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The Caliph behind Khayyam

November 6, 2012

Remi Hauman signifies parallels between Khayyam and Walîd

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

This famous English verse from Fitzgerald (19th century) is known as a paraphrase of a Persian quatrain from Omar Khayyam (12th century), but it could be much older, even as distant as the eight century AD, if we trace it back to the Omayyad caliph Walîd Ibn Yazîd (708/9 – 744)[i]:

Walîd II (No. 66, source: F. Gabrieli)
Leave me, Sulaymâ, wine, a singing girl, and a cup. I don’t need any more possessions. / When life is pleasant in Ramlat ‘Alij, and I hold Salmâ in my arms, I would not change places with anyone.[ii]

Khayyam (No. 28, source: A. Christensen)[iii]
If we get but a loaf of bread, a cup with wine, and a leg of mouton. / And if I and thou be sitting in the wilderness, that were a delight beyond the powers of every sultan.

Both verses show a remarkable parallel: the three attributes, the beloved, the desert (wilderness), a rejection of the world (wealth and power). It’s not just these elements but also the similar structure and reasoning as a whole. The poem of Walîd seems to be the original inspiration of the Khayyam quatrain.

Walîd II and Khayyam were not professional court poets and thus did not need to fulfill the expectations of a patron. They both wrote poetry involving drinking wine in a repressive Islamic culture (but loose court environment) and are known (even loathed by some) for their provocative and even blasphemous content. Neither of them has a divân on his own and all their verses are transmitted by historians or as a part of literary compendiums. Oriental contemporaries did not really appreciate their verses, only European orientalists who (re)discovered and admired their work as part of a world heritage. Khayyam used the quatrain as poetic form and Walîd employed the four-line ghazal (one fourth of his oeuvre), a style that he might have initiated and that reached its peak during the Abbasid period. One scholar even sees the four-line ghazal as a precursor of the Persian quatrain[iv]. So much for the similarities between Khayyam and Walîd.

On the other hand, Khayyam was a serious and active scholar from an urban culture, whereas Walîd lived the life of a libertine and a Bedouin. Walîd was appointed as caliph but had to wait twenty years to the caliphate of his pious uncle Hisham. In the meantime he spent most of his life in the Syrian desert where he built castles (Khirbat Mafjar, Mshattâ, ‘Amrâ) to accomodate his excesses with wine and women. He was surrounded by musicians and poets, and composed music and poetry himself. Officially he was supposed to be a muslim but in reality he was a zindîq, both in the original manichean meaning[v] of the word, but also in the meaning of an Arab heathen.[vi] He was murdered to safeguard the stability of the Omayyad dynasty. He reached the age of thirty-six and reigned for only fourteen months.

Crucial for many of his verses (or songs) is the love for his sister-in-law Salmâ. He fell in love with her when he was fifteen and was already married to her sister but reputiated his wife Sa’da for her. His uncle caliph Hisham had always opposed the marriage but Walîd claimed her once he became caliph. She died a few days afterwards, probably by suicide. The quoted verse above is written just before his violent death when he lived hidden in his besieged desert castle surrounded by enemies. The remainder of poem No. 66 gives a good glimpse on his unruly, sensual character. Salmâ is not a loving memory to him but the sensuous dream of a man who despises the world and politics:

Keep your kingdom, God destroys your kingdoms. Let Him ordain as He pleases, I don’t want to live as a captured camel. / Let my cattle run loose en don’t catch them. Don’t envy me if I die skinny and starved. / I don’t wish to be remembered amongst you because of my reign.  / Many kingdoms have already been destroyed. / Many cities have been abandoned by their people, an empty landscape appeared, houses are dilapidated (verse 3-6)

How does a poem like this travel from Omayyad Syria (8th century) to Seljuq Persia (11th century)? Ever since the Islamic invasions of Persia by the Arabs there existed Arab influence on Persian literature. Many Persian poets knew Arabic and were familiar with Arabic poetry (the reverse is much rarer). Some of the greatest Persian poets, like Sa’di and Hafez, composed some Arab verses alongside their Persian oeuvre. Scientists like Omar Khayyam wrote their scientific treatises in Arabic. The ghazal, the most important poetic form in Persian literature, has an Arab origin.

The verses of Walîd were compiled in authoritative anthologies with biographies and poems such as the 24-volume Kitab al-Aghani (“The Book of Songs”) from Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani († 967), who wrote in Arabic, but as his name indicates, was a Persian from Isfahan. Such books were eagerly copied and libraries from courts or private persons certainly owned a copy. It is therefore not surprising that Walîd’s poems were still read in Seljuq Persia. J. Rybka pointed to al-Ma’arri as a possible influence on the collection of Khayyam quatrains, others to Abu Nawas, but until now the only demonstrable influence seems to be Walîd.

Great was my surprise when I saw the parallel between two of my favorite poets. Let me finally translate another one of my favorite Walîd poems (no. 32 Gabrieli) as a tribute to the caliph behind Khayyam:

This morning broke your heart, O Walîd,
when she appeared on the way to church.

I kept looking at her with tender eyes
and saw her kissing a piece of wood.

The wood of the cross. Woe to my soul!
Which of you has ever seen a cross so adored?

And I asked my Lord to be that cross
and fuel for the flames of hell.

Remi Hauman is a member of the Dutch Omar Khayyam Society.

With many thanks to Mr. Mark Rowley for the revision


[i] For a critical edition of Walîd: F. Gabrieli, ‘Al-Walîd ibn Yazîd. Il califfo e il poeta, Revista Degli Studi Orientali 15, 1934, 1 – 64. Two important studies: D. Derenk, Leben und Dichtung des Omaijaden-kalifen al-Walîd ibn Yazîd, 1974: R. Hamilton, Walid and His friends, 1988. Don’t forget the studies of Renate Jacobi (Germany) and Jan Van Reeth (Belgium).

[ii] Ramlat ‘Alij is a desert in the Najd. Sulaymâ (diminuative: ‘little Salmâ’) is a nick-name for Salmâ. These are the first two lines of a poem consisting of six.

[iii] For other versions: Kasra No. 175, Furûghi 175, Fitzgerald 11, Whinfield 479, McCarthy 398, Heron-Allen 155, Rosen 141, Arberry 125, Avery 234, Nicolas 448, Grolleau 149, Hedayat 98. Hedayat doubted the authenticity of the quatrain.

[iv] Tilman Seidensticker, Die Herkunft des Ruba’i, Asiatische Studien 53, 1999, 905 – 936.

[v] Jan Van Reeth, Die Transfiguration Walîd b. Yazîds, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 108, 2002, 501-512: evidence is easy to find in his biography in Kitâb al-Aghânî but also in his poems, for example, a description of a Bêma-ritual.

[vi] Jan Van Reeth, La répresentation du ciel et du zodiaque dans le palais omayyade de ‘Amrâ, Acta Orientalia Belgica XII, 1999, 137 – 150: gives many arguments for Walîd as Arab pagan: his desert palace ‘Amrâ (named after the Arab goddess ‘Amara) and the iconography inside the palace (bv. Dionysus, Dhu Sharâ, Aphrodite, himself as the emanation of the zodiak in the caldarium of his hammam.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 6, 2012 7:06 pm

    This is quite wonderful! The”story” keeps getting deeper and ever more fascinating. For one who, a few hours from now, will be before an audience telling them “a little bit of what I’ve come to know of the story of how the [FitzGerald] poem came to be written”, it sets my head to spinning. But I have to remind myelf that even if what I present is a great simplification of the actual saga, if it succeeds in stimulating some in the audience to do further research, then that’s okay. OK?

  2. Bob Forrest permalink
    January 3, 2013 9:01 am

    I have read Jos Coumans’ interesting posting on “The Caliph behind Khayyam” and mulled it over for nigh on two months now, but I still come out by the same door as in I went, in that I keep coming back to the thought that perhaps these parallels represent no more than an independent use of similar imagery by two different authors, rather than a direct influence of Walid II on Omar Khayyam. Certainly there are similarities, but there are differences too: there is no bread or leg of mutton in Walid II, and no singing girl in Omar. Whilst the similarities may indeed suggest a direct influence, the differences might also suggest otherwise. Put simply, there is nothing new in poems about “wine, women and song”, and if Omar wasn’t the first to write such verses, nor was Walid II. In evidence of this, there is an interesting classical parallel for the sentiments of the famous verse 11 of FitzGerald’s first edition (and indeed, of much more in The Rubaiyat) in the Latin poem Copa. Formerly thought to be a minor poem of Virgil’s, it is now thought merely to be written in the style of Virgil by some unknown author, at some unknown date not far removed from Virgil’s lifetime (70 BC – 19 BC). It is contained in a collection of such pseudo-Virgilian poems, all probably by different authors, in a collection known as the Appendix Virgiliana. Copa – it means “the Barmaid” – is a song sung by the hostess of a roadside tavern to her customers. The following is extracted from the translation of H. Rushton Fairclough, revised by G.P.Goold (Loeb, 2000):

    “Why go away when you’re tired with the heat and the dust ? How much better to recline on a couch with a drink! Here are panelled booths and cabins and goblets, roses, flutes, harps, and a pavilion cooled by a shady curtain of reeds…..And there are little cheeses, dried in rush baskets, and waxen plums of autumn’s season and chestnuts and sweetly blushing apples: here are loaves of purest bread, here Love, here wine…Come here and rest your weary limbs beneath the shade of vines, and entwine your drooping head in a coronet of roses, and kissing the luscious lips of a pretty girl….Why save fragrant wreaths for ungrateful ashes ? D’you want your bones buried under a garlanded tombstone ? Set forth the wine and dice! To hell with him who thinks of tomorrow! Death is tweaking my ear and says: ’Live it up now, for I am coming!’” (p.439-441)

    No-one would argue that a 1st century BC Latin text had somehow migrated to 8th century AD Omayyad Syria to be picked up by Walid II, and all that is proved by this example is that carpe diem images of “wine, women and song” are common to different times and different cultures. (Indeed, the phrase “carpe diem” itself comes from an ode of Horace (1.11), thus dating it to the 1st century BC.) There is another interesting example in The Greek Anthology (a collection of short poems, mostly epigrams, ranging in date from Classical to Byzantine times). This one is by Palladas of Alexandria (c. 400 AD), the translation used here being that of W.R.Paton (Loeb, 1919)

    “This is life, and nothing else is; life is delight; away, dull care! Brief are the years of man. Today wine is ours, and the dance, and flowery wreaths, and women. Today let me live well; none knows what may be tomorrow.” (5.72)

    The Greek Anthology contains a large number of noteworthy Omarian elements (many of which will feature in the Rubaiyat section of my hopefully forthcoming web-site), like the following epigram of Zonas (c.90 BC). The translation is again that of Paton:

    “Give me the sweet beaker wrought of earth, earth from which I was born, and under which I shall lie when dead.” (11.43)

    Inevitably we think back to verses 34 & 35 of FitzGerald’s 1st edition, and to v.61 of his Kuza Nama (Book of Pots.) It is noteworthy too that the Book of Pots has an ancient Biblical antecedent in Isaiah 64.8, demonstrating yet again the commonality of Omarian images in different times and cultures, though it is true that this one could possibly have reached Omar via Surah 55.14 of the Qur’an. But getting back to “wine, women, and song”, it would be interesting to know of any similar usages in ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian or Chinese literature, Can any reader supply any ? Certainly our modern proverb “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” has ancient Biblical antecedents, being a conflation of two Old Testament verses, Ecclesiastes 8.15 and Isaiah 22.13.

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