collections

The Golfer’s Rubáiyát and other 20th-Century Parodies

The poems of the Persian astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher Omar Khayyám (1048–1131) have met a strange fate in English. Edward FitzGerald’s loose translation of them — titled The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1859) — would go on to become one of the most popular books of poetry in the Anglophone world. Since 1879, it has been reprinted hundreds of times — nearly every year — and has been translated into over eighty languages. A hundred years ago, says curator Molly Schwartzburg, “the average American and certainly every poet writing in English could quote stanzas of [FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát] verbatim.”

With its extreme popularity and easily imitable rhyming quatrains, it’s perhaps no surprise that The Rubáiyat has prompted a number of parodies. Writers have gone wild over the years riffing on FitzGerald’s translation — not only emulating the rhyme schemes but adapting the original’s lofty tones to their own less than lofty purposes. Take FitzGerald’s first quatrain:

Wake! For the sun, who scattered into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heav’n and strikes
The Sultán’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.

And then turn to just a few of the parodies published in the twentieth century: Oliver Herford’s The Rubáiyát of a Persian Kitten (1904), Carolyn Wells’s The Rubáiyát of a Motor Car (1906), Helen Rowland’s The Rubáiyát of a Bachelor (1915), and Wallace Irwin’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, Jr. (1902) (Clicking on the right hand pages below will take you to the first quatrains.)

One of the finer examples of the faux-Rubáiyát genre is H. W. Boynton’s The Golfer’s Rubáiyát. Like the others, it takes a mundane subject and pronounces upon it in grandiose tones. But unlike many of his fellow parodists, Boynton doesn’t overplay his hand. His stanzas are always eminently droll, his jokes good-humored, his puns relentless — striking a particularly wonderful balance between the quotidian language of the fairways with the philosophical flights of the original. And all housed within a charming set of illustrated frames.

Boynton, born in Connecticut in 1869, was a critic for The Atlantic Monthly at the time he composed The Golfer’s Rubáiyát. In addition to writing literary biographies (of Washington Irving and Bret Harte, among others), Boynton would go on to edit several collections of English poetry, including Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Pope’s Complete Poetical Works. His parody is the result of a more-than-passing acquaintance with English verse. Just a year before Boynton’s death, in 1946 there was published a second golf-themed Rubáiyát parody, The Rubáiyát of a Golfer by J. A. Hammerton. If we are to believe the declarations in the introduction then it seems Hammerton wrote his book with seemingly no knowledge of Boynton’s — suggesting Khayyám’s poems celebrating epicurean delights were destined to be taken up by English-speaking golfers with a taste for verse.