Omar Khayyám — functional alcoholic?

Rubaiyat - Edmund Dulac

“Place it on my tab, O Cupbearer! For life is fleeting, and death is final!

I have only begun to appreciate the poetry and philosophic outlook of the great Omar Khayyám. After reading Edward Fitzgerald’s translation, I wondered: in picking and choosing from Khayyám’s quattrains, did he place undue emphasis on the poet’s celebration of wine? I went on to read Justin McCarthy’s lengthier prose translation, which reveals an even more pronounced prediliction for the Grape. It was this translation that made me think Omar has a problem. His exhortations to the reader can become downright wearisome. Like an argumentative drunk, he gets annoyingly repetitive, and keeps urging us to drink. Fitgerald’s Khayyam wants us to drink and be merry, to delight in the company of friends and lovers, to dwell in the here and now. McCarthy’s Khayyam seems more like an addict trying to drown his sorrow. Here are some examples from McCarthy’s translation that cried out for an intervention, but made me smile:


“I wish to drink so deep, so deep of wine that its fragrance may hang about the soil where I shall sleep, and that revellers, still dizzy from last night’s wassail, shall, on visiting my tomb, from its very perfume fall dead drunk.”


“The world upbraids me as a debauchee, and yet I am not guilty. Ye holy men, look upon yourselves, and learn what ye truly are. You charge me with violation of the Holy Law, but I have committed no other sins than riot, drunkenness, and adultery.”


“Behold the dawn arises. Let us rejoice in the present moment with a cup of crimson wine in our hand. As for honour and fame, let that fragile crystal be dashed to pieces against the earth.”

Drinking at dawn — always a bad sign.


“See that thou drinkest not thy wine in the company of some clown, riotous, having neither wit nor manners. Nothing but dissensions can come of it. In the night time thou wilt suffer from his drunkenness, his clamour and his folly. On the morrow his prayers and his penitence will cause thy head to ache.”

Choose the right drinking buddy. Wise words from Old Khayyam!


“I can renounce all, but wine — never. I can console myself for all else, but for wine — never. Is it possible for me to become a good Mussulman, and to give up old wine? — Never.

Rehab is for quitters!


Do not riot in the tavern; abide there without brawling. Sell your turban, sell your Koran to buy wine, then hurry past the mosque without going in.

And here are a few single lines to make my point:

“My happiness is incomplete when I am sober.” (96)

“Yes, the misery of this wretched world is a poison — wine is its only antidote.” (213)

“A mouthful of wine is better than empire.” (402)

Could it be that the Khayyám of the Rubáiyát is an exaggeration or caricature of the poet himself? I find it hard to believe that he could have functioned as an astronomer  — who took meticulous measurements to develop an incredibly accurate solar calendar — and as a drunkard.  He was also a leading medieval mathematician. Did he write his treatise on algebra while nursing hangovers? Who knows. At least he knew how to have a good time.

willy pogany rubaiyat

Another night at the Tavern


2 thoughts on “Omar Khayyám — functional alcoholic?

  1. Omar Khayyam was a Muslim. Drinking was forbidden. To my understanding, Khayyam wrote at a time and place where Islam was the governing religion. It would seem to me that, had he actually drunk wine, he’d have run afoul of the authorities and been punished.

  2. Understanding the essence of Khayyam’s poet is a little challenging for a reader not familiar with Persian poetry.
    I do not believe Khayyam was a drunk. As the writer suggests, it would be very unlikely to be a drunk and also the most eminent mathematician of your time. Note that the Jalali Calendar developed by Khayyam, is still -by far- the most accurate calendar (after more than 1,000 years). I am sure he has been drinking thought; but probably not much more than a regular bad Muslim 🙂

    But his poems are actually not merely about wine. He is actually expressing a profound sadness and even anger towards the cruelty of the cycle of life and death. And wine is a way to escape or -at least – temporarily forget the pressing fact that we all are to die despite all the achievements we have had in our lives!

    Khayyam repeatedly reminds us of death and that we are insignificant creatures in the eyes of the creator. It is obvious to the great mathematician that the precise machine of universe does not care about us! He even calls humans “poppets” of the universe in one of his poems. Khayyam is baffled with this crazy game that the creator has designed for us. He does not understand why we should be such marvelous sensitive and smart beings and still die! Death is an insult to Khayyam intellect. In one of his poets, he says “I wonder who would make the most magnificent work of art (the human race) and then right after he develops it to perfection, shatters it to the pieces?!” Seriously, why!?

    The fact that we are all going to die is so overwhelmingly cruel that one has no choice other than escaping from it. Most people are fortunate enough to not be as smart as Khayyam. Ordinary people do not see the whole picture and therefore they are safe from the cruelty of life. But for a wise man like Khayyam, perhaps wine is the only escape.

    And of course, some of the “wine poets” are just to mess with dumb religious people. For example:

    “They say the Heaven is very magnificent with virgins and every thing. I say wine is better! Take my advice: don’t trade wine for the Heaven! Because I bet Heaven is not as good as they say!”

    Note: in Muslim belief, drinking wine is a sin and can prevent you from going to the Heaven.

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