March 2007

John Ranelagh
22 March 2007

I chanced upon a new book yesterday;
I opened it, and, where my finger lay
‘Twixt page and uncut page, these words I read –
Some six or seven at most – and learned thereby
That you, Fitzgerald, whom by ear and eye
She never knew, “thanked God my wife was dead.”
Aye, dead! and were yourself alive, good Fitz,
How to return you thanks would task my wits.
Kicking you seems the common lot of curs –
While more appropriate greeting lends you grace,
Surely to spit there glorifies your face –
Spitting from lips once sanctified by hers.

That was Robert Browning – “To Edward Fitzgerald.” What a poem. What cold anger. What physicality. And how unexpected that Fitzgerald should stir such a passion. In a letter Fitz wrote when Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in 1861, he had declared:

“Mrs. Browning’s Death is rather a relief to me, I must say … A woman of real genius, I know; but what is the upshot of it all? She and her Sex had better mind the Kitchen and their Children: and perhaps the Poor: except in such things as little Novels, they only devote themselves to what Men do much better, leaving that which Men do worse or not at all.”

Ho hum. Browning came across the letter in Fitz’s posthumously published correspondence, and took it straight. And Fitz meant it straight, which tells us about Fitz.

He was fairly openly of homosexual inclination, living with a fisherman – Posh Fletcher – on the Norfolk coast, and causing much suspicion amongst the locals as he roamed the beaches in search of sailors. But there was no direct evidence of actual homosexual practice. He engaged at a distance through marvellous, intimate letters with a wide range of friends where his learning and his misogyny oozes through almost every friendship, as one of his biographers has pointed out. But it is in his Rubaiyat, quatrains, that his veiled heart beats most loud.

I say “his” Rubaiyat because he did not translate Omar’s text, but was inspired by it. His was somewhere between a translation and being original. About 500 quatrains are attributed to Omar. Fitz first took 75 and over 20 years in four editions rewrote, added and subtracted verses, ending up with 101 in the fourth edition, and rearranged them in an order to fit his view of Omar’s philosophy, and to fit his own. He called himself FitzOmar – son of Omar. In our toast to, “The Master,” there is a pleasing ambiguity as we hail them both.

Fitz, through Omar, produced a great poem in English. It is a canonical work. It wouldn’t have made a difference if he had invented Omar. Our wonderful, Christian, Brother Heath-Stubbs was going up against something like the King James Version when he translated the Rubaiyat with Peter Avery over thirty years ago. He did so because he thought – rightly – that apart from Omar’s call to seize life while we have it because it won’t last, which all those inspired by Omar have reflected, it was not Omar that Fitz had signed his name to, and he wanted to bring out Omar’s essence rather than Fitz’. We see it right away. Fitzgerald’s:

“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!”

Becomes with Heath-Stubbs a more literal and much more realistic translation, far less fantasy-driven and oblique:


“If chance supplied a loaf of white bread,
Two casks of wine and a leg of mutton,
In the corner of a garden with a tulip-cheeked girl
There’d be enjoyment no Sultan could outdo.”

Two exemplary Heath-Stubbsians, demonstrating his relentless determination to get Omar right, are:

“If the heart could grasp the meaning of life,
In death it would know the mystery of God;
Today when you are in possession of yourself, you know nothing.
Tomorrow when you leave yourself behind, what will you know?”

And, perhaps the essence of Omar’s Rubaiyat:

“It is we who are the source of our own happiness, the mine of our own sorrow,
The repository of justice and foundation of iniquity;
We who are cast down and exalted, perfect and defective,
At once the rusted mirror and Jamshid’s all-seeing cup.”

The mid-nineteenth century was a boom time in Europe for Egyptian and Arabian imagery and fashion. Persian culture then, and now, never had European imagination captured to such an extent. Perhaps one other Persian writer, Hafiz, enjoys an awareness, but I suspect that’s it. So, by taking up Omar it is fair to say that Fitz’ drive was to be quite different from his contemporaries. He knew that he could not establish himself with a poem on the subject of Persian dreams. The images were new to English, and the references obscure. Most of his readers did not know what a stone in a bowl was. And, after all, no-one knew Fitz: he did not have a literary reputation, let alone one as a poet. But he realised that in the name of Omar, he could establish himself and hide his sensibility by pretending to be an ancient Persian. And he did so, memorably. His Rubaiyat grew like a pearl, and the more Fitz wrote, the less there was of Omar. Fitzgerald’s is one of the most densely used texts in English. He captured Omar’s racing joy of life better and more eloquently than anyone else, and made it his own.

Why didn’t Fitz write more for publication? The question hovers all the time. He lived in an age of plentiful versifying – one only has to think of Tennyson’s or Browning’s output.

Well, while transience takes different forms in different cultures, an emphasis on transience generally tends to be an aggressive posture in that its pulse is the statement that we are all going to die. There is, I think, a great deal of suppressed aggression in Fitz.

“And if the Wine you drink, the Lip you press,
End in the Nothing all Things end in – Yes –
Then fancy while Thou art, Thou art but what
Thou shalt be – Nothing – Thou shalt not be less.”

Fitz had a healthy sense of self-preservation and was on the run all his life. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that he was worried that his Rubaiyat would give him away – would “out” him.

To Edward Cowell, the man who introduced him to the study of Persian and to Omar, Fitz revealingly remarked, “In truth, I take old Omar rather more as my property than yours: he and I are more akin, are we not? You see all [his] Beauty, but you don’t feel with him in some respects as I do.” Fitz described his Rubaiyat as “wicked” and “dangerous” and had his first version printed and bound in brown paper without his name attached. He clearly thought his veils might be swept aside.

Perhaps others did too. Saki took his writing name from Fitz’s Omar, and there is a sense of a hidden text to the poem.

An example of the differences between Omar and Fitz, and of Fitz’s heart, comes in verse 32 of the first edition:

In direct translation Omar’s quatrain reads:

The secrets eternal neither you know nor I
And answers to the riddle neither you know nor I
Behind the veil there is much talk about us, why
When the veil falls, neither you remain nor I.

Then Fitz:

There was a Door to which I found no Key:
There was a Veil past which I could not see:
Some little Talk awhile of ME and THEE
There seemed – and then no more of THEE and ME.

He bought a boat for Posh Fletcher and named it the “Meum and Tuum,” and time and again in his Rubaiyat he turns Omar’s phrases into quests for love. Thus Omar’s:

When the clay into a cup is moulded
Its breaking, the drunk scolded;
Many limbs and heads are enfolded
Through whose love unfolded, by which decree folded?

Becomes with Fitz:

“Another said – “Why, ne’er a peevish Boy
Would break the Bowl from which he drank in Joy;
Shall He that made the Vessel in pure Love
And Fansy, in an after Rage destroy!”

Throughout, Fitz introduces passions, echoing his personal longings and conflicts and the veil behind which he lived, pouring out emotion in his letters and in his Rubaiyat while remaining physically distant from nearly all his peers. “I have a very young-lady-like partiality to writing to those that I love,” he said to one friend, and disliked what he called, “the espalier of London dinner-table company.” He was on the margin in many ways, not really part of the Establishment, perhaps consciously forcing himself to stay apart in order to survive. “Tell Thackeray,” he wrote, shortly after graduating from Cambridge, “that he is never to invite me to his house, as I intend never to go. . . . I cannot stand seeing new faces in the polite circles.” Later on, he named his own boat “Scandal.”

With his Rubaiyat, Fitz achieved something remarkable and almost certainly unintended: he produced a companion, a verse collection we have all found warming and happy-making: it has the presence of a friend. His and Omar’s insistence that life should be lived to the full and should be lived in a fun-filled and joyful way, give us all a gentle prod to have a go ourselves. I must say that the same insistence is in Hafiz’s poetry, written 250 years later than Omar, so this may be a Persian hallmark.

On 7 October 1893, our Club planted a clipping from a rose tree which grew on Omar’s tomb at Nishapur in Iran on the grave of Edward Fitzgerald at the Church of St Michael & All Angels near Woodbridge in Suffolk. The rose is named the Omar Khayyam.

Brother Hodgson has said goodbye. He was representative of what we hope we may also be: warm, generous, kindly, delighting vicariously in the achievements of others, aware that a stone is a stone and a guinea a guinea, but perfectly happy for the one to play the other, rejoicing with each spin, delighting in success, uplifting in failure.

A verse of Fitz, I think, suits:

“For in and out, above, about, below,
‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.”

Let us in turn take pleasure in Charles’ errant nature and see him skamping round us crying, “Rejoice! Rejoice!” And so let us rejoice in the warmth that assuredly surrounds him now.

“The Sharqi stirs, then wails. Then stops.
So take the coil and bounce and pull and twist and heave –
Glasses full, eyes bright, skin pricked, all strained.
And when the Master calls, “Time’s Up!” roll in and grasp that unending cup.”