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Controversial issues in Rubaiyat translation (1): Did Khayyam write any of the verses?

June 8, 2020

Cole ROKIn a recent post, we drew attention to the new translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Juan Cole, an academic and public intellectual based in the United States – see  This book has given rise to strong reactions from some of our readers.  One colleague was very concerned about the suggestion in the Introduction to the book that FitzGerald’s “Victorian style, with its archaic language and euphemisms, has drawbacks for conveying the Rubaiyat”, especially to a modern audience.  Juan Cole suggests that a more modern interpretation is needed for this purpose, but our correspondent failed to find any satisfaction from the English version that Cole’s book offers.

 Another of our regular contributors, Bob Forrest, has other concerns about the content of the book.  He raises two issues in particular: first, the suggestion by Juan Cole that the historical Omar Khayyam did not write any of the verses attributed to him; and, second, the idea that the language and content of the Persian original reflects in part a dissolute life style which is not compatible with that of a respectable court astronomer such as Omar Khayyam.  In what follows, Bob Forrest sets out his arguments relating to the first of these issues.  The second question is covered in the subsequent post. 

Our thanks to Bob for sharing his views and concerns with readers of this blog.  We hope that readers will add their own views in the form of comments on both items.

The recent publication of Juan Cole’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with its associated claim that Omar never actually wrote any of the quatrains attributed to him, rather reminded me of A.H. Millar’s similar claims made in his series of articles on “The Omar Khayyam Myth” published in The People’s Friend at the turn of the 20th century. (1) My initial ‘common sense’ reaction to both is that there is no smoke without fire, and whilst it is undoubtedly true that many of the quatrains attributed to Omar were not by him, but were later imitations credited to him, there must at one stage have been a core of genuine quatrains by Omar himself to invite all that imitation by later authors. To use another analogy, an oyster doesn’t generate a pearl without an irritant around which it can grow.

Edward Denison Ross (2) certainly thought so saying firstly that, though “it is almost impossible to say with certainty in the case of any single quatrain that it is Omar’s”, yet “there can be no doubt that Omar did write quatrains, as well as other poems both in Arabic and Persian, that he won a certain fame as an epigrammatic poet in his own day, and that a great number of the quatrains (I suspect the best among them) attributed to him are actually from his pen.” (p.67) A few years later, Prof. E.G. Browne (3) expressed the same opinion, noting that “while it is certain that Umar Khayyam wrote many quatrains, it is hardly possible, save in a few exceptional cases, to assert positively that he wrote any particular one of those ascribed to him.” (p.257) R.A. Nicholson (4), who also accepted that Omar really did write a core of the quatrains – “the true Omarian metal”, as he called it – likewise accepted that “Omar himself might be puzzled to find it again.” (p.14). Were all these eminent authorities mistaken ?

BoldleianPicCole’s translation uses the famous Ouseley MS of 158 quatrains, so out of curiosity I fished out my copy of Arthur Christensen’s Critical Studies in the Rubaiyat of Umar-i-Khayyam (1927). Having done a comparative analysis of 18 MSS of The Rubaiyat, Christensen reckoned to have isolated 121 common quatrains which he was pretty sure (though not certain) that Omar himself had written. A quick analysis of these 121 revealed that no less than 67 were in the Ouseley MS. To drop from Christensen’s 67 to Cole’s (& Millar’s) 0 certainly seemed to me to be a rather drastic step, if not a step too far. Note too, that if 67 of the 158 were genuine, then 91 were imitations, meaning that much accretion had already taken place by the time the Ouseley MS was compiled in 1460-1 AD, as one would expect given that it was compiled some 330 years after Omar’s death. It is true, however, that one cannot deduce too much, date-wise, from the number of accretions. (5)

I next turned to Ali Dashti’s In Search of Omar Khayyam (1971), the first chapter of which is particularly illuminating. To begin with, Dashti reckons that about a third of Christensen’s 121 ‘genuine’ quatrains are questionable (p.39) Not reading Persian myself, I accepted what he said on trust, which implied that roughly a third of the 67 in the Ouseley MS were questionable. That still meant that two thirds of the 67, or about 45, were likely to be genuine – still significantly different to Cole’s 0. And if 45 out of 158 were genuine, then 113 were accretions since the death of Omar.

To me, the least convincing part of Cole’s hypothesis is that all the compilers of the various collections of rubaiyat, from the Ouseley MS onwards to the much later and generally larger collections, unanimously ascribed all the quatrains to Omar, even though he actually wrote none of them at all! Surely, as already indicated, there must have been an initial core of quatrains actually by Omar himself to ‘set the pearl growing’: that is, to inspire others to imitate him, and for these imitations to be universally attributed to him ?

Cole raises several points in support of his hypothesis.

The Ouseley MS is still the earliest known collection of quatrains, and the fact that it appeared some 330 years after Omar’s death (in 1131 AD) arouses some suspicion. If Omar really did write a core collection, why did it never appear as such; why did its contents only appear so long after Omar’s death, & then mixed in with, and almost lost amongst, the numerous imitative accretions ? Finally, related to all this, though there are contemporary mentions of Omar and his work, why do none of them even so much as mention his rubaiyat ? It is convenient to answer this last point first, or rather, to let E.D. Ross to answer it for us:

… the oldest Tezkiret, or Lives of the Poets , that has come down to us, is that of ‘Awfi (written about 1200 AD), makes no mention of Omar Khayyam. This of course does not prove that ‘Awfi was unacquainted with Omar’s quatrains, but only that he did not consider the famous astronomer and mathematician, who after all wrote very little poetry, deserving a place among the great poets of Khorasan. (p.36)

Likewise, E.G.Browne wrote that Omar was “not ranked by the Persians as a poet of even the third class.” (p.84)

It has been said many times that the quatrain was regarded as a rather inferior form of poetry in medieval Persia, somewhat like the limerick for us (cf. Browne, p.258.) Edward Lear’s limericks never found a place in The Golden Treasury or the Oxford Book of English Verse, for example.

Dashti (p.37-8) suggests that Omar’s various quatrains were either written down by friends or associates of his to whom he recited them in private gatherings, or that they were discovered among his papers after his death. Either way, they were “not immediately published through fear of the prevalent religious fanaticism of the day”, which seems reasonable given that every age has its underground and privately circulated literature. It is an interesting possibility that if a batch of Omar’s quatrains were discovered amongst his papers after his death, then it might still turn up somewhere amongst the numerous uncatalogued MSS in Middle Eastern Libraries. After all, parts of long-lost works by Sappho and Menander, to give but two examples, turned up amongst the Oxyrhynchus Papyri at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, over 2000 years after the deaths of their authors.

Though no quatrains by Omar were even mentioned, still less quoted, by any of Omar’s contemporaries, they do begin to surface within 50 years of his death. Thus, in Emadoddin Kateb Qazvini’s Kharidat al-Qasr (Biographies of the Poets) written in about 1174/5 AD, the name of Omar, the noted astronomer and philosopher, is linked to a quatrain written in Arabic (Dashti p.35-6). Somewhat later Shahrazuri’s Nuzhat al-Arwah (The Delight of Spirits), published some 70 or 80 years after Omar’s death (but probably somewhat later) says that Omar composed elegant verses in Arabic and Persian, and quotes several Arabic ones (Dashti p.36.) Again, the Sufi mystic Najmoddin Razi’s Mirsad al-Ibad (The Watch-tower of the Faithful), written in 1223 AD, denounces Omar as a blasphemous atheist, and quotes two quatrains by him in evidence of the error of his ways. (Browne p.249-50; Dashti p.43-4.) As a final example, Qifti’s Tarikh ul- Hukama (History of the Philosophers), written in the second quarter of the thirteenth century, tells us that though Omar was unrivalled in natural philosophy and astronomy, his religious beliefs were not so soundly based, and that though he was a fine poet, his verses revealed “the dark confusion of his spirit,” in evidence of which Qifti quotes four of his Arabic quatrains (Ross p.46-7; Browne p.250-1; Dashti p.42-3.) Incidentally, it is this last source which tells us that Omar’s pilgrimage to Mecca was undertaken as a show of ‘piety’ to escape the popular outrage over his religious disbeliefs, and that he kept a low profile on his return. (cf Cole p.3.)

All of this suggests that there was indeed a circulating core of quatrains by Omar himself. Dashti (p.36-7) mentions various other sources, on into the fourteenth century, besides those cited above, adding that, “the most significant fact is that at least thirty or forty of these quatrains, scattered in so many different sources, are completely consistent in both style and thought, and seem clearly to be the product of a single genius….it is not reasonable to suppose that writers, philosophers and historians should have connived together over a period of two centuries to attribute verses falsely to Khayyam.” (p.38) And yet that is what Cole invites us to believe – that Omar was a totally innocent peg (or “frame author” as Cole has it) who had every single quatrain hung on him, despite never having written a single one himself. Why ?

Cole claims that it was because scientists were stereotyped as sceptics and courtiers as libertines, so it may have amused the various poets who composed their quatrains to foist them on the most famous scientist and courtier of all (Cole p.5). But independently ? Why didn’t some choose other scientists and /or courtiers? And if all the compilers followed each other like sheep, who started the false rumour for the sheep to follow ?

[Bob’s comments are continued in the following post.  His overall conclusions are given at the end of the second post.]


Note 1. There were four articles in the series: “The Omar Khayyam Myth” (11th June 1900), “The Omar Myth Reviewed” (23rd July 1900), “Homer, Omar and Andrew Lang” (22nd October 1900) and “Omar Khayyam as Humpty Dumpty” (7th January 1901.) The four articles together are listed as Potter #842, and though one finds the occasional suggestion that they were published together in book form, in actual fact the ‘book’ referred to appears to be a scrapbook containing the four articles, preserved as newspaper cuttings, which is held in Dundee City Library. For further details, including the reactions to the articles from Andrew Lang and E. Denson Ross, see Appendix 23 on my website –

Note 2. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with a Commentary by H. M. Batson and a Biographical Introduction by E.D. Ross (G.B. Putnam’s Sons, 1900).

Note 3. Edward G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia: from Firdawsi to Sa’di (T. Fisher Unwin, 1906.) This was the second volume of his Literary History of Persia.

Note 4. Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (A & C. Black, 1909), with an Introduction & Notes by Reynold Alleyne Nicholson, and illustrated by Gilbert James.

Note 5. Christensen’s 18 MSS are conveniently summarised on p.15-8 of his book. Not all of his MSS are dated, and some, though dated, clearly bear the dates at which a copy was made of an earlier MS. Other MSS have lost pages, and at least two are clearly what we would now call “Best of Omar” compilations. Those which are properly dated and which seemingly complete, are, in chronological order:

Bodl.1 (Bodleian / Ouseley MS) dated 1460-1 AD, containing 158 quatrains.
BN I (Bibliothèque Nationale) dated 1496-7, containing 213 quatrains.
BN II (Bibliothèque Nationale) dated 1528, containing 349 quatrains.
Br. M. II (British Museum) dated 1623-4 AD, containing 545 quatrains.
Br. M. III (British Museum) dated 1668-9 AD, containing 400 quatrains.
Calc.I (Calcutta) dated 1836 AD, containing 438 quatrains.
L II (Lucknow Edition) dated 1894 AD, containing 770 quatrains.

All one can say from this is that roughly speaking, though not invariably, the later the date of the MS, the greater the number of quatrains.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2020 9:53 am

    Martin Kimeldorf has sent the following comment.

    “ What disturbed me most [about the new book by Juan Cole] was the arrogant tone of his attack on Fitzgerald’s poetry and his certainty in an area where there is no certainty. I don’t know who this serves. Cole has a good reputation on other subjects; perhaps this time he has strayed too far, for a purpose beyond my comprehension.“

  2. June 16, 2020 4:40 pm

    Jos Coumans has sent us some comments on the Juan Cole translation and Bob’s analysis of it. Our thanks to Jos for this contribution to the discussion. He writes as follows.

    Maybe I’m very arrogant in the views expressed here; if so I apologize in advance. But, to me Cole’s arguments make more sense than theories that state that Omar undoubtedly wrote (some or many) quatrains, though no one is able to point to even just one single quatrain about which they are absolutely sure. The latter position is like saying: someone was such a great author, but we don’t know which book he wrote.

    Of course, just as we may argue that there is no evidence that Khayyam did write the quatrains attributed to him, there is also no evidence that he didn’t write any at all. So it seems like a stalemate situation, until, at some point, some very old document turns up that delivers the final clarification.

    All the scholars Bob refers to in his analysis seem to believe that Omar did write poetry, and possibly quatrains, but none of them is absolutely sure about this authorship. They developed various methods to try to establish which of the quatrains could be attributed to Khayyam, but the results of their efforts are all different. They examined different sources, applying different methods and came up with different results. And as no 100% proof is given, I would say that the available evidence is only circumstantial. I also wonder why Bob pays no attention to opinions by scholars like Schaeder and Ritter. And when he suggests that there must be a small corpus of authentic quatrains from which a larger corpus emerged, then the inevitable question is: which or what are those gems?

    Prof. J.T.P de Bruijn says: “Nobody is able to indicate even just one single quatrain that certainly has been written by Khayyám, that might therefore serve as a reliable basis to represent his world of thought.” (Niemand kan ook maar een kwatrijn aanwijzen dat met zekerheid door Omar Khayyâm is gedicht, en dus als een betrouwbare basis voor een weergave van zijn gedachtegoed zou kunnen dienen. “De ware zin heeft niemand nog verstaan”, p. 149. Amsterdam, 2009)

    For me, it is largely irrelevant whether Khayyám did write these quatrains or not; we hardly know anything about the historical astronomer anyhow. What matters to me is the meaning and beauty of the quatrains and how they have inspired people over the years and ages in all parts of the world.

    As to Cole’s translation, I find it rather refreshing and it is probably more appealing to younger generations. For example: “Throw dirt in heaven’s face; have a drink and spend some hours with someone pretty. What place is this for worship or for prayer? For, of all who died, not one came back!” (Cole, # 96) That’s more straightforward than “Go! throw dust upon the face of the heavens, …” (Heron-Allen, 1898, # 97).

  3. Bob Forrest permalink
    June 28, 2020 2:57 pm

    In response to Jos’s comments, I would have thought that the examples quoted on Dashti p.36 & p.43 were enough to show that Omar did indeed write some quatrains, with admittedly less certainty in the case of the other examples cited on Dashti p.110-113. To my way of thinking, to deny that Omar wrote any quatrains at all is to throw out the baby with the bath-water, and it certainly begs the question as to why all those Rubaiyat compilers put Omar’s name to all those quatrains when he didn’t write any of them at all. (To follow Jos’s analogy, how could anyone become a great author if he or she didn’t write any books at all ?) Cole’s courtier / libertine ‘frame author’ explanation seems to me weak at best, and to make less sense, not more, than a core hypothesis. So unless someone can come up with something more convincing than Cole’s explanation, Jos and I will have to agree to disagree.

    As for Omar’s “world of thought”, again surely some reasonably solid nuggets of information are given in the quotations from Qifti and Razi on Dashti p.42-3 ?

    Incidentally, I “paid no attention” to some authors simply because I don’t have their books / articles and / or they are in languages I do not read. In putting together my article, which was by way of a preliminary response to Cole, and one intended to promote discussion, I simply used books I had readily to hand – and using those alone led to an article which had to be split in two to be accommodated by the blog. A complete overview, both as regards authorship and translation, would obviously have to take in many other sources – hence my reference to Jos’s Concordance, rather than a use of it – though having said that, I do think my article makes most of the key points at issue. However, if I had known and had a translation of Schaeder’s article when I penned my response to Cole, I would certainly have included him in the nihilist camp, alongside Millar and Cole, in my opening paragraph. I did not sweep anything under the carpet because I disagreed with it!

    As regards Jos’s view that it doesn’t matter much who wrote the quatrains, for it is the poetry which is the main thing, try telling that to anyone involved in the Bacon-Shakespeare controversy (but wear a tin hat if you do!) I know that a number of people share Jos’s view, but I certainly don’t. I think that authorship is important, and that knowing about the author of a book gives an added dimension to an appreciation of its contents. Much of the poetry of Ernest Dowson, for example, is enhanced by knowing about his infatuation with Adelaide Foltinowicz. And to know that it was Omar, author of the “Essay on Algebra and Equations”, who also set the Rubaiyat ball rolling, would be, for me, to form a fascinating and neat literary parallel with Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, author of “A Syllabus of Plane Algebraical Geometry”, who also wrote “Alice in Wonderland.” Finally, as A.H. Millar pointed out to Andrew Lang (who shared Jos’s view), authorship would suddenly become more important to him (Lang) if he were to know that someone, somewhere, sometime in the future, were to attribute to him some trashy third-rate novel. (There seems, alas, to be no record of any reply from Lang.) Indeed, on authorship, I would go further. As a believer in an Omarian core, I would also like to know something about the authors of those quatrains written in imitation of Omar’s, though I doubt I ever shall.

    In my article, I deliberately refrained from saying what I thought of Cole’s translation. Unlike Jos, I didn’t find it refreshing, and though I would agree with him that some of Heron-Allen’s phrasing is stilted, nevertheless, in the background, for me at any rate, FitzGerald still towers above all, without exception. On that score, I am an unrepentant fuddy-duddy, though as regards appealing to a younger generation, perhaps I should don a suitable fancy dress, record my rap version of FitzGerald, and put it on YouTube ?

  4. Barney Rickenbacker permalink
    July 2, 2020 11:44 pm

    Just a few rambling thoughts. First off, I will look forward to a review of Juan Cole’s Rubáiyát by a Persian scholar, someone who is knowledgeable about the Persianate world and Mongol influences. When I read Cole, I am intrigued by the idea of a frame-collection of quatrains influenced by the times and ideas which seem to originate in great part from lands further east. What’s difficult for me is unpacking all that he has assembled in his book.

    I have been satisfied with the Persian collections of Dashti, Hedayat, and Forughi-Ghani. They represent the best of the khayyamic collection, especially those quatrains which these collaborators all agree on as likely from Omar Khayyam, even though they of course can’t be sure. And all readers of OKR know that no one can be ‘sure’; however, Dashti et al. do acknowledge that Khayyam wrote some quatrains from the evidence presented.

    I write as someone who knows a little Persian. And in my own work, “exploringkhayyam”, I am concerned with the literal translation of select quatrains from Dashti, Hedayat, and Forughi-Ghani as an aid to those who are learning Persian.

    Indebted to the comments of Bob Forrest and Jos Coumans, I don’t wish to take issue with either. And for Cole himself, there is nothing to my thinking remarkable in his translations apart from varying blank and free verse as it seems to suit him. I think it works well. About language: I do agree that saqi/saki is not a ‘bartender’ – it is a difficult word to find equivalency and is better left as saki. Saki is really an ‘entertainer-charmer’. I am not in favor of the more modern slang that Cole uses. There are modern English (let’s say post-Chaucerian) words that could be used more effectively to convey IlKhanid ‘baseness’ if that’s what Cole is after. Granted he does not use slang excessively, and he refrains from the absurdities some American translators of classical languages fell into in the ‘50s and ‘60s: for example, to call an Aurelius ‘Hank’ or a Marcus ‘Bud’.

    What about this Bodleian Yerbudaki? It is not always the same text as I see displayed in Jos Couman’s Bodleian quatrains or in Heron-Allen. Are there Bodleian variants? Too bad there’s no collated edition of MSS and other materials to show variant readings in quatrains attributed to Khayyam. Let me give one example, a quatrain Bob Forrest mentions. It is Bodleian 7, Cole 6:
    Cole translates: Here we shiver with our wine and that broken-down old stove,/We’ve lost all hope of mercy, and all fear of torment./Soul and heart, cup and cloak—all a sacrifice for that one drink,/Now we’re free of earth and air, and fire and water.
    The translation (mine) from the Bodleian (Couman’s Bodleian quatrains and Heron-Allen): It’s just us and our wine, our bench and broken brazier/free from hope of mercy and fear of pain /soul and heart and cups and clothes soaked in dregs/free from earth and air, fire and water.

    Nothing wrong with Cole’s rendering, but in the third line he relies on an MS variant: instead of the line ending por dord-e sharâb, (clothes) ‘full of dregs’, his line probably ends: (clothes) dar rahn-e sharâb ‘pawned for wine’.

    It isn’t unusual for a translator to vary readings if the translator prefers an alternative. Often in, say, Hafez, a translator may prefer a reading found in the Qazvini-Ghani edition, even if the Khanlari edition is the translator’s text of choice. I was surprised by Cole as he claims to follow the Bodleian quatrains. It’s possible there is something here I don’t understand, and I would be grateful if someone would point it out to me. Actually, I think that I will probably write Juan Cole and ask him.

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