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Omar Khayyam

The man known in English as the poet Omar Khayyám (May 18, 1048 - 1122) was born in Nishapur (or Naishapur) in Khorassan, Persia (now Iran), and named Ghiyath al-Din Abu'l-Fath Umar ibn Ibrahim Al-Nisaburi al-Khayyami (al-Khayyami means "the tentmaker").

He was famous during his lifetime as a mathematician and astronomer who calculated how to correct the Persian calendar. On March 15, 1079, Sultan Jalal al-Din Malekshah Saljuqi (1072-1092) put Omar's corrected calendar into effect, as in Europe Julius Caesar had done in 46 B.C. with the corrections of Sosigenes, and as Pope Gregory XIII would do in February 1552 with Aloysius Lilius' corrected calendar(although Britain would not switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar until 1751, and Russia would not switch until 1918).

Omar Khayyám is famous today not for his scientific accomplishments, but for his literary works, about a thousand four-line verses he is believed to have written. Around a hundred of them were translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883) and published as the The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (rubáiyát means "quatrains").

Other people have also published translations of some of the verses, but Fitzgerald's is the best known. Some people find this quite unfortunate, since Fitzgerald's translation is wildly inaccurate. In fact, Fitzgerald himself referred to his work as "transmogrification". In particular, Fitzgerald gave the Rubayyat a distinct atheistic spin. Khayyam himself clearly was not an atheist, but a Sufi, and a devout Muslim, though perhaps in somewhat anorthdox way for his time. (For a good alternative to Fitzgerald's translation, consider one by Robert Graves and Ali-Shah. )

Perhaps the most famous of the verses (Fitzgerald's XII in his 5th edition [1] (http://www.arabiannights.org/rubaiyat/rubaiyat.php3?display?5??9?0?4?3????1?), a reworking of XI in his 1st edition) is:

"A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!"

Another well-known verse (Fitzgerald's LI in his 1st edition) is:

"The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it."

Like Shakespeare's works, Omar Khayyám's verses have provided later authors with quotations to use as titles: The title of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novel Some Buried Caesar comes from one of the Tentmaker's quatrains (Fitzgerald's XVIII), for example. Eugene O'Neill's drama "Ah, Wilderness!" derives its title from the first quoted verse above.


Omar's life is dramatized in the 1957 film Omar Khayyam starring Cornel Wilde, Debra Page[?], Raymond Massey, Michael Rennie, and John Derek[?].



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