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Martin, Bill; Mason, Sandra

Celebrating the Rubaiyat. Bill Martin and Sandra Mason.
Website: www.omarkhayyamnederland.com.
April 2010


The year 2009 marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Edward FitzGerald's first edition of his Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The year also saw the 200th birthday of Edward FitzGerald himself. This coincidence of anniversaries encouraged a number of Rubaiyat enthusiasts in different countries to stimulate a renewal of interest in FitzGerald and the Rubaiyat, by creating events of various kinds that would make 2009 a real Year of the Rubaiyat.

This note reviews the main Rubaiyat related events that took place either during or shortly after the year, and makes some assessment of what they have achieved. A full listing of all the events known to the authors can be seen on their Rubaiyat website. Inevitably there were good ideas for celebrations that fell by the wayside. However, some 50 different events took place and their range was wide, falling into the following main categories: exhibitions; lectures and conferences, broadcasts on radio and TV; verse recitals and music performances; creation of new plays, paintings and other artworks. Several new editions of the Rubaiyat were published during the year,

and there was coverage in national newspapers and other media. The interest in the Year of the Rubaiyat was international, but with a particular focus on the UK, the Netherlands and the United States, reflecting the active interest of various people in these countries. There was also some activity in Iran, with two specific events to celebrate the anniversaries. These were the unveiling in May 2009 of a bust of Edward FitzGerald near Omar Khayyam's tomb in Nishapur, and a special exhibition of calligraphy based on verses by Khayyam and FitzGerald shown in Tehran in December 2009.

The first celebratory events actually started before 2009 began. West Virginia University Press in the United States published an Anniversary Issue of their journal Victorian Poetry in Spring 2008. This volume, edited by Professor Erik Gray, provided a useful updating of the state of FitzGerald and Rubaiyat studies mainly from the point of view of English literature. In November of the same year, the first commemorative exhibition was opened in Phoenix, Arizona, when the Phoenix Art Museum presented the original artwork of Elihu Vedder's famous illustrated Rubaiyat published in 1884.

The programme of exhibitions took off from the beginning of 2009 with five different exhibitions opening in January and February, three in the United Sates, one in the Netherlands and one in the UK. They were followed by eight more openings in the course of the year, including a final one at the British Library in London, whose exhibition began in December and continued to February 2010. The exhibitions varied greatly in both their size and emphasis, which added to the interest and variety of the programme. There were first editions and illustrated versions of the Rubaiyat and much more. In the Netherlands, the Museum Meermanno in the Hague showed a large number of early and fine printed editions of the Rubaiyat, as well as a highly decorated and illustrated manuscript version by

William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, borrowed from the British Library. The Bernard Quaritch exhibition in London focused specifically on the book dealer's historic links with FitzGerald's Rubaiyat, while exhibitions in Suffolk and Cambridge also put a particular stress on FitzGerald, his life and letters. In contrast the US exhibitions, notable the major display in the Harry Ransom Center in Austin Texas, presented some fascinating material on the wider impact of the Rubaiyat in American society in the early 20th century, while the exhibition in Deventer in the Netherlands contained much little known information about the many Dutch translations of the Rubaiyat and their background.

A number of additional celebratory events, such as lectures, readings and performances, took place in different venues to coincide with the exhibitions. The Harry Ransom Center had a programme of Rubaiyat related films and in April 2009 there was a special evening of music for the Rubaiyat, including some new compositions. The whole gamut of music for the Rubaiyat was reviewed in an evening in October at the Ancient India & Iran Trust in Cambridge, with performances from CD's of works from the late 19th century up to the present day. There was also a special birthday party for Edward FitzGerald on March 31st 2009 in Cambridge at the University Library, with readings from the Rubaiyat in Persian and English, and from other FitzGerald works, including some letters.

Various lectures on different aspects of FitzGerald and the Rubaiyat were organised independently, including two in FitzGerald's home town of Woodbridge, Suffolk. The major academic event of the Year of the Rubaiyat was a conference organised jointly by Leiden University and Cambridge University's Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Faculty of English and Victorian Study Group. During a week in July 2009, some 50 leading academic and independent researchers gathered, first in Leiden in the Netherlands and then in

Cambridge, England, to discuss Omar Khayyam, Edward FitzGerald and the Rubaiyat. The exchange of views by international scholars approaching the subject from different and complementary standpoints, was enormously valuable, and friendships were made and reinforced in the many discussions that took place. There will be a lasting contribution from the conference in the form of publications of collections of the papers presented.

Another event linked to the July conference was the organisation of a major musical performance of Rubaiyat related compositions in the Netherlands by the Netherlands Chamber Choir, which was subsequently broadcast on Netherlands Radio. The conference itself was partly recorded by the BBC Persian Service and some extracts from the programme were included

in a film entitled The Genius of Omar Khayyam which has been shown both on BBC World News and on BBC Four Television. The film, presented by Sadeq Saba, brings together Western and Iranian views on Khayyam, FitzGerald and the Rubaiyat. It includes footage of the unveiling of the bust of FitzGerald at Nishapur.

The BBC marked the anniversary year of the Rubaiyat in a number of other programmes. Professor Daniel Karlin and Professor Tony Briggs, who were respectively editors of two of the new editions of FitzGerald's Rubaiyat published early in 2009, took part in a discussion on the Radio 4 arts programme Front Row, and there was a full reading of the Rubaiyat on Radio 4's Poetry Please during the summer.

The poem was read in its entirety at least twice more at public events, first in Ipswich in June, and then in February 2010 at the British Library in London. This last reading, which was combined with two lectures and a series of Persian readings from Khayyam's work with Persian music, provided a powerful climax at the effective end of the Year of the Rubaiyat.

One further aspect of the celebration in 2009 which should not be neglected is the creation of new art works to mark the anniversaries. We have referred above to the new bust of Edward FitzGerald in Nishapur, and new musical compositions. At the end of the year, a new limited edition of the Rubaiyat was published by the Folio Society with specially created illustrations and fine bindings; it was on display at the British Library exhibition. An art competition themed on the Rubaiyat at the Machynlleth based Museum of Modern Art in Wales stimulated more than 200 entries of a high quality, including around 30 from the under 18's. The paintings and drawings

were on show at the museum for several months. Meanwhile, new plays drawing on the story of FitzGerald and the Rubaiyat, written and directed by Rani Drew, were put on in Cambridge in July and December. In another involvement by young people, three Cambridgeshire schools took the Rubaiyat as a theme for various artistic and discussion projects during the academic year 2008-09. The results of the projects were summarised in a booklet, and presented at an art exhibition and evening of performances, which was attended by participants at the July Cambridge conference.

What have all these celebrations of FitzGerald and the Rubaiyat in 2009 achieved? For those of us who are Rubaiyat enthusiasts, 2009 will live long in our memories, as a year when we saw and heard so many new things related to our interest, visited new places and met many other enthusiasts, some of whom have now become old friends. But the year achieved more than that. It undoubtedly brought the name of FitzGerald and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam back into more general discussion. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people have, through visiting the exhibitions, or hearing lectures, readings and broadcasts, become aware of the heritage

that the Persian poet/astronomer and the Victorian English man of letters have left us. There will be permanent records of the anniversary year in the form of publications, catalogues and artworks. But, even more, we believe that new people will be inspired to read, study and learn more about the famous poem. From the opposite ends of the academic scale, the Leiden-Cambridge conference and the Cambridgeshire schools project have shown that there is real ongoing interest in the Rubaiyat and its relevance to the modern world. We hope to see fruitful results of this interest in the years ahead.

We should like to pay tribute to the many people and organisations who worked so hard to create the celebratory events in the Year of the Rubaiyat in 2009. Those involved are far too many in number to mention by name but their efforts deserve acknowledgement. We hope that they enjoyed the year as much as we did.

Bill Martin & Sandra Mason
Independent researchers and Rubaiyat enthusiasts
April, 2010

Web address: http://www.omarkhayyamrubaiyat.com/2009_events.htm

In: Omariana [821 KB] , Vol. 10, Nr. 1, Summer 2010