Here to return to
“I HAVE been reading a good deal, but not much in the way of knowledge.” So the future translator of Omar Khayyám wrote to a friend in 1832, being then twenty-three years old, and two years out of the University. The words may be taken as fairly descriptive of the remaining fifty years of his life. He was always reading something, but not with an eye to rank or scholarship. His old friends and schoolfellows one after another stepped into high place. Tennyson, Thackeray, and Carlyle were names on every tongue; Spedding, less talked about, was deep in a magnum opus; Thompson, Donne, Peacock, Allen, and Cowell held positions of honor in church or college; but FitzGerald had buried himself of set purpose in an insignificant, out-of-the-way Suffolk village, and, by his own account of himself, was dozing away his years in “visionary inactivity,” — in “the enjoyment of old childish habits and sympathies.”
Not less truly than his mates, however, as it now appears, he was living his own life; and perhaps not less truly than the foremost of them he was to come into lasting renown. Such are the “diversities of operations,” through which the spirit of man develops and discloses itself.
FitzGerald came of an eccentric family. “We are all mad,” he wrote; and his own share of the ancestral inheritance — mostly of an amiable and amusing sort — early made itself evident. While he was at Cambridge, his mother drove up to the college gate in her coach and four, and sent for him to come down and see her; but he could not go, — his only pair of shoes was at the cobbler’s. The Suffolk friend, from whom we have this anecdote, adds that to the last FitzGerald was perfectly careless of dress. “I can see him now,” he says, “walking down into Woodbridge, with an old Inverness cape, a double-breasted flowered satin waistcoat, slippers on his feet, and a handkerchief, very likely, tied over his hat.” It was odd, no doubt, that a gentleman should dress in so unconventional a manner; but it was much odder that he should write to Mrs. Kemble a fortnight after the death of his brother, in 1879: “I say but little of my brother’s death. We were very good friends, of very different ways of thinking; I had not been within side his lawn gates (three miles off) these dozen years (no fault of his), and I did not enter them at his funeral — which you will very likely — and properly think wrong.” Only an eccentric man could have had occasion to say that; and surely none but a very eccentric man would have said it.
After leaving the University, — at which, by the way, he barely obtained his degree, — he went to Paris (where he had spent part of his boyhood), but stayed only a month or two; and on his return, having just passed his majority, he wrote to Allen, “Tell Thackeray that he is never to invite me to his house, as I intend never to go.” He would rather go there than anywhere else, to be sure; but he has got “all sorts of Utopian ideas” about society into his head, and is “going to become a great bear.”
In another man’s mouth this might have been merely the expression of a passing whim; but whether FitzGerald meant the words seriously or not, they were pretty accurately fulfilled. His friends were of the noblest and truest, and his affection for them was of the warmest and stanchest, no man’s more so; but he chose to live apart.
“Why, sir,” said Doctor Johnson to Boswell, “you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” And Boswell, of course, responded Amen. “I can talk twice as much in London as anywhere else,” he remarked, with Boswellian simplicity. Possibly FitzGerald was less “intellectual” than the great luminary and his satellite; or perhaps his intellectuality, such as it was, ran less exclusively to talk.1 At all events, he hated London as a place of residence; and even when he paid it a visit, he was always in such feverish and ludicrous haste to get away that he was sure to leave his calls and errands no more than half done. “I long to spread wing and fly into the kind clear air of the country,” he writes oft one occasion of this sort. “I see nobody in the streets half so handsome as Mr. Reynolds of our parish. . . . A great city is a deadly plague. . . . I get radishes to eat for breakfast of a morning; with them comes a savor of earth that brings all the delicious gardens of the world back into one’s soul, and almost draws tears from one’s eyes.” In the mouth of a man of social position, University training, and independent fortune, — who had lived in Paris, and was only thirty-five years old, — language like this bespeaks a born rustic and recluse, not to say a philosopher. And such FitzGerald was.
Not that he craved a life in the wilderness (being neither a John the Baptist nor a René), or had any extraordinary appreciation of the beauties of nature, so called. There was little of Wordsworth or of Thoreau in his composition, or, if there was, it seldom found expression; but he detested crowds, was ill at ease in society, and having a bent toward homely solitude, was independent enough to follow it. It must seem queer to his old friends, he knew, but he preferred” to “poke about in the country,” using his books, as ladies do their knitting work, to pass the time away. Here is one of his days, a day of “glorious sunshine:”
“All the morning I read about Nero in Tacitus, lying at full length on a bench in the garden: a nightingale singing, and some red anemones eyeing the sun manfully not far off. A funny mixture all this: Nero, and the delicacy of spring; all very human, however. Then at half past one lunch on Cambridge cream cheese; then a ride over hill and dale: then spudding up some weeds from the grass: and then coming in, I sit down to write to you, my sister winding red worsted from the back of a chair, and the most delightful little girl in the world chattering incessantly. So runs the world away. You think I live in epicurean ease: but this happens to be a jolly day: one is n’t always well, or tolerably good, the weather is not always clear, nor nightingales singing, nor Tacitus full of pleasant atrocity. But such as life is, I believe I have got hold of a good end of it.”
Sometimes, it must be owned, he seemed not quite to approve of his own choice. “Men ought to have an ambition to stir and travel, and fill their heads and senses.” So he says once, in an unusual mood of something like penitence. Even then, however, he concludes, characteristically, “but so it is.” There speaks the real FitzGerald. He is what he is, what he was made: a man without ambition; a man incapable, from first to last, of taking himself seriously. He could never have said, as Tennyson did in his youth, and in effect for all his life, “I mean to be famous.” If FitzGerald meant to be anything, — which is doubtful, — he meant to be obscure. The wonder of it all is that his life was beautiful, his spirit sweet, and his posthumous reward celebrity.
He had little or none of the melancholy which so generally accompanies the union of exceptional powers with an enfeebled will and a comparative intellectual sterility. For one thing, he seems to have been spared the persecution of friends. As he expected little of himself, so they expected little of him. Unlike most men of a kindred sort — men of whom Gray and Amiel may stand as typical examples — he was left to go his own gait. Nobody wrote to him week after week, chiding him for his indolence and entreating him to produce a masterpiece. Happy man that he was, his youth had held out no promise of such production, and so his subsequent course was not clouded by the shadow of a promise unfulfilled. If he was down in the country letting the moss grow over him, why, it was only “old Fitz,” from whom nobody had ever looked for anything very different. So Thackeray, Tennyson, and the rest seem to have thought. And so thought the man himself. Life was worth living; oh yes; and he had “got hold of a good end of it;” but it was hardly a thing to disquiet one’s self about. He set little value upon time or money, and correspondingly little upon his own gifts. There were always hours enough, and more than enough, for the nothings he had to do; his income was sufficient; if it declined, — as it did, — it was no matter, he had only to reduce his expenditures; he never earned a penny, or considered the possibility of doing so; and withal, he was not made to write anything himself, but to please himself with the writings of others.
He was born of the school of Epicurus. His aim was to pass the time quietly; pitching his desires low, never overmuch in earnest, taking things as they came, —
“Crowning the present, doubting of the rest;”
“not a hero, not even a philosopher, but a quiet, humane, and prudent man;” cultivating no enthusiasm, and aiming at no perfection. For fifty years he seems to have been a consistent vegetarian. Like the master of his school, — whom he seldom or never mentions, and of whom he perhaps as seldom thought, — he subsisted mostly on bread, and drank wine sparingly. Such a diet gave him lightness of spirits, he said, — a better thing, surely, than any tickling of the palate.
With his liking for the country — in which, again, he was at one with his unrecognized master — went a strong and persistent preference for the society of common people. For correspondents he had always scholars and men of note, the best of his time, and many of them; for daily associates he chose a sailor, a village clergyman’s family, and an old woman or two. One of the greatest men he had ever known was his sailor, the captain of his yacht, — “my captain,” he calls him; “a gentleman of nature’s grandest type,” “fit to be king of a kingdom as well as of a lugger.” From Lowestoft he sends word to Laurence, the portrait painter, “I came here a few days ago, for the benefit of my old doctor, the sea, and my captain’s company, which is as good.” One who knew him at the time of his intimacy with Bernard Barton, the Quaker poet (fortunate Quaker, with Lamb and FitzGerald both writing letters to him! ), describes him as living in a little cottage at Boulge, a mile from the village, on the edge of his father’s park, with no companion save a parrot and a Skye terrier. Such domestic duties as he did not attend to with his own hands were performed by an “old-fashioned Suffolk woman.” It was at this period that FitzGerald — then thirty-three years old wrote to Barton, “I believe I should like to live in a small house just outside a pleasant English town all the days of my life, making myself useful in a humble way, reading my books, and playing a rubber of whist at night.” And it may be added that few men have ever come nearer to realizing their own dream.
The Hall was mostly unoccupied in those days, though “the great lady” — FitzGerald’s mother — would be there once in a while, and “would drive about in a coach of four black horses.” So says the son of the village rector, who adds that FitzGerald “used to walk by himself, slowly, with a Skye terrier.” The rector’s son (a grandson, by the bye, of the poet Crabbe) was rather afraid of his “grave, middle-aged” neighbor. “He seemed a proud and very punctilious man . . . never very happy or light-hearted, though his conversation was most amusing sometimes.” On this last point we have also the testimony of his housekeeper, the “old-fashioned Suffolk woman” before mentioned. “So kind he was,” she says; “not never one to make no obstacles. Such a joking gentleman he was, too!” All his dependents, indeed, speak of his kindness. A boy of the village, who was employed to read to him in the evening during his later years, told Mr. Groome2 “how Mr. FitzGerald always gave him plenty of plum cake, and how they used to play piquet together. Only sometimes a tame mouse would come out and sit on the table, and then not a card must be dropped.” “A pretty picture,” Mr. Groome calls it. And so say we.
As to the picture of FitzGerald’s manner of life taken as a whole, it will be thought “pretty” or not according to the prepossessions of the reader. To many it will seem in all respects amiable, a refreshment to read about. Why should a man not be what he was made to be? If he likes the heat of battle, let him fight, so that he does it fairly and with those who enjoy the same game. If another man cares not to be strenuous, but only to pass his day innocently, with pleasure to himself and harm to nobody else, — why, the world is big enough; let him be at liberty to sit in his corner and see the crowd go by.
“‘An hour we have,’ thou saidst. ‘Ah, waste it well.’”
And after all, the idler may reach the goal as soon as some who hurry. The race ought to be his who has trained hardest and run hardest; and it would be, perhaps, if the world were logically and properly governed; but things being as they are, the experience of mankind seems to show a measure of truth in the old Hebrew paradox, “The race is not to the swift.” Whether it is or not, the question had no particular interest for FitzGerald. His thoughts were not of winning a prize. His temperament had put him out of the competition. Temperament is fatality; and he was content to have it so. “It is not my talent,” he said, “to take the tide at its flow.” In his “predestined Plot of Dust and Soul” the vine of worldly prudence had never struck root.
He was peculiar in other ways. He was constitutionally a skeptic. Many things which he had been taught to believe seemed to him insufficiently established; improbable, if not incredible. The Master of Trinity wrote of him and of one of his dearest friends, “Two of the purest-living men among my intimates, FitzGerald and Spedding, were prisoners in Doubting Castle all their lives, or at least the last half of them.” The language is euphemistic. Some calamities are so deeply felt that it is natural to veil allusion to them under metaphor. His friends, the Master means to say, had lost their faith in the tenets of the English Church. “A great problem,” he pronounces it. And such it surely was: that two such men — “pure-living men!” — should doubt of matters which to so many bishops, priests, and deacons are the very certainties of existence. But so it is. Some men seem to be born for unbelief; and out of that number a few are so nonconformative, so perverse, or so honest as to live according to their lights. Concerning questions of this kind FitzGerald said little either in public or private. An unheroic, peace-loving man, who wishes to slip through the world unnoticed, naturally keeps some thoughts to himself, growing them, to borrow Keats’s phrase, in “a philosophic back-garden.” He reasoned about them, it would seem, in a quiet spirit, patient, perhaps half indifferent, being happily free from any corroding curiosity as to the origin and destiny of things. In that regard Nature had been good to him. What could not be known, he could get on without knowing. Why wear out one’s teeth in champing an iron bit? He spoke his mind, anonymously, in his translation of the Omar Khayyám quatrains, — which are perhaps rather more skeptical than the book of Ecclesiastes, — and once, at least, he shut the lips of a man whom he thought a meddler. The rector of Woodbridge, we are told by Mr. Groome, called on FitzGerald to express his regret at never seeing him at church. We may surmise that the “regret” was expressed in a rather lofty and dogmatic tone, a tone not unnatural, surely, in the case of one clothed with supernatural authority. “Sir,” said FitzGerald, whose fondness for clergymen’s society was one of his marked characteristics, “you might have conceived that a man has not come to my years without thinking much of these things. I believe I may say that I have reflected on them fully as much as yourself. You need not repeat this visit.”
His correspondence, by which mainly the world knows him, is full of interesting revelations. His whims and foibles, and his own gentle amusement over them; his bookish likes and dislikes, one as hearty as the other; his affection for his friends, whose weak points he could sometimes lay a pretty sharp finger on, notwithstanding, frankness being almost always one of an odd man’s virtues; his delight in the sea and in his garden (“Don’t you love the oleander? I rather worship mine,” he writes to Mrs. Kemble); his pottering over translations from the Spanish, the Persian, and the Greek (“all very well; only very little affairs:” he feels “ashamed” when his friend Thompson inquires about them); his music, wherein his taste was simple but difficult (he played without technique and sang without a voice, loving to “recollect some of ‘Fidelio’ on the piano‑forte,” and counting it more enjoyable “to perform in one’s head one of Handel’s choruses “than to hear most Exeter Hall performances), — all these things, and many more, come out in his letters, which are never anything but letters, written to please his friends, — and himself, — with no thought of anything beyond that. In them we see his life passing. He is trifling it away; but no matter. He might do more with it, perhaps; but cui bono? At the end of his summer touring he writes: “A little Bedfordshire — a little Northamptonshire — a little more folding of the hands — the same faces — the same fields — the same thoughts occurring at the same turns of road — this is all I have to tell of; nothing at all added — but the summer gone. My garden is covered with yellow and brown leaves; and a man is digging up the garden beds before my window, and will plant some roots and bulbs for next year. My parsons come and smoke with me.” What age does the reader give to the author of this paragraph, so full of afternoon shadows? He was thirty-five.
But if he was an idle fellow, careful for nothing, poor in spirit, contented to be the hindmost, devil or no devil, “reading a little, dreaming a little, playing a little, smoking a little,” doing whatever he did “a little,” he was not without a kind of faith in his own capacity. He knew, or believed that he knew, what he was good for. “I am a man of taste,” he said more than once. If he could not write poetry, — taste being only “the feminine of genius,” — he knew it when he saw it. He read books with his own eyes, not half so common or easy a trick as many would suppose. And having read a book in that unconventional way, it was by no means to be taken for granted that he would like it, though its author might be one of his dearest friends. And if he failed to like it, he seldom failed to say so. If he commended a book, — a new book, that is, — it was apt to be with a mixture of criticism. He cared little or nothing for flattery himself, and was magnanimous enough to assume (an enormous assumption) that literary workers in general were equally high-minded. If one friend sends another a book of his own writing, the best course for the second man is merely to acknowledge its receipt, unless he has some fault to indicate! This he sets down quite simply as his belief and ordinary practice. It was the more comfortable way for both parties, he thought. Perhaps he thought, too, that it was the more conducive to habits of truthfulness. (Others might conclude that its most immediate and permanent effect would be to discourage the circulation of authors’ copies.) If he considered Mr. Lowell’s odes to lack wings, he told Mr. Lowell so. If his taste was offended by the style of the “Moosehead Journal” (“too clever by half”), he told Mr. Lowell of that also. Why not? Great men did not resent truth-speaking, but were thankful for it. He was full of wonder and sorrow when he saw Tennyson — who had stopped at Woodbridge for a day to visit him, after a separation of twenty years — fretted by the “Quarterly’s” unfavorable comments. If Tennyson had lived an active life, like Scott and Shakespeare, he would have done more and talked about it less. He recalls Scott’s saying to Lockhart, “You know that I don’t care a curse about what I write;” and he believed that it was not far otherwise with Shakespeare. “Even old Wordsworth, wrapt up in his mountain mists, and proud as he was, was above all this vain disquietude.” If a man is not greater than the greatest things he does, the less said about him and them the better. His work should drop from him like fruit from a tree. Henceforth let the world look after it, if it is worth looking after. The tree should have other business.
To say that FitzGerald lived in accordance with his own doctrine in this regard is to say that he lived like a man of dignity and high self-respect, — like an old-fashioned man, — sometimes called a gentleman, — one is tempted to say: a man who would cut off his hand sooner than solicit a vote, or angle for a compliment, or whimper over a criticism. Old-fashioned he certainly was, — old-fashioned and conservative. He liked old books, old music, old places, old friends. The adjective is constantly on the point of his pen as a word of endearment: “old Alfred,” “old Thackeray,” “old Spedding” — “dear old Jem.” So, writing to Mrs. Kemble from the seacoast, he says, “Why it happens that I so often write to you from here, I scarce know; only that one comes with few books, perhaps, and the sea somehow talks to one of old things;” which was not an unhandsome tribute to an old friend, though the old friend was a woman. He was a “little Englander,” as the word is now. For a nation, as for an individual, great estates were, he thought, more a trouble than a blessing. “Once more I say, would we were a little, peaceful, unambitious, trading nation, like — the Dutch!” Men of taste are naturally conservatives and moderates.
Not that Fitz Gerald was too nice for the world he lived in. His carelessness about dress, his contentment with mean lodgings, and his liking for the plainest and homeliest service and companionship have already been touched upon. Even in the matter of reading, while he held pretty strictly to the classics (not meaning the Greek and the Latin in particular), he cherished one bit of freakishness: a great fondness for the “Newgate Calendar”! “I don’t ever wish to see and hear these things tried; but when they are in print, I like to sit in court then, and see the judges, counsel, prisoners, crowd; hear the lawyers’ objections, the murmur in the court, etc.” So he writes to his friend Allen, at fifty-six. And the passion remained with him, as most things do that are part of a man’s life at fifty odd; for fourteen years later he writes to Mrs. Kemble, as of a matter well understood among his friends: “I like, you know, a good murder; but in its place
‘The charge is prepared; the lawyers are met —
The judges all ranged, a terrible show.’”3
It may be that on this point he was not so very eccentric. Certainly our newspaper editors give the general public credit for having a reasonably good appetite for capital cases. And FitzGerald’s weakness — if it was a weakness — is curiously matched by what we are told of another eminent translator, the man to whom we owe our English Plato and Thucydides. A shy student, Mr. Tollemache says, happened to sit next to Jowett at dinner, and having hard work to maintain the conversation, as such men often had, in Jowett’s unresponsive company, stumbled upon the subject of murder. “To his surprise the Master rose to the bait, mentioned some causes célèbres, and dropped all formality.” Naturally the young Oxonian was surprised; but when he spoke of the incident to a man who knew the Master of Balliol better than he, the latter said, “If you can get Jowett to talk of murders, he will go off like a house on fire.”
There is something of the savage ancestor in all of us. We are wrong, perhaps, to feel astonished that men of the cloister, studious men, never called upon to kill so much as a superfluous kitten, should find an agreeable excitement in a dramatic, second-hand tickling of certain half-dormant sensibilities. If it is ghastly good fun to read of murder in Scott or Dumas, why not in the “Newgate Calendar”? Who knows how many tender-hearted, white-handed scholars would enjoy the spectacle of a prize fight, if only the amusement were a few shades more respectable in the public eye? And how long is it since we saw college men falling over one another in a mad rush to enlist for battle, every one in a fever of anxiety lest he should be too late, and so be debarred from the unusual pleasure of killing and being killed?
No! When FitzGerald called himself a man of taste, he did not mean to confess himself an intellectual prig, with a schoolmaster’s eye for petty failings and a super-refined disrelish for everything short of perfection. As for perfection, indeed, he did not much expect it, whether in human beings or in their works; and when he found it, he did not always like it. He thought some other things were better. He preferred genius to art: that is to say, he enjoyed high qualities, though accompanied by defects, better than lower qualities cultivated to a state of flawlessness. “The grandest things,” he believed, “do not depend on delicate finish.” Thus in poetry he admired a score of Béranger’s almost perfect songs, but would have given them all for a score of Burns’s couplets, stanzas, or single lines scattered among “his quite imperfect lyrics.” Burns had so much more genius, so much more inspiration. In the same way FitzGerald had little patience with some perfect novels, — with Miss Austen’s, to be more specific. They were perfect; yes, he had no thought of denying that; but they did not interest him. Even Trollope’s were more to his mind, with all their caricature and carelessness. Miss Austen is “capital as far as she goes; but she never goes out of the parlor.” “If Magnus Troil, or Jack Bunce, or even one of Fielding’s brutes, would but dash in upon the gentility and swear a round oath or two!” Cowell, he adds, reads Miss Austen at night after his Sanskrit studies. “It composes him, like gruel.”
There is no doubt of it, FitzGerald was old-fashioned, especially as a novel-reader. He doted on Clarissa Harlowe, “that wonderful and aggravating Clarissa Harlowe,” and he read Dickens. “A little Shakespeare — a cockney Shakespeare, if you will . . . a piece of pure genius.” So he breaks out after a chapter of Copperfield. “I have been sunning myself in Dickens,” he says at another time. A pretty compliment that, for any man. It is good to hear his praise of Scott. Even those who can no longer abide that romancer themselves — for there are such, unaccountable as the fact may seem to happier men — may well feel a touch of warmth at FitzGerald’s fire. He read fiction as he read everything else — for pleasure; and in English no other fiction pleased him so much, taking the years together, as Sir Walter’s. In 1871 he has been reading “The Pirate” again. He knows it is not one of the best, but he is glad to find how much he likes it; nay, that is below the mark, how he “wonders and delights in it.” “With all its faults, often mere carelessness, what a broad Shakespearean daylight over it all, and all with no effort.” He finished it with sadness, thinking he might never read it again.
And as he was always reading Scott, and as often praising him, so he was always reading and praising Don Quixote. In 1867 he has been on his yacht. “I have had Don Quixote, Boccaccio, and my dear Sophocles (once more) for company on board: the first of these so delightful that I got to love the very dictionary in which I had to look out the words: yes, and often the same words over and over again. The book really seemed to me the most delightful of all books: Boccaccio delightful too, but millions of miles behind; in fact, a whole planet away.” In 1876 his mind is the same. “I have taken refuge from the Eastern Question in Boccaccio. . . . I suppose one must read this in Italian as my dear Don in Spanish: the language of each fitting the subject ‘like a glove.’ But there is nothing to come up to the Don and his Man.”
Bookishness of this affectionate, enthusiastic sort, constantly recurring, would be enough of itself to give the letters a welcome; for every reader loves to hear books praised at first hand, the man rather than the critic speaking, even though they be such as lie outside the too narrow limits of his own appreciation. Happiness is contagious, and it is better than nothing, as was said just now, to warm one’s self at another’s fire.
FitzGerald’s relations with books (with his books) were those of a lover. He can never say all he feels about Virgil. Horace he is unable to care about, in spite of his good sense, elegance, and occasional force. “He never made my eyes wet as Virgil does.” When he reads “Comus” and “Lycidas,” even at seventy, it is “with wonder and a sort of awe.” Surely he was a man of taste; born to be an appreciator of other men’s good work.
And because he was a man of taste, — or partly for that reason, — his praise; even in its warmest and most personal expression (like the words just quoted about Virgil), has not only no taint of affectation, but no suggestion of sentimentality. With him, as with all healthy souls, feeling was a matter of moments; it came in jets, not in a stream; and its outgiving was always with a note of unconsciousness, of deep and absolute sincerity. His life, inward and outward, was pitched in a low key. He never complained, let what would happen; he had too much of “old Omar’s consolation” for that (too much fatalism, that is); his own weaknesses, even, he took as they were; why regret what was past mending? but his prevailing mood was anything but rhapsodical. All the more effective, therefore, are the outbursts — frequent, but never more than a sentence or two together — in which he utters himself touching those best of all companions, his “friends on the shelf.”
The most striking instance of this affectionate absorption, this falling in love with a book, as one cannot help calling it, occurred in the last decade of his life. In the summer of 1875, when his health seemed to be failing, and he was beginning, as he said, to “smell the ground,” he suddenly became enamored of Madame de Sévigné. Till then, in spite of his favorite Sainte-Beuve, he had kept aloof from her, repelled by her perpetual harping on her daughter. Now he finds that “it is all genuine, and the same intense feeling expressed in a hundred natural yet graceful ways; and beside all this such good sense, good feeling, humor, love of books and country life, as makes her certainly the queen of all letter-writers.”
The next spring he wishes he had the “Go” in him; he would visit his dear Sévigné’s Rochers, as he would Abbotsford and Stratford. The “fine creature,” much more alive to him than most friends, has been his companion at the seashore. She now occupies Montaigne’s place, and worthily; “she herself a lover of Montaigne, and with a spice of his free thought and speech in her.” He sometimes laments not having known her before; but reflects that “perhaps such an acquaintance comes in best to cheer one toward the end.” Henceforward, year after year, in spring especially, he talks of the dear lady’s charms. “My blessed Sévigné,” “my dear old Sévigné,” he calls her; “welcome as the flowers of May.” Like the best of Scott’s characters, she is real and present to him. “When my oracle last night was reading to me of Dandie Dinmont’s blessed visit to Bertram in Portanferry gaol, I said — ‘I know it’s Dandie, and I shouldn’t be at all surprised to see him come into this room.’ No — no more than — Madame de Sévigné! I suppose it is scarce right to live so among shadows; but after near seventy years so passed, que voulez-vous?” One thinks of what Emerson said, that there is creative reading as well as creative writing.
As is true of all readers, every kind of human capacity being limited, FitzGerald found many likely books lying mysteriously outside the range of his sympathies. He loved Longfellow (and so “could not call him Mister”) and admired Emerson (with qualifications — “I don’t like the ‘Humble Bee,’ and won’t like the ‘Humble Bee”); and he delighted in Lowell (the critical essays), and “rather loved” Holmes; but he “could never take to that man of true genius, Hawthorne.” “I will have another shot,” he said. But it was useless. He confesses his failure to Professor Norton. “I feel sure the fault must be mine, as I feel about Goethe, who is yet a sealed book to me.” He expects to “die ungoethed, so far as poetry goes.” He supposes there is a screw loose in him on this point. Again he writes: “I have failed in another attempt at ‘Gil Blas.’ I believe I see its easy grace, humor, etc. But it is (like La Fontaine) too thin a wine for me: all sparkling with little adventures, but no one to care about; no color, no breadth, like my dear Don, whom I shall return to forthwith.” Happy reader, who could give so pretty a reason for the want of faith that was in him. If he lacked patience to write formal criticism, he had the neatest kind of knack at critical obiter dicta.
Books were his best friends; or, if that be too much to say, they were the ones that he liked best to have about him. As for human intimates, — well, it is hard to know how to express it, but he seemed, especially as he grew older, not to crave very much of their society. He loved to write to them, — not too often, lest they should be troubled about replying, — but he would never visit them; and what is stranger, he cared little, nay, he almost dreaded, to have them visit him. His house he devoted to his nieces, for such part of the year as they chose to occupy it, reserving but one room to himself. This serves for “parlor, bedroom and all,” he tells Mrs. Kemble; “which I really prefer, as it reminds me of the cabin of my dear little ship — mine no more.” Still the house is large enough. If any of his friends, Tennyson, Spedding, Carlyle, Mr. Lowell, Mr. Norton, or who not, should happen to be in the neighborhood, he would be delighted, truly delighted, to see them; but none of them must ever undertake the journey on purpose. He could n’t render it worth their while, and it would really make him unhappy. He was never in danger of forgetting them, and he had no fear of their forgetting him. If they suffered, he suffered with them. If one of them died, he wrote of him in the tenderest and most poignant strain.
In January, 1864, all his letters are full of Thackeray, whose death had occurred on the day before Christmas. He sits “moping about him,” reading his books and the few of his letters that he has preserved. He writes to Laurence: “I am surprised almost to find how much I am thinking of him: so little as I had seen him for the last ten years; not once for the last five. I had been told — by you, for one — that he was spoiled. I am glad therefore that I have scarce seen him since he was ‘old Thackeray.’ I keep reading his New-comes’ of nights, and as it were hear him saying so much of it; and it seems to me as if he might be coming up my stairs, and about to come (singing) into my room, as in old Charlotte Street thirty years ago.” 4
Hear him again as he writes of Spedding, the wisest man he has ever known, “a Socrates in life and in death,” who has been run over by a cab in London, and is dying at the hospital: “My dear old Spedding, though I have not seen him these twenty years and more, and probably should never see him again; but he lives, his old self, in my heart of hearts; and all I hear of him does but embellish the recollection of him, if it could be embellished; for he is but the same that he was from a boy, all that is best in heart and head, a man that would be incredible had one not known him.” And when all is over, and Laurence sends him tidings of the event, this is his answer: “It was very, very good of you to think of writing to me at all on this occasion: much more, writing to me so fully, almost more fully than I dared at first to read: though all so delicately and as you always write. It is over! I shall not write about it. He was all you say.” How perfect! And how it goes to the quick!
Not for want of heart, surely, did such a man choose the companionship of books rather than of his fellows. He was born to be a solitary, or believed that he was; at all events, it was too late now for him to be anything else. Whether nature or he had made his bed, it was made, and henceforth he must lie in it. “Twenty years’ solitude,” he says to Mrs. Kemble, “makes me very shy.” And he writes to Sir Frederick Pollock, who has proposed to visit him, that he feels nervous at the prospect of meeting old friends, “after all these years.” He fears they will not find him in person what he is by letter. Every recluse knows that trouble. With books it was another story. In their presence he felt no misgivings, no palsying diffidence. They would never expect of him what he could not render, nor find him altered from his old self. If he happened to be awkward or dull, as he often was, they would never know it. And really, with them on his shelves, and with his habit of living by himself, he did not need intellectual society, just a few commonplace, kindly, more or less sensible bodies to speak with in a neighborly way about the weather, the crops, or the day’s events, and to play cards with of an evening. He was one of the fortunates — or unfortunates — who have a “talent for dullness.” The word is his own. “I really do like to sit in this doleful place with a good fire, a cat and dog on the rug, and an old woman in the kitchen.” He reveled in the pleasures of memory. He loved his friends as they were years ago, — “old Thackeray,” “old Jem,” “old Alfred,” — and only hoped they would love him in the same manner.
So his letters are full of the books he has been reading, rather than of the people he has been talking with. But what of his own books, especially of the one that has made him famous? About that, it must be said at once, the correspondence tells comparatively little. His Persian studies were only an episode in his life, interesting enough at the time, but not a continuous passion, like, for instance, his reading of Crabbe, and his long persisted in — never relinquished — attempt to secure for that half-forgotten Suffolk poet the honor rightfully belonging to him. Concerning that pious attempt, as concerning a possible republication of some of his translations from the Spanish and the Greek, he left directions with his literary executor; but not a word about Omar Khayyám.
The whole Persian business, indeed, if one may speak of it so, appears to have been largely a matter of friendship, or at least to have been begun as such. Cowell had become absorbed in that language, and enticed his old Spanish pupil to follow him. The first mention of the subject to be found in the published letters occurs in 1853. FitzGerald has ordered Eastwick’s “Gulistan:” “for I believe I shall potter out so much Persian.” Two months afterward he writes to Frederic Tennyson: “I amuse myself with poking out some Persian which E. Cowell would inaugurate me with. I go on with it because it is a point in common with him, and enables us to study a little together.” Friendly feeling has served the world many a good turn, but rarely a better one than this.
Three or four years later comes the first reference to Omar. “Old Omar,” he says, “rings like true metal.” Now he is translating the quatrains, though he has little to say about them. He finds it amusing to “take what liberties he likes with these Persians,” who, he thinks, are not poets enough to frighten one from so doing. On a 1st of July he writes: “June over! A thing I think of with Omar-like sorrow.” Then he is preparing to send some of the more innocent of the quatrains to “Fraser’s Magazine,” the editor of which has asked him for a contribution. He has begun to look upon Omar as rather more his property than Cowell’s. “He and I are more akin, are we not?” he writes to his teacher. “You see all his beauty, but you don’t feel with him in some respects as I do.” He is taking all pains, not for literalness, but to make the thing live. It must live; if not with Omar’s life, why, then, with the translator’s. And live it did, and does, —
“The rose of Iran on an English stock.”
The Fraser story is well known, — a classical example of the rejection of a future classic. The editor took the manuscript, but kept it in its pigeonhole (“Thou knowest not which shall prosper” being as true a text for editors as for other men — “Sir,” said Doctor Johnson, “a fallible being will fail somewhere”), and at last FitzGerald asked it back, added something to it, and printed it anonymously. This was in 1859. He gave one copy to Cowell (who “was naturally alarmed at it; he being a very religious man”), one copy to George Borrow, and one — a good while afterward to “old Donne.” Some copies he kept for himself. The remainder, two hundred, more or less, he presented to Mr. Quaritch, who had printed them for him, and who worked them off upon his customers, as best he could, mostly at two cents apiece.
In the course of the next few years three other editions were printed — all anonymously — for the sake of alterations and additions (a man of taste is sure to be a patient reviser), but there is next to nothing about them in the letters. No one cares for such things, the translator says. He hardly knows why he prints them, only that he likes to make an end of the matter. So he writes to Cowell. As for the rest of his correspondents, they are more likely to be interested in other things, — his garden, his boat, his reading. By 1863 he is pretty well tired of everything Persian. “Oh dear,” he says to his teacher, “when I look at Homer, Dante and Virgil, Æschylus, Shakespeare, etc., those Orientals look — silly! Don’t resent my saying so. Don’t they?” An English masterpiece had been made, but neither the maker of it nor any one else had yet suspected the fact.
The merits of the work seem to have been first publicly recognized in 1869 by Mr. Charles Eliot Norton, in an article contributed to the “North American Review.” “The work of a poet inspired by the work of a poet,” he pronounces it; “not a copy, but a reproduction, not a translation, but the redelivery of a poetic inspiration.” “There is probably nothing in the mass of English translations or reproductions of the poetry of the East to be compared with this little volume in point of value as English poetry. In the strength of rhythmical structure, in force of expression, in musical modulation, and in mastery of language, the external character of the verse corresponds with the still rarer qualities of imagination and of spiritual discernment which it displays.”
It would be pleasant to know how appreciation of this kind, coming unexpectedly from a stranger over seas, affected the still anonymous, obscurity-loving translator; but if he ever read it, or, having read it, said anything about it, the letters make no sign. He and his work were still comfortably obscure. His old friend Carlyle heard not a word about the matter till 1873, when Professor Norton, who meanwhile had somehow discovered the name of the man he had been praising, mentioned the poem to him, and insisted upon giving him a copy. Carlyle, much pleased, at once wrote to FitzGerald a letter which was undoubtedly meant to be very kind and handsome, but which, read in the light of the present, sounds a little perfunctory, and even a bit patronizing. The translation, he says, is a “meritorious and successful performance.” We can almost fancy that we are listening to a good-natured but truthful man who feels it his duty to speak well of a pretty good composition written by a fairly bright grammar school boy.
It was all one to FitzGerald. Perhaps he thought the compliment as good as he deserved. He was getting old — as he had been doing for the last twenty-five years. Persian poetry was little or nothing to him now — “a ten years’ dream.” The fruit had dropped from the tree; let the earth care for it. So he returns to his Crabbe, to Sainte-Beuve, to Madame de Sévigné, to Don Quixote, to Wesley’s Journal, and the rest. Such little time as he has to live, he will live quietly. And ten years afterward, when he died, — suddenly, as he had always hoped, — some one put on his gravestone that most Omaric of Scripture texts, “It is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves.” Perhaps the words were of his own choosing. Certainly no others could have suited him so well. If he had been eccentric, idle, unambitious, ease-loving, incapable, a pitcher “leaning all awry,” he had been what the Potter made him.
“The Ball no question makes of Ayes and Noes,
But Here or There as strikes the Player goes;
And He that tossed you down into the Field,
He knows about it all — HE knows — HE knows!”
Since his death his fame has increased mightily. All the world reads Omar Khayyám and praises FitzGerald. “His strange genius, so fitfully and coyly revealed, has given a new quality to English verse, almost all recent manifestations of which it pervades.” So says one of the later historians of our nineteenth century literature. And the man himself thought he had done nothing! Truly the race is not to the swift.
“Behold the Grace of Allah comes and goes
As to Itself is good: and no one knows
Which way it turns: in that mysterious Court
Not he most finds who furthest travels for ‘t,
For one may crawl upon his knees Life-long,
And yet may never reach, or all go wrong:
Another just arriving at the Place
He toiled for, and — the Door shut in his Face:
Whereas Another, scarcely gone a Stride,
And suddenly — Behold he is inside!”
1 “Mr. Johnson, indeed, as he was a very talking man himself, had an idea that nothing promoted happiness so much as conversation.” — Mrs. Piozzi.
2 Author of Two Suffolk Friends.
3 In a letter to his friend Pollock he says: “To-morrow I am going to one of my great treats, namely, the Assizes at Ipswich: where I shall see little Voltaire Jervis, and old Parke, who I trust will have the gout, he bears it so Christianly.”
4 In connection with which it is good to remember that when Thackeray, not long before he died, was asked by his daughter which of his old friends he had loved most, he replied, “Why, dear old Fitz, to be sure.” After FitzGerald’s death Tennyson wrote of him: “I had no truer friend: he was one of the kindliest of men, and I have never known one of so fine and delicate a wit.”