100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 49



Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat


Europe knows Persian poetry chiefly through Omar Khayyam; Iran classes him among her scientists, and considers his quatrains the casual amusement of “one of the greatest mathematicians of medieval times.” Abu’l Fath Umar ibn Ibrahim al-Khayyami was born at Nishapur in 1048. His cognomen meant tentmaker, but proves nothing about his trade or that of his father Abraham; occupational names, in Omar’s time, had lost their literal application, as among the Smiths, Taylors, Bakers, and Porters of our land. History knows little of his life, but records several of his works. His Algebra, translated into French in 1857, made significant advances both on al-Khwarizmi and on the Greeks; its partial solution of cubic equations has been judged “perhaps the very highest peak of medieval mathematics.” Another of his works on algebra (a manuscript in the Leiden Library) studied critically the postulates and definitions of Euclid. In 1074, the Sultan Malik Shah commissioned him and others to reform the Iranian calendar. The outcome was a calendar that required a day’s correction every 3770 years—slightly more accurate than ours, which requires a day’s correction every 3330 years; we may leave the choice to the next civilization. Islamic religion proved stronger than Muslim science, and Omar’s calendar failed to win acceptance over Muhammad’s. The astronomer’s repute is reflected in an anecdote told by Nizami-i-Arudi, who had known him at Nishapur:


    In the winter of A.H. 508 [1114-5] the King sent a messenger to Merv bidding its governor tell Umar al-Khayyami to select a favorable time for him to go hunting. . . . Umar looked into the matter for two days, made a careful choice of the desirable time, and himself went to superintend the mounting of the King. When the King had gone a short distance the sky became overcast, a wind rose, and snow and mist supervened. All present fell to laughing, and the King wished to turn back. But Umar said, “Have no anxiety, for this very hour the clouds will clear away, and during these five days there will be no drop of moisture.” So the King rode on, and the clouds opened, and during those five days there was no wet, and no cloud was seen.


    The rubaiyah or quatrain (from the Arabic rubai, composed of four elements) is in its Persian form a poem of four lines rhyming aaba. It is an epigram in the Greek sense, as the expression of a completed thought in terse poetic form. Its origin is unknown, but it long antedated Omar. In Persian literature, it is never part of a longer poem, but forms an independent whole, hence Iranian collectors of rubaiyat arrange them not by their thought sequence but in the alphabetical order of the final letter of the rhyming syllables. Thousands of Persian quatrains exist, mostly of uncertain authorship; over 1200 of them have been attributed to Omar, but often questionably. The oldest Persian manuscript of the Rubaiyat of Omar (in the Bodleian Library at Oxford) goes back only to 1460, and contains 158 stanzas, alphabetically arranged. Several of these have been traced to Omar’s predecessors—some to Abu Sa’id Abul-Khayr, one to Avicenna; it is hardly possible, save in a few cases, to assert positively that Omar wrote any particular one of the quatrains ascribed to him.

    The German Orientalist Von Hammer, in 1818, was the first European to call attention to Omar’s rubaiyat. In 1859, Edward FitzGerald translated seventy-five of them into English verse of a unique and pithy excellence. The first edition, though its price was a penny, found few purchasers; persistent and enlarged reissues, however, succeeded in transforming the Iranian mathematician into one of the most widely read poets in the world. Of the 110 quatrains translated by FitzGerald forty-nine—in the judgment of those familiar with the original—are faithful paraphrases of single quatrains in the Persian text; forty-four are composites, each taking something from two or more quatrains; two “reflect the whole spirit of the original poem”; six are from quatrains sometimes included in Omar’s text, but probably not his; two were influenced by FitzGerald’s reading of Hafiz; three have no source in any extant text of Omar, were apparently fathered by FitzGerald, and were suppressed by him in his second edition. Of stanza lxxxi


O Thou, who man of baser earth didst make,

And e’en with Paradise devise the snake,

For all the sin wherewith the face of man

Is blackened, man’s forgiveness give—and take!—


no corresponding passage can be found in Omar. For the rest a comparison of FitzGerald’s version with a literal translation of the Persian text indicates that FitzGerald always reflects the spirit of Omar, and is as true to the original as may reasonably be expected of so poetic a paraphrase. The Darwinian mood of FitzGerald’s time moved him to ignore Omar’s kindly humor, and to deepen the anti-theological strain. But Persian authors only a century later than Omar describe him in terms quite consistent with FitzGerald’s interpretation. Mirsad al-Ibad (1223) called him “an unhappy philosopher, atheist, and materialist”; al-Qifti’s History of the Philosophers (1240) ranked him as “without an equal in astronomy and philosophy,” but termed him an advanced freethinker, constrained by prudence to bridle his tongue; al-Sharazuri, in the thirteenth century, represented him as an ill-tempered follower of Avicenna, and listed two works by Omar on philosophy, now lost. Some Sufis sought a mystic allegory in Omar’s quatrains, but the Sufi Najmud-din-Razi denounced him as the arch freethinker of his time.

    Influenced perhaps by science, perhaps by the poems of al-Ma’arri, Omar rejected theology with patient scorn, and boasted of stealing prayer rugs from the mosque. He accepted the fatalism of the Muslim creed, and, shorn of hope for an afterlife, fell into a pessimism that sought consolation in study and wine. Stanzas cxxxii-iii of the Bodleian manuscript raise intoxication almost to a world philosophy:


’Tis I who have swept with my mustaches the wineshop,

To what is good and ill of both worlds said good-bye.

Should both worlds fall like a polo ball into the street,

You shall seek me out. A-sleeping like a drunkard I shall be. . . .

From all that is, save wine, to refrain is well. . . .

To be inebriate, squalid, and vagrant is well.

One draught of wine is well from Moon to Fish


that is, from one end of the sky to the other. But when we note how many Persian poets chant similar eulogies to unconsciousness, we wonder is not this Bacchic piety a pose and literary form, like Horace’s ambigendrous loves?

    Probably such incidental quatrains give a false impression of Omar’s life; they doubtless played a minor role in his eighty-three years. We should picture him not as a drunkard sprawling in the street, but as an old savant quietly content with cubic equations, a few constellations and astronomic charts, and an occasional cup with fellow scholars “star-scattered on the grass.” He seems to have loved flowers with the passion of a people bound to a parched terrain; and if we trust Nizami-i-Arudi, he was granted his wish to lie where flowers bloomed.


    In the year A.H. 506 [1112-3] Umar Khayyami and Muzaffar-i-Isfizari had alighted in the city of Balkh . . . in the house of Emir Abu Sa’d, and I had joined that assembly. In this friendly gathering I heard that Proof of the Truth (Omar) say, “My grave will be in a spot where trees will shed their blossoms on me twice a year.” This seemed to me impossible, though I knew that one such as he would not speak idle words.

    When I arrived at Nishapur in the year 530 [1135-6], it being then some thirteen years (sic) since that great man had veiled his countenance in the dust . . . I went to visit his grave. . . . His tomb lay at the foot of a garden wall, over which pear trees and peach trees thrust their heads; and on his grave had fallen so many flower petals that his dust was hidden beneath them. Then I remembered his words at Balkh, and I fell to weeping, because on the face of the earth, in all the regions of the habitable globe, I nowhere saw one like unto him.