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?


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’.  ↩

‘The Woman Who Never Should’

The Prime Minister[1] sat in a deep, leather-lined chair in his new room, dreaming in the dusk of evening over the coming years and achievements of his Premiership as a brooding hen mothers in prospect the chickens she is yet to hatch. It was a long vista down which his fancy wandered, of peace and adroitness and delicate handlings, of careful managing and gentle rosewater revolutions, above all, of placid, unwavering majorities. A pleasant waking dream, through which the refrain “Toujours Balfour”[2] trickled with the soothing murmur of a meadow stream. A sigh at his elbow broke in upon his musings like a dead rook falling with insistent thud from the silence of a sleeping rookery, and he turned to find a woman standing beside him — a woman with pale, almost frightened face, but with an underlying air of resolution that bordered on defiance.

“Efficiency!” he said; “you here. Here, of all places!”

“You are displeased to see me here?”

“Not displeased, exactly, but I can scarcely believe it. You must see that you cannot possibly stay here.”

“Yet at one time you used to be proud to be seen with me. I suppose I was useful to you at election times, when things did not go so easily for you as they do now. You used to take me to your arms, then, and I think you really cared for me[,] just a little.”[3]

“Of course I admire you very much still, and I often talk about you[,] really I do, though we’ve seen so little of each other lately[.] But you can’t reasonably expect me to dislocate my whole career and habits.”[4]

“I might be so helpful to you. In times of crisis, for instance, the consciousness that you had me by your side—“

“In times of crisis and perplexity I simply get in a man from the street to act as caretaker, and I become again as a little child,[5] innocent of all things[.][6] I have always found that answer admirably hitherto[.] And it would never do, for many reasons, to take you into my establishment; you would inevitably make your presence felt in so many departments. There is my brother and other members of the family group[7] to be considered[—]they would never be able to fit into your ways.”

“You are keeping back the real reason from me, possibly because you wish to spare my feelings. You love another. Do I know her name?”

The Prime Minister hesitated for a moment, then answered softly, as one who caresses a tradition, “Laissez Faire.”[8]

“That old thing! I should have thought you were tired to death of her years ago.”

“Hush, don’t say spiteful things. She may not be brilliant or particularly modern, but you cannot think what a solace it is to a man, tired with his golf or jaded with his philosophical studies,[9] to turn to someone who asks little, exacts nothing.”

“And does nothing, knows nothing, and is dowdy without being cheap. So it is for her that I am put on one side!”

“And you, are you so very constant in your affections? Why do people couple your name so freely with that of my rival and sometime predecessor in the Premiership?”[10]

“Perhaps because he has shown me attention where you have only offered neglect. Remember, if I have no longer attractions for you, there are others.”

The Minister flushed with a sudden unreasoning jealousy. “He cannot give you what I can, a permanent home and a share in all that is going—“[5]

Then, checking himself, he added more gently, “What am I saying? Dear lady, I can never be more to you than a friend. You may come and drink tea with me sometimes on the Terrace,[11] and I shall always be glad to see you — at Manchester.[12] But you must never come here again. It is no place for you.”

Then he held the door open for his unbidden guest. Her foot-steps sounded down the staircase like the hollow menace of a receding drum, and he tried to fancy that its time-beat remotely harmonised with the lingering refrain “Toujours Balfour.”

With a sigh of relief he sank back into the depths of his armchair.

“It was dreadful” he murmured, “but how brave I was! That shall be the keynote of my Administration; we will be gently courageous. Every notable Administration gets a nickname: they will call us—yes, they will call us the League of the Poor Brave Things.”[13]

(First published in The Westminster Gazette, Tuesday, July 22, 1902. I have added a few pieces of punctuation that are either invisible or missing from the copy I worked from.)

  1. Arthur James Balfour (1848–1930), British Conservative politician, Prime Minister 1902–1905.  ↩
  2. ”Balfour for ever“ (French).  ↩
  3. The need for “national efficiency” had become a political watchword from the end of the nineteenth century, prompted by Britain’s military failures in the Second Boer War (1899–1902) and by increased competition from Germany. Demands for efficiency, i.e. modernisation, were made by politicians from all parties. Balfour’s 1902 Education Act was to be one product of this drive. 
  4. Balfour was often characterised as indolent and lacking passion or drive. Winston Churchill once commented “If you wanted nothing done, Arthur Balfour was the best man for the task. There was no equal to him”.  ↩
  5. Reference to Matthew 18:3.  ↩
  6. Was Munro perhaps remembering John Dryden’s Prologue to Joseph Harris’ The Mistakes (1690)? “’Tis innocent of all things–even of wit.”  ↩
  7. Balfour came from a political family: his father and grandfather had been MPs and his brother Gerald (1853–1945) also entered parliament. His maternal grandfather was the second Marquess of Salisbury, who was an MP before inheriting his title and later served as Lord Privy Seal and Lord President of the Council. His son (and consequently Arthur’s uncle), the 3rd Marquess, was Prime Minister three times in the later nineteenth century.  ↩
  8. Political ideology that governments should interfere as little as possible, especially in economic matters.  ↩
  9. Balfour made a name for himself with philosophical writings, including his The Foundations of Belief (1895) and Defence of Philosophic Doubt (1879); his love of golf was well known and often exploited by caricaturists and political sketch writers.  ↩
  10. Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, (1847–1929), Liberal Prime Minister 1894–1895.  ↩
  11. Of the Houses of Parliament, overlooking the Thames.  ↩
  12. Balfour represented the constituency of Manchester East from 1885–1906.  ↩
  13. “The League of the Poor Brave Things” was the name of one of the many voluntary charitable organisations looking after deprived children.  ↩