The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

V. The Rossettis, William Morris, Swinburne, and Others

§ 14. Edward FitzGerald

As one who found the freest current for his delicate and impressionable genius in the translation and adaptation of the works of others, Edward FitzGerald stands as far aloof from the ordinary activities of the literature of his day as his life was remote from that of the world in general. He was the third son of John Purcell, of Bredfield hall, Suffolk, where he was born on 31 March, 1809. When, in 1818, Mrs. Purcell’s father died, the family assumed his name and arms. At king Edward VI’s school at Bury St. Edmunds, which he entered in 1821, Edward FitzGerald was a contemporary of James Spedding, John Mitchell Kemble and William Bodham Donne. The friendships thus begun were continued at Cambridge, and afterwards. For Spedding’s scholarship, FitzGerald cherished an affectionate admiration, with some regret at its devotion to a purpose with which he had no sympathy, and the series of letters to Fanny Kemble, the last of which was written less than three weeks before his death, recalls his friendship with her brother. He entered Trinity college, Cambridge, in February, 1826. Tennyson did not come up till 1828, and does not appear to have met the “Old Fitz,” addressed, many years later, in the proem to Tiresias, until they both had left Cambridge; but, of Tennyson’s immediate contemporaries, Thackeray, W. H. Thompson and John Allen, afterwards archdeacon of Salop, were among FitzGerald’s intimates at Trinity. He took an ordinary degree in 1830. After a short visit to Paris, where he had already spent some time with his family in his early boyhood, he returned to England and gradually settled down to a quiet life in his native county, which, with the course of years, became practically that of a recluse. Its uneventful story of commerce with books, varied by an occasional visit from a friend, brief journeys to London, becoming rarer and more distateful as time went on, and boating expeditions on the estuary of the Deben, is told in his letters, a series extending over fifty-one years and remarkable for their naturalness of style, vivacious humour and keen literary criticism, strongly tinged with the individual prejudices of an independent student unswayed by public opinion. He made his home, first at Boulge near Woodbridge, and afterwards at Woodbridge itself. Woodbridge was also the home of Bernard Barton, the friend of Charles Lamb; after Barton’s death in 1849, FitzGerald married his daughter and aided her in the publication of a selection from Barton’s poems, writing a short biography which forms its preface. Out of a correspondence upon the topography of the battle-field of Naseby, where FitzGerald’s father owned property, arose a friendship with Carlyle, while among men of letters with whom he exchanged views in later life were Lowell and Charles Eliot Norton. He died on 14 June, 1883, at Bredfield rectory near Woodbridge, while on a visit to George Crabbe, the grandson of a poet for whose memory FitzGerald’s devotion was expressed in his Readings from Crabbe, compiled in 1879.

Of work which was entirely original, FitzGerald left little. The charming verses, written at Naseby in the spring of 1831 under the influence of “the merry old writers of more manly times,” and printed in Hone’s Year-Book under the title The Meadows in Spring, were thought, at their first appearance, to be the work of Charles Lamb and were welcomed by their supposed author with good-humoured envy. Diffidence of his own powers and slowness in composition prevented FitzGerald from rapid publication. It was not until 1851 that the dialogue Euphranor appeared, a discourse upon youth and systems of education set in the scenery of Cambridge, amid the early summer flowering of college gardens and “the measured pulse of racing oars.” Its limpid transparency of style was not achieved without an effort: in 1846, when FitzGerald was writing it, he alluded to his difficulties with the task in a letter to his friend Edward Cowell, and its ease and clearness, like those of Tennyson’s poetry, appear to have been the fruit of constant polish and revision. This was followed in 1852 by Polonius, a collection of aphorisms, “wise saws and modern instances,” with a humorously apologetic preface. Meanwhile, probably some years before the publication of Euphranor, he had been attracted to Spanish literature, in which Cowell, a master of many languages, gave him some assistance. In 1853, he published Six Dramas of Calderon, free translations in blank verse and prose in which he endeavoured, by methods fully explained in his preface, to reproduce the substance of the selected plays, while suppressing such details as seemed otiose or foreign to English thought. Following the general course of Calderon’s plots and selecting the essential points in his dialogue with much skill, he had no hesitation in diverging, especially where he was tempted by soliloquies, from the text and in altering portions of the action to suit his own taste. One has only to compare the soliloquy of Don Juan Roca in The Painter of his own Dishonour at the sight of the sleeping Serafina with the original passage to see how the mental argument in Calderon, with its direct summary of the facts of the situation, is transmuted by FitzGerald, with added imagery, into language of indirect reflection and allusion, in which such facts are taken for granted without reference. Although he had little taste for the elder English dramatists, apart from Shakespeare, his verse, always lucid and free from the turbidity in which their style was frequently involved, has much of the flow, the tendency to hendecasyllabic lines and the fondness for radiant and brightly coloured simile and metaphor characteristic of Beaumont, Fletcher and Massinger. Such qualities made FitzGerald’s translations eminently readable for their own sake. In spite of their cold reception by critics who preferred something more literal, he was able to write in 1857, “I find people like that Calderon book”; and, about 1858, he began translations of the two most famous of Calderon’s dramas. Such Stuff as Dreams are Made of and The Mighty Magician bear only a general resemblance to their original. FitzGerald regarded Calderon as too closely tied to the conventional requirements of the Spanish stage; the machinery which bound the main and secondary plots together, provided theatrical situations and introduced the inevitable gracioso with his antics and proverbial or anecdotal philosophy, creaked too audibly to please him. Therefore, he confined himself to the main story of both plays, heightening or tempering the situations as suited his taste, reducing the part of the gracioso in one case and practically eliminating it in the other. He justly considered that there was “really very great Skill in the Adaptation, and Remodelling of.” The Mighty Magician: the part of Lucifer, Calderon’s Demonio, is, on the whole, more effective than in the original, where, at any rate to an English reader, it is somewhat lacking in imaginative power, and for the frigid, if forcible, dialectic of the scene in which Cipriano uses the tempter’s art against him and extorts his admission of the superior power of the Dios de los cristianos, FitzGerald substituted a more impassioned dialogue rising to a more dramatic climax. Similarly, in such Stuff as Dreams are Made of, the contrast between the philosophic and brutal elements in the character of Segismundo is softened so as to give more consistency to his bewilderment amid his sudden changes of fortune, and to lead up to the climax with a greater show of probability; but it was the extreme of licence to transfer the famous soliloquy at the end of the second act of La Vida es Sueño from Segismundo to his gaoler and to depress it to a less prominent position in the play.

The Agamemnon of Aeschylus and the two Oedipus tragedies of Sophocles were also adapted for English readers by FitzGerald with considerable freedom. Oedipus at Thebes and Oedipus at Athens were works of the last years of his life, and he was content to supply the choruses from Potter’s translation. But the work which has given his name its most enduring celebrity was the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, of which the first edition appeared in 1859. The stimulating influence of Cowell led him to take an interest in Persian poetry. In 1855, he began his version of the Salámán and Absál of Jámí, the first poem which he read in the original, and, in 1862, he completed A Bird’s-eye View of Faríd-Uddín Attar’s Bird-Parliament. These, however, were mere experiments. With the detached quatrains of Omar Khayyám, each a poem in itself linked to the rest by community of thought and subject, he felt a closer sympathy. During a visit to Bedfordshire in May, 1857, he read over Omar “in a Paddock covered with Butterflies and brushed by a delicious Breeze, while a dainty racing Filly of W. Browne’s came startling up to wonder and snuff” about him, as he turned quatrains into medieval Latin rimes and found his author, one of the “lighter Shadows among the Shades, perhaps, over which Lucretius presides so grimly,” breathe “a sort of Consolation” to him. The result of these ruminations was an English poem of seventy-five quatrains founded upon the selection and combination of rubáiyát; reproducing the form of the original but weaving its isolated pieces into a continuous train of thought. A new edition, in 1868, in which the stanzas were increased to 110, completely remodelled the poem of 1859, to the disadvantage of the bold imagery of the opening quatrain, but, in other respects, with great felicity; and this, after further but less drastic alterations, which rearranged and reduced the stanzas to 101, formed the basis of the later editions of 1872 and 1879. A comparison of FitzGerald’s poem with earlier and later translations of Omar into more literal prose and verse proves the extreme freedom with which he handled his original, transferring thoughts and images from their actual context to clothe them in a dress which is entirely his own. At the same time, his main object, as in the case of Calderon, was to present, in a connected form intelligible to English minds, the characteristics of Omar’s thought, his pondering upon life and death, the eternal mysteries of the whence, why and whither of man and the influence of external and irresponsible power upon him, and his resort to the pleasures of the moment as a refuge from the problem. He did not shirk the freer speculations of his author: “I do not wish to show Hamlet at his maddest: but mad he must be shown, or he is no Hamlet at all.” Characteristically avoiding audacious expressions which have been regarded by some students of Omar as the esoteric utterances of an ultra-refined mysticism, he gave a turn to the culminating stanza preceding the coda of the piece, the appeal to heaven to take, as well as give, man’s forgiveness,

  • For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
  • Is blacken’d,
  • which suggests an impiety undiscovered by other translators, but not out of keeping with the tone of some of the numerous rubáiyát omitted by him. FitzGerald habitually concealed his own thoughts on the mysteries which perplexed Omar; and the warmth of religious enthusiasm which he infused into the somewhat formal atmosphere of El Magico Prodigioso might, considering its gratuitous copiousness, quite as reasonably as a single stanza of his Rubáiyát, be taken to express his convictions. Apart from the question of its contents, the singular beauty and perfection of phrase in the Rubáiyát and the dignity and melodiousness of its rhythm have earned it a permanent place among the masterpieces of English lyric poetry. Its stanza was a novelty which others, like Swinburne in his Laus Veneris, were not slow to borrow. It is not FitzGerald’s only claim to eminence, for Euphranor and the translations from Calderon, to say nothing of his letters, must always appeal to those who love polished simplicity of style. But, in this one instance, his genius, which needed external literary stimulus for complete expression, responded so naturally to the call as to clothe its original in a form attractive not merely to the connoisseur in style but to all who recognise the true relation of poetry to human life.