The Rubaiyat of David Eugene Smith (1860 – 1944)

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, set forth in meter by David Eugene Smith, based upon a verbatim translation by Hashim Hussein, and with illustrations by Rassam–I Arjangi was published by B. Westermann Company, New York in 1933. Its title page and frontispiece are shown in Fig.1. Smith’s Rubaiyat consisted of 289 quatrains, grouped into 7 categories as follows:

1. Vanity of Life (quatrains 1 to 38)
2. Wonder of Life (quatrains 39 to 75)
3. Hopelessness of Life (quatrains 76 to 113)
4. Gaiety of Life (quatrains 114 to 207)
5. Doubts of Life (quatrains 208 to 236)
6. End of Life (quatrains 237 to 264)
7. Review of Life (quatrains 265 to 289)

The frontispiece of Fig.1 refers to quatrain 11 thus:

A rose with unexpected bloom surprised the dawn,
Then to the zephyrs sang her simple song and died;
Thus Destiny doth show her carelessness of life –
A day of birth, of life, of death, – and all is done.

A good overview of quatrains and their associated illustrations can be obtained from Fig.2, Fig.3, Fig.4, Fig.5, Fig.6 and Fig.7 – in each case the illustration relates to the first quatrain on the facing page. (Browse images.)

In selecting quatrains to be included, Smith and Hussein considered three of the most notable attempts to decide which quatrains Omar Khayyam actually wrote. The three were those of a) Professor Arthur Christensen of Copenhagen (1927); b) Husayn–i–Dánish & Riza Tewfik of Istanbul (1922, 1927); and c) A–G E’Tessam–Zadeh of Tehran (1931). As Smith notes, these scholars managed to agree on only 68 quatrains, whilst E’Tessam–Zadeh had no less than 760 quatrains in his list, made with the claim that “only a Persian is competent to make the proper selection on the basis of style”! Nevertheless, by steering a course through the minefield of the various selections of “genuine” quatrains, Smith and his translator finally ended up with their total of 289 quatrains (p.6–8).

As indicated above, Smith divided the quatrains into seven categories. The first six of these consisted of unrhymed quatrains, each line of 12 syllables. Smith tells us (p.7–8) that this format was adopted simply because adherence to a rhyming pattern seriously hinders any literal translation, plus the use of 12 syllables allowed him to give a better idea of the real Omar than was possible in any other format The seventh category, the only one not to have any illustrations, mostly follows FitzGerald’s rhyming pattern a–a–b–a, but with lines of (respectively) 10, 10, 8 and 10 syllables. This was “in order to call special attention to the quatrains chosen by Professor Christensen but not included in the Husayn–i–Dánish version” (p.7). Here is an example (quatrain 273):

Had I a loaf of bread, a gourd of wine,
And if besides a leg of lamb were mine,
And thou wert with me in the wild,
The Great Sultán would envy me and mine.

So who was David Eugene Smith (Fig.8)?

Professor David Eugene Smith, to give him his due title, is best remembered today as the author of numerous textbooks on arithmetic, algebra, geometry and trigonometry, all standard in their day, as well of various books on the teaching and history of mathematics. At first glance this makes an association with The Rubaiyat seem a little unlikely, though perhaps it shouldn’t, given that Omar Khayyam was a mathematician (as indeed I am myself, though one with rapidly decreasing abilities as time marches on!) So how did Smith come to publish his version of The Rubaiyat ? Actually, an equally valid question is: how did Smith become a mathematician ?

He was born in Cortland, New York, in January 1860, and spent his school days there. But his mother played a great part in his early education, teaching him Latin and Greek, and fostering in him a strong inclination towards the arts and humanities. He attended Syracuse University, from which he graduated in 1881, having added Hebrew to his stock of ancient languages. After graduating, his father wanted him to join his law practice, and as a result Smith was admitted to the bar in 1884. But he had little enthusiasm for a legal career, and, by way of escape, he took a job teaching mathematics at his old school, even though, up until that time, he had had little inclination for that career either. He turned out to be very good at it, though, and by 1901 he had become Professor of Mathematics at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, a post he held until his retirement in 1926. He died at his home in New York City in July 1944. (1)

Of his mathematical textbooks I shall say little here. It is worth noting, though, that he was a great populariser – his Number Stories of Long Ago (1919), as its title suggests, is a collection of mathematically based stories for children which still has considerable charm and originality, even today, not least of all because it came with two Prefaces, “Preface Number One, just between us, and worth reading” and “Preface Number Two, for the Grown–ups, and not worth reading.” Figs. 9 & 10 give a sampler of the text and its associated colour illustration by an unnamed artist – note the names Ahmes and Heron written in Egyptian hieroglyphs and Greek in the chapter heading vignette in Fig.9 – an indicator of Smith’s interest in ancient languages. Fig.11 shows the associated “Question Box” – Smith the educator in action – and Fig.12 shows part of the “Pronouncing Vocabulary” at the back of the book, again indicative of Smith’s interest in languages. (Browse images.) Also of note is his rather unusual booklet – unusual for its subject matter, that is – Problems about War for Classes in Arithmetic (2), which was no.10 in a series of booklets published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1915.

As regards his works on the history of mathematics, and in particular those which link us up with Omar, Smith co–authored, with Louis Charles Karpinski, The Hindu–Arabic Numerals (1911) and he wrote the introduction to M. Rangacarya’s translation of the ninth century Indian mathematical work The Ganita–Sara–Sangraha of Mahaviracarya, published in Madras in 1912. In fact, Smith had acquired a large number of Indian mathematical manuscripts of his own, with others in Japanese (3), Chinese, Arabic and Persian, including a 14th century MS copy, in Arabic, of Omar’s work on algebra. He also, to bring us back where we started, owned a 17th century MS of The Rubaiyat.

In 1922 Smith privately published, for a group of his friends, a little book of only eight pages, Mathematics and Poetry. It was “printed in the style of the master craftsmen of the Renaissance and bound in Florentine paper of the period of the Medici.” (It was, in fact, printed by the Giannini Press of Florence.) In it he quoted the mathematician Weierstrass as saying that, “a mathematician who is not somewhat of a poet will never be a perfect mathematician.” Smith went on to argue that mathematical notation, like poetry, could say more in less space than a corresponding prose equivalent, the two being brought together in “the quatrains of the old Persian algebraist, Omar Khayyam.” He also thought that revelling in the beauties of algebra was comparable to reading the adventures of Aeneas, Ulysses or Sir Lancelot. Alas, most non–mathematicians would probably strongly disagree with this, sympathising, rather, with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote, in a letter to his brother, the Reverend George Coleridge, by way of a preface to his quirky poem “A Mathematical Problem”:

I have often been surprised that Mathematics, the quintessence of Truth, should have found admirers so few and languid. Frequent consideration and minute scrutiny have at length unravelled the cause: verily, that though reason is feasted, Imagination is starved; whilst reason is luxuriating in its proper paradise, Imagination is wearily travelling on a dreary desert. (Letter dated 31st March 1791.)

In fact, many would insert the word “incomprehensible” between “dreary” and “desert”, and would see more poetry in an insurance policy than in the proof of the Theorem of Pythagoras or the formula for solving quadratic equations!

A year before the publication of Mathematics and Poetry, in another privately published booklet of the same ilk, Religio Mathematici (1921) (4), Smith, himself a practising Christian with a healthy tolerance of other faiths, had waxed lyrical about “the relation of mathematics to a religious attitude of mind.” Smith believed that an appreciation of the immutable laws of mathematics, like the Binomial Theorem or the Cosine Rule, as opposed to the all–too–mutable laws devised by men, lent new meaning to the phrase “the Kingdom of God is within you.” (5) He also drew up a twelve–point list of correspondences between mathematics and religion, no.4 of which compared the mathematically postulated existence of hyperspace with the religious postulate of the existence of a heaven with gradations! No.7 compared the mathematical postulate of Time as a fourth dimension with the somewhat curious idea that, “in the next world, the direction of Time may actually be seen.” It may interest readers to know, also, that in Paris, in 1925, Smith published yet another little booklet for friends, Mathematica Gothica, a look at the mathematics of the Gothic Cathedrals of France (6). Naturally he includes that familiar piece of medieval number mysticism, which starts with the numbers 3 (Holy Trinity) and 4 (the Four Elements) and notes that, 3 + 4 = 7 (the Seven Virtues and the Seven Deadly Sins) and 3 x 4 = 12 (the Twelve Apostles) (7). Rather more curiously, he looks at the digital roots of the eight times table (8), then at the number eight coming to be regarded “as a symbol of decadence and death”, and wonders if this was why octagonal fonts went out of fashion in churches. (I wonder, at times, if Smith’s 7 categories of quatrains held any numerological significance for him!)

As regards the translator of Smith’s Rubaiyat, we know from the Introduction (p.9) that Hashim Hussein was “a young Persian, educated at Robert College, near Istambul, and at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York.” This, of course, was the college where Smith was a lecturer between 1901 and 1926, and is presumably how the two met. Little more seems to be known about him save that, again according to Smith’s Introduction, he was “long an admirer of the style of Omar Khayyam” and “familiar with the native literature relating to the Rubaiyat.” (p.9)

As for the illustrator, Rassam–i Arjangi, Smith’s Introduction tells us that he was from Teheran and that he was “well known as one of the best of the modern artists of Persia.” (p.10) We also know (9) that Arjangi was born into an artistic family in Azarbaijan in 1892. At the age of 20 he went to Moscow to study art, and spent some years in Russia. In 1917 he returned to Azarbaijan, but soon after moved to Tehran. Success did not come easily to him there, it seems, and his biggest break came when some of his paintings attracted attention in the Anvers Exhibition in Belgium in 1928. Subsequently he received a First Class Medal for Arts from the Belgian government, though he apparently continued to live in Tehran, where he was contacted by Smith in connection with doing the illustrations for his Rubaiyat. (He also apparently did the illustrations for an English edition of Hafiz, but I have been unable to find any record of it ever having been published.) Arjangi occupied various official artistic posts in Iran, until he retired in 1958. He died in 1975.


Note 1. The information quoted here is taken from two obituaries of Smith, one by W. Benjamin Fite in The American Mathematical Monthly, vol.52, no.5 (May 1945), p.237–8 and the other by Lao Genevra Simons in The Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, vol.51 (1945), p.40–50.

Note 2. Here is problem 8 (on p.9), for those who are curious: “In this war it costs $1,000,000 a day to feed the horses used in the armies. How much does this amount to in a year ? At $500 each, to how many boys and girls could be given a year in college for this amount paid for horse feed ?”

Note 3. With Yoshio Mikami, Smith co–authored A History of Japanese Mathematics (Chicago, 1914). According to Smith’s Preface, he was responsible for the general planning of the work, and the final writing of the text, whereas Mikami did the initial translations and handled the research in the library of the Academy of Sciences in Tokyo. It would seem, then, that Smith had at least a smattering of Japanese in his quiver of languages!

Note 4. The contents had originally been delivered as a Presidential Address to the Mathematical Association of America in September 1921, and had been published in The American Mathematical Monthly in October1921.

Note 5. Though I do not myself believe in God, in a way I know what Smith means, mathematically speaking. In a section on “Contact with the Infinite” Smith gives a simple result which is well worth quoting here, namely that there are as many points on a line as there are on a line of double its length (Fig.13.) This result can easily be extended to show that there are as many points on any part of a line as there are on the whole line, a result which ‘doesn't make sense’ in everyday terms, but which is nevertheless true mathematically.

A result of a very different kind, though not one mentioned by Smith, is the remarkable result, first proved by Euler, that e = −1, where e is the base of natural logarithms, and a number that occurs in the mathematical treatment of radioactive decay, population growth, statistical distributions, mechanics &c; i is the square root of minus 1, a number which doesn’t even exist in real terms but which turns out to be extremely useful in proving an array of trigonometrical formulae as well as in the generation of fractals; and π is the number most people are familiar with from learning about the geometry of the circle in school. Now I can prove this result of Euler’s, as can any able A–level maths student, and yet I still cannot ‘get my head around it’ in common sense terms, even after many years of familiarity with it. If I believed in a God, this would be one result which I would suggest that God dreamed up while He was relaxing on the Seventh Day as something to beguile the Mathematicians that He knew would result from the going forth and multiplying of Adam and Eve. I see it as a sort of Divine Challenge: “What do you lot make of THAT, then ? Neat, eh ? But do you REALLY understand it!”

That well-known image of God as the Great Geometer (Fig.14) brings to mind another of what I picture as His Seventh Day whimsies: Morley’s Triangle.

Referring to Fig.15, start with any triangle ABC, trisect its angles, and look at their points of intersection D, E and F. These define Morley’s Triangle, and it is always equilateral, no matter how the initial triangle ABC is chosen. This extraordinary result was first discovered by Anglo–American mathematician Frank Morley as recently as 1899 – it is not one of those results which has been known since the days of Pythagoras & Co., possibly in part because the Ancient Greeks never cracked the problem of trisecting an angle using only straight edge and compasses, a feat proved to be impossible only in modern times (as detailed in Felix Klein’s book mentioned in note 6 below.) Had Omar the mathematician known of the impossibility of this feat, it would no doubt have amused him, for God, in laying down His Laws of Geometry, had made it effectively impossible even for Himself to do it! (In idle moments I fancy that in Fig.14 God is trying to find a way round this Divine Impasse.)

Oh yes, a sub–whimsey of God’s on the day He created Morley’s Triangle was His choice of the place in which Frank Morley was to be born in 1860 – a little place called Woodbridge in Suffolk. Why He had him die in Baltimore, Maryland in 1937, though, I have not yet worked out.

Note 6. Smith was widely travelled and presumably spent much time in France researching this little book. He seems to have had considerable competence in modern languages as well as ancient – he collaborated on a translation from French of René Descartes’ work on geometry, The Geometry of René Descartes, published in 1925, and also on a translation from German of Felix Klein’s work on the famous insoluble problems of elementary geometry (the most famous one being the squaring the circle using only a straight edge and compasses), Famous Problems of Elementary Geometry, published in 1930.

Note 7. There is a considerable literature on this, and Smith barely scratches the surface, for the 7s extend to the 7 days of the week and the 7 planets of the ancient Ptolemaic System, whilst the 12s extend to the 12 signs of the zodiac and the astrological connotations which they bring with them. Though much number symbolism was of pagan pre–Christian origin, such was the respect for the Greek Wisdom of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, and the like, that Bible Commentators up the 17th century, if not later, felt obliged to reconcile Christian with Classical numerology, to the point where it was seriously suggested that Pythagoras and Moses had been influenced by each other! [For a useful overview see Silent Poetry: Essays in Numerological Analysis, edited by Alastair Fowler (1970), particularly Christopher Butler’s essay, “Numerological Thought” in chapter 1.]

Note 8. The digital root of a number is obtained by adding its digits together, and repeating that process, until a single digit answer is obtained. Thus, taking 137 as an example, 1 + 3 + 7 = 11, and 1 + 1 = 2, hence 2 is the digital root of 137 (it can be shown that the digital root is the remainder on division by 9, thus 137 divided by 9 gives 15 remainder 2.) Looking at the 8 times table, namely 8, 16, 24, 32, 40, 48, 56, 64, 72 the digital roots form the decreasing sequence 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0 (the digital root of 9 is 0, since 9 leaves no remainder when divided by itself!) Thus the 8 times table ‘dies’, at least from the point of view of its digital–roots! On such things is numerological symbolism based!

Note 9. The information given here is based on an account of the life and work of the artist, formerly to be found on the website of his granddaughter, Parastoo Ganjei, but now longer available. The account was, however, stored by Douglas Taylor, to whom my thanks are due for supplying a copy of it.


To return to the Notes and Queries Index, click here.

To return to the Index of the Rubaiyat Archive, click here