Monday, March 20, 2006

The Rubáiyát of Elihu Vedder

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Elihu Vedder 1836-1923 trained as a painter in New York, France and Italy and returned to USA during the civil war. He carved out a meagre existence as an illustrator and befriended Walt Whitman and Herman Melville.

He went back to Italy following the war and concentrated on symbolist oil painting, preferring female nudes in mystical or unreal situations, as a generalization. He had modest success with this genre work.

Between 1883 and 1884 Vedder produced 54 'accompaniments' - refusing to call them illustrations - for an english version of the 12th century Persian epic poem, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. It had been first introduced to the english speaking world in the 1850s through a translation by Edward Fitzgerald. The poem deals with the subjects of mortality and a person's fragility and destiny, and advocates for simple enjoyment of life.

Omar Khayyám had been a mathematician, astronomer and sufi mystic. Vedder himself was influenced by other mystics such as William Blake and WB Yeats. Vedder's Rubáiyát was lauded as a landmark artistic book and the first print run sold out in 6 days.
"With his Academic and yet "visionary" style, Vedder was the ideal artist to interpret the Rubáiyát; he reconciled the critics who called for accurate depiction of observed reality with those who argued for feeling and emotion over objective form."
I must admit that I was in 2 minds as to whether I would post this or not. As an impressionable teenager I found the poetry compelling and its mysterious origins enticing. So it holds a special place in my own reading history. But it was a little like seeing the movie after reading the book when I discovered Vedder's interpretation of the great work - usually a less than impressive situation.

I do like the illustrations but perhaps not to the same extent as the original audience. Nor would I concur with the hyperbole I saw in passing from USA Today where Vedder's illustrative work is "held by many to be one of the greatest artistic treatments of a literary work". I appreciate the detail and devotion but the classical stylizing with mystical imagery seems a little incongruous to me, at times. However, it made me think and reminded me of a favourite book from long ago, so it has been successful on a couple of levels. The page layout and imagery very much reminds me of Blake's poetry etchings.


Improvisors’ pool said...

Good find—I had no idea Vedder had been an illustrator. However, you refer to Rubaiyyat as an epic poem. I am afraid that is not the case, whether we mean “a long narrative poem in elevated style recounting the deeds of a legendary or historical hero” or “extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size or scope” (both definitions are from Merriam-Webster). Ruba’iyya means quatrain in Arabic. Regarding that book, Borges wrote an interesting article on how a new, greater poet was born from the meeting of a lesser Persian text (the Rubayyat) and a lesser English poet (Fitzgerald). I read it a long time ago so I am probably misrepresenting his ideas!

peacay said...

Well I'll grant that when one drills down to the prescriptive minutiae of dictionary definitions that 'epic' is perhaps a slightly misleading term.

But I'm also comfortable noting from that 'very imposing or impressive' ought to nullify some of the quibbling.

I am much more a realist when it comes to language although I wouldn't describe myself as purely descriptivist. 'Epic' as I understand the usage, indicates a huge undertaking or extravagant and extended phenomenon and by implication, an epic is also something of great consequence in the larger world from which it comes. So I still assert that in the world of literature the Rubáiyát is an epic. Perhaps it's a minor stretch but not so much as to render it incorrect: in my view of course.

Nonetheless, this poem doesn't include a hero (save for one derived from a 'poetic license' reading perhaps) so it diverges from classical meaning. But I don't believe the quatrain format has any role in the question of semantics.

I'll not so much 'agree to disagree' but rather, I'll take it under advisement for possible future reference.

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