The Rubaiyat – editions and illustrations

Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was enormously, and deservedly, popular from the 1880s through to at least the 1930s. It is a strange amalgam of mediaeval Arabic and mid-Victorian English poetry, however, not really a translation and never even pretending to be an exact one. Lowell put it rather nicely:

Lowell's epigraph for Harrap's edition of the RubaiyatThe reality is that Fitzgerald selected verses from a collection attributed to Khayyam, translating them very freely and arranging them thematically into a kind of meditation on fate; but many of the verses were later found to have been by other writers of Khayyam’s time or later.

The details are now well known and Wikipedia’s article on the Rubaiyat is uncommonly thorough, so I will leave it at that in favour of sharing some of the artwork in old published editions we have collected over the years.   

Five editions, five illustrators

The oldest of them, Harrap’s edition, may well date back to the 1920s. It was first published in 1909 but re-issued many times after that. Our copy has no date, no introduction and no explanatory notes but the production is quite lavish, with full-colour plates pasted into a text printed in two colours on heavy paper. The illustrator, Willy Pogany, was one of the leading book illustrators of his time and Wikipedia notes that, “Each of [his four masterpieces, 1910-1913] was designed completely by Pogany, from the covers and endpapers to the text written in pen and ink, pencil, wash, color and tipped-on plates.” That, I think, is also true of his Rubaiyat.

page spread Harrap
Pogany/Harrap edition

The edition by Black was also first published in 1909 but it was reprinted several times before 1922 and ours is dated 1956. Its full-colour illustrations are by Gilbert James, a less successful contemporary of Pogany (warning: this page about him leads to a rabbit-hole of “Omariana”). It includes a long scholarly introduction and editorial notes.

Rubaiyat title page
James/Black edition

Ward Lock published an edition illustrated by Otway McCannell who, unusually, opted for a modernist style in his paintings. It is undated except for a flyleaf inscription, but Wikipedia’s article on McCannell dates it to 1950. It includes an Introduction by Fitzgerald himself.

Ward edition of the Rubaiyat
McCannell/Ward edition
Rubaiyat illustration by McCannell

‘Tis all a Chequer-board of nights and days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays;
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays
And one by one back in the Closet lays.


Collins edition of the Rubaiyat
Anderson/Collins edition

Collins published a similarly small-format edition in their gift-book series, likewise undated except by the owner who apparently bought it in the late sixties. Illustrations are by Marjorie Anderson.

The full text of the poem is only 75 quatrains in Fitzgerald’s first edition (slightly more in his second and third) so it makes a very slim volume without generous spacing (one quatrain per page, as in Harrap and Black), plentiful full-page illustrations (as in all of these so far), or an introduction and notes (Black, Ward). Collins’ solution is unorthodox: they include both Fitzgerald’s first edition and his second. Castle (again no date, but perhaps 1960s) has only a single-page introduction and prints four quatrains to the page, so the body of the book is barely thicker than the covers.

Castle edition of the Rubaiyat
Stewart/Castle edition

…back in the Closet laid

The Rubaiyat was very much a product of English engagement with the Arabic world in the nineteenth century (e.g. Richard Burton and others, and the British colonisation of much of the Middle East) and it fell from favour after the middle of the twentieth.

By the sixties Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet was replacing it, becoming as popular with baby-boomers as the Rubaiyat had been with their parents and grandparents. Gibran spent much of his life in America, so both books have dual Arabic-Western heritage. Perhaps that’s what we needed, but I find it a little strange that faithful translations of Buddhist and Taoist wisdom-books such as the Dhammapada and the I Ching were successful long before anything comparable from Islam.

Another of Stewart’s illustrations

About those bullet-holes … they are the result of bookworm attack, described some years ago on my other blog.

2 thoughts on “The Rubaiyat – editions and illustrations”

  1. My copy of FItzgerald’s translation is the Harrap edition, illustrated by Pogany. According to its printing and re-printing dates, it was first published by George Harrap & Co Ltd in 1916. My copy was published in 1965. I bought it in Melbourne in 1967.
    I also had a copy ( for a few years) of the Robert Graves/Omar Ali-Shah translation. It did not scan nearly so well, and when I found it was extremely suspect, I passed it on with no regrets.

    1. Thanks – it’s good to know the Harrap edition was still in print into the sixties.
      As for Graves, I had a copy for a few years, too, and likewise disposed of it. I just didn’t like it. For me, as for most readers, Fitzgerald’s work was the original regardless of how accurate his translation may have been.
      Your “extremely suspect” is explained thus under “Other translations” on the Wikipedia page referenced in my post:

      The 1967 translation of the Rubáiyat by Robert Graves and Omar Ali-Shah created a scandal. The authors claimed it was based on a twelfth-century manuscript located in Afghanistan, where it was allegedly utilized as a Sufi teaching document. But the manuscript was never produced, and British experts in Persian literature were easily able to prove that the translation was in fact based on Edward Heron Allen’s analysis of possible sources for FitzGerald’s work.

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