Edward FitzGerald (poet)

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Edward FitzGerald
Edward FitzGerald
Edward FitzGerald
Born(1809-03-31)31 March 1809
Bredfield House, Bredfield, Woodbridge, Suffolk, England, UK
Died14 June 1883(1883-06-14) (aged 74)
Merton, Norfolk, England, UK
OccupationPoet, writer
Notable worksEnglish translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam


Edward FitzGerald (31 March 1809 – 14 June 1883) was an English poet and writer, best known as the poet of the first and most famous English translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The writing of his name as both FitzGerald and Fitzgerald is seen; the use here of FitzGerald conforms to that of his own publications, anthologies such as Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book of English Verse, and most reference books up until about the 1960s.


Edward FitzGerald was born Edward Purcell at Bredfield House in Bredfield, around 2 miles north of Woodbridge, Suffolk, England, in 1809. In 1818, his father, John Purcell, assumed the name and arms of his wife's family, the FitzGeralds.[1]

This name change occurred shortly after FitzGerald's mother inherited her second fortune, she had previously inherited over half a million pounds from an aunt, but in 1818, her father died and left her considerably more than that. The FitzGeralds were one of the wealthiest families in England. Edward FitzGerald later commented that all of his relatives were mad; further, that he was insane as well, but was at least aware of the fact.[2]

In 1816, the family moved to France, and lived in St Germain as well as Paris, but in 1818, after the aforementioned death of his maternal grandfather, the family had to return to England. In 1821, Edward was sent to school at Bury St Edmunds. In 1826, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge,[3] he became acquainted with William Makepeace Thackeray and William Hepworth Thompson.[1] Though he had many friends who were members of the Cambridge Apostles, most notably Alfred Tennyson, FitzGerald himself was never offered an invitation to this famous group.[citation needed] In 1830, FitzGerald left for Paris, but in 1831 was living in a farmhouse on the battlefield of Naseby.[1]

Needing no employment, FitzGerald moved to his native Suffolk where he lived quietly, never leaving the county for more than a week or two while he resided there; until 1835, the FitzGeralds lived in Wherstead; from that year until 1853 the poet resided in a cottage in the grounds of Boulge Hall, near Woodbridge to which his parents had moved. In 1860, he again moved with his family to Farlingay Hall, where they stayed until, in 1873, they moved to the town of Woodbridge; thereafter until his death, FitzGerald resided at his own house close by, called Little Grange. During most of this time, FitzGerald was preoccupied with flowers, music, and literature. Friends like Tennyson and Thackeray had surpassed him in the field of literature, and for a long time FitzGerald showed no intention of emulating their literary success. In 1851, he published his first book, Euphranor, a Platonic dialogue, born of memories of the old happy life in Cambridge; this was followed in 1852 by the publication of 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, followed by Persian literature at the University of Oxford with Professor Edward Byles Cowell in 1853.[1]

He married Lucy, the daughter of the Quaker poet Bernard Barton in Chichester on 4 November 1856, following a death bed promise to Bernard made in 1849 to look after her; the marriage was evidently unhappy, for the couple separated after only a few months,[4] despite having known each other for many years, including collaborating on a book about her father's works in 1849.

Early literary work[edit]

In 1853, FitzGerald issued Six Dramas of Calderon, freely translated,[4] he now turned to Oriental studies, and in 1856 he anonymously published a version of the Sálamán and Absál of Jami 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 Khayyam ring like true metal." On 15 January 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.[1]

Gravesite of Edward FitzGerald

But in 1861, Rossetti discovered it, and Swinburne and Lord Houghton quickly followed; the Rubaiyat slowly became famous, but it was not until 1868 that FitzGerald was encouraged to print a second and greatly revised edition. He had produced in 1865 a version of the Agamemnon, and two more plays from Calderón. In 1880–1881, he privately issued translations of the two Oedipus tragedies; his last publication was Readings in Crabbe, 1882, he left in manuscript a version of Attar of Nishapur's Mantic-Uttair.[1] This last translation FitzGerald called "A Bird's-Eye view of the Bird Parliament", whittling the Persian original (some 4500 lines) down to a much more manageable 1500 lines in English; some have called this translation a virtually unknown masterpiece.[5]

From 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 his summers "knocking about somewhere outside of Lowestoft." He died in his sleep in 1883, and was buried at Boulge. He was, in his own words, "an idle fellow, but one whose friendships were more like loves." In 1885 his fame was increased by Tennyson's dedication of his Tiresias to FitzGerald's memory, in some reminiscent verses to "Old Fitz."[1]

Personal life[edit]

Little was known of FitzGerald personally until his close friend and literary executor W. Aldis Wright, published his three-volume Letters and Literary Remains in 1889 and the Letters to Fanny Kemble in 1895. These letters reveal that FitzGerald was a witty, picturesque, and sympathetic letter-writer;[6] the late nineteenth century English novelist George Gissing certainly found them interesting enough to read the three volume collection, which included some of Fitzgerald's letters to Fanny Kemble, twice, in 1890 and 1896. Gissing also read the 1895 volume of letters in December of that year.[7] FitzGerald was unobtrusive personally but by the force of his distinctive individuality gradually influenced English belles-lettres broadly in the 1890s.[8]

FitzGerald's emotional life was complex, he was extremely close to many of his friends; amongst them was William Browne, who was sixteen when they met. Browne's tragic early death in a horse riding accident was a major catastrophe for FitzGerald. Later, FitzGerald became close to a fisherman named Joseph Fletcher, with whom he had bought a herring boat.[4]

FitzGerald grew more and more disenchanted with Christianity, and eventually ceased to attend church;[9] this drew the attention of the local pastor, who stopped by. Reportedly, FitzGerald told the pastor that his decision to absent himself from church services was the fruit of long and hard meditation; when the pastor protested, FitzGerald showed him to the door, and said, "Sir, you might have conceived that a man does not come to my years of life without thinking much of these things. I believe I may say that I have reflected [on] them fully as much as yourself. You need not repeat this visit."[9]

The 1908 book Edward Fitzgerald and "Posh": Herring Merchants (Including letters from E. Fitzgerald to J. Fletcher) recounts the friendship of Fitzgerald with Joseph Fletcher (born June 1838), nicknamed "Posh", who was still living when James Blyth started researching for the book.[10] Posh is also often present in Fitzgerald's letters. Documentary data about the Fitzgerald-Posh partnership are available at the Port of Lowestoft Research Society. Posh died at Mutford Union Workshouse, near Lowestoft, on September 7, 1915, at the age of 76.[11]

FitzGerald was a lifelong agnostic, he was described as "almost vegetarian", as he only ate meat in other people's houses.[12] His biographer Thomas Wright noted that "though never a strict vegetarian, his diet was mainly bread and fruit."[13]

Rubáiyát of Khayyám[edit]

Beginning in 1859, FitzGerald authorized four editions (1859, 1868, 1872, 1879) and had a fifth posthumous edition (1889) of his translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (Persian: رباعیات عمر خیام‎), of which three (the first, second, and fifth) differ significantly; the second and third are almost identical, as are the fourth and fifth. The first and fifth editions are almost equally reprinted[14][15] and equally often anthologized.[16]

A 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!

Title page from the first American edition of FitzGerald's translation, 1878

Stanza XI above, from the fifth edition, differs from the corresponding stanza in the first edition, wherein it reads: "Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the bough/A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou". Other differences are discernible. Stanza XLIX is more well known in its incarnation in the first edition (1859):

'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

The fifth edition (1889) of stanza LXIX, with different numbering, is less familiar: "But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays/Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;/Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,/And one by one back in the Closet lays."

FitzGerald's translation of the Rubáiyát is notable for being a work to which allusions are both frequent and ubiquitous,[8] it remains popular, but enjoyed its greatest popularity for a century following its publication, wherein it formed part of the wider English literary canon.[8]

One indicator of the popular status of the Rubáiyát is that, of the 101 stanzas in the poem's 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. Stanza LI, also well-known, runs:

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

Lines and phrases from the poem have been used as the titles of many literary works, amongst them Nevil Shute's The Chequer Board, James Michener's The Fires of Spring and Agatha Christie's The Moving Finger; Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness alludes to the Rubáiyát without being a direct quotation. Allusions to it are frequent in the short stories of O. Henry;[17] Saki's nom-de-plume makes reference to it; the popular 1925 song A Cup of Coffee, A Sandwich, and You, by Billy Rose and Al Dubin, makes reference to the first of the stanzas quoted above.


FitzGerald's translations were popular in the century of their publication, and since its publication humourists have used it for purposes of parody.[8]

  • The Rubáiyát of Ohow Dryyam by J. L. Duff utilises the original to create a satire commenting on Prohibition.
  • Rubaiyat of a Persian Kitten by Oliver Herford, published in 1904, is the illustrated story of a kitten in parody of the original verses.
  • The Rubaiyat of Omar Cayenne by Gelett Burgess (1866–1951) was a condemnation of the writing and publishing business.
  • The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Jr. by Wallace Irwin purports to be a translation from "Mango-Bornese"; it chronicles the adventures of Omar Khayyam's son "Omar Junior" – unmentioned in the original – who emigrated from Persia to Borneo.
  • Astrophysicist Arthur Eddington wrote a parody about his famous 1919 experiment to test Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity by observing a solar eclipse.
  • The new Rubaiyat : Omar Khayyam reincarnated by "Ame Perdue" (pen name of W.J. Carroll) Published in Melbourne 1943. Revisits the plaints of the original text with references to modern science, technology and industry.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainGosse, Edmund (1911). "FitzGerald, Edward". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. 10 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 443.
  2. ^ Caufield, Catherine (1981). The Emperor of the United States and other magnificent British eccentrics. Routledge and Kegan Paul. p. 86. ISBN 0-7100-0957-7.
  3. ^ "Fitzgerald, Edward (FTST826E)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  4. ^ a b c "Edward Fitzgerald", PoemHunter
  5. ^ Briggs, A.D.P. (1998). The Rubaiyat and the Bird Parliament. Everyman's Poetry.
  6. ^ Sendry, Joseph (1984) "Edward FitzGerald" pp. 121–122 In Fredeman, William E. and Nadel, Ira B. (editors) (1984) Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 32: Victorian Poets Before 1850 Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, pp. 118–132, ISBN 0-8103-1710-9
  7. ^ Coustillas, Pierre ed. London and the Life of Literature in Late Victorian England: the Diary of George Gissing, Novelist. Brighton: Harvester Press, 1978, pp.232, 396, 413 and 415.
  8. ^ a b c d Staff (10 April 1909) "Two Centenaries" New York Times: Saturday Review of Books p. BR-220
  9. ^ a b Plomer, William (1978). Electric Delights. David R. Godine. p. 89. ISBN 0-87923-248-X.
  10. ^ Blyth, James (1908). Edward Fitzgerald and 'Posh', 'herring merchants' Including letters from E. Fitzgerald to J. Fletcher. Retrieved 27 December 2017.
  11. ^ Fitzgerald, Edward (2014). The Letters of Edward Fitzgerald, Volume 3: 1867-1876. Princeton University Press. p. 194. Retrieved 27 December 2017.
  12. ^ "An Old Man in a Dry Month": a Brief Life of Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883)". The Victorian Web.
  13. ^ Wright, Thomas. (1904). The Life of Edward Fitzgerald. New York. p. 116
  14. ^ Decker, Christopher (editor) (1997) "Introduction: Postscript" Edward FitzGerald, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: a critical edition University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, page xlv, ISBN 0-8139-1689-5
  15. ^ Appelbaum, Stanley (editor) (1990) "Note" Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Dover Publications, Mineola, New York, back cover, ISBN 0-486-26467-X
  16. ^ Manchester, Frederick A. and Giese, William F. (editors)(1926) Harper's anthology for college courses in composition and literature Harper & Brothers, New York, volume 2, page 685, OCLC 1743706 Worldcat.org
  17. ^ Blake, Victoria (editor) (1993) "Notes" Selected Stories of O. Henry Barnes & Noble Books, New York, pages 404 & 418, ISBN 1-59308-042-5

Bibliography, biographies[edit]

  • 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. vL), published separately in 1901.
  • Letters and Literary Remains (ed. W. Aldis Wright, 1902–1903).
  • 'Letters to Fanny Kemble' (ed. William Aldis Wright)
  • 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 25 March 1909.
  • Today, the major source is Robert Bernard Martin's biography, With Friends Possessed: A Life of Edward Fitzgerald.
  • A comprehensive four-volume collection of The Letters of Edward FitzGerald, edited by Syracuse University English professor Alfred M. Terhune, was published in 1980.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]