archive.org have audio recordings of five adaptations of Saki stories by BBC Radio, originally broadcast in 2005.
Here’s the link: https://archive.org/details/bbc-saki
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.
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.
Munro’s biographer A. J. Langguth conjectures that it was this early work that led Munro to pick “Saki” as his nom de plume.
There are other obvious references too, such as ‘Reginald’s Rubaiyat’, 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.
Fitzgerald revised and expanded his translation throughout his life. There were five editions (the last being published posthumously based on his notes):
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 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.
Or perhaps Reginald’s terse comment “I am not collecting copies of the cheaper editions of Omar Khayyám” was inspired by something Munro wanted to tell his acquaintances?
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
A new reading/adaption of ‘Tobermory’ has been posted on the BBC website. It can be found here:
There are five other Saki short stories currently available on their website too. The link for these is:
and the stories are the following:
These five were broadcast on BBC Radio Extra, which is often used to repeat material; in this case it’s not clear whether these are new recordings or whether they have been previously broadcast.
Finally, Saki is discussed in BBC Radio 4’s ‘Open book’ programme about 20 minutes in:
The programmes are also available via the BBC iplayer app and its successor/replacement, the fairly stupidly named “BBC Sounds”. Some BBC content is, unfortunately, only available within the UK. (Being in Germany, I couldn’t access the ‘Tobermory’ reading.)
Many thanks to Rob MacGregor for the links.
A filming of Saki’s short story ‘The Open Window’, with a couple of excellent performances from Michael Sheen and Charlotte Ritchie. You can read the original story here.
BBC Radio 4 Extra broadcast a three-hour programme on Saki to mark the 100th anniversary of his death. Here’s the description from the BBC website:
Back in 1916 on the battlefield of the Somme, a German sniper brought to an end the life of perhaps Britain’s greatest short-story writer.
Hector Hugh Munro was a political sketch-writer, foreign correspondent, historian and novelist. But he is best known under the pen name Saki for his short story writing.
Saki’s dark and twisted tales make delicious radio drama. Many of them centre on childish mishief, small acts of rebellion against pretentious or overbearing authority figures, and supernatural beasts.
The stories draw on the author’s upbringing in North Devon, where Saki was raised by his aunts and grandmother.
Shaun Ley, who also grew up in Devon, returns to Saki’s childhood home to explore the environment that made the author.
In this three-hour programme, Shaun brings together a series of adaptations, including The Lumber Room, The Toys of Peace, The She-Wolf, The Schartz-Metterklume Method, Mrs Packeltide’s Tiger, The Open Window and Sredni Vashtar.
Contributors include: Sir Richard Eyre, Will Self and Dr Sandie Byrne.
Producer: Adam Bowen for BBC News – Westminster.
The programme can be accessed online for a month at the BBC website. Click here.