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Controversial issues in Rubaiyat translation (2): Does the language and content of the Persian verses reflect a dissolute and low-life world?

June 8, 2020

Cole ROKIn the previous post, Bob Forrest highlighted his concerns about the views expressed by Juan Cole, in his new translation of the Rubaiyat, about the authorship of the verses collected together under the name of Omar Khayyam.  In this second post, Bob moves on to raise questions about Cole’s views on the nature of the language and content of the Persian originals, and how these are reflected in the new translation.  Bob asks especially for comments from Persian specialists on the issues that he raises. 

In the Introduction to his new translation of the Rubaiyat, Cole tells us that, “the poems are sometimes authored by persons of a distinctly lower social class than Khayyam” (p.3) and that as a Court Astronomer on 10,000 dinars a year, it is contradictory that:

The Rubaiyat later attributed to the astronomer condemn the haughtiness and opulence of the elite. They depict a world of hard drinking of whoring, and gaming, and association with lower-class tavern-goers that was miles away from the astronomer’s observatory or the sumptuous Seljuk palaces. The poetry is often set among rogues and rascals in run-down establishments. FitzGerald’s polite diction hid the poetry’s grittiness and the rough language the men use for one another (rind or rapscallion / lush; divanih or crazy. (p.3-4)

In the first instance if, as seems likely to me, there was an initial core of quatrains by Omar himself, of the “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die” (with associated doubts about the wisdom of the Almighty) variety, or the “wine, women and song” variety, both of which are common in all ages and countries, then some later imitations might well have tended to bawdier hedonistic extremes, though one wonders how many frequenters of lower-class taverns in medieval Persia would have been literate enough to set them down. But actually, to assume that an educated court astronomer would not enjoy a drink or three in a down-to-earth tavern is not well-founded. As a mathematician who enjoys a drink or three myself, I have known many a mathematician with an enthusiastic fondness for the pub, and I could name one who actually preferred what Cole dubs “lower-class taverns.” As for court life, many a member of the English Royal Court and its associated Aristocracy has, over the centuries, enjoyed “slumming it,” and it is far from unknown for court members to detest the formality, the obsequiousness, the back-biting and the sheer snobbery that goes on around them.

But going back to the Ouseley MS, I could have read through Cole’s translation and not noticed the world of hard-drinking, whoring & gaming with rogues and rascals in lower-class taverns, which his Introduction tells me is there, for I had to read through his translation quite carefully to spot it. In fact, I wonder if FitzGerald didn’t so much gloss over it, as miss it as well. Likewise with Edward Heron-Allen, Arthur Christensen, R.A. Nicholson and E. Denison Ross, to name but four.

HA Bodleian1Let us look then at the low-life element in Cole’s translation, and compare it with Heron-Allen’s translation of the same MS (6). As I do not read Persian myself, I hope others will make relevant comments on the language used in the original verses. For brevity, in what follows I will use JC for Cole, EHA for Heron-Allen, and v for the verse numbers in Cole & Heron-Allen. Note that Cole’s verse numbers are one less than their counterparts in Heron-Allen, on account of his moving the traditional opening verse to his Introduction (p.16.) Where applicable, I refer also to Christensen’s translation. Remember that these citations of Christensen mean that the verse in question is one of his core of 121 quatrains which he deemed to be by Omar himself.

JC has “dive” in the opening line of v.1 (EHA v.2 has “tavern”.)  “Dive” implies what we would call “a rough sort of pub” in English, whereas “tavern” now implies more respectability. Does the original Persian here justify “dive”, or does it merely show JC’s slant on the verse ? Likewise, does “tavern” show EHA making the verse “more respectable”? Christensen (his v.52, op.cit. p.119) has “tavern”.

JC has “Here we shiver on stools with our wine and that broken-down old stove” as the opening line of v.6 (EHA v.7 has “We are; and the wine is, and the drinking bench; and our drunken bodies are”.) Something really needs explaining here! Christensen (his v.66, op.cit. p.121) has “Here we are, and the wine and the bench of the tavern and the furnace in ruins.” As one of Christensen’s core of verses by Omar, this would imply that it is an early quatrain. JC, however, has it as an accretion of the post-Mongol era, emanating from “a seedy underworld, including a network of beggars and petty criminals, some of whom probably cultivated poetry celebrating wine-pride and manly resignation to the humiliations of an erratic fate.” (p.105) [This comes from JC’s section on “The Ilkhanid underworld”, which opens thus: “Another social location for the generation of the Omarian poetry may have been street gangs dedicated to honor and manliness.” It brought a smile to my face when I found that FitzGerald’s version lends itself quite easily to a Rap delivery!] To add to the mix, Whinfield’s version of this verse (his v.22) is given in note (7a) below.

JC has “in taprooms” in the opening line of v.64 (EHA v.65 has “in the tavern”.) The same issues arise as with “dive”, though to a lesser extent. In English there are various words for pub / tavern / bar, and in writing verse the choice of word might be decided by making a rhyme or fitting a metre. In other words, one might have to be careful about judging the establishment on the basis of the poet’s choice of words. Christensen (his v.14, op.cit. p.111) has “wine-house.”

JC has “there’s nothing like the good times when you’re drinking hard” as the 2nd line in v.106 (EHA v.107 has “now is the time of joy, there is no substitute for wine”.) Is the implication of hard-drinking here justified, or is this determined by JC’s slant ? Or, on the other hand, is EHA being ‘polite’ ? Christensen (his v.73, op.cit. p.122) has “in the hour of joy there is no substitute for wine.”

JC has “I’ll knock this useless intellect out with / a drunken fist across its pasty face” as the last 2 lines of v.109 (EHA v.110 has “as for this meddling intellect, a fist-full of wine / will I throw in its face, to make it sleep”.) JC’s wording is suggestive of a pub-brawler; EHA’s isn’t. Which is it ? Not in Christensen.

JC has “Even so, we all three remain – my beloved, a fine vintage and I. / It’s better to be street-smart in a drinkery than to be naïve in a cloister” as the 3rd & 4th lines of v.116 (EHA v.117 has “nevertheless the wine-cup, and the loved one and I continually together, / are better, cooked, in a tavern, than raw, in a monastery”). I don’t pretend to understand EHA’s (or Omar’s ?) use of “cooked” and “raw” here; but I’d also like to know where JC’s “street-smart” and “drinkery” came from. Not in Christensen.

JC has “spend your time with rascals” in the opening line of v.122, and “have some wine, commit a little larceny, and be good to people” in the 4th line of the same (EHA v.123 has “follow the example of the profligate” in the 1st line and “drink wine, rob on the highway, and be benevolent” in the 4th.) There is clearly agreement here, though larceny / highway robbery seems curiously inconsistent with being good to people / benevolent! Christensen (his v.57, op.cit. p.120) has “do service to the drunkards” in line 1 and “drink wine, be a highwayman, but do good” in line 4. It is Christensen’s use of “but” which makes more sense of the verse, for it suggests that the larceny / highway robbery is as metaphorical as the reduction of “the house of prayer and fasting to rubble” in JC’s 2nd line of the verse – that is, a rebellion against the status quo of respectable and often hypocritical piety, whilst preserving the moral obligation towards one’s fellow human beings. (E.H. Whinfield’s version of this verse is given in note (7b) below.) Compare the comments on JC v.132 below.

JC has “To paint the town red with beautiful people” as the opening line of v.126 (EHA v.127 has “To drink wine and consort with a company of the beautiful.”) “Paint the town red” is obviously a more colourful “drink wine”: is JC exaggerating or is EHA excusing his idol ? Either way, the partying is presented as preferable to “false piety” (JC) / “the hypocrisy of the zealot” (EHA). Not in Christensen.

JC has “if both these globes [of good & bad] fall like balls into the alley, / look for me and you’ll find me passed out like a drunk” as the last 2 lines of v.131 (EHA v.132 has “though both worlds should fall like balls in my street, / seek me, – ye will find me sleeping like a drunkard”.) The word “alley” and the phrase “passed out like a drunk” are more ‘disreputable’ in English than “street” and “sleeping like a drunkard”. Are JC’s wordings more accurate than EHA’s ? Not in Christensen, but Whinfield’s version is given in note (7c) below.

JC has “I’d advise hitting the bottle, then taking to the road, and some debauchery” as the 3rd line of v.132 (EHA v.133 has “drinking, and Kalendarism, and erring, are best.”) Kalendarism (or Qalandarism) perhaps holds the key here, for as EHA (following Steingass) explains in his notes on his translation of this quatrain (p.250) the Kalendars were “a type of itinerant Muhammadan monk with shaven head and beard, who abandon everything, wife, friends and possessions, and wander about the world.” Adopting an extreme form of Sufism, they flouted all convention and respectability as their somewhat aberrant way to God, their flouting apparently encompassing drunkenness – EHA follows Whinfield in calling them “bibulous Sufis” (7d) – and with some debauchery as well. (8). As EHA puts it, “the term has come to be applied to persons who have abandoned all respectability.”

JC devotes some space to the Qalandariya on his p.112f, not in relation to this verse, but in relation to his v.85 (= EHA v.86 = Whinfield v.256), which clearly does relate to them, and which, as a Sufic verse, I would agree is not by Omar himself, but is a later accretion, like the more mainstream Sufic JC v.54 (= EHA v.55), for example. [Neither EHA 55 nor EHA 86 appears in Christensen.] But getting back to JC v.132, is Omar, or whoever penned this quatrain, advocating Qalandarism, or is the author merely saying, provocatively, that the way of the Qalandars is perhaps as good as any other way to approach God ? Or again, is this to be classed simply as an extreme Sufic verse, rather than as evidence of the low-life nature of its author ? Comparative translations would certainly be useful here – Whinfield’s v.404 is given in note (7d) below for comparison. Christensen (his v.19, op.cit.p.112) renders it, “drunkenness and vagrancy and erring from the path are best.” If Christensen’s Omarian core is valid, we are looking at this verse being by Omar himself, and this could certainly be supported by Nicolas’s translation of this verse (his v.358), the third line of which Frederick ‘Baron’ Corvo translated as, “But best of all is the Rapture that Wine doth bring, with Scorn for the Kalanders, and oblivion of Self.” (9). That is, perhaps, “I love wine, but I don’t pretend that my drinking makes me a holy man!” Of course, Nicolas, as a champion of the Sufic interpretation of Omar, would most likely not agree with this! Compare the comments on JC v.122 above.

JC has “raise high a bottle, and then down a shot” as the last line of v.137 (EHA v.138 has “lower not the jar from thy shoulder, neither relinquish the cup.”) “Down a shot” is a modernism for “getting a boost to make you more drunk faster”: but is it justified here ? Not in Christensen.

JC has “bartender” in the 1st line of v.139 (EHA v.140 has “saki.”) Arguably, “bartender” is a reasonable modern word to use, but also arguably, in the context, “saki” is better ? “Bartender” draws up images of saloons in American films, far removed from Omar. Not in Christensen.

The above uses translations I had readily to hand. Many others are available for comparison via the excellent Rubaiyat Concordance, compiled by Jos Coumans, at

Overall conclusions

To summarise the views expressed in this and the previous post, there are two major issues in Cole’s edition. Firstly, is he correct in denying that Omar wrote any of the quatrains attributed to him, and secondly, is he justified in reading into the Ouseley MS a world of hard-drinking, whoring, and gaming with rogues and rascals in lower-class taverns, of which a respectable court astronomer would not have been a member? As regards the first question, I think Cole goes too far in denying that any of the quatrains were by Omar. Though today it may be virtually impossible firmly to identify which ones he did write, that is not the same as admitting that he didn’t write any, and I remain convinced that somewhere amongst all the later accretions, there is a core of quatrains that were actually written by Omar himself – the ones that ‘set the ball rolling’, as it were.

As regards the second question, I will be interested to see what readers versed in Persian make of Cole’s rather colourful picture. For myself, I am left wondering if it isn’t just a bit too colourful. The picture is complicated, of course, by later accretions, and some more hedonistic quatrains may have been penned by imitators of ‘a dubious character’, shall we say. But just because a court astronomer might seem an unlikely author for the more extreme verses, this cannot be taken to imply that he didn’t write any of the less extreme ones. Not only that, but as I indicated earlier, it also rather dangerous to judge what a court astronomer may or may not have got up to in his private life back then, and some of the more extreme verses may actually have been written by him in defiance of our modern expectations. The jury is out.

Notes (the numbering in this section follows on from that in the previous post)

Note 6. Edward Heron-Allen, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, being a Facsimile of the Manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford with a Transcript into modern Persian Characters (H.S. Nichols Ltd., 1898.)

Note 7a.  E.H. Whinfield, The Quatrains of Omar Khayyam (Trübner & Co., 1883.) His v.22 is so different from the other translations cited here that I missed it in a look through the Bodleian MS verses in his book, and yet as EHA makes clear, it is a translation of the same verse, allowing for MS variations (on which see EHA p.124-5.) Whinfield’s v.22 reads:

Here in this tavern haunt I make my lair,
Pawning for wine, heart, soul, and all I wear,
Without a hope of bliss, or fear of bale,
Rapt above water, earth and fire and air.

Note 7b. Whinfield’s v.368 (= JC v.122; EHA v.123) reads thus:

Hear now Khayyam’s advice, and bear in mind,
Consort with revellers, though they be maligned,
Cast down the gates of abstinence and prayer,
Yea, drink, and even rob, but, oh ! be kind !

Note 7c. Whinfield’s v.409 (= JC v.131; EHA v.132) reads thus:

I sweep the tavern threshold with my hair,
For both worlds’ good and ill I take no care;
Should the two worlds roll to my house, like balls,
When drunk, for one small coin I’d sell the pair!

Note 7d. Whinfield, in the note on his v.404 (= JC v.132; EHA v.133), says simply, “Kalendars, bibulous Sufis.”  (Cole p.117 refers to them as “wine-bibbing antinomian Qalandars.”) Whinfield’s verse reads thus:

‘Tis best all other blessings to forego
For wine, that charming Turki maids bestow;
Kalandars’ raptures pass all things that are,
From moon on high down unto fish below!

Note 8.  Cole p112 has being promiscuous, as well as drinking in public, as a means of violating respectable mores. See also, J. Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam (Oxford University Press, 1998 ed.), p.268. As Trimingham, quoting Suhrawardi and Jami, says, “those in their time who took the dress of qalandaris in order to indulge in debaucheries are not to be confused with true qalandaris.” (cf. the charlatans on Cole p.111.) No doubt many readers will be as intrigued as I am by the parallel concepts of sacred debauchery and secular debauchery, but then we must remember the sacred prostitutes of the ancient Middle East and the erotic temple sculptures of medieval India!

Note 9.  J. B. Nicolas, Les Quatrains de Khèyam (Paris, 1867.) The third line of his translation of his v.358 reads: “ce qu’il y a de mieux encore, c’est l’ivresse, l’insouciance des Kélenders, l’oublie de soi-même.” Corvo’s translation of Nicolas’s French into English was first published as The Rubaiyat of Umar Khaiyam in 1903, with a second edition following in 1924, this with an Introduction & Notes by Edward Heron-Allen, and illustrations by Hamzeh Carr. Both editions were published by John Lane the Bodley Head, and both carried parallel French and English texts. For “hypocritical Kalendars” see also ib. v.312.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Charles Mugleston permalink
    June 8, 2020 10:10 am

    Thank you Bob – a splendid analysis & read – a welcome sorting out as far as one can of these matters that matter. I have just purchased Ibn al-Farid ‘Wine and the Mystic’s Progress’ Translation by Paul Smith – another valuable addition to the overall picture of the underlying Reality !

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