Life of Fitzgerald and Essay on Persian Poetry
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Edward FitzGerald or Fitzgerald was an English poet and writer. His most famous poem is the first and best known English translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which has kept its reputation and popularity since the 1860s. This volume contains his biography by Ralph Waldo Emerson and essay on Persian Poetry.

Life of Fitzgerald and Essay on Persian Poetry

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Life of Fitzgerald and Essay on Persian Poetry

To E. Fitzgerald

Old Fitz, who from your suburb grange
Where once I tarried for a while,
Glance at the wheeling Orb of change
And greet it with a kindly smile;
Whom yet I see, as there you sit
Beneath your sheltering garden tree,
And watch your doves about 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
Let down to Peter at his prayers;

But none can say
That Lenten fare makes Lenten thought,
Who reads your golden Eastern lay,
Than which I know no version done
In English more divinely well;
A planet equal to the sun;
Which cast it, that large infidel
Your Omar: and your Omar drew
Full-handed plaudits from our best
In modern letters....

Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Life of Edward Fitzgerald

Edward FitzGerald was born in the year 1809, at Bredfield House, near Woodbridge, Suffolk, being the third son of John Purcell, who, subsequently to his marriage with a Miss FitzGerald, assumed the name and arms proper to his wife’s family.

St. Germain and Paris were in turn the home of his earlier years, but in 1821, he was sent to the Grammar School at Bury St. Edmunds. During his stay in that ancient foundation he was the fellow pupil of James Spedding and J. M. Kemble. From there he went in 1826 to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he made the acquaintance of W. M. Thackeray and others of only less note. His school and college friendships were destined to prove lasting, as were, also, all those he was yet to form.

One of FitzGerald’s chief characteristics was what might almost be called a genius for friendship. He did not, indeed, wear his heart upon his sleeve, but ties once formed were never unloosed by any failure in charitable and tender affection on his part. Never, throughout a lengthy life, did irritability and erratic petulance (displayed ’tis true, at times by the translator of “that large infidel”), darken the eyes of those he honoured with his friendship to the simple and whole-hearted genuineness of the man.

From Oxford, FitzGerald retired to the ‘suburb grange’ at Woodbridge, referred to by Tennyson. Here, narrowing his bodily wants to within the limits of a Pythagorean fare, he led a life of a truly simple type surrounded by books and roses, and, as ever, by a few firm friends. Annual visits to London in the months of Spring kept alive the alliances of earlier days, and secured for him yet other intimates, notably the Tennyson brothers.

Amongst the languages, Spanish seems to have been his earlier love. His translation of Calderon, due to obedience to the guiding impulse of Professor Cowell, showed him to the world as a master of the rarest of arts, that of conveying to an English audience the lights and shades of a poem first fashioned in a foreign tongue.

At the bidding of the same mentor, he, later, turned his attention to Persian, the first fruits of his toil being an anonymous version, in Miltonic verse, of the ‘Salámán and Absál’ of Jámi. Soon after, the treasure-house of the Bodleian library yielded up to him the pearl of his literary endeavour, the verses of “Omar Khayyám,” a pearl whose dazzling charm previously had been revealed to but few, and that through the medium of a version published in Paris by Monsieur Nicolas.

FitzGerald’s hasty and ill-advised union with Lucy, daughter of Bernard Barton, the Quaker poet and friend of Lamb, was but short-lived, and demands no comment. They agreed to part.

In later life, most summers found the poet on board his yacht “The Scandal” (so-called as being the staple product of the neighbourhood) in company with ‘Posh’ as he dubbed Fletcher, the fisherman of Aldeburgh, whose correspondence with FitzGerald has lately been given to the world.

To the end he loved the sea, his books, his roses and his friends, and that end came to him, when on a visit with his friend Crabbe, with all the kindliness of sudden death, on the 14th June, 1883.

Besides the works already mentioned, FitzGerald was the author of “Euphranor” [1851], a Platonic Dialogue on Youth; “Polonius”: a Collection of Wise Saws and Modern Instances [1852]; and translations of the “Agamemnon” of Æschylus [1865]; and the “Œdipus Tyrannus” and “Œdipus Coloneus” of Sophocles. Of these translations the “Agamemnon” probably ranks next to the Rubáiyát in merit. To the six dramas of Calderon, issued in 1853, there were added two more in 1865. Of these plays, “Vida es Sueno” and “El Magico Prodigioso” possess especial merit.

His “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” was first issued anonymously on January 15th, 1859, but it caused no great stir, and, half-forgotten, was reintroduced to the notice of the literary world in the following year by Rossetti, and, in this connection, it is curious to note to what a large extent Rossetti played the part of a literary Lucina. FitzGerald, Blake and Wells are all indebted to him for timely aid in the reanimation of offspring, that seemed doomed to survive but for a short time the pangs that gave them birth. Mr. Swinburne and Lord Houghton were also impressed by its merits, and its fame slowly spread. Eight years elapsed, however, before the publication of the second edition.

After the passage of a quarter-of-a-century a considerable stimulus was given to the popularity of the “Rubáiyát” by the fact that Tennyson — appropriately enough in view of FitzGerald’s translation of Sophocles’ “Œdipus” — prefaced his “Tiresias, and other Poems,” with some charmingly reminiscent lines written to “Old Fitz” on his last birthday. “This,” says Mr. Edmund Gosse, “was but the signal for that universal appreciation of ‘Omar Khayyám’ in his English dress, which has been one of the curious literary phenomena of recent years. The melody of FitzGerald’s verse is so exquisite, the thoughts he rearranges and strings together are so profound, and the general atmosphere of poetry in which he steeps his version is so pure, that no surprise need be expressed at the universal favour which the poem has met with among critical readers.”

Neither the “Rubáiyát” nor his other works are mere translations. They are better, perhaps, described as consisting of “largely new work based on the nominal originals.” In the “Omar,” admittedly the highest in quality of his works, he undoubtedly took considerable liberties with his author, and introduced lines, or even entire quatrains, which, however they may breathe the spirit of the original, have no material counterpart therein.

In illustration of FitzGerald’s capacity for conveying the spirit rather than the very words of the original, comparison of the Ousely MS. of 1460 A.D., in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, with the “Rubáiyát” as we know it, is of great interest.

The MS. runs thus: —

For a while, when young, we frequented a teacher;
For a while we were contented with our proficiency;
Behold the foundation of the discourse! — what happened to us?
We came in like Water, and we depart like Wind.

In FitzGerald’s version the verses appear thus: —

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint and heard great Argument
But it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went.

With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow
And with my own hand labour’d it to grow:
And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d —
“I came like Water, and like Wind I go.”

Similar examples may be found elsewhere, thus: —

From the Beginning was written what shall be
Unhaltingly the Pen writes, and is heedless of good and bad;
On the First Day He appointed everything that must be,
Our grief and our efforts are vain,

develops into: —

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

The general tendency to amplification is shown again in the translation of the two lines: —

Forsake not the book, the lover’s lips and the green bank of the field,
Ere that the earth enfold thee in its bosom.

into the oft-quoted verses: —

With me along some Strip of Herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown,
Where the name of Slave and Sultán scarce is known,
And pity Sultán Máhmúd on his Throne.

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
And Wilderness is Paradise enow!

And in the lines of Omar: —

In a thousand places on the road I walk, thou placest snares.
Thou sayest: “I will catch thee if thou steppeth into them,”
In no smallest thing is the world independent of thee,
Thou orderest all things — and callest me rebellious!

majestically shaping into FitzGerald’s rendering: —

Oh, Thou, who didst with Pitfall and with Gin
Beset the Road I was to wander in,
Thou wilt not with Predestination round
Enmesh me, and impute my Fall to Sin?

Oh, Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make
And who with Eden didst devise the Snake;
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blacken’d, Man’s Forgiveness give — and take!

To what school did FitzGerald belong? Who were his literary progenitors? Lucretius, Horace and Donne, at any rate, had a considerable share in moulding his thought and fashioning the form of his verse. The unrhymed line, so often but by no means uniformly resounding with a suspended clangour that is not caught up by the following stanza is distinctly reminiscent of the Alcaics of Horace.

Epicurean, in the ordinary sense of the term, he certainly is, but it is of the earlier type. Cyrenaic would be a juster epithet, the “carpe diem” doctrine of the poem is too gross and sensual to have commended itself to the real Epicurus. Intense fatalism, side by side with complete agnosticism, this is the keynote of the poem. Theoretically incompatible, these two “isms” are in practice inevitable companions.

The theory of reincarnation and that alone, can furnish a full explanation of FitzGerald’s splendid success as a translator.

Omar was FitzGerald and FitzGerald was Omar. Both threw away their shields and retired to their tent, not indeed to sulk, but to seek in meditative aloofness, the calm and content that is the proper reward of those alone who persevere to the end. Retirement brought them all it could bring, a yet deeper sense of the vanity of things and their unknowableness. Herein for the mass of mankind lies the charm of the Rubáiyát, in clear, tuneful numbers it chants the half-beliefs and disbeliefs of those who are neither demons nor saints, neither theological dogmatists nor devil-worshippers, but men.

Those seeking further information as to the life and place in literature of Edward FitzGerald are referred to Jackson’s “FitzGerald and Omar Khayyám” [1899]; Clyde’s “Life of FitzGerald” [1900]; Tutin’s “Concordance to FitzGerald’s Omar Khayyám” [1900]; and Prideaux’s “Notes for a Bibliography of FitzGerald” [1901], and his “Life” [1903].

For an interesting discussion as to the real nature of Omar, see the Introduction to “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” in the “Golden Treasury” Series.

W. S.

Persian Poetry
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

To Baron Von Hammer-Purgstall, who died in Vienna in 1856, we owe our best knowledge of the Persians. He has translated into German, besides the “Divan” of Hafiz, specimens of two hundred poets, who wrote during a period of five and a half centuries, from A.D. 1050 to 1600. The seven masters of the Persian Parnassus — Firdousi, Enweri, Nisami, Dschelaleddin, Saadi, Hafiz, and Dschamihave ceased to be empty names; and others, like Ferideddin Attar and Omar Chiam, promise to rise in Western estimation. That for which mainly books exist is communicated in these rich extracts. Many qualities go to make a good telescope, — as the largeness of the field, facility of sweeping the meridian, achromatic purity of lenses, and so forth, — but the one eminent value is the space penetrating power; and there are many virtues in books, — but the essential value is the adding of knowledge to our stock, by the record of new facts, and, better, by the record of intuitions, which distribute facts, and are the formulas which supersede all histories.

Oriental life and society, especially in the Southern nations, stand in violent contrast with the multitudinous detail, the secular stability, and the vast average of comfort of the Western nations. Life in the East is fierce, short, hazardous, and in extremes. Its elements are few and simple, not exhibiting the long range and undulation of European existence, but rapidly reaching the best and the worst. The rich feed on fruits and game, — the poor on a watermelon’s peel. All or nothing is the genius of Oriental life. Favour of the Sultan, or his displeasure, is a question of Fate. A war is undertaken for an epigram or a distich, as in Europe for a duchy. The prolific sun, and the sudden and rank plenty which his heat engenders, make subsistence easy. On the other side, the desert, the simoom, the mirage, the lion, and the plague endanger it, and life hangs on the contingency of a skin of water more or less. The very geography of old Persia showed these contrasts. “My father’s empire,” said Cyrus to Xenophon, “is so large, that people perish with cold, at one extremity, whilst they are suffocated with heat, at the other.” The temperament of the people agrees with this life in extremes. Religion and poetry are all their civilization. The religion teaches an inexorable Destiny. It distinguishes only two days in each man’s history — his birthday, called the Day of the Lot, and the Day of Judgment. Courage and absolute submission to what is appointed him are his virtues.

The favour of the climate making subsistence easy and encouraging an outdoor life, allows to the Eastern nations a highly intellectual organization, — leaving out of view, at present, the genius of the Hindoos (more Oriental in every sense), whom no people have surpassed in the grandeur of their ethical statement. The Persians and the Arabs, with great leisure and few books, are exquisitely sensible to the pleasures of poetry. Layard has given some details of the effect which the improvvisatori produced on the children of the desert. “When the bard improvised an amatory ditty, the young chief’s excitement was almost beyond control. The other Bedouins were scarcely less moved by these rude measures, which have the same kind of effect on the wild tribes of the Persian mountains. Such verses, chanted by their self-taught poets, or by the girls of their encampment, will drive warriors to the combat, fearless of death, or prove an ample reward, on their return from the dangers of the ghazon, or the fight. The excitement they produce exceeds that of the grape. He who would understand the influence of the Homeric ballads in the heroic ages should witness the effect which similar compositions have upon the wild nomads of the East.” Elsewhere he adds, “Poetry and flowers are the wine and spirits of the Arab; a couplet is equal to a bottle, and a rose to a dram, without the evil effect of either.”

The Persian poetry rests on a mythology whose few legends are connected with the Jewish history, and the anterior traditions of the Pentateuch. The principal figure in the allusions of Eastern poetry is Solomon. Solomon had three talismans; first, the signet-ring, by which he commanded the spirits, on the stone of which was engraven the name of God; second, the glass, in which he saw the secrets of his enemies, and the causes of all things, figured; the third, the east-wind, which was his horse. His counsellor was Simorg, king of birds, the all-wise fowl, who had lived ever since the beginning of the world, and now lives alone on the highest summit of Mount Kaf. No fowler has taken him, and none now living has seen him. By him Solomon was taught the language of birds, so that he heard secrets whenever he went into his gardens. When Solomon travelled, the throne was placed on a carpet of green silk, of a length and breadth sufficient for all his army to stand upon, — men placing themselves on his right hand, and the spirits on his left. When all were in order, the east-wind, at his command, took up the carpet and transported it, with all that were upon it, whither he pleased, — the army of birds at the same time flying overhead, and forming a canopy to shade them from the sun. It is related that when the Queen of Sheba came to visit Solomon, he had built, against her arrival, a palace, of which the floor or pavement was of glass, laid over running water, in which fish were swimming. The Queen of Sheba was deceived thereby, and raised her robes, thinking she was to pass through the water. On the occasion of Solomon’s marriage, all the beasts, laden with presents, appeared before his throne. Behind them all came the ant, with a blade of grass: Solomon did not despise the gift of the ant. Asaph, the vizier, at a certain time, lost the seal of Solomon, which one of the Dews, or evil spirits, found, and, governing in the name of Solomon, deceived the people.

Firdousi, the Persian Homer, has written in the Shah Nameh the annals of the fabulous and heroic kings of the country: of Karum (the Persian Crœsus), the immeasurably rich gold-maker, who, with all his treasures, lies buried not far from the Pyramids, in the sea which bears his name; of Jamschid, the binder of demons, whose reign lasted seven hundred years; of Kai Kaus, in whose palace, built by demons on Alburz, gold and silver and precious stones were used so lavishly, that in the brilliancy produced by their combined effect, night and day appeared the same; of Afrasiyab, strong as an elephant, whose shadow extended for miles, whose heart was bounteous as the ocean, and his hands like the clouds when rain falls to gladden the earth. The crocodile in the rolling stream had no safety from Afrasiyab. Yet when he came to fight against the generals of Kaus, he was but an insect in the grasp of Rustem, who seized him by the girdle, and dragged him from his horse. Rustem felt such anger at the arrogance of the King of Mazinderan, that every hair on his body started up like a spear. The gripe of his hand cracked the sinews of an enemy.

These legends, — with Chiser, the fountain of life, Tuba, the tree of life, — the romances of the loves of Leila and Medschun, of Chosru and Schirin, and those of the nightingale for the rose, — pearl-diving, and the virtues of gems, — the cohol, the cosmetic by which pearls and eyebrows are indelibly stained black, — the bladder in which musk is brought, — the down of the lip, the mole on the cheek, the eyelash, — lilies, roses, tulips and jasmines, — make the staple imagery of Persian odes.

The Persians have epics and tales, but, for the most part, they affect short poems and epigrams. Gnomic verses, rules of life conveyed in a lively image, especially in an image addressed to the eye, and contained in a single stanza, were always current in the East; and if the poem is long, it is only a string of unconnected verses. They use an inconsecutiveness quite alarming to Western logic, and the connection between the stanzas of their longer odes is much like that between the refrain of our old English ballads,

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