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Omar Khayyam


 


              Omar Khayyam was born at Naishapur in Khorassan in the latter half of
              our Eleventh, and died within the First Quarter of our Twelfth
              Century.
 
              The Slender Story of his Life is curiously twined about that of two
              other very considerable Figures in their Time and Country: one of whom
              tells the Story of all Three. This was Nizam ul Mulk, Vizier to Alp Arslan the
              Son, and Malik Shah the Grandson, of Toghrul Beg the Tartar, who had
              wrested Persia from the feeble Successor of Mahmud the Great, and founded
              Seljukian Dynasty which finally roused Europe into the Crusades. This
              Nizam ul Mulk, in his Wasiyat--or Testament--which he wrote and left
              as a Memorial for future Statesmen--relates the following, as quoted in the
              Calcutta Review, No. 59, from Mirkhond's History of the Assassins.
 
              'One of the greatest of the wise men of Khorassan was the Imam
              Mowaffak of Naishapur, a man highly honored and reverenced,--may God
              rejoice his soul; his illustrious years exceeded eighty-five, and it
              was the universal belief that every boy who read the Koran or studied
              the traditions in his presence, would assuredly attain to honor and
              happiness.
 
              For this cause did my father send me from Tus to Naishapur with
              Abd-us-samad, the doctor of law, that I might employ myself in study
              and learning under the guidance of that illustrious teacher. Towards
              me he ever turned an eye of favor and kindness, and as his pupil I
              felt for him extreme affection and devotion, so that I passed four
              years in his service.
 
              When I first came there, I found two other pupils of mine own age newly
              arrived, Hakim Omar Khayyam, and the ill-fated Ben Sabbah. Both were
              endowed with sharpness of wit and the highest natural powers; and we
              three formed a close friendship together. When the Imam rose from his
              lectures, they used to join me, and we repeated to each other the
              lessons we had heard. Now Omar was a native of Naishapur,
              while Hasan Ben Sabbah's father was one Ali,  a man of austere life
              and practise, but heretical in his creed and doctrine.

              One day Hasan said to me and to Khayyam, "It is a universal belief that
              the pupils of the Imam Mowaffak will attain to fortune. Now,
              even if we all do not attain thereto, without doubt one of us will;
              what then shall be our mutual pledge and bond?" We
              answered, "Be it what you please." "Well," he said, "let us make a
              vow, that to whomsoever this fortune falls, he shall share it
              equally with the rest, and reserve no pre-eminence for himself." "Be
              it so," we both replied, and on those terms we mutually
              pledged our words.

              Years rolled on, and I went from Khorassan to
              Transoxiana, and wandered to Ghazni and Cabul; and when I
              returned, I was invested with office, and rose to be administrator of
              affairs during the Sultanate of Sultan Alp Arslan.'

              "He goes on to state, that years passed by, and both his old
              school-friends found him out, and came and claimed a share in his
              good fortune, according to the school-day vow. The Vizier was
              generous and kept his word. Hasan demanded a place in the
              government, which the Sultan granted at the Vizier's request; but
              discontented with a gradual rise, he plunged into the maze of
              intrigue of an oriental court, and, failing in a base attempt to
              supplant his benefactor, he was disgraced and fell.

              After many mishaps and wanderings, Hasan became the head of the Persian  
              Ismailians,  a party of fanatics who had long
              murmured in obscurity, but rose to an evil eminence under the
              guidance of his strong and evil will. In A.D. 1090, he seized the
              castle of Alamut, in the province of Rudbar, which lies in the
              mountainous tract south of the Caspian Sea; and it was from this
              mountain home he obtained that evil celebrity among the Crusaders as
              the OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAINS, and spread terror
              through the Mohammedan world; and it is yet disputed where the word
              Assassin, which they have left in the language of
              modern Europe as their dark memorial, is derived from the hashish, or
              opiate of hemp-leaves (the Indian bhang), with which they
              maddened themselves to the sullen pitch of oriental desperation, or
              from the name of the founder of the dynasty, whom we
              have seen in his quiet collegiate days, at Naishapur. One of the
              countless victims of the Assassin's dagger was Nizam ul Mulk
              himself, the old school-boy friend.

              "Omar Khayyam also came to the Vizier to claim his share; but not to
              ask for title or office. 'The greatest boon you can confer on
              me,' he said, 'is to let me live in a corner under the shadow of your
              fortune, to spread wide the advantages of Science, and pray
              for your long life and prosperity.' The Vizier tells us, that when he
              found Omar was really sincere in his refusal, he pressed him
              no further, but granted him a yearly pension of 1200 mithkals of gold
              from the treasury of Naishapur.

              "At Naishapur thus lived and died Omar Khayyam, 'busied,' adds the
              Vizier, 'in winning knowledge of every kind, and especially
              in Astronomy, wherein he attained to a very high pre-eminence. Under
              the Sultanate of Malik Shah, he came to Merv, and
              obtained great praise for his proficiency in science, and the Sultan
              showered favors upon him.'

              "When the Malik Shah determined to reform the calendar, Omar was one
              of the eight learned men employed to do it; the result
              was the Jalali era (so called from Jalal-ud-din, one of the king's
              names)--'a computation of time,' says Gibbon, 'which surpasses
              the Julian, and approaches the accuracy of the Gregorian style.' He
              is also the author of some astronomical tables, entitled
              'Ziji-Malikshahi,' and the French have lately republished and
              translated an Arabic Treatise of his on Algebra.

              "His Takhallus or poetical name (Khayyam) signifies a Tent-maker, and
              he is said to have at one time exercised that trade,
              perhaps before Nizam-ul-Mulk's generosity raised him to independence.
              Many Persian poets similarly derive their names from
              their occupations; thus we have Attar, 'a druggist,' Assar, 'an oil
              presser,' etc. Omar himself alludes to his name in the
              following whimsical lines:--

                        "'Khayyam, who stitched the tents of science,
                        Has fallen in grief's furnace and been suddenly burned;
                        The shears of Fate have cut the tent ropes of his life,
                        And the broker of Hope has sold him for nothing!'

              "We have only one more anecdote to give of his Life, and that relates
              to the close; it is told in the anonymous preface which is
              sometimes prefixed to his poems; it has been printed in the Persian
              in the Appendix to Hyde's Veterum Persarum Religio, p. 499;
              and D'Herbelot alludes to it in his Bibliotheque, under Khiam.

              "'It is written in the chronicles of the ancients that this King of
              the Wise, Omar Khayyam, died at Naishapur in the year of the
              Hegira, 517 (A.D. 1123); in science he was unrivaled,--the very
              paragon of his age. Khwajah Nizami of Samarcand, who was one
              of his pupils, relates the following story: "I often used to hold
              conversations with my teacher, Omar Khayyam, in a garden; and
              one day he said to me, 'My tomb shall be in a spot where the north
              wind may scatter roses over it.' I wondered at the words he
              spake, but I knew that his were no idle words.<4> Years after, when I
              chanced to revisit Naishapur, I went to his final
              resting-place, and lo! it was just outside a garden, and trees laden
              with fruit stretched their boughs over the garden wall, and
              dropped their flowers upon his tomb, so that the stone was hidden
              under them."

              Thus far--without fear of Trespass--from the Calcutta Review. The
              writer of it, on reading in India this story of Omar's Grave,
              was reminded, he says, of Cicero's Account of finding Archimedes'
              Tomb at Syracuse, buried in grass and weeds. I think
              Thorwaldsen desired to have roses grow over him; a wish religiously
              fulfilled for him to the present day, I believe. However, to
              return to Omar.

              Though the Sultan "shower'd Favors upon him," Omar's Epicurean
              Audacity of Thought and Speech caused him to be regarded
              askance in his own Time and Country. He is said to have been
              especially hated and dreaded by the Sufis, whose Practise he
              ridiculed, and whose Faith amounts to little more than his own, when
              stript of the Mysticism and formal recognition of Islamism
              under which Omar would not hide.

              Their Poets, including Hafiz, who are
              (with the exception of Firdausi) the most considerable
              in Persia, borrowed largely, indeed, of Omar's material, but turning
              it to a mystical Use more convenient to Themselves and the
              People they addressed; a People quite as quick of Doubt as of Belief;
              as keen of Bodily sense as of Intellectual; and delighting
              in a cloudy composition of both, in which they could float
              luxuriously
              between Heaven and Earth, and this World and the Next,
              on the wings of a poetical expression, that might serve indifferently
              for either. Omar was too honest of Heart as well of Head for
              this. Having failed (however mistakenly) of finding any Providence
              but Destiny, and any World but This, he set about making
              the most of it; preferring rather to soothe the Soul through the
              Senses into Acquiescence with Things as he saw them, than to
              perplex it with vain disquietude after what they might be.

              It has been
              seen, however, that his Worldly Ambition was not
              exorbitant; and he very likely takes a humorous or perverse pleasure
              in exalting the gratification of Sense above that of the
              Intellect, in which he must have taken great delight, although it
              failed to answer the Questions in which he, in common with all
              men, was most vitally interested.

              For whatever Reason, however, Omar as before said, has never been
              popular in his own Country, and therefore has been but
              scantily transmitted abroad. The MSS. of his Poems, mutilated beyond
              the average Casualties of Oriental Transcription, are so
              rare in the East as scarce to have reacht Westward at all, in spite
              of all the acquisitions of Arms and Science. There is no copy
              at the India House, none at the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris. We
              know but of one in England: No. 140 of the Ouseley MSS. at
              the Bodleian, written at Shiraz, A.D. 1460. This contains but 158
              Rubaiyat. One in the Asiatic Society's Library at Calcutta (of
              which we have a Copy), contains (and yet incomplete) 516, though
              swelled to that by all kinds of Repetition and Corruption. So
              Von Hammer speaks of his Copy as containing about 200, while Dr.
              Sprenger catalogues the Lucknow MS. at double that
              number.

              The Scribes, too, of the Oxford and Calcutta MSS. seem to
              do their Work under a sort of Protest; each beginning
              with a Tetrastich (whether genuine or not), taken out of its
              alphabetical order; the Oxford with one of Apology; the Calcutta
              with one of Expostulation, supposed (says a Notice prefixed to the
              MS.) to have arisen from a Dream, in which Omar's mother
              asked about his future fate. It may be rendered thus:--

                        "O Thou who burn'st in Heart for those who burn
                        In Hell, whose fires thyself shall feed in turn,
                        How long be crying, 'Mercy on them, God!'
                        Why, who art Thou to teach, and He to learn?"

              The Bodleian Quatrain pleads Pantheism by way of Justification.

                        "If I myself upon a looser Creed
                        Have loosely strung the Jewel of Good deed,
                        Let this one thing for my Atonement plead:
                        That One for Two I never did misread."

              The Reviewer, to whom I owe the Particulars of Omar's Life,
              concludes his Review by comparing him with Lucretius, both as
              to natural Temper and Genius, and as acted upon by the Circumstances
              in which he lived. Both indeed were men of subtle,
              strong, and cultivated Intellect, fine Imagination, and Hearts
              passionate for Truth and Justice; who justly revolted from their
              Country's false Religion, and false, or foolish, Devotion to it; but
              who fell short of replacing what they subverted by such better
              Hope as others, with no better Revelation to guide them, had yet made
              a Law to themselves. Lucretius indeed, with such
              material as Epicurus furnished, satisfied himself with the theory of
              a vast machine fortuitously constructed, and acting by a Law
              that implied no Legislator; and so composing himself into a Stoical
              rather than Epicurean severity of Attitude, sat down to
              contemplate the mechanical drama of the Universe which he was part
              Actor in; himself and all about him (as in his own sublime
              description of the Roman Theater) discolored with the lurid reflex of
              the Curtain suspended between the Spectator and the Sun.
              Omar, more desperate, or more careless of any so complicated System
              as resulted in nothing but hopeless Necessity, flung his
              own Genius and Learning with a bitter or humorous jest into the
              general Ruin which their insufficient glimpses only served to
              reveal; and, pretending sensual pleasure, as the serious purpose of
              Life, only diverted himself with speculative problems of
              Deity, Destiny, Matter and Spirit, Good and Evil, and other such
              questions, easier to start than to run down, and the pursuit of
              which becomes a very weary sport at last!

              With regard to the present Translation. The original Rubaiyat (as,
              missing an Arabic Guttural, these Tetrastichs are more
              musically called) are independent Stanzas, consisting each of four
              Lines of equal, though varied, Prosody; sometimes all
              rhyming, but oftener (as here imitated) the third line a blank.
              Somewhat as in the Greek Alcaic, where the penultimate line seems
              to lift and suspend the Wave that falls over in the last. As usual
              with such kind of Oriental Verse, the Rubaiyat follow one
              another according to Alphabetic Rhyme--a strange succession of Grave
              and Gay. Those here selected are strung into
              something of an Eclogue, with perhaps a less than equal proportion of
              the "Drink and make-merry," which (genuine or not)
              recurs over-frequently in the Original. Either way, the Result is sad
              enough: saddest perhaps when most ostentatiously merry:
              more apt to move Sorrow than Anger toward the old Tentmaker, who,
              after vainly endeavoring to unshackle his Steps from
              Destiny, and to catch some authentic Glimpse of TO-MORROW, fell back
              upon TO-DAY (which has outlasted so many
              To-morrows!) as the only Ground he had got to stand upon, however
              momentarily slipping from under his Feet.
 

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