Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 613
Edward FitzGerald was born in a Jacobean mansion in rural Suffolk, England. His parents were cousins and came from what was then one of the wealthiest families in Great Britain. As FitzGerald grew up, he developed a great dislike for the arrogance, ostentation, and formality of manners that he associated withwealth, but his part of the family fortune allowed him to live life on his own eccentric and creative terms throughout most of his adult years. FitzGerald’s mother, Mary Frances FitzGerald, was a proud and dominating woman, and FitzGerald’s relations with her were always difficult.
If FitzGerald’s character was in part shaped by wealth and a troubled relationship with his mother, his early years also gave him a love for the quiet scenery of Suffolk, which would stay with him throughout his life. In 1818, FitzGerald was sent to the King Edward VI Grammar School in Bury St. Edmunds. There, he received a fine classical education and developed a number of important friendships. In 1826, FitzGerald went to the University of Cambridge, where he was an undisciplined but happy student who showed again his great gift for making friends. Among his many friends at Cambridge was the future novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.
After graduating from Cambridge in 1830, FitzGerald traveled briefly to Paris, spent time in London, Southampton, and Cambridge, and eventually made his way back to Suffolk. His family’s wealth made it unnecessary for him to pursue a career, and for the next two decades or so FitzGerald mostly lived the quiet life of a country gentleman, developing his serious interests in art, music, literature, and gardening. He also became and would remain throughout his life a prolific and brilliant correspondent. During these years, FitzGerald was friends with and corresponded with a broad range of distinguished writers, including Thomas Carlyle; Thackeray; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Frederick Tennyson; the scholar James Spedding; and the poet Bernard Barton.
Although FitzGerald’s letters during this period show him to be a writer of great accomplishment, and it is evident that men of Carlyle’s and Thackeray’s stature respected his intellect and taste, he contributed nothing official to English literature between 1830 and 1850. In 1844, however, he met a young scholar of Eastern languages named Edward Cowell, who, by late 1852, was teaching FitzGerald Persian. In 1856, Cowell found a fifteenth century manuscript of Omar Khayyám in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Cowell sent FitzGerald a transcript of this manuscript, and in 1859, appeared the first version of FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.
Before the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, FitzGerald’s publications had been few, eccentric, and unsuccessful. Despite its beautiful prose, his Euphranor of 1851 went mostly unnoticed. His book of aphorisms, Polonius, fared little better. His very free versions of the dramas of Pedro Calderón de la Barca as well as his highly original translation of the Persian Salámán and Absál had little critical or popular success. At first, the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám did little better. By 1861, however, it began to be recognized in literary circles, and eventually it would be published in three more editions during FitzGerald’s lifetime.
FitzGerald remained preoccupied with the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám throughout the rest of his life, but he also produced important, if very personal, versions of the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles. FitzGerald’s quiet later years were marked by a constant stream of wonderful letters, increasing (though lovable) eccentricity of behavior, and a great interest in sailing and the simple life of the fishermen of his home county. He died while visiting friends in Norfolk on June 14, 1883. He was seventy-four.