BORN: 1048, Neyshabur, Persia
DIED: 1131, Neyshabur, Persia
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction
The Rubáiyát (1859)
During his lifetime as a mathematician and astronomer in Persia, Omar Khayyám was renowned for his scientific achievements, but he was not recognized as a poet. Not until scholar and poet Edward FitzGerald translated the Persian manuscript of Khayyám's verse into English in 1859 did the Western world discover Khayyám's lyrics. Today, Khayyám's Rubáiyát, a collection of quatrains composed in the traditional Persian rubai style, is recognized throughout the West. Both sensual and spiritual, the Rubáiyát has remained powerfully poignant because it appeals to humankind's deepest passions and most profound philosophical concerns.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Obscure Early Life Khayyám was born in 1048 in Neyshabur, Persia, what is now northeastern Iran. At the time, Neyshabur was a commercially wealthy province, as well as an important intellectual, political, and religious center. At the time, Persia was ruled by the Turks who had conquered the territory in 1037 bringing with them their Islamic faith. They remained in control of the region until the early 1200s. While little is known of Khayyám's early life, it is believed that he received an education emphasizing science, mathematics, and philosophy from the celebrated teacher Iman Mowaffak in Neyshabur.
In his early twenties, Khayyám traveled to Samarkand, where he completed his famous treatise on algebra, a work that is considered one of the most outstanding mathematical achievements of the medieval period. His mathematical writings include a study titled The Difficulties of Euclid's Definitions (1077). In these works, Khayyám attempts to classify equations, particularly quadratic and cubic equations.
Royal Assignments In 1074, Khayyám returned to Neyshabur and was invited by the Sultan Malik-Shah, the Seljuk Turkish ruler, to join a group of eight scholars assigned to reform the Muslim calendar. The result, the Jalai solar calendar, is noteworthy because it is more accurate than the Julian calendar and almost as precise as Pope Gregory XIII's revision of the Julian calendar. During this time, Khayyám was also commissioned, along with other astronomers, to collaborate on a plan for an observatory in the capital city of Isfahnan. At this time, the city was one of the most important in the world.
Death of Malik-Shah Records indicate that after the death of Malik-Shah in 1092, Khayyám, deeply mourning the loss, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Translated by Edward FitzGerald, one poem that appears to have been written at this time reads: “Khayyám, who stitched the tents of science / Has fallen in grief's furnace and been sudden burned.” Until his death on December 4, 1131, Khayyám spent the rest of his life in the key city of Neyshabur, where he taught astrology and mathematics and predicted future events for the royal court when called upon to do so.
Poet? No record exists to indicate that Khayyám ever wrote poetry. Certainly his achievements in mathematics and astronomy eclipsed any in poetry during his own lifetime. Because manuscripts of his quatrains did not appear until two hundred years after his death and because of the differences among the various versions, some scholars doubt that he is the author of the Rubáiyát. This argument is strengthened by the fact that the content of the Rubáiyát is inconsistent, as some poems are mystical and philosophical, while others are amoral and hedonistic. Having exhaustively studied the work in an effort to determine which of the nearly one thousand quatrains were written by Khayyám, some Persian academics have claimed that only around two hundred and fifty stanzas could be those of Khayyám. Nevertheless, Khayyám's credibility as a poet appears strong, as numerous translations of the Rubáiyát have been published throughout the years.
Discovery and Dissemination Discovered by English Persian scholar E. B. Cowell at Oxford's Bodleian Library, a fifteenth-century manuscript of Khayyám's verse was passed to Edward FitzGerald, who translated 75 of the 158 quatrains into English. Concerned that the sensual and atheistic aspects of several of the stanzas would offend readers, FitzGerald included those pieces in their original Persian language. When FitzGerald anonymously published his 1859 translation at his own expense, not even a single copy of the book sold.
Only when a bookseller demoted the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám to his store's penny box on the street did the collection gain any attention. In 1861, Whitley Stokes, an editor of the Saturday Review, purchased several copies of the Rubáiyát, and, impressed by the work, passed a copy along to pre-Raphaelite painter and poet, Dante Rossetti. Rossetti, in turn, gave a copy to poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, who then shared it with writer George Meredith.
Unknown in the Western world before its pre-Raphaelite readership, the Rubáiyát became an enormous success in English and American literary circles. Shortly afterwards, the FitzGerald translation created a sensation when it reached the general public. As a result, scholars began searching for additional manuscripts of Khayyám's work, and countless translations followed, each of them different in content, form, and the number of quatrains.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Khayyám's famous contemporaries include:
Saint Anselm (1033–1109): Besides being one of the fathers of scholastic theology, Anselm originated the ontological argument for the existence of God. His works include Monologion (1075–1076).
Lanfranc (1015–1089): A Lombard who became archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc played an important role in persuading Pope Alexander II to support the Norman invasion of England in 1066.
Ernulf (1040–1124): The bishop of Rochester, Ernulf is credited with compiling laws, papal decrees, and documents relating to the church of Rochester in a collection titled Textus Roffensis.
Malik-Shah (1055–1092): Malik-Shah was the third and most famous of the Seljuk Turkish sultans, a ruling military family that founded an empire that included Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, and most of Iran.
Rodrigo Diaz (1040–1099): Known as El Cid, or “the chief,” Diaz was a national hero of Spain and a central military figure in the fight against the Moors.
Constantine the African (1020–1087): This Carthaginian was a translator of the Greek and Islamic medical texts that contributed to the twelfth-century establishment of the first medical university, located in Salerno, part of the Kingdom of Sicily. His translations include Kitab (1087), also known as The Complete Book of the Medical Art.
Works in Literary Context
As a literary genre, rubái—the poetic form of the Rubáiyát—was highly popular during the eleventh and twelfth centuries in Persia, inspiring such poets as Rumi, who has earned the reputation of being a great spiritual poet.
Rubái Stanzas The rubái is a poetic form originating from the Urdu-Persian language. Typically, each rubái stanza consists of four rhyming lines, sometimes referred to as interlocking Rubáiyát. However, in Khayyám's poetry, the third line does not rhyme with lines one, two, and four, thus forming an AABA rhyme scheme. Each quatrain of the Rubáiyát forms a complete thought. In general, the first two lines pose a situation or problem, usually presented through metaphor or simile. The third line creates suspense, followed by the fourth, which offers some kind of resolution.
The quatrains typically credited to Khayyám share stylistic simplicity and conciseness. Thematically, the Rubáiyát is complex and meditative, revealing despair over the brevity of life, impatience with the ignorance of man, and doubt in the existence of a benevolent God. Such pessimism, however, is tempered by a sensual, self-gratifying approach to life, acting as if every day could be one's last. Without a doubt, the Rubáiyát demonstrates the inherent contradiction between the sadness and joy of life.
Affront to Islam The Rubáiyát is considered to be a meditation on the meaning of life, as Khayyám addressed the eternal questions of life, death, religion, and the puzzles of the universe. Because Khayyám's work was often viewed as heretical by orthodox Muslims for its hedonism, including its praise of wine, the Rubáiyát was most likely circulated anonymously, probably memorized and passed along more frequently than it was written down. Evidence indicates that the Rubáiyát were almost certainly sung at mystical gatherings.
Influence The best-known Persian poet in the West, Khayyám has significantly influenced the style and themes of many poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Praised for its lyrical form and moving insight, the Rubáiyát was imitated by such poets as Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Algernon Charles Swinburne.
Works in Critical Context
Little is known about the reception of Khayyám's poetry prior to the nineteenth century. It was the commercial success of FitzGerald's translation of the Rubáiyát that gave rise to a critical reaction rivaling that given to major classical poets. In the beginning, academics were basically attracted to the lyricism of the Rubáiyát. However, attention shifted to Khayyám's themes of fatalism and escapism toward the end of the nineteenth century. In a piece appearing in An Anthology of Philosophy in Persia, volume 1: From Zoroaster to Omar Khayyám, nineteenth-century critic A. B. Houghton explained the contemporary world's attraction to Khayyám: “He lost all hope just as our hearts are losing hope also. He found behind the phenomenal world a mere nothing at all just as modern scholars have also found. In a word, Omar appeals to our despair.”
FitzGerald's Version Twentieth-century critics have increasingly studied Khayyám's Rubáiyát and FitzGerald's translation as two separate works. Intellectuals differ in their judgment of how FitzGerald distorts Khayyám's original manuscript, some believing that the result of FitzGerald's version is simply an English poem with Persian allusions. Besides including several poems written by other Persian poets, FitzGerald's translation adapts many of the quatrains to suit Victorian tastes. In addition, FitzGerald reorganized the structure of the Rubáiyát, fusing Khayyám's conceptually independent verses into one long stanza. Charles Eliot Norton determines that FitzGerald “is to be called ‘translator’; only in default of a better word, one which should express the poetic trans-fusion 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 appear.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Khayyám's Rubáiyát, a collection of quatrains composed in the traditional Persian rubái style, gave life to a genre that has inspired poets throughout the centuries. Listed below are works in which the use of quatrains can be observed as a literary device:
Centuries (1555), a collection of prophecies by Nostradamus. Composed of 353 quatrains written in a mixture of French, Latin, and Greek, Centuries describes events from the mid-1500s to 3797, Nostradamus's predicted year for the end of the world.
The Essential Rumi (1995), a book of poetry by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks. Rumi was a thirteenth-century Persian poet. In this collection, Barks translates Rumi's sixteen hundred rubáiyát, quatrains conveying Rumi's mysticism and spirituality.
Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson (published in 1988, written in the 1850s and 1860s), a collection of poems by Emily Dickinson, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and T.W. Higginson. Dickinson most often created stanzas of quatrains characterized by a unique emphasis on words established through their line position or capitalization. Most of her poems were published posthumously.
Responses to Literature
- Why do you think the Rubáiyát has been translated so many different times? How do recent translations compare with that of FitzGerald? What criteria would you establish to evaluate whether one translation is better than another? Write a paper explaining your conclusions.
- What connection exists between poet and translator? Besides the Rubáiyát itself, what do you believe connects FitzGerald and Khayyám? To translate a poet, do you think the translator must be a poet? Must a translator share the same view of the world and sense of language of the author in order to translate that writer's work? Create a presentation which outlines your beliefs on the questions raised.
- Examine FitzGerald's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, analyzing the volume's illustrations. Pretend you are an art critic for the New York Times and write a review appraising the visual art in FitzGerald's work.
- Some scholars argue that Khayyám followed Sufism, a Muslim form of religious mysticism. Research Sufism, noting its humanistic message. Are you surprised to find an element of mysticism embedded in Islam? To what extent do Khayyám's quatrains illustrate principles of Sufism? Write a paper that offers your conclusions.
Bloom, Harold, and Janyce Marson, eds. The “Rubáiyát” of Omar Khayyám. New York: Chelsea House, 2003.
Chaudhuri, Sukanta. Translation and Understanding. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Khayyám, Omar. Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Translated by Edward FitzGerald. Calcutta, India: Rupa, 2002.
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, and Mehdi Aminrazavi, eds. An Anthology of Philosophy in Persia. Vol.1, From Zoroaster to Omar Khayyám. London: I. B. Tauris, 2008.
Saklatwalla, J. E. Omar Khayyám as a Mystic. St. Paul, Minn.: R. West, 1978.
Tirtha, Swami Govinda. The Nectar of Grace: Omar Khayyám's Life and Works. Bombay, India: Government Central Press, 1941.
Yogananda, Paramahansa, and J. Donald Walters. The “Rubáiyát” of Omar Khayyám Explained. Nevada City, Calif.: Crystal Clarity, 2004.
Books and Writers. Omar Khayyám (1048–1131). Retrieved April 21, 2008, from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/Khayyam.htm.
Shahriari, Shahriar. Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.okonlife.com. Last updated on June 2, 2004.
The Persian astronomer, mathematician, and poet Omar Khayyam (1048-ca. 1132) made important contributions to mathematics, but his chief claim to fame, at least in the last 100 years, has been as the author of a collection of quatrains, the "Rubaiyat."
Omar Khayyam was born in Nishapur in May 1048. His father, Ibrahim, may have been a tentmaker (Khayyam means tentmaker). Omar obtained a thorough education in philosophy and mathematics, and at an early age he attained great fame in the latter field. The Seljuk sultan Jalal-al-Din Malik Shah invited him to collaborate in devising a new calendar, the Jalali or Maliki. Omar spent much of his life teaching philosophy and mathematics, and legends ascribe to him some proficiency in medicine. He died in Nishapur.
Astronomical and Mathematical Works
The product of the efforts of Omar and his two collaborators was a set of astronomical tables entitled Al-zij al-Malikshahi after their royal patron. Of this there remains only the table of 100 fixed stars, whose latitude is given for the first year of the Maliki era (1075), and some contradictory descriptions of the Maliki calendar. It is clear that this calendar was intended to retain the basic months of the old Sassanian calendar, in which a year consisted of 12 months of 30 days each plus 5 epagomenal days, with an extra month of 30 days intercalated every 120 years. The intercalation of 30 days in 120 years made the year a Julian year, as in the Julian calendar a day is intercalated every 4 years. The Sassanian and Julian calendars are based on a year of 365.15 days, which is not accurate; Omar and his collaborators devised a modification of the intercalation scheme to overcome this inaccuracy, but the details are obscure.
Omar's work on mathematics is known principally through his commentary on Euclid's Elements and through his treatise On Algebra. In the commentary he is concerned with the foundations of geometry and, in particular, strives to solve the problems of irrational numbers and their relations to rational numbers, in the process very nearly becoming the first to acknowledge irrationals as real numbers; and he examines Euclid's fifth postulate, the "parallel postulate," which distinguishes Euclidean from non-Euclidean geometry. Omar tried to prove the parallel postulate with only the first four postulates by examining a birectangular quadrilateral. The task was an impossible one, but in the course of his attempted proof Omar recognized the logical results of some forms of non-Euclidean geometry. On Algebr a is a classification of equations with proofs of each, some algebraic but most geometric. The most original part is found in his classification of cubic equations, which, following Archimedes, he solved by means of intersecting conic sections.
Shortly after Omar's death, collections of rubaiyat circulated under his name. These poems consist of 4 lines of 13 syllables each with the rhyme scheme AABA or AAAA; the rhythm within each line is rather free. Rubaiyat had been popular in Persia since the 9th or 10th century as occasional verses extemporaneously recited by all classes of persons; they were used both to express a sort of hedonistic appreciation of life and also Sufi mystical experiences.
Omar's Rubaiyat is known in the West largely through the rather inaccurate paraphrase translation of Edward FitzGerald (1859), which in any case seems to contain a number of non-Khayyamian verses. FitzGerald considerably distorted the original to make it conform to Victorian romanticism; these distortions and the non-Khayyamian verses have led some to believe that Omar was himself a Sufi mystic. Recent discoveries of early-13th-century manuscripts of the Rubaiyat, however, have shown that Omar's poetry follows the other tradition of this form of poetry and celebrates, with humorous skepticism, wit, and poetic skill, the joys of wine and homosexual love.
A biography of Omar Khayyam is Harold Lamb, Omar Khayyam: A Life (1934). The most authoritative treatment of his poetry is Arthur John Arberry, ed. and trans., Omar Khayyam (1952). On Omar's contribution to mathematics see Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Science and Civilization in Islam (1968). □
Persian Mathematician, Astronomer, and Poet
Omar Khayyam occupies an unusual place among mathematicians, in that he is widely known—but for his poetry rather than for his achievements in mathematics. Two of the most famous lines in literature come from the 1859 translation of his Rubaiyat by Edward Fitzgerald: "A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou..." and "The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on...." Yet his work as a poet was but a small part of a career that included advancement of methods for solutions to algebraic equations and a highly accurate calculation of the year's length.
Ghiyath al-Din Abu'l-Fath Umar ibn Ibrahim al-Nisaburi al-Khayyami was born on May 18, 1048, in the Persian city of Nishapur. Al-Khayyam means tent-maker, the profession of his father. By the age of 25, Khayyam had already produced books on arithmetic, algebra, and music, and after moving to Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan) in 1070, he wrote his most significant algebraic work, Risala fi'l-barahin ala masa'il al-jabr wa'l-muqabala (Treatise on demonstration of problems of algebra).
During Khayyam's life, the region was under the control of the Seljuk Turks, and though their tempestuous rule created considerable upheaval, it also provided Khayyam with valuable opportunities for scientific study. In 1073, he was invited by the Seljuk prince (later sultan) Malik Shah to establish an observatory at the new capital in the Persian city of Esfahan. While working at the observatory, Khayyam made an amazingly accurate calculation of the year's length: 365.24219858156 days.
Khayyam advocated reforms to the calendar, but the death of Malik Shah in 1092 left him without a patron, and the planned reform was suspended. For a time he also found himself under censure from Islamic purists, who judged his habit of scientific inquiry as a sign that he lacked the proper attitude of faith and reverence. Over time, however, his fortunes improved, and after 1118 he worked in the city of Merv (now in Turkmenistan) for Malik Shah's son Sanjar.
In his later mathematical studies, Khayyam confronted a difficult algebraic problem that led him to solve the cubic equation x3 + 200x = 20x2 + 2000. He observed that a more accurate solution would require the application of conic sections, and that it could thus be solved using only ruler and compass. This proved to be true, though it would be three-quarters of a millennium before any mathematician could put the idea to work.
The Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra approached the subject of cubic equations, and Khayyam became the first mathematician to propose a general theory for their solution. This, too, would have to wait many years, however, until the time of Sciopone dal Ferro (1465-1526) and others who successfully tackled the problem. Another prescient work was Commentaries on the Difficult Postulates of Euclid's Book, in which Khayyam prefigured aspects of non-Euclidean geometry.
On December 4, 1131, Khayyam died in the city of his birth, Nishapur.
Omar Khayyam ★★ 1957
In medieval Persia, Omar (Wilde) becomes involved in a romance with the Shah of Persia's fiancee, while trying to fight off a faction of assassins trying to overthrow the Shah. Although this film has a great cast, the script is silly and juvenile, defeating the cast's fine efforts. 101m/C VHS . Cornel Wilde, Michael Rennie, Debra Paget, Raymond Massey, John Derek, Yma Sumac, Margaret (Maggie) Hayes, Joan Taylor, Sebastian Cabot; D: William Dieterle.