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Life and Poems of Omar Khayam      By Mr. Taher

  1. Introduction
  2. Life of Omar Khayyam
  3. Omar's Poems
  4. Interpretation of Omar's Poems
  5. Conclusion
  6. Bibliography

Omar Khayam

I. Introduction

Omar Khayyam is one of the versatile Tajik (Persian) personalities of twelfth century. Those who are not familiar with him probably think of him as a poet who wrote in English. However, he lived in a period when there were no regular contacts between Europeans and non-Europeans. Therefore, he probably never heard of the English language, and much to the surprise of some people, he was not a poet by profession. Although a man of twelfth century and of different culture, he is well known in the West through the translation of his work by Edward FitzGerald. However, despite Omar's popularity in literary circles, he is naturally quiet misunderstood by the general people. This misunderstanding is largely the result of translation across a different culture and environment. Furthermore, a large gap of time, eight centuries, contributes to this distortion. To understand the message of a poet clearly, one has to read the original poetry in the original language and be familiar with poet's background, belief, experiences and society as a whole. Otherwise, the poem will definitely loose its meaning in different environment, culture and time. This essay is intended to provide brief information about Omar's biography, poetry and attempt to interpret a few of Omar's poems translated to English by FitzGerald.

II. Life of Omar Khayyam

Omar's full name was Ghiyathudin Abu Fath ibn Ibrahim Khayyam Nishapori. He was born in the year 1048 AD in Khorasan, an independent state which part of now lies in Iran, including the birth place of Omar. His last name Khayyam, meaning "tent maker" and is probably a reference to the occupation of his ancestors. As it was common among his countrymen to derive their names from their occupations or place of birth. Omar received his early education in Nishapur in subjects such as Arabic, The Koran, various religious disciplines, mathematics, astronomy and literature.

Omar is well known in English-Speaking countries as a result of Edward FitzGerald's popular translation in 1859, the Rubaiyat, a collection of quatrains. However Omar was an outstanding mathematician and astronomer. He worked on two major projects of Malik Shah as leading man. Those projects were the construction of an astronomy observatory in Esfahan in 1074 AD. The other one was the reforming of a calendar which later became known as Maleki after the Seljuki monarch. Omar measured the length of the year as 365.24219858156 days. It shows an incredible confidence on his part to attempt to give the result to this degree of accuracy. As we know today the length of the year changes over a person's lifetime. At the end of 19th century it was 365.242196 and today it is 365.242190. A comparison shows that he was oustandingly accurate in his measurement.

Omar's fame as a poet has caused some to forget his much more substantial scientific achievements. He was an outstanding mathematician of his days. He wrote a treatise on Algebra and classified types of cubic equation and presenting systematic solutions to them. This study of Omar is recognized as significant analysis by historians of science and mathematic. In his algebra book, Omar also refers to another work of his that is now lost. In this lost work he discussed what is now known as Pascal triangle.

Omar left the service of the court of Seljukis after the death of Malik Shah. He went to Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and then settled down in Nishapur and took the job of teaching. According to many historians he was in Balkh, another city of Khorasan, in 1112 AD. He died in the first quarter of the twelfth century.

III. Omar's Poems

As mentioned before, Omar's fame in the English-Speaking countries is the result of the works of Edward FitzGerlad in 1859. Edward FitzGerald, a noted English poet and contemporary of Carlyle and Tennyson, first discovered manuscripts of Omar's Rubayyat in the British Museum and translated part of it. When this translation was published, it did not attract much attention. However, when it was praised by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1861, it became very popular.

The word Rubai is originally an arabic word which means four or composed of four. Here, it refers to form of poems consisted of four lines similar to quatrains. The word Rubayyat is the plural of Rubai. Omar seems to have employed only this formation of poems. His Rubais consisted of two verses of varied prosody divided into hemistichs, with the first, second and fourth hemistics rhyming, and occasionally the third as well. FitzGerald's stanza, in his translation of Rubayyat, is a pentameter quatrain which is some what is similar to Omar's but less varied in rhythm.

Each of Omar's Rubai, in original Persian, is an independent composition, its thought condensed and polished to the form of an epigram. The Rubayyat collected by arranging the independent units in an alphabetic sequence not by subject matter. It results, as FitzGerald said, "a strange farrago of grave and gay," with recurring motifs but without unity or progression of theme or mood. More than six hundred Rubayyats (quatrains) in two manuscripts were available to FitzGerald. He selected part of them and arranged them so that they seem to have a certain cohesion. This arrangement was outlined by FitzGerald in a letter to his publisher: " (The poet) begins with dawn pretty sober and contemplative; then as he thinks and drinks, grows savage, blasphemous, etc., and then again sobers down into melancholy at nightfall." Edward FitzGerald acknowledged that his plan altered somewhat the balance of moods in Omar, allowing "a less than equal proportion of the 'Drink and make merry,' which recurs over-frequently in the original." Edward FitzGerald's Rubayyat was not exactly an accurate translation. He translated some literally, some loosely, combined others, and added some of his own composition though in the spirit of the Persian original.

Since Omar's time there have been numerous attempts to interpret Omar's poems. Indeed people interpreted his poems according to their own perception. Monsieur Nicolas, French Consul at Resht, considered Omar a Mystic, shadowing the Deity under the figure of Wine, Wine-bearer and was indeed using Wine and Beauty as images to illustrate the Divinity he was celebrating. On the contrary, FitzGerald took him literally to be a material Epicurean. FitzGerald said: "his worldly pleasures are what they profess to be without any pretence at divine allegory: his wine is the veritable juice of the grape: his tavern, where it was to be had: his Saki, the flesh and blood that poured it out for him: all which, and where the roses were in bloom, was all he profess'd to want of this world or to expect of paradise."

Before attempting interpretation of our own, it is necessary to have a brief overview of the social environment of Omar's time. In the mid seventh century the religion of Islam, founded in Arabia, was spreading like a wild fire in the region. Around 650 AD, Omar's land was invaded and the religion of Arabs was imposed on its population. Although, people became followers of this new religion, they never forgot how violently their homeland was occupied and a foreign religion imposed on them. Since those times the religious institutions and autocrats influenced and controlled every aspect of society and individual life. A king was considered the shadow of God and Imam the voice of God or conveyers and implementors of God's command on earth. These two group of people used religion tremendously to keep their power status in the society. These narrow minded priests would teach a very dogmatic and rigid doctrine of religion that virtually suffocated the whole society. They were teaching that the sole purpose of human creation is to pray God and worry about the afterlife. They emphasized that everything in this world is preset that even a leaf would not fall from a tree without God's permission. Omar like many other open minded individuals was frustrated and moved by the circumstances of his time. Omar was a man of considerable intellect, fine imagination and heart full of passion for truth and justice. He was rebellious against the rigid religion and religious zealots, hypocrites, and people's false and foolish devotion to this religion. His attitude is evident in some of his poems translated by FitzGerald.

IV. Interpretation of Omar's Poems

In interpretation of the following poems, I would like to include a literal translation of the original Persian lines along with FitzGerald translation for comparison.

" How sweet is mortal Sovranty!"--think some:

Others--"How blest the Paradise to come!"

Ah, take the Cash in hand and wave the Rest;

Oh, the brave Music of a distant Drum!

Literal: They say Paradise is good with Hor*, I say the water of grape is good, Get this cash and forget that loan, the sound of drum is good from far.

In the above quatrain, Omar criticizes the promises of religious leaders. These leaders who overemphasize on life after death, promise people that every faithful would have many beautiful ladies to love in the Paradise and therefore should not worry about what they have or not in this world. Omar rebukes this idea and reminds the reader to enjoy this world's life because no body has seen what lies ahead. He compares the promise of religious hypocrites to the sound of a drum which is enjoyable only when heard from a suitable distance, not from very close. He does not attack the religion necessarily but tired of those religious people who ignore life in this world.

Hor: are beautiful women that God would give them as a reward to every faithful who enters Paradise.

Ah, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears

TO-DAY of past Regrets and future Fears--

To-morrow?--Why, To-morrow I may be

Myself with Yesterday's Sev'n Thousands Years.

Literal: My friend! Let's not worry about tomorrow, and let's find this present moment of life, Tomorrow when we pass from this mortal world, we will be with seven thousand years old people.

This quatrain is an invitation to take a look at the realities of life. Life, it says, is so fragile that is not worth worrying what will happen tomorrow or what happened yesterday. It should be noted that during Omar's time people were more concerned about life in the hereafter than in this world. People were preoccupied with the rewards and punishments of the other world. So, Omar points out that we should live to its full capacity and enjoy it the most, because life here in this mortal world is beautiful too.

Think, in this batter'd Caravanserai

whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day

How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp

Abode his Hour or two and went his way

Literal: This Caravanserai(Inn or motel) that is called the world, that ti is the place of day and Night, It is a celebration remained of hundred Jamshad, it is a grave that is the resting place of hundred Bahrams.

Although, Omar celebrates life and consider it beautiful and worthwhile, he complains about the world and its unfaithfullness. He says that this world is a temporary place that does not stay the same for any one. He compares it to a motel that is used temporarily by people. He also compares the turning of day and night to the door fo the motel. The door of the motel opens and closes or in another words customers come and go. As the night turns to day and the day turns t night, many people come to this world and pass away. He also mentions the unevenness in this world and compare and contrasts it with happy celebration parties of Jamshads and the sad graveyard home to hundreds of Bahram. He says that the world is equally a sad place. It should be noted that the last two verses of FitzGerald's are different from the original Persian. FitzGerald seems to have tried to convey just the meaning without mentioning the names of Jamshad or Bahram.

Jamshad: Monarch of the mythical Pishdadian dynasty.

Bahram: A sovereign of the Sassanid dynasty, known for the strength, skill and prowness in the hunt.

And this delightful Herb whose tender Green

Fledges the River's Lip on which we lean--

Ah, lean upon it lightly! For who knows

From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!

Literal: Each grass (plant) that s grown on the creek's side, makes one think as if appeared from the Lips of an angel-like, Be careful not to step hard on them, that they have spring from the dust of once a flower- like ( person).

He looks with regret on the fragility of life. He knows that life, though, beautiful is short and passing fast. To illustrate this, he points to those beautiful plants on the river side, something everybody can see on daily basis. He says that all those beautiful grass are growing out from the dust or earth that once belonged to people. It is a reference to the fact that we all die and, in time, turn to dust and earth.

V. Conclusion

Every body interprets his poems according to his/her own perception and experiences. Some might take him literally and some might attach more meaning to his poems. However, Omar a man of twelfth century was more driven by the circumstances of his time, by his desire to look at life and the realities surrounding it with logic and reason not by religious edicts. His poems are expressions of his rebellion against the prevalent norms of society. Perhaps, that is why he was not looked upon favorably in his time.


Cajori, Florian. A history of Mathematics. New Your, N.Y.: Chelsea Pub. Co., 1991.

Calinger, Ronald. Classics of Mathematics. Oak Park, III.: Moore Pub. Co., 1982.

Khayyam, Omar. Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday Dolphin Books, 1961.

Khayyam, Omar. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, rendered into English by Edward FitzGerald. New York: Classic Club, 1942.

Khayyam, Omar. The Rubaiyat of ' Umar Khayyam. Translated and with an introd. And notes by Patrichehr Kasra. Delmar, N.Y., Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1975.

Lang, Cecil Y.. The Pre-Raphaelites and their circle. With Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

Sarton, George. Introduction to the History of Science. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins Company, 1948.