Helen Martins and the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

Everyone who visits the Owl House and Camel Yard will always experience something completely different. Some feel an eerie presence, as if Helen is still tending to her birds and flowers, touching up statues and drinking tea in the kitchen, while others will see the hard work that has gone into creating the marvel that the house and garden brings. Others still will try to read a deeper meaning in the works of art that has stood stagnant for over 40 years.

In the same way, each new visit will reveal another aspect of the layers of works of art and you will always notice something new, something that you didn’t see on your first or second visit. I have been lucky enough to have visited the Owl House on multiple occasions.

One of the major influences in Miss Helen’s work was the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a book that was given to her by her friend Prof Don McLellan.

(Note: It was interesting to note, during my last visit, that there are no books to be found in the Owl House itself. I was specifically looking for the note from Prof McLellan, but in my search I realised that all the books must have been removed at some stage. I found some of the books in the Helen Martins Museum, with Prof McLellan’s note, but it seems that the books that was Miss Helen’s lifeline and inspiration was at some stage removed from the Owl House itself.)

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was first translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald. The illustrations that inspired Helen’s home and garden was done by Robert Stewart Sherriffs.

The imagery from the book, compared to the images in the yard, is plain to see for everyone who has a look at the plates in Helen’s version of the book. Copies of the images can mostly be found around the back door of the house where two men can be seen pouring wine, a copy of the image from her version of the book. The second, a man holding a star, can be found closer to the backdoor next to another scene from the book where men with elongated noses seem to have a deep discussion.

There are also two verses written out in wire in the garden. The first is along the front railing, written in tin and wire, with a pilgrim leaning on his camel looking on. It reads:

Ah, Moon of my Delight who know’st no wane,
The Moon of Heav’n is rising once again:
How of hereafter rising shall she look
Through this same Garden after me – in vain!

This might give us some insight into the love that Helen poured into the works she had put into her garden. It is also the second last quatrain in the first edition.

The second verse is written  in wire next to the moving finger, on a piece of fence erected between the house with the shrines created from bottles to the right. It reads:

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


The title, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, was given to the translated version of the book by Edward Fitzgerald in 1895. Rubáiyát means quatrain in Persian and the original work is attributed to the Persian mathematician, Omar Khayyam.

Omar Khayyám (1048-1131) was known in his time as an astrologer and mathematician, rather than a poet and even though his work has become well-known in English literature circles, the original manuscripts are scattered and has been difficult to trace and compile as a whole.

Fitzgerald has taken quite a lot of liberty in the translation of the verses and has paraphrased quite a lot of it. Thus, the different versions of the book of song differs in length. The first stanza was completely Fitzgerald’s own work.

The first edition, 1859, begins with the stanza:

AWAKE! For Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
An Lo! The Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultán’s Turret in a Noose of Light.

As such the first version consists of only 75 quatrains, while the second ends on 110 verses. The third, fourth and fifth editions again varied in length, with some stanzas taken away and added. FitzGerald’s translation is cited to be rhyming and metrical, and very free. Many of the lines are paraphrased, while some can’t be traced to the source at all.

The inconsistency in translation is mentioned in a note by W. Aldis Wright, added in the fifth edition and included in the 1971 edition, which includes all five translations. One such instance is the 4th edition where a snake is mentioned, but the original text seemed to have been translated incorrectly.

An interesting fact about the book from Wikipedia: “There was a real jewel-encrusted copy of the book on the Titanic. It was won at an auction and was being shipped to New York. The book remains lost at the bottom of the Atlantic to this day.” (source)

Note: I was lucky to find my own copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, with the same illustrations that inspired Miss Helen, during a visit to Dust Covers, a lovely little bookshop in Nieu Bethesda. It might be a good idea to visit them in New Street on your next visit to the village!

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