Robert Graves’s Mythopoetic Hospitality: Translating The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam
Abstract: This article draws on poetry criticism, translation studies and, briefly, hospitality studies to revisit the controversial translation of The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam by Robert Graves and Omar Ali-Shah. Graves took an interest in Sufism, especially as a ‘force of mental power which could be created by telepathic communication’, and worked together with the Shah brothers to dislodge Fitzgerald’s nineteenth-century best-selling version and replace it with what was intended to be a founding text of twentieth-century Western Sufism, a ‘secondary original’. Nevertheless, the poet polymath had his own agenda, an act of mythopoetic hospitality that the controversy should not be allowed to overshadow.
Keywords: translation studies, hospitality, mythopoetics, secondary original, Omar Khayyam, the Goddess
This paper started out as a curious reaction to a literary hoax: the strange case of a translation based on an inauthentic original, published and defended by a distinguished English writer. When I first read about it, I thought of two things: Borges’s short story ‘Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote’,
This intriguing tale raises all kinds of questions, and in particular: how could Graves have been so easily fooled? What kind of East-West intercultural exchange was at play between the British mythologizer-poet and the (British-raised) Afghan brothers, and the early twelfth-century poet Omar Khayyam? Or between the North and the South, with relation to Graves’s interest in the Mediterranean influence on Northern, Celtic mythology?
The Rubaiyyat in Context
Graves was a prolific writer: in addition to poetry, he wrote novels and essays, an influential memoir, Good-Bye to All That (1929), prose nonfiction on a range of subjects, most famously The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948), and numerous classical translations. His historical novels, I Claudius (1934), and Claudius The God (1934), reached a wide audience through the television adaptation by the BBC (1976). He seemed prone to attract if not actually seek controversy, with for example his rewriting of Dickens in The Real David Copperfield (1933), his attack on the poet John Milton in Wife to Mr Milton (1943), rewriting the Nazarene Gospel in The Nazarene Gospel Restored (1953), and of course his attacks on contemporary poets in The Crowning Privilege (1955). When The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam was published, in 1967, its controversial reception must have seemed to follow a familiar pattern; however, the tone of his detractors was more severe; Graves and his collaborator Omar Ali-Shah were accused of fraud. Possibly it cost him the poet laureateship.
Idries Shah (1924-1996) was clearly a very charming, convincing man. He had already persuaded John Bennett, a disciple of the mystical teacher Gurdjieff, to hand over the seven-acre property at Coombe Springs, in Surrey, where Bennett had founded his ‘Institute for the Comparative Study of History, Philosophy and the Sciences’, and before long Graves was recommending his friends and family to defer to Shah as guide and healer. Agreeing to further his self-promotion as a Sufi leader in the West, Graves helped with the publication of Shah’s book The Sufis, in 1964,
When Idries’s brother Omar appeared in Mallorca, with his offer to collaborate on a translation of Khayyam, Graves was thus already primed for the encounter, ready to trust him, and he understandably gave Omar a warm welcome. However, Miranda Seymour notes that Graves’s interest in Sufism pre-dated his connection with Idries, and that the latter would not have had much to teach him. Sufism to Graves was the acknowledgement of a ‘force of mental power which could be created by telepathic communication’, meaning that the Sufis shared his view of the powerful force for good that could be created when poet and muse were harnessed together (Seymour, p. 400). As with Laura Riding and Goddess-worship, Seymour contends, Graves was not under the influence of these personalities; rather his hospitable, mythopoetic embrace welcomed their talent as actors to play the parts he needed them to play, in much the same way as he wrote The White Goddess.
Graves, we can thus infer, had his own agenda. But, before we turn to the translated quatrains, a little more must be said about Shah’s offer and its reception and outcome. It should be pointed out that as well as the work on the translation, the intermediary of Graves would also open up to Omar an English publisher for it, first Cassell in 1967 and then Penguin from 1972. Also, although Omar Shah was Graves’s guest in Mallorca, as his brother had been before him, Graves behaved rather as if he was the receiver and declared himself honoured to be asked to collaborate on what he believed to be an important realisation, at last correcting for the English reading public the biased view of Khayyam that had been propagated since Victorian times by translator Edward Fitzgerald: ‘To be entrusted with this task was the greatest poetic compliment that I had ever been paid’.
My intuitions of [Khayyam’s] hidden meanings was prompted less by contrastive studies of Hebrew and Gnostic mysticism than by a sense of kinship which I felt with medieval Irish poets who, as scholars now recognize, had come under Sufic influence as early as the 8th and 9th centuries.
The prospect of translating Khayyam as a Sufi mystic may have felt like finding the missing piece of a puzzle, and Ali-Shah’s request for his help was thus a powerful object of seduction. Back in British academic circles, however, when the translation was published, the authenticity – the existence even – of the source text was contested, described as a ‘clumsy forgery’ by Orientalist T. L. Elwell-Sutton, former emeritus Professor in Persian at Edinburgh University,
They will undoubtedly keep up their attacks, put them on record and fall all the harder when the full situation and documentation is published. The timing of this blockbuster is now in my father’s hands but as and when it does come it will be diverting!
However, this day never came and neither the manuscript nor any copy or reference or location was ever found; tension mounted until 1970, when Idries seems finally to have confessed to the hoax,
Graves, from what I have learnt of him, was quite capable of acts of pure generosity such as taking on this translation; it would seem nonetheless that the poet welcomed the request with a mind to furthering his own interest in Sufism, and, more broadly, to endorsing ‘his new, muse-ridden way of life’, meaning a life devoted to poetry that is dependent on love for and shared by a female muse.
A Delicate, Didactic, Feminised Version of The Rubaiyyat
The first thing to be said about Graves’s approach to this translation project is that he went about it very seriously, repeatedly revising his manuscripts, and several drafts of the quatrains can be consulted in the Robert Graves archive at St John’s College Oxford. Unlike Fitzgerald’s quatrains with their exacting rhyme scheme based on that of the Persian rubaiyat (a-a-b-a), Graves’s quatrains are unrhymed, relying for their musicality on internal sound patterning and occasional half rhymes, and while Fitzgerald’s pentameters are invariably regular, Graves’s fall less neatly on the ear and instil tension between the speaking voice and the prosodic frame. Similarly, Fitzgerald’s archaic capitalisation has been abandoned, although certain common nouns remain capitalised, words such as ‘Rose’, ‘Fate’, ‘Way’ and ‘Guide’, suggestive perhaps of an esoteric symbolism. Here is a comparison of their translations of the opening quatrain, Fitzgerald’s first:
Awake! For Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
The Sultân’s Turret in a Noose of Light.
While Dawn, Day’s herald straddling the whole sky,
Offers the drowsy world a toast ‘To Wine’,
The Sun spills early gold on city roofs –
Day’s regal Host, replenishing his jug. (p. 45)
The manuscripts show Graves reaching for delicacy of diction, gradually divesting his language of his more sumptuous or ostentatious early versions, often opting for a gentler, less semantically rich word or image than he had at first chosen and avoiding percussive alliteration in favour of soft discreet consonantal echoes. The following is quatrain no. 3 in Graves and Ali-Shah’s version, extracted from one of the typescripts,
Rubaiyyat Typescript, St John’s College, Oxford
Similarly, in quatrain no. 17 the first line reads: ‘This ruined caravanserai called Earth’, with earlier versions showing a hesitation between a general characteristic, ‘ruinous’, and the transitive, ostentatious ‘battered’ (which was Fitzgerald’s choice: ‘Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai’, no. 16).
The drafts reveal the poet gradually breathing a quieter, more sensory intimacy into the quatrains by softening the brassiness of his early versions. Thus, we observe an evolution from ‘the lion slumbers’ to ‘the lion snores’, and finally to ‘the lion nods’ in the printed version (no. 18), which is less rich and sonorous, more gentle; or from ‘Leaping all obstacles but Fate’s decree’ to ‘Leaping all obstacles but Fate’s design’ (no. 34), in which the formal, administrative term is dropped in favour of the more allusive, aesthetic and intimate ‘design’, which hovers between ‘intention’ and ‘visual shape or pattern’. The attention to sound and prosody can be observed in quatrain no. 9: ‘Rest in the rose’s shade, though winds have burst | A world of blossom’, which in earlier versions read as follows: ‘Sit in the rose’s shade, for winds have burst | A world of blossom’. The auditory quality of ‘rest’ invites the reader to linger under the rosebush, that of ‘though’ is a fuller sound than ‘for’, and the alliterative and assonantal effects of ‘rest | rose’ and ‘rose | though’ give a delicate substance to the lines. A similar search for bodily sensations can be observed in the following example, quatrain no. 6:
Rubaiyyat Typescript, St John’s College, Oxford
To a certain extent, this is the work of a translator writing in the biblical tradition of Saint Jerome or Martin Luther, transposing the source text into the vernacular and seeking not so much a heightened poeticism as to serve the ideas of the text through clear, delicate, and unostentatious language.
Similarly, he announced in ‘The Fitz-Omar Cult’, the Sufic interpretation is brought to the fore in the translation – ‘a corrective presentation of the true Khayaam’ – (p. 29), as can be seen in quatrains such as nos. 25, 47 or 55. Here, for instance, is Graves’s no. 25, followed by Fitzgerald’s:
Some ponder long on doctrine and belief,
Some teeter between certitude and doubt.
Suddenly out of hiding leaps the Guide
With: ‘Fools, the Way is neither that nor this’. (p. 49)
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
Came out by the same Door as in I went. (p. 86)
Whereas Fitzgerald’s speaker seems unimpressed by theological and philosophical speculation, Graves presents us with a hidden ‘Guide’ and a ‘Way’ to be followed. Nevertheless, the free-thinking quatrains expressing scepticism – those seemingly written by Khayyam, who was obsessed with death and despaired of his vast knowledge ever solving the mystery of human life – are neither suppressed nor embellished or euphemised by Graves, but are starkly blunt in their matter-of-factness, as in the final line of quatrain no. 42:
Raise the bowl high, like tulip-cups at Nauroz,
And if the moon-faced one has time to spare
Drink gloriously deep, for brutal Time
Will strike you down with never a warning yell. (p. 53)
It should be recalled here that much uncertainty still surrounds the paternity of the rubaiyat. Of the 1500 quatrains that exist, only about a hundred seem to stand together as a coherent work of a single author, according to Persian scholar Leili Avnar.
This approach to Persian poetry and the view of Khayaam as a transitional voice, part Sufi, part materialist freethinker (and as such exceedingly rare in the Muslim world; and comparable, it is sometimes observed, with François Rabelais), may lead us to wonder whether in this translation Graves appropriates the cult of wine as a substitute for the cult of the Goddess, while surreptitiously paying tribute to her wherever possible. The prototypical White Goddess, his version of one of the Celtic goddesses, was for Graves the principal source of mythopoetic inspiration:
My thesis is that the language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon-goddess, or Muse, some of them dating from the Old Stone Age, and that this remains the language of true poetry. (White Goddess, p. 10)
Indeed, whereas Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat presents a male fraternity of fellow wine drinkers, Graves introduces feminine elements. He thus replaces Fitzgerald’s ‘That every Hyacinth the Garden wears | Dropt in its Lap from some once lovely Head’ (no. 18)
Similarly, while sensuality is largely absent from Khayaam’s quatrains,
Rise up, why mourn this transient world of men?
Pass your whole life in gratitude and joy.
Had humankind been freed from womb and tomb,
When would your turn have come to live and love? (p. 49)
Instead of epicureanism, the stanza seems a discreet, unobtrusive apology for muse worship.
It seems sad that the beauty of some of these quatrains should have been so overshadowed by the controversy of the non-existent manuscript. However, this controversy may have seemed to Graves almost a petty irrelevance, while to the mythopoetic poet hospitality is primordial. Unlike the poète maudit, the paradigmatic outsider, the mythopoetic poet is everywhere at home, and everywhere potentially both host and guest. So, it comes about that, while hosting what was to become an authorized Sufi text for the West, at a time (the late sixties) of great interest in Eastern philosophies and esoteric communities, Graves was at the same time a guest, who had, as it were, entered a new space. What then does this reciprocal mythopoetic hospitality consist in?
This new hospitable space entered by Graves perhaps owes something to its Mediterranean setting. From a historical or anthropological point of view, the Mediterranean, as Fernand Braudel famously pointed out, refers not to a sea but to the inhabitants of its shores, where ‘everything centred on trade, which was omnipresent, primordial and organisational’.
Hospitality can be conceived as knowledge of a mode of practice with the Other that a person has through themselves. The host – the person in a sedentary position, therefore – is in fact a migrant, a latent stranger, whereas the guest, who is thus in a nomadic position, is in fact potentially sedentary.
These two functions, or spaces, which are brought to interconnect through the ritualised mechanism of hospitality, form a semiosphere, Raffestin claims, in which meaning can be revitalised or renewed, and in Graves’s case perhaps, appropriated.
In hospitality, as Raffestin suggests and as the French word ‘hôte’, used for both senses, irresistibly recalls, host and guest are notoriously interchangeable. Through Ali-Shah and his would-be distinguished lineage, it can also be said that the Sufic tradition was extending hospitality to Graves, enabling the English poet (before postcolonial studies emerged in academia) to collaborate on a sort of Orientalist reversal or postcolonial ‘writing-back’.
Graves’s most striking display of hospitality to the influence of others was his relationship with the American poet Laura Riding, with whom he and his wife first formed a ménage à trois and around whom, first in England and later in Mallorca, he created a sort of cult to the female deity of primitive matriarchies, with Riding in the role of the Goddess. Such was his subservient attitude that, when the couple first arrived at Deyá, the Spanish villagers assumed him to be the butler of a demanding aristocrat. Her own idea of herself as an exceptional woman poet with supernatural powers was fully accepted by Graves, and he was determined that other people should worship her too. This poetic ‘hospitality’ helps to explain how Graves came to be ‘stung’, as James Moore put it, by the Shah brothers and also why, ultimately, on a certain level at least, he remained untroubled. For more important than being the object of deceit, no doubt, was the principle of mythopoetic hospitality, of bringing texts and people under his own capacious roof in the mountain-surrounded valley of Deyá, plying them with the gifts of hospitality while submitting them in differing degrees to the violence of his own self-sacrifice to his muse; before releasing them, enriched with strange new knowledge and certain talismanic curios, back into the world.
Graves’s mythopoetic world would thus seem to have formed a ‘semiosphere’ in Raffestin’s sense of the word, in which material frontiers, whether in terms of sexual transgression, commercial transactions or textual authenticity were subjected to an immaterial spatial organisation, or mechanism, constantly engaged in translating the Other by means of its own code. Certain women, for instance, were translated into muses or wives; modestly talented people were magnified into geniuses; only a handful of poets were held as true muse-poets. Translation is the central action of the semiosphere, and its nature, as far as Graves is concerned, was to domesticate, to appropriate, to gather diverse strands into his own coherent system, whose sole function was to nurture poetic practice. Thus, it went with the Khayyam translation: (mis)appropriated by Sufi proselytism on the one hand, by bardic muse-poetry on the other, its importance to Graves was more probably elsewhere: in the poetic practice it called forth and of which the drafts are the written or printed trace.
I would like to thank the library at St. John’s Oxford for permission to consult The Robert Graves Collection, and The Robert Graves Trust for permission to quote from Graves’s work.
Sara Greaves is Professor of Translation studies and English literature at Aix-Marseille University. She leads a team within the LERMA, an interdisciplinary research centre devoted to Anglophone studies. She has published a book on James Fenton, containing French translations of a selection of his poems and a critical study, entitled Côté guerre côté Jardin: excursions dans la poésie de James Fenton (2016) and a volume of essays: Language Learning and the Mother Tongue: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, co-edited with Monique De Mattia-Viviès and with her translations (2022). She is currently preparing a selection of research-based and creative pieces for an issue of the academic review E-rea, co-edited with Helen E. Mundler, entitled ‘There is a time for building…’: Creative Writing in English Studies in French Universities. Affiliation: Aix Marseille Univ. LERMA, Aix-en-Provence, France. ORCID: 0000-0002-8181-4393.