentricity has arisen from the simple disbelief that the Omar who wrote such wonderful verses could really have been an atheistic drunk, one who rejected any idea of an Afterlife, and who, to cap it all, had an eye for the girls – and, occasionally, for the boys.
One notable attempt to rescue Omar from accusations of wine-bibbing and disrepect for the Almighty is to be found in what must surely be one of the most peculiar books in the Omarian canon: Louis C. Alexander’s book The Testament of Omar Khayyam [The Wasiyyat] (1907). (Wasiyyat in Persian means Testament, in the sense of “last will and testament.”, and the Persian inscription on the cover of the book – see the accompanying illustration - does translate as “The Testament of Omar Khayyam”)
Alexander claimed to have brought before the world the Wasiyyat or (Last) Testament of Omar, in which the astronomer-poet painted quite a different picture of himself to that painted by FitzGerald. Thus, in his verse 72 we read:
No more Wine-shops for me – no more that disgrace;
Nor false lips to kiss, nor lips falser to speak;
Nor half-gay despairs. I uncover my face –
The masked mask it wore it is time that I break.
In other words, we have here a sort of “Final Confession of Omar”, his revelation that The Rubaiyat was just a mask. All the verses which he wrote before his Testament, and which FitzGerald took at face value, were, in Alexander’s words, “of the nature of satire, or rejoinder, or counter-attack” (presumably to the religious dogma of the time, and in particular to attacks on him by the Sufis.) Again, as regards the death of the physical body, the real Omar did not believe it was the End. Nor did the real Omar see the ills of this life as a cause for berating God. On the contrary, he believed that Death was a gateway to a Life Beyond, for which the ills of this life were a spiritual training ground. (In this he was pretty much in line with Robert Browning’s Rabbi ben Ezra, which, curiously enough, was most probably written as a refutation of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat.) Thus in his verse 76 Alexander’s Omar writes:
For Good is the end for which the Universe
Travails by Knowledge and Love with Pain entwined;
And Joy is its music, and Death, ah! no curse –
For the enlarged Soul, through it, itself doth find.
His verses 77-8 assure us that though the body may “moulder and slumber” in its grave, the day will come when the Trumpet of the Day of Judgement sounds (as indeed is promised in the Qur’an, Surah 39.68 – this is not just a Christian idea), and “Humanity puts on Immortality.” In his introductory note Alexander freely admitted that:
“To those who conceive of Omar Khayyam only as the Sot and Agnostic – if not the despairing Materialist and Infidel – of the Rubaiyat, these poems will come as a surprise and a revelation.”
But truth will out, and through The Wasiyyat of Omar Khayyam, “the majestic figure of the real Omar Khayyam – the Astronomer, Poet, Philosopher and Saint – stands revealed.”
Alexander’s little book contains not just “The Testament” of Omar Khayyam, but also other poems: “A Song”, “Hymn of Prayer”, “The Word in the Desert”, “Hymn of Praise” and finally “The Marathi, or Odes of the Disciples” (purportedly verses written in tribute to Omar by four of his disciples, one of which – Disciple #2 – speaks of a time “when lands thou never knewest will proclaim thy fame” (p.57, verse ix)!) Here, for example, is verse vi of the “Hymn of Prayer”(p.39) by the post-confession Omar:
For I need Thee, oh, Lord! I need Thy hand
To hold me up, lest I fall as I stand;
To cleanse me, to lighten, to teach and raise
This cold, dark soul to Thy prayer and praise.
But from which manuscript did Alexander get this Testament ? He never said, and, so far as I know, the whereabouts of any manuscript remains unknown, but he did say that he was “greatly indebted to Professor E.G.Browne, of Cambridge, for the most kind and ready assistance which he was good enough to give me – though a personal stranger to him.” (The second volume of Browne’s classic work The Literary History of Persia had just then been published.) Unfortunately, Professor Browne himself left no account of the proceedings, and so we are left to try a bit of guesswork.
Louis C. Alexander went on to publish, in 1911, The Autobiography of Shakespeare – a Fragment. This purported to be part of the actual manuscript of Shakespeare’s autobiography, covering the years between his birth and his setting pen to paper on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Fragment ends, inexplicably, in the middle of a sentence, and the whole is, by Alexander’s own admission, a pretty rough draft which Shakespeare must have intended to revise, but never did, for some reason (p.15.) Nevertheless it displays, to Alexander at least, “the inimitable voice of Shakespeare” (p.18.) Alexander intended to issue a further small book including “some pages of extraordinary related interest” (p.18), but apparently he never did (possibly because he died in 1913.) Alas, but perhaps not surprisingly, the world of Shakespearean scholarship remained singularly unmoved by the revelations of this hitherto unknown autobiographical fragment – not least of all because the book sought to rewrite some of the few known facts of Shakespeare’s life. For example, the conventional view is that Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon and his father was called John. According to the opening sentence of Alexander’s autobiographical fragment, however, he was born in Warwick and his father’s name was Richard! The explanation for the ‘mistakes’ of conventional historians is, according to Alexander and the Autobiography, that there were actually two William Shakespeares who were cousins: one the playwright, the son of Richard; the other, the son of Richard’s brother John. (This second William Shakespeare, incidentally, was, according to his cousin, the first William Shakespeare, “a wastrel and a vagabond.”) Another major problem was that, as with the Testament of Omar Khayyam, Alexander never produced the actual manuscript, nor said where he had got it from.
To find one literary revelation like The Wasiyyat is extraordinary enough, but to find a second, like The Autobiography of Shakespeare, arouses suspicion. So, what is going on, if Alexander isn’t just making it all up (always possible – there are some pretty wild books out there!), or it isn’t literary fraud, on a par with Thomas Chatterton’s ‘medieval’ works of Thomas Rowley, or William Henry Ireland’s ‘lost’ Shakespeare play, Vortigern and Rowena ? There is a possible clue in the fact that in 1910, Alexander produced another strange book entitled Echoes of Whistler from which it would appear that Alexander was a spiritualist who believed himself to be in touch with the deceased artist (Whistler had died in 1903.) The book consists of thirty three quirky essays on everything from Vanity, Proverbs, Birdsong and Hobbies to critiques of Ruskin, Carlyle and Browning, plus three equally quirky poems. It opens with a strangely worded dedication “To Whistler” which begins thus:
“ You have, of late, been so much with me in spirit that, a little to my own wonderment, I sometimes wish that we had met in the flesh; or that I possessed, or even had ever seen, some fragment of your material hand-writing.”
The contents of the book, it seems (for Alexander never made anything absolutely clear!), were composed in some degree by Whistler from ‘beyond the grave.’ As Alexander went on to say in his dedication, “Let the ‘higher criticism’, as it is ridiculously called, discover which most, or least, reflect – or surpass – your inspiration, or influence.”
One is therefore left wondering if The Testament of Omar Khayyam and The Autobiography of Shakespeare were delivered from ‘beyond the grave’ by the practice of automatic writing – that is, the practice whereby a medium holds a pencil over a sheet of paper, and the Spirits guide his/her hand to write out a message, which message comes through, not in the handwriting of the medium, but in that of the Spirit’s former earthly existence. This could be one reason why Alexander expressed regret at never having seen a fragment of Whistler’s “material handwriting” - as a check that his communications were indeed from Whistler. Of course, Alexander never mentioned automatic writing directly – either in connection with his communications from Whistler, still less in connection with Omar Khayyam or Shakespeare – but this could simply because he feared his readers might dismiss the results out of hand, through sheer prejudice, without giving them a fair hearing. When considered in the context of the spiritualist practices that prevailed from the 19th century and on into the 20th this is actually quite a plausible idea. (Readers may recall the case of Thomas P. James, who in 1872 claimed to have been contacted by the spirit of Charles Dickens with a view to completing his unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood.) Unfortunately, as yet, my suspicions about Alexander’s writings must remain merely plausible, and not by any means proven. It may still turn out that he was just – how shall I put it ? – ‘not very well.’