Edward Fitzgerald

EDWARD FITZGERALD gave a new classic to English literature in his translation of Omar Khayyám. His letters 1 may prove to have, in their own sphere, an interest not less enduring. They comprise a lifelong correspondence upon matters which will continue to engage the minds of men, and these are treated from a unique personal point of view. Mr. Fitzgerald advanced but one claim to be considered by his friends. He was, he said, a man of taste, whether in poetry, art, or music; he brought to his subject the touch-stone of that criticism which depends rather on feeling than on reason ; he did not care to ask the why and wherefore of his judgment, and in those cases in which he found himself dull to masterpieces approved by other highly cultivated minds he was merely nonplused at his incapacity to appreciate. He was, however, gifted with a rare degree of independence and also of candor, which permitted him to hold and express views of literature with admirable sincerity, so that he does not offend even when he departs most widely from popular opinions. He disparages Tennyson with the freedom of a friend, but other modern poetry meets with such scanty consideration that the editor does not name the unfortunate authors of whom severe remarks are made. He cannot take to Hawthorne, though he acknowledges him to be the most distinct genius which America has produced. He has a very incomplete faith in Carlyle; with the best disposition to admire him and with some sympathy, he does not finally pass muster. His praise of Thackeray, though at the last ungrudging, strikes one as tardy. Spedding’s toil over Bacon is the butt of his humor. So one might continue the long list. Perhaps it is as well to admit at once that he was a man of prejudice as well as of taste.

The root of the matter is that he was out of sympathy with the modern age. It was not for nothing that he found his favorite reading in the classics and in Boccaccio, Cervantes, and Scott. He was not an idealist; imagination and passion were both lacking in him ; he was attached to life as it presents itself to the eye, — the passing spectacle, with humor and pathos met at random, with no sentiment except of the natural feelings. He was a true lover of poetry, but there was quite enough in old English verse to satisfy him. So far as our own time is concerned, he represents that discontent with the Victorian literature which is interesting because it is rare, Fortunately, he did not confine himself to his dislikes, but wrote of what he enjoyed. A good part of this was in Spanish and Persian, and his appreciation was so great that, by the aid of a talent for writing which he could not successfully resist, he re-worked from these sources those translations by which his place in literature is determined. It is well enough known what liberties he took with his text. What his success was will be variously estimated. It cannot be maintained that his Calderon ever would hold its own as an English classic for its own sake, as undoubtedly his Omar must. The other Persian translations will be favorites with a few. The Greek plays, which he rendered in the same way, do not represent the originals either in kind or in power ; and judged as English dramas, they are rather curious than excellent. It is singular to observe that his literary faculty concerned itself with poetical philosophy most successfully, while his critical taste declared itself for dramatic realism.

It is, however, neither by his opinions nor by his works that he is most attractive. The charm which clothes his memory is that of the English country life which he led in the open air of nature, with hearty liking for rustic character, with books, pictures, and music to refine his leisure, and with ties of affection and friendship with great Englishmen of his time. It would not be difficult to draw his portrait at the different stages of youth and age, to make much of his eccentricities, to show how thoroughly insular he was, and exhibit the Celtic sensibility that went along with his English perversities and gave unusual warmth to his humane temperament and a touch of tenderness to his expression. The friends he loved best did not care to write letters to him, but they valued his heart; to those with whom he associated most constantly he seems to have given more than he received : and from these and like considerations, which attention forces only more painfully upon the mind, there arises something pathetic in the man’s life, which is saddening. The outlook on literature, art, and music, and especially the unfailing delight in natural beauty, are a relief to the loneliness, and what we are constrained to call the littlenesses, of his existence. He was himself cheerful, to all appearance, and made the round of the years with much satisfaction in his enjoyments ; perhaps he prided himself, half unconsciously, on his content with trifling pleasures ; at all events, he loved his own, and, like an Englishman, was superior to all the world beside.

A nature so simple and a fortune so uneventful do not require many phrases to describe them, but in the writer’s expression of himself and description of his surroundings there is a rich variety. He had command of a remarkably pure style. From the literary point of view, the style is really the one quality in which these letters excel. Clear, rapid, and entirely without pretense, yet with a certain distinction in the utterance and sense of selection in the words, with an abundant natural flow and plenty of humor and even a dash of wit, the writer goes on to the end of his paper in a vein of which one never tires ; and his matter is worthy of so ready a tongue. Whether it is some blowing breeze on the buttercups, or the blare of Handel’s trumpets, or Constable laying the old Cremona down on the sunshiny grass, or the nequiaquam of Lucretius, or the country preacher in his pulpit making the Crucifixion real to country hearers, or his own fishermen out on the North Sea who trouble his mind with thoughts of their danger, or what-not of a thousand topics, there is always something on the various pages which one is glad to have read, and to have come in touch with so fine a mind in the reading; and not with him only, but also with Tennyson, who was almost from college days Mr. Fitzgerald’s friend ; with Thackeray, who valued him second to none in affectionate remembrance ; and with Spedding, at whom these two aimed their good-humored fun, though they respected him none the less for that. Others, too, in more humble stations, add variety to the characters, and increase the human interest which enlivens and relieves the whole.

A more entertaining volume, one that brings the mind into contact with what refines and elevates it with the sense of the higher interests of culture, and at the same time affords companionship with a simple and strong nature in its daily life, has not been added to the shelves of pure literature in many a year. Indeed, it stands by itself, and possesses an originality, a flavor, and character of its own, which those who hereafter examine the Victorian time will not willingly spare. Mr. Fitzgerald himself occupies a peculiarly distinct position as the translator of Omar, which must continue to draw attention ; as a member of the Tennyson group of literary friends, from whom delightful glimpses of their comradeship are to be obtained, he appeals to the never-dying curiosity of men in legard to the private life of genius ; as a man who seems to have avoided notice by choice in an age when to get into the public view is the object of such universal effort, he stimulates the desire to know him. On these several accounts his memoir was sure to be sought; and now that, on its appearance, it exhibits such rare qualities that its greatest value proves to be intrinsic, we have reason to anticipate for its author the great prize of a slowly matured fame, like that of a half dozen other English gentlemen whose distinction in literature came without self-seeking. He wins, after death, a place in English letters equal to the good fortunes of his friendships in early life, among, if not beside, his old comrades; and, notwithstanding their neighborhood, his life will be valued for itself, as an expression of the old English virtues of “ high thinking and plain living.”

  1. Letters and Literary Remains of Edward Fitzgerald. Edited by WILLIAM ALDIS WRIGHT. 3 vols. New York : Macmillan & Co. 1889.