‘The Metamorphoses of Lobelia Jabb, Suffragette’

Presented below for the first time since they originally appeared on 12 March 1913 in The Bystander are Saki’s satirical verses on a suffragette, with illustrations by ‘Pat’. The views expressed are in line with the tenor of stories such as ‘The Gala Programme’ (The Square Egg) and ‘Hermann the Irascible–A Story of the Great Weep’ (The Chronicles of Clovis).

Saki fans will no doubt also note parallels with ‘Laura’ (Beasts and Super-beasts), which also takes for its plot the repeated reincarnation of an annoying woman.

For the sake of the search engines, here is the text by itself. You can see the actual illustrated version if you scroll down.

A Suffragette Lobelia was,
She early left this life because
(She had the rottenest of luck)
She too sincerely hunger-struck.
Mere death her spirit could not tame,
A super-nuisance she became:
On every club she made her raids
–They slew her with the ace of spades.
She wrecked, with penetrating scorn,
the après-midi of the Faun;
And now another shape she wore,
She propaganda’d more and more.
Fierce androphobia winged her feet,
she bit three men in Downing Street.
The men were pasteurised – her bark,
was silenced in St. James’s Park.
Then took she yet another shape,
The larger, fiercer breed of ape.
She met a military man,
Who in the wrong direction ran.
It scarcely served her wrath to cool,
To find herself a boy at school;
She sought the other boys to vex
–And now she really loathes the sex.

The Metamorphoses of Lobelia Jabb, Suffragette, p. 1

The Metamorphoses of Lobelia Jabb, Suffragette, p. 2

My thanks are due to Brian Gibson for sending me a photocopy of the original. Interested readers are advised to consult pages 143–146 of his book Reading Saki: The Fiction of H.H. Munro for a discussion of this piece.

“Some confusion having arisen…”

“Some confusion having arisen owing to the similarity of names, Mr. Hector H. Munro (who usually writes under the pen-name of ‘Saki’) asks us to state that he is not the author of the novel ‘Mrs. Elmsley,’ by Mr. Hector Munro, published by Messrs. Constable and Co.”
― ‘Notice in the Westminster Gazette, Monday 3 April 1911, p. 4.’

‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’

I wish it to be distinctly understood (said Reginald) that I don’t want a “George, Prince of Wales” Prayer-book1 as a Christmas present. The fact cannot be too widely known.

There ought (he continued) to be technical education classes on the science of present-giving. No one seems to have the faintest notion of what anyone else wants, and the prevalent ideas on the subject are not creditable to a civilised community.

There is, for instance, the female relative in the country who “knows a tie is always useful,” and sends you some spotted horror that you could only wear in secret or in Tottenham Court Road.2 It might have been useful had she kept it to tie up currant bushes with, when it would have served the double purpose of supporting the branches and frightening away the birds—for it is an admitted fact that the ordinary tomtit of commerce has a sounder æsthetic taste than the average female relative in the country.

Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really young enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious. Continue reading

‘The East Wing’

“I’m so glad you have come,” she said; “servants are so little help in an emergency of this kind. My husband has gone off in the car to summon the fire-brigade.”

“Haven’t you telephoned to them?” asked the Major.

“The telephone unfortunately is in the east wing,” said the hostess; “so is the telephone-book. Both are being devoured by the flames at this moment. It makes one feel dreadfully isolated. Now if the fire had only broken out in the west wing instead, we could have used the telephone and had the fire-engines here by now.”

“On the other hand,” objected Lucien, “Canon Clore and Major Boventry and myself would probably have met with the fate that has overtaken the telephone-book. I think I prefer the present arrangement.”

“The butler and most of the other servants are in the dining-room, trying to save the Raeburns and the alleged Van Dyke,”1 continued Mrs Gramplain, “and in that little room on the first landing, cut off from us by the cruel flames, is my poor darling Eva. Eva of the golden hair. Will none of you save her?”

“Who is Eva of the golden hair?” asked Lucien.

“My daughter,” said Mrs Gramplain.

“I didn’t know you had a daughter,” said Lucien, “and really I don’t think I can risk my life to save some one I’ve never met or even heard about. You see, my life is not only wonderful and beautiful to myself, but if my life goes, nothing else really matters to me. I don’t suppose you can realise that, to me, the whole world as it exists to-day, the Ulster problem, the Albanian tangle, the Kikuyu controversy,2 the wide field of social reform and Antarctic exploration, the realms of finance, and research and international armaments, all this varied and crowded and complex world, all comes to a complete and absolute end the moment my life is finished. Eva might be snatched from the flames and live to be the grandmother of brilliant and charming men and women; but, as far as I should be concerned, she and they would no more exist than a vanished puff of cigarette smoke or a dissolved soda-water bubble. And if, in losing my life, I am to lose her life and theirs, as far as I personally am concerned with them, why on earth should I, personally, risk my life to save hers and theirs?”

“Major Boventry,” exclaimed Mrs Gramplain, “you are not clever, but you are a man with honest human feelings. I have only known you for a few hours, but I am sure you are the man I take you for. You will not let my Eva perish.”

“Lady,” said the Major stumblingly, “I would gladly give my life to rescue your Eva, or anybody’s Eva for the matter of that, but my life is not mine to give. I am engaged to the sweetest little woman in the world. I am everything to her. What would my poor little Mildred say if they brought her news that I had cast away my life in an endeavour, perhaps fruitless, to save some unknown girl in a burning country house?”

“You are like all the rest of them,” said Mrs Gramplain bitterly; “I thought that you, at least, were stupid. It shows how rash it is to judge a man by his bridge-play. It has been like this all my life,” she continued in dull, level tones; “I was married, when little more than a child, to my husband, and there has never been any real bond of affection between us. We have been polite and considerate to one another, nothing more. I sometimes think that if we had had a child things might have been different.”

“But your daughter Eva?” queried the Canon, and the two other men echoed his question.

“I have never had a daughter,” said the woman quietly, yet, amid the roar and crackle of the flames, her voice carried, so that not a syllable was lost. “Eva is the outcome of my imagination. I so much wanted a little girl, and at last I came to believe that she really existed. She grew up, year by year, in my mind, and when she was eighteen I painted her portrait, a beautiful young girl with masses of golden hair. Since that moment the portrait has been Eva. I have altered it a little with the changing years — she is twenty-one now — and I have repainted her dress with every incoming fashion. On her last birthday I painted her a pair of beautiful diamond earrings. Every day I have sat with her for an hour or so, telling her my thoughts, or reading to her. And now she is there, alone with the flames and the smoke, unable to stir, waiting for the deliverance that does not come.”

“It is beautiful,” said Lucien; “it is the most beautiful thing I ever heard.”

“Where are you going?” asked his hostess, as the young man moved towards the blazing staircase of the east wing.

“I am going to try and save her,” he answered; “as she has never existed, my death cannot compromise her future existence. I shall go into nothingness, and she, as far as I am concerned, will go into nothingness too; but then she has never been anything else.”

“But your life, your beautiful life?”

“Death in this case is more beautiful.”

The Major started forward.

“I am going too,” he said simply.

“To save Eva?” cried the woman.

“Yes,” he said; “my little Mildred will not grudge me to a woman who has never existed.”

“How well he reads our sex,” murmured Mrs Gramplain, “and yet how badly he plays bridge!”

The two men went side by side up the blazing staircase, the slender young figure in the well-fitting dinner-jacket and the thick-set military man in striped pyjamas of an obvious Swan & Edgar pattern.3 Down in the hall below them stood the woman in her pale wrapper, and the Canon in his wonderful-hued Albanian-work dressing-gown, looking like the arch-priests of some strange religion presiding at a human sacrifice.

As the rescue-party disappeared into the roaring cavern of smoke and flames, the butler came into the hall, bearing with him one of the Raeburns.

“I think I hear the clanging of the fire-engines, ma’am,” he announced.

Mrs Gramplain continued staring at the spot where the two men had disappeared.

“How stupid of me!” she said presently to the Canon. “I’ve just remembered I sent Eva to Exeter to be cleaned. Those two men have lost their lives for nothing.”

“They have certainly lost their lives,” said the Canon.

“The irony of it all,” said Mrs Gramplain, “the tragic irony of it all!”


  1. Henry Raeburn (1756–1823), Scottish portrait painter. After relative neglect for forty years after his death, his reputation had undergone a reassessment and at the time Saki was writing his works were much sought after and correspondingly expensive. Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), Dutch painter who worked for the English court.

  2. The Ulster unionists’ were prepared to oppose the government’s Irish Home Rule plans by force if necessary. The borders of Albania had been established by international agreement in 1913 after it gained independence in 1912. However, in February 1914 ethnic Greeks in the south of the country tried to break away, setting up the the Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus. The issue was not settled till 1921. A controversy within the Anglican Church had erupted over an ecumenical service held in Kikuyu in modern-day Kenya in June 1913.

  3. Swan & Edgar was a high-class department store, located at Piccadilly Circus, London.


‘The East Wing’ by Saki (H.H. Munro) (public domain). Notes © 2020 Bruce Gaston. No reproduction without permission.

‘Angels of Grace’ and King Robert of Sicily

The following narrative poem by Longfellow provided the inspiration for Saki’s story ‘Ministers of Grace’ (originally published in The Bystander and later collected in The Chronicles of Clovis).

Robert of Sicily, brother of Pope Urbane
And Valmond, Emperor of Allemaine,
Apparelled in magnificent attire,
With retinue of many a knight and squire,
On St. John’s eve, at vespers, proudly sat
And heard the priests chant the Magnificat,
And as he listened, o’er and o’er again
Repeated, like a burden or refrain,
He caught the words, “Deposuit potentes
De sede, et exaltavit humiles”;
And slowly lifting up his kingly head
He to a learned clerk beside him said,
“What mean these words?” The clerk made answer meet,
“He has put down the mighty from their seat,
And has exalted them of low degree.”
Thereat King Robert muttered scornfully,
“’T is well that such seditious words are sung
Only by priests and in the Latin tongue;
For unto priests and people be it known,
There is no power can push me from my throne!”
And leaning back, he yawned and fell asleep,
Lulled by the chant monotonous and deep.

When he awoke, it was already night;
The church was empty, and there was no light,
Save where the lamps, that glimmered few and faint,
Lighted a little space before some saint.
He started from his seat and gazed around,
But saw no living thing and heard no sound.
He groped towards the door, but it was locked;
He cried aloud, and listened, and then knocked,
And uttered awful threatenings and complaints,
And imprecations upon men and saints.
The sounds re-echoed from the roof and walls
As if dead priests were laughing in their stalls.

At length the sexton, hearing from without
The tumult of the knocking and the shout,
And thinking thieves were in the house of prayer,
Came with his lantern, asking, “Who is there?”
Half choked with rage, King Robert fiercely said,
“Open: ’tis I, the King! Art thou afraid?”
The frightened sexton, muttering, with a curse,
“This is some drunken vagabond, or worse!”
Turned the great key and flung the portal wide;
A man rushed by him at a single stride,
Haggard, half naked, without hat or cloak,
Who neither turned, nor looked at him, nor spoke,
But leaped into the blackness of the night,
And vanished like a spectre from his sight.

Robert of Sicily, brother of Pope Urbane
And Valmond, Emperor of Allemaine,
Despoiled of his magnificent attire,
Bareheaded, breathless, and besprent with mire,
With sense of wrong and outrage desperate,
Strode on and thundered at the palace gate;
Rushed through the courtyard, thrusting in his rage
To right and left each seneschal and page,
And hurried up the broad and sounding stair,
His white face ghastly in the torches’ glare.
From hall to hall he passed with breathless speed;
Voices and cries he heard, but did not heed,
Until at last he reached the banquet-room,
Blazing with light and breathing with perfume.

There on the dais sat another king,
Wearing his robes, his crown, his signet-ring,
King Robert’s self in features, form, and height,
But all transfigured with angelic light!
It was an Angel; and his presence there
With a divine effulgence filled the air,
An exaltation, piercing the disguise,
Though none the hidden Angel recognize.

A moment speechless, motionless, amazed,
The throneless monarch on the Angel gazed,
Who met his look of anger and surprise
With the divine compassion of his eyes;
Then said, “Who art thou? and why com’st thou here?”
To which King Robert answered, with a sneer,
“I am the King, and come to claim my own
From an impostor, who usurps my throne!”
And suddenly, at these audacious words,
Up sprang the angry guests, and drew their swords;
The Angel answered, with unruffled brow,
“Nay, not the King, but the King’s Jester, thou
Henceforth shall wear the bells and scalloped cape,
And for thy counsellor shalt lead an ape;
Thou shalt obey my servants when they call,
And wait upon my henchmen in the hall!”

Deaf to King Robert’s threats and cries and prayers,
They thrust him from the hall and down the stairs;
A group of tittering pages ran before,
And as they opened wide the folding door,
His heart failed, for he heard, with strange alarms,
The boisterous laughter of the men-at-arms,
And all the vaulted chamber roar and ring
With the mock plaudits of “Long live the King!”

Next morning, waking with the day’s first beam,
He said within himself, “It was a dream!”
But the straw rustled as he turned his head,
There were the cap and bells beside his bed,
Around him rose the bare, discolored walls,
Close by, the steeds were champing in their stalls,
And in the corner, a revolting shape,
Shivering and chattering sat the wretched ape.
It was no dream; the world he loved so much
Had turned to dust and ashes at his touch!

Days came and went; and now returned again
To Sicily the old Saturnian reign;
Under the Angel’s governance benign
The happy island danced with corn and wine,
And deep within the mountain’s burning breast
Enceladus, the giant, was at rest.

Meanwhile King Robert yielded to his fate,
Sullen and silent and disconsolate.
Dressed in the motley garb that Jesters wear,
With look bewildered and a vacant stare,
Close shaven above the ears, as monks are shorn,
By courtiers mocked, by pages laughed to scorn,
His only friend the ape, his only food
What others left,–he still was unsubdued.
And when the Angel met him on his way,
And half in earnest, half in jest, would say
Sternly, though tenderly, that he might feel
The velvet scabbard held a sword of steel,
“Art thou the King?” the passion of his woe
Burst from him in resistless overflow,
And, lifting high his forehead, he would fling
The haughty answer back, “I am, I am the King!”

Almost three years were ended; when there came
Ambassadors of great repute and name
From Valmond, Emperor of Allemaine,
Unto King Robert, saying that Pope Urbane
By letter summoned them forthwith to come
On Holy Thursday to his city of Rome.
The Angel with great joy received his guests,
And gave them presents of embroidered vests,
And velvet mantles with rich ermine lined,
And rings and jewels of the rarest kind.
Then he departed with them o’er the sea
Into the lovely land of Italy,
Whose loveliness was more resplendent made
By the mere passing of that cavalcade,
With plumes, and cloaks, and housings, and the stir
Of jewelled bridle and of golden spur.
And lo! among the menials, in mock state,
Upon a piebald steed, with shambling gait,
His cloak of fox-tails flapping in the wind,
The solemn ape demurely perched behind,
King Robert rode, making huge merriment
In all the country towns through which they went.

The Pope received them with great pomp and blare
Of bannered trumpets, on Saint Peter’s square,
Giving his benediction and embrace,
Fervent, and full of apostolic grace.
While with congratulations and with prayers
He entertained the Angel unawares,
Robert, the Jester, bursting through the crowd,
Into their presence rushed, and cried aloud,
“I am the King! Look, and behold in me
Robert, your brother, King of Sicily!
This man, who wears my semblance to your eyes,
Is an impostor in a king’s disguise.
Do you not know me? does no voice within
Answer my cry, and say we are akin?”
The Pope in silence, but with troubled mien,
Gazed at the Angel’s countenance serene;
The Emperor, laughing, said, “It is strange sport
To keep a mad man for thy Fool at court!”
And the poor, baffled Jester in disgrace
Was hustled back among the populace.

In solemn state the Holy Week went by,
And Easter Sunday gleamed upon the sky;
The presence of the Angel, with its light,
Before the sun rose, made the city bright,
And with new fervor filled the hearts of men,
Who felt that Christ indeed had risen again.
Even the Jester, on his bed of straw,
With haggard eyes the unwonted splendor saw,
He felt within a power unfelt before,
And, kneeling humbly on his chamber floor,
He heard the rushing garments of the Lord
Sweep through the silent air, ascending heavenward.

And now the visit ending, and once more
Valmond returning to the Danube’s shore,
Homeward the Angel journeyed, and again
The land was made resplendent with his train,
Flashing along the towns of Italy
Unto Salerno, and from thence by sea.
And when once more within Palermo’s wall,
And, seated on the throne in his great hall,
He heard the Angelus from convent towers,
As if the better world conversed with ours,
He beckoned to King Robert to draw nigher,
And with a gesture bade the rest retire;
And when they were alone, the Angel said,
“Art thou the King?” Then, bowing down his head,
King Robert crossed both hands upon his breast,
And meekly answered him: “Thou knowest best!
My sins as scarlet are; let me go hence,
And in some cloister’s school of penitence,
Across those stones, that pave the way to heaven,
Walk barefoot, till my guilty soul be shriven!”

The Angel smiled, and from his radiant face
A holy light illumined all the place,
And through the open window, loud and clear,
They heard the monks chant in the chapel near,
Above the stir and tumult of the street:
“He has put down the mighty from their seat,
And has exalted them of low degree!”
And through the chant a second melody
Rose like the throbbing of a single string:
“I am an Angel, and thou art the King!”

King Robert, who was standing near the throne,
Lifted his eyes, and lo! he was alone!
But all apparelled as in days of old,
With ermined mantle and with cloth of gold;
And when his courtiers came, they found him there
Kneeling upon the floor, absorbed in, silent prayer.

Tales of a Wayside Inn by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Part First, The Sicilian’s Tale: King Robert of Sicily

Source text taken from: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Tales_of_a_Wayside_Inn/Part_First/The_Sicilian%27s_Tale/King_Robert_of_Sicily

Link

Voltaire of the Suburbs

Cover of The Argosy magazine 1937 edition

In good company! Scan from http://www.philsp.com/data/images/a/argosy_uk_193709.jpg

On the internet, if you dig beneath the pictures of people’s food or cats and the anonymous abuse of figures in public life, you sometimes come across herculean efforts of single-interest obsessiveness like the Fiction Mags Index, which indexes thousands of magazines, including “pulp” magazines, and their contents. It has listings for both “H.H. Munro” and “Saki”, which are interesting because the details given mostly refer to reprints of the stories, usually in American or Australian magazines — information that is (as far as I know) not to be found elsewhere.

My title comes from an (anonymous) article on Munro published in The Argosy in September 1937, which also republished ‘The Mouse’ (from Reginald in Russia). I may have a go at tracking down the article — the title is intriguing, to say the least.

‘The Penance’

Octavian Ruttle was one of those lively cheerful individuals on whom amiability had set its unmistakable stamp, and, like most of his kind, his soul’s peace depended in large measure on the unstinted approval of his fellows. In hunting to death a small tabby cat he had done a thing of which he scarcely approved himself, and he was glad when the gardener had hidden the body in its hastily dug grave under a lone oak-tree in the meadow, the same tree that the hunted quarry had climbed as a last effort towards safety. It had been a distasteful and seemingly ruthless deed, but circumstances had demanded the doing of it. Octavian kept chickens; at least he kept some of them; others vanished from his keeping, leaving only a few bloodstained feathers to mark the manner of their going. The tabby cat from the large grey house that stood with its back to the meadow had been detected in many furtive visits to the hen-coops, and after due negotiation with those in authority at the grey house a sentence of death had been agreed on: “The children will mind, but they need not know,” had been the last word on the matter.

The children in question were a standing puzzle to Octavian; in the course of a few months he considered that he should have known their names, ages, the dates of their birthdays, and have been introduced to their favourite toys. They remained however, as non-committal as the long blank wall that shut them off from the meadow, a wall over which their three heads sometimes appeared at odd moments. They had parents in India—that much Octavian had learned in the neighbourhood; the children, beyond grouping themselves garment-wise into sexes, a girl and two boys, carried their life-story no further on his behoof. And now it seemed he was engaged in something which touched them closely, but must be hidden from their knowledge.

The poor helpless chickens had gone one by one to their doom, so it was meet that their destroyer should come to a violent end, yet Octavian felt some qualms when his share of the violence was ended. The little cat, headed off from its wonted tracks of safety, had raced unfriended from shelter to shelter, and its end had been rather piteous. Octavian walked through the long grass of the meadow with a step less jaunty than usual. And as he passed beneath the shadow of the high blank wall he glanced up and became aware that his hunting had had undesired witnesses. Three white set faces were looking down at him, and if ever an artist wanted a threefold study of cold human hate, impotent yet unyielding, raging yet masked in stillness, he would have found it in the triple gaze that met Octavian’s eye.

“I’m sorry, but it had to be done,” said Octavian, with genuine apology in his voice. Continue reading

Critical Survey – William Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910

It’s a bit off-topic, but the latest issue of the journal Critical Survey is devoted to writer William Le Queux and in particular his novel The Invasion of 1910 (published 1906), which is a notable example of the short-lived sub-genre that Munro also essayed with When William Came: the invasion-of-Britain fantasy (though the authors wouldn’t have accepted the description “fantasy” so readily).

I’ve not yet had a chance to see if Munro’s novel is mentioned in any of the articles.

Normally access is restricted to subscribers and libraries, but all Berghahn journals are available to all until June 30. See here: https://www.berghahnjournals.com/page/covid19/covid19-update

Full details:

Volume 32, Issue 1-2
William Le Queux, Master of Misinformation: Populism, Invasion Scares and War Propaganda in Britain, 1880–1920

Please visit the Berghahn website for more information about the journal: www.berghahnjournals.com/critical-survey

‘Reginald’s Peace Poem’

“I’m writing a poem on Peace,”1 said Reginald, emerging from a sweeping operation through a tin of mixed biscuits, in whose depths a macaroon or two might yet be lurking.

“Something of the kind seems to have been attempted already,” said the Other.

“Oh, I know; but I may never have the chance again. Besides, I’ve got a new fountain pen. I don’t pretend to have gone on any very original lines; in writing about Peace the thing is to say what everybody else is saying, only to say it better. It begins with the usual ornithological emotion:

‘When the widgeon westward winging
Heard the folk Vereeniginging,2
Heard the shouting and the singing—’”

“Vereeniginging is good, but why widgeon?”

“Why not? Anything that winged westward would naturally begin with a w.”

“Need it wing westward?”

“The bird must go somewhere. You wouldn’t have it hang around and look foolish. Then I’ve brought in something about the heedless hartebeest3 galloping over the deserted veldt.”

“Of course you know it’s practically extinct in those regions?”

“I can’t help that, it gallops so nicely. I make it have all sorts of unexpected yearnings:

‘Mother, may I go and maffick,4
Tear around and hinder traffic?’

Of course you’ll say there would be no traffic worth bothering about on the bare and sun-scorched veldt, but there’s no other word that rhymes with maffick.”

“Seraphic?”

Reginald considered. “It might do, but I’ve got a lot about angels later on. You must have angels in a Peace poem; I know dreadfully little about their habits.”

“They can do unexpected things, like the hartebeest.”

“Of course. Then I turn on London, the City of Dreadful Nocturnes,5 resonant with hymns of joy and thanksgiving:

‘And the sleeper, eye unlidding,
Heard a voice for ever bidding
Much farewell to Dolly Gray;6
Turning weary on his truckle-
Bed he heard the honey-suckle
Lauded in apiarian lay.’

Longfellow7 at his best wrote nothing like that.”

“I agree with you.”

“I wish you wouldn’t. I’ve a sweet temper, but I can’t stand being agreed with. And I’m so worried about the aasvogel.”8

Reginald stared dismally at the biscuit-tin, which now presented an unattractive array of rejected cracknels.

“I believe,” he murmured, “if I could find a woman with an unsatisfied craving for cracknels, I should marry her.”

“What is the tragedy of the aasvogel?” asked the Other sympathetically.

“Oh, simply that there’s no rhyme for it. I thought about it all the time I was dressing—it’s dreadfully bad for one to think whilst one’s dressing—and all lunch-time, and I’m still hung up over it. I feel like those unfortunate automobilists who achieve an unenviable notoriety by coming to a hopeless stop with their cars in the most crowded thoroughfares. I’m afraid I shall have to drop the aasvogel, and it did give such lovely local colour to the thing.”

“Still you’ve got the heedless hartebeest.”

“And quite a decorative bit of moral admonition—when you’ve worried the meaning out:

‘Cease, War, thy bubbling madness that the wine shares,
And bid thy legions turn their swords to mine shares.’

Mine shares seems to fit the case better than ploughshares.9 There’s lots more about the blessings of Peace, shall I go on reading it?”

“If I must make a choice, I think I would rather they went on with the war.”


  1. The recently concluded Boer War (1899-1902).
  2. Vereeniging is a city in South Africa. At the time it was part of the Transvaal province. The city’s name derives from the Dutch for “union”. The Treaty of Vereeniging ended the Boer War.
  3. A type of large antelope.
  4. The town of Mefeking held out against a siege by the Boers for 215 days (1899—1900). News of its relief was greeted in Britain with such joy that it led to the coinage of a short-lived verbal noun ‘mafficking’, meaning ‘celebrating loudly and extravagantly’.
  5. Punning on the title of Scottish poet James Thomson’s long poem The City of Dreadful Night (1874). (Rudyard Kipling also wrote a ‘sketch’ with the same title, published 1888.) “Nocturnes” probably refers here not to musical pieces but to the paintings of night-time London by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), which attracted a great deal of criticism at the time.
  6. “Goodbye Dolly Gray” was a song written by Will D. Cobb (lyrics) and Paul Barnes (music), ventriloquising the feelings of a soldier going off to war. It was popular in the USA during the Spanish-American War of 1898 and (after a few changes to the lyrics) in the UK during the Boer War.
  7. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), American poet.
  8. Vulture.
  9. A reference to “they shall beat their swords into plowshares” in Isaiah 2:3-4; control of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State brought with it the right to exploit their mineral riches, such as their gold and diamond mines.

‘Reginald’s Peace Poem’ by Saki (H.H. Munro), taken from Reginald (public domain). Notes © 2019-20 Bruce Gaston. No reproduction without permission.

Which Version of FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát Did Munro Know?

The Quatrains of Uttar Al Ghibe Part I, from The Westminster Gazette, March 4, 1901. My thanks to Brian Gibson (author of Reading Saki) for sending me a copy.

Possibly I am the only person in the world to care about this question, but what the heck…

Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Munro’s work can hardly miss its references to that nineteenth-century poetic sensation, Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.[1]

The most obvious link is Munro’s pen-name. The FitzGerald versions contain the word “Sákí” (meaning “cupbearer”). One of Munro’s earliest published pieces were some quatrains supposedly by a Middle Eastern poet named “Uttar Al Ghibe” in which he mocked the politicians of the time:

In marvel at each man’s allotted sphere
I mused “We know not wherefore we are here”;
Said One who ruled o’er markets and bazaars
“I had an Uncle once.” His case was clear.[2]

Munro’s biographer A. J. Langguth conjectures that it was this early work that led Munro to pick “Saki” as his nom de plume.[3]

There are other obvious references too, such as ‘Reginald’s Rubaiyat’,[4] or the reference in ‘A Young Turkish Catastrophe’ to “the heretic poet of Persia”. The Rev. Wilfrid Gaspilton’s invented poet Ghurab in ‘For the Duration of the War’ is inspired by (and compared to) Omar Khayyám, as well as Persia’s other great poet Hafiz.[5]

Fitzgerald revised and expanded his translation throughout his life. There were five editions (the last being published posthumously based on his notes):

  1. 1st edition – 1859 (75 quatrains)
  2. 2nd edition – 1868 (110 quatrains)
  3. 3rd edition – 1872 (101 quatrains)
  4. 4th edition – 1879 (101 quatrains)
  5. 5th edition – 1889 (101 quatrains)[6]

When checking references to the work in Munro’s writings, I’ve often wondered which edition I should consult. From that question came the idea for this article.

As a young man, Munro copied some lines from FitzGerald into his commonplace book, including the quatrain that contains his future nom de plume:

Yet ah, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth’s sweet-scented manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the branches sang,
Ah whence, and whither flown again, who knows!

Yon rising Moon that looks for us again
How oft hereafter will she wax and wane;
How oft hereafter rising look for us
Through this same Garden—and for one in vain!

And when like her, oh Sákí, you shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter’d on the Grass,
And in your blissful errand reach the spot
Where I made One—turn down an empty Glass!

Perplext no more with Human or Divine,
To-morrow’s tangle to the winds resign,
And lose your fingers in the tresses of
The Cypress-slender Minister of Wine.

So when that Angel of the Darker Drink,
At last shall find you by the river-brink,
And, offering his Cup, invite your Soul
Forth to your Lips to quaff—you shall not shrink.

Oddly, Munro has shuffled the order: he copied the quatrains in the order 96, 100, 101, 41, 43. More significantly for my inquiry, these versions were only found from the third edition onwards.

However, a few other allusions in other stories muddy the waters:

For example, in the early satire ‘The Angel and his Lost Michael’ (1903), the line “The Tabernacle is prepared within, why lags the lazy worshipper outside?” parodies a quatrain (number 2) that was added in the second edition and which runs “When all the Temple is prepared within,/Why lags the lazy worshipper outside?”. In the fifth edition, however, this has been changed to “When all the Temple is prepared within,/Why nods the lazy worshipper outside?”.

In addition, in ‘Reginald’s Rubaiyat’ Reginald pens the lines:

“The hen that laid thee moons ago, who knows
In what Dead Yesterday her shades repose;
To some election turn thy waning span
And rain thy rottenness on fiscal foes.”

The phrase “Dead Yesterday” is taken directly from FitzGerald, in lines which occur only in the first edition (ruba’i[7] no. 37, to be exact).

In the same story, Reginald (or Munro?) misunderstands or misremembers a reference in the Rubáiyát:

“Hast thou the pen that once the gardener had?
I have it not; and know, these pears are bad.
Oh, larger than the horses of the Prince
Are those the general drives in Kaikobad.”

There is no place called Kaikobad: it is the name of a king of ancient Persia. The references can be found in rubáiyát 8 and 9 of the first edition, 9 and 10 of second (with slight alterations) and 9 and 10 of the fifth (again with small changes).

I had hoped that perhaps one of the versions would be more ambiguous, allowing me to identify which version it was that misled Munro, but as far as I can see they are all more or less equal: if you read fairly attentively you can see that the various names mentioned are those of people rather than of places (especially if you note the reference to Rustum, which ought to be well known to readers of English poetry because of Matthew Arnold’s 1853 poem Sohrab and Rustum).

So, in the end, there is no clear answer to my questions. Maybe that’s not so surprising, as Fitzgerald’s work was so enormously well known and widely quoted that there are over 130 separate references to it in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, encompassing around half the work.[8]

Or perhaps Reginald’s terse comment “I am not collecting copies of the cheaper editions of Omar Khayyám”[9] was inspired by something Munro wanted to tell his acquaintances?

References:

I worked from a 1953 Collins edition of Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and Other Writings by Edward FitzGerald, which contains the first, second and fifth editions in full. I also found the following website useful: http://www.bobforrestweb.co.uk/The_Rubaiyat/verse_by_verse_notes.htm


  1. FitzGerald (1809–1883), a gentleman poet and scholar, had discovered a set of Persian four-line poems (the technical name is ‘rubáiyát’) which had been written by an 11th century polymath named Omar Khayyám. FitzGerald translated and arranged a selection of these, publishing them in 1859. Taken up by Rossetti and Swinburne, among others, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám became—after a slow start—extremely popular. (Quoted from the introduction to The Complete Annotated Reginald Stories.)  ↩
  2. Short historical note: “Al Ghibe” means A.J.B. (which was how Prime Minister Arthur Balfour was sometimes referred to); Balfour’s predecessor in the job was his uncle, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury.  ↩
  3. Langguth also suggests that the difficulty of typesetting foreign accent marks was what led to “Sákí” becoming just “Saki” (pp. 60–64).  ↩
  4. Again, printed without accents.  ↩
  5. These stories can be found in the collections Reginald (obviously), Reginald in Russia and The Toys of Peace, respectively.  ↩
  6. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubaiyat_of_Omar_Khayyam#Editions  ↩
  7. The singular form of rubáiyát, apparently.  ↩
  8. Sources: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/non_fictionreviews/3668163/An-enthusiasts-reading-of-the-Rubaiyat.html and http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180111-the-rubaiyat-historys-most-luxurious-book-of-poetry  ↩
  9. ‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’.  ↩