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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.

As a traveler, FitzGerald was disposed to think everywhere inferior to England. In June 1856 he was in France and Germany, but with very little pleasure:

Yesterday week we got to Paris; put up at a good inn fronting the Tuileries; wondered at the whole Palace of the Louvre, which is very wonderful; admired some of the Pictures within: drove about: walked about: dined about: and on Sunday went a journey of eight hours to Strasbourg; which is a quaint and diverting City enough. The famous Cathedral is, I think, a failure: looking not nearly so high as one hears it is; and the inside quite inferior (as are all the others I have seen) to half a dozen of our own in Grandeur and Solemnity…. On Monday we railed to Frankfurt: a fine opulent city on the Rhine: slept at Mayence, also a fine, lively, garrisoned City: and on Tuesday descended the famous Rhine: which is, I think, and as I expected, quite a failure: not a bit better in its best parts than parts of the River Dart, for instance: its color dirty; its banks inferior in Colour, both of Rock and Tree, to much in England. It is this drier Climate, I suppose, that does not clothe the Rock with many-coloured lichen and moss like ours; and the Rock itself is not varied by that metallic hue which gives so much colour to the Rocks at Tenby and Torquay. We at last got to Cologne, having a very pleasant Dinner on board, and wondering at the German Appetite: just stopped at Cologne to see the German Cathedral—also quite inferior to ours, I thought, in Depth and Solemnity; and slept at Aix-la-Chapelle, where there is another Cathedral one cares very little about; though it mainly consists of a barbarous Byzantine looking Temple-Church which I liked more than the Gothic Choir….

This largely calamitous journey was sweetened for FitzGerald by the company of William Kenworthy Browne, who for twenty-four years had been the object of his unbounded admiration. As to whether or not that admiration remained inactive, in sexual terms, the Terhunes do not venture and opinion. Browne was sixteen years old when FitzGerald met him on a coastal steam packet, and it is beyond question that, as our editors put it, “they later lodged at the same boarding house in Tenby.” FitzGerald was ever outspoken in his praises of Browne’s beauty, vivacity, high intelligence, and responsiveness to art and literature. In later years there was added his sterling quality as “Farmer, Magistrate, Militia Officer—father of a Family—of more use in a week than I in my life long.” But in this, as in later attachments of the same kind, there is no reason to suppose that FitzGerald ever attempted, or ever wished, to give sexual expression to his feelings. Like many other eminent Victorians, he had shut the door on that aspect of life and saw no need to open it.

Yet there is no doubt whatever that his feelings for his own sex went far beyond an everyday delight in companionship. After Browne died, for instance, FitzGerald found himself roaming the Suffolk foreshore by night and longing, by his own account, “for some fellow to accost me who might give some promise of filling up a very vacant place in my heart.” But all he asked of a fellow of that kind was that he should have a pretty and dutiful wife, with pretty and well-behaved children, in a pretty and well-kept house where FitzGerald could from time to time pay a decorous visit.

Meanwhile he had that other master trait of the eminent Victorian: the ability to give expression to grief. Not for him the stiff upper lip of legend: when Browne was dying of a fall from his horse, FitzGerald wrote to another friend as follows:

Saw him on Thursday—Death in his Face and Voice—the Blooming Lad and resolute Man I remembered now stretched out on a Bed for eight weeks—a mere shattered Carcase below; and above the Sheets, a Face like—something like—Charles I—after Death! And to hear the old familiar Words, so lightly spoken (yet so truly) for so many Years—“My dear Fitz—old Fel-low,” etc., now with difficulty articulated…. He read the 51st Psalm aloud at Midnight, his Nurse holding Book and Candle before him, a week ago: how could he have remembered there was that about the “broken bones” in it? But he was always observing, when no one gave him Credit for it. Once he had his Bed wheeled to the Window to look abroad: but he saw the Hawthornes coming into leaf, and he bid them take him back…. There was his new House all hung with the Pictures we had bought together for twenty years! So many Books too with “EFG to WKB” written within. Oh, the last words he wrote too were to me on Thursday morning—in the Hand of a Child’s First Attempt—to ask me to go to him. “I love you very—whenever—WKB.”

That is the man who had said of himself that he had merely, “what Goethe calls the ‘Barber’s talent’ of easy narrative of easy things—can tell of Barton, and of Chesterton Inn, but not of Atreus, and the Alps.” In reality, FitzGerald could give to everyday things an intensity of expression that fixes them once and for all; and in writing of music, art, literature, and the theater he could bring the subject alive with phrase after phrase that we recognize as definitive. He was a champion rememberer, and all the more so as he got older. On London, for instance:

I always remember the “shady side” of the long well-watered Streets, and the smell of Mignonette and Roses in the Balconies—in the days when “Medea in Corinto” with Pasta figured out into the dear old “King’s Theatre,” and Edmund Kean could yet totter on to the stage as Othello—never to be forgotten in his last Decay.

He had very high standards, and saw no reason to adjust them downward. Alfred Tennyson was one of his oldest friends, but FitzGerald never hesitated to say that what he wrote in later life might as well be trashed. His stage adaptation of Boccaccio’s The Falcon, for instance: “What reads lightly and gracefully in Boccaccio’s Prose would surely not do well when drawn out into dramatic Detail: two People reconciled to Love over a roasted Hawk, about as unsavoury a Bird to eat as an Owl. No doubt there was a Chicken substitute at the St. James’s….”

Altogether, he was an exacting audience at the theater. In his seventieth year he did not hesitate to interrupt Henry Irving, the most famous actor of the day, when he thought that his Hamlet was not up to snuff. (“When he got to ‘Something too much of this,’ I called out from the Pit door where I stood, ‘A great deal too much,’ and not long after returned to my solitary inn.”) Though tempted by a performance of Mozart’s Figaro at that same period, he turned it down: “I should probably only have got out of tune with the performance, so much altered from my remembrances of Sontag and Malibran. I think that it is now best to attend these Operas as given in the Theatre of one’s own recollections.”1

FitzGerald’s was fundamentally a fiery and demanding nature. He enjoyed corresponding with Fanny Kemble, for instance, and went so far as to ask for her photograph,2 but when she was on the stage he found her activities embarrassing. (Less so, however, when she threw off the characteristics of her sex and gave a spirited reading of one of Shakespeare’s more forthright masculine roles.) He thought that most of the women authors of the day (George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning not excepted) were ridiculous. (“Trollope I can read for ever—though I generally forget what I read: but I do think he is much profounder in Character than that dreadful Evans [George Eliot], only he goes along so easily that people think him shallow.”) His loyalties were fixed and firm: Homer (the Odyssey only), Montaigne, Cervantes, Madame de Sévigné, Thackeray, the young Alfred Tennyson, and Dryden: “Dryden’s prose, quoad prose, is the finest Style of all.” To these should be added Charles Lamb. “I am told,” FitzGerald wrote in 1878, “that the present Generation ‘sneers’ at C. Lamb. But his turn will come again, I feel sure—his Letters. ‘Saint Charles!’ said old Thackeray to me in a third floor in Charlotte Street thirty years ago, putting one of C.L.’s letters to his forehead.”

FitzGerald’s outward bearing did not announce the ferocity of his tastes and distastes. As William Plomer describes him, he would “walk into Woodbridge wearing an old Inverness cape and a flowered satin waistcoat, with slippers on his feet and a handkerchief tied over his hat; in cold weather trailing a plaid shawl, or in hot weather walking barefoot with his boots slung on a stick. At home he generally wore an Oblomov dressing gown, slippers, and a top hat, and he seldom took off his hat except when he wanted his handkerchief, which he kept inside it.”

His were disorderly ways. “It was the oddest melange,” one friend wrote of his hospitality. “Tea, porter, ale, wine, brandy, cigars, cold lamb, salad, cucumber, bread and cheese; no precise line of demarcation between tea and supper. It was one continuous spread, something coming on fresh every ten minutes till we wondered whence they came and whither they could be put. ‘Gentlemen, the resources of the cottage are exhaustless,’ shouted our host.” FitzGerald at that time was already in his middle thirties, but in his notion of a good time he was back on King’s Parade in Cambridge.

Even when he was an old man, and his bones creaked, he was faithful to a dream of untrammeled first youth that we may situate somewhere between Act I of The Importance of Being Earnest and an Anglicized Three Musketeers. In their various ways Tennyson, Thackeray, and Carlyle were all devoted to him—Carlyle spoke of him as a “peaceable, affectionate and ultra-modest man, with an innocent, fa niente life”—but we may suspect that among his lifelong friends none amused him more than Alfred Tennyson’s older brother Frederick. Frederick Tennyson (described by one of his family as “sinister in aspect and terrific in manner”) was the archetypal English expatriate in Italy. In a great hall reputedly designed by Michelangelo he had forty violinists to amuse him after dinner; and FitzGerald delighted in the fact that when Her Majesty’s Ship Bellerophon was anchored off the Italian coast Frederick Tennyson and a party of English friends “fought a cricket match with the crew of the ‘Bellerophon’ on the Parthenopoean Hills and sacked the sailors by ninety runs. Is not this pleasant?—the notion of good English blood striving in wornout Italy—I like that such men as Frederick should be abroad: so strong, haughty, and passionate.”

What FitzGerald admired in Frederick Tennyson was precisely what he himself lacked: the ability to take life by the scruff of its neck and shake it. Yet FitzGerald had a headlong sense of honor—it was for that reason that he committed himself to a brief and monumentally miscalculated marriage—and he had powers of industry that were none the less real for being so carefully concealed. When Carlyle asked him to look into the battle of Naseby (which had been fought on ground which at the time belonged to FitzGerald’s mother) he did it with a thoroughness that in later times would have earned him a PhD. When he translated the Rubáiyát he applied himself to his Persian studies with a momentum that quite belied his languid and pernickety account of himself. (In the course of his work he said of the Rubáiyát, “What is the use of Good Advice? Here is a Book of Capital Wisdom as current as a Proverb for near 1000 years in a Nation which yet has been [has it not?] about as cruel and degraded as any?”) In making his translation of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, late in life, he once again displayed an intellectual energy that does not at all bear out his portrait of himself as someone who had long before settled for an inactive existence and the pleasure of looking at “anemones steeped in Tyrian dyes and Irises of a newer and more brilliant prism than Noah saw in the clouds.”

It would be a pleasure to say that when he wrote to Charles Eliot Norton and James Russell Lowell he was at his best. But in his letters to these eminent Americans he edited and recycled his material until we sense a self-consciousness and a wish to shine that were normally quite foreign to his nature. Nor did his comments on American literature do him justice, for he comes across in them as both hasty and pert. But in general his was an exemplary old age. He saw the point of “the Phonograph, which goest to realize our old Munchausen’s Horn,” and of “the Photograph, which is revealing new Secrets of the old Sun.” He recognized in the Russia of the late 1870s “a country that has all her History before her.” He read Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd in the 1870s, though he didn’t much care for it, and he saw through the kind of magazine that “dishes up old things in new ways for a new Generation of Readers, who will read only Epitome and Abstract.” As for music, he gave up both piano and organ in the end, but still “went over some of the old Immortals in my head, especially when wrapt up in the bedclothes.”

And it was under the bedclothes, in the house of an old friend, that he died, soundlessly and without warning, after having led one of the most blameless of recorded lives. He little knew, nor would have cared to boast, that a hundred years later he would rank with “St. Charles Lamb” as one of the best letter-writers in the English language.

  1. 1

    Not surprisingly, if we may judge by the Così fan tutte which he went to in January, 1873. “The Singing was inferior: but the Music itself! Between the Acts a Man sang a song of Verdi’s: which was a strange Contrast, to be sure: one of Verdi’s heavy Airs, however: for he has a true Genius of his own, though not Mozart’s.”

  2. 2

    She is to sit for her Photo at my express Desire, and I have given her Instructions how to sit, derived from my own successful Experience. One rule is to sit in a dirty Shirt (to avoid dangerous White) and another is not to sit on a Sunshiny Day: which we must leave to the Young.”

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