Fitzgerald letters

Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883), from Letters of Edward FitzGerald, 1901. Courtesy Project Gutenberg.

Edward FitzGerald
Born 31 March 1809
Bredfield, Suffolk, England
Died 14 June 1883 (aged 74)
Merton, Norfolk, England
Occupation Poet
Notable work(s) English translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Edward FitzGerald (31 March 1809 - 14 June 1883) was an English poet, best known as the author of the earliest and most famous English translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.[1][2]



Fitzgerald was born near Woodbridge, Suffolk, son of John Purcell (who took his wife's surname on the death of her father). He was educated at Bury St. Edmunds and Cambridge. Thereafter he lived in retirement and study with his parents until 1838, when he took a neighboring cottage. In 1856 he married a daughter of poet Bernard Barton, Afterwards he lived at various places in the East of England, continuing his studies, with yachting for his chief recreation. By this time, however, he had become an author. Becoming interested in Spanish literature, he published translations of Six Dramas of Calderon. Thereafter turning his attention to Persian, he produced (1859), anonymously, his famous translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám. He also published translations of the Agamemnon of Æschylus, and the Œdipus Tyrannus and Œdipus Coloneus of Sophocles. In his translations FitzGerald aimed not so much at a mere literal reproduction of the sense of the original, as at reproducing its effect on the reader, and in this he was extraordinarily successful. In the department of letter-writing also he attained an excellence perhaps unequalled in his day.[3]


FitGerald was born Edward Purcell, at Bredfield House, in Suffolk. His father, John Purcell, who had married a Miss FitzGerald, assumed in 1818 the name and arms of his wife's family. From 1816 to 1821 the FitzGeralds lived at St Germain and at Paris, but in the latter year Edward was sent to school at Bury St Edmunds.[4]

In 1826 he proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, where, some 2 years later, he became acquainted with Thackeray and W.H. Thompson.[4]


In 1830 he went to live in Paris, but in 1831 was in a farm-house on the battlefield of Naseby. He adopted no profession, and lived a perfectly stationary and rustic life, presently moving into his native county of Suffolk, and never again leaving it for more than a week or 2. With Tennyson his friendship began about 1835.[4]

Until 1835 the FitzGeralds lived at Wherstead; from that year until 1853 the poet resided at Boulge, near Woodbridge; until 1860 at Farlingay Hall; until 1873 in the town of Woodbridge; and then until his death at his own house hard by, ealled Little Grange.[4]

FitzGerald He was “an idle fellow, but one whose friendships were more like loves.” He married, in middle life, Lucy, the daughter of Quaker poer Bernard Barton,[4] from whom, however, he soon separated.[3]

During most of this time FitzGerald gave his thoughts almost without interruption to his flowers, to music and to literature. He allowed friends like Tennyson and Thackeray, however, to push on far before him, and long showed no disposition to emulate their activity. In 1851 he published his 1st book, Euphranor, a Platonic dialogue, born of memories of the old happy life at Cambridge. In 1852 appeared Polonius, a collection of “saws and modern instances,” some of them his own, the rest borrowed from the less familiar English classics. FitzGerald began the study of Spanish poetry in 1850, when he was with Prof. E.B. Cowell at Elmsett. and that of Persian in Oxford in 1853. In the latter year he issued Six Dramas of Calderon, freely translated.[4]

He now turned to Oriental studies, and in 1856 he anonymously published a version of the Salámán and Absál of Jámi in Miltonic verse. In March 1857 the name with which he has been so closely identified first occurs in FitzGerald's correspondence — “Hafiz and Omar Khayyám ring like true metal.” On the 15th of January 1859 a little anonymous pamphlet was published as The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.[4]

In the world at large, and in the circle of FitzGerald's particular friends, the poem seems at 1st to have attracted no attention. The publisher allowed it to gravitate to the 4-penny or even (as he afterwards boasted) to the penny box on the bookstalls. But in 1860 Rossetti discovered it, and Swinburne and Lord Houghton quickly followed. The Rubáiyát became slowly famous, but it was not until 1868 that FitzGerald was encouraged to print a 2nd and greatly revised edition.[4]

Meanwhile he had produced in 1865 a version of the Agamemnon, and 2 more plays from Calderon. In 1880-1881 he issued privately translations of the 2 Oedipus tragedie;; his last publication was Readings in Crabbe, 1882. He left in manuscript a version of Attar's Mantic-Uttair under the title of The Bird Parliament[4].

From 1861 onwards FitzGerald's greatest interest had centred in the sea. In June 1863 he bought a yacht, The Scandal, and in 1867 he became part-owner of a herring-lugger, the Meum and Tuum. For some years, till 1871, he spent the months from June to October mainly in “knocking about somewhere outside of Lowestoft.”[4]

In this way, and among his books and flowers, FitzGerald gradually became an old man. On the 14th of June 1883 he passed away painlessly in his sleep.[4]


The Rubáiyát of Omar KhayyámEdit

Beginning in 1859, FitzGerald authorized 4 editions and had a 5th posthumous edition of his translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám {باعیات عمر خیام}}), of which 3 (the 1st, 2nd, and 5th) differ significantly; the 2nd and 3rd are almost identical, as are the 4th and 5th. The 1st and 5th editions are almost equally reprinted,[5][6] and equally often anthologized.[7]

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Stanza XI above, from the 5th edition, differs from the corresponding stanza in the 1st edition, wherein it reads: "Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the bough / A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse —a nd Thou". Other differences are discernible. Stanza LXIX is more well known in its incarnation in the 1st edition:

'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

The 5th edition is less familiar: "But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays / Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days".

FitzGerald's translation of the Rubáiyát is notable for being a work to which allusions are both frequent and ubiquitous.[8] It remains popular, but enjoyed its greatest popularity for a century following its publication, wherein it formed part of the wider English literary canon.[8]

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

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 favor which the poem has met with among critical readers. But its popularity has gone much deeper than this; it is now probably better known to the general public than any single poem of its class published since the year 1860, and its admirers have almost transcended common sense in the extravagance of their laudation.[4]


Of FitzGerald as a man practically nothing was known until, in 1889, Mr W. Aldis Wright, his friend and literary executor, published his Letters and Literary Remains in 3 volumes. This was followed in 1895 by the Letters to Fanny Kemble. These letters constitute a fresh bid for immortality, since they revealed that FitzGerald was a witty, picturesque and sympathetic letter-writer. One of the most unobtrusive authors who ever lived, FitzGerald has, nevertheless, by the force of his extraordinary individuality, gradually influenced the whole face of English belles-lettres, in particular as it was manifested between 1890 and 1900.

Critical introductionEdit

by Thomas Humphry Ward

Edward FitzGerald claims to be remembered on two special grounds. He was a man of many warm, even intense friendships, of which the record remains in more than one volume of delightful letters; and he was a translator whose renderings from other languages had in a marked degree many of the qualities of original poetry. He lived from 1809 to 1883, and among his intimate friends he counted many of the foremost men of letters of his time, Alfred and Frederic Tennyson, James Spedding the editor of Bacon, Thomas Carlyle, and W. M. Thackeray being the most prominent names among them. With these he corresponded freely, but he wrote as liberally to many others, such as Bernard Barton the Quaker poet, W.F. Pollock, W.H. Thompson, for many years Master of Trinity, E.B. Cowell the Oriental scholar, Aldis Wright the Shakespearian (who afterwards edited Fitzgerald’s works), and, after 1870, the eminent Americans, J.R. Lowell and Charles Eliot Norton. The charm of his letters lies in the frank and natural view which they give of a many-sided life.

Fitzgerald was far from being only a literary man. He lived for the most part in a remote part of Suffolk, chiefly in a cottage, though he was a considerable landowner; but during many years he spent most of the summer on board a little pleasure yacht, in which he would sail down to the English Channel, often venturing as far as Cornwall; and at home he read with avidity, bought books, and collected old pictures, sometimes Venetian and more often English, especially those of the Norwich school. On whatever books he read, he quickly formed an opinion, which he would express with a shrewd incisiveness that one cannot help admiring, however one may disagree. Greatly as he valued Tennyson, he could write (in 1842) “Why reprint The Merman, The Mermaid, and those everlasting Eleanores, Isabels, which always were and are and must be a nuisance?” Three years later, à propos of In Memoriam (as yet unpublished) he asks his friend W.B. Donne “Don’t you think the world wants other notes than elegiac now?” After sharp criticism like this, it is not surprising to find him, thirty years later, seeing little merit in The Lover’s Tale, Queen Mary, and such like; and yet his real opinion comes out in such passages as that in which, contrasting Tennyson with Browning (whom he never liked or appreciated), he declares that "Alfred has stocked the English language with lines which once knowing one cannot forego."

Dickens he adored, and at seventy years of age he cries "I bless and rejoice in Dickens more and more,” while of his old and intimate friend Thackeray he speaks in varying tones, now praising, and now not fearing to agree with those who thought Pendennis dull. Late in life he came to doubt the merits of George Borrow; he agreed with a friend who declared that Miss Brontë was “a great Mistress of the Disagreeable;” and he confessed that he had tried, and failed, to read The Life and Death of Jason. All through, his own special favourite among the English poets of what were then more or less recent years was George Crabbe, for whom he confessed to a “monomania” of admiration. It was certainly something of a paradox that he should assign so high a rank to this chronicler of quiet English life; for at the very same time he was zealously translating not only the Spanish dramatist Calderon but the Agamemnon of Aeschylus and the two greatest of the plays of Sophocles.

Fitzgerald’s lack of literary ambition was for many years a matter of common talk among his friends; in point of fact he was nearly fifty before he began the work which has made him famous, and he was over seventy when the two Oedipus plays saw the light. It need hardly be said that by the work which made him famous we mean the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, the Astronomer-Poet of Persia—a twelfth-century bard who until Fitzgerald took him in hand had been almost forgotten by scholars, but who is now probably more widely known in the Western world than any other poet of Asia. Let us not forget that the man who taught Fitzgerald the Persian language and who led him to study Omar was his friend E. B. Cowell, who read with him at home, corresponded with him from India, and as Professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge kept his interest in Eastern literature alive until the end. The difficulties in the way of the translation were very great; there was at that time no printed version of the original poem, and the MSS. were inconsistent, imperfect, and often corrupt. This is the main reason for the curious discrepancies between Fitzgerald’s first edition (1859) and those which followed, discrepancies so marked that Mr. Aldis Wright, in his Collected Writings of Fitzgerald, thought it desirable to print the two versions (ed. 1 and ed. 4) in extenso.

The passages — Rubáiyát or Quatrains — quoted below are from the definitive edition; to print from an earlier version would have been to do violence to one of Fitzgerald’s most positive rules, that a poet’s final edition is the best edition. The question whether the English Quartrains fairly represent the original has often been discussed, and Fitzgerald himself never claimed that they were in any way an exact rendering. Writing to Cowell, of the first version in 1858, he spoke of it as “very unliteral;” and Aldis Wright in an editorial note (1889) admits that “Fitzgerald took great liberties with the original in his version of Omar Khayyám.” That was his way; anybody can see it in his Oedipus and Agamemnon. The safeguard to those who, like the present writer, are ignorant of Persian is that Professor Cowell was at hand all the time, and we may be sure that in all essentials he kept the translator fairly to his task. “Many Quartrains are mashed together,” wrote Fitzgerald; but the result, say the scholars, is that Omar’s doctrine and Omar’s language are substantially reproduced. What that doctrine is, the reader will easily gather from the verses themselves.

The poet, says his translator, “is a lighter Shadow among the Shades over which Lucretius presides so grimly.” He is a philosopher who has convinced himself that Man can unravel many a knot “but not the master knot of Human Fate;” that only one thing is certain, which is Death; that therefore Man’s business is to live for the day—“To take the Cash and let the Credit go,” to enjoy the beauty of the world and the pleasures of life while they are attainable. A vast amount of discussion has been carried on among scholars as to what Omar meant by the Grape and the Wine-Cup. Did he mean sensual delight, or are these names to disguise the Ideal, the Divine, such as the Sufi believes in? Fitzgerald himself would hardly answer, and where he hesitated we may be content to remain in doubt. Let us follow Omar’s example and enjoy what he offers us—exquisite imagery and a haunting rhythm, to the religious mind "most melancholy," but to every ear "most musical."

Thackeray, starting for America in 1852, wrote most affectionately to his “dearest old friend” begging him to be literary executor should anything untoward happen on his travels. "The great comfort I have in thinking about my dear old boy is the recollection of our youth when we loved each other as I do even when I write Farewell."

And Tennyson, it will be remembered, dedicated Tiresias to "Old Fitz" in words just as full of affection; and when the old friend died suddenly and tranquilly before the poem was published, wrote lines of tender benediction,

  “Praying that, when I from hence
  Shall fade with him into the unknown,
My close of earth’s experience
  May prove as peaceful as his own!”[9]


"If you can prove to me that one miracle took place, I will believe he is a just God who damned us all because a woman ate an apple."

"Science unrolls a greater epic than the Iliad. The present day teems with new discoveries in Fact, which are greater, as regards the soul and prospect of men, than all the disquisitions and quiddities of the Schoolmen. A few fossil bones in clay and limestone have opened a greater vista back into time than the Indian imagination ventured upon for its gods. This vision of Time must not only wither the poet's hope of immortality, it is in itself more wonderful than all the conceptions of Dante and Milton."

"Leave well – even 'pretty well' – alone: that is what I learn as I get old."

"I am all for the short and merry life." Epitaph


In 1885 a stimulus was given to the steady advance of his fame by the fact that Tennyson dedicated his Tiresias to FitzGerald's memory, in some touching reminiscent verses to “Old Fitz.”[4]

2 of his poems, "Old Song" and an excerpt from "Omar Khayyam," were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[10] [11]

An indicator of the popular status of the Rubáiyát is that, of the 107 stanzas in the poem's 5th edition, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (2nd edition) quotes no less than 43 entire stanzas in full, in addition to many individual lines and couplets. Stanza LI, also well-known, runs:

Lines and phrases from the Rubáiyát have been used as the titles of many literary works, amongst them Nevil Shute's The Chequer Board, James Michener's The Fires of Spring and Agatha Christie's The Moving Finger; Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness alludes to the Rubáiyát without being a direct quotation. Allusions to it are frequent in the short stories of O. Henry;[12] Saki's nom-de-plume makes reference to it. The popular 1925 song "A Cup of Coffee, A Sandwich, and You," by Billy Rose and Al Dubin, makes reference to the 1st of the stanzas quoted above.


FitzGerald's translations of Omar Khayyam were popular in the century of their publication, and since the Rubaiyaat's publication humorists have used it for purposes of parody.[8]

  • The Rubáiyát of Ohow Dryyam by J.L. Duff utilises the original to create a satire commentating on Prohibition.
  • Rubaiyat of a Persian Kitten by Oliver Herford, published in 1904, is the illustrated story of a kitten in parody of the original verses.
  • The Rubaiyat of Omar Cayenne by Gelett Burgess (1866–1951) was a condemnation of the writing and publishing business.
  • The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Jr. by Wallace Irwin purports to be a translation from "Mango-Bornese"; it chronicles the adventures of Omar Khayyam's son "Omar Junior" – unmentioned in the original – who emigrated from Persia to Borneo.


Rubaiyatfitzgera00omar 0003





Collected editionsEdit

Letters and journalsEdit


Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[13]

See alsoEdit

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam - by Edward Fitzgerald

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam - by Edward Fitzgerald

"The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" by Edward FitzGerald (read by Tom O'Bedlam)

"The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" by Edward FitzGerald (read by Tom O'Bedlam)


  • PD-icon.svg Gosse, Edmund (1911). "FitzGerald, Edmund". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 10 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 443. . Wikisource, Web, Jan. 12, 2018.
  • Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Interpretations Philadelphia, 2004.
  • Borges, Jorge, "The Enigma of Edward FitzGerald," Selected Non-Fictions, Penguin, 1999, ISBN 0-14-029011-7
  • Douglas-Fairhurst, Robert. Victorian Afterlives: The Shaping of Influence in Nineteenth-Century Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Garnett, Richard; Gosse, Edmund (1904). English Literature. 4. New York: Grosset & Dunlap. 
  • Groome, Francis Hindes; FitzGerald, Edward (1902). Edward FitzGerald. Portland, Maine: Thomas B. Mosher. 
  • Sloan, Gary. Great Minds, "The Rubáiyát of Edward FitzOmar", Free Inquiry, Winter 2002/2003 - Volume 23, No. 1


  1. Edward FitzGerald, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Web, Aug. 12, 2013.
  2. The spelling of his name as both FitzGerald and Fitzgerald is seen The use here of FitzGerald conforms with that of his own publications, anthologies such as Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book of English Verse, and many reference books up through about the 1960s.
  3. 3.0 3.1 John William Cousin, "FitGerald, Edward," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 140. Web, Jan. 12, 2018.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 Gosse, 443.
  5. Decker, Christopher (editor) (1997) "Introduction: Postscript" Edward FitzGerald, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: a critical edition University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, page xlv, ISBN 0-8139-1689-5
  6. Appelbaum, Stanley (editor) (1990) "Note" Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Dover Publications, Mineola, New York, back cover, ISBN 0-486-26467-X
  7. Manchester, Frederick A. & Giese, William F. (editors)(1926) Harper's anthology for college courses in composition and literature Harper & Brothers, New York, volume 2, page 685, OCLC 1743706
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Staff (10 April 1909) "Two Centenaries" New York Times: Saturday Review of Books p. BR-220
  9. from Thomas Humphry Ward, "Critical Introduction: Edward Fitzgerald (1809–1883)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Mar. 24, 2016.
  10. "Old Song," Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919., Web, May 13, 2012.
  11. "Omar Khayyam (excerpt)," Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919., Web, May 13, 2012.
  12. Blake, Victoria (editor) (1993) "Notes" Selected Stories of O. Henry Barnes & Noble Books, New York, pages 404 & 418, ISBN 1-59308-042-5
  13. Search results = au:Edward FitzGerald, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Aug. 12, 2013.

External linksEdit

Rubáiyát of Omár Khayyám
Audio / video

PD-icon.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain, the 1911 Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica.. Original article is at Fitzgerald, Edward

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.