Story

Almost a thousand years ago, in what was left of Persia at that time, there lived a famous mathematician named Omar Khayyam. He wasn’t known as a poet in his lifetime, but twenty years after he died some poems appeared in an anthology of Persian verse which were said to be his.

They were 4-line poems known as ruba’i. The plural of ruba’i is rubaiyat. So, literally, a rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is simply a collection of four-line poems said to be by Omar Khayyam.

Over time, many, many more of these little poems came to be ascribed to Khayyam. Some say more than a thousand.

In the 1850’s Edward FitzGerald was persuaded by a friend to learn Persian so that the two friends might translate Persian poetry together. It was this friend who first introduced FitzGerald to Omar Khayyam by making him a present of a manuscript containing some 155 of these little poems, these ruba’i.

A few years later, in 1859, FitzGerald published, anonymously, a small book with paper covers. It was hardly more than a pamphlet. Its title was, “The Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam the Astronomer Poet of Persia, Rendered into English Verse”. It contained his translation of 75 of the hundreds of Khayyam ruba’i that he had read and studied. It was priced at one shilling.

For two years not one copy sold.

Then, a friend of some well-known poets of the time came across it in the bargain box at a bookstore. The price had been reduced to one penny. He liked what he read and bought copies for his influential friends. They liked what they read and began passing it around. Before long it became a sensation in English literary circles. And not long after that it was being hailed as a masterpiece and published all over the English speaking world.

FitzGerald’s little book has gone on to become the most widely-published poem in the English language; and perhaps in any language. At the height of its fame it was so well known that more than two hundred of the original three hundred lines were cited in the Oxford Book of Quotations.

Today not many people know too much about the poem. But, if you’re interested in getting your hands on an original copy of that 1859 edition, first priced at one shilling and later reduced to a penny, I know where you can get one for $US43,000.