Introduction: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Explained
Long ago in India I met a hoary Persian poet who told me that the poetry of Persia often has two meanings, one inner and one outer. I remember the great satisfaction I derived from his explanation of the double significance of several Persian poems.
One day, as I was deeply concentrated on the pages of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat, I suddenly beheld the walls of its outer meanings crumble away. Lo! vast inner meanings opened like a golden treasure house before my gaze.
Such profound spiritual treatises, by some mysterious divine law, do not disappear from the earth even after centuries of neglect or misunderstanding. Such is the case with The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Not even in Persia is Omar's philosophy deeply understood. Few or none have plumbed it to the depths that I have tried to present here. Because of the spiritual power inherent in this poem, it has withstood the ravages of time, the misinterpretations of intellectual scholars, and the distortions of many translators. Ever pristine in its beauty, simplicity, and wisdom, it has remained an untouched and unpollutable shrine to which truth-seekers of all faiths, and of no faith, can go for divine solace and understanding.
In Persia, Omar Khayyam has always been recognized as a highly advanced mystic and spiritual teacher. His rubaiyat have been revered as an inspired Sufi scripture. The first great Sufi writer was Omar Khayyam, writes Professor Charles F. Horne in the Introduction to the Rubaiyat, which appears in Vol. VIII of The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East series. (Parke, Austin and Lipscomb, London, 1917.) Unfortunately, he continues, Omar, by a very large number of Western readers, has come to be regarded as a rather erotic pagan poet, a drunkard interested only in wine and earthly pleasure. This is typical of the confusion that exists on the entire subject of Sufism. The West has insisted on judging Omar from its own viewpoint. But if we are to understand the East at all, we must try to see how its own people look upon its writings. It comes as a surprise to many Westerners when they are told that in Persia itself there is no dispute whatever about Omar's verses and the spiritual depth of their meaning. He is accepted quite simply as a great religious poet.
What then becomes of all [Omar's] passionate praise of wine and love? demands Professor Horne. These are merely the thoroughly established metaphors of Sufism; the wine is the joy of the spirit, and the love is the rapturous devotion to God. . . .
Omar rather veiled than displayed his knowledge. That such a man would be regarded by the Western world as an idle reveler is absurd. Such wisdom united to such shallowness is self-contradictory.
Omar and other Sufi poets used popular similes and pictured the ordinary joys of life so that the worldly man could compare mundane pleasures with the superior joys experienced in the spiritual life. To the man who drinks wine in order to forget, temporarily, the unbearable sorrows and trials of his life, Omar offers a delightful alternative: the nectar of divine ecstasy, which leads to divine enlightenment, thereby obliterating human woe permanently. Surely Omar did not go through the labor of writing so many exquisite verses merely to inspire people to escape sorrow by drugging their senses with alcohol!
J.B. Nicolas, whose French translation of 464 rubaiyat (quatrains) appeared in 1867, a few years after Edward FitzGerald's first edition, opposed FitzGerald's view that Omar was a materialist. FitzGerald refers to this contradiction in the introduction to his own second edition, thus:
M. Nicolas, whose edition has reminded me of several things, and instructed me in others, does not consider Omar to be the material epicurean that I have literally taken him for, but a mystic, shadowing the Deity under the figure of wine, wine-bearer, etc., as Hafiz is supposed to do; in short, a Sufi poet like Hafiz and the rest. . . . As there is some traditional presumption, and certainly the opinion of some learned men, in favor of Omar's being a Sufieven something of a saintthose who please may so interpret his wine and cup-bearer. FitzGerald's difficulty lay in the fact that, although some of the stanzas clearly lend themselves to a spiritual interpretation, most of the others seemed to him to defy any but a materialistic one.
In plain fact, Omar distinctly states that wine symbolizes the intoxication of divine love and joy. Many of his stanzas are so purely spiritual that hardly any material meaning can be drawn from them, as for instance in quatrains Forty, Forty-four, Fifty, and Sixty-six. The inner meaning of many other stanzas is more difficult to discern, but it is there nevertheless, and stands clearly revealed in the light of inner vision.
With the help of a Persian scholar, I translated the original rubaiyat into English. But I found that, though literally translated, they lacked the fiery spirit of Omar's original. After I compared that translation with FitzGerald's, I realized that FitzGerald had been divinely inspired to catch exactly, in gloriously musical English, the soul of Omar's writings.
Therefore I decided to interpret the inner hidden meaning of Omar's verses from FitzGerald's translation rather than from my own or from any other that I had read.
FitzGerald prepared five different editions of The Rubaiyat. For my explanation I have chosen the first, as a person's first expressionbeing spontaneous, natural, and the closest to true soul-inspirationis often the deepest and purest.
As I worked on the spiritual explanation of The Rubaiyat, I found it taking me into an endless labyrinth of truth, until I was rapturously lost in wonderment. The veiling of Omar's metaphysical and practical philosophy in these verses reminds me of The Revelation of St. John the Divine. Indeed, The Rubaiyat might justly be called The Revelation of Omar Khayyam.