Omar Kahyyam was primarily a mathematician and an astronomer. He was an extremely intelligent individual who wrote many theories in physics and metaphysics. He is also attributed with the reformation of the Persian calender with seven other great intellects to create a calender more accurate than the Gregorian calender. Ironically he is known to the world today for his translated collection of lyrical quatrains called the Rubaiyat. His life and works are somewhat of a mystery because he was rather unpopular until after his death.
Yet the work he is most known and beloved for is considered to have been a gross mistranslation of both character and content. This paper will be divided into six sections. The first is the prologue. The prologue was used to introduce Omar to the reader. Next there will be a brief biography of his life and major influences of his work. Following this will be a section on his magnum opus and only work, The Rubaiyat. This will include literary criticism of his famous work. After this there will be a brief conclusion to sum up the overall paper followed by an epilogue with my opinion on Khayyam.
Finally in my bibliography the reader will see my sources for research and my opinion on those books. In the history of world literature Omar Khayyam is an enigma. No poet of any time period has received greater recognition and fame through such a enormous misreading of his work. Known today world wide, Khayyam’s works would undoubtable be unheard of in modern day literature in they were not translated by English writer Edward FitzGerald. The paradox is that FitzGerald misinterpreted both Khayyam and his works in his translation to start an unending conflict1.
FitzGerald added to his editions of the Rubaiyat a biographical sketch entitled “Omar Khayyam: The Astronomer Poet of Persia. ” In this he wrote his opinion that Khayyam was an anti-religious materialist who believed life’s only meaning was to be found in wine, song, and worldly pleasures: 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….
He takes a humorous or perverse pleasure in exalting the gratification of sense above that of 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 interested2…. This was how Fitzgerald interpreted the minimal facts of Khayyam’s life. Many later studies of Khayyam reveal a more accurate description of his life and his writings. Omar’s full name was Ghiyath ud Din Abu’l Fatah Omar bin Ibrahim al Khayyam.
From his name and the customs of the time it can be interpreted that his father was a tent maker, which is the meaning of Khayyam. It can also be seen that his father was named Ibrahim. Omar used the name Khayyam as his pen name. He was born at Naishapur in the province of Khorastan (located in the northeastern part of present day Iran) on May 18, 10483. Omar’s great influence and teacher was Imam Mowaffak whom he and many others studied under. It was through Imam that Omar met two other of his pupils and befriended them. One was Nizam ul Mulk, and the other was Ben Sabbah.
These three studied under Imam for about four years, in these four years they became great friends and influences on each other. Towards the end of their studies with Imam they made a pact. Based on the superior education all three of them had obtained the judged that at least one of them would become rich and important. They made a pact that when one of them did become of some importance they would split their fortunes three ways. After years of traveling Nizam became a chief advisor to the Sultan. The first to come claim his share was Ben Sabbah.
He demanded a place in government and was given a position of high regard. He soon made a fool of himself and was removed from his position because of all his greed. Omar also came to claim his share; but not to ask for a title or a position. All Khayyam wanted to do was live in one corner of the shadow of his greatness, when Nizam realized the Omar was being truthful he granted him a pension from the gold treasury of Naishapur4. Not much is Known of his life as a child, but that at the age of seventeen he was already adept in the academic subjects of his day.
In response of the early death of his father Omar began to look for means to support himself. He therefore embarked on an illustrious public career at the age of eighteen. A tract he wrote on Algebra won him the patronage of a rich and influential Doctor in Samarkand. Later he obtained a position in the court of Sultan Malik Shah, which included being the Sultan’s personal physicist. By his mid twenties Khayyam became head of a astronomical observatory and authored many works on mathematics and physics. He also played a leading role in the reformation of the Persian calender5.
After the death of Sultan Malik Shah in 1092 , Omar lost his place at court and one of his great influences. Subsequently he made a pilgrimage to Mecca. When he returned he is said to alienate himself from the general population. Not much is known about this time period in his life except that this is when he is thought to of written the Rubaiyat . The story of Omar’s death is said to be that Omar was studying a work on metaphysics when he marked his page with a gold toothpick and prayed his last prayer and then died.
His tomb is still standing in Naishapur6. Omar Khayyam’s most famous work, and only work in poetry is the Rubaiyat. Yet it only became famous because of the translation made by Edward FitzGerald in 1864. This translation however lead to a major controversy over how accurately FitzGerald actually represented the great author and his work7. The Rubaiyat, according to Edward FitzGerald’s translation is a series of lyrical poems that can be read separately or all read as a whole work. These small poems that stand on their own are called Quatrains.
FitzGeralds translation of the Rubaiyat contains one hundred and one of these small poems. They all seem to have the constant themes of hedonism, alcohol, women and spiritual fulfillment. In the Rubaiyat Khayyam uses many different literary devises. Some of the most popularly used are symbolism and metaphor. Very little is known of the reception of Khayyam’s poetry before the nineteenth century when FitzGerald introduced it to Europe. The themes in this novel at the time of the release of FitzGerald’s translation were thought to be Escapist and fatalistic.
This is why many feel it was so popular in Europe. It seems the works of Khayyam seem to show that he found the world and all of its’ glory for just what it was, shallow and depressing with only simple pleasures. FitzGerald’s book appealed and related to the people of Europe’s despair. In fact the book became so popular that there were Omar Khayyam clubs formed by great minds in England and other European countries8. All the real issue behind this work is weather or not Edward FitzGerald properly translated Khayyam’s work, or if he properly judged his character.
After Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat there were many other translations done because his was thought to be inaccurate. This is one of the reasons the Rubaiyat is so popular now. In fact, almost immediately after FitzGerald’s copy was published there was controversy over the accuracy of the translation from scholars. For the common people however it was a beautiful book full of meaning that could be related to. Most didn’t care if it wasn’t in its original form because it was magnificent the way it was.
Most literary criticism found today on the Rubaiyat will be more about the controversy than the actual writings. It has been proven that FitzGerald completely gave Khayyam the wrong reputation in his forward entitled “Omar Khayyam; The Astronomer Poet of Persia”. FitzGerald conveyed the message that Khayyam was an Atheist whose only goal was to pursue worldly pleasures. This is what he leaned his translation of the Rubaiyat towards when he changed its format and sometimes meaning. He didn’t do this intentionally, his true goal was to truly capture the spirit of Khayyam.
Unfortunately he completely misinterpreted Khayyam and the Meanings of his Poetry9. In 1867 J. B. Nicolas introduced a French translation of the Rubaiyat which differs greatly from FitzGerald’s in two respects. Nicolas suggested that Khayyam’s Writings are very deeply rooted in religion, this is a large contrast to FitzGerald’s interpretation of Khayyam. Also his book cannot be read as one flowing poem as FitzGerald made his into. This is an oriental way of poetry and not that of Khayyam. Khayyam’s true poems could all stand on their own as completely independent and meaningful thoughts.
Justin H. McCarthy, another notable translator, completed his translation of the Rubaiyat in 1896 from the oldest existing manuscripts of Khayyam’s Rubaiyat that still exist. These two translations have been called the two most accurate translated versions of the Rubaiyat that exist10. The true Rubaiyat is said to be just about opposite of FitzGerald’s interpretation. The poems show the limits of science and the importance of god. They speak of wisdom and heavenly pleasures, not earthly. Even though this has been proven Fitzgerald’s version is still the most popular Rubaiyat11.