Omar Khayyam's Poems

Recently at the book store, I picked up a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a lovely collection of quatrain poems by the 11th century Persian poet and philosopher, Omar Khayyam.

For those of who who might not be aware (as I was not before I picked up this book), a quatrain is a poem with 4 lines, which expresses a complete thought on it's own (it doesn't need to be part of a longer poem or a book), and typically the first, second, and fourth lines rhyme, but not the third. Omar Khayyam's poetry was written originally in Persian, but the translation I have picked up is one of the most well-known, by Edward FitzGerald, and it contains well over a hundred poems in multiple versions (some of the translations were modified in later editions, and this book collects several editions in one). As you can imagine, there's a lot here, especially since every poem is stand-alone and contains its own ideas and meaning. In short, you could spend a lot of time studying this book, and it's a joy to have.

Today we're going to look at some of the more interesting poems, analyze them a bit, and discuss the ideas in a modern context - what these poems mean to us today. We will also take care to do a bit of research into the context they were written in originally, which actually puts us at odds with my favorite author - Christopher Hitchens - who I believe made a grave mistake in characterizing one of Omar's poems.

First up, a lovely poem about a writer's integrity, and censorship; it is number LXXVI in the Rubaiyat. It reads:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

This poem is stating, roughly, what Christopher Hitchens said, and what I echo: if someone says "I'm offended," I say "I'm still waiting to hear what your point is." Offensive language does not mean you are incorrect, and being offended does not mean you are correct, and what Omar is expressing here is disdain at some individuals in Persia at the time, who held more conservative views, and called other more liberal Muslims such as Omar "kafir," which is Arabic for "infidel." Omar's own views are known by the name "Sufism," or Islamic Mysticism, and for this, he and many others were labeled kafir (another prominent Sufi would be Mansoor Hallaj, who was executed in the 10th century for his beliefs and statements). His point in this quatrain is, "it doesn't matter, your shouts and tears won't change my words and thoughts." Several poems by Omar deal with this ideologically charged culture war, which is in fact similar to the culture war the USA is in right now, where those on the far right and far left call everybody that isn't part of their "tribe" different names such as libtard or nazi, while the rest of us are left scratching our heads, wondering where their parents are.

It is quite a lovely, poignant little poem, and remains one of my favorite pieces of Khayyam's writing.

Let's move to another poem that was written by Omar, number LXII in the second edition of the translation by FitzGerald.

The mighty Mahmud, Allah-breathing Lord,
That all the misbelieving and black Horde
Of Fears and Sorrows that infest the Soul
Scatters before him with his whirlwind Sword.

One slight change between editions here - in the first edition of the translation, it is read "enchanted sword," not "whirlwind sword." Beyond that, this poem sounds to some - including myself, at first - of speaking of "Muhammad," the prophet of Islam. Actually, what I am glad to have learned is that this name, Mahmud, is distinct and separate from Muhammad, and may in fact refer to Mahmud of Ghazni, a conquerer and warlord in the 10th and 11th centuries Afghanistan, Persia and what is now considered Pakistan. This poem is important to mention so that people realize the difference between Mahmud and Muhammad - this poem cannot be used to indicate anything about Muhammad himself.

We come finally to Christopher Hitchens, and the poem he most enjoyed - and one which is unfortunately not included in my book. We shall however, find it online, as is easy to do, and quote it here:

And do you think that unto such as you,
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew,
God gave a secret, and denied it me?
Well, well - what matters it? Believe that, too.

Christopher Hitchens used this as an attack on religion as a whole, to rhetorically demolish his opponents - and it works marvels, to be sure. Very few individuals were as eloquent, well-read, and versatile in the debating arena as Christopher Hitchens. However, when we look at the context of this poem, it seems clear that Omar is lambasting the anti-Sufis in his society at the time, the ones who dared call him kafir. I would argue that Omar was not an atheist, but merely had different beliefs than were the norm in Persia or the wider Caliphate, but still considered himself Muslim, even if other Muslims considered his sect heretical.

Now, this poem can still be used to win debates against religious demagogues. Why? Because the content is mocking those who claim that they have special revelation from "god" (which we can use to substitute any deity we're arguing against), which is denied the person they are arguing with. Although Omar was using these words to mock and ridicule those who lambasted him as being of the "wrong" Muslim sect, it can be used to lambaste anybody who claims that they have special knowledge privy to them from the divine.

The final poem we shall examine is one that discusses the inevitability of death, and the cruelty of time's apathy toward our plights. It is number VIII in the second translation, and reads,

Whether at Nishapur or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.

This is a beautiful, if somewhat somber poem, which seeks to inform us that whether life is going well or poorly, it is, nonetheless, going on. A common theme between the first poem in this article, and this one, seems to be Omar's apathetic view of human emotion as it pertains to truth, reality, and knowledge.

If you do not own this book, I highly recommend purchasing the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a wonderful work which helps to enrich the mind and feed the soul.


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