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  • 8/6/2011

Edward Fitzgerald

part 4


The first, anonymous, and very small (250 copies) edition of the Rubaiyat appeared in 1859; though unnoticed initially, within a few years it had achieved fame among Victorian writers and artists (Rossetti, Browning, Swinburne, Burne-Jones, Meredith and Ruskin were early admirers; see FitzGerald, 1997, p. xxxiv).

Subsequent editions appeared in 1868, 1872 and 1879, each involving changes, including the addition and dropping of stanzas and the rewriting of various phrases. A posthumous edition, prepared from FitzGerald’s own marked up copy of the fourth edition, was published in 1889.

The third of FitzGerald’s Persian translations, the Bird Parliament (from ?A??ar’s Man?eq al-?ayr), worked on intermittently between 1856 and 1862, was his least successful; that FitzGerald probably realized this is indicated by the fact that he did not attempt to publish it. His propensity to cut goes even further than in his treatment of Salaman o Absal; he cuts so extensively that the poem’s structure, on which he commented disparagingly (Terhune, II, p. 252) as he clearly did not understand its details, all but disappears. He changes a great deal, sometimes bowdlerizing perhaps with a view to publication, as when he makes a king a queen in what he takes to be a homosexual story, or when he changes Jesus to “the Prophet” perhaps fearing Victorian reaction to a non-Biblical story about Jesus. His interest in the Ghaznavid Sultan Ma?m?d (possibly this too was for homosexual reasons, he refers to Ma?m?d in a letter as “my friend” [ibid., II, p. 254] perhaps because of the Ma?m?d-Ayaz [q.v.] relationship) is apparent, as he translates most references to him and even inserts references where none exist in the Persian. There are some fine passages of English poetry in the translation, notably towards the end (when the birds meet the fabulous bird Simor?) and in the beautifully rendered brief anecdote of the child sent out on a windy night with a lamp.

After the early 1860’s FitzGerald turned his attention from Persian (apart from his revisions of Salaman and the Rubaiyat) back to Spanish (he translated more plays by Calderon) and thence to Greek (translations of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, a draft of The Choephori, and of Sophocles’s two Oedipus plays, which he typically compressed into a single drama); as English verse the best of these is the Agamemnon.

Fitzgerald died in 1883 while visiting his old friend George Crabbe, son of the poet Crabbe, whose works FitzGerald had recently been editing (i.e. cutting).

FitzGerald’s reputation, which was at its height around the period of the First World War, has suffered some eclipse. The “orientalist” tenor of some of his remarks on Persian poetry can make for embarrassing reading (he says of reading Schiller after Jami,“It is something to get out of the Sweetmeat, Childish, Oriental World back to the Vigorous North!”; Terhune, II, p. 184), and his by modern standards idiosyncratic notions of what constituted fidelity to an author’s text have earned him much criticism. The “orientalist” remarks may well in part have been due to his association of Persian with his feelings for Cowell, and his guilt about such feelings given the extremely repressive Victorian attitude towards homosexuality. When he was actually involved with Persian he was highly receptive to, and appreciative of, what he saw as the literature’s distinctive individuality and power (his real enthusiasm for Khayyam’s verses is very clear from his letters to Cowell on the subject); and, although notions of translation have changed, his dual achievement in producing one of the most popular English poems ever written, and in drawing non-specialist Western attention to the great riches of Persian medieval verse, remains undiminished.

Source: iranica

(Dick Davis)

Other Links:

Beheshti, Martyr of the True Path (Part 2)

Edward Fitzgerald (part 1)

Saeed Nafisi, one of the remarkable characters in the literary field (Part 1)

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