Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

Containing 75 quatrains in the first edition, some 100 in later editions, Fitzgerald’s collection imposes an organization, both philosophical and artistic, on the otherwise random ordering of Khayyam’s poetry. Such an arrangement stresses the materialistic side of Khayyam’s thought by eliminating the more spiritual of the rub’ai, and it earned for Fitzgerald’s Omar the reputation as a hedonist and religious skeptic, explaining somewhat his place as a cult figure of Victorian England.

Fitzgerald’s Khayyam advocates that humankind make the most of life through intense sensual living within a world of moral ambiguity and religious doubt. Allied with such heretical beliefs is Khayyam’s constant use of the image of wine as a symbol linked with themes of escape and celebration--hence the reputation of the RUBAIYAT for wine, women, and song.

The extent of Fitzgerald’s knowledge of Persian culture, especially the history and conventions of its poetry, is questionable. He did not aspire to produce a scholarly or literal translation but rather to achieve literary excellence--which he did, even in places outstripping the lyricism of the Persian. Moreover, he produced a volume of poetry which exerted a powerful influence on artistic circles of the late 19th century and helped to reinforce the vogue for Orientalism in both English and American society of the period.


Avery, Peter, and John...

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Places Discussed


Tavern. Public inn in which the poet finds momentary relief from life’s woes as he contemplates the fate of all humans: a brief life filled with cares and misfortune and followed by eternal oblivion. He counsels readers to devote themselves to a life of blissful forgetfulness, aided by wine, and to nurture a stoic acceptance of life’s uncertainties and struggles. The poet searches his imagination to find apt metaphors to express his vision of life: Earthly existence is a meaningless series of nights and days, and humans are the pawns of destiny; they are moved about randomly like a ball on a playing field kicked by a celestial player. One’s life on earth is like a moving finger, indelibly writing out human destiny, while heaven watches impassively through an impenetrable veil or remains enclosed behind a locked door which human reason cannot penetrate. The tavern is better than the temple for helping the individual endure, for its wine offers a glimpse of higher truths. He ponders the fate of heroic warriors of the past, long dead and quite forgotten. The sultan on his throne is in the end no better, and no better off, than the slave, for death equalizes all mortals for eternity.

In the tavern, one of the poem’s major symbols predominates: wine. It symbolizes above all merriment, an escape from human cares into a world of pleasing speculations on the meaning of existence and the nature of the universe. Even the nightingale cries to the rose for wine, red wine. The nightingale symbolizes the poet, the melancholy singer, and the rose symbolizes the beloved who beckons him. The poet is drawn to his beloved, but wine is...

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Avery, Peter, and John Heath-Stubbs. Introduction to The Rubái’yát of Omar Khayyám, translated by Avery and Heath-Stubbs. New York: Penguin Books, 1981. Avery and Heath-Stubbs stay close to the original in their translation of 235 quatrains. Their introduction broadens our understanding of Omar Khayyám, and the translations, attractively illustrated, enhance our appreciation of Khayyám’s Rubáiyát without diminishing FitzGerald’s achievement.

Bowen, John Charles Edward. A New Selection from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips, 1976. The chief value of this work is that it includes a literal translation of the quatrains Bowen renders into verse and, along with Bowen’s, many of FitzGerald’s translations from the first and fourth editions. One is therefore able to compare four different versions of some of the quatrains.

Dashti, Ali. In Search of Omar Khayyam. Translated by L. P. Elwell-Sutton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971. Dashti describes the character of Omar Khayyám by studying him through the eyes of Khayyám’s contemporaries’ writings. On the basis of this portrait, Dashti authenticates thirty-six quatrains with some confidence, translates them along with other quatrains, and examines their literary style.

Untermeyer, Louis, ed. Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: Translated into English Quatrains by Edward FitzGerald. New York: Random House, 1947. Although FitzGerald’s inimitable translation is often printed, this edition (of all but the second edition) has a fine introduction by Louis Untermeyer and contains FitzGerald’s prefaces and notes together with attractive illustrations.

Yogananda, Paramhansa. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám Explained. Nevada City, Calif.: Crystal Clarity, 1994. This contemporary mystic interprets the Rubáiyát as an allegory of the human spirit, not as the work of a hedonist. Though his reading contrasts sharply with FitzGerald’s, Yogananda nevertheless uses the first edition of FitzGerald’s translation as his text.