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The Life of Edward Fitzgerald

by Edward Fitzgerald

Edward FitzGerald was born in the year 1809, at Bredfield House, near Woodbridge, Suffolk, being the third son of John Purcell, who, subsequently to his marriage with a Miss FitzGerald, assumed the name and arms proper to his wife’s family.

St. Germain and Paris were in turn the home of his earlier years, but in 1821, he was sent to the Grammar School at Bury St. Edmunds. During his stay in that ancient foundation he was the fellow pupil of James Spedding and J. M. Kemble. From there he went in 1826 to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he made the acquaintance of W. M. Thackeray and others of only less note. His school and college friendships were destined to prove lasting, as were, also, all those he was yet to form.

One of FitzGerald’s chief characteristics was what might almost be called a genius for friendship. [Pg 2]He did not, indeed, wear his heart upon his sleeve, but ties once formed were never unloosed by any failure in charitable and tender affection on his part. Never, throughout a lengthy life, did irritability and erratic petulance (displayed ’tis true, at times by the translator of “that large infidel”), darken the eyes of those he honoured with his friendship to the simple and whole-hearted genuineness of the man.

From Oxford, FitzGerald retired to the ‘suburb grange’ at Woodbridge, referred to by Tennyson. Here, narrowing his bodily wants to within the limits of a Pythagorean fare, he led a life of a truly simple type surrounded by books and roses, and, as ever, by a few firm friends. Annual visits to London in the months of Spring kept alive the alliances of earlier days, and secured for him yet other intimates, notably the Tennyson brothers.

Amongst the languages, Spanish seems to have been his earlier love. His translation of Calderon, due to obedience to the guiding impulse of Professor Cowell, showed him to the world as a master of the rarest of arts, that of conveying to an English audience the lights and shades of a poem first fashioned in a foreign tongue.

At the bidding of the same mentor, he, later, turned his attention to Persian, the first fruits of his toil being an anonymous version, in Miltonic verse, of the ‘Salámán and Absál’ of Jámi. Soon after, the treasure-house of the Bodleian library yielded up to him the pearl of his literary endeavour, the verses of “Omar Khayyám,” a pearl whose dazzling charm previously had been revealed to but few, and that through the medium of a version published in Paris by Monsieur Nicolas.

FitzGerald’s hasty and ill-advised union with Lucy, daughter of Bernard Barton, the Quaker poet and friend of Lamb, was but short-lived, and demands no comment. They agreed to part.

In later life, most summers found the poet on board his yacht “The Scandal” (so-called as being the staple product of the neighbourhood) in company with ‘Posh’ as he dubbed Fletcher, the fisherman of Aldeburgh, whose correspondence with FitzGerald has lately been given to the world.

To the end he loved the sea, his books, his roses and his friends, and that end came to him, when on a visit with his friend Crabbe, with all the kindliness of sudden death, on the 14th June, 1883.

Besides the works already mentioned, FitzGerald was the author of “Euphranor” [1851], a Platonic Dialogue on Youth; “Polonius”: a Collection of Wise Saws and Modern Instances [1852]; and translations of the “Agamemnon” of Æschylus [1865]; and the “Œdipus Tyrannus” and “Œdipus Coloneus” of Sophocles. Of these translations the “Agamemnon” probably ranks next to the Rubáiyát in merit. To the six dramas of Calderon, issued in 1853, there were added two more in 1865. Of these plays, “Vida es Sueno” and “El Magico Prodigioso” possess especial merit.

His “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” was first issued anonymously on January 15th, 1859, but it caused no great stir, and, half-forgotten, was reintroduced to the notice of the literary world in the following year by Rossetti, and, in this connection, it is curious to note to what a large extent Rossetti played the part of a literary Lucina. FitzGerald, Blake and Wells are all indebted to him for timely aid in the reanimation of offspring, that seemed doomed to survive but for a short time the pangs that gave them birth. Mr. Swinburne and Lord Houghton were also impressed by its merits, and its fame slowly spread. Eight years elapsed, however, before the publication of the second edition.

After the passage of a quarter-of-a-century a considerable stimulus was given to the popularity of the “Rubáiyát” by the fact that Tennyson—appropriately enough in view of FitzGerald’s translation of Sophocles’ “Œdipus”—prefaced his “Tiresias, and other Poems,” with some charmingly reminiscent lines written to “Old Fitz” on his last birthday. “This,” says Mr. Edmund Gosse, “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.”

Neither the “Rubáiyát” nor his other works are mere translations. They are better, perhaps, described as consisting of “largely new work based on the nominal originals.” In the “Omar,” admittedly the highest in quality of his works, he undoubtedly took considerable liberties with his author, and introduced lines, or even entire quatrains, which, however they may breathe the spirit of the original, have no material counterpart therein.

In illustration of FitzGerald’s capacity for conveying the spirit rather than the very words of the original, comparison of the Ousely MS. of 1460 A.D., in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, with the “Rubáiyát” as we know it, is of great interest.

The MS. runs thus:—

For a while, when young, we frequented a teacher;
For a while we were contented with our proficiency;
Behold the foundation of the discourse!—what happened to us?
We came in like Water, and we depart like Wind.

In FitzGerald’s version the verses appear thus:—

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint and heard great Argument
But it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went.

With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow
And with my own hand labour’d it to grow:
And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d—
“I came like Water, and like Wind I go.”

Similar examples may be found elsewhere, thus:—

From the Beginning was written what shall be
Unhaltingly the Pen writes, and is heedless of good and bad;
On the First Day He appointed everything that must be,
Our grief and our efforts are vain,

develops into:—

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

The general tendency to amplification is shown again in the translation of the two lines:—

Forsake not the book, the lover’s lips and the green bank of the field,
Ere that the earth enfold thee in its bosom.

into the oft-quoted verses:—

With me along some Strip of Herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown,
Where the name of Slave and Sultán scarce is known,
And pity Sultán Máhmúd on his Throne.

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow!

And in the lines of Omar:—

In a thousand places on the road I walk, thou placest snares.
Thou sayest: “I will catch thee if thou steppeth into them,”
In no smallest thing is the world independent of thee,
Thou orderest all things—and callest me rebellious!

majestically shaping into FitzGerald’s rendering:—

Oh, Thou, who didst with Pitfall and with Gin
Beset the Road I was to wander in,
Thou wilt not with Predestination round
Enmesh me, and impute my Fall to Sin?

Oh, Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make
And who with Eden didst devise the Snake;
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blacken’d, Man’s Forgiveness give—and take!

To what school did FitzGerald belong? Who were his literary progenitors? Lucretius, Horace and Donne, at any rate, had a considerable share in moulding his thought and fashioning the form of his verse. The unrhymed line, so often but by no means uniformly resounding with a suspended clangour that is not caught up by the following stanza is distinctly reminiscent of the Alcaics of Horace.

Epicurean, in the ordinary sense of the term, he certainly is, but it is of the earlier type. Cyrenaic would be a juster epithet, the “carpe diem” doctrine of the poem is too gross and sensual to have commended itself to the real Epicurus. Intense fatalism, side by side with complete agnosticism, this is the keynote of the poem. Theoretically incompatible, these two “isms” are in practice inevitable companions.

The theory of reincarnation and that alone, can furnish a full explanation of FitzGerald’s splendid success as a translator.

Omar was FitzGerald and FitzGerald was Omar. Both threw away their shields and retired to their tent, not indeed to sulk, but to seek in meditative aloofness, the calm and content that is the proper reward of those alone who persevere to the end. Retirement brought them all it could bring, a yet deeper sense of the vanity of things and their unknowableness. Herein for the mass of mankind lies the charm of the Rubáiyát, in clear, tuneful numbers it chants the half-beliefs and disbeliefs of those who are neither demons nor saints, neither theological dogmatists nor devil-worshippers, but men.