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Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) was a Persian mathematician, astronomer, and poet, whose ‘rubaiyats’ (quatrains) found a wide audience in the 19th century through the efforts of Edward FitzGerald. A 1460 manuscript of 158 rubaiyat held in Oxford’s Bodleian Library was used by FitzGerald to compose his famous Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, first published anonymously in 1859 – the same year as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In its encouragement to seize the day and enjoy life’s pleasures while living, it was deeply humanist, and FitzGerald emphasised the religious scepticism he found in the verses. Of Khayyam, he wrote:

Having failed… of finding any Providence but Destiny, and any World but This, he set about making the most of it; preferring rather to soothe the Soul through the Senses into Acquiescence with Things as he saw them, than to perplex it with vain disquietude after what they might be.

Although it made relatively little impact when first published, subsequent editions gained enormous popularity, not least among freethinkers. The Bodleian also holds a copy of FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat written on parchment by William Morris, and a pocket-sized, vellum-bound edition was a prized possession of humanist and suffragist Ernestine Mills.

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and–sans End!’

Edward FitzGerald, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
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