BORN: 1048, Neyshabur, Persia
DIED: 1131, Neyshabur, Persia
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction
The Rubaiyat (1859)
Omar Khayyam. © Bettmann / CORBIS
During his lifetime as a mathematician and astronomer in Persia, Omar Khayyam was renowned for his scientific achievements, but he was not recognized as a poet. Not until scholar and poet Edward FitzGerald translated the Persian manuscript of Khayyam’s verse into English in 1859 did the Western world discover Khayyam’s lyrics. Today, Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, a collection of quatrains composed in the traditional Persian rubai style, is recognized throughout the West. Both sensual and spiritual, the Rubaiyat has remained powerfully poignant because it appeals to humankind’s deepest passions and most profound philosophical concerns.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Obscure Early Life. Khayyam was born in 1048 in Neyshabur, Persia, what is now northeastern Iran. At the time, Neyshabur was a commercially wealthy province, as well as an important intellectual, political, and religious center. At the time, Persia was ruled by the Turks who had conquered the territory in 1037 bringing with them their Islamic faith. They remained in control of the region until the early 1200s. While little is known of Khayyam’s early life, it is believed that he received an education emphasizing science, mathematics, and philosophy from the celebrated teacher Iman Mowaffak in Neyshabur.
In his early twenties, Khayyam traveled to Samarkand, where he completed his famous treatise on algebra, a work that is considered one of the most outstanding mathematical achievements of the medieval period. His mathematical writings include a study titled The Difficulties of Euclid’s Definitions (1077). In these works, Khayyam attempts to classify equations, particularly quadratic and cubic equations.
Royal Assignments. In 1074, Khayyam returned to Neyshabur and was invited by the Sultan Malik-Shah, the Seljuk Turkish ruler, to join a group of eight scholars assigned to reform the Muslim calendar. The result, the Jalai solar calendar, is noteworthy because it is more accurate than the Julian calendar and almost as precise as Pope Gregory XIII’s revision of the Julian calendar. During this time, Khayyam was also commissioned, along with other astronomers, to collaborate on a plan for an observatory in the capital city of Isfahnan. At this time, the city was one of the most important in the world.
Death of Malik-Shah. Records indicate that after the death of Malik-Shah in 1092, Khayyam, deeply mourning the loss, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Translated by Edward FitzGerald, one poem that appears to have been written at this time reads: ‘‘Khayyam, who stitched the tents of science / Has fallen in grief’s furnace and been sudden burned.’’ Until his death on December 4, 1131, Khayyam spent the rest of his life in the key city of Neyshabur, where he taught astrology and mathematics and predicted future events for the royal court when called upon to do so.
Poet? No record exists to indicate that Khayyam ever wrote poetry. Certainly his achievements in mathematics and astronomy eclipsed any in poetry during his own lifetime. Because manuscripts of his quatrains did not appear until two hundred years after his death and because of the differences among the various versions, some scholars doubt that he is the author of the Rubaiyat. This argument is strengthened by the fact that the content of the Rubaiyat is inconsistent, as some poems are mystical and philosophical, while others are amoral and hedonistic. Having exhaustively studied the work in an effort to determine which of the nearly one thousand quatrains were written by Khayyam, some Persian academics have claimed that only around two hundred and fifty stanzas could be those of Khayyam. Nevertheless, Khayyam’s credibility as a poet appears strong, as numerous translations of the Rubaiyat have been published throughout the years.
Discovery and Dissemination. Discovered by English Persian scholar E. B. Cowell at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, a fifteenth-century manuscript of Khayyam’s verse was passed to Edward FitzGerald, who translated 75 of the 158 quatrains into English. Concerned that the sensual and atheistic aspects of several of the stanzas would offend readers, FitzGerald included those pieces in their original Persian language. When FitzGerald anonymously published his 1859 translation at his own expense, not even a single copy of the book sold.
Only when a bookseller demoted the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam to his store’s penny box on the street did the collection gain any attention. In 1861, Whitley Stokes, an editor of the Saturday Review, purchased several copies of the Rubaiyat, and, impressed by the work, passed a copy along to pre-Raphaelite painter and poet, Dante Rossetti. Rossetti, in turn, gave a copy to poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, who then shared it with writer George Meredith.
Unknown in the Western world before its pre-Raphaelite readership, the Rubaiyat became an enormous success in English and American literary circles. Shortly afterwards, the FitzGerald translation created a sensation when it reached the general public. As a result, scholars began searching for additional manuscripts of Khayyam’s work, and countless translations followed, each of them different in content, form, and the number of quatrains.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Khayyam's famous contemporaries include:
Saint Anselm (1033-1109): Besides being one of the fathers of scholastic theology, Anselm originated the ontological argument for the existence of God. His works include Monologion (1075-1076).
Henry IV (1050-1106): German king and Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV was beloved by his subjects because of his concern for the peace of the empire and his care for the welfare of the common people.
Lanfranc (1015-1089): A Lombard who became archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc played an important role in persuading Pope Alexander II to support the Norman invasion of England in 1066.
Ernulf (1040-1124): The bishop of Rochester, Ernulf is credited with compiling laws, papal decrees, and documents relating to the church of Rochester in a collection titled Textus Roffensis.
Malik-Shah (1055-1092): Malik-Shah was the third and most famous of the Seljuk Turkish sultans, a ruling military family that founded an empire that included Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, and most of Iran.
Rodrigo Diaz (1040-1099): Known as El Cid, or ''the chief,'' Diaz was a national hero of Spain and a central military figure in the fight against the Moors.
Constantine the African (1020-1087): This Carthaginian was a translator of the Greek and Islamic medical texts that contributed to the twelfth-century establishment of the first medical university, located in Salerno, part of the Kingdom of Sicily. His translations include Kitab (1087), also known as The Complete Book of the Medical Art.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Khayyam's Rubaiyat, a collection of quatrains composed in the traditional Persian rubai style, gave life to a genre that has inspired poets throughout the centuries. Listed below are works in which the use of quatrains can be observed as a literary device:
Centuries (1555), a collection of prophecies by Nostradamus. Composed of 353 quatrains written in a mixture of French, Latin, and Greek, Centuries describes events from the mid-1500s to 3797, Nostradamus's predicted year for the end of the world.
The Essential Rumi (1995), a book of poetry by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks. Rumi was a thirteenth- century Persian poet. In this collection, Barks translates Rumi's sixteen hundred rubaiyat, quatrains conveying Rumi's mysticism and spirituality.
Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson (published in 1988, written in the 1850s and 1860s), a collection of poems by Emily Dickinson, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson. Dickinson most often created stanzas of quatrains characterized by a unique emphasis on words established through their line position or capitalization. Most of her poems were published posthumously.
Works in Literary Context
As a literary genre, rubai—the poetic form of the Rubaiyat—was highly popular during the eleventh and twelfth centuries in Persia, inspiring such poets as Rumi, who has earned the reputation of being a great spiritual poet.
Rubai Stanzas. The rubai is a poetic form originating from the Urdu-Persian language. Typically, each rubai stanza consists of four rhyming lines, sometimes referred to as interlocking Rubaiyat. However, in Khayyam’s poetry, the third line does not rhyme with lines one, two, and four, thus forming an AABA rhyme scheme. Each quatrain of the Rubaiyat forms a complete thought. In general, the first two lines pose a situation or problem, usually presented through metaphor or simile. The third line creates suspense, followed by the fourth, which offers some kind of resolution.
The quatrains typically credited to Khayyam share stylistic simplicity and conciseness. Thematically, the Rubaiyat is complex and meditative, revealing despair over the brevity of life, impatience with the ignorance of man, and doubt in the existence of a benevolent God. Such pessimism, however, is tempered by a sensual, self-gratifying approach to life, acting as if every day could be one’s last. Without a doubt, the Rubaiyat demonstrates the inherent contradiction between the sadness and joy of life.
Affront to Islam. The Rubaiyat is considered to be a meditation on the meaning of life, as Khayyam addressed the eternal questions of life, death, religion, and the puzzles of the universe. Because Khayyam’s work was often viewed as heretical by orthodox Muslims for its hedonism, including its praise of wine, the Rubaiyat was most likely circulated anonymously, probably memorized and passed along more frequently than it was written down. Evidence indicates that the Rubaiyat were almost certainly sung at mystical gatherings.
Influence. The best-known Persian poet in the West, Khayyam has significantly influenced the style and themes of many poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Praised for its lyrical form and moving insight, the Rubaiyat was imitated by such poets as Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Algernon Charles Swinburne.
Works in Critical Context
Little is known about the reception of Khayyam’s poetry prior to the nineteenth century. It was the commercial success of FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat that gave rise to a critical reaction rivaling that given to major classical poets. In the beginning, academics were basically attracted to the lyricism of the Rubaiyat. However, attention shifted to Khayyam’s themes of fatalism and escapism toward the end of the nineteenth century. In a piece appearing in An Anthology of Philosophy in Persia, volume 1: From Zoroaster to Omar Khayyam, nineteenth-century critic A. B. Houghton explained the contemporary world’s attraction to Khayyam: ‘‘He lost all hope just as our hearts are losing hope also. He found behind the phenomenal world a mere nothing at all just as modern scholars have also found. In a word, Omar appeals to our despair.’’
FitzGerald’s Version. Twentieth-century critics have increasingly studied Khayyam’s Rubaiyat and FitzGerald’s translation as two separate works. Intellectuals differ in their judgment of how FitzGerald distorts Khayyam’s original manuscript, some believing that the result of FitzGerald’s version is simply an English poem with Persian allusions. Besides including several poems written by other Persian poets, FitzGerald’s translation adapts many of the quatrains to suit Victorian tastes. In addition, FitzGerald reorganized the structure of the Rubaiyat, fusing Khayyam’s conceptually independent verses into one long stanza. Charles Eliot Norton determines that FitzGerald ‘‘is to be called ‘translator’ only in default of a better word, one which should express the poetic transfusion of a poetic spirit from one language to another, and the re-presentation of the ideas and images of the original in a form not altogether diverse from their own, but perfectly adapted to the new conditions of time, place, custom and habit of mind in which they appear.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Why do you think the Rubaiyat has been translated so many different times? How do recent translations compare with that of FitzGerald? What criteria would you establish to evaluate whether one translation is better than another? Write a paper explaining your conclusions.
2. What connection exists between poet and translator? Besides the Rubaiyat itself, what do you believe connects FitzGerald and Khayyam? To translate a poet, do you think the translator must be a poet? Must a translator share the same view of the world and sense of language of the author in order to translate that writer’s work? Create a presentation which outlines your beliefs on the questions raised.
3. Examine FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, analyzing the volume’s illustrations. Pretend you are an art critic for the New York Times and write a review appraising the visual art in FitzGerald’s work.
4. Some scholars argue that Khayyam followed Sufism, a Muslim form of religious mysticism. Research Sufism, noting its humanistic message. Are you surprised to find an element of mysticism embedded in Islam? To what extent do Khayyam’s quatrains illustrate principles of Sufism? Write a paper that offers your conclusions.
Bloom, Harold, and Janyce Marson, eds. The “Rubaiyat’’ of Omar Khayyam. New York: Chelsea House, 2003.
Chaudhuri, Sukanta. Translation and Understanding. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
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Khayyam, Omar. Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Translated by Edward FitzGerald. Calcutta, India: Rupa, 2002.
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, and Mehdi Aminrazavi, eds. An Anthology of Philosophy in Persia. Vol. 1, From Zoroaster to Omar Khayyam. London: I. B. Tauris, 2008.
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Tirtha, Swami Govinda. The Nectar of Grace: Omar Khayyam’s Life and Works. Bombay, India: Government Central Press, 1941.
Yogananda, Paramahansa. Wine of the Mystic: The ‘‘Rubaiyat’’ of Omar Khayyam. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1994.
Yogananda, Paramahansa, and J. Donald Walters. The ‘‘Rubaiyat’’ of Omar Khayyam Explained. Nevada City, Calif.: Crystal Clarity, 2004.
Books and Writers. Omar Khayyam (1048-1131). Retrieved April 21, 2008, from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/Khayyam.htm.
Shahriari, Shahriar. Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.okonlife.com. Last updated on June 2, 2004.