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The Quatrains OF Omar Khayyam

by J.B. Nicolas

This grand old poet, who flourished in the 11th century and who brought into Khorasan the delights of the Court of the Seldjoukides, still, in our day, continues to charm with the pleasures of the palace of the Kadjars at Teheran. But the difficulty, on the one hand, of translating a writer so essentially abstract in his philosophic thought, so Mystically foreign in his figurative expressions (too often presented in the form of a repulsive materialism), and on the other, the embarrassment I could foresee in the correcting of proofs at so great a distance from Paris, and above all the feeling of my incapacity for undertaking so great a work, always prevented my publishing anything up to the present time.

On my last journey to Paris, I met some friends eager for something new in the way of Oriental literature, among whom I am pleased to mention Madam Blanchecotte, moralist and poet, known through her many witty and impassioned publications. After having listened to the brief quotations which I was able to cite to them from the quatrains of the poet with whom we are now occupied, they so strongly urged me to publish a complete translation, and put so much emphasis on their demand and so much kindness in their offers of service, that I decided to conform to their desires in editing this work to-day.

I should, however, still have considered it beyond my powers, without the co-operation of Hassan-Ali-Khan, minister plenipotentiary from Persia at the Court of the Tuileries, who put himself out to aid me with his profound erudition and valuable advice.

The history of Khayyam, bound to that of two persons who played a great rôle in the annals of the country,270 is, I believe, of sufficient interest to warrant my telling it here as it has been transmitted to us by the Persian historians.

Khayyam, born in a village situated near Nishapur, in Khorasan, went to complete his studies at the celebrated medresseh of that city, towards the end of the year 1042 of the Christian era. Accounts tell us that this college had acquired at that time the reputation of producing pupils of rare distinction, from among whom men of talent and remarkable skill often sprung up and rapidly attained to the highest positions in the empire.

Abdul-Kassem and Hassan-Sebbah, fellow-students with Khayyam, were the two comrades to whom he was especially attached, notwithstanding a divergence of character and opinion which would seem to indicate in him another choice. One day Khayyam asked his two friends, in a jesting manner, if a compact entered into among them, and based upon absolute necessity, for that one of the three whom Fortune most favored to come to the aid of the other two, heaping benefits upon them, would appear to them a childish thing. «No, no,» answered they, «the idea is excellent and we will adopt it with all eagerness.» Immediately the three friends clasped hands and vowed that when the time came they would be faithful to their agreement. This pact but stimulated the emulation of the three young people. They applied themselves to their studies with more ardor even than was demanded of them, since in accordance with the tradition of the college, the high places belong to those who merit them.

Khayyam, of a sweet and modest nature, was rather given to the contemplation of divine things than to the pleasures of worldly life. This tendency and the kind of study he cultivated made of him a Mystic poet, a philosopher at once skeptical and fatalistic, a Sufi—in a word, what most Oriental poets are.

Abdul-Kassem, on the contrary, ambitious and positive in the full acceptation of the word, anxious to come into power, applied himself principally to the study of the history of his country, which presented to him numerous271 examples of celebrated men who, by their merit and courage, had come into the highest offices, and where, besides, he found excellent lessons in all branches of administration. He became an illustrious statesman. As for Hassan-Sebbah, as ambitious as his fellow-student Abdul-Kassem, but less skilful, and more violent than he in the application of means, artful and jealous of the superiority of his comrades, he followed somewhere nearly the same studies, holding ever to the purpose of serving himself by the ruin of all those who dared to oppose his advancement in the career he had chosen. He also became celebrated, as will be shown farther on in this preface, through the cruelties he committed and the blood he spilled.

Their studies ended, the three friends left college and separated to return to their own homes, where they remained a certain length of time without renown. Abdul-Kassem, however, was not long in making himself advantageously known at the Court of Alp-Arslan, the second king of the dynasty of the Seldjoukides, through divers writings on the subject of administration, and soon became the private secretary of that monarch, then under-secretary of State, and finally Prime Minister.

Alp-Arslan, in putting this skilful administrator at the head of affairs in his empire, conferred upon him the honorary title of Nizam-el-Moulk, «Regulator of the Empire,» a title which, among the Persians, replaces the name of the person to whom it is granted. The historians of that time write in eulogy of this great man and, attributing to his virtues and his ability the success and prosperity of Alp-Arslan's reign, hold in profound admiration the discernment of that monarch, who knew how to attach to himself a minister endowed with so much skill in directing the affairs of his vast Principalities, which attained, under his administration, the highest degree of glory of which the Persian annals make mention.

It was towards that epoch, where Nizam-el-Moulk (for henceforth it is by this title that we shall designate him) had arrived at the apogee of his power, that his272 two friends came to recall to him the contract concluded amongst them. «What do you demand of me?» he said to them.

«I only ask,» responded Khayyam, «that I may enjoy the revenues of my native village. I am a Sufi and not ambitious; if you accede to my request, I could, under my paternal roof, far from the inseparable fetters of the things of this world, cultivate poesy, which delights my soul, and peaceably contemplate the works of the Creator, which is acceptable to my mind.»

«As for me,» said Hassan-Sebbah, «I ask a place at Court.»

The minister granted everything: the young poet returned to his village, of which he became chief, and Hassan-Sebbah took his place at Court, where, crafty courtier that he was, he was not long in getting into the good graces of the monarch. But, although he had already acquired the highest distinction possible, thanks to the effective aid of Nizam-el-Moulk, his envious and zealous mind could not accommodate itself to the kind of submission in which he found himself, face to face with his benefactor. He immediately went to work to overturn and supplant him.

To this end, he commenced to insinuate to Alp-Arslan that the royal finances were not in good state, the minister having neglected the collecting of taxes, and not having rendered an account upon this important subject for three years. The Prince gave ear to these treacherous criticisms, and immediately Nizam-el-Moulk was sent for to Court, where Alp-Arslan asked him, in presence of all the great dignitaries, called together for this purpose, for a complete account of uncollected taxes and a definite statement of all finances of State. Nizam-el-Moulk excused himself as best he could for the delay of which his Majesty complained, on the ground of certain circumstances beyond his control, and promised to occupy himself seriously with the question, with the aim of being able to present a complete accounting in six months' time. The Prince appeared satisfied and allowed the minister to retire. But he had scarcely passed the sill of the palace273 door when Hassan-Sebbah, approaching the King remarked that if anything were needed to prove the incapacity of the minister in a matter of this kind, it was to be found precisely in the extraordinary delay that he asked for putting the finances of the Empire in order. This observation struck the Prince, who asked the courtier making it if he wished to take charge of this work, and if he would engage to have it finished in a shorter space of time. Upon the affirmative response of the artful Hassan, who only asked for forty days for the accomplishment of the task, an order was given to Nizam-el-Moulk to put the archives of the finances immediately at his disposition, the moustofis (writings of the Chief Justice) and all the details of the management. Hassan, delighted at finding himself so suddenly at the head of the most important branch of the administration, already considered the complete ruin of Nizam-el-Moulk as assured. The latter, on his side, perceived, but a little too late, the imprudence he had been guilty of in placing in so high a position a man whom he ought to have known, and concerning whom he should have been on his guard. However, he did not despair of frustrating, scheme against scheme, the well-advanced projects of his ambitious antagonist. Knowing by experience how corruptible the men of his time were, and recognizing, too, the proverbial greediness and weakness of character of the confidant of Hassan-Sebbah to whom the latter believed it possible to trust the work that he had undertaken upon the order of Alp-Arslan, he did not hesitate to furnish to one of his favorites, upon whose faithfulness he knew he could count, sums large enough to be irresistible in the carrying out of the plan which he had conceived.

The favorite of the minister, a safe man, accustomed to this kind of service, so skilfully used this money that he was not long in winning the good graces of Hassan's weak and interested confidant, and was thus able to furnish to his master all the information which he awaited with impatience, and of which he could make good use when the right moment was come. That moment was the274 expiration of the forty days which Hassan-Sebbah had demanded.

On the appointed day all was ready, and Hassan seemed to triumph; but Nizam-el-Moulk had on that very day when the voluminous record which his adversary had prepared was to be put before the King in official audience, given his favorite some final instructions which should throw Hassan into confusion. This faithful and adroit servitor went to find the confidant, whose confidence he had gained by means of gifts, and begged him to show him the wonderful statement which Nizam-el-Moulk had declared could not be finished in less than six months, and his master had had the skill to complete in forty days. Hassan's confidant was occupied at this moment, and besides, suspected nothing; he turned over to his friend the defter—the bundle of detached leaflets which formed the record. He, putting to good use the distraction of the confidant, detached the defter and, in the twinkling of an eye, confounded the order of the leaves, as his master had recommended to him. Then, placing the defter on the carpet, he launched forth into pompous eulogy upon the skill of Hassan-Sebbah and of his worthy acolyte who had so actively participated in this eminent work. Some hours afterward Alp-Arslan received in grand audience his ministers and officers of the Empire, to assist at the solemn presentation of the financial accounting of Hassan-Sebbah.

Nizam-el-Moulk humbly kept himself in one corner of the audience hall, awaiting the result of his stratagem. Upon the signal of Alp-Arslan, Hassan-Sebbah deposited at the monarch's feet a fhrist, a little book (an index), by means of which the Prince could call, in the order of the provinces, for the leaflets contained in the defter, which Hassan-Sebbah took from the hands of his trusted helper. At the first call, Hassan sought in vain the desired leaflet. He was haunted by treachery and was troubled; the rumor that this incident provoked in the hall, the presence of the King who was irritated at finding such disorder in a compilation of this importance, added to Hassan's confusion, and he was immediately275 forced to retire, after a severe reprimand on the part of Alp-Arslan. Nizam-el-Moulk was avenged; he respectfully approached the King and made the observation to him that it was hardly to be expected that there would be much regularity in so serious a work, done in such haste by incapable people.

After this check, Hassan never again appeared at Court. History tells us that he went on a voyage to Syria, where he adopted the dogmas of the Ishmaelite sect, dogmas that he resolved to import into Persia, adding to them other novelties more in accordance with the opinions of the Sufis, then very numerous in the kingdom, with the aim of forming an army and becoming thus a terror to his enemies. He did, in fact, return to Persia, but concealed himself carefully, in order to escape the notice of Nizam-el-Moulk, whose sentiments towards him he suspected. He went back to his native city, Rhei, after having lived for some time at Ispahan, where, emboldened by the facility with which he made new recruits and aided by his neophytes, he formed no less a project than that of making the sovereign himself tremble on his throne. At Rhei he drew around him some malcontents, who did not hesitate to adopt the dogmas that he taught them, and who declared themselves ready to second him in his designs. He then resolved to go, with a limited number of his disciples, and fortify himself in the mountain of Alamout, near the city of Kazbin, where he commenced to make raids on the surrounding country, by means of which he provided for the needs of the moment and prepared an equipment for his little troop, which soon began to be formidable.

It was about this time that Alp-Arslan died, leaving his vast estates to his son, Malek-Chah, whom he strongly recommended to confide the administration to Nizam-el-Moulk, his faithful and pious minister. But this minister did not long enjoy these new favors. Malek-Chah, having had the weakness to lend his ear to the calumnious reports of his enemies, took away from him his turban and his inkstand, insignia of the high functions which he had so nobly fulfilled. This disgrace, facilitating a particular276 vengeance, caused the death of the great statesman. They found him one morning, stretched out under his tent in the royal camp, assassinated by a satellite of Hassan-Sebbah. Before he expired, according to the story of the chronicle, he had time to write a piece of verse to Malek-Chah, in which he recommended to his benevolence his twelve sons, to whom, he said, he bequeathed his old and loyal services.

Hassan-Sebbah did not the less continue his bloody excursions, respecting neither rank nor sex, cutting the throats of all that came under his hand, without pity. Malek-Chah, frightened, was obliged to send troops to put an end to these expeditions, which made trouble and confusion in the whole extent of the Empire. But Hassan's followers increased daily, and soon this chief saw himself strong enough to repulse the royal troops in a vigorous attack, and compel them to beat a retreat. After this success, Hassan put no limit to his exploits, and acquired such renown that nothing appeared to be able to resist him.

The death of Malek-Chah took place unexpectedly soon after that of Nizam-el-Moulk, and Hassan, hastening to profit by some experiments of the celebrated Sultan Sandjar, Malek-Chah's successor, there were incessant wars in the different branches of the House of Seldjoukides, wars which prolonged themselves until the death of Tougroul III., or from forty to forty-five years. Sultan Sandjar, rightly disturbed at the progress of Hassan's invasion, resolved to entirely destroy a band of brigands in his territory, whose depredations and murders had spread terror in all the provinces. To this end, he re-organized an army with which he marched in person against the aggressors; but, arrived at a certain distance from Mount Alamout, he saw one morning, upon waking, a dagger sunk in the earth near the bolster of his bed, whose blade pierced a note addressed to him, where he read, with fright, these words:

«O Sandjar! know that if I had not wished to respect your days, the hand which sunk this dagger in the earth could as well have sunk it in your heart.»


It is said that the Sultan was so overcome by the reading of this note, which revealed to him the marvellous power of Hassan-Sebbah over his trusty followers, that he relinquished for the time being his plan of attack.

But let us return to Khayyam, who, remaining a stranger to all these alternatives of wars, intrigues, and revolts with which this epoch was so filled, lived tranquilly in his native village, giving himself up to a passionate study of the philosophy of the Sufis. Surrounded by numerous friends he sought with them, in study and entertainment, that ecstatic contemplation which others believe that they find in uttering cries and screams until the voice is gone, as the crying dervishes do; or in the circular movements that are practiced with frenzy until vertigo ensues, as by the whirling dervishes; or finally, in the atrocious tortures which the Hindoos inflict upon themselves, until they lose consciousness. The Persian historians state that Khayyam loved especially to converse and drink with his friends, in the moonlight on a terrace before his house, seated upon a carpet, surrounded by singers and musicians, with a cup-bearer, who, cup in hand, presented it in turn to the joyous guests. We believe we cannot better terminate this rapid biographical and historic sketch than in adding to the life and works of our poet two very characteristic quotations.

During one of these evenings of which we are speaking, there suddenly came a gust of wind which extinguished the candles and overturned the pitcher of wine that was imprudently placed too near the edge of the terrace. The pitcher was broken and the wine spilled. Immediately Khayyam, irritated, improvised this impious quatrain, addressed to the All-Powerful:

«Thou hast broken my pitcher of wine, my God! Thus hast Thou shut upon me the gate of joy, O Lord! It is I who drink, and it is Thou who committest the disorder of drunkenness! Oh! (would that my mouth were filled with earth!) couldst Thou be drunk, my Lord?»

The poet, after having pronounced this, casting his eyes upon a mirror, perceived that his face was black as278 coal. It was a punishment from heaven. Then he made this other quatrain, not less audacious than the first, and which expresses in an absolute manner, the repulsion of the poet for the doctrine of future punishment written in the Koran, and preached so ardently by the mullahs. The Sufis consider this doctrine not only in direct opposition to their own, but as unworthy the pity and clemency of the Divinity. Here is the quatrain:

«What man here below has not sinned, can you say? And how could he have lived, had he not committed sin, can you tell? So, if I do wrong and you punish me wrongly, what is the difference which exists between you and me, I ask?»

But let us come to the complete thought of the poet which deduces itself so energetically and with so much unity through the fantasy or the mysticism of his quatrains.