The Curse of the Great Omar

The Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, has one of the largest collections of Rubaiyat-related materials in the world. But there is one book it doesn’t have: The Great Omar, a specially crafted edition whose covers are embedded with 1,050 jewels. This dryly informative video delivers quite a jolt when the fate of  this unique book and the man who made it are revealed.

rubaiyat - vedder

Elihu Vedder, an American artist, was the first illustrator of the Rubaiyat.

Oft-Quoted lines from the Rubaiyat

willy pogany rubaiyat



Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,

A flask of Wine, a Book of Verse — and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness —

And Wilderness is Paradise enow.


enow — an archaic word; it means “enough”

If you encounter any discussion of the Rubaiyat, it’s almost inevitable that this stanza will be quoted, because it nicely sums up the good life — the here and now — that Khayyam urges us to enjoy. This translation is from Edward Fitzgerald (1st edition), and the illustration is by Willy Pogany.







A few Quatrains


An illustration by Edmund Dulac of Old Khayyam in one of his moods. I hate to see him like this.

My two regular readers know that I’m a fan of the Persian poet, Omar Khayyám, original author of the Rubáiyát. He lived from 1048 – 1141, but achieved new fame in the Western world when some of his quatrains were freely translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald. Here’s a sample (From Fitzgerald’s First Edition, published in 1859, quatrains 26-32):


Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise

To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;

One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;

The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.


Myself when young did eagerly frequent

Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument

About it and about: but evermore

Came out by the same Door as in I went.


With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,

And with my own hand labor’d it to grow:

And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d —

“I came like Water, and like Wind I go.”


Into this Universe, and why not knowing,

Nor Whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:

And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,

I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.


What, without asking, hither hurried whence?

And, without asking, whither hurried hence!

Another and another Cup to drown

The Memory of this Impertinence!


Up from Earth’s Centre through the Seventh Gate

I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate,

And many Knots unravel’d by the Road;

But not the Knot of Human Death and Fate.


There was a Door to which I found no Key:

There was a Veil past which I could not see:

Some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee;

There seem’d — and then no more of Thee, and Me.



Sexy Rubaiyat – Illustrations by Ronald Balfour

Here are some beautiful illustrations by Ronald Balfour, featured in a 1920 edition of the Rubáiyát.

For more, here’s a post by John Coulthart, an artist and designer with an online journal that I enjoy visiting:

Ronald Balfour’s Rubáiyát
balfour 1



balfour 8



balfour 4




balfour 6




balfour 2



balfour 5







Beautiful Editions of the Rubaiyat

I hate the Kindle — and all eReaders — for a number of reasons, but the primary is one of aesthetics. A digital screen will never match the beauty of a well-made, finely illustrated book.

Here are some images of Rubaiyat covers I have gleaned from Pinterest. In the future I might expand and revise this post to include more details about the various editions. It would bring me great joy to own one of my own.
rubaiyat 2



”’rubaiyat book 1



rubaiyat 4



rubaiyat 5

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

Omar Khayyam’s birthday.

Today (Sunday) is the birthday of the Persian poet, Omar Khayyam, the original author of the Rubaiyat, a work that became immensely popular in the West because of the poetic achievement of Edward Fitzgerald, a wealthy British gentleman who did not accurately translate the words so much as faithfully channel the spirit of Khayyam into English verse. As Fitzgerald himself acknowledged, it is a “rendition” rather than a translation.

Khayyam himself possessed prodigious talents beyond poetry. As a medieval mathematician, he wrote a famous treatise on algebra, and as an astronomer he helped develop a highly accurate Iranian calendar.  He inherited his title from his illiterate father, whose occupation — “Khayyam”  — means “tent-maker.”

Today I went to BookPeople, a well-known bookstore in Austin, where his work was absent from the shelves.  It seems Rumi has displaced him as the most fashionable Persian poet (in the U.S., at least), although I do find Khayyam in used bookstores.

According to The Wine of Wisdom, the Rubaiyat became “a household name from the 1870s to the 1950s.”  In WWI, soldiers carried copies of it into battle. Its appearance was well-timed: with its jabs at religion, it appealed to a new secular way of thinking, and its association with the Victorian conception of the East — a place of exotic, romantic sexiness — captured the public’s  interest.

There is more than one Omar Khayyam — that much is clear. He’s a polymath and a partier. A thinker and a drinker. Though he’s had dining clubs named after him, his Epicurean image overshadows his contributions as a scientist, mathematician, and philosopher.

Here’s a BBC video about him, which delivered a shock when it featured a visit to Austin’s Harry Ransom Center, which houses a large collection of Rubaiyat-related items (skip to the 33:25).