The Life of Edward Fitzgerald

Alfred McKinley Terhune YALE UNIV. PRESS,$5.00
MR. TERHUNE’S biography, if it is not continually exciting in presentation, is clearly a labor of love and carries from first to last a warmth and an understanding which prevent a wealth of detail from obscuring the central subject.
Edward FitzGerald was born in 1809, the year which saw the birth of a number of the world’s famous men — Tennyson, Lincoln, Gladstone, Darwin, and Poe among them. One of eight children, he was well-born, and we may remember that “sculptured monkeys still surmount the gateposts at Little Island, Waterford, the Irish seat of FitzGerald’s family.” His nursery looked out on hunting country, and he grew up in the midst of reasonable luxury and entertainment. I am surprised only to find Mr. Terhune surprised that from the time he entered manhood FitzGerald exhibited contempt for society as such, and lived in simplicity more like his exact coeval, poor Edward Lear, whom he apparently never met.
The middle course always suited him. He was “classed neither with the best nor the worst of the undergraduates” at Cambridge. He was “a non-reading reading man.” He read widely, that is, but not in the recommended books. “When in London and not engaged by family duties, he led a delightful existence.” Picture galleries, auctions, bookshops, and pawnshops fascinated him. He was not ever, as one legend has it, a recluse. With those “unconnected with his darker views” — to refute the popular conception — “he was humorous, happy, and carefree.” His marriage was not a success, but there was honor in it. He was constantly in search of a faith, but Spedding said of him in 1835: “His tranquillity is like a pirated copy of the peace of God.” He was full of the wanderlust but, says Mr. Terhune, “he found his Land of the Lotus in England itself.” He was a countryman rather than a city man. Beauty in color, form, sound, or seasonal change moved him deeply, and like other creative people — as Stephen Benét says somewhere in a poem he felt tears in his eyes often and could not tell why. His friends really loved him. Two of them, Thackeray and Tennyson, figured long and largely in his life.
We can see clearly now that he was not at all the selfstyled idler. He stood to work, literally, at a high desk. He mastered Spanish and Persian, and taught himself Italian and German in early and middle life. He wrote and translated a respectable number of books, and signed his name to poetic letters which, as thousands know, are high art in themselves.
FitzGerald had an editorial mind, and his biographer thinks that even in reading he edited mentally. Scissors and paste were his “Harp and Lute,” and his library contains many books revised the better to suit his taste. His love for Shakespeare was perennial, though he once shied from the influence of his manner and his “quaint words,” He was always translating. He began the study of Persian on a wet Sunday, probably in his forty-fourth year - a wet Sunday for which the English-speaking world can be grateful. But more than ten years before, he had been caught by a bit of Persian literature and wrote a sonnet ending with a, lovely and pure FitzGerald line: —
. . . That time her virtue never will subdue,
Nor all the rambling water wash away.
Which leads us to the romance of the Rubáiyát and the most magical chapters in the book. They are worth the full price of admission.
DAVID MCCORD