Omar Khayyam and the Skeptical Tradition Against Islam

  In 1859, the year that saw the first edition of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, there appeared The Ruba’iyat of ‘Omar Khayyam, the Astronomer Poet of Persia, an anonymous translation of the quatrains of an obscure medieval Persian poet, who was better known as a mathematician. Unlike Darwin’s classic which was an immediate success(1), the first edition of Edward Fitzgerald’s inspired paraphrase went almost unnoticed and was remaindered. But it came to the attention of another skeptic, the poet Swinburne, and later the Pre-Raphaelite Rossetti, who between them launched The Ruba’iyat on its career of extraordinary popularity that remains unabated (2nd edn., revised and enlarged, 1868; 3rd edn., revised, 1872, 4th edn., revised, 1879, and with felicitous consequences for the history of English poetry.(2)

The first that the West heard of Omar Khayyam’s poetry, rather than his name, was probably in 1700 when Th. Hyde in his Veterum Persarum....religionis historia (Oxford) gave a Latin translation of one of Khayyam’s quatrains. In 1771, Sir William Jones in his A Grammar of The Persian Language quoted without attribution a complete quatrain (in Persian ruba’i, plural ruba’iyat)(3) and part of another, generally ascribed to Khayyam:

Hear how the crowing cock at early dawn
Loudly laments the rising of the sun
Has he perceived that of your precious life
Another night has passed, and you care not?


As spring arrived and winter passed away,
The pages of our life were folded back.(4)

Several Persian quatrains were published in a Persian grammar compiled by F. Dombay in Vienna in 1804.

Khayyam’s quatrains are independent epigrammatic stanzas -- in other words, short, spontaneous, self-contained poems. Each ruba’i stands on its own. Fitzgerald, however, makes them a continuous sequence: the stanzas "here selected are strung into something of an Eclogue."(5) Thus, far from being a close translation, Fitzgerald’s version is a paraphrase of "exceptional poetical merits."(6) One English scholar, E. Heron Allen, compared Fitzgerald’s version with the Persian text and established that 49 quatrains are faithful paraphrases of single ruba’i; 44 are traceable to more than one ruba’i; 2 are inspired by the ruba’i found only in one particular edition of the Persian text; 2 reflect the "whole spirit" of the original; 2 are traceable exclusively to Attar, the Persian mystic poet ( died c. 1220 ); 2 are inspired by Khayyam but influenced by Hafiz, the greatest Persian Iyric poet ( died 1390 ), and 3 Heron Allen was unable to identify.(7)

One scholar admirably sums up the qualities that caught the late Victorian imagination, and that have endeared Fitzgerald’s Omar to so many: "The Fitzgerald stanza, with its unrhymed, poised third line, is an admirable invention to carry the sceptical irony of the work and to accommodate the opposing impulses of enjoyment and regret. Fitzgerald’s poem has a kind of dramatic unity, starting with dawn and the desire to seize the enjoyment of the passing moment, moving through the day until, with the fall of evening, he laments the fading of youth and the approach of death. Several interests of the time, divine justice versus hedonism, science versus religion and the prevailing taste for eastern art and bric-a-brac, were united in the poem...."(8)

Edward Fitzgerald himself sums up the delightful nature of Omar and his philosophy very accurately:

"...Omar’s Epicurean Audacity of thought and Speech caused him to be regarded askance in his own time and country. He is said to have been especially hated and dreaded by the Sufis, whose practice he ridiculed, and whose faith amounts to little more than his own, when strips of the Mysticism and formal recognition of Islamism under which Omar would not hide. Their poets, including Hafiz, who are (with the exception of Firdausi) the most considerable in Persia, borrowed largely, indeed, of Omar’s material, but turning it to a mystical use more convenient to themselves and the people they addressed; a people quite as quick of doubt as of belief; as keen of bodily sense as of intellectual; and delighting in a cloudy composition of both, in which they could float luxuriously between heaven and earth, and this world and the next, on the wings of a poetical expression, that might serve indifferently for either. Omar was too honest of heart as well of head for this. Having failed (however mistakenly) of finding any providence but destiny, and any world but this, he set about making the most of it; preferring rather to soothe the soul through the senses into acquiescence with things as he saw them, than to perplex it with vain disquietude after what they might be. It has been seen, however, that this worldly ambition was not exorbitant; and he very likely takes a humorous or perverse pleasure in exalting the gratification of sense above that of the intellect, in which he must have taken great delight, although it failed to answer the questions in which he, in common with all men, was most vitally interested."(9)

Fitzgerald will have no truck with those squeamish or puritanical scholars, like the Frenchman Nicolas, who pretend to see something spiritual in Omar’s verses, and who interpret every appearance of the word "wine" mystically.(10) Fitzgerald approvingly quotes Von Hammer who wrote of Omar as a "freethinker, and a great opponent of Sufism." For Fitzgerald the burden of Omar’s Song, if not "let us eat," is assuredly "Let us drink, for tomorrow we die!" Some may see Omar as a Sufi, but "on the other hand, as there is far more historical certainty of his being a philosopher, of scientific insight and ability far beyond that of the age and country he lived in, of such moderate worldly ambition as becomes a philosopher, and such moderate wants as rarely satisfy a debauchee; other readers may be content to believe with me that while the wine Omar celebrates is simply the juice of the grape, he bragg’d more than he drank of it, in very defiance perhaps of that spiritual wine which left its votaries sunk in hypocrisy or disgust."(11)

 Here are some examples of Fitzgerald’s paraphrase of Omar [From the 1st Edn.]:




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 we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more.’




The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes -- or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face
Lighting a little hour or two is gone.




Ah, Beloved, 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.




Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to Rest.




And we, that now make merry in the Room
They left, and Summer dresses in new Bloom,
Ourselves must we beneath the Couch of Earth
Descend, ourselves to make a Couch -- for whom?




Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend:
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and sans End!




Alike for those who for TO-DAY prepare,
And those that after a TOMORROW stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries:
‘Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There!’




Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss’d
Of the Two Worlds so learnedly, are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
Are scatter’d, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.




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.




And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop’t we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to It for help -- for It
Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.


From the 4th Edn:



Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!


  1. The first edition of The Origin of Species appeared in November 1859, and the second only two months later in January 1860.
  2. According to T.S. Eliot's biographer Peter Ackroyd, when Eliot read Fitzgerald's Omar, "he wished to become a poet" [Peter Ackroyd, T.S. Eliot, London, 1984, p. 26]. Here is how Eliot himself recounts his epiphanic moment, after a period of no interest in poetry at all: "I can recall clearly the moment when at the age of fourteen or so, I happened to pick up a copy of Fitzgerald's Omar which was lying about, and the almost overwhelming introduction to a new world of feeling which this poem was the occasion of giving me. It was like a sudden conversion; the world appeared anew, painted with bright, delicious and painful colours." In later life Eliot still enjoyed Fitzgerald's Omar but did not hold its "rather smart and shallow view of life." T.S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry & The Use of Criticism, London, 1975, p. 33, p. 91.
  3. "The ruba'i, plural ruba'iyat, is a two lined stanza…, each line of which is divided into two hemistichs making up four altogether, hence the name ruba'i, an Arabic word meaning 'foursome'… The first, second, and last of the four hemistichs must rhyme. The third need not rhyme with the other three, a point Fitzgerald noticed, so that he made the first, second and fourth lines of his quatrains rhyme:
  4. 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.'"
  5. Peter Avery, Introduction to The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam, Penguin Books, 1981, Harmondsworth, p. 9.
  6. Elwell Sutton, Introduction to Ali Dashti's In Search of Omar Khayyam, p. 13.
  7. E. Fitzgerald, Preface to the 1st Edn., 1859.
  8. V. Minorsky, 'Omar Khaiyam, Encyc. Of Islam, 1st Edn., 1913-1938, Leiden.
  9. Ibid., p. 998, Vol VI.
  10. A. Ross, Fitzgerald, Edward, in the Penguin Companion to Literature, Vol 1, Harmondsworth, 1971, p. 183-184.
  11. E. Fitzgerald, Introduction to the 1st Edn., 1859.
  12. Rather like those Catholic apologists who would have us believe that the Song of Songs of Solomon is a spiritual poem rather than a gently erotic one, which it obviously is.
  13. E. Fitzgerald, Introduction to 3rd Edn.