Omar Khayyam was a Persian mathematician, astronomer, and poet, renowned in his own country and time for his scientific achievements but chiefly known to English-speaking readers through the translation of a collection of his poems known as Robáiyyát (“quatrains”) in ‘The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ (1859), by the English writer Edward FitzGerald.
He was born in Neyshábúr [also spelled Nīshápúr], which is now located in Iranian province of Khorásán. His name Khayyam (“Tent-maker”) may have been derived from his father's trade. He received a good education in the sciences and philosophy in his native Neyshábúr before traveling to Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan), where he completed his algebra treatise: “Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra”. This mathematical treatise enhanced his reputation significantly. In this treatise he gave a systematic discussion of the solution of cubic equations by means of intersecting conic sections.
He made such a name for himself that the Persian King Malik-Sháh invited him to Esfahán to undertake the astronomical observations necessary for the reform of the calendar. To accomplish this an observatory was built there, and a new calendar was produced, known as the Jalálí calendar. Based on making 8 of every 33 years leap years, it was more accurate than the present Gregorian calendar, and it was adopted in 1075 by Malik-Sháh. In Esfahán he also produced fundamental critiques of Euclid's theory of parallels as well as his theory of proportion. In connection with the former his ideas eventually made their way to Europe, where they influenced the English mathematician John Wallis (1616–1703); in connection with the latter he argued for the important idea of enlarging the notion of number to include ratios of magnitudes.
His years in Esfahán were very productive ones, but after the death of his patron in 1092 the sultan's widow turned against him, and soon thereafter Omar went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. He then returned to Neyshábúr where he taught and served the court as an astrologer. Philosophy, jurisprudence, history, mathematics, medicine, and astronomy are among the subjects mastered by this brilliant man.
Omar's fame in the West rests upon the collection of robáʿíyát, or “quatrains,” attributed to him. (A quatrain is a piece of verse complete in four lines, usually rhyming aaaa or aaba; it is close in style and spirit to the epigram.) Omar's poems had attracted comparatively little attention until they inspired FitzGerald to write his celebrated The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, containing such now-famous phrases as “A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou,” “Take the Cash, and let the Credit go,” and “The Flower that once has blown forever dies.” These quatrains have been translated into almost every major language and are largely responsible for colouring European ideas about Persian poetry.
Each of Omar's quatrains forms a complete poem in itself. It was FitzGerald who conceived the idea of combining a series of these robáʿíyát into a continuous elegy that had an intellectual unity and consistency. FitzGerald's ingenious and felicitous paraphrasing gave his translations a memorable verve and succinctness. They are, however, extremely free translations, and more recently several more faithful renderings of the quatrains have been published.
The verses translated by FitzGerald and others reveal a man of deep thought, troubled by the questions of the nature of reality and the eternal, the impermanence and uncertainty of life, and man's relationship to God.
(Adapted from Encyclopedia Britannica)
Below is a sample of one of his quatrains:
Man is a cup, his soul the wine therein,
Flesh is a pipe, spirit the voice therein,
O Khayyam have you fathomed what man is?
A magic lantern with a light therein