Martin, W.S.; Mason, S.
When Edward FitzGerald published his version of the 'Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam' in 1859 he could have had absolutely no idea of the 'Omar' publishing industry that would evolve from his action.
Over the last 140 years or so, since that date, there has been the multitude of subsequent publications of Omar's Rubaiyat. Nearly all of these have been of FitzGerald's poem, despite translations of the Rubaiyat by other scholars. Many of these publications have been in languages other than the original English of Fitzgerald. It has been estimated that there have been around 1250 (1) separate editions and reissues of the Rubaiyat published, in over 50 languages ranging from Latin to Swahili and involving several hundred publishers.
In addition to this record, perhaps only exceeded by the number of publications of the Bible or Shakespeare, there has been a further unusual feature. This is the publication of a substantial number of the Rubaiyats in an illustrated form. The first illustrated edition was published in the USA in 1884, by the Boston firm of Houghton Miffler, with illustrations by Elihu Vedder. Since that date there have been over 300 different illustrated editions, with some 150 illustrators. To the best of our knowledge, no other book has enjoyed so many interpretations of its contents.
These illustrated editions, very largely of FitzGerald's Rubaiyat, represent a wide variety of styles, reflecting to some degree popular art forms over the years. They range from attempts to be fully representative in the interpretations of subjects in the quatrains to vague abstractions of the ideas in the Rubaiyat. We are aiming in our researches to show how these interpretations have changed over the time since FitzGerald revealed Omar’s treasure trove and Vedder first tried to illustrate it.
In studying all the different forms of illustration, two main approaches seem possible. The first is to identify illustrations that are specifically attached to individual quatrains, in contrast to illustrations that seem to simply suggest a general theme or idea of the verses. The second possibility is to try to recognise how far the illustrator is in the 'orientalist' tradition or is basing his or her interpretations on, at least, a reasonable knowledge or understanding of the context in which the quatrains were written. This latter idea is, of course, fraught with difficulties for a modern Westerner. However some ideas of the traditions can be gleaned from the illustrations produced for Rubaiyats in Iran and other Middle East countries, by local illustrators, or by those from Iranians who live in the west, or from a study of early Persian miniatures or paintings. Equally there is no reason why a modern book illustrator should not just freely and liberally interpret the words and thoughts of the Rubaiyat in a contemporary fashion without any attempt at authenticity.
We should perhaps ask, what is the purpose of illustration, especially for a book of verse of a somewhat abstract nature? It is said that an illustration should 'illuminat' or 'light up' the words that have been written. This is perhaps possible when both words and illustration are being produced at the same time with a single purpose. But, in the case of the Rubaiyat, it could be that illustration is mainly a device of publishers to make a particular edition more attractive overall, since to try to illustrate successfully the thought and ideas of a poet who lived some 950 years ago in a foreign country is probably asking the impossible.
Nevertheless there have been several illustrated editions of the Rubaiyat where we, at least, feel that something of beauty has been inspired and created by the words of Omar. The illustrator has produced a work of art in its own right, which adds to the original text. We would include among these the editions illustrated by Ronald Balfour (1920), Doris M Palmer (1921), or Robert S. Sherriffs (1947). It would be interesting to know what other readers of Omariana think about this!
(1) 'Omariana' vol 1,1 April, 1998
W. H. Martin & S. Mason