Since the biographical details of the life of Omar Khayyám are shrouded in legend and uncertainty, textual questions are central to an understanding of his importance as a poet. The collection of his work that led to his international literary fame was not discovered until 1855, and it was included in the Sir W. Ouseley Collection at the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford. The manuscript is believed to have been compiled around 1460 in Shiraz, Iran. It contains 158 poems and was brought to light by Professor E. B. Cowell of Cambridge University. Cowell passed it on to Edward FitzGerald to be translated from Persian to English. FitzGerald weeded out poems he considered to be of doubtful authenticity and published seventy-five of those remaining in his first edition of Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in 1859.
FitzGerald also had access via Cowell to a manuscript from Calcutta, India, which contains 516 poems. Since 1855, well over one hundred different manuscripts have been discovered containing thousands of poems attributed to Omar Khayyám. Which manuscripts are dated correctly, however, and which poems really came from Omar Khayyám are questions that continue to be debated. Other translations into English and versions of the Rubՙyt include those done by Edward Whinfield in 1883, Arthur Talbot in 1908, and Richard Brodie in 2001. FitzGerald himself published three more versions of the Rubՙyt before his death in 1883.
All the poetry collected under the presumed authorship of Omar Khayyám, however, does have one thing in common: Each individual poem is written in the form of the ruba’i, which is one of the four main forms of Persian poetry. The ruba’i is believed to have been discovered when a Persian poet overheard a group of boys playing marbles with walnuts. They were using rubՙyt (the plural of ruba’i) to describe the action in a kind of play-by-play commentary. From these authentic folk roots, the ruba’i became the only purely Persian verse form, and, according to many, the most perfect form of epigram in all of literature.
Other Persian verse forms are less known in the West. The qasida is a long poem with lines all ending in the same sound, usually in praise of some individual or idea. The masnavi is composed of rhyming couplets and is usually used for heroic or romantic, narrative verse. The ghazal is a shorter poem in monorhyme, usually used for amorous or mystical themes. Omar Khayyám’s chosen form, the ruba’i, is a short poem composed of four lines having five accents, each with a rhyme scheme of aaba. It is a poetic form well suited to display the keen wit of the poet using it.
In the case of the Rubՙyt, this form has also been a challenge to the keen wit of the translator. In addition to selecting rubՙyt that are authentically written by Omar Khayyám, the precise rendering of each poem into English, or any other language, will determine the overall meaning. Therefore, interpretation is even more open to debate in Omar Khayyám’s poetry than it is in most.
Perhaps the central issue in understanding the meaning of this work is the extent to which Sufi insight is present in it. Sufism is the part of Islam that addresses itself to the mystical aspects of religion. It emphasizes the individual’s internal struggle, or jihad, to develop the true faith within oneself. Sufis believe that God can be experienced directly in this world, in a kind of preview of paradise, through various techniques of breathing, dancing, and meditation. The Persian cultural tradition, in a sense, sees all true poets as Sufis and all true Sufis as poets.
FitzGerald, the first and most famous of Omar Khayyám’s translators, was not interested in the Sufi aspect of his poetry. He...
(The entire section is 1592 words.)