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What is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam?

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The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a collection of between two hundred and six hundred quatrains written in the Persian Language and authored, it is believed, by the Persian poet/mathematician/astronomer Omar Khayyam (1048-1123). The poems consist of four lines each and are known as Rubaiyats in the Arabic language, the word signifying four. Many of the details concerning the poem and the author himself are unknown or dubious, but it is safe to say some of the Rubaiyats ascribed to him are bona fide, many are evidently apocryphal, and still others were perhaps from his pen.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is popularly regarded as one of the most famous poem sequences in world literature and has been translated into English, French, German, Italian, Russian, Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Swahili and many other languages. The translation by the English poet and writer Edward Fitzgerald is the most widely known and celebrated English language version. Other noted translations include the German versions by Graf von Schack and von Bodenstedt, a celebrated French version by Franz Toussaint and a less celebrated one by J.B. Nicolas. There is also an acclaimed Arabic version by Ahmed Rami.

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The major translations which have come to the public’s attention all speak not only of the original poet’s brilliance, but inevitably of the translator’s preoccupations too. It is for this reason that it is sometimes very hard to discern the poet’s original sentiment among the translator’s interpretation of the poem. This is well demonstrated by the English version’s publication history which went through five editions, the last of which was published posthumously and is noted for the poetic license its translator took with much of the poem, often stitching together two halves of different quatrains to fashion what the translator found to be a more pleasing hybrid.

It is to Fitzgerald’s translation that the readership of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam owes the impression of narrative flow and movement. Whereas the original Farsi version was a series of free standing quatrains, Fitzgerald infused a sense of narrative consequence into the poem that saw the narrative move from sun rise to the day’s drunken denouement.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was largely well received in the United States. Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot all read and praised it.

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