Ruba`iyat of Omar Khayyam

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Ruba`iyat of Omar Khayyam


Quatrains set in Persia (Iran) at an unspecified time; written in the eleventh century; found in Persian manuscripts dating from 1207–08; published In English in 1859.


A philosopher-poet contemplates such issues as the beauties of nature, the essence of love, the mysteries of existence, the limits of private life, the joys of wine, and the necessity of seizing the day.

Events in History at the Time of the Poems

The Poems in Focus

For More Information

Authorship of the Ruba‘iyat (commonly spelled Ruba‘iyat) is attributed to the Persian scientist and poet Omar Khayyam. Khayyam (c. 1048–1122) was born Ghiyas al Din Abulfath Omar bin Ibrahim Khayyam in Nishapur (also spelled Naishapur, Naishabur, or Nayshabur), a city located in Khurasan, the northeastern province of Persia. His family had lived there for several generations, engaged perhaps in the trade of “tent-making,” as the surname Khayyam suggests. Khayyam attained his early education in Nishapur and Balkh, another Khurasan city, studying mathematics, geometry, and astronomy, subjects that would preoccupy him throughout life. Legend tells of a pact of lifelong friendship he formed in childhood with two renowned personages: Nizam al-Mulk, who later became a powerful vizier, and Hasan Sabbah, the leader of the Isma’ili Muslims, a variant of the Sh’ite branch of Islam and later of the radical groups known as the Assassins. After completing his education, Khayyam traveled to Samarqand, where he wrote a treatise on algebra and worked for the chief magistrate, Abu Tahir, and Tahir’s master, Shams al-Mulk Nasr, the ruler of Bukhara. Later, Khayyam entered the service of the Seljuk sultan Malikshah (r. 1072–1092) and his famous vizier Nizam al-Mulk (possibly Khayyam’s childhood friend) as one of several distinguished astronomers. In that capacity he was appointed in 1074 to a team of mathematicians, astronomers, and other scholars commissioned to reform the inexact solar calendar that Iran had relied upon since the early centuries of Islam. The reformed calendar, one of the most precise in the world, is still used in Iran today. Khayyam’s contribution to this scientific endeavor earned him the respect of his patron and spread his fame through the vast empire. After Malikshah’s death and Nizam al-Mulk’s murder at the hands of the Assassins in 1092, Khayyam may have fallen from favor, for he retired from the royal court, returning to his hometown, Nishapur. There he lived the rest of his life in relative obscurity, restricting his circle of acquaintances.

Khayyam probably composed the ruba‘i’s, or quatrains, upon which his poetic reputation rests throughout his adult life. None of the verses attributed to him appear to have been set down or collected in manuscript until after his death, leading some scholars to reject him as the Ruba‘iyat’s author. However, most are of the opinion that enough evidence exists to credit him with authorship of at least some portion of the existing canon. Like so many other works authored in pre-Mongol Iran, the earliest manuscripts have been lost to posterity. Groups of quatrains by Khayyam appear as part of larger works from the early thirteenth century, and manuscripts of the Ruba‘iyat date from the fourteenth century. However, it was not until the nineteenth century that the verses became widely known, through the English translation of the writer Edward FitzGerald. While FitzGerald took his share of liberties, his translation of the Rubaiyat has been praised for its fidelity to the spirit of the original and as a work of beauty in its own right. Its timeless themes resonated for English readers, as they had to a degree in the Middle East, and still do for people worldwide today.

Events in History at the Time of the Poems

The Seljuk sultanate

During Omar Khayyam’s lifetime, a Turkish tribe, known as the Seljuks, ruled over an empire that spread from Persia, to Mesopotamia, Palestine, Syria, and parts of Central Asia up to the Aral Sea. Their rise to power had begun about 970 c.e., when a group of Oghuz Turks from Central Asia entered the eastern outskirts of Muslim territory under the leadership of Seljuk himself. A Turkish chieftain, Seljuk had recently converted to Islam and became the progenitor of the people who later took his name.

It was during the first half of the eleventh century that the Seljuks, led by their chieftain’s grandson, Tugrul Beg, embarked on a series of military expeditions into Persia. In 1040, a few years before Khayyam was born, the Seljuks occupied Khurasan, defeating the forces of another group of Turkish nomads, the Ghaznavids, and extending their control over Persia and Mesopotamia. Pushing his conquest south and east, Tugrul Beg reached Baghdad in 1055 and received a cordial welcome from the Abbasid caliph al-Qua’im, who awarded him the crowns of Persia and Arabia in recognition of lands that he had already conquered. In addition to awarding him the crowns, the caliph bestowed a title on Tugrul Beg—al-Sultan (“he with authority”).

The power of the Seljuks increased throughout the reigns of Tugrul Beg, his nephew Alp Arslan, and Alp’s son Malikshah. During Malikshah’s sultanate the dynasty reached its zenith: new roads were opened; mosques, constructed; religious schools, founded; and canals, dug. For his chief minister, or vizier, Malikshah selected the highly competent Persian administrator Nizam al-Mulk. Nizam reorganized the realm’s economy from a purely monetary to a modified feudal system by distributing land to deserving military officers in exchange for their loyalty to the Crown. He made significant contributions to Persian culture as well, helping to establish the Nizamiyah, one of the first institutions of higher learning in Islam, and enlisting several astronomers, including Omar Khayyam, to reform the calendar.

Religious orthodoxy was a salient characteristic of the Seljuks’ regime. Recognized by the caliph as “King of the East and West” and “Reviver of Islam,” Tugrul Beg ruled as a devout Sunni Muslim, as did his successors, so “Khayyam and his contemporaries found themselves living under a renewed if not unprecedentedly forceful application of the principles of Islamic law” (Avery and Heath-Stubbs, p. 12). Heterodox views were strongly discouraged, despite the various factions within Islam itself and the numerous other religions practiced within the Islamic empire, including Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. In such a context, it is not surprising that many of the verses in The Ruba‘iyat of Omar Khayyam seem to advocate retirement from public into private life, where one can keep one’s own counsel and avoid persecution for one’s beliefs: “Some for the Glories of This World; and some / Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come; / Ah, take the Cash and let the Credit go, / Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!” (FitzGerald, The Ruba‘iyat of Omar Khayyam, lines 49–52).

Conflicting philosophies

The Seljuks’ ascendancy in Persia heralded intellectual as well as political changes. For many centuries, Persia had operated as an ideological “crossroads between East and West”—Greek, Asian, and Indian, as well as Islamic ideas all found adherents there (Avery and Heath-Stubbs, p. 14). In twelfth-century Persia, the Islamic ideas gave rise to Sufism or Islamic mysticism, which promulgated a closer and more intimate relationship between worshipper and deity. Piety, asceticism, and the elevation of spiritual love over reason and philosophy were some of Sufism’s salient traits.

As one might imagine in the religiously orthodox environment of Khayyam’s day, unconventional philosophical views met with disapproval. Greek philosophy, in particular, fell into disfavor among Persian intellectuals who felt that Hellenic thinking represented a threat to the Islamic faith. One of the key figures whose views came under attack was the Persian philosopher and scientist Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna; 980–1037), who had attempted to reconcile Greek ideas—mostly Aristotelian and neo-Platonic—with Islamic beliefs. The philosopher al-Ghazzali, who had facilitated the acceptance of Sufism by bringing its practices in line with Islam became a key critic. Al-Ghazzali attempted to discredit Ibn Sina and the Greek school as guides for Muslim philosophy. In his treatise Tahafut al falasifa (c. 1090; Incoherence of the Philosophers), al-Ghazzali refuted Ibn Sina on no less than 20 points, arguing that reason—and by extension, philosophy—could not fathom the absolute and the infinite and should therefore limit itself to the finite and relative. Only the inner knowledge derived from true religious faith was capable of attaining absolute truth according to al-Ghazzali.

As a mathematician in the service of the Seljuk sultanate, Khayyam said little out loud that would cast doubt on his own orthodoxy. However, he subscribed to the teachings of Ibn Sina, calling him “my spiritual master,” and elevated reason above speculation and intuition (Khayyam in Dashti, p. 72). In the introduction to his treatise on algebra, Khayyam uncharacteristically complained,

We are the victims of an age when men of science are discredited, and only a few remain who are capable of engaging in scientific research. Our philosophers spend all their time in mixing true with false and are interested in nothing but outward show; such little learning as they have they expend on material ends. When they see a man sincere and unremitting in his search for the truth, one who will have nothing to do with falsehood and pretence, they mock and despise him.

(Khayyam in Dashti, p. 78)

Khayyam’s devotion to the sciences had a disorienting effect on him, robbing him of the certitudes that characterized so many of the devout around him. As one scholar saw it, “in all matters he sought for rational proof, whereas the existence of the Creator cannot be subjected to such proof. There was nothing left for Khayyam but doubt” (Dashti, p. 88). Khayyam’s doubts, as well as his adherence to Ibn Sina’s ideas, certainly did not endear him to the increasing population of Sufis in Persian society. According to biographer


Rejecting the opinion that Khayyam did not write any of these short four-line poems, the prominent literary historian Jan Rypka states, “Such an opinion certainty went too far, for it overlooked the Circumstances that in medieval Iran science and poetry went as it were hand in hand and that Iranian scholars in no way scorned the writing of verse” (Rypka, p, 191).

Ali ibn Zaid, Khayyam and al-Ghazali had a brief, hostile meeting at which the latter expressed disdain for the former’s opinions on astronomy. Later, after Khayyam’s death, the Sufi poet Farid al-Din Attar composed a poem envisioning

Khayyam in the afterlife, ashamed and confused on being rejected at God’s threshold. There his ‘knowledge’ availed him nothing, having only made him deficient in those spiritual qualities without which no one can be blessed by God’s acceptance.

(Attar in Avery and Heath-Stubbs, p. 17)

Significantly, the Ruba‘iyat of Omar Khayyam echoes the doubts of its author, especially regarding such unknowable mysteries as existence, death, the afterlife, and the very nature of the universe. In one quatrain, the speaker observes, “Into the Universe, and Why not knowing/Nor Whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing;/And out of it, as Wind along the Waste, / I know not


Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abd Allah ibn Sina (980–1037)—known to the Western world as Avicenna—was born near Bukhara, in Persia. The son of a government official, Ibn Sina received an excellent education as a child. By age 10, he was well versed in the Quran, as well as in Arabic grammar and literature He soon mastered canon law and much of the Greek philosophy of Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy, At age 18 Ibn Sina was already active as a doctor, having read most of the then-available books on medicine. He managed to treat the ailing Samanid king successfully, which resulted in his gaining admission to the royal library to further his studies The next few years Ibn Sina devoted to expanding his knowledge of logic, philosophy, and metaphysics. Living an unsettled life, he traveled among the royal courts of eastern Persia, employed by turns as physician, vizier, or other official Wherever he went Ibn Sina attracted disciples who eagerly attended his courses on medicine and philosophy. A prolific writer, he attempted to apply the logic of Aristotle to Islamic concepts in his work A perplexing conundrum lay in the unity of God and the multiplicity of earthly beings, an offshoot being the contradiction between the goodness of God and the evil that existed in the world, To help explain this conundrum, the school of philosophers that gave rise to Ibn Sina subscribed to the so-called “Theology of Aristotle,” which taught that the universe was a series of emanations from Cod God, continues Ibn Sina, is the Creator, the First Cause, the entity embodying both essence and existence. From him emanates ten intelligences, ending with the Active Intelligence This tenth Active Intelligence communicates ideas to human life by a radiation of divine light, thereby creating a soul (Hourani, p. 173). Thus, by descending degrees, an overflow of divine love produces the soul; it remains for human life to, through love and desire, return up through the levels to the First Cause.

Whither, willy-nilly blowing” (Ruba‘iyat, lines 113–116). Such doubts certainly did not conform to orthodox Islamic beliefs, which held that on the day of creation God had put into motion a grand design for the universe and that human beings were fulfilling His will.

The importance of the ruba‘iyat

Ruba‘iyat is the Persian plural for ruba‘i, a two-couplet stanza of poetry. A ruba‘i consists of four metric units, resulting from the division of each couplet, or stich, into two hemistichs (or lines, in terms of English poetry). Each hemistich contains no more than 13 syllables, forming a self-contained quatrain, with the rhyme scheme aaba or, sometimes, aaaa.

Considered a purely Persian innovation, the ruba‘i was especially popular in northeastern Persia in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, dur-ing which Omar Khayyam lived. It is speculated that poets of that period wearied of adhering to the Arabic model of writing long, courtly, monorhymed poems. In any case, the ruba‘i’s very simplicity heightened its appeal. The form gave poets increased freedom in contrast to their prior confinement to a pattern that called for numerous lines ending in the same rhyming letter. The force of this less rigorous form reveals itself in the short, telling statement of any given ruba‘i. In essence, it is an epigrammatic stanza with a descriptive or reflective opening, whose moral is driven home in the last line, which “thrusts the finger nail into the heart” (Sa’ib in Avery and Heath-Stubbs, p. 7). For example, the following ruba‘i, attributed to Khayyam, mounts a vehement, even vitriolic, attack upon religious zealots: “And those who vaunt their prayer-rugs are but mules—/Mere hypocrites who use those rugs as tools;/ Behind the veil of zealotry they trade/The Faith! Ah, worse than heathen are those fools” (Saidi, p. 104).

The ruba‘i became a convenient means for poets to express their innermost thoughts, feelings, and doubts. Some of the quatrains, circulated anonymously, even expressed criticisms of certain rulers, regimes, and as shown, established dogmas. So pithy and expressive was the ruba‘i format that it appealed not only to jaded court poets but to the poor and uneducated as well, its very brevity making it easy to compose and memorize. Not surprisingly, intellectuals, nonconformists, and free-thinkers of Khayyam’s time were quick to embrace the ruba‘i as a genre and, also unsurprisingly, some attributed their own lines to him. At the time, this was a common practice for works resembling that of a known author, and here it served to disguise the true identity of writers who thought it imprudent to attach their own names to unpopular or irreverent beliefs.

In any event, Edward FitzGerald accepted Khayyam as author of the quatrains that he received and retained the ruba‘i form, focusing on the task of translating the content into English. His rendition would capture various facets of Khayyam’s thought, as the following quatrain demonstrates: “Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend, / Before we too into the Dust descend; / Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie, / Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and—sans End!” (Ruba‘iyat, lines 93–96). As the ruba‘i indicates, there was a positive side to the doubtful quatrains, an energetic focus on living in and for the moment, which was as novel to mainstream perceptions as the doubts themselves.

The Poems in Focus

Plot summary

Among the many translations into English of the Ruba‘iyat of Omar Khayyam, the ones by Edward FitzGerald are probably the best known to modern readers. Originally each ruba‘i was composed as a separate entity that may not have anything to do with the verse that preceded or followed it in manuscript collections. FitzGerald imposed an order of sorts on the lot that he translated, arranging them as stanzas in a larger narrative poem that chronicles a day in the life of the narrator.

The poem begins at morning, on New Year’s Day in Iran, which is the first day of spring. The speaker, identified in FitzGerald’s first edition as “old Khayyam” but left nameless in subsequent editions, exhorts his companion to wake and accompany him into the garden. He tells his companion (an addressee whose gender remains undetermined since Persian pronouns are not distinguished by gender) that just before dawn he thought he heard a voice within the tavern. The voice chided those who tarried outside while others clamored impatiently to be admitted, because “You know how little while we have to stay, /” And once departed, may return no more” (Ruba‘iyat, lines 6, 11–12). For the speaker, the tavern becomes a metaphor for the outside world, while the wine so eagerly sought by the customers represents the very essence of life, which must inevitably drain away, drop by drop.

In the garden with his companion, the speaker reflects upon the beauty of nature and the glory of the past, arriving at the melancholy conclusion that everything is transitory: the rose may bloom again each spring, but mortals, whether humble or exalted, once dead, cannot return. Therefore, the speaker counsels his companion to live for today, consigning yesterday to the past and dismissing tomorrow as something yet unborn, a day when he may no longer exist: “Ah, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears / TO-DAY of past Regret and future Fears:/ To-morrow!—Why, To-morrow I may be / Myself with Yesterday’s Sev’n thousand Years” (Ruba‘iyat, lines 81–84).

The speaker goes on to argue that, as worldly ambition and grandeur prove impotent in the face of mortality, so do learning and wisdom. In his youth the poet eagerly sought knowledge from masters in every field, but, despite his efforts, he now finds himself unable to unravel “the Master-Knot of Human Fate” (Ruba‘iyat, line 124). The deepest mysteries of the universe, of existence and death, remain unsolved, and wine—a symbol of life itself—remains the best palliative the world has to offer against confusion, frustration, and the anguish of not knowing more. The speaker renounces all intellectual pursuits and reiterates the importance of enjoying oneself in the moment, rather than reaching futilely after answers that remain elusive or after earthly rewards that prove hollow: “Waste not your Hour, nor in the vain pursuit / Of This and That endeavor and dispute; / Better be jocund with the fruitful Grape / Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit” (Ruba‘iyat, lines 213–216). Nor should one perplex oneself about what happens after death, for those who have gone before cannot return to speak of what they have seen: “Oh threat of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!/One thing at least is certain—This Life flies/One thing is certain and the rest is Lies—/the Flower that once has blown forever dies” (Ruba‘iyat, lines 249–252). It was this sort of lyrical outburst that eventually got Khayyam into trouble with the religious authorities. They saw in his sentiments


Iran’s ancient civilization and desert culture have given rise to a rich imagery of pottery and pots in Persian poetry. Pottery was widespread on the Iranian plateau as early as 6,000 b.c.e. when production techniques already included painting and burnishing/The potter’s wheel, known to have existed in Greece since 2000 b.c.e. was in existence in the Iranian village of Sialk far earlier, by 3500 b.c.e. At first pottery was purely a functional craft, pots being used to store water for a short time. Designs on pots at first imitated basket-weaving patterns, drawing from the only art older than pottery making, but over time the designs grew ever more sophisticated. Meanwhile, pots became commoner and more diverse as large vats and smaller jugs were produced and used to ferment or store wine, and a variety of other vessels and utensils were made for everyday use Pottery makers discovered that the best clay for their craft came from graveyards, possibly because decomposing human bodies made the earth around corpses oilier and therefore more malleable. This discovery led to an analogy in the minds of people such as Khayyam, who personifies pots as humans of long ago, still eager to be filled with wine and its forgetfulness-inducing properties. As pottery shops flourished in cities along the desert, such as Nishapur, a wealth of images arose from the contemplation of them, adding to the already rich stock of imagery in Persian poetry. At the same time, winemaking grew as an industry. The two arts—that of winemaking and that of pottery—intersected on the pages of Persian Sufi poetry, as the idea of fermentation came to serve as a metaphor for the human capacity to attain union with Cod. If simple sweet grapes could be turned into potent intoxicating wine, wouldn’t it be possible for humans to be merged into union with God, Both Sufi poets and poets like Khayyam used these complex sets of images for their own different purposes, In the Ruba‘iyat, the pot is most often seen as a thing of beauty caught in the hands of a whimsical potter who keeps making and breaking his own beautiful creations.

not just a threat to the certainties they preached; in their eyes, a man of science was accusing them of preaching falsehoods altogether.

Nor does the speaker of these quatrains spare God, who is portrayed as a whimsical puppet-master or a calculating chess player utterly heedless of the human lot. To him human beings are merely “helpless pieces of the Game He plays/Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days” (Ruba‘iyat, lines 272, 273–274). The Creator’s very omnipotence, the speaker contends, renders the idea of a predestined fate unlikely. As imperfect models of clay formed by an all-knowing Deity, humans can only do the best they can with what they have been given. They cannot repay the Creator in “pure Gold for what he lent [them] dross-allayed” and should therefore not be punished for their imperfections: “O Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin / Beset the Road I was to wander in, / Thou wilt not with Predestined Evil round / Enmesh, and then impute my Fall to Sin!” (Ruba‘iyat, lines 314, 317–320). This may well be Khayyam’s way of highlighting the much-debated question of whether individuals are predestined for heaven or hell.

Such reflections lead the speaker of the Ruba‘iyat to recall a dream or fantasy, set in a potter’s house among numerous clay vessels of different shapes and sizes. Several vessels speak among themselves, pondering the same concerns as humans: the nature and purpose of their existence, their particular forms, and the identity of the potter who made them. All the pots are made to hold wine, and as the moon arises, all eagerly anticipate being filled with the beverage of forgetfulness, sweet balm in an incomprehensible world.

Watching pots as they take shape or break up, as they are filled with wine or emptied of it, the speaker of the Ruba‘iyat contemplates the human condition. He recalls how his new devotion to wine has tarnished his scholarly reputation and how he previously resolved to repent of his excesses but abandoned repentance with the return of spring. Once again, he laments “that Spring should vanish with the Rose! / That Youth’s sweet-scented manuscript should close!” (Ruba‘iyat, lines 381–382). He wishes he had the power to rewrite what fate has ordained, that he and his companion could transform “this sorry Scheme of Things entire” into something “nearer to the Heart’s Desire”—a better world, perhaps, a less fleeting life, eternal love (Ruba‘iyat, 394, 396). But the passage of time is inevitable and one night, the moon will return to the garden and find him gone from the company of “the Guests Star-Scattered on the Grass,” with only a downturned wine glass to mark the spot where he once was (Ruba‘iyat, line 402).

Khayyam and his translators

Although we may never know in any satisfactory way how many ruba‘i’s Omar Khayyam really composed, we know that the canon of ruba‘i’s credited to him grew in time, as many writers attributed to Khayyam quatrains they did not wish to claim as their own for fear of the consequences. The current canon that bears his name has, in short, been used as a repository of diverse unorthodox ideas of an agnostic or atheistic nature about God and man, this world and the next, and individual doubts that question widely accepted dogmas. This is why, given the highly orthodox nature of religion in Persia over the ages, the growing canon continued to occupy a marginal space within the constellation of Persian poetry. Only after news of the Ruba‘iyat success in the Western world reached the shores of the poet’s native land, in successive waves, did the Iranians begin to take note of Khayyam as a poet.

In the West, the Ruba‘iyat achieved wide recognition through the efforts of two scholars in Victorian England—Edward Cowell and Edward FitzGerald. While working in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University in 1856, Cowell, a scholar who taught himself to read Persian at an early age, discovered a fourteenth-century manuscript of the verses in the Ouseley collection and made a copy for his own use. Cowell showed the verses to his friend, FitzGerald, whom he had been teaching Persian for several years, and that summer the two men spent their time reading and discussing Khayyam’s works and philosophy. FitzGerald was much taken with the Ruba‘iyat, writing to another friend, the poet Alfred Tennyson,

I have been the last Fortnight with the Cowells. We read some curious Infidel and Epicurean Tetrastichs by a Persian of the Eleventh Century… mostly of Epicurean Pathos of this kind— “Drink—for the Moon will often come round to look for us in this Garden and find us not.”

(Fitz Gerald in Jewett, p. 73)

Although Cowell left England in August 1856 to teach at Presidency College in Calcutta, India, he gave FitzGerald a second copy of the verses and corresponded frequently with him about the latter’s progress in Persian studies. Fitz Gerald, who had entered into a difficult and ultimately unsuccessful marriage that year, delved eagerly into the Ruba‘iyat of Omar Khayyam as a means of distraction, and the work continued to fascinate him. Again he wrote Tennyson about his new enthusiasm:

[Khayyam] writes in little Quatrains, and has scarce any of the iteration and conceits to which his People are given. One of the last things I remember of him is that—“God gave me this turn for Drink, perhaps God was drunk when he made me”—which is not strictly pious. But he is very tender about his Roses and Wine, and making the most of this poor little Life.

(Fitz Gerald in Martin, p. 203)

In early 1857 FitzGerald set out to collate the verses from the Ouseley manuscript with another copy of the Ruba‘iyat, perhaps to be found in Paris libraries. He wrote the French scholar Garcin de Tassy, enclosing a transcript of the quatrains already in his possession. Although De Tassy had not heard of Khayyam before, he was enchanted by the verses, writing a paper “Note sur les ruba‘iyat de Omar Khaiyam” (Note on the Ruba‘iyat of Omar Khayyam) that appeared in the Journal Asiatique of 1857.

Meanwhile, Cowell had discovered another manuscript of the Ruba‘iyat in Calcutta, this one containing about 516 quatrains in contrast to the Ouseley manuscript’s 158. Once more Cowell made a copy of the verses he found and showed them to FitzGerald. Receiving the transcript in June 1857, FitzGerald collated the new material with the Ouseley verses, made annotations as he worked, and began to consider publishing a translation of the quatrains. In August 1857 he wrote to Cowell to say that the quatrains could be shaped into a “very pretty” eclogue, or pastoral poem, but he suspected Cowell would disapprove of its moral (Fitz Gerald in Jewett, p. 79).

His misgivings about Cowell’s reception of his interpretation of Khayyam’s poems were well-founded. A man of strong Christian scruples, Cowell published a scholarly article “Omar Khayyam, the Astronomer Poet of Persia” in the Calcutta Review of March 1858, in which he


While subject matter and imagery remain constant, each translator of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam brings his particular phrasing to the poems. Below are four translations of the same quatrain, ranging from the most literal to the “freest.”

We are the pawns, and Heaven is the player;
This is plain truth, and not a mode of speech.
We move about the chessboard of the world,
Then drop into the casket of the void.
          (Dashti, p. 191)
We are the puppets and the firmament is the puppet master,
in actual fact and not as a metaphor;
For a time we acted on this stage,
We went back one by one into the box of oblivion.
          (Avery and Heath-Stubs, p. 52)
But helpless pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
          {FitzGeratd, p, 105)
We are but chessmen Player to amuse
On fact and not in metaphor I muse),
On board of life we play, then one by one
In nihility chest we’re laid to snooze.
          (Saidi, p. 129)

expressed disapproval of what he saw as Khayyam’s worldliness and impiety. Although Cowell did not favor Persian mysticism for its own sake, he felt Khayyam would have fared better had he been a mystic:

The mysticism, in which the better spirits of Persia loved to lose themselves, was a higher thing, after all, than his keen worldliness, because this was of the earth, and bounded by the earth’s narrow span, while that, albeit an error, was a groping after the divine.… Omar Khayyam builds no system,—he contents himself with doubts and conjectures,—he loves to balance antitheses of belief, and settle himself in the equipoise of the sceptic.

(Cowell in Jewett, p. 81)

By contrast, FitzGerald embraced the very elements in Khayyam of which Cowell disapproved. Although he raised no opposition to his friend’s article, he made it clear that he intended to progress with his own plans for the Rubai‘yat.

Well: don’t be surprised (vext, you won’t be) if I solicit Fraser [the editor of Fraser’s Magazine] for a few Quatrains in English Verse, however—with only such an Introduction as you and Sprenger give me—very short—so as to leave you to say all that is Scholarly if you will. I hope this is not very Cavalier of me. But in truth I take old Omar rather more as my property than yours; he and I are more akin, are we not? You see all his Beauty, but you don’t feel with him in some respects as I do.

(Fitz Gerald, p. xxxi)

FitzGerald thus continued with his “Epicurean Eclogue in a Persian Garden,” which was first published anonymously in 1859 by the antiquarian bookseller Bernard Quaritch (Fitz Gerald, p. xxxi).

A producing the rendition, FitzGerald arranged and transposed existing quatrains, omitted others that detracted from his chosen themes of religious doubt and the importance of life lived in the moment, and even added images and phrases of his own to give the work unity. His intent had never been to create a literal translation; rather, he was striving for fidelity to the spirit of Omar Khayyam. After completing his rendition of the poem, FitzGerald wrote, “I suppose very few People have ever taken such pains in Translation as I have, though certainly not to be literal. But at all Cost, a Thing must live: with a transfusion of one’s own worse Life if one can’t retain the Original’s better. Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle” (Fitz Gerald in Martin, p. 204). And despite FitzGerald’s liberties with the text, few would deny that his translation not only lives, but also admirably introduces the Ruba‘iyat of Omar Khayyam to an English-speaking audience.

The cult of the Ruba‘iyat

In a sense, Victorian England and early-twentieth-century America were thirsting for the ideas expressed in the Ruba‘iyat. The famous story about the work’s making the circles among the English poets of the time best illustrates the immediate success of the poems. It is said that after the journalist Whitley Stokes (1830–1909) showed a copy of FizGerald’s 1859 edition to the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and he, in turn, showed it to the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne and others, London bookshops were raided for copies of the work. Thus began a cult of Khayyam worship in England and America that lasted well into the twentieth century and went far beyond literary circles to involve all manner of philosophers, religious thinkers, and other intellectuals of the age. This same enthusiasm gave rise to numerous other works that emulated or justified, modified or refuted the ideas their authors saw enshrined in the work. Both FitzGerald and Cow-ell tried to distance themselves from the blasphemy that had come to be associated with Omar Khayyam’s poetry, the former through his later translation of other Persian mystical poets such as Attar and Jami, the latter most famously in a letter after FitzGerald’s death:

I unwittingly incurred a grave responsibility when I introduced his [Khayyam’s] poems to my old friend in 1856. I admire Omar as I admire Lucretius, but I cannot take him as a guide. In these grave matters I prefer to go to Nazareth, not to Naishapur.

(Yohannan, p. 171)

The Khayyam bandwagon had become unstoppable, though. By the dawn of the twentieth century, the appeal of the quatrains had grown overpowering. While some devoted readers resolved to save Khayyam from the end to which his agnostic, irreverent genius seemed to have doomed him, others were bent on keeping him just as blasphemous as Fitz Gerald’s version made him appear. Thus, in 1907, Louis C. Alexander composed a long poem entitled Testament of Omar Khayyam (1907), proclaiming him to be “a man of lofty yet humble piety” (Alexander in Yohannan, p. 207). In response, another Khayyam devotee by the name of H. Justus Williams published 63 quatrains, which he claimed Khayyam had written toward the end of his life. Called The Last Ruba‘iyat of Omar Khayyam, it was designed to prove that rumors of the poet’s repentance had been exaggerated. In America, the Ruba‘iyat was the rage of literary circles throughout the first half of the twentieth century. It seems that an eleventh-century Persian poet managed to mirror conceptions of the human condition held by many in Victorian England and modem America, and to elicit the emotions that these conceptions evoked in them.

Sources and literary context

Although no manuscripts of the Ruba‘iyat have apparently survived from Khayyam’s lifetime, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that he had indeed composed poetry. According to Ali Dashti, the earliest reference to Khayyam’s verses appears in an Arabic book some 55 years after Khayyam’s death. Between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries allusions to Khayyam’s poetry appear in numerous written works.

Selections from the Ruba‘iyat were furthermore printed in several Persian anthologies, where the expansion of the collection suggests a growing number of verses. All told, the estimated number of quatrains attributed to Khayyam is a startling 2,213, although various scholars contend that Khayyam composed only about 200 ruba‘i’s. As was typical of the genre, the quatrains ranged over a variety of moods, from light-heartedness to melancholy, ventured in directions that orthodox Islam might have considered heretical, and ended with an epigrammatic sting in the tail. Literary scholar Iran B. Hassani Jewett writes,

Persian scholars regard [Omar Khayyam] as a liberal agnostic in the tradition of Avicenna and as a forerunner of [Hafiz] in whose poetry Omar’s earthly wine assumes a mystical significance. Omar’s place in the hierarchy of poets is expressed best in a statement attributed to the Moghul Emperor of India, Akbar, who said that each of Hafez’s ghazals (“lyrics”) should be accompanied by a rubai from Omar Khayyam, for reading Hafez without Omar was like wine without relish.

(Jewett, p. 100)


Individuals, whatever their era or country of origin, have approached Khayyam and the Ruba‘iyat variously. The Victorian scholar Cow-ell, as has been shown, considered him a heathen, while the more worldly FitzGerald embraced him as a kindred spirit who appreciated all present pleasures. Still others analyzed the Ruba‘iyat in terms of Sufism, assigning a mystical meaning to the repeated motifs of wine (spiritual love, or forbidden fruit, since wine was forbidden to Muslims), the beloved companion (the Deity) and the tavern (the world, or Sufi lodge). The vigor and variety of interpretations attests to the work’s enduring appeal through the centuries.

Within a few years of its anonymous publication in England, FitzGerald’s Ruba‘iyat of Omar Khayyam attracted much admiration. Rossetti, who was a painter as well as a poet, became an immediate enthusiast and recommended the work to many of his friends. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—upstarts in art who protested convention (and included not only Swinburne but also Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris), eagerly bought up what copies they could find, some priced as low as a penny. So impressed was the influential critic John Ruskin that he wrote a note to the translator of the Ruba‘iyat, to be delivered when his identity should become known: “I do not know in the least who you are, but I do with all my soul pray you to find and translate some more of Omar Khayyam for us: I never did—till this day—read anything so glorious, to my mind, as this poem… and this is all I can say about it—and that I am ever gratefully and respectfully yours” (Ruskin in Yohannan, p. 161) The note would not be delivered until 1872, when FitzGerald released a third edition.

The increased demand for the Ruba‘iyat had prompted FitzGerald’s publisher to ask for a second edition. Initially reluctant, FitzGerald was at last persuaded to oblige, polishing the original translation and adding new stanzas, increasing the number of quatrains from 75 to 110; this was later cut back to 101 stanzas in the 1872 and 1879 editions. Published anonymously again, the poems of the second edition appeared in 1868. Meanwhile, the Ruba‘iyat had attracted praise and a following in America; Charles Eliot Norton, writing for the North American Review, called the Ruba‘iyat not just a translation but as a masterpiece in its own right:

He 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 reappear. In the whole of our literature there is hardly to be found a more admirable example of the most skilful poetic rendering of remote foreign poetry.… It has all the merit of a remarkable original production, and its excellence is the highest testimony that could be given, to the essential impressiveness and worth of the Persian poet. It is… not a translation, but the redelivery of a poetic inspiration.

(Norton in Jewett, pp. 89–90)

In 1870 an unsigned review by Thomas W. Hinchcliff in Fraser’s Magazine praised “the excellence and elegance of [the translator’s work]” and noted the timeless appeal of Khayyam’s poetry: “We must be content to admire his verse [s] for their intrinsic beauty. The vigor of his thought and expression, and their harmony with much that is now going on around us, inspire us with a strange feeling of sympathy for him who in the darkest ages of Europe filled himself with all knowledge accessible to him before he went to his last sleep under the roses of Naishapur” (Hinchliff in Jewett, p. 91).

Inevitably Khayyam and FitzGerald were to become inextricably linked in the minds of critics, with some reviewers even seeing the later as a reincarnation of the former. In 1897 John Hay, a lecturer for the Omar Khayyam Club, related how he came across a “literal translation of the Ruba‘iyat, and I saw that not the least remarkable quality of Fitz-Gerald’s poem was its fidelity to the original. In short, Omar was an earlier Fitz-Gerald, or Fitz-Gerald was a reincarnation of Omar” (Hay in Harris and Tennyson, p. 268). Critics also defended FitzGerald’s translation from Persian scholars who complained of the liberties taken with the original. Commenting upon FitzGerald’s principles of translation, essayist Arthur Platt observed,

The unhappy translator is always being impaled on the horns of a dilemma. If he translates literally he produces stuff no mortal can read.… If, on the other hand, he makes a good and readable thing of it, then arise all people who know the original, and begin to peck at it like a domestic fowl. If one steers a middle course, one pleases nobody.… [FitzGerald] omits whole passages, puts in bits of his own, modifies and arranges everything, and makes—a poem.

(Platt in Harris and Tennyson, p. 267)

—Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak and Pamela S. Loy.

For More Information

Avery, Peter, and John Heath-Stubbs. The Ruba‘iyat of Omar Khayyam. London: Allen Lane, 1979.

Dashti, Ali. In Search of Omar Khayyam. Trans L. P. Elwell-Sutton. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1971.

FitzGerald, Edward, trans. The Ruba‘iyat of Omar Khayyam: A Critical Edition. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

Goldschmidt, Arthur. A Concise History of the Middle East. Boulder: Westview Press, 1988.

Harris, Laurie Lanzen, and Emily B. Tennyson, eds. Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism Vol. 9. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. New York: Warner, 1991.

Jewett, Iran Hassani. Edward FitzGerald. Boston: Twayne, 1977.

Keddie, Nikki R., and Rudi Matthee, eds. Iran and the Surrounding World. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002.

Landau, Rom. Islam and the Arabs. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959.

Martin, Robert. Bernard. With Friends Possessed: A Life of Edward FitzGerald. London: Faber and Faber, 1985.

Rypka, Jan, et al. History of Iranian Literature. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 1968.

Saidi, Ahmad, trans. Ruba‘iyat of Omar Khayyam. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1991.

Yohannan, John D. Persian Poetry in England and America: A 200-Year History. Delmar, New York: 1977.