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Francis Sagorski and George Sutcliffe were both classmates in a bookbinding class at the London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts. They were immensely talented, and both independently won scholarships  to continue their apprenticeship as bookbinders. Unfortunately, after only three years in the business, they were laid off after a coal strike caused an economic slump, and decided to set up their own bookbinding business.

This was in 1901, and Sangorski & Sutcliffe became known as one of the most important bookbinders of the century. The firm made its name on sumptuous jewelled bindings, which set precious and semi-precious stones in leather book bindings, which were luxuriously multicoloured and inlayed with gold.

Sangorski & Sutcliffe, Great Omar, 1911

One of their most famous volumes, produced in 1911, was a fabulously jewelled binding based on Persian artistic sensibilities, and known as the Great Omar.

The front cover was decorated with three jewelled  peacocks, surrounded by gilded vines and ornamentation, and its back cover adorned with a lute and designs from Persian architecture; the binding enclosed a hand-illuminated manuscript version of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”.

Next to the poetry of Rumi, the works of Omar Khayyam are perhaps among the best-loved works of Persian literature – and definitely among the best known. Most of his writings – more than a thousand poems in all – have been available to us through the translations of Edward FitzGerald and others, collected in “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Wikimedia Commons 

“Rubai” is the anglicized Arabic word for “quatrain”. “Rubaiyat” is a collection or series of such quatrains.

Although the strict Persian structure is different from what the Western world knows as rubaiyat, the classical Rubaiyat Quatrain form, as popularized by FitzGerald, makes up four lines in a stanza, with the rhyme scheme AABA.

Some of the most well-known verses of Persian verses come from this collection:

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!

And another:

The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

FitzGerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s verses became so popular that the stanza form was imitated by many classic poets like Algernon Charles Swinburne.

While FitzGerald and his contemporaries used iambic pentameter to underpin each line, this is not strictly required, especially for modern rubaiyat quatrains.

Perhaps the most famous of these – written in iambic tetrameter in linked Rubaiyat quatrains – is Robert Frost’s poem, written in 1922 and published in 1923, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.

Each stanza follows the AABA scheme, except the last, where Frost admitted he could have linked back to the first stanza but decided – in a moment tinged with both desperation and insight – to simply repeat the last lines. The result transcended the form, and Frost himself called the poem his “best bid for remembrance”.

Snowy Woods, Wikimedia Commons

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

This “Snowy Evening” structure – linked AABA rubaiyat quatrain in tetrameter with an AAAA final verse – is what underpins my own poem, “Lullaby for a Stillborn Child”.

I would love to read what others can do with either a rubaiyat quatrain, or linked quatrains.

… But what happened to the The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the original inspiration for these? What happened to the Great Omar, with its jewelled peacock binding and illuminated manuscript?

In 1912, the Great Omar had been auctioned at Sotheby’s and after the sale set to be transported to America. To this end, the book was slated to make the transoceanic trip, on the RMS Titanic. It sank with the ship, and was never seen again.

Copyright (c) 2012 Samuel Peralta. All rights reserved.