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
Edward Fitzgerald; drawing by David Levine

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…

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