Omar Khayyam and his Rubaiyat

I have always had a marked fascination for the quatrains of Persian poet-cum-mathematician-cum-astronomer Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyyat, since  coming on a slim volume of the Edward FitzGerald translation – probably the first edition – and getting entranced when I made my view through it. I really treasured this book, with a lovely and thought-provoking illustration accompanying each of the quatrains…..

One of the most vital motifs in the Inspector Montalbano series (which is one of my favourites) is what the good inspector terms the “records office” complex of his able subordinate, Sergeant Fazio. I possess some kind of a same complex – the urge, certainly not irrational, to present all the appropriate information about what I am speaking or writing on, placing into in context, so as to say. This has led My Ustaad to dub me the “IS” (which I will certainly expand and explain in its own special and independent post….I promise). Anyway, without any further digression, back to the topic.

Khayyám‘s (1048—1131) full name was Ghiyath al-Din Abu’l-Fath Umar ibn Ibrahim Al-Nishapuri al-Khayyami ( غیاث الدین ابو الفتح عمر بن ابراهیم خیام نیشاپوری) and was born in Nishapur, then a Seljuk capital in Khorasan. A Persian polymath, mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, physician, and poet, he also wrote treatises on mechanics, geography, and music.

He is believed to have written about a thousand four-line verses or quatrains (rubaai’s) and was introduced in the English-speaking world through the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám which are rather free-wheeling English translations by FitzGerald (1809-1883), but caveat emptor and read on to know why.

Other translations of parts of the rubáiyát (quatrains) exist, but FitzGerald’s are the most well known.

Ironically, FitzGerald’s translations reintroduced Khayyám to Iranians “who had long ignored the Neishapouri poet.” A 1934 book by one of Iran’s most prominent writers, Sadeq Hedayat, Songs of Khayyam, (Taranehha-ye Khayyam) is said have “shaped the way a generation of Iranians viewed” the poet.

The translations that are best known in English are those of about a hundred of the verses by FitzGerald in five editions (1859, 1868, 1872, 1879 and 1889 ).  Of the five editions published, four were published under the authorial control of FitzGerald. The fifth edition, which contained only minor changes from the fourth, was edited after his death on the basis of manuscript revisions FitzGerald had left.

As a work of English literature FitzGerald’s version is a high point of the 19th century and has been greatly influential. However, as a translation of Omar Khayyam’s quatrains, it is not noted for its fidelity. Many of the verses are paraphrased, and some of them cannot be confidently traced to any one of Khayyam’s quatrains at all. Some critics informally refer to the FitzGerald’s English versions as “The Rubaiyat of FitzOmar”, a nickname that both recognizes the liberties FitzGerald inflicted on his purported source and also credits FitzGerald for the considerable portion of the “translation” that is his own creation.

However, as as one of the quatrains I will cite in a moment will explain everything but that later. Here just savour some of the quatrains…. though I must seek apologies if you have read them before and find a familiar or favourite one missing. This is an extremely representative selection….. for reasons that will be made clear in the coming days. These are from FitzGerald’s first edition.

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.

Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
“Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.”

And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted -” Open then the Door!
You know how little while we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more.”

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly – and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

With me along some Strip of Herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown,
Where name of Slave and Sultan scarce is known,
And pity Sultan Mahmud on his Throne.

(and this is the one most well known)

Here with a 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.

“How sweet is mortal Sovranty ! ” – think some:
Others – “How blest the Paradise to come ! ”
Ah, take the Cash in hand and waive the Rest;
Oh, the brave Music of a distant Drum!

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes – or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face
Lighting a little Hour or two – is gone.

More will follow soon…. I promise


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