🎤POEM: The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Persian (1048-1123)

imageOmar Khayyám, son of Abraham, the tent maker, was born in Naishapur, Iran, almost a thousand years ago. He initially followed his father’s profession,  but when he completed his education in Samarkand, he developed a lifetime passion for astronomy, philosophy, and algebra. Algebra?  Oh, yes!  We can thank Omar for our many sleepless nights when we fretted over his geometric methods to solve his cubic equation (x^3 + 200x = 20x^2 + 2000). He wrote treatises on music, mechanics, geography, and  Islāmic theology.  Omar also developed the Jalali calendar, one of the oldest and most accurate solar calendars still in use today.  Apart from acknowledging his incredible contributions in various fields of study, we in the 21st century can enjoy Omar’s Rubáiyát, rhymes instructing us to live for today and not worry about the Hereafter.  Omar was a realist, declaring, “I, myself, am Heaven and Hell.”

What is interesting is that Omar’s quatrains (short verses of four lines each) were never popular in his country.  It was not until the 19th century that Edward Fitzgerald discovered the original, ancient manuscripts in England.  FitzGerald’s friend, Edward Cowell, convinced him that there was a historical connection between Omar’s Persia and the Ireland of FitzGerald’s ancestors (Iran and Erin). FitzGerald identified with the forgotten poet, studied Persian, and painstakingly translated Omar Khayyám’s poetry into the beautiful verses we know today–no easy task.  Here is an example of a translation by Justin Huntly McCarthy: “Every morn I shall say, this shall be the night of repentance….Yet now that the season of roses has come, set me free in the time of the Rose from repentance, O Lord of repentance.”

Here is how Edward FitzGerald translated the same passage, transforming it into a verse of sheer beauty.  (Please read aloud.)

“Indeed, indeed, Repentance oft before

I swore -but was I sober when I swore?

And then and then came Spring, and Rose-in-hand

My threadbare Penitence apieces tore.”

There is no comparison.  Without Edward FitzGerald, the rich, emotional, and human interpretation of Omar Khayyám’s poetry would not exist.  In Louis Untermeyer’s opinion, FitzGerald’s words transform the Rubáiyát “into lines that caress the ear with music the mind cannot forget….Separated by time, geography, and language, the two authors have become one poet: Omar-FitzGerald.”  Here is another example.  (Please read aloud.)

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness –

Oh, Wilderness were a Paradise enow!”

FitzGerald printed several editions of the Rubáiyát during his lifetime; the second edition contained 110 quatrains. FitzGerald published his fourth version–in his opinion, his most polished–in 1879.  What is interesting is that Edward FitzGerald did not want his name to appear in any publication.  Of course, after he died, his name has been inextricably connected to Omar Khayyám’s.  My personal copy of the Rubáiyát is a 1947 Random House publication, beautifully illustrated by Mahmoud Sayah, a fellow countryman of the poet.  I do not shelve it with my other poetry books but keep it close by, dipping into it during a quiet, meditative moment.  Khayyám’s poetry fills me with joy–pure joy!

Did you enjoy this poetry review and audio recording?  I would value your opinion in the comment box.  Thank you.

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Sarah M. Fredericks © 2015

Carpe Librum!  📚 Seize the Book…and let the page-turning begin!


Filed under AUDIO🎤, Persia, POEM

12 responses to “🎤POEM: The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

  1. Minakshi Bhattacharys

    Such beautiful poems of Omar Khayyám . I Cannot imagine they are thousand years old. Thank you Sarah for sharing them with us.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Marcus J Copley

    I was lucky enough to have attended an exhibition of all things Persian at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne (March 2012). They had some rare copies of Persian poetry, including Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat – it was amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Carl

    Very interesting and appropriate for today. Unusual perspective on life, given the times. Funny how people come and go, but people’s priorities and perspectives haven’t really changed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So true, Carl! We are on earth for such a short time, yet we spend our days working to accumulate things – houses, cars, tech toys etc. When we die, we cannot take any of it with us. Perhaps we should take Khayyám’s advice: have a picnic by the river with a friend or lover, sip a glass of wine, look at the stars, or read a good book.


  4. Richard

    One of our Mother’s favourites…beautifully written. I wonder how many people actually do live for today though? Most of us are constantly planning for an uncertain future. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when we’re planning the future.” After Michel de Montaigne had a near death experience while horse riding, he realised that the incredible calm that came with it silenced his fear of death. From that day on he lived life more intensely, and of course gave us his wonderful essays: A Renaissance man if there ever was one. Omar Khayyám was obviously from the same stable. He used his time wisely, and we are thankful for it! The World longs for gold, but maybe the real treasure has been right under our noses all along…in the trembling of the leaf, the winter sun, or the cheerful cacophony of birdsong. Food for thought….

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with your insights on life, death, and nature, Richard. One of our human flaws is that we spend too much time today planning for tomorrow. The major theme of Khayyám’s Rubáiyát is to enjoy today, for tomorrow we may be dead. Quatrain #20 is one of my favorite examples of this theme:

      “Ah, my Belovéd, fill the cup that clears
      Today of past regrets and future Fears –
      Tomorrow? – Why, tomorrow I may be
      Myself with yesterday’s Sev’n Thousand Years.”


  5. One of the best. I wasn’t aware of his academic background though. It makes you realize just how great those seats of learning once were.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hayley Medeiros

    I learned so much about Omar Khayyam that I never knew before. Thanks! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interestingly enough, Hayley, I was in a wonderful used bookstore in Asheville, NC, yesterday, and there were three copies of Khayyám’s Rubáiyát in the literature section. I wonder if Khayyáam would be surprised to discover that his poetry is still being read almost 1,000 years after he wrote it.


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