A book could be – perhaps already has been – written on art whose success is connected with getting outside the idiom and context of its age. Such art reassures by its apparent timelessness, and depends on the reassurance of anachronism for its populist impact. When Gray observed that ‘the language of the age is never the language of poetry’ he was noting something that the common reader usually takes for granted. Tennyson achieved wide popularity by making poetry sound old-fashioned in a new way. The idiom of The Shropshire Lad was quaint in its time but became the more modern the more it caught on. FitzGerald’s version of Omar Khayyam, which became the most popular poem of the century, is sui generis in the same way.
It also seems to stand outside its author. Although Professor Martin does the best that can be done with him, FitzGerald was not, from the literary point of view, a particularly interesting man. He lacks the artistic quiddity of even such minor Victorian figures as Coventry Patmore or Francis Thompson. He is cousin to Anon, who produces something imperishable without the talent that builds up a body of work of characteristic excellence and individuality. So at least it would appear, although, as Martin indicates, the relations between FitzGerald and his poem may be more complex than that. He did not think of himself as a poet, though he discovered a unique way of writing a poem, a way that could never be repeated. Nor could it be improved on. FitzGerald’s endless tinkerings with his stanzas reveal that dolorous situation known to every non-poet who tries his hand: each fresh inspiration seems an improvement, but is then seen to multiply poetic alternatives rather than hitting on the one true felicity. Such original felicities seem to have been granted to FitzGerald as a bonus for having stumbled on the perfect stanza form. ‘When Dawn’s left hand was in the sky’ or ‘By some not unfrequented garden-side’ are phrases so mysteriously perfect in their provenance that it seems they must have climbed straight out of the Persian. In fact of course they did not, and FitzGerald, as he continued to tinker, seems not to have known how absolute they were. Should the Hunter of the East, in the first stanza, catch the Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light, or with a Shaft of Light? It makes very little difference, but the alterations confuse the movement of stanzas which would otherwise stay perfectly in the memory.
Though Martin does not speculate about this, it would seem that the clue to the Rubaiyat of FitzGerald is not so much Omar’s original, to which he was introduced by his great friend Cowell, a brilliant self-taught linguist, but Tennyson’s In Memoriam. FitzGerald’s relations with Tennyson were affectionate but equivocal. They had been close friends at Cambridge, along with Hallam and James Spedding, and FitzGerald had hero-worshipped Tennyson and his verse. Tennyson called him ‘old Fitz’, patronised him, and accepted from him quite large sums of money, being subsidised at one point to the tune of three hundred a year, a large figure in those days. In return, FitzGerald thought this gave him the right to criticise Tennyson’s poetry, even to fall asleep when ‘The Princess’ was being read to him. Tennyson was far from pleased. Fitz, clearly, tried at friendship too hard. He valued it passionately; Martin’s title, from Shakespeare’s sonnet, suggests particularly well how possessed he was by it and how he valued it as a possession. This is touching, but it also meant he was more loving than loved. Almost everyone is a bit embarrassed by being excessively valued, and Fitz’s life bore out the truth of the old saying that we love those to whom we give more than those from whom we receive. But in some odd and indeed unique ways Fitz restored the balance. He objected strongly to Tennyson’s In Memoriam, to its popularity, to its repetitiveness, to its self-indulgence, above all to its philosophy; and this envy and dislike may well have been for him a secret and wholly unforeseen inspiration. He managed to write a poem of the same kind, with the same superlative originality in the blending of metre and material – and it became even more popular! That must have been some compensation for the offhandedness of the Laureate’s affection.
The story of the poem – it was printed privately and anonymously and offered for a shilling, soon reduced to a penny when no copies went off – has often been told. In 1861, two years after its appearance, a young Celtic scholar called Whitley Stokes fished several copies out of the bargain box and gave some to friends, including Monckton Milnes, Richard Burton and D.G. Rossetti. Ruskin and Burne-Jones discovered it; Meredith was bowled over by it. By the century’s end it had already gone through hundreds of editions. In his ABC of Reading Ezra Pound proposed the critical exercise: try to find out why the Rubaiyat has been so successful. Not so difficult, perhaps, for the poet who would be inventing ‘Cathay’. Orientalism was also a Late Victorian vogue, and as Martin points out, the Rubaiyat appeared in the same year as The Origin of Species, Mill’s On Liberty, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel. Not a very similar bunch on the face of it, but they all point toward a new moral outlook, a rejection of traditional religious beliefs. Quite incongruously, Fitz’s poem took off in this company, its epicureanism given a new look by Eastern colours which also give the poem a daring, even sexy quality, the hint of a new sort of voluptuousness behind the veils, moons and roses. In the traditional rubai that Omar and others were writing this included both women and boys, but Fitz left sex an open question, its suggestion equally attractive to those who preferred either. The rubai of Omar and his contemporaries was popular and epigrammatic, designed to ‘stick a finger-nail in the heart’ and to disconcert the orthodox. Its distance from FitzGerald can be nicely gauged now from the excellent literal translation by John Heath-Stubbs and Peter Avery. Yet Omar and FitzGerald have one important thing in common: they are both deadpan, using the form, however different its effect in Persian and English, to conceal as much as to reveal. As a 13th-century manual of Persian poetics observed, the form lends itself equally ‘to the pure and the debauched and can be used for purposes good and bad’.
Fitz owed the poem to a friendship, certainly, as Tennyson had done in the case of In Memoriam. Edward Cowell was one of his ideal young men, though unlike the rest a true scholar, who had taught himself ten or a dozen languages by the time he was 18. FitzGerald encouraged and learnt from him, and was appalled when he married a woman more than ten years his senior, a Miss Charlesworth, in whom Fitz himself had once attempted to show an interest. He was himself to marry, in his late forties, a friend of hers, a marriage doomed from the start, but which he seems to have thought himself committed to for family and financial reasons – her father in dying had asked him to care for her. After a month of it he managed to escape, pensioning off his resigned spouse with three hundred a year – the money that he had used to attach his friends now came in equally useful for putting away his wife.
Normally the kindest of men, he was deeply unkind to her as well, which shows how desperate the idea and the state of marriage had made him. And yet, strangely enough, he produced some of the best things in his Rubaiyat during the trauma of his engagement and after his brief married life. The idea of Thou, the eclogue, the garden, the jug of wine, must have seemed especially seductive during the horrors of a Brighton honeymoon. The nostalgia of the poem knows that only in art can things be remoulded nearer to the heart’s desire, echoing in a much more heartfelt way the facile sentiment which Thackeray – an old friend and comrade of Fitz – had put at the end of Vanity Fair: ‘Which of us has his desire in the world, or having it is satisfied?’ Fitz passionately and naively desired an ideal relation with a young man, riding, sailing, walking and reading together, and it was this desire which gives such force and plangency to the images of the poem. But something in him knew these longings to be a mirage, at best a brief happiness. Ironically, his young friend Cowell not only had a long and happy marriage but lived to deplore the fame of the poem with whose materials he had supplied FitzGerald, and to regret that he had ever done so. Under the influence of his wife he had become a devout Evangelical. He remained convinced of what no sane reader of poetry could believe for a moment: that a rubai’s many references to wine are an allegory for divine love.
Fitz suffered from being a poor little rich boy but he was also saved by it. Had he been born to poverty and struggle, we should certainly never have heard from him at all. His family circumstances and childhood were of the sort that was to become more common in capitalist America than they had been in Victorian England. His mother and father were cousins and extremely rich, both possessing independent fortunes. They soon lived apart, and Mrs FitzGerald sought to dominate and make use of her children without showing fondness for them. Weak and vague, the father eventually lost all his money through rash investment, but Fitz could always depend on his mother’s fortune, though he was often expected to attend upon her at monstrous banquets in London and Brighton, an opulent servitude which gave him in his later years a permanent horror of meat-eating – he did indeed come to live off a loaf of bread, a little butter, and an occasional jug of wine.
As in his excellent Tennyson biography, Martin is extremely good at suggesting the humdrum nature of ordinary life, even the ordinary life led by remarkable men, and FitzGerald was, as it were, only accidentally remarkable. He also understands – again as he did with Tennyson – the status and nature of friendship in Victorian society. He quotes a perceptive sentence from Richard Jenkyns’s The Victorians and Ancient Greece: ‘Freud has enlightened us, but he has also changed the nature of experience.’ He has also changed the language which expresses it. Fitz’s vivid letters describe, as Martin says, ‘the pleasures of friendship in the vigorous and enthusiastic language which came naturally to our ancestors’. Sex was not thought of as part of the friendship of love, and there is no likelihood that Fitz had sexual relations with Browne, his great love, or with Posh, the handsome boatman on Lowestoft beach with whom he came near to realising, in some ways, that Forsterian idyll of comradeship with a lower-class person. Victorian art flourished on ignorance, or rather – for FitzGerald was well aware in what way he loved Browne and Posh – on the robust Victorian ability to use love as an asset of romance and imagination. If Fitz had set up in a sexual and domestic relation with a young working man, as Edward Carpenter was to do, he would certainly never have written the Rubaiyat, or the now unreadable Euphranor, or even his vigorous and innocent letters.
He wanted inscribed on his tombstone a line from the Persian: ‘We are helpless – thou hast made us what we are,’ but realising it might be difficult to get the rector’s permission, he settled for a verse from Psalm 100: ‘It is he that has made us and not we ourselves.’ The intended sense might be different, but it could be interpreted in much the same way. Martin observes that people we know in real life give us as much pleasure by what they unintentionally reveal as by ‘more deliberate gestures of communication’, and he has made this the keynote of his study. Unlike many poets, Fitz was not a self-created personality.