The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

I read The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in the bath last night. This is always a recipe for disaster, but despite of long years of practice in soaking books, Omar Khayyam survived dry, probably due to the fact that he quite woke me up. (Which was not the effect I had been looking for but these things happen when you settle in for a relaxing read in the bath before going to bed.)


All You Ever Need To Know About Omar Khayyam

Omar Khayyam (1048-1131 A.D.)

It is written in the chronicles of the ancients that this King of the Wise, Omar Khayyam, died at Naishapur in the year of the Hegira 517 (a.d. 1123); in science he was unrivalled,—the very paragon of his age.

Khwajah Nizami of Samarcand, who was one of his pupils, relates the following story:

«I often used to hold conversations with my teacher Omar Khayyam, in a garden; and one day he said to me, ‹My tomb shall be in a spot where the north wind may scatter roses over it.› I wondered at the words he spake, but I knew that his were no idle words. Years after, when I chanced to revisit Naishapur, I went to his final resting-place, and lo! it was just outside a garden, and trees laden with fruit stretched their boughs over the garden wall, and dropped their flowers upon his tomb, so that the stone was hidden under them.»

(Omar Khayyam, the Astronomer-Poet of Persia, Preface to the Rubaiyat, by Edward Fitzgerald)

I don’t know about you but – I might as well be honest here – my knowledge of Omar Khayyam prior to last night could have been summed up in one sentence:

Omar Khayyam was a Persian poet in the Middle Ages
who is famous for his book of poetry titled the Rubaiyat.

Rubaiyat is Persian for a collection of rubai, that is, quatrains.

Some basic research then revealed that in his time Omar Khayyam was far more famous as a mathematician and proverbial wise old man than as a poet. Not to mention that in addition to his many contributions to the study of mathematics, he also designed a calendar that was more accurate than the Gregorian calendar created five hundred years later – which we still use today.

But, as I was saying, I was reading him in the bath last night.

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.

(Omar Khayyam: Rubaiyat)

Why You Should Read Omar Khayyam

Because he’s… er… good? 🙂

Omar Khayyam won my heart with his down-to-earth view of life, his love of red wine, pretty women and leafy gardens, plus his attitude to religion. Entire books could be written, in fact, no doubt had been written, analysing Omar Khayyam’s take on life, making abundant use of various isms (Nihilism, Fatalism, Sufism…), but actually, you can sum it up in one sentence:

Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you’ll be dead.

In his own words:

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

(Sticking up two fingers at the pretentiousness of academia.)

Khayyam wrote several hundred quatrains; the total number is uncertain but is believed to be around 500-600, maybe more. About 400 has been translated into English by three different translators, all from the 19th century. The first translation was by Edward Fitzgerald, which is the one I used here, and it’s freely available for download on Project Gutenberg.

Links:The Sufistic Quatrains of Omar KhayyamRubaiyat (for stray Spanish speakers; includes quatrains not available in Fitzgerald)
⇒ Rubáiyát (for stray Hungarians :), a translation of Fitzgerald's version into Hungarian by Szabó Lőrinc on MEK)

You might also like:The Master of Cold MountainA Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees by Yoshida Kenko
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