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Fitz-Gerald Rubaiyat Victorian Parlor Table Book
( Article orginally published July 1959 )
Every old bookcase contains a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Mine is bound in gold-tooled white kid. A teen-age boy friend gave it to me one Christmas.
The sort of "gift book" proper for an Edwardian maiden to accept from a man, it had been the correct parlortable book of the Victorians. This seems odd in both instances because Omar was an agnostic who wrote in praise of wine.
Collecting Omar in a big way was Clark W. Walton, Georgia-born farm boy. This country school teacher who became a North Carolina mill owner, and a man of some substance, gathered over 6,000 items on the Persian poet.
When Mr. Walton died in 1938, the Cleveland Public Library bought the collection. This year, celebrating the centenary of the translation into English of the poem, the library exhibits the most choice items in its famous John G. White Oriental Corridor.
Since 1858, when Edward Fitz-Gerald, rich Irish dilletante who had taught himself a little Persian, discovered the Rubaiyat and did it into English, it has been translated into 45 languages, though it was little noticed and soon forgotten when it was written by the son of a tent maker in Nishapur in the late 12th century.
The same thing nearly happened to Fitz-Gerald's work. He could get no publisher so had a few copies printed, and gave them away. Swinburne and Rossetti, British poet, and artist, received them, and went into raptures.
The Walton collection has the smallest book in the world, a hand lettered Rubaiyat, 1/2 inch by 3/8 inch. This single copy was made by Bert Randle of Chicago.
Rubaiyats in all modern languages, also in Hebrew, and in Persian (for the once neglected poet is held in high esteem in the East now), are in the collection. It has copies also of the efforts of other poets to do Rubaiyats, Richard Le Galliene, Justin Huntly McCarthy, even Joyce Kilmer-none so good as Fitz-Gerald's.
Prominent artists of 50 years ago illustrated Rubaiyats, attempting to catch the delicacy of Persian miniatures. They embellished their illustrations with pseudo Islamic strapwork, missing the objective mostly, getting a distinctly Pre-Raffaelite English effect.
The most opulent Rubaiyat was by Gregor San Gorski. The Walton collection has a copy. The original, hand-lettered and painted by the artist, with inlays of precious stones, will never again be seen by man. It went down with the artist on the Titanic, April 14, 1912.
We know little about Omar himself, except that his father was, probably, a tent maker. The play, "Omar the Tent Maker," by Richard Walton Tully had 300 performances in New York in 1914. Harold Lamb's novel on Omar bears the lurid blurb, "Flaming Comet, he Challenged Kings, Built a Paradise for a Slave Girl." So he must have called on the imagination.
The Rubaiyat, of course, lends itself to parody. The Clark collection even contains a "Dogs' Rubaiyat" and a "Rubaiyat for Cats,"