Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Thomas Humphry Ward
Edward Fitzgerald (18091883)
[Born near Woodbridge, Suffolk, March 31, 1809; educated at Bury St. Edmunds School and at Trinity College, Cambridge. Married the daughter of his neighbour Bernard Barton, the Quaker poet. Published in 1851 Euphranor, a Dialogue on Youth, in 1852 Polonius, and in the following year Six Dramas of Calderon, freely translated. His translations from Aeschylus and Sophocles appeared anonymously a good deal later, but in 1859 he published The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which, neglected at first, gradually secured a firm position, largely through the influence of Rossetti and some other men of letters who were greatly struck by the beauty and melody of the verse. Fitzgerald died in 1883. Several volumes of his letters were afterwards published by Mr. Aldis Wright, and a pleasant picture of him is preserved in Mr. F. H. Groomes Two Suffolk Friends.]
EDWARD FITZGERALD claims to be remembered on two special grounds. He was a man of many warm, even intense friendships, of which the record remains in more than one volume of delightful letters; and he was a translator whose renderings from other languages had in a marked degree many of the qualities of original poetry. He lived from 1809 to 1883, and among his intimate friends he counted many of the foremost men of letters of his time, Alfred and Frederic Tennyson, James Spedding the editor of Bacon, Thomas Carlyle, and W. M. Thackeray being the most prominent names among them. With these he corresponded freely, but he wrote as liberally to many others, such as Bernard Barton the Quaker poet, W. F. Pollock, W. H. Thompson, for many years Master of Trinity, E. B. Cowell the Oriental scholar, Aldis Wright the Shakespearian (who afterwards edited Fitzgeralds works), and, after 1870, the eminent Americans, J. R. Lowell and Charles Eliot Norton. The charm of his letters lies in the frank and natural view which they give of a many-sided life. Fitzgerald was far from being only a literary man. He lived for the most part in a remote part of Suffolk, chiefly in a cottage, though he was a considerable landowner; but during many years he spent most of the summer on board a little pleasure yacht, in which he would sail down to the English Channel, often venturing as far as Cornwall; and at home he read with avidity, bought books, and collected old pictures, sometimes Venetian and more often English, especially those of the Norwich school. On whatever books he read, he quickly formed an opinion, which he would express with a shrewd incisiveness that one cannot help admiring, however one may disagree. Greatly as he valued Tennyson, he could write (in 1842) Why reprint The Merman, The Mermaid, and those everlasting Eleanores, Isabels, which always were and are and must be a nuisance? Three years later, à propos of In Memoriam (as yet unpublished) he asks his friend W. B. Donne Dont you think the world wants other notes than elegiac now? After sharp criticism like this, it is not surprising to find him, thirty years later, seeing little merit in The Lovers Tale, Queen Mary, and such like; and yet his real opinion comes out in such passages as that in which, contrasting Tennyson with Browning (whom he never liked or appreciated), he declares that Alfred has stocked the English language with lines which once knowing one cannot forego. Dickens he adored, and at seventy years of age he cries I bless and rejoice in Dickens more and more, while of his old and intimate friend Thackeray he speaks in varying tones, now praising, and now not fearing to agree with those who thought Pendennis dull. Late in life he came to doubt the merits of George Borrow; he agreed with a friend who declared that Miss Brontë was a great Mistress of the Disagreeable; and he confessed that he had tried, and failed, to read The Life and Death of Jason. All through, his own special favourite among the English poets of what were then more or less recent years was George Crabbe, for whom he confessed to a monomania of admiration. It was certainly something of a paradox that he should assign so high a rank to this chronicler of quiet English life; for at the very same time he was zealously translating not only the Spanish dramatist Calderon but the Agamemnon of Aeschylus and the two greatest of the plays of Sophocles.
Fitzgeralds lack of literary ambition was for many years a matter of common talk among his friends; in point of fact he was nearly fifty before he began the work which has made him famous, and he was over seventy when the two Oedipus plays saw the light. It need hardly be said that by the work which made him famous we mean the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, the Astronomer-Poet of Persiaa twelfth-century bard who until Fitzgerald took him in hand had been almost forgotten by scholars, but who is now probably more widely known in the Western world than any other poet of Asia. Let us not forget that the man who taught Fitzgerald the Persian language and who led him to study Omar was his friend E. B. Cowell, who read with him at home, corresponded with him from India, and as Professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge kept his interest in Eastern literature alive until the end. The difficulties in the way of the translation were very great; there was at that time no printed version of the original poem, and the MSS. were inconsistent, imperfect, and often corrupt. This is the main reason for the curious discrepancies between Fitzgeralds first edition (1859) and those which followed, discrepancies so marked that Mr. Aldis Wright, in his Collected Writings of Fitzgerald, thought it desirable to print the two versions (ed. 1 and ed. 4) in extenso.
The passagesRubáiyát or Quatrainsquoted below are from the definitive edition; to print from an earlier version would have been to do violence to one of Fitzgeralds most positive rules, that a poets final edition is the best edition. The question whether the English Quartrains fairly represent the original has often been discussed, and Fitzgerald himself never claimed that they were in any way an exact rendering. Writing to Cowell, of the first version in 1858, he spoke of it as very unliteral; and Aldis Wright in an editorial note (1889) admits that Fitzgerald took great liberties with the original in his version of Omar Khayyám. That was his way; anybody can see it in his Oedipus and Agamemnon. The safeguard to those who, like the present writer, are ignorant of Persian is that Professor Cowell was at hand all the time, and we may be sure that in all essentials he kept the translator fairly to his task. Many Quartrains are mashed together, wrote Fitzgerald; but the result, say the scholars, is that Omars doctrine and Omars language are substantially reproduced. What that doctrine is, the reader will easily gather from the verses themselves. The poet, says his translator, is a lighter Shadow among the Shades over which Lucretius presides so grimly. He is a philosopher who has convinced himself that Man can unravel many a knot but not the master knot of Human Fate; that only one thing is certain, which is Death; that therefore Mans business is to live for the dayTo take the Cash and let the Credit go, to enjoy the beauty of the world and the pleasures of life while they are attainable. A vast amount of discussion has been carried on among scholars as to what Omar meant by the Grape and the Wine-Cup. Did he mean sensual delight, or are these names to disguise the Ideal, the Divine, such as the Sufi believes in? Fitzgerald himself would hardly answer, and where he hesitated we may be content to remain in doubt. Let us follow Omars example and enjoy what he offers usexquisite imagery and a haunting rhythm, to the religious mind most melancholy, but to every ear most musical.
Thackeray, starting for America in 1852, wrote most affectionately to his dearest old friend begging him to be literary executor should anything untoward happen on his travels. The great comfort I have in thinking about my dear old boy is the recollection of our youth when we loved each other as I do even when I write Farewell.
And Tennyson, it will be remembered, dedicated Tiresias to Old Fitz in words just as full of affection; and when the old friend died suddenly and tranquilly before the poem was published, wrote lines of tender benediction,