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The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam -- Omar Khayyam

 excerpts from
(Poem #162) The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
 Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
 Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
     And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
 The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.

 Dreaming when Dawn's Left Hand was in the Sky
 I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
     "Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
 "Before Life's Liquor in its Cup be dry."

 And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
 The Tavern shouted --- "Open then the Door!
     "You know how little while we have to stay,
 "And, once departed, may return no more."

 Now the New Year reviving old Desires,
 The thoughtful Soul to Solitude retires,
     Where the White Hand of Moses on the Bough
 Puts out, and Jesus from the Ground suspires.

 Iram indeed is gone with all its Rose,
 And Jamshyd's Sev'n-ring'd Cup where no one knows;
     But still the Vine her ancient Ruby yields,
 And still a Garden by the Water blows.

 And David's Lips are lock't; but in divine
 High piping Pehlevi, with "Wine! Wine! Wine!
     "Red Wine!" --- the Nightingale cries to the Rose
 That yellow Cheek of hers t'incarnadine.

 Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
 The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
     The Bird of Time has but a little way
 To fly --- and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.
-- Omar Khayyam
Translated by Edward FitzGerald.
First Version (1859).

Martin and I have been planning to run excerpts from the Rubaiyat for a
long time now, only we never got around to selecting the choicest
verses... so we decided to take the easy way out and run just the first
few (but have no fear, we'll definitely come back to this marvellous
poem in the future).

There are some poems which seem to resonate in the mind; poems which
have a magic about them that seems to transcend their bare words. The
Eagle, Chapman's Homer, Kubla Khan... the list isn't very long (alas!),
but the few poems that make it are truly glorious. FitzGerald's Rubaiyat
is one of them.

It's not a complex poem in terms of structure or language, nor are there
any of the usual devices beloved of 19th century poets. And yet...
FitzGerald captures the atmosphere of the original [1] brilliantly - the
whole poem seems suffused with an air of  - (heck, I don't know what to
call it: 'Rubaiyatness' is the word that seems to fit best, but that
would be rather circular, wouldn't it? Just goes to show how much this
poem has insinuated itself into the collective unconscious) -  well, a
magical air of some sort. The verse is beautiful; somehow it always
seems to feel 'just right'. Indeed, there are whole passages of the
Rubaiyat which I cannot conceive of being improved upon... flawless,
gemlike perfection, is what it is.


[1] or at any rate, he captures what I think the atmosphere of the
original would have been like... My Persian is about as good as my
Japanese, which is to say, it's non-existent :-)

I asked Martin to add his own comments...


Thanks to Thomas for giving me the chance to add my 2c...

Fitzgerald's brilliant translations of Khayyam's rubaiyat rank among my
favourite pieces of poetry, both as wonderful examples of verse, and for
the way they seem to capture the feel of the original. (And while it's
hard for a small selection to fully demonstrate the brilliance of the
whole, the first and seventh verses, IMO, are among the best of the

Actually, to call it a 'translation' would be to do Fitzgerald an
injustice - he has, rather, freely adapted the originals, preserving
their spirit, but letting himself be guided more by the aesthetics of
English verse than by a compulsive desire for accuracy[1].


[1] There has been a recent attempt at an accurate translation of the
rubaiyat[2]; the excerpts I read were good, but they had the feel of
'translated' poetry, and lacked the appeal of Fitzgerald's work.

[2] yes, I know it's generic, but assume the 'of Omar Khayyam'


Omar Khayyam lived in the area of Naishapur, Persia (modern Iran) in the
12th century. He was primarily a mathematician and astronomer, and some
of his works in those areas are still extant. He also wrote rhymed
epigrammatic quatrains called in Persian ruba'i. Later Persian scholars
collected these verses in manuscripts called Rubaiyat.

In 1857, Edward FitzGerald, an English "literary man" who was a friend
of Tennyson and Carlyle, discovered a manuscript of Omar's Rubaiyat in
the British Museum and translated some of the verses. The translation
did not attract much attention when it was first published, but when it
was praised by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1861 it became an immediate
popular success.

FitzGerald's Rubaiyat was not a translation as such. The Rubaiyat
manuscripts contained over 400 quatrains. FitzGerald translated some
literally, some loosely, combined others, and added some of his own
composition though in the spirit of the Persian original. In addition,
FitzGerald arranged the verses so that they seem to have a certain
cohesion, though the original quatrains were independent and related
only in tone. A more literal translation was undertaken by Robert Graves
in the 1970s.

   -- Bob Blair, [broken link]

[More Background and Links]

FitzGerald's translation went through five major revisions over 30
years. The excerpts I've chosen to run are from the first (and most
famous) edition. To get an idea of how _different_ the other versions
are, check out . In my
opinion, though, none of the later editions come close to capturing the
magic of the first.

You can read FitzGerald's own (slightly longish, but extremely
interesting) introduction to the second edition of the Rubaiyat at
[broken link]

For an interesting parallel, do read Harivansh Rai Bachchan's
'Madhushala (The Tavern)', (as brilliantly translated by Sameer
Siruguri), Minstrels Poem #72, with the accompanying commentary.


These are from FitzGerald's own notes to the second edition.

 - False morning (Dawn's Left Hand): The 'False Dawn' (Subhi
K&aacutezib), a transient light on the Horizon about an hour before the
Subhi Sadik, or True Dawn; a well-known Phenomenon in theEast.
 - White Hand of Moses: Exodus iv. 6; where Moses draws forth his Hand
--- not, according to the Persians, 'leprous as Snow', but white, as our
May-blossom in Spring perhaps.
 - Moses...Jesus from the Ground: This passage refers to plants named
after the two prophets.
 - Iram: [A garden] planted by King Shaddad, and now sunk somewhere in
the Sands of Arabia.
 - Jamshyd: Jamshyd's Seven-ring'd Cup was typical of the 7 Heavens, 7
Planets, 7 Seas, &c. and was a Divining Cup.
 - Pehlevi: The old Heroic Sanskrit of Persia. Hafiz also speaks of the
Nightingale's Pehlevi, which did not change with the People's.
 - The yellow Cheek...incarnadine: I am not sure if the fourth line
refers to the Red Rose looking sickly, or to the Yellow Rose that ought
to be Red; Red, White, and Yellow Roses all common in Persia. I think
that Southey, in his Common-Place Book, quotes from some Spanish author
about the Rose being White till 10 o'clock; 'Rosa Perfecta' at 2; and
'perfecta incarnada' at 5.


Some thoughts on the philosophy of the Rubaiyat, filched from the Web.

"There are two major schools of thought in trying to classify Omar
Khayyam's Rubaiyat. One claims that he was highly influenced by Islamic
mysticism, and particularly sufism, and his references to wine and
lovers are allegorical representations of the mystical wine and divine

A second school of thought refutes the first completely, claiming that
Khayyam understood his mortality and inability to look beyond, and his
references to wine and lovers are very literal and sensual.

[Khayyam was] clearly not a mystical fatalist claiming "what will be,
will be!" To the contrary, he saw the folly of being mesmerized by such
techniques, which may bring amazing visions of reality, but so long as
they remain visions, they are not and cannot be the truth, the reality
itself. [At the same time, he] saw that just as mystical infatuations
were merely visions of reality and not the truth, sensual pleasures were
also representations of a deeper joy and not the truth either.

Khayyam understood that it was our fate, our destiny, something beyond
our control to be born into this world. He also understood that death
was an inevitable fate for anyone who was ever born ... He understood
the fantasy of concerning ourselves with the future, as well as the
neurosis of staying in our past. He saw that all we have is this ever
slipping moment, this now, which itself has a timeless quality.

And he understood that in life what is important is that deeper joy and
love for which we have infinite yearning, as well as capacity to both
receive and emanate. His Rubaiyat force us to ask those ultimate
existential questions, and lead us down a path that, unless we are lost
along the way or are destabilized by the abyss  which we must traverse,
must inevitably reach the same answer. Those ultimate truths that in
life all that matters is love and joy. All else is fantasy and fallacy.

    --  Shahriar Shahriari,
[broken link]


PS. [Glossary]

suspire (v): To sigh; rare in lit. sense; chiefly fig. to sigh or long
for, yearn after. (OED)
incarnadine (v): to make incarnadine (M-W)
incarnadine (adj): 1: having the pinkish color of flesh 2: red, esp.
blood red (M-W)

67 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

timothy william roberts said...

I'm thrilled to have this. Its the only piece of poetry I remember from my
distant childhood, and the only the line " a loaf of bread a jug of wine and
thou beside me in the wilderness" I shall look forward now with great
anticipation to the posting of the Rubaiyat's remaining verses. Many many
PS I'm now 70

Eleanor Durrant said...

I think it's an error, and unjust (to both poets) to list these quatrains under Omar Khayyam's name and not
Fitzgerald's. They were inspired by Omar Khayyam, but they are certainly not a translation. Fitzgerald's
Rubaiyat was original in many ways that matter, and he deserves full credit; conversely it contains many
ideas which do not occur in Omar Khayyam's verses and of which Omar Khayyam would very probably not have
approved. Such as:

O Thou, who Man from baser Earth didst make,
And who with Eden didst devise the Snake,
For all the Sins wherewith the Face of Man
Is blackened, Man's forgiveness give - and take!


Ian Thomson said...

I think many of us have our own composite version from all the various
editions, and I know in my case I have substituted made up phrases and
whole lines of my own. The order in which we remember the verses
changes too, but it never seems to matter. It's a constant delight. I
think my favorite quatrain is Whether ar Naishapur or Babylon...I sure
know all about that now. I'm pushing 73 and facing the Angel of the
Darker Drink. With some measure of equanimity. Mis saludos a todos.

Jerry Fink said...


Can you please tell me which Rubaiyat poem begins with the
following phrase?

"Abdul Ben Odem (Spelling ?) may his tribe increase, awoke one night
a deep sleep and saw within the moonlight of his angel
writing in
a book of gold......"

I am 82 years old and memorized the poem in High School. I would
very much
like to read it again and pass it along to young family members.
I suffer with
macular degeneration and cannot read books anymore. Can you give me
suggestions on how to get r a copy of this poem on the Internet?

Thank you in advance

Jerry Fink

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