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FitzGerald's Famous Rubáiyát
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FitzGerald's Famous Rubáiyát
Edward FitzGerald's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: A Famous Poem and Its Influence. William H. Martin and Sandra Mason, eds. London: Anthem Press, 2011. xi + 170 pp. Paper $17.95

Edward Fitzgerald's liberal translation of selected verses arguably attributed to the medieval Persian polymath Omar Khayyám rendered into his own distinctive Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was published anonymously in 1859 to an almost complete lack of public interest. However, as the well-known story goes, the chance discovery of the poem resulted in its gaining the favourable attention of Swinburne and the influential Pre-Raphaelite circle. It emerged from early obscurity to gain such dizzying heights of popularity, especially after the death of FitzGerald in 1883, to see it established as one of the best-known poems in the English language in the first half of the twentieth century. Despite its importance and pervasive cultural influence, the Rubáiyát has not until relatively recently regained the scholarly attention it deserves.

Within the last decade, and particularly since the recent coincidence in 2009 of the 150th anniversary of the poem's first publication and the bicentenary of the poet's birth in 1809, the "Moving Finger" of critical interest has been lured back to the text. Alongside critical analyses of the text, a number of new editions of FitzGerald's Rubáiyát have been published, and William H. Martin and Sandra Mason's edition is a worthy addition. Seeming to respond to Edmund Gosse's entreaty, in an introduction to a deluxe 1902-1903 American edition of FitzGerald's works, to "regain in the study of him a little of his own chaste moderation," Martin and Mason have succeeded, as is their stated aim, in [End Page 252] producing a highly accessible version of the text. Their edition, which includes verse texts, sample illustrations, contextual material and extensive references, is pitched at general and academic readers. For the most part the book succeeds in being appropriate for both.

The Rubáiyát, famous not least for its complex publishing history, was revised several times by FitzGerald and issued in four editions during his lifetime plus one posthumous edition and thus immediately presents the new editor with a difficult decision. The original 1859 version, considered by many the "truest" edition of the Rubáiyát, consists of seventy-five quatrains; as well as entailing significant revisions to the existing quatrains, the second edition (1868) saw the addition of a number of theologically speculative quatrains, bringing the total to 110; in the third edition (1872), among other revisions, the verse text was cut back to 101 quatrains; the final two editions (1879 and 1889) contain very little revision to the verse text of the third edition. Rather than selecting from these editions a preferred copy text and annotating each textual variant, or even combining editions to produce a new, hybrid verse text of "preferred" quatrains, as some recent critical editions have done, Martin and Mason have opted for the more inclusive, simpler approach of presenting three authoritative versions of the verse text consecutively. In part one of their edition the first, second, and fourth editions of the poem are reprinted in their entirety, followed by composites of FitzGerald's own notes and prefaces, allowing the reader complete access to those editions most substantially revised by the poet. The selection of the fourth rather than the third edition is justified by the editors in that it was the last approved for publication by the poet during his lifetime, and its verse text is little altered from that of the reworked third edition.

Given that the multivariant nature of FitzGerald's Rubáiyát is one of its most significant features, the main strength of Martin and Mason's edition is the successive presentation of the full verse texts of the three main versions that facilitates comparative reading without cluttering the texts. It also relieves the editors of the necessity of having to make the often contentious choice of which version of the text is the most appropriate to reprint. This approach simplifies the annotation of textual...