WITH FRIENDS POSSESSED: A Life of Edward FitzGerald by Robert Bernard Martin

WITH FRIENDS POSSESSED: A Life of Edward FitzGerald

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A sorry tale, capably enough told, of a more or less unlived life. FitzGerald (1809-1883) won a small piece of immortality with his translation-adaptation of The Rubiyzt of Omar Khayyam (first version, 1859); but in every other way he seems to have successfully avoided fulfillment. A godless Epicurean, he lived in permanent virginity, never pressing his homosexual desires beyond a number of sentimental crushes (his brief marriage, at age 47, was a total disaster). The son of a fabulously rich heiress, he rarely traveled, living in rather grubby retirement in Suffolk, mostly on a diet of bread, butter, and tea. Though he had many friends he also had a perverse penchant for alienating them--when Tennyson told him he had ""some things on the Anvil,"" FitzGerald blurted out that the poet laureate ""might as well ship his Oars now."" Though his wealth gave him limitless leisure, FitzGerald was inclined to dilettantish indolence, publishing little except translations (notably of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Calder¢n) that haven't stood the test of time. Martin argues that FitzGerald's greatest achievement, outside the Rubiyt, is his letters, which certainly have grace and a wistful charm. But they don't show enough of the ""secret FitzGerald"" Martin rightly finds in one unusual outburst to Edward Cowell, revealing his ""desperate wish to cling to those he loved; the painful openness about his emotions that he usually tried to hide; his openhanded generosity with money; the genuine pathos of his loneliness."" Martin's portrait of this pathetic, eccentric figure is lucid and balanced; but one sees why this is the first new biography of FitzGerald since A. McK. Terhune's in 1947 (Terhune also co-edited the four-volume collected letters of FitzGerald [1980] that helped to make Martin's more well-rounded version possible)--and one doubts it will soon be rivaled.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1985
Publisher: Atheneum