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Updated: December 6, 2009 11:35 IST

Literary scoop

John Drew
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On the 150th anniversary of the publication of Fitzgerald's translation of the Rubaiyatof Omar Khayyam, a look at how the classic was rescued from obscurity by the appreciation of one keen reader...John Drew

In October 1862, Whitley Stokes, a young lawyer seeking his fortune in India, landed in Madras with a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in his pocket. Although Edward FitzGerald's free translation of quatrains attributed to the 11{+t}{+h} century Persian scientist was to become the most famous single translation of poetry in the English language, it had fallen dead from the press when first published in 1859.

No one might ever have heard of it had not Stokes dug remaindered copies of it out of a bookshop's penny box in London in July 1861 and given them to literary friends among the Irish exiles and Pre-Raphaelites.

Enthusiastic response

On arrival in Madras, one of the first people Stokes met was Capt. Evans Bell, Hon. Sec. of the Madras Literary Society, a learned body modelled on that started by Sir William Jones in Calcutta. Bell, a Staff Corps officer who had been dismissed for insubordination in championing the Bhonsla Ranis of Nagpur in 1857 and shunted aside to Madras as Chairman of the Municipal Corporation and Deputy Commissioner of Police, was a Secularist who responded to the Rubaiyat as enthusiastically as Stokes. He proposed they publish a private reprint of their own. It came out in December in 50 copies.

The Madras reprint is much more than a reprint: it is a whole compendium of Omarian studies. Not only are the mistakes of the first edition corrected and several notes (including the author's!) amended and extended but the book contains two reprints of articles on Omar (including translations of his verses) written by people FitzGerald had been corresponding with while composing his translation. Copies of both were available in the Library of the MLS. One is by FitzGerald's dear friend and Persian teacher, Edward Cowell, a professor in Calcutta with whom FitzGerald carried on an intense correspondence about the original Persian all during the long bitter summer of 1857 and the other, in French, is by Garcin de Tassy, the French orientalist, to whom FitzGerald had sent a copy of the Omar manuscript.

The Madras compilation is rounded out by 15 quatrains put together by Stokes himself, 11 being worked up (line by line) out of the literal translations in Cowell's article, the other four from de Tassy's French. In all there are 136 quatrains. The contributions in English (though not that in French) are anonymous. Few people in England knew of the (failed) Rubaiyat, fewer still the name of its author. FitzGerald was not named in print in England or America before 1875. It is all the more remarkable then that he was named, as he was, as its author in Madras in 1864.

Evans Bell fell sick in May 1863 and had to return to England. He left not only his dog Tiger in the care of Stokes (much to the chagrin of Stokes's mongoose) but also the job of Hon. Sec. of the MLS. Stokes, an indefatigable if idiosyncratic scholar, was determined to find out who was the author of the brilliant Rubaiyat and, having first deduced rather cleverly that it had to be Cowell, discovered (probably as the result of a disclaimer) that it was FitzGerald. This he announced in the July 1864 number of the Madras Journal he edited.

Editorial note

Stokes's literary scoop is contained in an editorial note to an article that advertises he has come by two Persian manuscript copies of the Rubaiyat. One of the two is the (then) largest collection of rubaiyat known: 801 and a half quatrains (bound in together with the diwan of Naziri). This copy had belonged to the Nawabs of the Carnatic and had been auctioned off in 1859 after the British had declared the title to the musnud to be in abeyance. As Stokes told the story, his tailor, a man named Syefuddin, had purchased this copy for 4 annas and, no doubt hearing of Stokes's interest in the Rubaiyat, passed it on to Stokes in return for a small (perhaps legal) favour.

Bell back in London was even then furiously protesting British treatment of the Nawabs of the Carnatic as wrong and inexpedient. Although a republican, Bell, a good friend of Dadabhai Naoroji's, thought the best way forward towards Indian self-government was through the princely states and not British India. Stokes went on to become the top law man in Anglo-India: Law member of the Governor's Council and President of the Law Commission, he reduced the disparate law codes of India to a single ascertainable code. FitzGerald, on hearing about the Madras edition of the Rubaiyat, called him a Pirate.

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon/Turns Ashes – or it prospers; and anon,/Like Snow upon the Desert's dusty Face/Lighting its little Hour or two - is gone.

John Drew is a poet and runs the Cambridge Poetry Circle

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