Omar Khayyam as Putin's court poet
There is no other medieval non-European who has had as much influence on Western poetry as the Persian poet, philosopher and mathematician Omar Khayyam (1048-1131). Asghar Seyed-Gohrab, of Middle Eastern Studies, has published a book, The Great ’Umar Khayyam, a study of the history of the reception of the Rubáiyát, Khayyam’s most famous achievement.
Without the English poet Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883) there is a large chance that we would never have heard of Omar Khayyam in the West. Fitzgerald received a manuscript containing 158 quatrains from his great friend Edward Byles Cowell (1826-1903), professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge. FitzGerald, who wanted to learn Persian, translated the poems and published them with the title of Rubáiyát. He had 250 copies printed. While the book sold poorly to begin with and was even remaindered, it eventually drew attention, after which it slowly grew to become a cult classic and was translated in most European countries.
‘It’s crazy, really,’ says senior lecturer in Persian language and culture, Asghar Seyed-Gohrab, ‘but we are not even sure if the quatrains were actually written by Khayyam. Throughout the centuries texts appeared with the quatrains in them, and they were ascribed to Khayyam. That is how the selection we know today came to exist.’
The content of the 900-year-old poems is strikingly modern. It is not so much the homoerotic subject matter of many of the quatrains that is striking – that was common practice in literature at the time – rather, the blasphemous texts stand out. Seyed-Godrub: ‘Khayyam openly posed questions about God and creation, although the texts are better described as rebellious than atheist. Yet he is still seen as the perfect atheist by intellectuals today, and he is used in Iranian cultural and political debate as a symbol for secularism.’ But Khayyam is more than that. He is also a philosopher of hedonism, of carpe diem and drinking wine. These modern themes have ensured that his work has stood the test of time.
The book The Great ’Umar Khayyam, which consists of 18 essays about Khayyam’s influence, shows that traces of Khayyam can be found throughout Western literature and culture. Dutch poets such as Leopold and Boutens were inspired by him, for instance, but the quatrains also made their mark in 20th century painting and music. Seyed-Gohrab: ‘The Rubáiyát has even been applied in politics. The Russian president Putin cited Khayyam as his favourite poet. Immediately, a selection of Putin’s favourite quatrains was published, which was also translated into Iranian. The Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs didn’t want to get left behind and published his own volume, which was again translated into Russian. As such, Khayyam was used as a vehicle for communication and rapprochement. I don’t know a single non-European from the Middle Ages with such a level of influence.’
Two of Omar Khayyam’s quatrains from the Rubáiyát
Ah, fill the Cup – what boots it to repeat
Translation: Edward FitzGerald
Asghar Seyed-Gohrab (Ed.)
The Great Omar Khayyam – A Global Reception Of The Rubáiyát.
Leiden University Press, 2012 288 p.
Price: € 44,95
(2 November 2012 / Coen van Beelen)
Global Interaction of Civilizations and Languages is one of the six research themes of Leiden University.
Middle Eastern Studies (in Dutch)