Omar Khayyám


Appropriately, I begin this series with the patron of this blog, ‏‏غیاث الدین ابوالفتح عمر بن ابراهیم خیام نیشابورﻯ, in proper Persian transcription, Ghiyāth ad-Din Abu’l-Fatḥ ‘Umar ibn Ibrāhīm al-Khayyām Nīshāpūrī.  In the West, though, he’s most commonly known as Omar Khayyám (in the Victorian era, when Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of Omar’s poetry became wildly popular, the custom for indicating long vowels in Persian transcription was to use the acute accent; nowadays, the macron is preferred; hence, “Khayyám” vs “Khayyām”).

Omar is best known in the west as the author of the Rubáʿiyát.  This is the plural of rubáʿi, which simply means “quatrain” (a verse of four lines).  The rubáʿi was a very popular genre of verse in Persia, and hundreds of rubáʿiyát are attributed to Omar.  Beginning in 1859, the English poet Edward FitzGerald translated a number of the rubáʿiyát attributed to Omar, publishing them under the title The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (for keen-sighted readers, I’m not being inconsistent.  The apostrophe, representing the glottal stop, should properly be between the first “a” and the “i” in rubáʿiyát–thus, it’s pronounced “roo-BAH-ee-yaht”, not “roo-BYE-yaht”.  However, FitzGerald left it out, for whatever reason.  Thus, when I print the title as he gave it, I’m following suit; but when discussing the genre as such, I’m leaving the glottal stop in).  Over the remainder of his life, FitzGerald produced five editions of the Rubáiyát.  This book became immensely popular in the Victorian age, and while less well-known now, it is still moderately popular, and has never been out of print.

We’ll return to Omar’s poetry a little later.  Meanwhile, a little bit about him.  Omar Khayyám was born in 1048 AD and died in 1131.  There is a famous story, related by FitzGerald, in the preface to his translation of the Rubáiyát, that Omar had two close friends from his school days, Nizam ul-Mulk, who later became Vizier to the Sultan, and Hassan-e Sabbah, who ultimately became the founder of the notorious Assassins (one of whom, ironically, ultimately assassinated Nizam!).  This is historically unlikely.  In any case, Omar was a prodigy who studied the Greek mathematicians and soon became expert in mathematics, geometry, and astronomy.

As an adult, he wrote many treatises on mathematics, algebra, and geometry, including work on Euclid’s Fifth Postulate.  At the invitation of Nizam ul-Mulk, Omar spent much time at the court, during which time he reformed the Persian calendar.  The resulting calendar, known as the Jalali Calendar, is more accurate than the Gregorian Calendar (the one we use), and, with minor modifications, is in use today.  Omar also did work on science (Archimedes’s Principle) and music theory, and wrote several books on philosophy.  It is these fields in which Omar was most renowned in Iran and the Muslim world in general.

He also, of course, wrote poetry, mainly in the format of the rubāʿi, a quatrain with a rhyme scheme of AABA or AAAA.  Several hundred have been attributed to him, and there is scholarly disagreement as to which are authentic.  There is general agreement that many of them are likely to be authentic, though, and there is little doubt that Omar wrote poetry.  Most educated men of his day wrote poetry–usually as a pastime during periods of leisure between the concerns of their occupation.  Omar’s poetry, in fact, seems to have got him in trouble.  Many of his verses praise wine (a no-no for observant Muslims) and express cynical and skeptical views of organized religion.  At one point, after the death of his patron Nizam ul-Mulk, Omar seems to have fallen out of favor at court.  According to early biographers, this was because he was suspected of heresy.  For this reason, he went on the pilgrimage to Mecca (ajj) in order to prove his religious bona fides.  Upon his return, he retired to his birth city Nishapur, where he is said to have kept a very low profile for the remainder of his life.  After his death, he was buried in Khayyam Garden.  Renovation of his mausoleum was completed in 1963.  Here is an image of it:

So, why do I put him on my Own Personal Altar?

When I was a senior in high school, I had an old textbook that had the entire text of FitzGerald’s Second Edition of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and I was quite taken with it.  I think late teenage angst, uncertainty about my post-high school life, and teenage faux world-weariness fed into a lot of it.  In any case, I quoted Omar in my valedictory address:

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.

Time passed, I grew up, and my love of Omar’s poetry became less passionate.  I also learned that there was much criticism of the accuracy of FitzGerald’s famous translation.  Omar receded into memory.

A decade or so ago, at a used-book store, I got hold of a Penguin Classics edition of FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát, containing the full First and Fifth editions, with some of the quatrains from other editions.  I got to re-reading it; and while I didn’t have the same overwhelming experience I’d had at the age of 17 or so, I found I still appreciated FitzGerald’s Omar–even more than I had before, in some ways.  In 2011 I started this blog, the name of which I took from one of the Rubáiyát:

’Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

Later on, for reasons I don’t clearly remember, I decided to publish all of FitzGerald’s translations, one rubáʿi per day.  Thus began the Rubá’í of the Day series.  I ended up publishing the seventy-five rubáʿiyát of FitzGerald’s First Edition, plus the five hundred translated by E. H. Whinfield.  I still get blog traffic to those rubáʿiyát, so I must not be the only fan of Omar out there!  In reading more about him, I also came to appreciate Omar for the reasons his contemporaries did–as an outstanding mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher.

Two final notes about Omar.  One, there is a certain amount of debate about his actual beliefs.  He was certainly thought by many contemporaries to be a skeptic and/or agnostic; and many of the Rubáiyát would support this view, at least on the face of it.  On the other hand, some scholars have argued that he was a Sufi–a member of one of the mystic Islamic orders that flourished at this time–and that the Rubáiyát must be read metaphorically or allegorically.  Certainly, Sufi poetry is known for using wine as a metaphor for the intoxication with the experience of God–if I recall correctly, the great Persian poet Hafez–who is universally considered a Sufi–often writes thus.  In any case, I don’t have a firm enough grasp of the sources to have an opinion either way.  The majority view seems to be that Omar was indeed a skeptic.  If so, I like him despite that, and can even sympathize to some extent.  If he was a Sufi, that’s OK, too.  Who knows?  Omar may have held different positions at different phases of his life.

The second note is in regard to Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of the Rubáiyát, without which Omar would be unknown in the West.  The typical criticism of FitzGerald is that he made more of a paraphrase than a translation.  Back here, in taking issues with  many modern “translations” made by people who don’t even know the source language, I gave my defense of FitzGerald’s work:

Of course, it was famously said of [FitzGerald’s translation] that it amounted to The Rubáiyát of FitzOmar, on the grounds of his alleged looseness, and there’s something to be said for that.  However, there are some important differences.  Fitzgerald did, in fact, know Persian, and knew it quite well.  From his letters, he took the scholarship very seriously and even correctly made textual emendations to existing manuscripts and rejected some of the quatrains as not by Omar, judgements which were later confirmed by scholarly consensus.  He also labored long and hard over his work, revising it through four editions over the last couple decades of his life, and a fifth published posthumously.  It is also important to keep in mind that Fitzgerald was a proponent of what we’d now call “dynamic equivalence translation” at a time when “formal equivalence” was considered the norm.  Most importantly, he was upfront about combining and paraphrasing some of the verses and arranging them into a “loose Eclogue”.  Certainly, he never claimed some deep and special insight denied other translators (though he did view Omar as a kindred spirit), nor did he make a career of churning out scads of “translations” to suit the popular taste.  He did do other translations (also in what we’d call a “dynamic equivalence” mode), but more as a gentlemanly hobby than a cottage industry.

So though in some ways FitzGerald did not follow what I’d consider the ideal procedure for translation, I think he was honest about what he was doing and better at the nuts and bolts than he is often given credit for.  Thus, I tend to give him a pass on this mater.  He actually stands up better than many later and more technically accurate translations, in my opinion.

In closing, I offer this last rubáʿi of FitzGerald’s first edition, and offer a spiritual libation to the great Omar Khayyám!

And when Thyself with shining Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter’d on The Grass,
And in Thy joyous Errand reach the Spot
Where I made one—turn down an empty Glass!


Part of the series “Your Own Personal Altar


Posted on 09/04/2018, in great individuals, literature, philosophy, poetry and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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