Places: Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1859

Type of work: Poetry

Places DiscussedTavern

Tavern. Rubáiyát of Omar KhayyámPublic inn in which the poet finds momentary relief from life’s woes as he contemplates the fate of all humans: a brief life filled with cares and misfortune and followed by eternal oblivion. He counsels readers to devote themselves to a life of blissful forgetfulness, aided by wine, and to nurture a stoic acceptance of life’s uncertainties and struggles. The poet searches his imagination to find apt metaphors to express his vision of life: Earthly existence is a meaningless series of nights and days, and humans are the pawns of destiny; they are moved about randomly like a ball on a playing field kicked by a celestial player. One’s life on earth is like a moving finger, indelibly writing out human destiny, while heaven watches impassively through an impenetrable veil or remains enclosed behind a locked door which human reason cannot penetrate. The tavern is better than the temple for helping the individual endure, for its wine offers a glimpse of higher truths. He ponders the fate of heroic warriors of the past, long dead and quite forgotten. The sultan on his throne is in the end no better, and no better off, than the slave, for death equalizes all mortals for eternity.

In the tavern, one of the poem’s major symbols predominates: wine. It symbolizes above all merriment, an escape from human cares into a world of pleasing speculations on the meaning of existence and the nature of the universe. Even the nightingale cries to the rose for wine, red wine. The nightingale symbolizes the poet, the melancholy singer, and the rose symbolizes the beloved who beckons him. The poet is drawn to his beloved, but wine is the more potent lure, for humans are like children lost in darkness and burdened by weak reasoning powers, and wine is the best, if not the only, escape from earthly woes and barren reason; wine gives one the power to confute the philosophers and to see beyond ordinary appearances into the spiritual world, beyond time and place into the realm of eternal truth.


Garden. Site on the bank of a river that symbolizes edenic serenity, harmony, beauty, and romantic love. There, the poet finds the rose, symbol of female beauty as well as the human spirit. In the garden, he finds temporary respite by the river, symbol of flowing time, and enjoys moments of pleasure with his beloved. The garden brings together many of the poem’s principal symbols such as the bird, symbol of time and of the beauty of melody; it represents the earth, out of which humans are made and which houses them for eternity; it represents the great leveling force of nature, which reduces the mighty and the heroic figures of the past to the level of ordinary humans. The garden represents the spring of youth and the winter of old age; in the garden grow grapes and flowers, symbols of fertility and beauty. This garden wilderness opposes the dry logic of cold reason and the darkness of ignorance. Although it is subject to the passage of time, as humans are, this verdant world of beauty and light renews itself in the seasons and in night and day. It represents all of nature, the harvest, the water, and the wind that, like the human spirit, passes swiftly.

Potter’s shop

Potter’s shop. Place in which a chorus of earthenware pots, speaking as humans, discuss the purpose of their existence. One of them finds it difficult to believe that the Creator would take the trouble to fashion him into an exquisite shape then crush him to common Earth. Another wonders why the Creator would make a misshapen pot, and yet another, unable to fathom the riddle of his existence, says that he could endure his fate better if he were filled with wine. The pottery symbolizes the fate of humans, who are molded by a Creator in varied shapes that ultimately crumble back into clay, unlike the rose, the grape, and all natural elements, which are renewed with the seasons.

BibliographyAvery, Peter, and John Heath-Stubbs. Introduction to The Rubái’yát of Omar Khayyám, translated by Avery and Heath-Stubbs. New York: Penguin Books, 1981. Avery and Heath-Stubbs stay close to the original in their translation of 235 quatrains. Their introduction broadens our understanding of Omar Khayyám, and the translations, attractively illustrated, enhance our appreciation of Khayyám’s Rubáiyát without diminishing FitzGerald’s achievement.Bowen, John Charles Edward. A New Selection from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips, 1976. The chief value of this work is that it includes a literal translation of the quatrains Bowen renders into verse and, along with Bowen’s, many of FitzGerald’s translations from the first and fourth editions. One is therefore able to compare four different versions of some of the quatrains.Dashti, Ali. In Search of Omar Khayyam. Translated by L. P. Elwell-Sutton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971. Dashti describes the character of Omar Khayyám by studying him through the eyes of Khayyám’s contemporaries’ writings. On the basis of this portrait, Dashti authenticates thirty-six quatrains with some confidence, translates them along with other quatrains, and examines their literary style.Untermeyer, Louis, ed. Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: Translated into English Quatrains by Edward FitzGerald. New York: Random House, 1947. Although FitzGerald’s inimitable translation is often printed, this edition (of all but the second edition) has a fine introduction by Louis Untermeyer and contains FitzGerald’s prefaces and notes together with attractive illustrations.Yogananda, Paramhansa. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám Explained. Nevada City, Calif.: Crystal Clarity, 1994. This contemporary mystic interprets the Rubáiyát as an allegory of the human spirit, not as the work of a hedonist. Though his reading contrasts sharply with FitzGerald’s, Yogananda nevertheless uses the first edition of FitzGerald’s translation as his text.
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