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Forrest, Bob

Omar and the Pre-Raphaelites. Bob Forrest
Website: www.omarkhayyamnederland.com.
July 2012

The story of the 'discovery' of The Rubaiyat by the Pre-Raphaelites, and the enthusiasm it inspired in the likes of Rossetti, Swinburne, Burne-Jones and Morris is too well known to need repeating here. Yet, despite their enthusiasm, it surprises me how little of their work was directly inspired by Omar.

Certainly, William Morris produced two illuminated manuscript copies of The Rubaiyat. The first was finished in October 1872 after 1½ years work, Morris having done both the calligraphy and the floriate ornamentation surrounding the verses, as well as the design of two figures holding a scroll bearing the words "Tamam Shud" (= it is finished) at the bottom of the last page. This manuscript was given as a present to Georgiana Burne-Jones. (A limited edition facsimile of this manuscript was published by Phaidon Press in 1981.) The second version, again with calligraphy and floral ornamentation by Morris, was begun before the first was finished, and was for Edward Burne-Jones who himself painted six illustrations for it. This copy was eventually given as a present to Frances Graham (= Mrs J.F.Horner.) (1) Figs 1 &.2 are sample pages from these two works. Note, in the latter, the resemblance between Burne-Jones’ illustration, which accompanies verses 18-20 of FitzGerald (2), and his later oil painting of 1894, "Love among the Ruins" (Fig.3), which was actually based on a watercolour done some twenty years earlier, and thus within a couple of years of his completing Fig.2. Oddly, though, it appears that the inspiration for Fig.3 was not The Rubaiyat but Francesco Colonna’s strange allegory of love, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499). (3)

Fig. 1: Morris, Rubaiyat Fig. 2: Burne-Jones & Morris, Rubaiyat
Fig. 1: Morris, Rubaiyat Fig. 2: Burne-Jones & Morris, Rubaiyat Fig. 3: Burne-Jones, Love among the ruins

Though Burne-Jones never did a painting directly inspired by The Rubaiyat, he certainly produced some paintings involving Omarian elements. A good example is provided by his painting "The Wheel of Fortune" (Fig.4), painted between 1875 and 1883, which symbolises that Kings and Beggars alike must take their place upon the Wheel of Fortune, and, powerless to stay its motion, be carried along by it to their ultimate fate, attended by the figure of Fortune, her eyes closed in disregard. (4). This certainly invites comparison with the evanescence of "the Worldly Hopes men set their Heart upon" in verse 14, as well as recalling the powerlessness of Man in the face of Fate and Time in verses 50 & 51. Indeed, the relentlessly rolling heavens of verse 52 are reminiscent of the Wheel of Fortune itself.

Fig. 4: Burne-Jones: The Wheel of Fortune
Fig. 4: Burne-Jones: The Wheel of Fortune

Incidentally, there is a little more to Fig.4 than just Kings and Beggars, for there are three figures on the Wheel. The Beggar is at the top, his right foot trampling the crown and head of the King, thus reversing the usual order of things, as Fortune is apt to do. The third figure, right at the bottom and just visible, is the Poet, recognisable by his laurel wreath. He is being trampled on, in effect, by King and Beggar alike, and is about to be swept under the Wheel and crushed, this being so often the fate of Poets (and Artists!) Of course, though Omar mused upon Slave and Sultan, he never gave much thought to the fate of the Poet!

Moving to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, now, like Burne-Jones he left no painting directly related to The Rubaiyat, and indeed most of his paintings and drawings contain precious little that is Omarian. But not all are thus. Much less well-known than most of Rossetti’s output, is his drawing (for a painting never completed) entitled variously "The Sphinx" or "The Question", done in 1875 (Fig.5). The drawing shows the figures of Youth, Manhood and Old Age approaching the Sphinx "to question the Unknown" as Rossetti put it in one of his two sonnets written several years later to accompany the drawing (Compare "the secret Well of Life" in FitzGerald’s verse 34). But the Sphinx makes no answer, her face remaining inscrutable, her eyes looking beyond the insistent figure of Manhood. Youth in the drawing is dead, incidentally, representing the mystery of early death, the figure being inspired by the early death, at the age of only 19, of Oliver ("Nolly") Madox Brown, the son of Ford Madox Brown (5). In fact, Rossetti wrote a sonnet about his tragically early death ("Untimely Lost") whose closing lines ponder on whether or not the youth lives on in some world beyond ("Does he see on and strive on…or… must Night be ours and his?") But as he said in his poem "The Cloud Confines":

… no word comes from the dead;
Whether at all they be.

This, of course, echoes the sentiment of verse 64 of FitzGerald’s 3rd, 4th and 5th editions (verse 67 of the 2nd): "Not one returns to tell us of the Road".

Fig. 5: Rossetti: The Question
Fig. 5: Rosseti: The Question

It is interesting that Elihu Vedder – famed as the first illustrator of Omar, but a fan of FitzGerald’s translation long before that – produced two paintings entitled "The Questioner of the Sphinx" (1863 and 1875.) In the first (Fig.6), the questioner is young; in the second (not illustrated here) the questioner is old. In both, a skull peers out from the desert sand, indicative of mortality. Of the figure kneeling before the Sphinx, Vedder wrote that he "asks to know the Great Secret of Life, but receives no answer except the devouring silence, solitude, and death that encompass him." (6) Incidentally, the Sphinx also features in the illustration Vedder did for his (renumbered) verses 55-58 (Fig.7), describing it as "an all-devouring sphinx stretched over the remains of Creation", indicative of "the destructive side of nature." This image appears to be derived from his earlier painting, not illustrated here, "The Sphinx of the Seashore" (1879-1880). (7)

Fig. 6: Vedder: Sphinx Fig. 7: Vedder, v. 55-58
Fig. 6: Vedder: Sphinx Fig. 7: Vedder, v. 55-58

But getting back to the Pre-Raphaelites, though there are certainly Omarian elements in some of their art, it remains a fact that, aside from the illuminated manuscript copies of The Rubaiyat, none of them produced a painting directly based on FitzGerald’s poem, despite their early enthusiasm. In fact, though William Morris’s Kelmscott Press published 53 books between 1891 and 1898, including some of the poetry of Rossetti and Swinburne alongside the more illustrious names of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat was never amongst them, despite Morris’s enthusiasm of thirty years earlier. (8) And for what it is worth, when Swinburne was asked by the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, in 1886, to supply a list of his hundred favourite books, FitzGerald (specifically his first edition of 1859), came in at number 19, behind Shakespeare, Lucretius, Dante and Chaucer, but ahead of Milton, Shelley, Coleridge and Keats. (9) (The strange case of Swinburne’s poem "Laus Veneris", which was certainly sparked off by FitzGerald’s poem, will be covered in a future article. Here I am concentrating mostly on Pre-Raphaelite paintings and drawings.)

The first – and indeed only – painting directly related to The Rubaiyat (so far as I know) is Walter Crane’s work "The Roll of Fate" (Fig.8). Crane, who had met Morris and Burne-Jones in 1871, produced this painting in 1882 following on from the deaths of his infant son and his sister, Lucy. It is specifically intended to illustrate verses 98 and 99 of the 3rd or 4th edition of The Rubaiyat, most particularly verse 98:

Would but some winged Angel ere too late
Arrest the yet unfolded Roll of Fate,
And make the stern Recorder otherwise
Enregister, or quite obliterate!

The significance of the painting, given the text, which is reproduced in its elaborate frame, needs no further explanation. (10)

Fig. 8: Crane: Roll of Fate
Fig. 8: Crane, Roll of Fate

Crane also produced a number of other paintings containing interesting Omarian elements – notably "The Bridge of Life"(1884), "The Mower" and "The Fountain of Youth" (both 1891), all of which (along with works by other artists, notably J.E. Millais and G.F.Watts) are covered on my (hopefully) forthcoming website. Meanwhile, I would be very interested to hear from readers about other Omarian paintings.


1. See J.W.Mackail, The Life of William Morris (1899), vol.1, p.278-280; Georgiana Burne-Jones, Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones (1904), vol. 2, p.33-4; and for a good, modern and detailed account of who did what, see Michaela Braesel’s article William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’ (Apollo, February 2004, p.47-56.)

2. In this article, unless otherwise stated, verse numbers refer to the first edition.

3. Penelope FitzGerald, Edward Burne-Jones: A Biography (1975) p.141. FitzGerald gives a useful thumbnail sketch of the highly intriguing work Hypnerotomachia on her p.108-9, and Burne-Jones certainly had a copy – see FitzGerald p.107 & p.216.

4. For the symbolism of "The Wheel of Fortune", see David Peters Corbett, Edward Burne-Jones (2004), p.40; Penelope FitzGerald, as cited in note 3, p.140, p.245. Note that there are several versions of "The Wheel of Fortune" – see Martin Harrison and Bill Waters, Burne-Jones (1989), p.105 (fig.147) and p.133 (fig.190), though the basic symbolism of all is the same.

5. See, for example, H.C.Marillier, Dante Gabriel Rossetti – an Illustrated Memorial of his Art and Life (1904) p.132-3 and Robert D. Johnston, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1969), p.39. Rossetti himself explained the symbolism of the drawing in two letters, one to Jane Morris (dated 10th March 1875) and the other to Frederick Stephens (written about 10th August 1875). The suggestion that the dead Youth was inspired by Nolly Brown’s early death was apparently first made by William Michael Rossetti in Dante Gabriel Rossetti – his Family Letters, with a Memoir (1895), vol.1 p.364. The two sonnets to accompany the drawing were actually the last verses Rossetti composed. He dictated them to Hall Caine four days before his death, in 1882. – see Johnston, op.cit., p.43; and Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, edited by Oswald Doughty and John Robert Wahl (1967), vol.4, p.1952–1953. Finally, in the letter to Jane Morris mentioned above, Rossetti said of the drawing that, "The subject is in fact the same as that of my little poem 'The Cloud'" (that is, "The Cloud Confines"); and in the letter Frederick Stephens, Rossetti indicated that the alternative title of "The Question" was inspired by the line of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, "To be or not to be, that is the question."

6. The quotes here are from Vedder’s own notes on the illustration, as contained in the famous Houghton, Mifflin & Co. edition of 1884.

7. Perceptions and Evocations: the Art of Elihu Vedder, with an introduction by Regina Soria and with essays by Joshua C. Taylor, Jane Dillenberger and Richard Murray (1979), principally Taylor’s essay (p.58-61) & Dillenberger’s (p.146-7) for the Sphinx paintings.

8. According to William S. Peterson,. A Bibliography of the Kelmscott Press (1984), p.151-2, Sydney Cockerell did suggest to Morris, on at least three occasions between June1891 and November 1892, that he should publish an edition of The Rubaiyat. Though at one point Morris “seemed to think that would do so”, he never actually did.

9. See The Swinburne Letters, edited by Cecil Y. Lang (1962), vol.5, p.131-136. Incidentally, Swinburne’s list included "no living names."

10. P.G.Konody, The Art of Walter Crane (1902), p.96; Isobel Spencer, Walter Crane (1975), p.123 & p.126.