'The lure of the Orient' - by Vigilant , Westralian Worker, 20 July 1917, page 6

Vigilant wrote:

But we moderns will believe the damnedest of heresy provided only some word-magician can fit it within the bounds of an Omaresque quatrain. People who, under ordinary circumstances, would have Blachword’s [sic] “Not Guilty”, or Blatchford himself, if they could, burned by the public hangman, will recite with gusto:

Oh, Thou, who man with baser clay didst make.
And, who with Eden didst devise the Snake,
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blackened, Man’s Forgiveness give – and take!
[Stanza LVIII of the first edition of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat]

Fitzgerald was particularly struck by that observation:

Vigilant makes an astute (brilliant if original) point about the acceptability of heterodox views if expressed in “haunting…melodies” of verse such as the Rubaiyat….

Striking comparison of one Rubaiyat quatrain with an anti-religious proposition of Robert Blatchford (which is not specifically quoted); and a notable ability to move effectively from one author to another….

Robert Blatchford, in Not Guilty (Chapter 1)…insists very forcibly that since the Christian God created all things, the evil and the good”, including man, God cannot hold man responsible for man’s nature and his actions. “Therefore the Christian religion is untrue…”

The fruit of many years of serious reading (self-education), plus special ‘homework’ done in the available leisure time for these articles – see ref to that 26 Oct “A Bookshelf Holiday”. [1]


Our Bookshelf graphic
The Lure of the Orient by Vigilant

Take me somewhere East of Suez
Where the best is like the worst,
And there ain’t no Ten Commandments
And a man can raise a thirst.

So saith Kipling’s soldier-man, thinking of his “Burma girl a-waitin’.” Kipling is one of a number of ambassadors between East and West. But Kipling’s East is the East of the tourist and commercialist – for the most part he has glimpses of a more real East – an Eastern East, and these we catch in “The Jungle Book.”

“The Jungle Book” is a wonderful story book that every boy and girl should have as a birthright. It tells of a little baby boy lost in the jungle. He is adopted into a family of wolves, and is sent by his wolf-father to learn his lessons from a bear and a boa-constrictor. His wonderful adventures in the jungle, his feud with the tiger, and his return to his own kind form a series of the most beautiful stories ever written.

Superficial though, in some respects, Kipling’s interpretation of the East must be admitted to be, he somehow seems to convey a spirit wonderfully in accord with that to which we are introduced by such mighty ambassadors as Edwin Arnold, Annie Besant, Edward Fitzgerald, and Richard Burton. Probably the secret is that all succeed in conveying something of the atmosphere of a race-culture that had reached an advanced stage at a time when Europe was but a hunting ground of neolithic savages.

For we must remember that Rome was still an infant city, and the Glory of Greece but just emerging from the mists of tradition when Indian culture reached something in the nature of a culmination in the adoption of the philosophy of Buddha.

The great gift of Sir Edwin Arnold to the Western World is undoubtedly his “Light of Asia”. In a philosophic poem it is difficult to select quotations. But one, which gives the gist of the Buddhist moral code, is taken from the closing pages of the work, -

“Kill not – for Pity’s sake – and lest ye stay
The meanest thing upon its upward way.

Give freely and receive, but take from none
By greed, or force, or fraud, what is his own.

Bear not false witness, slander not, nor lie;
Truth is the speech of inward purity.

Shun drugs and drinks which work the wit abuse;
Clean minds, clean bodies, need no Soma juice.

Touch not thy neighbor’s wife, neither commit
Sins of the flesh unlawful and unfit.”

These are the “Five Rules.” They have a familiar ring. Explain it as you will, Buddha’s explanations is as follows:

Manifold tracks lead to yon sister peaks
Around whose snows the glided clouds are curled;
By steep or gentler slopes the climber comes
Where breaks that other world.

This is a familiar thought to the Eastern philosopher. He holds all religions to be equally true, all being dialects of the Word of God. Had only the Western World realised as much, what rivers of blood had remained unshed.

Mrs Besant, in her translation of the Bhagavad Gita, has performed a similar service for he who would understand Brahmanism, as Arnold did for the student of Buddhism. Her work as an ambassador between the sundered thought world of East and West, has, however, been more of an organising than of a literary character.

But Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat has probably stimulated interest in Oriental thought more than any other influence. It is safe to say that the Rubaiyat is by far the most popular English poem today. For, as Khayyam’s more exact translators tell us, we must regard Fitzgerald’s version more as an English poem than as a faithful rendering of the original. Khayyam, they say was by no means as thorough-paced an old sinner as Fitzgerald would have us believe. But, after – all, we must pause before we throw Fitzgerald overboard, if we are to agree with a publisher’s explanation for the remarkable success of the Quatrains.

In his introductory note to a pocket edition of Omar (printed in Australia) Mr T.C. Lothian says: “Because it has a telling directness that makes it easy to read, and because it unfolds a philosophy that can be embraced with more ease than dignity, are the reasons for the phenomenal popularity of the work in England and America – two obviously decadent nations.”


Perhaps he is right, for the Western world has certainly not embraced “The Light of Asia” with the same enthusiasm as it has shown the bibulous bard of Nuishapur, and Richard Burton, whose finer-toned, tho less voluptuous philosophic poem, “The Kasidah,” which first appeared at about the same time as the Rubaiyat, remains today practically unnoticed.

The opening lines vaguely suggest the first stanzas of Omar:-

“The hour is nigh; the waning Queen walks forth to rule the later night;
Crown’d with the sparkle of a star and throned on orb of ashen light.

The Wolf-tail sweeps the paling East leave a deeper gloom behind
The Down uprears her shining head, sighing, with semblance of a wind.”

The philosophy of the Kasidah, is on the whole, a negative one. It purports to express the views of one Hajf Abdu-el-Yeydi, but is really Burton’s own work.

On the other hand there is no doubt a magic n the Omaresqpe stanza – something akin to the haunting ring of “Red Wing,” and one or two other melodics. “Show me a miracle, and I will believe,” was the ancient’s demand. But we moderns will believe the damnedest of heresy provided only some word-magician can fit it within the bounds of an Omaresque quatrain. People who, under ordinary circumstances, would have Blatchword’s “Not Guilty,” or Blatchford himself, if they could, burned by the public hangman will recite with gusto:

Oh Thou, who man with baser, clay didst make,
And who with Eden didst devise the Snake;
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blackened. Man’s Forgiveness give – and take!

Curiously enough a very similar philosophy to Khayyam’s has formed part of English literature since the translations of the Bible – namely, the Book of Ecclesiastes. A few verses roughly flung into Quatrains, after Omar, and you’d hardly know it wasn’t the old Persian himself. This, after all, is only giving Koheleth (as the author of the book called himself) a fair chance, for what sort of translation of Khayyam would a committee of Theologians give us?

Is there a thing whereof men say “‘Tis new.”
But hath been seen a thousand times? And who.
Of the next generation shall remember us,
Or care a button for the things we do?

All things are full of weariness. All, all,
Is vanity. What vision doth not fall.
Short of the eyes desire? Whose ear was ever filled.
With hearing? And what pleasure but doth pall?

Wisdom I sought above all men that were
in Salem: And all I found was care;
For in much wisdom is much grief and he
Who strives for knowledge, wins but empty air.

Well, so much for the East, with its philosophies, its mysticism, and its magic. The sweat and steam, and iron clang of Commercialism is fast driving its colour and luxury into the forgotten past. Let us rescue what we may of it. But what of its squalor and misery? Truly, these are problems that are answered neither by the ancient wisdom of the East nor by the Commercialism of the West.


Hints on Books.

Everyone, I suppose, has read Khayyam, and the “Kasidah” can only be obtained from the publishers (Thos. B. Mosher, Portland, Maine, USA)

Cheap editions of the “Bhagavad Gita” and the “Light of Asia” are obtainable but the “Jungle Book” should, to fill its purpose truly be obtained in an illustrated edition. This would run to several shillings.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Poems are worthy of attention to interpret the mind of a primitive race (the Polynesians). His “Tamatea” is a genuinely heroic lay, although dealing with barbarous people and events.


1. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Tom Fitzgerald. Curtin: Book discussions (largely from Our Bookshelf), 1917 - 1988. JCPML00653/36