Sunday, November 14, 2010

11th-Century Persian Rhymed Quatrains and Goatskin

I’m often surprised and saddened by the depth of ignorance that pervades the public on the subject of atheism or, as it is more accurately known, humanism. In particular, I frequently come up against the common misconception that humanism is a modern construct of western, capitalist culture. This is a patently ridiculous assumption. Indeed, it is clearly and demonstrably wrong: as long as there have been cults of theistic believe there have been schools of atheistic philosophy (even the ancient pantheon of gods was withered by the logic of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura). Further, one does not need to look only in the west to find a legacy of humanistic thought -- as this week’s book attests.

This week’s book is an exquisitely bound little copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. The poem is given in Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation, first published in March 1859; this copy was published by Thomas B. Mosher (1852-1923) of Portland, Maine in October 1916. This was Mosher’s ninth edition of the Rubáiyát; his preceding editions of the poem appeared in June 1899, September 1899, March 1900, March 1901, October 1902, October 1904, December 1906, and October 1909. This list of dates suggests the popularity of the Rubáiyát with turn-of-the-century New England readers (the periodic gaps between editions are also always telling data points in reconstructing the publication and reception history of a book).

The Rubáiyát is a lyric poem, originally written in Farsi by the great Persian poet, philosopher, and scientist Omar Khayyám (1048-1131; right). In Farsi, the term rubáiyát means “quatrains” and refers to a poem written in four-rhyme, lined stanzas. Most of the 101 stanzas in this poem follow an AABA rhyme scheme, but there are some that adhere to the traditional AAAA scheme. The poem is an elegant meditation upon a number of essential spiritual and theological problems; as the anonymous author of his entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica notes:

Omar doubts the existence of divine providence and the afterlife, derides religious certainty, and is disturbed by man's frailty and ignorance. Finding no acceptable answers to his perplexities, he chooses to put his faith instead in a joyful appreciation of the fleeting and sensuous beauties of the material world. The idyllic nature of the modest pleasures he celebrates, however, cannot dispel his honest and straightforward brooding over fundamental metaphysical questions.

Khayyám wrote upon this theme of seizing the day in the eleventh century; it had previously been part of ancient Greek and Roman ideologies and it would later be incorporated (often in more extreme forms) in aspects of western humanist philosophies. To Khayyám, the inevitability of death and the lack of any divine oversight or afterlife means that we should live our best and most full lives in the present, and part of that means living responsibly and in tune with those around us and with nature (in Khayyám’s poem, one could argue that the frequent references to the power of wine are actually a metaphor for the intoxicating force of the worldly).

To modern hedonists living in a capitalist consumption-based society, the inevitability of death and the lack of any divine oversight or afterlife means we should do whatever we can or want now, with no regard for others or for nature. I find it fascinating that, though starting from a shared assumption about the nature of our metaphysical universe, the modern and the ancient can diverge so completely. Of course, the religiously dogmatic in either modern America or ancient Persia (or modern Persia, for that matter) would find Khayyám’s philosophies grotesque and even dangerous. I, however, find them moving, compelling, and hopeful.

I also find it amusing that the first English version of this atheistic, poetic critique of religious dogma appeared in 1859: the year in which Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species.

Khayyám’s poem was unknown to western readers until its appearance in English in 1859, when Victorian English poet Edward FitzGerald (1809-1893; left) published his rather free and loose translation (contemporary critic Charles Norton described it as “not a translation, but the redelivery of a poetic inspiration”). The publication received little attention until poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti publicly praised it in 1860. Subsequently, its popularity soared. FitzGerald revised his translation and published a second edition in 1868, a third in 1872, and a fourth in 1879. The textual variants between these four editions are substantial, and the study of how and what FitzGerald changed over time has become a subfield of poetry studies in itself. Further complicating the recovery of Khayyám’s original language and ideas, for English readers, are the other translations that followed FitzGerald’s, such as Edward Whinfield’s (1883), Arthur Talbot’s (1908), and, more recently, Richard Brodie’s (2001).

The contents of my copy are as follows: flyleaf, three blanks, half-title with ornaments, full-title with printer’s device and with copyright on verso, table of contents with ornaments, a preface (beginning with an epigram from Thomas Bailey Aldrich) written by scholar and editor Nathan Haskell Dole (1852-1935) originally for Mosher’s 1899 edition (ix-xviii), the poem itself (3-37), Dole’s explanatory notes (41-50), and a glossary of Persian vocabulary and names (53-56). It concludes with two more blanks and the rear flyleaf. The text of the poem also includes periodic commentary footnotes by Dole.

The pages measure 7cm x 13.5cm and are made of a high-quality paper with 3cm horizontal chain-lines and bearing the familiar crowned goat’s head and lettering watermark of the celebrated Dutch firm Van Gelder Zonen (in business from 1784 to 1934; for other uses of Zonen paper, scroll about one-quarter down this page at the website for the International Paper Historians organization). The book was printed in duodecimo format, with no signatures.

The book is in excellent condition, though an early owner did decide to press a three-leaf clover (?) inside the book at the first page of the preface.

As I noted above, the binding is quite beautiful. This past week I attended a fascinating lecture at the Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies on the topic of rare and old-book bindings. I learned at that talk that the only commonly-used medium for binding that can be dyed is goat skin, or “morocco”, and therefore, since my book is bound in a red leather, I assume it is morocco. The surface has the usual pebbled texture of morocco bindings. Gilded lettering on the cover identifies the title and translator, and gilding decorates the raised bands on the spine as well. Around the inside edge of the front and back boards there runs a gilded chain-design.

Most fantastic, however, are the pastedowns and end-pages: instead of the usual marbling, these are covered in colorful, cloudy patchwork of pinks, purples, greens, with occasional black lines.

It’s almost like an hallucinated watercolor painting. Interestingly, while the red morocco binding was expertly done, the cutting around the edges of these pages -- both at the front and back of the book -- are rather ragged and uneven. Within the book, between pages 22 and 23, one can see the frayed end of the pink string used to tie the gatherings together in the rebinding.

Interestingly, this kind of rebinding of Mosher titles is not only common, but it has made them highly collectible as well. Mosher was a leading figure in the craft printing movement, and his books were often expertly produced. However, he often issued his books with flimsy covers of Japanese paper -- beautiful and richly colored, but also highly fragile. Over time, these bindings would come apart quite easily. Early owners, therefore, often had Mosher imprints rebound in lavish covers to match the expertly printed text within. Indeed, my copy of the Rubáiyát was originally issued in thin cardboards with a blue paper wrapper (I only know this because book-seller Harry Alter has one listed online and it still has its original binding).

But now it’s time for me to wrap-up this week’s post and, like a good humanist, go take advantage of what may be our last fine-weather day before the depths of the New England autumn finally settle in. Time to seize the day and perhaps follow Khayyám’s advice in stanza 12:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread -- and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness --

Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

1 comment:

  1. Amazingly I have a copy of the Rubaiyat, the same size, the same date (9th ed. of October 1916), same red binding and tooling, the same endpapers. I was actually surprised because when I bought my copy I truly thought it must be the very same copy listed in Tarquin Tar's post. Not so, and there are at least two copies of the Mosher Press "Vest Pocket" publication bound by the same binder in the same manner. Are there more? I have no way of knowing. --Philip R. Bishop