"The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam"
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“The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” is a long lyric poem in quatrains (four-line stanzas) of iambic pentameter, with a rhyme scheme of AABA. Translated by Edward Fitzgerald from a manuscript of Persian verse attributed to Omar Khayyam, a 12th-century Persian mathematician and philosopher, “The Rubaiyat” contains pithy observations on complex subjects such as love, death, and the existence of God and an afterlife.
When “The Rubaiyat” was first published in March 1859, it received little attention. Fitzgerald, a friend of Victorian poets like Alfred Tennyson (1809-1902), was considered only a minor literary figure at the time. However, poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) discovered the poem in 1860 and played a significant role in popularizing it. From thereon, “The Rubaiyat” had a meteoric rise in popularity, becoming one of the most-quoted poems in English by the early 20th century. It is useful to consider Fitzgerald’s “The Rubaiyat” partly as a work of English literature, since his translation is extremely free and creative. Some critics consider “The Rubaiyat” as a standalone poem inspired by the original Persian verse, rather than a transcreation. Fitzgerald revised “The Rubaiyat” four times after its first publication, so that there exist five published editions of the poem. This study guide uses the first edition. Many of the changes Fitzgerald introduced in subsequent editions are quite significant, as can be seen in this comparison of two versions of Verse 1:
Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.
WAKE! For the Sun, who scatter’d into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heav’n, and strikes
The Sultan’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.
Omar Khayyam (full Arabic name Ghiyāth al-Dīn Abū al-Fatḥ ʿUmar ibn Ibrāhīm al-Nīsābūrī al-Khayyāmī; 1048-1131 AD) was a renaissance man long before the dawn of the European renaissance: an expert in subjects as diverse as mathematics, law, and philosophy. Khayyam (the family name literally meaning “tent-maker”) was born in Naishapur, in northeastern Persia, around the time when the Seljuk Turk (a central Asian tribe) dynasty began to rule the region. When he was 20, Khayyam moved to the great city of Samarkand, now in Uzbekistan, for work and further scholarship. It is in Samarkand that he wrote some of his greatest treatises on algebra.
Prodigiously intelligent and reserved in temperament, Khayyam was an agnostic who chafed under the orthodox religious state the Seljuk Turks were beginning to impose in Persia. However, Khayyam did enjoy court patronage from time to time, which enabled him to finish many significant works. Among his other scientific achievements, Khayyam discovered a geometrical method of solving cubic equations by intersecting a parabola with a circle, and helped design the Jalali calendar, a very advanced solar calendar, a modified version of which is still in use in Iran. Khayyam is believed to have married and had children; beyond this, not much is known of his personal life.
Though Khayyam was famous for his erudition in his day, very little was known about his poetry. Some scholars speculate that he did not dare to make his poetry public at the time, since it contained heretical (dissenting from established religious belief) themes. However, these claims are unproven. Verses under Khayyam’s name began to appear in the oral tradition only much after his death. In the coming centuries, there grew a tradition of attributing verses to Khayyam, especially those that tackled nihilistic philosophy, a rejection of the afterlife, and an emphasis on living in the moment. It is unclear if the historical Omar Khayyam wrote all or most of these verses, or if they were even written by any one single poet.
Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883) was an English writer and poet. A member of what grew to be one of England’s most wealthy families of the time, Fitzgerald was educated at Cambridge university. Single for most of his life, Fitzgerald married Lucy Barton, daughter of the Quaker poet Bernard Barton, in 1856. However, the couple separated a few months after the wedding.
Though interested in literature and friends with the likes of Tennyson and British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), Fitzgerald did not publish much until 1851, when his first book Euphranor was launched. In 1853 he began to study Persian, encouraged by his friend and Oxford professor Edward Byles Cowell. It was Cowell who introduced Fitzgerald to the works attributed to Khayyam in 1857. The independent verses were in a manuscript preserved in Oxford’s Bodleian Library and were arranged by end rhyme, rather than in a narrative structure.
In their wit, irreverence, and the celebration of the material and sensual, Fitzgerald found a mirror for his own beliefs; he took on the massive task of translating them. Fitzgerald did not include all the verses of the manuscript in his translation. In his own words, this translation was extremely free and creative, more of a “transmogrification,” rather than a literal retelling. Fitzgerald’s intention was to convey the spirit rather than the letter of Khayyam’s verses, to ensure “The Rubaiyat” was “better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle.” All versions of Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat contain an “Introduction” and footnotes, explaining their context to the reader. Fitzgerald continued to change his translation of the verses until the end of his life.
Khayyam, Omar. “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.” Translated by Edward Peter Fitzgerald, 1859, Project Gutenberg.
The poem begins at dawn on the traditional Persian New Year’s Day, which occurs at the vernal equinox, the beginning of spring. As the sun scatters the night, the poet urges his companion to rise and accompany him. This companion, addressed later as “Thou” and “Love,” can be assumed to be the speaker’s beloved. Since many of the verses are addressed to the beloved, she is also the stand-in for the reader.
The speaker is eager to rise and seize the day before “life’s liquor in its cup runs dry” (Line 8) or before his brief life ends. In his half-waking state, he has heard the clamor of travelers impatient to enter a tavern, because they want to make the most of their stay, which is destined to be short. The tavern represents the world, and the travelers are human beings, who visit this tavern only once. The poet and his companion must also make speed because the time of the year symbolizes new movement and beginnings. Flowers as white as the hand of Moses (a biblical reference) are blossoming on trees, while others are blooming from the ground as if raised by the breath of the resurrected Jesus.
If there is any permanence in this world, it is in the cycle of nature. Though the ancient city of fabulous Iram has long sunk in the ground and the great Persian emperor Jamshyd long dead, the garden, the vine, and the stream live on. Time has sealed shut the lips of the biblical David, composer of beautiful psalms and the wise king of Judea (corresponding to today’s Israel), the nightingale continues to sing to the rose. Therefore, the speaker says, fill a cup with intoxicating wine and “in the Fire of Spring / The Winter Garment of Repentance fling” (Lines 25-26). The bird of time is already in flight, so why stay still?
The rose of each new spring drives further into oblivion the memory of Jamshyd and Kaikobad (a pre-Islamic legendary king of Persia). As the day awakens a thousand blossoms, so it casts also into death thousands of creatures, mortal as clay. However, the speaker or “old Khayyam” (Line 33) urges his companion not to dwell on mortality and come with him to the garden, the great equalizer, where the name of the slave and the name of the king are all equally dispensable. There, in the lap of nature, is the only paradise available to Khayyam: he and his beloved sitting under a bough, with bread, wine, and a book of poetry for succor. This short, perfect moment is heaven enough for the speaker. And it is only in such fleeting moments that transcendence and heaven exist.
Yet the beauty of the garden continues to remind the speaker of the impermanence of existence. Some people save money to acquire material wealth in this life, others save merits to acquire virtue for the next. Yet, with death the only truth, chasing all such goals is meaningless. Therefore, it is best to spend the cash one has on present enjoyment. The speaker urges the reader to look to the rose for inspiration: she is generous and reckless with her treasure or pollen, scattering it in the wind till it lands in the garden (Verse 13). The grower and consumer of golden grain both lie buried in the garden of life. Once they are in their graves, no one covets their bones (Verse 15). Thus, one must not forget to delight in life while pursuing material goals.
In Verse 16, the speaker compares the world to a “battered Caravanserai” (Line 61) or a rugged traveler’s inn, through the doors of which sultan after sultan have passed and perished. Now only the “Lion and the Lizard keep / The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep” (Lines 65-66), emphasizing the transience of earthly power. A wild ass stomps over the grave of Bahram, a legendary hunter of Persian mythology. Nature consumes humans so it can breed other new life: Wild red roses bloom even more crimson when irrigated by the blood of a fallen Caesar (emperor), and each purple hyacinth grows from a buried skull (Verse 18). The speaker urges his companion to tread gently on the tender herbs that grow on the river bank’s lip, since they may rise from an unknown buried lip (Verse 19). Even the speaker and his companion will one day become the ground over which unknown generations are bound to tread. The fate of all humans is to turn “Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie, / Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer and—sans End!” (Lines 91-92).
In Verses 26-30, the speaker dismisses the consolations of knowledge and philosophy when it comes to the puzzle of the temporary nature of human existence. The muezzin or holy man’s cry from the mosque mocks both those who hanker for worldly goods and those who covet the afterlife, since their “reward is neither Here or There” (Line 104). Thus, the speaker rejects the religious idea of life after death. He exhorts the reader to come with “old Khayyam” and leave the wise men to their notions, since the only certainty in life is death. When he was younger, the speaker did “eagerly frequent / Doctor and saint” (Lines 105-106) but ended up leaving by the same door he entered, that is to say, without learning a single lesson but one. All he learnt from the seemingly wise men was that even the wisest are as powerless before fate as an unknowing wave or wind is before its driving force (Verses 28-30). The wisest having failed him, the speaker sought an answer from the stars. In a meditative state, he rose to Saturn, the seventh planet orbiting Earth (medieval astronomy held a geocentric view of the universe; Saturn was the outermost observed planet) and could see life’s many knots unraveled from his high perspective (Verse 31). But even from his high throne he could not unravel the knot of human death and fate. It remained obscured as a locked door and an impenetrable veil (Verse 32). What is the purpose of human life? The speaker found an answer to this question only in a goblet of intoxicating wine (Verses 33-35). Wine, symbolizing abandonment and living-in-the-now, is the one refuge of troubled human existence.
However, in the very next verse (Verse 36) the speaker returns to the question of mortality. The earthen goblet holding the wine reminds him of a potter thumping wet clay, clay being the symbol of the fragile human form. Shaking himself free of such dispiriting thoughts, the speaker turns his attention to the present moment. The stars have set, and the caravan of life is moving; so must he and his companion take advantage of the fleeting day (Verse 38). Rather than despair over the bitter fruit of life, the speaker wants to drown himself in the sweetness of the grape. After all, he, a man of logic and reason, has long divorced even those fruitless pursuits and married himself to wine, the daughter of the grape (Verses 39-40). The speaker has found no answers either in faith or in science.
An “Angel Shape” (Line 165) the speaker espies through the tavern door carries a flask of wine on his shoulder, which he bids the speaker taste. Thus, ironically, even the angels seem to be suggesting the speaker be devoted to the religion of wine and drinking. The all-powerful Grape (symbolizing wine) can “with Logic absolute / The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute” (Lines 109-10), or equally enamor scholars of the 72 clashing Islamic sects (symbolizing heated theological debate). The Grape is the alchemist that can transmute even life’s dull base metal into a state of golden perfection.
So, the speaker urges, it is best to fool around with life, since life too makes a fool of you (Verse 45). (The comparison of life with different games and sports continues in Verses 45-50.) What point is taking life seriously, since life anyway is a “Magic shadow show” (Line 182), a kind of shadow puppetry? Life can also be compared to a board of chess, with men and women as pieces played by destiny. One by one the pieces fall, only to be deposited at the back of a closet (Verse 49). The “Moving Finger” of destiny writes (Line 201) and “having writ / Moves on” (Lines 201-02); not a word it has written can be taken back or erased. In Verses 52 and 53, the speaker’s tone changes to a rare existential despair, where he compares the sky to an inverted bowl, under which people crawl around like trapped insects. Their cries for help do not affect the unfeeling, impotent sky. Ironically, birth itself is the beginning of the end of man, and creation itself signals the day of reckoning (Verse 53).
However, the speaker knows one thing for sure. When destiny flagged off the race of life and threw the “flaming foal” of the sun (Line 214) over the shoulder of Mushtara (Jupiter) and Parwin (the Pleiades), it also set aside a plot of “Dust and Soul” (Line 216) for the speaker. Thus, the speaker does have a place in the scheme of things, an idea which is at odds with the despair of the preceding rubais or verse. The speaker’s tone shifts again in Verse 55. He now describes his soul as clinging to the grape-vine, producer of intoxication. In this intoxication he has found answers to riddles that evade even the Sufi mystic. The speaker has learnt that it is better to find a flash of truth or divine inspiration in the tavern, rather than remain uninspired in a temple or a mosque (Verse 56).
In Verse 57, the speaker directly addresses God, referring to divinity as “thou.” If God has exposed the speaker (symbolizing humanity) to the pitfalls of drinking (original sin), how can the speaker be blamed for sinning? The speaker is only walking the path on which God set him. After all, it was God who created the serpent in the garden of Eden in the Bible, which led to the fall of Adam and Eve (Verse 58).
The poem now enters a section called the “Kuza-Nama” or “Book of Pots.” From Verses 59-66, the speaker recalls an experience at a potter’s shop in the month of the crescent moon, or the holy period of Ramzan. Some of the pots could speak while others were mute. The chattering pots debated “Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?” (Line 240). Why should the potter (God) create the pots only to break them mercilessly? If the potter was a good potter, why were some pots created unequal and flawed (the diseased and the unlucky; Verse 63). Some pots answered that the potter was a good man, despite his smoke-dark face, which of course is an allusion to the devil (Verse 64). Thus, the pots could not tell if their creator was benevolent or malicious; however, the wisest pot knew its sole purpose was to be filled up with the elixir that is wine.
The Kuza-Nama ends, and the speaker declares his sole wish is to be watered with plenty of wine for the rest of his life (Verse 67). When he dies, he wants to be wrapped in grape leaves and buried in a sweet vineyard. Thus buried, his body will throw up such a sweet scent, it will convert even the most devout passerby to a believer in the faith of the Grape (Verse 68). Even though drinking has made him lose his honor and reputation in the eyes of men, the speaker cannot mend his ways. Sure, he has sworn to repent many times, but he has not been sober even once while making that promise (Verse 69)! Besides, he would gladly lose his honor in exchange for wine. In his eyes wine is so precious, its sellers make a loss even when they sell it for a great profit (because they end up parting from wine; Verse 71).
As night (and the poem’s end) approaches, the speaker’s tone turns contemplative. He returns to the metaphors of nightingale, rose, and spring to lament the end of the day, as well as youth (Verse 72). He wishes he and his beloved could conspire with fate to change the laws of nature and mortality and “re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire” (Line 222). The speaker addresses his beloved as “the moon of my Delight” (Line 223), who unlike the heavenly moon, stays constant without waxing or waning. As the moon ascends the sky, the speaker has a premonition of his beloved looking at future moons emptily after he dies.
In the final rubai (Verse 75), the speaker addresses the reader, who may one night be passing a moonlit “star-scattered” (Line 298) garden (the stars representing other poets or people), where Khayyam is buried. When the reader reaches Khayyam’s grave, he should simply pour a cup of wine over it as a libation.