Poetry Sunday: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Most connoisseurs of poetry have heard of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a collection of poems originally written in Persian and attributed to the eleventh-century poet and polymath after whom it is named. The various translations of the Rubaiyat have given the English language some of its most enduring verses and images (most notably “a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou”). And yet, how many people know the distinctly freethought sentiments of this famous poem? Today’s Poetry Sunday will explore some of them.

As pointed out by Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist, the author of these quatrains was far more than a simple poet. Khayyam was a noted mathematician who wrote pioneering works on algebra and geometry, including algorithms for expanding binomials and solving cubic equations by means of conic sections. He was a renowned astronomer as well; he correctly measured the length of the solar year to six decimal places and contributed to a standardization of the Persian calendar which is still used today. Khayyam’s calendar, the so-called Jalali calendar, is complicated but more accurate than today’s widely-used Gregorian system. Khayyam may also have proposed a heliocentric model of the solar system several hundred years before Copernicus.

Nevertheless, Khayyam is most famous for his poetry. The Rubaiyat is famous for, as Hitchens puts it, its “warm recommendations of wine, women and song”. The poem’s outlook is similar to the biblical book of Ecclesiastes: that life is vanity, our knowledge is limited, our time is brief, and the existence of another world uncertain. Thus, the poet counsels us to eat, drink and be merry, enjoying the simple pleasures of life and making the most of the time that we have. Although Khayyam does not seem to have been an atheist, the poem is strikingly unorthodox in its tone, dissenting from the established Islam of the poet’s day and scorning the ideas of an afterlife or a god who performs miracles or gives revelations. Like the ancient Greeks, the Rubaiyat espouses a kind of deistic rationalism. Some of the verses as translated by Richard Le Galliene make this sentiment compellingly clear:

From The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The bird of life is singing on the bough
His two eternal notes of “I and Thou”—
O! hearken well, for soon the song sings through,
And, would we hear it, we must hear it now.

The bird of life is singing in the sun,
Short is his song, nor only just begun,—
A call, a trill, a rapture, then—so soon!—
A silence, and the song is done—is done.

Yea! What is man that deems himself divine?
Man is a flagon, and his soul the wine;
Man is a reed, his soul the sound therein;
Man is a lantern, and his soul the shine.

Would you be happy! hearken, then, the way:
Heed not To-morrow, heed not Yesterday;
The magic words of life are Here and Now—
O fools, that after some to-morrow stray!

Were I a Sultan, say what greater bliss
Were mine to summon to my side than this,—
Dear gleaming face, far brighter than the moon!
O Love! and this immortalizing kiss.

To all of us the thought of heaven is dear—
Why not be sure of it and make it here?
No doubt there is a heaven yonder too,
But ’tis so far away—and you are near.

Men talk of heaven,—there is no heaven but here;
Men talk of hell,—there is no hell but here;
Men of hereafters talk, and future lives,—
O love, there is no other life—but here.

Look not above, there is no answer there;
Pray not, for no one listens to your prayer;
Near is as near to God as any Far,
And Here is just the same deceit as There.

But here are wine and beautiful young girls,
Be wise and hide your sorrows in their curls,
Dive as you will in life’s mysterious sea,
You shall not bring us any better pearls.

Allah, perchance, the secret word might spell;
If Allah be, He keeps His secret well;
What He hath hidden, who shall hope to find?
Shall God His secret to a maggot tell?

So since with all my passion and my skill,
The world’s mysterious meaning mocks me still,
Shall I not piously believe that I
Am kept in darkness by the heavenly will?

The Koran! well, come put me to the test—
Lovely old book in hideous error drest—
Believe me, I can quote the Koran too,
The unbeliever knows his Koran best.

And do you think that unto such as you,
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew,
God gave the Secret, and denied it me?—
Well, well, what matters it! believe that too.

Old Khayyám, say you, is a debauchee;
If only you were half so good as he!
He sins no sins but gentle drunkenness,
Great-hearted mirth, and kind adultery.

But yours the cold heart, and the murderous tongue,
The wintry soul that hates to hear a song,
The close-shut fist, the mean and measuring eye,
And all the little poisoned ways of wrong.

So I be written in the Book of Love,
I have no care about that book above;
Erase my name, or write it, as you please—
So I be written in the Book of Love.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Mathew Wilder

    What a marvelous poem. Thank you for sharing. I think it surpasses anything in Ecclesiastes.

    But yours the cold heart, and the murderous tongue, The wintry soul that hates to hear a song, The close-shut fist, the mean and measuring eye, And all the little poisoned ways of wrong.

    I especially like this stanza. It captures so well the venal, and narrow mindset of so many religious people in my experience.

  • Brad

    Wow that was awesome! i actually haven’t been extremely interested in poetry as a whole, but this one was awesome :)

  • prase

    It is difficult for me to see how this poem managed to survive in Persia for centuries. I would expect all copies being destroyed and the author stoned to death.

  • Brad

    Brilliant poem.

    “Near is as near to God as any Far” – too true, and in a way people do not wish to see.

    I have been inspired to reed more of this Rubaiyat.

  • Leum

    I’ve been meaning to read him for ages, must get around to it.

    The final stanza, incidentally, was used by Clarence Darrow at the close of his defense of Leopold and Loeb and, more recently, by Keith Olberman in defense of same-sex marriage.

  • http://redmolly.typepad.com RedMolly

    I would expect all copies being destroyed and the author stoned to death.

    Persia–and the medieval Islamic world in general–was remarkably tolerant of religious dissent and what we might consider freethought. Much more so than the Christian world at the time, and far, far more so than Islam today. In particular, in Muslim Spain, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together fairly harmoniously and with a notable lack of religious persecution.

    Guy Gavriel Kay’s quasi-fantasy novel, “The Lions of Al-Rassan,” does a wonderful job of exploring the cultural tensions between freedom & religiosity in this historical setting. If you like that kind of thing.

  • Tom

    “The unbeliever knows his Koran best.”

    Well said, and a common observation by rationalists in just about any religious society, particularly the fundamentalist ones.

  • http://www.eloquentbooks.com/LingeringPoets Logan Lamech

    Seems like the truly great poets get called or compared to prophets.

    Logan Lamech
    http://www.eloquentbooks.com/LingeringPoets.html

  • TommyP

    This is one of the only poems posted on here I have read and really really loved. Thank you so much for posting this! Wow! Good stuff!

  • http://sites.google.com/site/skepticalpoetry/ Ian Mason

    1,000 years old and as good and relevant as ever.
    “Hark to old Kayyam and be wise
    One thing is certain: life flies”
    No heaven but here, no hell but here. We have a responsibility to our kind and our world and NOT a debt to some old git in the clouds.

  • Scott

    It is interesting to note that the “So I be written in the Book of Love” stanza (popular in part because of Darrow’s use of it) appears only in Le Galliene’s “paraphrase” (his word), and not in the FitzGerald or Whinefield (sp?) translations…