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Master of Letters

The Letters of Edward FitzGerald, Vol. I, 1830-1850

edited by Alfred McKinley Terhune, edited by Annabelle Burdick Terhune
Princeton University Press, Vol. IV, 1877-1883, 653 pp., $75.00 (two-volume set)

Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883) is in all the histories of English literature, and in every Dictionary of Quotations, as the translator of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. That apart, he has not a universal name. Nor did he crave one. When he published his scanty writings, he did it anonymously and in tiny editions. For much of his life he led an inconspicuous existence in one of the least spectacular parts of England. By his own account, he went nowhere, saw no one, and did nothing. He was a quiet man in a quiet place, and it suited him.

Alfred Tennyson thought that the boat race in FitzGerald’s Euphranor (published in 1851) was one of the finest things in English prose. But FitzGerald did nothing to push the book. In 1859, when he gave his translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám to Bernard Quaritch, the great London book-seller/publisher, he walked in with just an armful of copies, wrapped in a brown paper parcel; and he did his best to make sure that no one would ever identify him as the author of what would soon be some of the most celebrated formulations in Victorian literature. (Had it not been for the persistence of an American admirer of the Rubáiyát, Charles Eliot Norton, FitzGerald might have got away with it.) In this, as in many other matters relating to the outer world, FitzGerald was morbidly, defiantly, and irreducibly odd.

But there was a matter in which he was exactly like everyone else, whether he liked it or not. After he was dead, people were free to publish his letters, and they lost no time in doing it. In 1889 his friend W. Aldis Wright brought out a three-volume set of FitzGerald’s Letters and Literary Remains. In 1894, 1895, 1901, 1902-1903, 1908, 1923, 1926, and 1932 further letters were published in one context or another. All gave great pleasure, and a remarkably high proportion of the books in question are available to this day from reprint houses. Henry James, as so often, set the tone for the rest of us when he wrote in 1897 of “the delightful letters of that peculiarly Suffolk genius, Edward FitzGerald”; and in particular the pocketable two-volume Macmillan edition of 1894 has been a long-time favorite.

By nature both ardent and solitary, hearth-bound and expansive, FitzGerald was a predestined letter writer. In fact he really preferred letters to life. Already when he was only twenty-two he wrote to W.M. Thackeray as follows: “Now, Thackeray, I lay you ten thousand pounds that you will be thoroughly disappointed when we come together—our letters have been so warm that we shall expect each minute to contain a sentence like those in our letters. But in letters we are not always together: there are no blue devilish moments: one of us isn’t kept waiting for the other: and above all in letters there is Expectation!”

A tendency thus far pronounced at a time when FitzGerald led a relatively active and worldly existence could not be expected to abate when first youth was over, first friends were scattered, and the Suffolk sea-marge saw more of FitzGerald than did London, where he had once been his mother’s dutiful escort, or Paris, where he and Thackeray had been together in 1830. Before long it pleased him to represent himself as a vegetating dowager who had no other distraction than a daily boat ride in the company of a charismatic man of the sea. At thirty-one, while visiting Maria Edgeworth and her family in Ireland, he spoke of himself as content with the pastimes of middle life. Thereafter he progressively traveled less, went out less, and forebore more and more the delicious high spirits that he had allowed himself when he was a young man among other young men (some of them very lively indeed). To a degree not often paralleled, his correspondence became his only real life; and it was to the Royal Mails, rather than to any representative of his own species, that he was wedded.

As a correspondent, he had great qualities. He really cared about the people he was writing to. For all his protestations of apathy and idleness, he maintained into old age a high degree of intellectual energy and a power of rapid and complete assimilation. He could write about painting, music, and literature in such a way that we see the pictures, hear the music, and send out for the books. When on form, he had an almost Mozartian turn of phrase. He never prevaricated. For someone who claimed never to go out, he was memorably alert to the human comedy. For someone who claimed never to read a newspaper, he was remarkably shrewd in many of his political judgments. And he could be very funny: there are letters of his that could have been written by an Oscar Wilde untouched by misfortune, an Evelyn Waugh without prickles, or a Virginia Woolf safe and steady at anchor. A certain kind of English sensibility finds prototypical expression in the letters of Edward FitzGerald. Reading them, we know exactly what Thomas Carlyle meant when in his seventies he wrote to FitzGerald and said: “Your letter has really entertained me: I could willingly accept twelve of that kind in a year—twelve, I say, or even fifty-two….”

Those who share his feelings have waited long and patiently for the Princeton University Press four-volume edition of FitzGerald’s letters. This includes more than a thousand previously unpublished letters, together with many others hitherto published only in part. It has been many years in the making (Professor Terhune died in 1975, leaving Mrs. Terhune to complete the work) and it must be said at once that FitzGerald and his letters could not have been in better hands. The Terhunes won the trust and affection of all those who have FitzGerald letters in their care, and although FitzGerald was a master of the sidelong reference it is only very rarely that his editors have failed to solve the problem in a footnote. Over a total of nearly three thousand pages they do not flag, any more than does FitzGerald himself (save for a repetition or two in old age). Even the typesetters are on their side, save for a passage in which Haydn (Joseph) turns into Haydon (Benjamin Robert) and for a moment we wonder if FitzGerald has gone off his steady old rocker.

Edward FitzGerald had not an easy childhood. The poet and novelist William Plomer put the point exactly when he said that FitzGerald “showed from the first a strong pull against his mother’s showy worldliness and against his father’s futile pursuit of gain.” Reared at first in a large English country house where his mother was rarely seen in the nursery and his father’s geniality was reserved for the local squires, FitzGerald was taken to France for two years at the age of seven. Living in a house in Paris that had once been occupied by Robespierre, he began on a gamut of foreign languages which eventually comprised French, Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Persian, and German.

But it was as an undergraduate that FitzGerald formed the mode of life that stayed with him to the end of his days. He was very happy at Cambridge, where he lodged from 1826 to 1830 at 19 King’s Parade. The uproarious give-and-take of an entirely male society was a joy to him, whether face to face or in correspondence. He could have led a life of luxury and high fashion, since his mother was at one time thought to be the richest commoner in England; but even when he owned a perfectly good country house he preferred to move around in lodgings in that evocative but immensely flat little section of the English east coast which is bounded by Aldeburgh, to the south, and Lowestoft, to the north.

Once there (and from 1835 until his death in 1883 he was hardly ever not there) he lived much of his life by courtesy of the mailman. Such was the efficiency of the service that a letter mailed by 10:30 AM in Lowestoft could be relied upon to reach its recipient in London by the evening of the same day. Something of the briskness of this basic tempo communicated itself to FitzGerald the correspondent. Here he is on literature, in April 1838:

An Englishman [Thomas Carlyle] writes of French Revolutions in a German style. There is no repose, nor equable movement in it: all cut up into short sentences half reflective, half narrative; so that one labors through it as vessels do through what is called a short sea—small, contrary going waves caused by shallows, and straits, and meeting tides, etc. I like to sail before the wind over the surface of an ever-rolling eloquence, like that of Bacon or the Opium Eater. There is also pleasant fresh-water sailing in such writers as Addison; is there any pond-sailing in literature? That is, drowsy, slow and of small compass? Perhaps, we may say, some sermon. But…certainly Jeremy Taylor rolls along as majestically as any of them. We have had Alfred Tennyson here; very droll, and very wayward: and much sitting up of nights till two and three in the morning with pipes in our mouths: at which good hour we will get Alfred to give us some of his magic music, which he does between growling and smoking; and so to bed.

And on art, in January 1842:

I have just concluded, with all the throes of imprudent pleasure, the purchase of a large picture by Constable: of which, if I can continue in the mood, I will enclose you a sketch. It is very good: but how you and Morton would abuse it! Yet this, being a sketch, escapes some of Constable’s faults. The trees are not splashed with that white sky-mud, which (according to Constable’s theory) the Earth scatters up with her wheels in travelling so briskly round the sun; and there is a dash and felicity in the execution that gives one a thrill of good digestion in one’s room, and the thought of which makes one inclined to jump over the children’s heads in the streets.

And on music, in June 1852:

I went to the pit of the Covent Garden Italian Opera, to hear Meyerbeer’s Huguenots, of which I had only heard bits on the Pianoforte. But the first Act was so noisy, and ugly, that I came away. Meyerbeer is a man of Genius; and works up dramatic Music; but he has scarce any melody, and is rather grotesque and noisy than really powerful. I think this is the fault of modern music; people cannot believe that Mozart is powerful because he is so Beautiful: in the same way that it requires a very practised eye (more than I possess) to recognise the consummate power predominating in the tranquil Beauty of Greek Sculpture. I think Beethoven is rather spasmodically, than sustainedly, grand.

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