v 6.10.00
20 Jun 2020
updated 9 Aug 2020



EDWARD FITZGERALD sleeps in the quiet Suffolk churchyard of Boulge. The recumbent tomb is surmounted by a cross fleury and at the head of the grave is a rose tree transplanted from the last resting place of Omar Khayyám at Naishapur. "The Rose," says Sir William Thistleton-Dyer, the great botanist, "is one of the most ancient and gracious gifts of the East to the West. It was my good fortune to succeed in the transferring a primitive but fragrant and authentic strain from the distant grave of one poet to that of the other."

And it was Edward Fitzgerald's high genius and good fortune to transfer a fragrant and authentic strain of primitive poetry from the East to the West by his version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám. This was not his only service to English literature, but it was his greatest. It is curious to think that Fitzgerald's "Omar" reached fame almost by accident. The book was unsaleable and had reached the "penny box" when it attracted the notice of Dante Rossetti. Rossetti's discerning eye saw the beauty of the Rose which the Philistines had passed by in silence or in scorn, and a new and brilliant flower was thus added to the bright garden of English poetry.

Fitzgerald's life was passed "far from the madding crowd," though he was neither misanthrope nor ascetic. He was the son of John Purcell Fitzgerald, of 39 Portland Place, London; of Boulge Hall, Woodbridge; of Naseby, North Hants; of Little Island, Waterford, and of Castle Irwell, Manchester. The father was the son of Dr. John Purcell, of Dublin, and had married his first cousin, whose surname he adopted. The ancestry was remarkable for its union of opposites, for Edward Fitzgerald could claim descent from Cromwell on the one side and from the race of the Geraldines, Earls of Kildare, on the other. His mother was a woman of Juno-like beauty and violent temper, inspiring awe rather than affection in her children, so that they were not much comforted by her visit to the nursery. Their religious teaching came from her, for the village parson at Bradfield was one who put his hat and whip on the communion table and raced through the prayers and the borrowed sermon in his anxiety for an invitation to dine at the Hall. The elder Fitzgerald was wealthy; he served the office of High Sheriff of the county; he was a member of the unreformed House of Commons; he hunted and shot and lived the ordinary life of a country gentleman. He had no business faculty, but he had business ambition, and he lost heavily in endeavoring to develop the coal mines on his Manchester estate.

Edward was the seventh child and third son of a family of eight. In his childhood he paid several visits to Paris with his father and visited the London theatres with his mother, who was a friend of the Kembles. After some experience at a private school at Woodbridge he was sent at the age of twelve to King Edward the Sixth's school at Bury St. Edmunds, and from thence went to Cambridge in 1826. He was an undergraduate of Trinity College, where he had some fellow students who became famous. Chief among these were Thackeray and Frederick Dennison Maurice. Fitzgerald was not a hard student in the technical sense, as his reading, although wide, was unsystematic and regulated more by his personal tastes than by the requirements of the schools. He took his degree in 1830, but adopted no profession. His father's affairs got into a financial tangle from his experiments in coal mining, and resulted in a huge bankruptcy in 1848. One of the witnesses was Edward Fitzgerald, who had his father's bond for £10,000 for cash obtained out of a reversionary interest. This was a test case which involved claims by other members of the family to the extent of £80,000. How the shy Fitzgerald sustained the ordeal of examination is not recorded. The bankrupt received his discharge in 1849 and died in 1852.

These financial troubles of the father, however temporarily annoying, did not perma- nently affect Edward's future. Notwithstanding his father's losses there was still Settled property and he never had to struggle with real poverty, but was at liberty to follow the bent of his inclination for the existence of an unconventional student of literature and life. His brother John became the owner of Castle Irwell and was an able but eccentric lay preacher. "We are all mad," Edward once said of his family, "but with this difference—I know that I am." John regarded horse-racing and its inevitable connection with gambling as unchristian, and he sacrificed £40,000 rather than renew the lease of a race-course on the Castle Irwell estate.

Edward Fitzgerald was staying there in 1833. The house stood upon a rock of red sandstone on the east side of the river Irwell. The house was a picturesque place, which has since been pulled down to make room for a race-course. He was again there in 1835. Here we find him reading Bacon's Essays, Dante, Milton, and Wordsworth. He was also reading Basil Montague's book containing selection from the writing of Barrow, South, Jeremy Taylor, and other theologians of the reign of Charles I. This is fairly characteristic of Fitzgerald's discursive reading. He wrote some verses of delicate beauty, some fine prose in "Euphranor" and translations from Aeschylus and Sophocles, from Calderon, from Jami, from Attar, and from Omar.

These works may be all mentioned together as practical examples of the poet's theory of the transference of a work of literature from one language to another. He never professed to be a literal translator but aimed at giving to the English reader the same impression of Calderon, for example, that an educated Spaniard would receive from reading the original. This method reaches its fullest and finest expression in his version of Omar Khayyám.

The greater part of Fitzgerald's life was spent in Suffolk. His marriage with Lucy, the daughter of Bernard Barton, in November, 1856, was soon recognized as a mistake, and after six months of life together they separated on the simple ground of a complete incompatibility of temperament. He lived for many years in a cottage near the gate of an ancestral hall, and for many years in rooms above a shop at Lowestoft.

Fitzgerald became a vegetarian in 1833 and remained so in principle, and mainly in practice also, to the end of his life. In the early experimental stage he writes to his friend, W. B. Donne:

"I am still determined to give the diet I have proposed a good trial: a year's trial. I agree with you about vegetables and soup : but my diet is chiefly bread: which is only a little less nourishing than flesh: and, being compact, and baked and dry, has none of the washy, diluent effects of green vegetables. I scarcely ever touch the latter, but only peas, apples, etc. I have found no benefit yet, except, as I think, in more lightness of spirit: which is a great good."

In another letter to Donne, November 19, 1833, he writes:

"The book is a good one, I think, as any book is, that notes down facts alone, especially about health. I wish we had diaries of the lives of half the unknown men that have lived.

"Like all other men who have got a theory into their heads, I can only see things in the light of that theory; and whatever is brought to me to convince me to the contrary, is only wrought and tortured to my view by the question. This lasts till a reaction is brought about by some other means; as time and live of novelty, etc. I am still very obstinate, and persist in my practices. I do not think Stark is an instance of vegetable diet: consider how many things he tried grossly animal: lard, butter and fat: besides thwarting Nature in every way by eating what he wanted not to eat, and the contrary. Besides, the editor says in his preface, that he thinks his death was brought about as much by vexation as by the course of his diet: but I suppose the truth is that vexation could not have such strong hold except upon a weakened body. However, altogether I do not admit Stark to be any instance: to be set up like a scarecrow to frighten us from the corn, etc. Last night I went to hear a man lecture at Owen of Lanark's establishment (where I had never been before), and the subject happened to be about vegetable diet: but it was only the termination of a former lecture, so I suppose all the good arguments, (if there were any) had gone before.

"Do you know anything of a book by a Dr. Lamb on this subject? I do not feel it to be disgusting to talk of myself on this subject, because I think there is a great deal of interest in the subject itself, so I shall say that I am just now very well; in fine spirits. I have only eaten meat once for many weeks: and that was at a party where I did not like to be singled out. Neither have I tasted wine, except two or three times. If I fail at last I shall think it a very great bore: but assuredly the first cut of a leg of mutton will be some consolation for my wounded judgment: that first cut is a fine thing. So much for this..."

Dr. William Stark was not at all an advocate of vegetarianism, but a young surgeon who had made a remarkable series of dietetic experiments upon himself and carefully noted down the physical results in his own case. His death at the age of twenty-nine may have been the result of some injudicious experiments, or may possibly have been due to hereditary influences. Stark, while not a vegetarian, knew something of the subject. He mentions that Dr. Franklin told him of living a fortnight on twenty pounds of bread and water and of being stout and healthy on this diet. Franklin also told him that he knew a gentleman who, having been taken by the Barbary corsairs, was employed to work in the quarries, and that the only food allowed him was barley, a certain quantity of which was put into his pocket every morning; water he found at the place of labor; his practice was to eat a little now and then while at work, and having remained many years in slavery, he had acquired so far the habit of eating frequently and little at a time, that when he returned home his only food was ginger-bread nuts, which he carried in his pockets and of which he ate from time to time." *

[* Professor J. E. B. Mayor reminds me of the statement that Dr. John Barwick owed his recovery from consumption to his spare diet, in prison. (See the English edition of the life of his brother, Peter Barwick, pp. 126-131.) There is a similar instance of a Spanish prelate who gained by his incarceration.]

Mr. Thomas Wright, in his biography of Fitzgerald, gives a facsimile of a page of memoranda relating to the poet's study of the question of diet. The authorities he consulted or intended to consult were certainly varied. The books, by Moffett, Cheyne, Falconer, Arbuthnot, Tryon and Mackenzie, deal mainly with hygienic consideration. This also would be his interest in the "Account of La Trappe," where the monks live under a rigid rule of abstinence from flesh meat. The "Life of Pythagoras," Mitard’s "Account of a Savage Man," Mandeville's "Fable of the Bees," and Oswald’s "Cry of Nature" may be bracketed as philosophical. Fitzgerald has also a reference to John Williamson, of Moffatt, who discovered the chalybeate spring at that place, and who died in 1768 or 1769, aged upward of 90—a vegetarian on humanitarian grounds, and when over 80 described as "still a tall, robust and rather corpulent man." Like Fitzgerald, he had a taste for music; disliked kirk psalms, and composed philosophical hymns to such tunes as "The Flowers of the Forest," and "Lochaber no more." A gruesome incident he found in the "Annual Register" for 1777. Sam Thorley, a half-witted man who earned his living and odd jobs at the Congleton slaughter-house, murdered Ann Smith, a ballad singer, 22 years old, and mutilated her body, November 20, 1776, and took home what was described as "an apron-full of pork." This he had boiled and ate some of it. These remains were identified on medical examination as human flesh. Thorley, who was probably not sufficiently sane to be really responsible for his actions, was hung and gibbeted at Boughton, near Chester.

Another of Fitzgerald's references is to Loureiro, a distinguished Portuguese man of science whose observations on cannibalism were translated for the Philosophical Journal (iv. 265). The "inducements" he classified, first, as "extreme hunger," as in the case of famine. Some of those who thus became cannibals retain a passion for human flesh; a maid servant of his in India was rescued from a woman who had first tasted a human corpse during a famine. This acquired appetite he classes as the second; the third is that named by Herodotus, where the dead were eaten to do honor to them. The fourth is hatred and revenge. In Cochin China when a rebel was executed, the loyal subjects, and especially the king's officials, were expected to cut off and devour a small piece of the traitor. Of these various "inducements" he gives some curious particulars.

Fitzgerald, although he read critically, was convinced, and after a year's experiment was satisfied that the reformed diet was the best, but it is recorded that he took flesh-meat at a party because he "did not like to be singled out." He does not seem to have considered the ethical side at all. "Life through," says Mr. Thomas Wright, "though never a strict vegetarian, his diet was mainly bread and fruit."

Another biographer, Mr. A. C. Benson, says: "In the early days of Fitzgerald's eremitical life he made experiments in diet, and gradually settled down into vegetarianism. He felt at first a loss of physical power, and he believed he gained in lightness of spirit. He lived practically on bread and fruit, mostly apples and pears—even a turnip— with sometimes cheese or butter, and milk puddings. But he was not a bigoted vegetarian. To avoid an appearance of singularity he would eat (flesh) meat at other houses, and provided it in plenty for his guests. But the only social meal he cared to join in was "tea, pure and simple, with bread and butter." He was abstemious, but not a tee-totaller; and was a moderate smoker, using clean, clay pipes, which he broke in pieces when he had smoked them once. Like all solitary men, he got more and more attached to his own habits, and it became every year more difficult for him to conform to any other mode of life."

To this we may add Fitzgerald's own emphatic testimony when writing to his friend Archdeacon John Allen:

"I occasionally read sentences about the virtues of this collection of Stobaeus, and look into ‘Sartor Resartus," which has fine things in it: and a little Dante, and a little Shakespeare. But the great secret of all is the not eating meat. To that the world must come, I am sure. Only it makes one grass-hopper foolish."

He makes an occasional jocular reference, as when he observes to Frederic Tennyson, October 10, 1844: -

"I say, we shall see you over in England before long: for I rather think you want an Englishman to quarrel with sometimes. I mean quarrel in the sense of a good strenuous difference of opinion, supported on either side by occasional outbursts of spleen. Come and let us try. You used to irritate my vegetable blood sometimes."

Fitzgerald had a talent, perhaps a genius, for friendship, which in the case of the fisherman, Posh, was pushed beyond the limits of wisdom. He was a true friend in the dismal days that saw the wreck of Thackeray's happy married life, "and shared his troubles with a liberal heart." His friendships with William Bodham Donne, with E. B. Cowell, with William Aldis Wright, with Thomas Carlyle, are historic. Pleasant glimpses of his friends shine through his letters. Thus he tells us that he and Tennyson were once looking at figures of Dante and Goethe, in a shop in Regent Street. "What is there in old Dante's face that is missing in Goethe's?" asked Fitzgerald. Tennyson's answer was, "The Divine." And Fitzgerald notes that in his profile, Tennyson had then a remarkable resemblance to the great Florentine. Fitzgerald's friendships did not warp the individuality of his judgments, and his affection for Tennyson did not hinder him from thinking and saying that all the poet's verses after 1842 had been better unwritten and unsung.

Tennyson has left us a pleasant picture of "Old Fitz":

Whom yet I see as there you sit Beneath your sheltering garden-tree, And while your doves around you flit, And plant on shoulder, hand and knee, Or on your head their rosy feet, As if they knew your diet spares Whatever moved in that full sheet, Set down to Peter at his prayers.

This may remind some of the mediaeval "Legend of good St. Cuthlac." Tennyson, incited by Fitzgerald's example, tried the "table of Pythagoras" for "ten long weeks," and then relinquished vegetarianism. Perhaps we may find an explanation of his failure in the remarkable bill of fare, "milk and meal and grass," set forth in the poem already quoted. "Milk and meal and—grass"! Even poetic license and the exigencies of rhyme will not justify this as a description of vegetarian diet, either of ancient or modern days. Tennyson inscribed his "Tiresias" to Fitzgerald, but he died before its publication.

Fitzgerald was a true and helpful friend, but not all men could enter the magic enclosure. George Borrow knew Fitzgerald, who lent him Persian manuscripts, but there was never any warm sentiment between them. Fitzgerald regarded "Lavengro's" translation without admiration—a lack of appreciation which is shared by the present writer to the full. He has great qualities as a prose-writer, but his verse translations are for the most part lifeless, and even when they are correct to the letter they fail as to the spirit. In this they are the antipodes of Fitzgerald's versions, who does not bind himself to a literal rendering of Omar Khayyám but puts together various passages, omitting and adding, abridging and amplifying, and aiming not at a word for word fidelity but at distilling from the Persian's poem the very quintessence of its beauty and perfume. For men having many interests in common it would be difficult to find two more distant spiritually and intellectually than George Borrow and Edward Fitzgerald.

The secret of Fitzgerald's style is that of condensation and concentration. His quatrains are a selection and still more a quintessence of Omar Khayyám. If those long years of recluse meditation on the here and hereafter, on the mysteries of life and death, on the meanness and glory of humanity, had not brought a solution of the problems, they had brought at least a frank acceptance of that which is and of that which is to be.

The passion for condensation, for the rejection of the redundant, and for the perfection of the essential is seen in many passages of Fitzgerald's life and work. "It seems to me strange," Fitzgerald writes to Professor Norton, "that ———, ———, and ––– should go on pouring out poem after poem, as if such haste could prosper with any but first-rate men; and I suppose they hardly reckon themselves with the very First. I feel sure that Gray's ‘Elegy,’ pieced and patched together so laboriously, by a Man of almost as little genius as abundant Taste, will outlive all these hasty Abortions." But his critical sense was not quite satisfied even with the carven beauty of Gray's verse, for he adds, "And yet there are plenty of faults in that "Elegy' too, resulting from the very Elaboration which yet makes it live. So I think." Fitzgerald did not care for T. L. Peacock's novels, notwithstanding their scholarly flavour and their good-tempered mockery. He did not relish Le Sage's "Gil Blas," nor Prevost’s "Manon Lescaut," both regarded as masterpieces by the world at large. He found Thackeray too melancholy and saturnine, but he delighted in Scott and Dickens.

Fitzgerald's vegetarianism saved him in the most famous passage of the "Rubaiyat" from the grotesqueness of the original:

If a loaf of wheaten bread be forthcoming, A gourd of wine and a thigh-bone of mutton, And then if thou and I be sitting in the wilderness, That were a joy not within the power of any Sultan.

How perfect is the artistic effect secured by the casting away of this mutton-bone:

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!

In 1883 he writes from Woodbridge to his old friend, Samuel Laurence:

"Here I still live, reading, and being read to, part of my time; walking abroad three or four times a day, or night, in spite of wakening of Bronchitis, which has lodged like the household ‘Brownie' within; pottering about my Garden (as I have been doing) and snipping off dead Roses like Miss Tox; and now and then a visit to the neighbouring Seaside, and a splash to the Sea on one of the Boats. I never see a new Picture, or hear a note of Music, except when I drum out some old Tune in Winter on an Organ, which might almost be carried about the Streets, with a handle to turn, and a Monkey on the top of it. So I go on, living a life far too comfortable, as compared with that of better and wiser men; but ever expecting a reverse in health such as my seventy-five years are subject to."

This was in what is believed to be the last letter he wrote, which contained also what in Madame de Sevigne's phrase he called his respectful protestation to Providence, concerning the Tragedies of Life which pressed, perhaps, with increasing intensity on the eyes that for more than three score years and ten had looked upon the suffering world. He died June 14, 1883, and on his gravestone are inscribed the words: "It is He that hath made us and not we ourselves." This expressed more than the endurance of the Stoic; to take with a thankful heart the gifts of the Present, and to trust the Giver of all for what the Future may bring forth– this may not be heroic philosophy, but it served both for Omar Khayyám and for Edward Fitzgerald. And the energetic spirits who are disturbed by the long, indolent years of Fitzgerald, may be asked to remember that, although his life was not filled with bustle, his quiet, leisurely days added to the great literature of England that which will never pass into silence.

Fitzgerald had not the missionary spirit, and in this he differed from Shelley and Tolstoy, who have each made notable contributions to the literature of vegetarianism. There remains his emphatic testimony: "But the great secret of all is the not eating (flesh) meat. To that the world must come, I am sure."

When Edward Fitzgerald died, in 1883, at the age of 75, there came to an end a long and outwardly uneventful life. This descendant of the noble Geraldines as the child of rich parents, had no educational or social difficulties in the way of access to any field of enterprise that might tempt his feet. The financial misadventures of his father had no serious effect upon Fitzgerald's fortunes, and his incongruous marriage with Lucy Barton was but an episode, and it was only for a short time that it disturbed the even tenor of his way. To sit in his garden with the doves flying about him in tame security; to chat with the fishermen by the sea; to enjoy the friendship of Carlyle and Tennyson, and other great spirits; to bask and browse in the sunshiny fields of literature, of West and East; to ponder the verses of Omar Khayyám and other singers of the dawn; to shape the material brought from the shining Orient into a masterpiece; such was Fitzgerald's life-work. Some of his Philistine contemporaries regarded with conventional amusement the unconventional poet and thinker, whose lot had been cast in their midst, but their names are already forgotten—indeed, were never known—whilst his will live as that of who has enriched the literature and thought of his fatherland. Whilst we have to speak of the "Rubaiyat" as a translation, it is both more and less than a version of the quatrains of Omar Khayyám. Fitzgerald did not hesitate to adorn the Tent-maker with leaves from the laurels of Attar. His aim was not that of transferring a Persian poem into English rhyme, but of showing to the Western world the working of an Oriental mind when confronted by the problems of life, death, and immortality. "It is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves"—the words on Fitzgerald's grave—express his own philosophy of life, and that of Omar Khayyám also. It is the resignation of the clay in the hands of the potter

The closing words of Tennyson's tribute to Fitzgerald are:

Gone into darkness that full light
Of friendship, past in sleep, away
By night into the deeper night!
The deeper night! A clearer day
Than our poor twilight dawn on earth —
If night what barren tool to be!
What life, so maimed by night, were worth
Our living out? Not mine to me
Remembering all the golden hours
Now silent, and so many dead,
And him the last; and laying flowers,
This wreath above his honoured head,
And praying that when I from hence
Shall fade with him into the unknown,
My close of earth's experience
May prove as peaceful as his own.

This passage is a noble vindication of Edward Fitzgerald.