With Friends Possessed: A Life of Edward FitzGerald
An excellent book could be written on the Victorian bachelor. Some never intended to be bachelors. Senior subalterns in regiments of the line waiting until their forties for promotion, college dons waiting for country livings whose incumbents declined to die, men waiting to inherit from a distant kinsman, clerks in the civil service who had to keep up appearances and could not afford to set up house in the style which they imagined was expected of them—who, when at last their constraints were removed, shuddered at the thought of giving up their comfortable bachelor habits and forgoing the petty tyrannies by which they kept up their morale.
On the other hand there were bachelors who never had any intention of marrying. In their youth they did not know girls. The thought of being in their company was odious and the thought of making love to them terrifying. Educated in boarding schools and Oxford or Cambridge colleges they formed romantic friendships with other boys. But as they grew older anything might happen. They developed odd habits, became interested in queer subjects and curious practices, or collected strange objects. Their friends became more bizarre or in a moment of aberration they married their cook or disappeared to Europe with a footman.
Edward FitzGerald was such a bachelor and he was very rum indeed. He was a lucky man. He nearly always had as much money as he needed to do anything he liked, and he made friends with some of the most interesting men of his generation. He is lucky too in his new biographer. Robert Martin has a tenderness for the eccentric. His biography of Tennyson revealed just how mad the Tennyson family was and how solitary and strung-up the young poet. FitzGerald’s family came a strong second to the Tennysons. His parents were first cousins and belonged to a line renowned for its haughtiness and total disregard for any opinions other than their own. His father had the tastes of a country squire and mismanaged his estates in Suffolk. In old age he went bankrupt by refusing to close an uneconomical coal mine. His mother, a vast, imperious woman, possessed a fortune to match her shape. She regarded her husband as a female spider regards her mate, preferred to live in London, and cared only about cutting a pretentious and vulgar figure in society. She was a bad absentee mother and her son at once was intimidated and obsessed by her. Edward was tough enough as a young man to refuse to act as her walker even though she cut his allowance. He so loathed the splendor of her Portland Place life that he lived in shabby lodgings and wore slovenly clothes and was so determined not to fall under her sway that if the idea of conventional marriage with its family obligations ever entered his head he whisked it away.
Her elder son displayed more remarkable symptoms of withdrawal. He became a primitive Christian, and when preaching or listening to sermons used to take off his boots and socks, empty and examine the contents of his pockets, and whistle shrilly if he liked the sermon. He put a clock in every room of his house but rang for his valet to tell him the time. “We FitzGeralds are all mad,” said Edward, “but John is the maddest of the family and he does not know it.”
FitzGerald’s first stroke of luck came when, at a time when other boys were being flogged and bullied in public schools, he was sent to the local grammar school at Bury St. Edmund’s under an inspired headmaster who treated the boys as equals and whose warmhearted wife replaced Edward’s mother. It was there that he first began to fall for handsome boys, and the intensity of his affection was matched by the melancholy that supervened when the idol showed his feet of clay. FitzGerald had an insatiable appetite for friendship and an almost equally powerful stricture that prevented him from making the first move. At Cambridge he at once made friends with Thackeray, who described him then as “a very good fellow but of very retired habits”; and yet he was later to spend a riotous weekend in Paris with him. FitzGerald wrote him vast letters and some jocular verses proclaiming his affection. He ended one letter: “I see few people I care about, and so, oh Willy, be constant to me.” “What passions our friendships were,” wrote Thackeray. (He became something of a favorite of FitzGerald’s mother, who in Thackeray’s lively phrase was “stupendously gracious” to him.) And yet it was not long before he came to think of FitzGerald as little more than an acquaintance and complain that his visits made work impossible.
His most lasting friendships were made at Cambridge. He knew all the Apostles, James Spedding, William Donne, and Jackie Kemble had been at school with him, and like everyone else he was bowled over by Tennyson’s wild, noble looks and that distinction which gave such presentiment of his genius. But although the Apostles elected the silent brooding Tennyson, they did not elect FitzGerald: there was something too solitary and too ornery about him. Nor did they elect his next love, John Allen, a clergyman’s son, who lamented each day his minor sins of the flesh, idleness and worldliness, and the next morning found himself like FitzGerald in bed (alone) at midday. Then FitzGerald decided that Johnny was becoming too worldly and a social climber. Still, it was on his way to a holiday with Allen that FitzGerald met, on a boat crossing the Bristol Channel, one of the great loves of his life, a boy of sixteen, William Browne, who seldom opened a book, loved hunting, shooting, and fishing, and had that day, which FitzGerald never forgot, a smudge of chalk on his cheek that had come from a billiards cue, sure sign of idle youth.
One of the many charms of this biography is the sensitive and natural way in which Robert Martin describes their friendship and the nostalgia with which later in life FitzGerald would recall every detail of the days he spent with his friend. But Martin is more than charming, he is perspicacious too. And he notes that it was not only Browne’s youth and spontaneity and good manners he liked, but his middle-class origins (his father was mayor of Bedford), which put FitzGerald in a position to bring him out and act as his guide, philosopher, and patron.
As FitzGerald grew older he became more prone to snubbing people and patronizing them. But the root of the matter was that he could not grow up. He wanted to continue to lead an undergraduate life of talk, versifying, and chaffing his friends. He went to concerts but thought little of any music later than Fidelio. He began to buy what he imagined to be Old Masters. He treated the paintings rather like his friends, as objects to do with as he wished. So he repainted bits of them or cut them down to fit a wall. Then he suffered the inevitable fate of bachelors. William Browne married.
Should he himself marry? Robert Martin says, “He loved to give the impression that he was susceptible to marriage but only when there was no danger of it taking place.” He put the question in such a way to his friends that they all dissuaded him. Unlike them, however, he had found nothing to do in life, and although he watered his friendships with delightful letters, they drooped. He had fits of what he called the Blue Devils and he began to develop less amiable traits. He could not resist telling his friends what he thought of their achievements. It was not tactful to fall asleep when Tennyson was reading him The Princess or to say when In Memoriam was being written: “Don’t you think the world wants other notes than the elegiac now?” He complained that Thackeray had become too grand and Pendennis too dull.
Several times he lent Thackeray money, and Tennyson was supported for years with a regular income from FitzGerald. Martin is right to suspect that those gifts of money were at the bottom of the trouble. FitzGerald thought that his generosity entitled him to say what he wished and in their gratitude his friends would make allowances. What was money but an extension of the affections? But those he helped felt they were being bought. They considered it merely an accident that he had money to give them. It could not oblige them to intimacy.
He became lonelier and odder, but there is no simple explanation why he made the most disastrous decision of his life. Bernard Barton was a friend who was considerably older than himself and died a ruined man, leaving an unattractive, mundane, middle-aged daughter called Lucy. There is no evidence that he entrusted her to FitzGerald’s care and indeed some years passed before they began to meet. Gradually they became entangled in obligations and FitzGerald announced they were to be married. When Browne begged him to get out of it he said he feared “people would talk.” “That from you,” expostulated Browne, “you who do not care a straw what anybody says about anything!”
He had always in fact hated women—he spoke contemptuously of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Browning. Even before the wedding he was in deep gloom, and at the reception, when offered blancmange, he shuddered and said, “Ugh! Congealed bridesmaid.” Did the appalling prospect of seeing on his honeymoon fat, wobbling, white flesh flash through his mind? His behavior until the couple separated within the year was brutal, and his friends were outraged by the derisive way he referred to Lucy. After they parted he gave her a generous allowance and took most of the blame upon himself. She continued to love him, unable to understand in what she had offended. Her offense was simply in being a woman, no doubt a silly, unintelligent woman; but he took his own ludicrous mistake out on her and continued to play his accustomed role as tyrant. It was a shameful episode. In telling the story Martin concludes: “It would be difficult to find a better example of how easily artlessness and naiveté may be as destructive as malice.”
In middle age FitzGerald took to sailing off the East Anglian coast and would wander along the beach talking at times to the fishermen. He took up with a young sailor who seemed to him to resemble William Browne, bought him a boat, went shares with him, and became his inseparable companion. This was Posh Fletcher. Unfortunately Posh, who was married, liked drink, could not keep accounts, cheated FitzGerald, and was determined, as he saw it, not to be bought by the old man. He regarded FitzGerald rather as guardsmen used to refer to their elderly admirers as old twanks. In the end the friendship foundered. But FitzGerald never blamed Posh. He praised him for saying he could not behave as FitzGerald wished because he had not been born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
But one of his friends was to suggest a hobby that led to apotheosis. Some years before his marriage FitzGerald had been taken by the good looks of a young man who had taught himself Persian at the age of fourteen, at eighteen knew eight languages, and was to end his days as professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge. Edward Cowell saw what talents FitzGerald really had. He called him “a kind of slumbering giant, or silent Vesuvius. It is only at times that the eruption comes, but when it does come, it overwhelms you!” Cowell encouraged him to read ancient languages again, and FitzGerald took to translation. Over the years he tackled Aeschylus and Sophocles, and Martin judges that his translation of the Agamemnon has “something of the dignity of the original…[which] informs the whole with eloquent gravity untouched by the bombastic stateliness that so often disfigures translations of the tragedians.” An earlier biographer, A.C. Benson, formed a somewhat different view. With claws showing, he quoted a passage from a famous chorus:
But now to be resolved, whether indeed
Those fires of Night spoke truly, or mistold
To cheat a doating woman; for behold Advancing from the shore with solemn speed,
A Herald from the Fleet, his foot- steps Roll’d
In dust, Haste’s thirsty consort, but his brow
Check-shadow’d with the nodding Olive-bough; Who shall interpret us the speech- less sign Of the fork’d tongue that preys upon the pine?
“Who indeed?” asked Benson. “This passage is like a turbid stream in flood. It is muddy with Greek, it bears Greek particles, like river-wrack, floating on its surface.” Nor was FitzGerald more successful with Calderón (a favorite poet of the Apostles). He did not know Spanish well and his translation resembles the plays of the Spasmodics. Not much better was a Platonic dialogue, called “Euphranor,” in which Cambridge undergraduates discuss athletics, corporal punishment, and chivalry, two of them thinly disguised portraits of Cowell and Browne. Robert Martin permits himself a rare moment of irony when he observes that “Phidippus [Browne] shared with his original the awkwardness of not being very interesting to anyone but his creator.”
And then amid this sad stuff came the miracle. Before Cowell left for India he had introduced him to Persian poetry and during the shame of the breakup of his marriage he began to read Omar Khayyám. For many years it has been known how FitzGerald transformed the original Persian of the Rubáiyát into an improvisation of his own; and A.J. Arberry showed just how he did it and just how remote from the original many of the most famous stanzas are.1 FitzGerald had the good authority of eighteenth-century poets for what he did—Pope’s Homer being only one of the most famous examples. He cut and sewed and stitched together bits from different stanzas, and many of the most famous lines are his own invention. It is an improvisation rather than a translation. Here is a ruba’i which will be recognizable in the literal translation by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs.
Oh heart, since the world’s reality is illusion How long will you complain about this torment? Resign your body to fate and put up with pain,
Because what the pen has written for you it will not unwrite.2
In his introduction Peter Avery reveals why Khayyám was so congenial to FitzGerald. It was not as a poet that Khayyám was famous in his lifetime—he was born in the eleventh century and died in 1131—but as a mathematician (he showed for the first time in his treatise on algebra how to solve cubic equations), as an astronomer, and as an agreeably heterodox philosopher. For at that time attempts were being made to reconcile not only the teachings of the Sufis to Muslim theology, but also the writings of the polymath known to medieval Christendom as Avicenna, who confronted it with Aristotle. Avicenna met with the same sense of outrage from the orthodox that two centuries later the nominalists were to experience in the Christian Church. If you were subtle you ended canonized as a Doctor of the Church like Aquinas. If you were not you were condemned as a heretic like Roscelin.
As a rationalist Khayyám despised astrology, questioned the existence of paradise and the resurrection of the body, and doubted whether God created the world. The world coexisted with the Mover of Things. Moreover since the Mover contained within himself all essences or universals, what could he know about particulars—that is to say, about individuals or the humdrum events and objects on earth?
In those days philosophers wrote their aphorisms in verse, in the popular form of the ruba’i, of which a later Persian poet was to say, “The last line thrust the fingernail into the heart.” The Rubáiyát is in fact a collection of separate four-line aphorisms. By no means all were by Khayyám, and some of those which were attributed to him after his death may well have been planted on him by his enemies because they were so blasphemous. In Avery’s edition just over thirty of 235 ruba’iyat are attributed to him. FitzGerald created seventy-five stanzas and gave them the theme of skepticism. They have more sentiment than the original ruba’iyat and are more insistent on the necessity for man of wine; but they have the wit and scorn for illusion of the Rubáiyát. The pious Cowell considered Khayyám’s apostrophes of wine, roses, women, and boys to be allegories of holy mysteries. By drunkenness was meant divine love—rather as the Song of Solomon was conceived by apologists to be an allegory of Christ’s love for his Church. FitzGerald thought this rubbish. His own religious skepticism and dissatisfaction with the way of the flesh and the world were suffused with his melancholy; and he created a work of art.
But fortune again deserted him. On the day his lament about the sorry Scheme of Things was published he learned that William Browne was dying after a fall from his horse. Nor did success come at once: not surprising, since publishing the poem anonymously, and continuing to do so, was not the best way to ensure it. No one noticed the poem when it appeared in 1859 and Quaritch sold most of his stock of the first edition as wastepaper. But it is untrue that the poem remained for long forgotten; and Martin shows that within two years it had begun to circulate.His anonymity soon began to be penetrated. The poem became a cult object even more popular in America than in England.
Why? Perhaps because the nineteenth century was obsessed by the Orient; perhaps because people were tired of Tennyson despairing that nature was red in tooth and claw. For many skeptical Victorians the poem expressed to a tee their dissatisfaction with a personage called God. Robert Martin suggests that the most telling reason was that the poem was a forerunner of the aestheticism of the end of the century. It declared that the senses are our best guide to what is true or beautiful. Surrounded by brutality, inhumanity, and intolerance, man’s wisest course is to withdraw from life. That may be true; but the Rubáiyát is not a languid poem.
It was Frank Kermode who first questioned the accepted view of FitzGerald expressed, for instance, in Benson’s choice of epithets, “simple, tenderhearted, ingenuous.” Kermode declared that FitzGerald was not as charming as he looked and certainly was not childlike. According to Robert Martin, FitzGerald’s impulses were singularly complicated and contradictory, but he begins his book hoping that by the end of it his readers will come to love FitzGerald as much as he does. I am not so sure all of them will. He had some eminently Victorian traits, contempt for servants and inferiors among them. When Mrs. Berry, his landlady, who owned the rooms in Lowestoft he had taken, died, her widower irritated FitzGerald, who wrote a verse of singular ingenuity and savagery:
You sent in your Bill, Berry
Before it was due, Berry
Your father, the elder Berry,
Would not make such a Mull, Berry.
But you being a goose, Berry
I don’t care a Straw, Berry
I shall just kick your-arsberry
Till you are black, Berry, and Blue Berry!!
But his friends gave a unanimous answer. Rum, unaccountable, keeping them at arm’s length as he did, they loved “old Fitz” or “Neddikens.” If he offended some by not caring enough for their feelings, he won them back by writing the enchanting letters collected in the scrupulous Terhune edition.3 He preferred writing to his friends to seeing them. He was hard of hearing, his eyes went, but there was pleasure still in writing to Tennyson unbridled criticism of his verse. The laureate did not reply to his letters; but he wrote an affectionate elegy: “…Of one recalling gracious times, / When, in our younger London days, / You found some merit in my rhymes, / And I more pleasure in your praise.” Fortune again cheated FitzGerald. He never saw these verses: he died before Tennyson published them.
What distinguishes this biography is its sense of the appropriate. Ann Thwaite took 567 pages to depict that pussycat Edmund Gosse. Martin’s book is just over three hundred pages. Apart from a profusion of adverbs, it is succinct, judicious, and tender to FitzGerald’s queerness, and to the Suffolk landscape where he passed his days.
And yet I wonder whether he makes quite enough of FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát. Possibly Martin thought that to do so would upset the balance of the book and the flow of that unquiet, melancholy life. But something extraordinary happened across the centuries when FitzGerald’s imagination met the mind of that Persian mathematician. Nothing of the sort happened when his mind met Aeschylus or Sophocles or Calderón. If it had not been for Khayyám not even the charm of FitzGerald’s letters would have kept his name alive: he would have been a Spedding, a Donne, a Kemble, remembered for being a friend of Tennyson at Cambridge, an eccentric, odd fish who did nothing much with his life, a bit of a curmudgeon, troubled by his heart, which begged for affection. The Muse descended and he became immortal.
A.J. Arberry, Omar Khayyám and FitzGerald (London: Allen and Unwin, 1959). ↩
The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, translated by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs (London: Allen Lane, 1979). ↩
Alfred M. and Annabelle B. Terhune, eds., The Letters of Edward FitzGerald (4 vols.; Princeton University Press, 1980). ↩