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Edward Fitzgerald Biography

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

FITZGERALD, EDWARD (1809-1883), English writer, the poet of Omar Khayyám, was born as Edward Purcell, at Bredfield House, in Suffolk, on the 31st of March 1809. His father, John Purcell, who had married a Miss FitzGerald, assumed in 1818 the name and arms of his wife’s family. From 1816 to 1821 the FitzGeralds lived at St Germain and at Paris, but in the latter year Edward was sent to school at Bury St Edmunds. In 1826 he proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, where, some two years later, he became acquainted with Thackeray and W.H. Thompson. With Tennyson, “a sort of Hyperion,” his intimacy began about 1835. In 1830 he went to live in Paris, but in 1831 was in a farm-house on the battlefield of Naseby. He adopted no profession, and lived a perfectly stationary and rustic life, presently moving into his native county of Suffolk, and never again leaving it for more than a week or two. Until 1835 the FitzGeralds lived at Wherstead; from that year until 1853 the poet resided at Boulge, near Woodbridge; until 1860 at Farlingay Hall; until 1873 in the town of Woodbridge; and then until his death at his own house hard by, called Little Grange.

During most of this time FitzGerald gave his thoughts almost without interruption to his flowers, to music and to literature. He allowed friends like Tennyson and Thackeray, however, to push on far before him, and long showed no disposition to emulate their activity. In 1851 he published his first book, Euphranor, a Platonic dialogue, born of memories of the old happy life at Cambridge. In 1852 appeared Polonius, a collection of “saws and modern instances,” some of them his own, the rest borrowed from the less familiar English classics. FitzGerald began the study of Spanish poetry in 1850, when he was with Professor E.B. Cowell at Elmsett and that of Persian in Oxford in 1853. In the latter year he issued Six Dramas of Calderon, freely translated. He now turned to Oriental studies, and in 1856 he anonymously published a version of the Salámán and Absál of Jámi in Miltonic verse. In March 1857 the name with which he has been so closely identified first occurs in FitzGerald’s correspondence—“Hafiz and Omar Khayyámring like true metal.” On the 15th of January 1859 a little anonymous pamphlet was published as The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. In the world at large, and in the circle of FitzGerald’s particular friends, the poem seems at first to have attracted no attention. The publisher allowed it to gravitate to the fourpenny or even (as he afterwards boasted) to the penny box on the bookstalls. But in 1860 Rossetti discovered it, and Swinburne and Lord Houghton quickly followed. The Rubáiyát became slowly famous, but it was not until 1868 that FitzGerald was encouraged to print a second and greatly revised edition. Meanwhile he had produced in 1865 a version of the Agamemnon, and two more plays from Calderon. In 1880-1881 he issued privately translations of the two Oedipus tragedies; his last publication was Readings in Crabbe, 1882. He left in manuscript a version of Attar’s Mantic-Uttair under the title of The Bird Parliament.

From 1861 onwards FitzGerald’s greatest interest had centred in the sea. In June 1863 he bought a yacht, “The Scandal,” and in 1867 he became part-owner of a herring-lugger, the “Meum and Tuum.” For some years, till 1871, he spent the months from June to October mainly in “knocking about somewhere outside of Lowestoft.” In this way, and among his books and flowers, FitzGerald gradually became an old man. On the 14th of June 1883 he passed away painlessly in his sleep. He was “an idle fellow, but one whose friendships were more like loves.” In 1885 a stimulus was given to the steady advance of his fame by the fact that Tennyson dedicated his Tiresias to FitzGerald’s memory, in some touching reminiscent verses to “Old Fitz.” This was but the signal for that universal appreciation of Omar Khayyám in his English dress, which has been one of the curious literary phenomena of recent years. The melody of FitzGerald’s verse is so exquisite, the thoughts he rearranges and strings together are so profound, and the general atmosphere of poetry in which he steeps his version is so pure, that no surprise need be expressed at the universal favour which the poem has met with among critical readers. But its popularity has gone much deeper than this; it is now probably better known to the general public than any single poem of its class published since the year 1860, and its admirers have almost transcended common sense in the extravagance of their laudation. FitzGerald married, in middle life, Lucy, the daughter of Bernard Barton, the Quaker poet. Of FitzGerald as a man practically nothing was known until, in 1889, Mr W. Aldis Wright, his intimate friend and literary executor, published his Letters and Literary Remains in three volumes. This was followed in 1895 by the Letters to Fanny Kemble. These letters constitute a fresh bid for immortality, since they discovered that FitzGerald was a witty, picturesque and sympathetic letter-writer. One of the most unobtrusive authors who ever lived, FitzGerald has, nevertheless, by the force of his extraordinary individuality, gradually influenced the whole face of English belles-lettres, in particular as it was manifested between 1890 and 1900.

The Works of Edward FitzGerald appeared in 1887. See also a chronological list of FitzGerald’s works (Caxton Club, Chicago, 1899); notes for a bibliography by Col. W.F. Prideaux, in Notes and Queries (9th series, vol. vi.), published separately in 1901; Letters and Literary Remains (ed. W. Aldis Wright, 1902-1903); and the Life of Edward FitzGerald, by Thomas Wright (1904), which contains a bibliography (vol. ii. pp. 241-243) and a list of sources (vol. i. pp. xvi.-xvii.). The volume on FitzGerald in the “English Men of Letters” series is by A.C. Benson. The FitzGerald centenary was celebrated in March 1909. See the Centenary Celebrations Souvenir (Ipswich, 1909) and The Times for March 25, 1909.