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. Continue reading →
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.
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?
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.) ↩
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. ↩
Langguth also suggests that the difficulty of typesetting foreign accent marks was what led to “Sákí” becoming just “Saki” (pp. 60–64). ↩
[In 1902 Saki followed up on his highly successful Alice in Wonderland parodies with a second series modelled on Rudyard Kipling’s short stories for children. They were first published in the Westminster Gazette as ‘The Political Jungle Book’ and later ‘Not-So Stories’ after Kipling’s ‘Just-So Stories’, which were published the same year.]
Mowgli the bare-limbed and immortal opened his eyes expectantly and spoke to the Other:
“I have told you of the Jungle and its laws. Tell me of the tangle that you call your political system.”
“Pardon me,” said the Other, “I never called it a system. Though perhaps,” he added, “it has fixed laws of an unobtrusive character.”
“But you must have a ruling Caste?”
“We are beginning to recognise the necessity, and one day no doubt we shall invent one. At present we are being looked after by a great course of politicians, some of whom will become statesmen in the course of time, if they don’t take up some useful employment in the meanwhile”
“Tell me,” said Mowgli, “how they grow into statesmen.”
“First, when they are about eighteen or twenty they read about Pitt and Burke and Talleyrand and other real people; that is their hopeful, enquiring stage, and it is often their best. Then most of them go into the Parrot House of party politics and hear nothing but parrot cries from one year to another.”