Edward Marlborough FitzGerald (March 31, 1809–June 14, 1883)
was an English writer, best known as the poet of the first and most
famous English translation of Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.
was born Edward Purcell, at Bredfield House in Suffolk. His father,
John Purcell, assumed in 1818 the name and arms of his wife's
family, the FitzGeralds. From 1816 the family lived at St Germain
and at Paris, but in 1821 Edward was sent to school at Bury St
Edmunds. In 1826 he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where
he joined the Cambridge Apostles. He became acquainted with William
Makepeace Thackeray and William Hepworth Thompson. His friendship
with Alfred Tennyson, also an Apostle, began in about 1835. In
1830 FitzGerald left for Paris, but in 1831 was living in a farm-house
on the battlefield of Naseby.
no employment, FitzGerald lived quietly, moving to 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 close by, called Little
Grange. During most of this time FitzGerald was preoccupied with
flowers, music and literature. He allowed friends like Tennyson
and Thackeray to surpass him, and for a long time showed no intention
of emulating their literary success.
1851 he published his first book, Euphranor, a Platonic dialogue,
born of memories of the old happy life at Cambridge. In 1852 he
published 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 at Elmsett and that of Persian at the University of Oxford
with Professor Edward Byles Cowell in 1853. In middle life, he
married Lucy, the daughter of Bernard Barton, the Quaker poet.
1853, he issued Six Dramas of Calderon, freely translated. He
now turned to Oriental studies, and in 1856 he anonymously published
a version of the Sálamán and Absál of Jámi
in Miltonic verse. In March 1857 Cowell discovered a set of Persian
quatrains by Omar Khayyám in the Asiatic Society library,
Calcutta, and sent them to FitzGerald. At this time the name with
which he has been so closely identified first occurs in FitzGerald's
correspondence--"Hafiz and Omar Khayyám ring like
true metal." On January 15, 1859 a little anonymous pamphlet
was published as The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. 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.
in 1860 Rossetti discovered it, and Swinburne and Lord Houghton
quickly followed. The Rubaiyat 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 Calderón.
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.
1861 onwards FitzGerald's greatest interest had been 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 summer
months "knocking about somewhere outside of Lowestoft."
In this way, and among his books and flowers, FitzGerald gradually
became an old man. He passed away painlessly in his sleep. He
was "an idle fellow, but one whose friendships were more
like loves." In 1885 his fame was increased by the fact that
Tennyson dedicated his Tiresias to FitzGerald's memory, in some
touching reminiscent verses to "Old Fitz."
was but the signal for that universal appreciation of Omar Khayyám
in his English version. 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. It became better known to the general public than any
single poem of the time.
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 letterwriter.
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.
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. WF Prideaux, in Notes and Queries (9th
series, vol. vL), 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 AC Benson. The FitzGerald centenary was celebrated
in March 1909. See the Centenary Celebrations Souvenir (Ipswich,
1909) and The Times for March 25, 1909.
Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám of Naishápur
FitzGerald's translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar
Khayyám is notable for the frequency and ubiquity of quotations
from it and allusions to it. Its popularity, still high, is in
decline; but for about a century following its publication, it
formed part of the mental furniture of most English-speaking readers.
the 107 stanzas in the poem (fifth edition), the Oxford Dictionary
of Quotations (2nd edition) quotes no less than 43 entire stanzas
in full, in addition to many individual lines and couplets.
most familiar stanza is surely:
Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
and phrases from the poem have been used as the titles of many
literary works (Nevil Shute's The Chequer Board; James Michener's
The Fires of Spring; Agatha Christie's The Moving Finger; Eugene
O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness—slightly misquoted). Allusions
to it abound in the short stories of O. Henry. Saki's nom-de-plume
is a reference to it. In 1925, when Billy Rose and Al Dubin wrote
the popular song A Cup of Coffee, A Sandwich, and You, they surely
expected listeners to catch the reference to the famous quatrain
published five editions of his translation of the Rubáiyát,
of which three (the first, second, and fifth) are significantly
different. (The second and third are almost identical, as are
the fourth and fifth). The first and fifth editions are almost
equally popular and equally often anthologized. The stanza above,
from the fifth edition, is more familiar than the corresponding
stanza in the first edition ("Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath
the bough/A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou").
On the other hand, the lines "'Tis all a Chequer-board of
Nights and Days/Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays,"
from the first edition, are more familiar than their equivalent
from the fifth: "But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays/Upon
this Chequer-board of Nights and Days").
literature scholar Dick Davis, in a 1989 introduction to the poem,
strongly suggests that FitzGerald was gay (describing his marriages
as "disastrous.") He points out suggestions of homoeroticism
in the poem. "The sáki—the cup-bearer of Persian
poetry may be of either sex... [but] is more often conceived of
as a young man than as a girl—as a Ganymede figure, in fact."
The line "this delightful Herb whose tender Green/Fledges
the River's Lip on which we lean" suggests to Davis a reference
to an adolescent boy's moustache; while the stanza
answer'd this; but after Silence spake
A Vessel of a more ungainly Make:
“They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
“What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake?”
is read by Davis as FitzGerald's protest of the stigmatization
of his sexuality.