The Persian Sensation
'The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám' in the West
February 3, 2009 – August 2, 2009
The Harry Ransom Center's exhibition "The Persian Sensation: The 'Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám' in the West" explores how a translation of a Persian poem went from obscurity to celebrity in British and American culture.
The exhibition runs from Feb. 3 to Aug. 2, 2009, at the Harry Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum at The University of Texas at Austin.
The exhibition of 200 items from the Ransom Center's diverse collections introduces visitors to the unique cultural phenomenon of the "Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám." In 1859, amateur translator Edward FitzGerald published a loose translation of a series of four-line poems by Omar Khayyám, an 11th-century Persian known primarily for his contributions to astronomy and algebra.
FitzGerald rearranged and recombined the stanzas to create a loose narrative poem about the importance of living in the moment. Set in a Persian garden, FitzGerald's lyrical verses are filled with imagery of roses, wine and the beloved and questions about mortality, fate and doubt.
The year 2009 marks 150th anniversary of FitzGerald's landmark translation and FitzGerald's 200th birthday. The Ransom Center holds one of the largest collections of "Rubáiyát" materials in the world.
The first edition of FitzGerald's translation went unsold. Two years later, it was put on the remainder tables at the price of a penny, where it was purchased as a gift for the poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who shared it with his friends Charles Algernon Swinburne and William Morris. It swiftly became a popular text among Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic intellectuals.
Through the late 19th century the "Rubáiyát's" reputation grew: reviews were published, scholars argued over the merits of the translation, poets imitated the stanza form FitzGerald had invented for the translation and the "Rubáiyát" came to be seen as a major work of poetry.
"It's difficult for us to understand today just how important a part of Victorian and even Modernist literature this translation was. It is a remarkable example of how the literary canon changes over time," said Molly Schwartzburg, the Ransom Center's curator of British and American literature and co-curator of the exhibition. "A century ago, the average American and certainly every poet writing in English could quote stanzas of this poem verbatim. The extraordinary range of materials in this exhibition offer a glimpse of something that has been lost from the culture.
"The phenomenon of the 'Rubáiyát also gives us new ways to think about Western relationships with the 'Middle East' as we understand it today," said Schwartzburg. "The exhibition places FitzGerald's translation in the context of Britain's diplomatic history with Persia, now Iran. Materials ranging from Persian manuscripts to British travelogues and 'orientalist' illustrations offer insight into how the West has reshaped the East in its own imagination."
At the turn of the century, FitzGerald's "Rubáiyát" mushroomed from an elite phenomenon into a popular sensation. As the book market expanded, and book publishing technologies were revolutionized, the "Rubáiyát" was published in a variety of formats by many publishing firms, particularly in the United States. By 1905, the "Rubáiyát" was so popular that it was the theme of the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans.
By 1919, 447 editions of FitzGerald's translation had been published. By 2007, a total of 1330 versions of the "Rubáiyát" had been published in the West, FitzGerald and other translators included. Into the 1950s, the poem was so widely quoted that more than half of the "Rubáiyát" appeared in "Bartlett's Quotations" and "The Oxford Book of Quotations."
"During the first decades of the 20th century, the 'Rubáiyát' made its way into nearly every facet of people's lives," said Michelle Kaiserlian, co-curator of the exhibition and "Rubáiyát" scholar. "For example, the exhibition documents the popularity of 'Rubáiyát' parodies, written on subjects ranging from courtship to automobiles, and from religion to politics. The 'Rubáiyát' became a tool to explore both the thrills and the anxieties of modern life."
This exhibition poses and explores a single question: "How and why did a translation of medieval Persian poetry become one of the most famous books in the West?"
The exhibition tells this story in four sections. "The Poets' Rubáiyát" contains material on Omar Khayyám and Edward FitzGerald, the history of the British imperial activities in Persia and the Middle East and the publication of the translation, its poetics and its early reception. "The Cult of Omar" explores the aesthetic trends that established the "Rubáiyát" as a precious "Oriental" object. "Everybody's 'Rubáiyát'" illustrates the place of the "Rubáiyát" through the 1950s, from pirate editions and popular entertainment to further translations and Modernist literary responses. Finally, "In Search of Khayyám" addresses the question of how people in Iran today experience and interpret the "Rubáiyát."
Highlights in the exhibition include early Persian manuscripts, the first translation into a Western language, handmade books in the Arts and Crafts style, a selection of miniature editions, the monumental Elihu Vedder illustrated edition, items documenting the loss of a jeweled edition that was shipped on the Titanic, film posters and a rare "Omar Tooth Powder" advertisement.
The exhibition includes a page-turning facsimile of Vedder's illustrations. Also, the final section of the exhibition will include a film documentary by Ransom Center Collections Assistant Jill Morena, who travelled to Iran in 2008 and documented the place of the "Rubáiyát" in the lives of four Iranians—a literature professor, a rug-seller/poet, a shopkeeper and a filmmaker.