In the twelfth century, at Khorassan in Persia Omar Kayyam the poet was born. He lived and died at Naishapur, following the trade of a tent-maker, acquiring knowledge of every available kind, but with astronomy for his special study. His famous poem, the Rubaiyat, was first seen by Fitzgerald in 1856 and published in 1868. So great was the sensation produced in England by the innovating sage, that in 1895 the Omar Kayyam Club was founded by Professor Clodd, and that club has since come to be considered “the blue ribbon of literary associations.”
In Omar’s time Persian poetry was in the hands of the Sufis, or religious teachers of Persia. He found them writing verses which professed to be mystical and spiritual, but which might sometimes be suspected of earthlier meanings lurking beneath the pantheistic veil. It was against the poetry of such Sufis that Omar Kayyam rose in revolt. Loving frankness and truth, he threw all disguises aside, and became the exponent of materialistic epicureanism naked and unashamed.
A fair specimen of the finest Sufi poetry is The Rose Garden of Sa’di, which it may be convenient to quote because of its easy accessibility in English translation. Sa’di also was a twelfth-century poet, although of a later time than Omar. He was a student of the College in Baghdad, and he lived as a hermit for sixty years in Shiraz, singing of love and war. His mind is full of mysticism, wisdom and beauty going hand in hand through a dim twilight land. Dominating all his thought is the primary conviction that the soul is essentially part of God, and will return to God again, and meanwhile is always revealing, in mysterious hints and half-conscious visions, its divine source and destiny. Here and there you will find the deep fatalism of the East, as in the lines—
“Fate will not
alter for a thousand sighs,
Nor prayers importunate, nor hopeless cries.
The guardian of the store-house of the wind
Cares nothing if the widow’s lantern dies.”
These, however, are relieved by that which makes a friend of fate—
beloved even the dark hour
Shines as the morning glory after rain.
Except by Allah’s grace thou hast no power
Nor strength of arm such rapture to attain.”
It was against this sort of poetry that Omar Kayyam revolted. He had not any proof of such spiritual assurances, and he did not want that of which he had no proof. He understood the material world around him, both in its joy and sorrow, and emphatically he did not understand any other world. He became a sort of Marlowe’s Faust before his time, and protested against the vague spirituality of the Sufis by an assertion of what may be called a brilliant animalism. He loved beauty as much as they did, and there is an oriental splendour about all his work,