What Is The Rubaiyat About?

by Amy

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” is a celebrated collection of quatrains—four-line poems—originating from the Persian poet, mathematician, and astronomer Omar Khayyam. Composed in the 11th and 12th centuries, these verses gained international fame through the English translations of Edward FitzGerald in the 19th century. The Rubaiyat captures Khayyam’s meditations on life, love, and the divine, blending philosophical depth with lyrical beauty.

Historical and Cultural Context

Omar Khayyam: The Poet and Polymath

Omar Khayyam (1048-1131 AD) was a prominent figure during the Islamic Golden Age, known not only for his poetic prowess but also for his significant contributions to mathematics and astronomy. Born in Nishapur, in present-day Iran, Khayyam’s intellectual pursuits covered a wide range, including advancements in algebra and contributions to the Jalali calendar in astronomy.

Khayyam’s poetry remains his most enduring legacy. Composed in Persian, his rubaiyat (plural of rubai) reflect a keen observation of the human condition, interwoven with reflections on the ephemeral nature of life and the mysteries of existence.

The Persian Poetic Tradition

The Rubaiyat belongs to a rich tradition of Persian poetry, which dates back to ancient times and is renowned for its lyrical beauty, profound philosophical insights, and elaborate metaphors. This tradition includes luminaries such as Rumi, Hafez, and Saadi, whose works are celebrated for their spiritual and mystical qualities.

In Persian literature, the quatrain is a popular form, characterized by its brevity and impactful delivery. Khayyam’s rubaiyat, with their concise yet profound verses, exemplify the art of saying much with little. His work reflects the cultural and intellectual milieu of the time, marked by a synthesis of scientific inquiry, philosophical thought, and artistic expression.

Major Themes and Philosophical Insights

Transience of Life

One of the central themes in the Rubaiyat is the transience of life. Khayyam’s quatrains frequently meditate on the fleeting nature of existence, urging readers to cherish the present moment. The poet’s reflections on mortality and the impermanence of worldly pleasures resonate with a universal human experience.

Pursuit of Pleasure

Coupled with the theme of life’s transience is the pursuit of pleasure. Khayyam often advocates for the enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures—wine, love, and companionship—as a response to the uncertainty and brevity of life. His verses celebrate the sensory experiences and the joy found in the moment, reflecting a hedonistic philosophy.

Inevitability of Death

Death is another recurrent theme in the Rubaiyat. Khayyam’s poetry contemplates the inevitability of death and the uncertainty of what lies beyond. This awareness of mortality serves as a backdrop for his exhortations to live fully and embrace the present.

Questioning of Religious Dogma

Khayyam’s verses often exhibit a skeptical attitude toward religious dogma and the promise of an afterlife. His poetry questions the certainty of religious teachings and expresses doubt about the existence of a predetermined divine plan. This skepticism aligns with the broader philosophical inquiries of the time, challenging readers to think critically about faith and belief.

Literary Significance and Influence

Influence on Literature

The Rubaiyat’s impact on both Eastern and Western literature is profound. In the West, FitzGerald’s translation influenced a wide range of writers and poets, including Swinburne, Tennyson, and Yeats. The themes and stylistic elements of the Rubaiyat can be seen echoed in their works, contributing to a rich intertextual dialogue across cultures.

In the East, Khayyam’s poetry has remained a touchstone of Persian literary tradition, inspiring generations of poets and writers. His philosophical musings and lyrical expressions continue to resonate, ensuring the Rubaiyat’s place in the canon of world literature.

Reception and Legacy

The Rubaiyat’s reception has varied across different cultures and historical periods. In the Victorian era, its themes of existential reflection and hedonistic enjoyment struck a chord with readers. In modern times, the Rubaiyat continues to be celebrated for its philosophical depth and poetic beauty.

The work’s legacy extends beyond literature into other artistic domains. The Rubaiyat has been illustrated by numerous artists, set to music, and referenced in films and popular culture. Its enduring appeal lies in its universal themes and the lyrical elegance of its expression.

Interpretations and Criticisms

Varied Interpretations

The Rubaiyat has been interpreted in numerous ways, reflecting its rich complexity. Some view it as a spiritual guide, emphasizing the contemplative and mystical aspects of Khayyam’s poetry. Others see it as a work of skepticism, highlighting its questioning of religious and existential certainties.

These varied interpretations underscore the Rubaiyat’s multifaceted nature, allowing readers to find their own meanings and insights within its verses.

Critical Reception

Critical reception of the Rubaiyat has also been diverse. While many praise its philosophical depth and lyrical beauty, some critics argue that FitzGerald’s translation takes liberties with the original text, imposing his own interpretations and cultural biases. Despite these criticisms, FitzGerald’s version remains the most popular and widely read rendition of Khayyam’s work.

Differing viewpoints on Khayyam’s philosophy also contribute to the ongoing critical discourse. Some scholars emphasize the poet’s hedonistic and existential themes, while others highlight his spiritual and mystical elements. This dynamic interplay of interpretations enriches the Rubaiyat’s literary and philosophical legacy.


The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam stands as a timeless masterpiece of Persian poetry, brought to global prominence through Edward FitzGerald’s translations. Its exploration of life’s transience, the pursuit of pleasure, the inevitability of death, and the questioning of religious dogma resonates with readers across cultures and eras. The Rubaiyat’s influence on literature, art, and popular culture testifies to its enduring appeal and significance.

As readers delve into Khayyam’s quatrains, they encounter a rich tapestry of philosophical insights and lyrical expressions that continue to captivate and inspire. The Rubaiyat invites contemplation and introspection, encouraging a deeper appreciation of the fleeting moments of life and the profound questions that define the human experience. Through its verses, the Rubaiyat transcends time and cultural boundaries, offering wisdom and beauty that remain relevant and thought-provoking to this day.

FAQs about The Rubaiyat

1. What is the main message of The Rubaiyat poem?

The main message of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” revolves around the transient nature of life and the importance of living in the present. Omar Khayyam, through his quatrains, often reflects on themes such as the fleeting nature of time, the inevitability of death, and the futility of trying to understand the deeper mysteries of the universe. Instead, he advocates for savoring the present moment, enjoying simple pleasures, and embracing the uncertainties of life.

2. What is the meaning of The Rubaiyat?

“The Rubaiyat” is a collection of quatrains (four-line stanzas) originally written in Persian by the poet, mathematician, and astronomer Omar Khayyam. The term “Rubaiyat” itself means “quatrains” in Persian. The poems explore existential themes, celebrating the human experience while acknowledging life’s impermanence. The verses blend philosophical contemplation with lyrical beauty, often questioning religious dogma and expressing a carpe diem (seize the day) attitude.

3. What is The Rubaiyat controversy?

The controversy surrounding “The Rubaiyat” primarily pertains to its various translations and interpretations. The most famous translation is by Edward FitzGerald, who took considerable liberties with the original Persian text. FitzGerald’s version, while beloved and poetic, is often criticized for straying from Khayyam’s intended meanings. Scholars and enthusiasts debate the accuracy and fidelity of FitzGerald’s translation compared to more literal translations, which has led to discussions about cultural representation and the authenticity of literary works in translation.

4. What is the only certain thing in life according to The Rubaiyat?

According to “The Rubaiyat,” the only certain thing in life is death. Omar Khayyam emphasizes the inevitability of death throughout his quatrains, urging readers to acknowledge this certainty. This recognition serves as a foundation for his philosophy of appreciating the present moment and seeking joy in the here and now, as the future is uncertain and life is ephemeral.

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