The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883) was a scruffy and eccentric writer friend of Thackeray and Tennyson with few real ambitions of his own. He was drawn to younger men, and it was from one of these, Edward Cowell, he began learning Persian in 1853. Cowell shared a discovery that he made at Oxford of a cache of verses attributed to Omar Khayyám, an 11th-Century polymath from eastern Iran. Khayyám was revered in his lifetime for his groundbreaking work in astronomy and mathematics. FitzGerald was enthralled. In Omar he saw a man with a subtle, strong, and cultivated intellect, a fine imagination, and a heart passionate for truth and justice. He was also excited by the humorous and perverse pleasure Omar took in exalting the gratification of the senses above all else.

FitzGerald chose a selection of quatrains to translate into English and sent them to Fraser’s Magazine in January 1858. He made a revised draft in January 1859, of which he privately printed 250 copies. By the 1880s, the book was extremely well known throughout the English-speaking world, to the extent that numerous “Omar Khayyám Clubs” were formed. By the 1890s, more than two million copies had been sold in two hundred editions. A fin de siècle cult of the Rubaiyat arose. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám won FitzGerald immortality.

Khayyám was born in Nishapur in 1044 in the province of Khorasan two centuries before the region was devastated by Gengis Khan. He was educated at Nishapur and traveled to several reputed institutions of learning, including those at Bukhara, Balkh, Samarkand and Isphahan. He lived in Nishapur and Samarkand for most of his life and died in 1123 CE in Nishapur. The city had substantial minorities of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and rival Muslim sects, especially Sufis, then a mystic trend that professed poverty and practiced dance and meditation rites. They were labeled as pantheistic by their critics.

His love of wine (a drink which drove sorrow from the heart, as he composed his poetry) and his hedonism so publicly demonstrated in his poetry was audacious for his time. To ward off the attacks of critics, he made a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca in 1092 as a defensive measure to assert a veneer of piety. Omar’s poems were outwardly in the Sufi style but were written with an anti-religious agenda.

Owing to his inquisitive nature, Khayyám questioned things most around him took for granted: faith, the hereafter, and the meaning of life itself. He had little confidence in the promises of religion, with its talk of Heaven and Hell, and even expressed doubts regarding the logic of God. There was only one thing Khayyám was certain about, and which he cherished: this life.

His reputation was for a time highly regarded in Iran but by and large he has been held either in ignominy, contempt, total disregard or intentional oblivion by almost the entire Muslim world, and especially the Arab countries and his native Iran, ruled today by the clique of fanatical mullahs who represent the very targets of bigotry, asceticism and ignorance his verses deride in the Rubáiyát .

Generations of Western Bohemians, existential thinkers, skeptics, cynics, and bon-vivants, on the other hand, have never found a better carpe diem literary inspiration than the immortal Khayyám.

Since the first English translation in 1859, hundreds of editions of the Rubáiyát have appeared in numerous forms and many languages. But their most famous and elaborate manifestation was arranged by Elihu Vedder (1836-1923) in 1884. From the moment of their publication, Vedder’s illustrations achieved notoriety and amazing success, selling out the Rubáiyát‘s first edition in Boston in six days. The illustrations were instantly acclaimed as masterworks of American art.

Drawings by Elihu Vedder




How did a 400-line poem based on the writings of a Persian sage and advocating seize-the-day hedonism achieve widespread popularity in Victorian England? It was a passionate outcry against the unofficial Victorian ideologies of moderation, primness and self-control. The Rubáiyát was a rejection not just of Christian morality, but of religion itself. There is no afterlife, Khayyám implied, and since human existence is transient–and death will come much faster than we imagine–it’s best to savor life’s exquisite moments while we can.

The influence of the poem on Victorian culture was especially visible in the works of Oscar Wilde, who described it as a “masterpiece of art” and one of his greatest literary loves. He saw in the Rubáiyát an argument for individual freedom and sexual liberation from the constraints of Victorian social convention. FitzGerald was well-known for his homosexuality. For Wilde, as for FitzGerald, libertine hedonism was far more than the pursuit of sensory pleasures. It was a subversive political act with the power to reshape the cultural landscape.

California poet Joaquin Miller by Adelaide Hanscom Leeson

Noteworthy editions

Pre-Raphaelite artist William Morris produced two illuminated manuscripts of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, the second of which also contained illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones. Illustrator Anne Harriet Fish created a stunning, luxurious edition of FitzGerald’s translation in 1922. Twenty-four-year-old Ronald Balfour’s 1920 Rubáiyát edition includes Aubrey Beardsley flourishes and details with profusions of peacocks and winged figures and the usual Arabian exotica.

The 1905 Dodge Publishing edition of the Rubáiyát includes artistic black and white photographs by Adelaide Hanscom Leeson. The concept of illustrating a literary work with fine art photographs was new at that time, and the Rubáiyát was one of the very first American books in this genre. She solicited some then well-known California literary figures, including Charles Keeler, Joaquin Miller, George Sterling and George Wharton James, as models for the project. She saw the project as both a classic literary publication and as a metaphor for her times. In a newspaper interview she said that she decided to illustrate the Rubáiyát because it presented “an expression of the struggle of the human soul after the truth, and against the narrowing influence of the dogmatic religions of our time.”

Aimée Crocker’s crowd was certainly taken by the Rubáiyát. Her longest friendship was with Bohemian Club superstar Frank Unger. It was through Frank that Aimée met Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde and King Kalakaua of Hawaii. He was a major domo and secretary to Aimée and her second husband, Harry Gillig, accompanying them on several tours around the world. Unger privately published his own 1906 edition of the sensual, exhilarating, extravagant, luxurious Rubáiyát with 86 calligraphed/decorated pages edged in gold.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám Illustrated by Frank Unger



George Sutcliffe and Francis Sangorski were renowned throughout the city of London in the early 1900s for their opulent and over-the-top designs. Accordingly, it was to them that Henry Sotheran’s, a bookstore on Sackville Street, went to commission a book like no other.

Cost, according to Sotheran’s, was no object; the bookbinders were given carte blanche to let their imagination go wild and conjure the most bedazzling book the world would ever behold. Completed in 1911 “The Book Wonderful” had three peacocks with bejeweled tails, surrounded by intricate patterns and floral sprays on its gilded cover, while a Greek bouzouki could be seen on the back. Over 1000 precious and semi-precious stones–rubies, turquoises, and emeralds–were used in its making, as well as nearly 5000 pieces of leather, silver, ivory, and ebony inlays, and 600 sheets of 22-karat gold leaf.

When the Titanic went down on the night of April 14, 1912 in the sea off the New World, its most eminent victim was the book. The story, however, didn’t end with the sinking of the ocean liner, or even Sangorski’s strange death by drowning some weeks afterwards. Sutcliffe’s nephew Stanley Bray was determined to revive not only the memory of the Great Omar, but also the book itself. Using Sangorski’s original drawings, he managed–after a grueling six years–to replicate the book, which was placed in a bank vault.

The Great Omar, it seemed, had been born under a bad sign, for, during the London Blitz of World War Two, it was smashed to pieces. Shaken, but not shattered, Bray once again rolled up his sleeves to produce yet another version of his uncle’s swan song. This time, however, its making wasn’t a matter of years, but decades. Completed after 40 years of on-and-off work, Bray’s tribulations were realized in another stunning reproduction, which he loaned to the British Library, and which his estate bequeathed to the institution following his death, where it can be seen today. “I am not in the least bit superstitious,” Bray remarked shortly before his demise, “even though they do say that the peacock is a symbol of disaster.”

Drawings by Ronald Balfour



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