Introduction -- page 2
Omar's quatrains had no special organization. Each one could stand by itself or be combined with others. FitzGerald's translation retained this casual order. Vedder, however, rearranged the Rubáiyát to express three stages of existence. The cosmic swirl, which first appears on the cover and is used as a recurring symbol throughout the book, corresponds visually to these stages. Vedder described the cosmic swirl as the "gradual concentration of elements that combine to form life; the sudden pause through the reverse of the movement which marks the instant of life; and then the gradual, ever-widening dispersion again of those elements into space," to be again reordered into life.
The first of the book's three sections opens with quatrains expressing the sweetness of life and joys of the moment. It includes the famous "Song in the Wilderness":
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,Paralleling the coalescing elements in the swirl, the ever-sadder verses end in disillusion, indicated by The Cup of Despair at the center of the swirl, where old life ceases and new life begins.
The second section calls forth the cup of wine as solace in an unmerciful and irrational world. Some commentators on the book have interpreted Omar's wine and cup as symbols of Christian redemption. In this interpretation the lugubrious Cup of Death invites the soul to rise above the confusion and vanity of the world:
So when the Angel of the darker Drink
This section ends with The Bitter Cup, again placed at the swirl's center point of extinction and creation. Vedder noted that he added this drawing "to mark a change in the tone of the poem."
In the third section, the quatrains accept, even embrace, transience and meaninglessness in life. They are less melancholy, and just as the elements in the swirl disperse to create anew, the verses express pleasure in the creation of new life, as symbolized by In the Potter's House, which suggests the continual reworking of life into new forms.
Complementing its initial depiction of the Sun, the Rubáiyát ends with an image of the Moon, which floats over a kneeling figure with a cup downturned on a mound of roses. Vedder's signature, a V., is engraved on a tomblike stone that leans against a poppy plant, the traditional symbol of sleep and death.
Since the first English translation in 1859, hundreds of editions of the Rubáiyát have appeared in numerous forms and many languages. But their most famous and elaborate manifestation was arranged by Elihu Vedder in 1884. The fifty-four drawings in this exhibition include all of Vedder's designs, except the small publisher's mark, and all are in the museum's collection. They were acquired in 1978 as a museum purchase and gift from Elizabeth W. Henderson in memory of her husband, Francis Tracy Henderson.