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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.

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.

The Omar Khayyam Rose is in bloom

May 27, 2020

The Omar Khayyam rose in our garden has finally come into flower  There are more buds than usual this year and they are opening in succession which is a delight.  Below are a couple of pictures.

The rose now being sold in the UK as rosa Omar Khayyam is an old fashioned damask rose, of the same type as that which was found growing at the tomb of Khayyam in Nishapur in the late 19th century.  As the story goes, seeds from the Nishapur rose were brought back from Iran and grown on at Kew Gardens in London.  A plant raised from these seeds was subsequently planted near Edward FitzGerald’s tomb in Boulge, Suffolk, by members of the Omar Khayyam Club of London in 1893.  A similar rose still grows by the tomb, though it appears to have been replanted several times over the years.  It is unlikely that the rose in our garden, and others being sold in various rose nurseries, have any physical link to the original Persian rose, but the historical associations are to be cherished, and the rose itself remains a beautiful reminder of the verses of the Rubaiyat.

For anyone who would like to know more about the story of the Omar Khayyam rose, there is an excellent short article on the following link  The article also quotes several of the verses in FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat that mention roses in different manifestations.

Let us mark the 972nd birthday of Omar Khayyam

May 18, 2020

indiran7 ROKroseToday, 18th May 2020, is the 972nd anniversary of the birth of the man known as Omar Khayyam.  As most readers will know, the historical Omar Khayyam, born in 1048 in Nishapur,  was a famous astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher.  He may also have written at least some of the many verses of poetry that have been attributed to him.  This last point is still very much a matter of dispute, as the new translation and commentary on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Juan Cole, reviewed in the previous post, makes clear.  But, regardless of one’s view on the question of authorship, 18th May is a good time to celebrate both the established achievements of Omar Khayyam himself, and the contribution that the verses attributed to him have made to all our lives.

So please join us in marking the occasion in an appropriate way.  We had hoped this year to be able to add a current photo of the rosa Omar Khayyam which grows in our garden, which has been getting ready to bloom (very early) for over a week now.  But the buds remain stubbornly closed, so that image will have to wait for a later post.  Instead we show an earlier picture of the same variety of rose, planted in the garden of the Ancient India and Iran Trust in Cambridge to mark the Rubaiyat and FitzGerald anniversaries in 2009.

Thomas Wright of Olney – biographer and school master

May 14, 2020

Bob Forrest has recently been researching the life and works of  Thomas Wright, biographer and schoolmaster who lived most of his life in Olney near Bedford.  Born in 1859, he became the principal of a school he set up in the town, as well as an energetic author, whose books include several extensive biographies of earlier poets as well as collections of his own poems and other writings.

RF Thos WrightFor Rubaiyat enthusiasts, Wright is of particular interest for two things.  These are his The Life of Edward FitzGerald (2 volumes, Grant Richards, London 1904) and his later book of Omar–related verse, Heart’s Desire (Long’s Publications Ltd, London 1925.)  The biography of FitzGerald is one of the earliest such works, and contains reports on many interviews with people who had known the poet, as well as early photographs of people and places from his life.  There are also valuable appendices, including a facsimile of the Museum Book 1833, one of FitzGerald’s early commonplace books.

Wright’s second Rubaiyat related work, Heart’s Desire, is described as being “principally a presentment from various translations of the quatrains of Omar Khayyam that relate to SAKI, the beautiful CUPBEARER.” The book reflects, inter alia, Wright’s friendship with the writer and linguist John Payne, who had made his own translation of Khayyam’s Rubaiyat from the Persian.  Heart’s Desire is illustrated by Cecil W. Paul Jones, and Bob Forrest’s report on his research shows several of these illustrations as well as giving many examples of the verses collected in the book.

Bob’s full report can be found on his web site at  It contains more details about Wright’s life and friendships as well as information on his many other publications.  Altogether it provides a fascinating picture of the busy life of a hard working writer and local activist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Our congratulations to Bob Forrest for pulling all this research together and our thanks to him for sharing it with us.

A new translation of ‘Khayyam’s’ Rubaiyat

May 11, 2020

Cole ROKIt is not often that we are treated to a completely new translation from the Persian of the Rubaiyat attributed to Omar Khayyam.  So we have been delighted to learn from publisher I B Tauris of their recent publication of a new version in English of the Persian verses, produced by Professor Juan Cole.  Details of the book and where to find more information are given at the end of this post. *

Juan Cole is described as ‘a public intellectual, prominent blogger, and essayist’;  he is also Professor of History at the University of Michigan.  Previous translations by him include some Arabic works by Kahlil Gibran.  He says that he has been thinking about doing the Khayyam translation since his student days in 1976 when it struck him that the original Persian verses had things to say to a contemporary audience.  His translation is based on the quatrains contained in the Bodleian manuscript of the Rubaiyat (Ouseley 140) which dates from 1460 CE.  Professor Cole has included all but one of the 158 verses in the MS and they are presented in the original order of the MS.  His translation is in a mixture of blank and free verse, avoiding archaic terms and objects.  He says that ‘like FitzGerald I feel that it is more important [that} the poetry be accessible to contemporaries than for this translation to be pedantic.’

On first reading, we find the translation pleasant to read and illuminating, and we look forward to studying it more closely.  The book also contains a 17 page Introduction and a considerably longer Epilogue, both by Professor Cole.  The Introduction provides general background to the verses and how they came, through FitzGerald’s translation, to prominence and influence in the Western literary world of the late 19th and 20th century.  The Epilogue is subtitled Persian Literature and the Rubaiyat and it deals with the nature of the Khayyamic verses and how they and their content fit into the history of mediaeval Arabic, Mongol and Persian culture and literature.  Professor Cole is a supporter of the view that the verses were by many different authors;  they were collected together, for various reasons, under the name of Omar Khayyam, though he did not write them.  The Epilogue presents an interesting analysis of the disputed question of the meaning of wine and other themes in the quatrains, and how this fits with what Professor Cole describes as secular Muslim civilization.

Overall this book provides a valuable addition to the interpretation and study of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.  It is well worth taking a look at.  There are both hardback and paperback editions.  For details, see  This gives information on the paperback version with links to the other formats available.

* Cole J., The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.  A New Translation from the Persian.  (London: I B Tauris, 2020)

The story of a Rubaiyat artist – John Yunge–Bateman (1897–1971)

April 15, 2020

Bob Forrest has been researching a Rubaiyat artist, John Yunge-Bateman, whose edition of FitzGerald’s poem was first published by Golden Cockerel Press in 1958.  Some of us were rather ‘surprised’ by the subject matter of this set of illustrations when we first encountered it.  As Bob puts it in his introduction to the article detailing his investigations:

Naval officer and artist John Yunge–Bateman will be known to most readers of this essay mainly for his somewhat erotic illustrations of The Rubaiyat. But though he certainly had a penchant for depicting naked women, there is more to him than that, and he deserves also to be remembered for his other wide–ranging book illustrations, notably for works of natural history and educational books for children. But let us begin with his Rubaiyat.

The full article on Yunge-Bateman’s life and works is published on Bob Forrest’s web site.  It can be accesed via the following link  Bob gives us a detailed commentary on Yunge-Bateman’s  Rubaiyat, with excellent copies of the images.  He sets out the artist’s parallel career in the Navy in two world wars, and lists many other books and magazines that Yunge-Bateman worked on, including Ovid’s Metamorphoses, some of Shakespeare’s works as well as a short-lived Space Age comic.  There are also many images from these different works, which illustrate well the great variety of Yunge-Bateman’s style.

Altogether Bob has provided us with a very interesting Rubaiyat related story and it is well worth a read.  Our thanks to Bob yet again for sharing his work with us all.

In praise of the number four

April 4, 2020

Charles Mugleston has sent us the following reflection on the manifestations of the number four, including, of course, the quatrain.  Many thanks, Charles, for this delightful  contribution with a spring-like feel.

As a young boy growing up in the country, I loved watching the  rather shy wrens hopping about in the hedges and quickly flying off in all directions… this led me to collecting farthings resplendent as they were in their latter years with the very simple but beautiful design of a wren – I mean, forget sovereigns !  This led me on to eventually collecting older and older farthings and discovering that the name derived from the word fourthing – a fourth part of a silver penny being cut in four.

Roll on the clock, many quarter, half and full moons… and serendipity  – Edward FitzGerald and Quatrains.

In 1850 Alfred Tennyson published anonymously his Masterpiece  In Memoriam “Ring out wild bells…”  can’t you just hear them, and in 1859 his life long friend E.F.G published anonymously his Masterpiece The Ruba’iya’t of Omar Khayya’m – what do they have in common ? what  helped them become known and loved the world over ? part of the heart of the matter is…the Quatrain.

Reading quatrains – again and again, they get under your skin, penetrate your pores, resonate with the fourfold chambers of the heart – the four quarters of the world for a quatrain is indeed a universal phenomemon. Just look at the poetic forms from all quarters… quatrains are common to all, there is if of interest a helpful entry on Wikipedia to view – much better than the basic info in Websters Dictionary.

As the old Persian saying completes the circle… “The eloquence of Quatrain is the completion of Sublimity” …  this is pregnant with Mystical as well as practical meaning,  ie the fourfold Platonic Insights of Unity, Truth, Goodness and Beauty.

So, In Memoriam to E.F.G and in Homage to Hakuin – the Japanese Zen Master may  I  offer the following Easter Gift – quatrain to everyone with all good wishes and thanks.


Edward FitzGerald and the Rubaiyat -Let’s mark the anniversaries today

March 31, 2020

f01-1iefgd28scfIt is 211 years since the birth of Edward FitzGerald on 31st March 1809, and 161 years since the first publication of his Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam on the same day in 1859.  We hope that all our readers will be able to join us in marking these anniversaries in some way.  FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat continues to give us much pleasure and support in today’s difficult times, and celebrating its birth provides a positive distraction from the present worries and the restrictions on our day to day living.  It is interesting to reflect that Edward FitzGerald led much of his life, especially the later years, in a form of self isolation.  In his case, there was no alternative of digital communications, but the vast corpus of letters that he left us is evidence of how important outside contacts remained to him, as they do to us today.

On this special day, we also send our own greetings to all our readers and their families .  Keep safe and well.  The OKR blog continues to be published, so if you have some interesting thoughts or findings about the Rubaiyat that you can share, please send them to us on the address you have, or on, and we shall post them for all to enjoy.  All positive contributions to our thinking are a blessing at this time.

Doris M. Palmer (Rubaiyat Illustrator) and her Publisher Husband

March 18, 2020

At this time of social and economic upheaval, it is nice to find some areas of life where things are continuing in reasonably normal fashion.  One of them is research on aspects of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.  Bob Forrest has sent us information about a new piece of research he has carried out on Doris M Palmer, the artist behind a well known edition of the Rubaiyat which appeared in the inter-war period.

palmer1921 q16Doris Palmer’s Rubaiyat  of Omar Khayyam was first published by Leopold B Hill in London in 1921.  Until now very little was known either about this artist, or her work.  Thanks to Bob’s efforts we now know her dates (1896-1977), and much about the earlier stages of her life.  Bob has also identified various other works by this artist, though the details of her later life and work are still something of a mystery.  He has also highlighted the importance of her husband the publisher Cecil Palmer to her early production of illustrated works.

In parallel with his work on Doris Palmer, Bob has also investigated the life and works of Cecil Palmer about whom much more is actually known.  The results of Bob’s work on both the Palmers is set out in full on his web site at  .  Apart from Doris Palmer’s  later life, another mystery that remains is why her Rubaiyat was published not by her husband but by the firm of Leopold B Hill?  In 1921 Cecil Palmer appears to have had quite a substantial publishing business, and he would probably have been well capable of producing a major illustrated work such as The Rubaiyat?

Readers interested in this period of Rubaiyat illustration and publication are recommended to explore Bob’s article which is full of much more valuable detail and many illustrations.  We are grateful to Bob for sharing this work with us.  If any readers have information to add to what we have so far learnt about Doris Palmer, Bob would be very glad to know.  Please comment below.