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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Nathan Haskell Dole (1852–1935)

By Omar Khayyám (1048–1131)

ON a reed-grown marshy plain at the foot of the Elbruz Mountains stands an ancient city of Khorássán. It existed before the days of Alexander the Great, who is said to have destroyed it. It was then rebuilt by Shapúr, for whom it was named. From the lofty hills, fertile to the very top, twelve thousand streams water the province, and the river Saka lends its beauty to this city, which is blessed above others with a pure and temperate climate. Exquisite fruits and flowers abound. Here bloom the roses,

  • “With petals closed against the winds’ disgrace”;
  • fields of tulips droop their heavy heads; the violet and narcissus, the jessamine and eglantine and lily, of which the Persian poets have sung so eloquently, scent the air with their perfumes. Here the soft languorous night has since ages immemorial listened to the amorous chanting of the bulbul and the monotonous complaint of the ringdove, dear to lovers. This city and the villages scattered about in its vicinity were famous by reason of the poets who there first saw the light. Nishápúr itself was the birthplace of the great poet and astronomer Omar, called Khayyám or the Tent-maker. His whole name was Ghias ud-dín Abul Fath Omar Ibn Ibrahim al-Khayyám. The date of his birth is not exactly known; but there is a tradition that he died in the year 1123 of our era (517 A.H.), and that he finished his school education in 1042.

    When Omar was a youth, Nishápúr boasted the presence of one of the greatest and wisest men of Khorássán, “a man highly honored and reverenced.” This was the Imám Muaffek, who had the reputation of being such a perfect teacher that “every one who studied the Koran and the traditions of the prophets under him would assuredly attain to honor and happiness.” In his school Omar was instructed in Mussulman lore, and made the acquaintance of two youths who equally with himself won the fame promised the Imám’s faithful pupils. One of these was Nizam ul Mulk, who became Vizier to two successive Shahs; the other was Hassan Ibn Sabah, afterwards founder of the Iranian Ismailites, the terrible Shaikh of the Assassins. Nizam ul Mulk in his Testament (Wasáyá) tells how the friendship of the three was formed:—

  • “Both Omar and Hassan were of the same age as I was, and equally remarkable for excellence of intelligence and power of intellect. We became friends, and when we went out from the Imám’s class we used to repeat to one another the lesson we had just heard…. One day that miscreant Hassan said to us, ‘It is the general opinion that the disciples of Imám Muaffik attain to fortune; and no doubt one of us will do so, even though all may not. What agreement or compact is there now between us?’ I said, ‘Whatever you please.’ He answered, ‘Whichever of us may attain to fortune shall share it with the others, and not engross it himself.’ We agreed to those terms, and a compact was made accordingly.”
  • He goes on to tell how after his appointment as Vizier to the Shah Alp Arslan, Omar Khayyám appeared before him; but instead of accepting preferment at court he said, “The greatest favor which you can do me is to let me live in retirement, where under your protection I may occupy myself in amassing the riches of learning and in praying for your long life.”

    Accordingly Nizam ul Mulk assigned Omar a yearly pension of 1200 gold miskals and allowed him to retire to his native city, where he devoted himself especially to the study of mathematics and astronomy. On the succession of Malik Shah he was appointed Astronomer Royal at Merv, in which capacity he compiled some astronomical tables called Zij-i-Maliksháni. He was one of the eight learned men employed to revise the ancient Persian calendar; a work comparable to the reform of the Julian calendar under Pope Gregory XIII. five centuries later, and by some authorities considered even preferable to it. There is in existence a work on algebra which Omar compiled, and a study of ‘The Difficulties of Euclid’s Definitions’ is preserved in the Library at Leyden. A Persian biographer who lived at Nishápúr, and may have known Omar personally, reflects the general impression made by the astronomer-poet on his contemporaries:—

  • “Omar al-Khayyám, Imám of Khorássán, and the greatest scholar of his time, was versed in all the learning of the Greeks. He was wont to exhort men to seek the One Author of all by purifying the bodily actions to secure the sanctification of the soul. He also used to recommend the study of politics as laid down in Greek authors. The later Sufis have caught at the apparent sense of part of his poems and accommodated them to their own canon, making them a subject of discussion in their assemblies and conventicles, but the esoteric sense consists in axioms of natural religion and principles of universal obligation. When the men of his time anathematized his doctrines, and drew forth his opinions from the concealment in which he had veiled them, he went in fear of his life, and placed a check on the sallies of his tongue and his pen. He made the pilgrimage, but it was from accident rather than piety, still betraying his unorthodox views. On his arrival at Baghdad, the men who prosecuted the same ancient studies as he, flocked to meet him; but he shut the door in their faces, as one who had renounced those studies and cultivated them no longer. On his return to his native city he made a practice of attending the morning and evening prayers, and of disguising his private opinions; but for all that they were no secret. In astronomy and in philosophy he was without a rival, and his eminence in those sciences would have passed into a proverb had he only possessed self-control.”
  • It is extremely probable that Sharastani’s account of him—making him out an arrant hypocrite—was tinged by prejudice. The “Epicurean audacity of thought” expressed in his poems caused him to be looked on by his own people with suspicion. Edward Fitzgerald in the introduction to his translation or paraphrase says:—

  • “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 stript of the mysticism and formal recognition of Islamism under which Omar would not hide. Their poets, including Hafez, who are (with the exception of Firdawsī) 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 as 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.”
  • Contentedly living in his beautiful city of Nishápúr, where the roses which he loved so passionately wafted their fragrance across his terrace, occupied with those lofty questions which come home with doubly powerful insistence to an astronomer, he looked at the world with curiously quizzical eyes. Occasionally, as a recreation perhaps, he would compose an exquisitely perfect little quatrain or Rubái’y, the conventional form of which called for the first two lines and the last to rhyme, the rhymes being in many cases triple, quadruple, or even quintuple. The third line was generally left blank, though there are instances of the same rhyme occurring in all four lines. Like the conventional Japanese poems, these Rubáiyát are each entirely distinct and disconnected. In the manuscripts that have come down to the present time they are always copied in alphabetical order, arranged in accordance with the letter that ends the rhyme.

    Edward Fitzgerald ingeniously “tessellated” a selection of these quatrains into a sort of Persian mosaic, making of them a sort of loosely connected elegy, and thus gave extraordinary emphasis to one part of Omar Khayyám’s many-sided genius. It is safe to say that Omar himself had no such consistent scheme of pessimism. If one may judge at all from the manuscripts, he was a creature of many varying moods. At one time his audacious impiety is colossal:—

  • “On that dread day, when wrath shall rend the sky,
  • And darkness dim the bright stars’ galaxy,
  • I’ll seize the Loved One by his skirt, and cry
  • ‘Why hast thou doomed these guiltless ones to die?’”
  • At another time he is full of hope; the future life seems to gleam on his inner sight:—
  • “Death’s terrors spring from baseless fantasy,
  • Death yields the tree of immortality;
  • Since ’Isa [Jesus] breathed new life into my soul,
  • Eternal death has washed its hands of me.”
  • At another he is a fatalist:—

  • “When Allah mixt my clay, he knew full well
  • My future acts, and could each one foretell;
  • Without his will no act of mine was wrought:
  • Is it then just to punish me in hell?
  • “’Twas writ at first, whatever was to be,
  • By pen unheeding bliss or misery,
  • Yea, writ upon the tablet once for all:
  • To murmur or resist is vanity.”

  • In his liberality toward other creeds he stands at the very antipodes of the narrow-minded Muslim of his day, or of ours:—

  • “Pagodas, just as mosques, are homes of prayer;
  • ’Tis prayer that church-bells chime unto the air:
  • Yea, Church and Ka’ba, Rosary and Cross,
  • Are all but divers tongues of world-wide prayer.
  • “Hearts with the light of love illumined well,
  • Whether in mosque or synagogue they dwell,
  • Have their names written in the book of love,
  • Unvext by hopes of heaven or fears of hell.
  • “They say, when the last trump shall sound its knell
  • Our Friend will sternly judge and doom to hell.
  • Can aught but good from perfect goodness come?
  • Compose your trembling hearts, ’twill all be well.”

  • Again he paraphrases the words of the Christ:—
  • “If you seek Him, abandon child and wife,
  • Arise, and sever all these ties to life:
  • All these are bonds to check you on your course;
  • Arise, and cut these bonds as with a knife.”
  • He goes so far as to say that it is better to be a drunkard and see the light of God than be in darkness in the sanctuary:—
  • “In taverns better far commune with thee
  • Than pray in mosques and fail thy face to see!
  • Oh, first and last of all thy creatures thou;
  • ’Tis thine to burn and thine to cherish me.”
  • Omar loved to indulge in sophistries and paradoxes; to mystify and confuse. He delighted in drawing on himself the hatred of his Sufi opponents, and then teasing them with the flashing wit of his keen retort. How can one tell whether he was at heart a cynic or an Epicurean? Was the wine-cup which he exalts in so many stanzas a tavern beaker, or a symbol of the Divine? Was the “cypress-slender minister of wine” an earthly maiden with whom he sported in idle dalliance by the side of the babbling brook while the nightingales chanted around, or was the expression a mystic type of the soul?

    What was man in his eyes? At one moment he was the very summary of creation, the “bowl of Jamshed” in which the whole universe is reflected as in a mirror; at another he is a puppet, he is as a drop of water swallowed up in the vast ocean, a bubble sparkling with iridescent hues for a brief instant and then vanishing forever. His ideas of God are no less contradictory. On the one hand God is approachable: he is the friend of man, infinitely merciful, too kind to doom man to a hell which man has no reason to fear because he is a sinner,—for if he were not a sinner, where would Mercy be? Allah is gracious; but if the poor sinner must earn his grace by works, then no grace is it indeed. But on the other hand, God is responsible for the sin in the world: God rolls that merciless “wheel of Fate” which so inexorably crushes the king on his throne and the ant on the anthill. What complaints he utters about that rolling orb!

  • “The wheel on high, still busied with despite,
  • Will ne’er unloose a wretch from his sad plight;
  • But when it lights upon a smitten heart,
  • Straightway essays another blow to smite.
  • “Dark wheel! how many lovers hast thou slain
  • Like Mahmud and Ayaz, O inhumane!
  • Come, let us drink! thou grantest not two lives;
  • When one is spent, we find it not again.”

  • The bitter fatalism, worthy of Koheleth, soon translates itself into practical acceptance of all the good things of earth:—

  • “In the sweet Spring a grassy bank I sought,
  • And thither wine and a fair Houri brought;
  • And though the people called me graceless dog,
  • Gave not to Paradise another thought.
  • “Life void of wine and minstrels with their lutes,
  • And the soft murmurs of Irakian flutes,
  • Were nothing worth: I scan the world and see,
  • Save pleasure, life yields only bitter fruits.
  • “O soul! lay up all earthly goods in store;
  • Thy mead with pleasure’s flowerets spangle o’er;
  • And know ’tis all as dew that decks the flowers
  • For one short night, and then is seen no more!
  • “Like tulips in the Spring your cups lift up,
  • And with a tulip-cheeked companion sup
  • With joy your wine, or e’er this azure wheel
  • With some unlooked-for blast upset your cup.”
  • The Prophet promises for the Faithful in the Paradise to come, multiplied joys: feasts of many courses, rivers running with wine and milk, and exquisite Houris, star-eyed maidens with bodies made of musk or saffron; but Omar says if those things are to be in the world to come, then surely it is right to enjoy their counterparts on earth. He invites us to the tavern, there to forget the sorrows of life; he comes forth from the tavern to mock at the hypocritical sages who in reality envy him his freedom.

    A recent writer, James A. Murray, in the Fortnightly Review, eloquently pictures one phase of Omar’s poetry:—

  • “Behind this joyous life lies the very shadow of death. Omar entreats his mistress to pour wine for him while she can, before the potters make vessels from their dust; to love him while the light is in her eyes and the laughter in her voice. It is the old sorrow for the dead, made personal and thereby increased in poignancy and pathos. The lion and the lizard haunt the courts of Jamshed’s splendor, the wild ass stamps above the head of Bahram; birds wail over the skull of Kai Kawus, potters mold upon their wheels the ashes of Faridun and Kai Khosru. Those delicate lithe curves were once the more perfect lines of a human body; the glass, the goblet, that one may break in carelessness, thrills with the anguish of a living creature. In like manner Omar prays that when he is dead he may be ground to dust, and mingled into clay with wine, and molded to a stopper for the wine-jar’s mouth. For all men have a regeneration which is sometimes beautiful and sometimes base. Roses and tulips spring from the dust of monarchs; beneath purple violets, dark ladies are laid. And still that pitiful refrain continues: of what avail is it, when men are dead, and do not feel or see or hear? It is the spirit of a most noble Hellenic epitaph, strangely distant from the Greeks in its unrestraint:—‘We, the dead, are only bones and ashes: waste no precious ointments or wreaths upon our tomb, for it is only marble; kindle no funeral pyre, for it is useless extravagance. If you have anything to give, give it while I am alive; but if you steep ashes in wine you only make mud, for the dead man does not drink.’
  • “And now the dust of Omar, as that of all men, brings forth flowers: ‘God knows,’ he says, ‘for whom.’ For whom? To-day travelers from all countries make pilgrimage to the sepulchre in that soft garden where he rests. The splendid heaven of Nishápúr is over him; the cool earth embraces him; brown stems, crowned heavily with white and crimson blossom, rise from his ashes, and drop blown petals on his tomb. The ringdove murmurs in that low full-throated moan whose significance is sculptured over the ruins of Persepolis,—the lament for strong dead men and imperious queens. But the dawn is as triumphant, the incense-wind as sweet, the gardens flower-laden, as when Omar knew them more than nine hundred years ago.”
  • But was the grave astronomer the wine-bibber and voluptuary that he paints himself? Must we not read into his praise of the wine-cup and the narcissus-eyed Cup-bearer with his or her slender cypress form, Oriental images meant to convey a deep esoteric meaning? Are not his more serious verses safer tests of his real thought?

  • “Whilom, ere youth’s conceit had waned, methought
  • Answers to all life’s problems I had wrought;
  • But now, grown old and wise, too late I see
  • My life is spent, and all my lore is naught.
  • “Let him rejoice who has a loaf of bread,
  • A little nest wherein to lay his head,
  • Is slave to none, and no man slaves for him,—
  • In truth his lot is wondrous well bestead.
  • “Sooner with half a loaf contented be,
  • And water from a broken crock, like me,
  • Than lord it over one poor fellow-man,
  • Or to another bow the vassal knee.”
  • But in contemplating all these poems,—and there are a thousand and more attributed to Omar Khayyám, many of them only replicas and variations of certain themes: complaints of Fate and the world’s injustice, satires on the hypocrisy and impiety of the pious, love poems, Rubáiyát in praise of spring and flowers, addresses to Allah either in humility or in reproach, and everlasting reiteration of the old Biblical “Eat and drink, for to-morrow you die,”—the question comes, how many were really written by Omar himself. Those attributed to him are differentiated from the great mass of Persian verse by their lack of florid ornamentation and arabesque, by their stately simplicity.

    Owing to his unpopularity as a heretic, comparatively few manuscripts have come down to us, and there is no undoubted text. The first known translation is of one quatrain, which exists in Arabic and in Latin. Professor E. B. Cowell was the first to make known to English readers the wealth of his poetic and philosophic thought. But as his prose versions and comments appeared in a magazine published in India, it excited little attention. It was through Edward Fitzgerald that he became generally known to the English-speaking world. For some time it was thought that the quatrains were of English origin; but at last the truth was told. A new impulse was given to the interest in Omar Khayyám by the publication, in 1884, of the superb illustrations by Elihu Vedder, which interpreted the text in the true Oriental and epicurean spirit. These illustrations are not slavish reproductions of the text, but rather a parallel poem, in keeping with it. Faithful service to the poet also was performed in Germany by Baron von Hammer-Purgstall, by Graf von Schack, and by Friedrich von Bodenstedt; in France by Garcin de Tassy, and by J. B. Nicolas. Besides Fitzgerald’s rendering, English versions, prose and verse, more or less complete, have been made by Justin Huntly McCarthy, E. H. Whinfield (whose translations are used in this sketch), and others. There are also Hungarian and Norwegian versions, and an edition in the original has been published in St. Petersburg.

    The modernness of Omar’s spirit, his view of the world, half pessimistic and half defiant, his good humor and good cheer, his wit and bonhomie, all make him appeal to a very wide circle of nineteenth-century readers. They find in him echoes of their own doubts and questionings; they too look upon the universe as the plaything of a Fate which they cannot pretend to explain or change; and they too somehow complacently feel that the Power above them “is a good Fellow” who will not without cause damn them to the Prophet’s Hell. At the same time they recognize the claims of the perfect life.

  • Well sings old Omar in more serious mood,—
  • Or else some critic of the Mollah brood,—
  • “In all this changing world whereat I gaze,
  • Save Goodness only there is nothing good.”