The Illustrations of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, as translated by Edward FitzGerald, was first published in 1859 and subsequently illustrated more times perhaps than any other book. Illustrated editions flourished particularly in the earlier 20th century. An edition of the Rubáiyát frequently involves not just random illustrations here and there, but lavish decorative features, often including an entire book design by the artist. So here is a little taster of some of the nicest illustrators of the poem that I’ve found…

dulac rubaiyat of omar khayyam edward fitzgerald vision

Edmund Dulac (1882-1953)

The ultimate fairy tale master, Edmund Dulac must be one of the most influential and purely gorgeous illustrators around. His version shows a sensitivity to the ‘Oriental’ feel of the poem whilst providing a ‘Occidental’ fairy-tale spirit as well.

Willy Pogany (1882-1955)

Willy Pogany (1882-1955)

Originally Hungarian, Pogany’s illustration here shows a greater interest in realism in the human figures and a desire for a striking pastel atmosphere.

René Bull (1872-1942)

René Bull (1872-1942)

René Bull expresses what to me is perhaps the ideal mood, colour-scheme and imagination for this poem – there is a richness, detail and passion to his art that I cannot resist.

Hossein Behzad (1894-1968)

Hossein Behzad (1894-1968)

A Persian illustrator who knew more than the translation of the poem at hand, Behzad’s art is strikingly colourful, the human figures very much in an eastern style and the lively patterning and decorative features in the scenes bring the illustrations to life.

Elihu Vedder (1836-1923)

Elihu Vedder (1836-1923)

There is something slightly serious and slightly yearning about Elihu Vedder’s work on the Rubáiyát, with its lush full-book design. He lost several children in a short time before working on this book and Khayyam’s message struck him deeply and personally, lifting his spirits. It is also the first full illustrated edition of the book, published in 1884.

Arthur Szyk (1894-1951)

Arthur Szyk (1894-1951)

Arthur Szyk’s pictures seem to reflect a fascination with Persian design (e.g. the rug-like borders) and lavishness of colour – perhaps a little lacking the strength of colour-focus and light/dark contrasts that I personally prefer, but a distinctive approach nonetheless.

Charles Robinson (1870–1937)

Charles Robinson (1870–1937)

I find Charles Robinson’s borders charming and imaginative. His illustrations are less on the symbolic or allegorical side of things and quite immediate, with some lovely detail all over.

Adelaide Hanscom (1875-1931)

Adelaide Hanscom (1875-1931)

Adelaide Hanscom’s is certainly an interesting one – fusing some art nouveau decorative features with photographic images brings a unique approach to illustrating the Rubáiyát. Personally, I find there to be a stiff self-consciousness about the work that detracts from the liquid, lush and layered effect of the poem.

Ronald Balfour (1896–1941)

Ronald Balfour (1896–1941)

Too little of the Persian origin of the poem is remembered in Ronald Balfour’s Beardsley-esque interpretation but there is a whimsical abstraction about the approach.

Sarkis Katchadourian (1896-1947)

Sarkis Katchadourian (1896-1947)

Katchadourian on the other hand is vividly inspired by Persian art, being Persian/Armenian himself. There is a masterful fluidity about his style.

himmapaan (http://himmapaan.livejournal.com/25212.html)

“himmapaan”

The most recent artist I’ve chosen to include can be found at this livejournal. Clearly inspired by Dulac and René Bull, the artist also brings a distinctive vibrancy of fabric movement and colour (the use of blues throughout the illustrations for this edition remind me of the recurrent use of that unforgettable blue in Giotto’s Arena Chapel).

I think it is obvious that the Rubáiyát inspires visual artists in exciting, nostalgic, yearning and intriguing ways. I can’t really pick a favourite, although I am partial to Dulac and Bull in particular. I’d be interested which illustrators others favour.

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The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – Translation and Interpretation

The Mausoleum of Omar Khayyam, Iran

The Mausoleum of Omar Khayyam, Iran

Omar Khayyám was a Persian poet and general genius who lived from 1048–1131. He wrote on Euclid, on the philosophy of mathematics and various aspects of geometry. He is also said to have helped correct errors in the Persian calendar. He wrote approx. a thousand quatrains (or ruba’i رباعی‎) of verse, which were famously translated much later in the 19th century by the British poet Edward FitzGerald.

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by Himmapaan

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by Himmapaan

Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is notoriously not a literal translation, with much poetic material added by FitzGerald himself. It was however so popular that it even brought Omar Khayyam back to the attention of Iranian readers, who had largely forgotten his work. With popularity came debate, as is usually the case with great literature.

Illustration of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edmund Dulac

Illustration of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Rene Bull

Debate has often centred around the extent of Omar Khayyam’s Sufism, since the FitzGerald translation often indicates more materialistic, sensual and agnostic concerns. Abdullah Dougan, a Sufi thinker, has written a defence of Khayyam’s religiosity, claiming that the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam has been misread without receptivity to the allegorised undertones of spirituality. This mystical, esoteric reading of Khayyam seems likely to have merit to me, since Khayyam did write some orthodox Islamic texts. Mehdi Aminrazavi in The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam (Oxford: Oneworld, 2005) agrees that the poetry of Omar Khayyam is compatible with a Sufi worldview and in fact that he was interpreted this way even during his own lifetime.

I sometimes worry about readings of poems that, in worrying about legitimising the poem as important and non-threatening to a religion/philosophy, end up ringing away ambiguities. Ambivalences, moments of doubt, courage, revolt or sheer brazenness can too easily get subsumed under a totalising allegorised reading. But at any rate, it seems entirely sure that Omar Khayyam expressed mystical and sincerely probing moments of spirituality in his verse.

Illustrated by Edward Gedde

Illustrated by Edward Gedde

Back to Edward FitzGerald much-heralded, much-maligned and most of all much-read translation…I would say that dismissing FitzGerald’s version on the grounds of its lack of faithfulness to Khayyam is a mistake. FitzGerald is in my opinion a poet in his own right, who translated a certain sensuality and power that may not be fully representative of his source text, but stands in its own right as poetry, rather than ordinary translation.

On another note, FitzGerald’s translation has elicited an enormous amount of illustration – so much that I think it merits a future post.