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The Quarantine Quatrains: A new Rubaiyat

September 10, 2020

Charles Mugleston has alerted us to the publication of a reworking of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam which has been created by the Revd Dr Malcolm Guite, together with the artist Roger Wagner. The book has been the subject of a recent article in the Church Times – see

The new Rubaiyat is called The Quarantine Quatrains and it has been inspired by Dr Guite’s reaction to the Covid 19 pandemic. He writes: “Somehow this Mediaeval Persian reflection on life’s joys and sorrows, on how our mortal frailty intensifies our brief pleasures and deepens our love and intimacy, all seemed to speak immediately into our time, …”

ROGER WAGNER Artwork for the first section of The Quarantine Quatrains: A new Rubaiyat

“At first, there was a sense of time opening up, …” “But then there was a sense, of course, of frailty: a renewed awareness of my own and other people’s mortality, and a deepening empathy for all those for whom this crisis was bringing real suffering, and, in some cases, death.”

The Quarantine Quatrains: A new Rubaiyat is being produced with a limited print run and all profits are going to the Care Workers Charity. It is available for £15 including p&p from .

The first two verses of this new Rubaiyat run as follows.


Awake to what was once a busy day
When you would rush and hurry on your way
Snatch at your breakfast, start the grim commute
But time and tide have turned another way.


For now, like you, the day is yawning wide
And all its old events are set aside
It opens gently for you, takes its time
And holds for you — whatever you decide.

Summer 2020 edition of Omariana

August 10, 2020

The Summer 2020 edition of Omariana arrived in our inbox late last week. It is always a pleasure to receive new editions of this newsletter which is compiled and produced by Jos Coumans of the Netherlands Omar Khayyam Society. Omariana provides information about new editions of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and books, articles and other new material relating to the Rubaiyat, Khayyam, FitzGerald and more. We are always amazed at how Jos manages to locate interesting and unusual developments in Rubaiyat related publications and activities, which greatly enrich our knowledge of this wide ranging world.

This issue of Omariana contains, among other things, notes on Turkish and Spanish translations and on several articles dealing with more philosophical aspects of the quatrains. There is also mention of a provocative and topical blog post by Juan Cole, author of a new English translation of the Rubaiyat. The post is entitled ‘Fundamentalist Pandemics. What Evangelicals Could Learn From The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam‘.

Congratulations to Jos Coumans on a further valuable contribution to our knowledge.

A new quatrain in Temenos Academy Review

August 10, 2020

Charles Mugleston has sent us the news that a new quatrain of his has been published in the Temenos Academy Review no 23. His contribution is entitled Homage to Hakuin, and is on page 260 of the Journal; for more information see The Temenos Academy is an educational charity which offers education in philosophy and the arts in the light of the sacred traditions of East and West. The word temenos means ‘a sacred precinct’.

Thanks to Charles for this information.

The Exhaustive Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

July 22, 2020

Austin Torney has continue his efforts to enhance, interpret and illustrate the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and Edward FitzGerald.  His latest work, entitled The Exhaustive Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam—With Roots/Relateds, Lore, and Metaphysics is the subject of several recent posts by him on the blog of the Omar Khayyam Club of America

Austin describes his latest production as follows.


This illustrated and illuminated hardcover presentation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is meant to be the final and exhaustive rendering of Edward FitzGerald’s 115 quatrains that he transmogrified from Omar’s Persian Farsi Arabic.

The breadth and depth of FitzOmar has been greatly expanded upon herein by the collection and improvement of the FitzGerald-based root quatrains, plus variants, and related Omar quatrains from the public domain, along with my own inspired quatrains, and some of Positor’s, and putting their illustrated quatrains right after the best FitzOmar rendition selected from his four versions—which overall pictorial presentation beats just reading though some very long texts, such as the Bodleian and Calcutta manuscripts.”

As we understand it, there is to be a hard cover printed edition, but Austin has also posted links to various pdf versions that can be accessed for free, together with accompanying videos with illustrations and music.

Our image shows the cover of one of the earlier versions of the Rubaiyat produced by Austin Torney.   Information on his previous work is given in a number of posts on this blog.  The most recent of these posts is on

An Omarian Alphabet

July 14, 2020

Joe Howard has sent us a very interesting article on an unusual presentation of Rubaiyat verses.  This is shown below.  Our thanks to Joe for sharing his research with us all.

Fig 1

Fig.1. Clarke W Walton

An Omarian Alphabet (Coumans 969) was arranged and published, in a limited edition of 75 copies, by Clarke Willis Walton, at The Sunnyside Press, in 1935. I am unaware of either a readily available detailed description or pictures of the book: both are provided here, together with additional context.

CWW (1885-1938, Fig. 1.) spent his professional career associated with the manufacturing of cotton goods in the Carolinas, USA. He installed a small, hand-operated printing press in a wooden outbuilding on his property in Monroe NC and went on to establish a national reputation as a respected amateur printer and publisher. Walton produced a range of books under the auspices of his two presses: Sunnyside (founded 1931) and Lilliputian (founded with W. Hoyte Maness). These included at least 15 small edition/numbered limited editions, of the Rubaiyat1. This is a truly remarkable contribution from an amateur.

Fig 2

Fig.2. Title page

For An Omarian Alphabet (Fig.2.), CWW selected 26 quatrains by 24 translators (2 each from Fitzgerald and Thompson) and associated each quatrain with a different letter of the alphabet. To each quatrain he added a caption of the form, A IS for Allah, the Lord of Omar or M IS for Morning, time for youth to rise (see Table 1. at end). With the single exception of the letter “X”, the alliterative words in the captions (eg Allah and Morning above) were chosen from the matching quatrains.   Walton then assigned the quatrains amongst four different typographers, including himself, for typesetting by hand. The typographers are identified only by their initials (CWW II, WHH, RLP and PHJ) on the pages they typeset. Each quatrain is printed on a separate page with the initial letter of each of the captions illuminated in black and overlaid with yellow (see Fig.3a &b.). The left and right pages are decorated with grapes and a rose, respectively.

Fig 3a

Fig.3a. Pages from An Omarian Alphabet

Fig 3b

Fig.3b. More pages from An Omarian Alphabet

The booklet (17.5 by 12 cm) is bound with blue paper that has been folded along the top edge. This serves to conceal the stapling at the spine. The title is printed on the front in gold (Fig 4.) and the free endpapers are yellow/gold.

Fig 4

Fig.4. Front cover of An Omarian Alphabet

My copy has two interesting additions. These imply that it was (one of) Walton’s personal copies. The inside rear cover contains a list of 31 handwritten names. The handwriting is similar to that found on official documents filled out by Walton. Some of these names (e.g. Potter, Saklatwalla) will be familiar to Rubaiyat enthusiasts.  I suggest that this is a (partial) record of those who were either presented with or purchased copies of the Alphabet. A, G Potter’s name has a 2 (presumably 2 copies) beside it. A large portion of Potter’s Rubaiyat collection is in The Collection of Material about Omar Khayyam (Collection 378). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library2. His copy of The Omarian Alphabet is listed as item 47 in the Related Material subsection of the Finding Aid. This listing includes the intriguing comment “Initials coloured by A G Potter”. With the library currently closed (Covid 19 related), I have not been able to check with them, but I’m wondering if this is a misunderstanding about the printed yellow overlay-which is not always well-registered-see illuminated “G” in Fig.3b.and the “A” in Fig.2.

Fig 5

Fig.5. Part of letter from Ted Freter

The second addition was a pleasant surprise. The bottom edge of the rear cover has been taped internally to form a pocket. Inside I found a typed letter (dated 4-19-35) sent from Washington DC. and addressed to Dear Clarke, from a Ted Freter. Freter’s name is on the list of names mentioned above. Both the letter contents and my internet searches imply that Freter was an actor. In this letter, Freter expresses his delight at receiving an Easter gift of copy number 2 of the Alphabet which would “…occupy a preferred place amongst my Khayyamiana.” and refers to it as “…a little gem.” However, he quickly progresses to express “…my only regret is that I didn’t proof read it.” Freter then lists several typographical errors and asks some questions (Fig. 5.). He does, however, go on to provide encouragement with “It could have twice its imperfections, and still be priceless.”

There are other typesetting errors/inconsistencies. For example;, on all the captions, both letters of “IS” are capitalized;  on the page for the letter “G”, the alliterative word, “garden”, is not capitalized; a comma is not always present between the translator’s name and the verse numbers; the Michael Kerney verse (letter “Y”) has no number  (it should be  XXXVI), and an invalid Roman numeral (CCCCXVI) is used for the Corvo-Nicolas verse (letter “Z”). It should read CDXVI.

I have a great deal of information about CWW (life, publications, printing press, published Rubaiyats, other publications, personal Rubaiyat collection etc.) which I am intending to write-up.

For three of the typesetters of the Alphabet, only their initials are known. Does any reader know their names or have any other information about them? [Please comment below].

My sincere thanks to Sandra and Bill Martin for recommending that I compile and insert Table 1.

References and comments

  1. Fourteen of these are listed in the Indices of J Coumans The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam an updated bibliography under the headings Walton, Sunnyside Press and Lilliputian Press. Item 413 is also from the Sunnyside Press, but is not in listed in that section of the Indices.



Table 1.  Listing of translators whose verses are included in An Omarian Alphabet

Author Quatrain Year Caption Comment
A Whinfield CLXX ? A IS for Allah, the Lord of Omar. 168 in 1893 edition. 305 in other editions
B Cadell XXI 1899 B IS for Bahram, a great old sport.
C Shrubsole CLIII 1920 C IS for Contentment, hard to find.
D Dooman CLXLVIII 1911 D IS for Dowry, love to the bride.
E Pasha LXXXVIII 1913 E IS for Enemy, a friend to make. See Potter 335
F Noxon VI ? F IS for Fate, in another’s hand. I cannot trace Noxon
G Lister IX 1920/ 1929 G IS for Garden, that lovely place I was not able to confirm
H Guiterman XIIa 1909 H IS for Heaven, not a cash item. Actually is XIIIa
I Fitzgerald XCIII 1872 I IS for Idols, loved so long.
J Heron-Allen IX 1898 J IS for Jug, once a man.
K Talbot XXII 1908 K IS for Khayyam, sold for a song.
L Garner I XXI 1888 L IS for Life, fleeting fast.
M Marvin I 1902 M IS for Morning, time for youth to rise. Flowers of Song from many lands, Pafraets Book Company, Troy New York page 94 “SUNRISE”
N Thompson CXCI 1906 N IS for naught, all that is known.
O Cutter XVI 1900 O IS for Oblivion, cheat it if you can.
P Roe CXV 1910 P IS for Pots, seen at the potter’s.
Q McCarthy LII 1889 Q IS for Question, all conclusions vain. Quatrains not numbered. see page XVII
R Powell IX 1897 R IS for Rose, like a Ruby rare. The Pageant page 107, Potter 364
S Le Gallienne CLI 1902 *S IS for Soul, the senses catching on fire. Actually CLII: Page 67
T Whinfield XLV 1893 T IS for Tent, brief dwelling of the soul. Actually XLIV
U Fitzgerald XXIX 1859 U IS for Universe, and why not knowing.
V Payne XX 1898 V IS for Verse, written on a cup.
W Whitney LVI 1903 W IS for Wine, Omar well knows.
X Thompson XXX 1906 X IS for things unknown, as Omar’s Algebra may tell.
Y Michael Kerney None 1887 Y IS for Youth, the bird of joy. XXXVI
Z Corvo-Nicolas CCCCXVI 1903 Z IS for Zal, mighty Rustan’s sire. CDXVI

* The typesetter has inserted the word “on” which does not occur in the original: The soul is but the senses catching fire,


The Art of Persia on BBC TV

June 25, 2020

BBC Art of Persia

Many UK readers of this blog will already know that BBC television is currently broadcasting a four part [correction – only three parts] series entitled the Art of Persia.  This series, presented by Samira Ahmed on BBC Four, is as much concerned with the long history and cultural heritage of present day Iran as with its art narrowly defined, and the BBC team was given wide access to historical sites in Iran.  There is much to be learned from the programme about how the Persian nation and culture have survived over the two and a half millennia of their existence, and we have been delighted to find that the programme is devoting time to Persian literature as well as the more decorative arts.  So far, in the second episode, there have been sections relating to Ferdousi and to Omar Khayyam.  The latter is centred visually on Khayyam’s tomb in Nishapur, and includes the recital of verses in Farsi and English.  We were amused to see that the presenter refers to a copy of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat from 1947, illustrated by R S Sherriffs, rather than one of the more famous editions illustrated by, for example, Dulac or Pogany, or one with Persian miniatures.

The episodes of the programme are available for the next year on BBC i-player  Maybe they will turn up on YouTube in due course, as has happened with other BBC programmes on Persia.  The section dealing specifically with Omar Khayyam starts around 45 minutes into the second episode.

Gordon Ross – a talented and versatile artist

June 22, 2020

RF Ross3Bob Forrest has been investigating the life and works of Gordon Ross (1872-1946).  Ross is one of the few Rubaiyat artists who illustrated all 75 quatrains in FitzGerald’s first edition of the poem.  The illustrations appeared in a mass market paperback edition of the poem, published by Pocket Books Inc., New York, in 1941.  This edition went through several reprints up to 1948, but Ross’ work has been relatively neglected,  perhaps because of its small paperback format, and black and white illustrations, neither of which do full justice to their technical quality and imaginative content.

The full article on Ross, published by Bob, is available on his web site at In it, Bob provides an analysis and interpretation of some of the more interesting of Ross’ illustrations for the Rubaiyat, as well as giving the results of his research on the artist’s life, and his many other works.  Gordon Ross was a Scot who emigrated to the United States in his early 20’s and remained there for the rest of his life.  He worked almost entirely as a professional illustrator and the books he illustrated range from a volume of Impertinent Poems to classics by Dickens, Shakespeare and others.  He also worked extensively for magazines.  In his paper, Bob provides a large number of images of  Ross’ work on different types of book, illustrating the artist’s versatility and skill.

The article is well worth a further look.  Our thanks to Bob for drawing our attention to another interesting Rubaiyat artist, and for sharing his work with us.

A special binding of the Rubaiyat rediscovered

June 17, 2020

Roger Paas has sent us a link to an article about a specially bound copy of the Rubaiyat recently acquired for the Bishop Collection, which is linked to Mosher Books.  The book in question is a 1900 edition published by Mosher, which was finely bound by a London bindery W J Morrell.  The article is available on  It tell the story of how Philip Bishop first missed the opportunity to acquire this unique copy and then, 27 years later, had a second chance to add it to the Bishop collection.

Paas Morrell binding 0620

The image above shows the qualities of this binding.  One of the interesting features of the work, which will be evident to many who know the early editions of the Rubaiyat, is how it reflects elements in the design of the Vedder Rubaiyat which appeared 16 years earlier.   Both are great examples of the art work inspired by the verses of Khayyam and FitzGerald.  Philip Bishop’s article tells something of the history of this book but we would love to know more about Morrell’s thinking behind this particular work, and their history general.  We have seen a few examples of other bindings from the firm, but we understand that they closed sometime in the 1990’s, having operated since the 1860’s.  If any readers know more about the firm and its work, please comment below.  And our thanks for Roger for this alert.

It is worth adding that The Mosher Press website,, contains valuable information on other special copies of the Rubaiyat, and relevant bibliographical material.  It is worth looking at.

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.