With Friends Possessed

It is the purpose of this biography to demonstrate the complex nature of the poet Edward FitzGerald and to attack or at least to qualify the legendary image of “Old Fitz” as “only a delightful, learned, and eccentric recluse in funny clothes who lived in untroubled ease in rustic surroundings from which he issued a constant flow of cultivated letters to the famous literary men who were his friends.” It must be said at the outset that, with the exception of the phrase “untroubled ease,” the description remains essentially true. It is that “untroubled ease,” however, which the biographer principally settles upon, demonstrating to the reader that in addition to being an amiable eccentric FitzGerald was frequently lonely, often melancholic, occasionally despairing, and generally suffering from a stunted emotional life. FitzGerald certainly lived in what most people would consider ease, and the troubles which beset him were almost entirely of his own making, from within his own nature; the vicissitudes of the outside world little disturbed the even tenor of his way.

The biography is based principally upon the recent four-volume edition of FitzGerald’s letters, The Letters of Edward FitzGerald (1980). Robert Bernard Martin, a former professor of English at Princeton University and the author of numerous award-winning studies of Victorian figures, states explicitly his own love for FitzGerald (it would be entirely appropriate to call this book a “labor of love”) and posits that, though FitzGerald is already loved, the reader’s love of him should be based on a true knowledge of him and not on a sentimental image. Thus the book quotes extensively from the letters, and Martin makes shrewd guesses about FitzGerald’s thoughts and feelings from what is not said as well as from what is expressly said.

FitzGerald is one of those poets unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) known for a single poem. The most obvious parallel is with Thomas Gray, and Martin explicitly draws that parallel several times in the book. FitzGerald did write and publish other things, but they are of scant value or interest. Martin mentions them and briefly discusses them, but even his love for FitzGerald cannot lead him to claim for them more than they deserve. The reputation of FitzGerald and his one poem has been over the years greatly enhanced by the romantic story of the poem’s reception: Published in 1859, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám sold almost no copies until later “discovered” by the young Pre-Raphaelites, whence a word-of-mouth campaign caused it to become a best-seller, creating a demand for more and more editions. In the chapter “The Discovery of the Rubáiyát,” Martin issues many qualifications of this story and removes a fair amount of the romance surrounding it.

Martin does not deal at great length with The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám specifically or with any other of FitzGerald’s works. He makes some insightful comments about the themes and about the origins of the work, but he does not become involved in the traditional scholarly squabbles over exactly how much FitzGerald “translated,” how much he “adapted,” or how much he “invented.” Nor, concerned mainly to relate the content and mood of the work to FitzGerald’s own personality and beliefs, does Martin deal with the vexing question of which of the four editions published in FitzGerald’s lifetime is the best, or “truest.”

The man himself, then, is the focus of this work. All in all, FitzGerald led a quiet life, certainly by choice. Money was never a problem, he was intelligent if indolent, and he and his family had friends of substance and standing who could easily have helped him in a chosen career had he so wished. Yet there is a tentativeness of nature in FitzGerald, which emerges clearly in the biography, that led him away from commitment and from direct engagement. He seems to have cared deeply about few things (and those mostly close and personal); he had no urge to change the world or even to make his voice heard in wider public spheres. His religious views he pretty much kept to himself and a few close friends, though FitzGerald eventually acquired something of a reputation as a genteel and hedonistic skeptic, evincing what Martin felicitously describes as a “lightly disbelieving tolerance of Christianity.”

Simply from the incidents presented by Martin of FitzGerald’s life, the contemporary reader would almost immediately conclude that FitzGerald was a prime candidate for psychoanalysis. Martin, however, deliberately eschews all but the most obvious conclusions about the state of FitzGerald’s psyche—a refreshing approach which allows the reader to form his own conclusions about some of the deep-seated motives for FitzGerald’s way of life. Martin does frequently return to the influence of FitzGerald’s family, especially his mother, upon him. Until 1818, the family name was Purcell, his father having married a...

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Contemporary Review. CCXLVI, May, 1985, p. 276.

Economist. CCXCV, June 15, 1985, p. 108.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, January 1, 1985, p. 34.

Library Journal. CX, May 1, 1985, p. 56.

The London Review of Books. VII, April 4, 1985, p. 6.

The New York Review of Books. XXXII, April 25, 1985, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, April 21, 1985, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, January 25, 1985, p. 83.

Spectator. CCLIV, March 23, 1985, p. 32.

Times Literary Supplement. March 15, 1985, p. 275.

Washington Post Book World. XV, May 12, 1985, p. 6.