Introduction to the 1859 edition by Edward FitzGerald

THE poem here presented, only seventy-five stanzas in all, is probably the most widely read and the most fully discussed collection of verses of the past ten years. It has eclipsed in fame the best known poems of Longfellow and Tennyson— the favourite writers of verse within the memory of most of us. It came into being in an age when the reading world of England was full of a somewhat militant faith, not unaccompanied by misgivings born of the scientific spirit then so pugnacious. Thus the one poem of modern agnosticism had but little success on its first appearance. Issued by Bernard Quaritch in 1859, it, as is commonly reported, was sold off at a third or a quarter of its published price of a shilling to the few discerning spirits who came across it in its ignominious environment of the ‘fourpenny box,’ Mr. Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rossetti being of the number.

FitzGerald’s poem came an age too early, in an age of faith, albeit of a faith that hesitated. Browning was singing that ‘all’s right with the world’; Tennyson that ‘honest doubt’ was more to be honoured than ‘half the creeds.’ Charles Kingsley was preaching through the medium of some of the most popular fiction of the hour, while the still more beloved Charles Dickens was urging in many a delightful story that this was the best of all possible worlds if only we kept up our animal spirits. Carlyle, again, was insisting with abundant dogmatism that if we did the duty that lay nearest and worked with courage all would be well. Into this blaze of optimism came those stanzas of doubt and misgiving, with a charm and fascination which made no appeal to a generation that was widely enthusiastic over Carlyle and Dickens, Tennyson and Browning. Nevertheless the poem reflected even then the very mood of some fine minds which, still very young, came to be the leaders of a later day and generation—Mr. Swinburne, for example, and his brother-poet Rossetti, Mr. George Meredith and many others.

To understand the genesis of the poem colloquially known to us as ‘Omar Khayyám,’ one has to know something of two personalities widely separated by time and space—a Persian poet of the eleventh century and an English poet of the nineteenth century— Omar al Khayyám and Edward FitzGerald.

Now almost all that we can learn of Omar Khayyám we may learn from FitzGerald’s own biographical introduction presented herewith. Certain fresh data have been afforded us by the diligence of more recent students, as, for example, by J. K. M. Shirazi in his Life of Omar Al Khayyám, and by E. D. Ross in his Life and Times of Omar Khayyám, but when all is said, Omar remains a vague and shadowy person for us, and our enjoyment of the English poem by FitzGerald is quite distinct from any interest we may have in the venerable Persian who first inspired these lyrics and who provided the undercurrent of suggestion. A knowledge of the Persian language or an acquaintance with the Persian poet is as little required in reading Omar as is a knowledge of the original Gesta Danorum of Saxo-Grammaticus in order to be able to appreciate Hamlet. We do not need to read the Bible story of the Creation in its original Hebrew in order to be able to enjoy the Paradise Lost of Milton.

Of FitzGerald himself it is far more easy to furnish forth an abundance of facts, for he was a copious letter-writer and the friend of many famous men. His letters indeed are among the best of the last half century, full of sound judgment and genuine sympathy. Edward FitzGerald was the seventh of eight children, and was born on March 31st, 1809. His father and mother were both Irish by birth and descent, his father being one John Purcell, a wealthy Irish doctor who married his cousin, Mary Frances FitzGerald, a descendant of the Earls of Kildare, a circumstance which led FitzGerald to insist upon always spelling his name as two words and with a large G., that is to say Fitz Gerald and not Fitzgerald. John Purcell assumed his wife’s surname, she having inherited great wealth. FitzGerald was born at the White House, Bredfield, near Woodbridge, and he remained all his life a country squire, living at this house or that in the pleasant pastoral scenes in which the county of Suffolk abounds. His last residence indeed, Boulge Hall, near Woodbridge, was wellnigh within sight of the house in which he was born, although he did not die there but at Merton Rectory when on a visit to George Crabbe, a grandson of the poet. The intervening period was spent in the cultivation of his mind, in reading books that he liked, and studying subjects that he cared for; and now and again dropping into print. Carlyle writes of his ‘innocent far niente life,’ and FitzGerald’s best biographer, Mr. A. C. Benson, has reproached him for not taking life more strenuously. But to have written this little book was achievement enough for any one man.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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