The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

‘To describe the Rubaiyat’s quatrains as the epigrams of an epicurean is to misunderstand Khayyam’ explains Dr Reeza Hameed.

As rendered by Fitzgerald, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam has remained an enduring favourite among poetry lovers all over the world. Khayyam is a poet for all seasons. Khayyam was undoubtedly one of the greatest mathematicians and astronomers to come out of the Islamic world of the middle ages. He was a contemporary of Ali ibn Sina, known to the West as Avicenna. Khayyam was a polymath in an era which produced polymaths by the dozens, many of whom are known to the West only by their Latinised names, but Khayyam’s name survives in the Arabic original. Khayyam had mastered many disciplines. In addition to mathematics and astronomy, he was fluent in philosophy, medicine, geography, physics, and music. Ibn Sina taught him philosophy for many years. He also learnt medicine and physics from that great man. Another contemporary was Al-Zamakshari, well-known for his commentary of the Quran. Since Khayyam was one of the greatest astronomers of the Middle Ages, in recognition of his contributions a crater on the Moon was named after him. 

In mathematics, he virtually invented the field of geometric algebra. His treatise on Algebra was used in Europe as a standard text even as late as the nineteenth century. He was not known for his poetry, until he was reborn as a poet in the second half of the nineteenth century in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of his Rubaiyat, which catapulted him to poetic stardom. Had it not been for Fitzgerald, Khayyam’s fame might have rested on his contributions to astronomy, mathematics or the development of the Jalali calendar to replace the Julian calendar. He alludes to his involvement in the calendar in one of his verses.

 Ah, by my Computations, People say,
Reduce the Year to better reckoning?

The publication of the Rubaiyat resulted in the emergence of a Khayyam cult in Victorian England and in the United States. The Rubaiyat has been so closely identified with its translator that it is sometimes referred to under Victorian poetry. Its popularity perhaps lay in the fact that it sang of the pleasures proscribed in straight jacketed Victorian England.

The Rubaiyat had many admirers among English poets and men of literature, and their names read like a roll call of the famous: Swinburne, Rossetti, Thomas Hardy, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Tennyson, Longfellow, John Ruskin, T S Eliot, and Meredith. Khayyam poetry clubs sprang up in England and in the United States. Longfellow in ‘Haroun al Rashid betrays Khayyam’s influence upon him.

Where are the kings, and where the rest
Of
those who once the world possessed?
“They’re gone with all their pomp and show,
They’re gone the way that thou shalt go.

Poetry is that which is lost in translation. In Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat, poetry might have gained in the process. Fitzgerald, it would seem, mistranslated the Rubaiyat, and some would say gloriously so.

If his poetry is any indication of Khayyam’s philosophy, he grappled with universal themes such as the here and the hereafter, life and death, mortality and eternity, fate and freewill. Fitzgerald portrayed Khayyam as a fatalist, a hedonist, and an agnostic.

One of the most famous of Khayyam’s quatrains is the ‘moving finger verse’, which conveys the controlling effect of fate in the affairs of men.

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

He compares the human condition to pieces on a chessboard, unable to determine their fate themselves as

… helpless pieces in the game He plays,
Upon this chequer-board of Nights and Days.

The ephemerality of life and the inevitability of death are recurrent themes in Khayyam’s quatrains. Human beings are like the leaves on a tree that keep falling one by one. Take the following verse for instance.

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Other translators of Khayyam, such as Whinfield, saw the spiritual signs in Rubaiyat, such as the ‘veiled Divinity under a symbol of wine’. Persian poets used the tavern and wine imagery to convey a spiritual message. The tavern is the metaphor for this world and Saqi, the wine giver, for the Creator, as would be apparent from the verse below.

I long for Wine! oh Saki of my Soul,
Prepare thy Song and fill the morning Bowl;
For this first Summer Month that brings the Rose
Takes many a Sultan with it as it goes.

The ‘morning Bowl’ is the sky, sometimes referred to as the ‘inverted cup’ and summer brings life as well as death, from which even the sultan has no escape.

As Titus Burckhardt says, the ego regards itself as a self-sufficient centre and the veil of selfishness hides the spirit beneath. Man is in a kind of stupor and a state of forgetfulness. Khayyam sees man in this state. Forgetful of the universal truth that life is not forever, man remains focussed on fulfilling his ego. He spends his time seeking fortune and fame until death comes calling, when he abruptly departs.

Khayyam sees the world as a battered caravanserai and death as a leveller.

Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai
Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp
Abode his Hour or two, and went his way.

The comparison of the world to a caravanserai is part of the sufi idiom and is exemplified by the story related about Ibrahim ben Adhem, the subject of Leigh Hunt’s poem ‘Abou Ben Adhem’. Ibrahim ben Adhem was the king who abandoned his throne to become an ascetic.

One day, a dervish tried to enter Ibrahim’s palace. The palace guards asked the dervish where he wished to go, to which the latter replied: ‘I am going into this caravanserai’. The dervish was told that it was the king’s palace and not a caravanserai. The dervish was brought before Ibrahim and the following conversation transpired. Says Ibrahim: ‘Dervish, this is my palace.’ Dervish: ‘To whom did this palace originally belong? Ibrahim: ‘To my grandfather.’ ‘And after him? My father. ‘And to whom did it pass on his death?’ ‘To me.’ ‘When you die, to whom will it pass?’ ‘To my son.’ Said the Darvish: ‘Ibrahim, a place into which one enters and from which another departs is not a palace, it is a caravanserai’.

This story was related by Attar in his ‘Conference of the Birds’. Nishapur is the birth place of both Khayyam and Attar. Fitzgerald was familiar with Attar’s works which he studied before he embarked on translating the Rubaiyat.

Time cannot be persuaded to tighten his rein, and to stand still. Khayyam reminds the reader that he is a passer-by in this world. All the glory, power and wealth gathered for generations to come are in vain. The world forgets the deeds of the dead. In Khayyam’s words:

They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep;

Ralph Hodgson might have been influenced by Khayyam. In his ‘Time, You Old Gipsy Man’, he conceptualises Time as caravan.

TIME, you old gipsy man,
Will you not stay,
Put up your caravan
Just for one day?

Fitzgerald makes Khayyam seem like a sybarite who preached an Epicurian philosophy, with his focus on the here rather than the hereafter, a poet who did not engage

in the vain pursuit
Of This and That endeavor and dispute.

Hedonism becomes a natural corollary to fatalism, as exemplified in the oft repeated lines from the Rubaiyat:

Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou 

Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

It has been pointed out that Fitzgerald misread the word kebab in the Persian original as kitab, but to replace ‘a Book of Verse’ with ‘a leg of lamb’ or ‘a roast of kebab’ would make the poet seem rather like a glutton than a romantic.

Graves-Idries Shah’s translation of this quatrain is somewhat different and it rescues Khayyam’s sufi credentials.

Should our day’s portion be one mancel loaf,
A haunch of mutton and a gourd of wine
Set for us two alone on the wide plain.
No Sultan’s bounty could evoke such joy.

Fitzgerald himself assiduously studied Hafiz and Saadi as well as Fariduddin Attar- whose works are steeped in sufi philosophy- before he embarked on the translation of the Rubaiyat. He also translated Attar. Fitzgerald did not entirely succeed in ridding the Rubaiyat of mysticism. Thus, Fitzgerald’s Khayyam says:

There is the Door to which I found no Key;
There was the Veil through which I might not see:
Some little talk a while of Me and Thee
There was – and then no more of Thee and Me.

The Veil, Key, Thee, and Me are heavily loaded with sufi connotations. The veil both hides and reveals; he could not see through the veil before the Creator. It is clear that Khayyam is putting forward the idea of the Unity of God, and that human life emanates from God and will be returning to God.

To describe the Rubaiyat’s quatrains as the epigrams of an epicurean is to misunderstand Khayyam.

The author, Dr Reeza Hameed, regularly contributes to this blog and his previous contributions are available here.

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Filed under Discussion, Dr Reeza Hameed, Iran, Islam, The Middle East

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