The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The 1894 Binding seen above and is courtesy of Joe Sheldon.

Book, pictures and comments courtesy of Mr. Richard Blacher.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Houghton-Mifflin, 1894 in a Roycroft binding and box.

I have a few non-Roycroft books in Roycroft bindings, but none quite like this. This Rubaiyat, illustrated by Elihu Vedder, was originally issued with, arguably, one of the greatest American bindings ever created. I don’t understand why the owner had it rebound by Roycroft, but perhaps it had been in bad condition. The blind-stamped, sophisticated design of this binding (unsigned) is reminiscent of The Liberators published in 1915. The box measures 17" x 14" x 3 ¼", and the book is 15 ½" x 12 ½". Compare this very simple wood box and hammered metal straps and clasp to the far more elaborate boxes created for Contemplations in 1902 and the Lawson book in 1905. I’ve been told that Helen Ruth Morrow, the owner who commissioned this binding and box from Roycroft, was related to Charles Lindberg’s wife, Anne Morrow (not confirmed).

The information below is courtesy of Richard Murray

From the moment of its publication, Elihu Vedder's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám achieved unparalleled success. The first edition appeared in Boston on 8 November 1884; six days later, it was sold out. Critics rushed to acclaim it as a masterwork of American art, and Vedder (1836 - 1923) as the master American artist.

Vedder's Rubáiyát set the standard for the artist-designed book in America and England. Vedder created designs for the entire book -- its cover and lining paper, its compelling drawings, and its eccentric hand-drawn letters. A new photographic printing process translated the subtle gradations of the drawings to the printed page. Initially, the book was issued in two formats: a large-size, limited deluxe edition with a stamped leather cover for one hundred dollars, and a regular edition with a printed cover and typeface text for twenty-five dollars. Many later editions of the book were smaller and reproduced Vedder's drawings and text using the half-tone screen process.

The rubáiyát (the plural form of quatrain, or a verse unit of four lines) were written around 1120 by the Persian mathematician, astronomer, and poet Omar Khayyám. He left upwards of 1,000 epigrams on the transience of existence and the uselessness of mathematics, science, or religion to untangle the knotted meaning of life. In the mid-nineteenth century the English aesthete Edward FitzGerald (1809 - 1883) translated 101 quatrains from various Persian manuscripts of the rubáiyát. The result was one of the most notable of English poems, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Although FitzGerald's first edition of the Rubáiyát, which appeared anonymously in 1859, was a commercial failure, the cut-rate remainders became talismans for young Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and aesthetic-movement writers including Algernon Swinburne. In England and America, the slim volume was handed from artist to artist, and it served as a touchstone for the spiritual and poetic in a time of strident materialism.

Elihu Vedder was among the artists who became ardent admirers of the verses. He was known as a "visionary" artist who had no peer in depicting unusual, esoteric subjects. Living in Rome, he was removed from the bustling, modish art scene in New York, and his work took on a peculiar, antiquarian aura that complemented the rubáiyát. Commenting on the combination of his work with FitzGerald's and Khayyám's, Vedder remarked: "Certainly three kindred spirits have here encountered each other; and although the first two missed each other on earth by eight centuries and the last two by twelve months, still in the heart of the survivor lingers the hope that in the life 'sans end' they may all yet meet."

Vedder's interest soon went beyond the aesthetic to the personal. In 1872, his infant son Sandro died, and the following year his daughter Anita was born. His first-born son, Philip, died in 1875, the same year his son Enoch was born. These tragic deaths and concurrent births were remarkably explained, it seemed to him, by Omar's message of undiscoverable fate, death, and renewal of life. As Vedder recalled, "Thus was the seed of Omar planted in a soil peculiarly adapted to its growth, and it grew and took to itself all of sorrow and of mirth that it could assimilate, and blossomed out into the drawings." Vedder placed himself and his family in the "accompaniments" (he refused to call his drawings illustrations). They appear in Death's Review, at the lower right in the procession of souls, and Vedder's own hands are depicted attempting to grasp the meaning of the tangled skein of life in Pardon Giving and Pardon Imploring Hands. In Omar's Emblem, a singing nightingale, symbolizing life, is poised upon a skull, symbolizing death, and transience is indicated by fallen rose petals that float on the cosmic swirl. The image is as much Vedder's emblem as it is Omar's.




Omar's quatrains had no special organization. Each one could stand by itself or be combined with others. FitzGerald's translation retained this casual order. Vedder, however, rearranged the Rubáiyát to express three stages of existence. The cosmic swirl, which first appears on the cover and is used as a recurring symbol throughout the book, corresponds visually to these stages. Vedder described the cosmic swirl as the "gradual concentration of elements that combine to form life; the sudden pause through the reverse of the movement which marks the instant of life; and then the gradual, ever-widening dispersion again of those elements into space," to be again reordered into life.

The first of the book's three sections opens with quatrains expressing the sweetness of life and joys of the moment. It includes the famous "Song in the Wilderness":

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!

Paralleling the coalescing elements in the swirl, the ever-sadder verses end in disillusion, indicated by The Cup of Despair at the center of the swirl, where old life ceases and new life begins. The second section calls forth the cup of wine as solace in an unmerciful and irrational world. Some commentators on the book have interpreted Omar's wine and cup as symbols of Christian redemption. In this interpretation the lugubrious Cup of Death invites the soul to rise above the confusion and vanity of the world:


So when the 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.


This section ends with The Bitter Cup, again placed at the swirl's center point of extinction and creation. Vedder noted that he added this drawing "to mark a change in the tone of the poem."

In the third section, the quatrains accept, even embrace, transience and meaninglessness in life. They are less melancholy, and just as the elements in the swirl disperse to create anew, the verses express pleasure in the creation of new life, as symbolized by In the Potter's House, which suggests the continual reworking of life into new forms.

Complementing its initial depiction of the Sun, the Rubáiyát ends with an image of the Moon, which floats over a kneeling figure with a cup downturned on a mound of roses. Vedder's signature, a V., is engraved on a tomblike stone that leans against a poppy plant, the traditional symbol of sleep and death.

Since the first English translation in 1859, hundreds of editions of the Rubáiyát have appeared in numerous forms and many languages. But their most famous and elaborate manifestation was arranged by Elihu Vedder in 1884. The fifty-four drawings in this exhibition include all of Vedder's designs, except the small publisher's mark, and all are in the museum's collection. They were acquired in 1978 as a museum purchase and gift from Elizabeth W. Henderson in memory of her husband, Francis Tracy

Elihu Vedder

Painter, sculptor, mural painter, illustrator, and writer. Born in NYC, February 26, 1836. Studies art under T.H. Mattison at Sherburne, NY; then Paris, in the atelier of Picot; also studied in Italy. Spent time in Florence and Rome and returned in 1861 to New York, where he remained five years. Made sketches there for Vanity Fair. Returned to Paris for one year; finally settled in Rome in1867.

Works: Five panels in the Library of Congress in Washington and one in Bowdoin College; "The Pleiades" and "African Sentinel," Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; "The Keeper of the Threshold," Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh; "The Lair of the Sea Serpent," "Lazarus." "The Sphinx," Boston Museum of Fine Arts; "Storm in Umbria," Art Institute of Chicago; Brooklyn Institute Museum; Rhode Island School of Design. His "Greek Actor's Daughter" was shown at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876.

Best known for illustrations of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Was made a National Academician in 1865. Member of Society of Mural Painters; National Institute of Arts and Letters; The Century Society. NY. Received honorable mention, Paris Exhibition. 1889; gold medal, Pan.-Am. Exposition, Buffalo, 1901. Exhibited at National Sculpture Society, 1923. Publication: The Digressions of V., his autobiography.

Died in Rome, Italy, January 29, 1923.


Mantle Fielding's
Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors & Engravers
p. 972

Elihu Vedder's Drawings for the Rubaiyat

1. Cover

2. Lining Paper

3. Frontispiece

4. Title Page

5. Dedication

6. Omar's Emblem

7. The Awakening

8. The Thoughtful Soul to Solitude Retires

9. The Invitation

10. The Song in the Wilderness

11. The Blowing Rose

12. The Courts of Jamshyd

13. The River-Lip

14. The Long Rest

15. Theology

16. Whence and Whither

17. The Cup of Despair

18. The Vain Pursuit

19. Omar's Horoscope

20. Vain Questioning

21. The Throne of Saturn

22. The Soul of the Cup

23. The Heavenly Potter

24. The Cup of Love

25. The Cup of Death

26. The Suicide

27. Death's Review

28. The Inevitable Fate


29. The Bitter Cup

30. The Daughter of the Vine

31. The Divorce of Reason

32. The Jarring Sects

33. The Mighty Mahmúd

34. The Vine

35. The Present Listening to the Voices of the Past

36. The Soul's Answer

37. The Fates Gathering in the Stars

38. Limitation

39. The Recording Angel

40. The Last Man

41. Love Shrinking Affrighted at the Sight of Hell

42. The Magdalen

43. In the Beginning

44. Pardon Giving and Pardon Imploring Hands

45. In the Potter's House

46. The Ungainly Pot

47. The Loquacious Vessels

48. The End of Ramazán

49. Omar's Tomb

50. Spring

51. Youth and Age

52. The Sorry Scheme

53. In Memoriam

54. Artist's Signature


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