Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

FitzGerald and the Rubaiyat, in and out of Time

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

FitzGerald and the Rubaiyat, in and out of Time

Article excerpt

This issue of Victorian Poetry commemorates a double anniversary: March 31, 2009 marks both the bicentennial of the birth of Edward FitzGerald and the sesquicentennial of his Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which was published (give or take a few days) on the poet's fiftieth birthday. (1) It is quite fitting that we should celebrate this occasion and at the same time quite ironic. FitzGerald's poem, after all, seeks to do away with commemoration, and even with time itself: it enjoins the reader to think only of today, abjuring all consideration of past and future. FitzGerald himself, moreover, who never liked birthdays in any case, certainly did not celebrate this one. His dearest friend, William Kenworthy Browne, to whom FitzGerald had been passionately attached ever since their first meeting twenty-seven years earlier, had died only the day before. (2) Browne was still a young man--he had been only sixteen when he met FitzGerald--and his death was the result of an accident. As FitzGerald described it in a letter to Tennyson, while Browne was "Coming home from hunting the end of January, his Horse was kicked by another: reared, and her hind Legs slipping under her, she fell over and on him, crushing all the middle of his Body. He lived two months with a Patience and Vitality that would have left most Men to die in a Week ... and then gave up his Ghost" (Letters, 2:333).

Hence it is understandable that, on the day it was published, FitzGerald was thinking very little about his new poem. Yet the Rubaiyat is not entirely unrelated to the death of Browne: FitzGerald's letters from these weeks frequently echo the poem's central motifs, as he himself recognized. Writing a month later about his attempts to reconcile himself to his loss, FitzGerald mentions "poor old Omar who has his kind of Consolation for all these Things" (Letters, 2:334). (3) The letters about Browne share the deep melancholy and resignation of the Rubaiyat, and above all its sense that time has no meaning. Hurrying to Browne's house as soon as he heard of the accident, FitzGerald was not at first admitted to the dying man's bedside, until

   Poor fellow, he tried to write a line to me--like a Child's!--and I
   went--and saw--no longer the gay Lad, nor the healthy Man, I had
   known: but a wreck of all that: a Face like Charles I (after
   decapitation almost) above the Clothes: and the poor shattered Body
   underneath lying as it had lain eight weeks--such a case as the
   Doctor says he had never known. Instead of the light utterance of
   other days too, came the slow painful syllables in a far lower Key:
   and when the old familiar Words--"Old Fellow--Fitz"--etc., came
   forth so spoken, I broke down too in spite of foregone Resolution.
   (Letters, 2:328)

Time here, like the body, has been horribly compressed: the handwriting of a child, the body of a broken old man, and the head of a corpse exist simultaneously. Browne's life span has been both unnaturally drawn out--the suffering that would have lasted a week in any other man here lingers for two months--and also extraordinarily foreshortened: FitzGerald recognizes that the friend he had always loved for his youthfulness has suddenly overtaken him and become the elder of the two. (4) The words that Browne speaks are the "old familiar Words" of the "Lad," but spoken now in the "far lower Key" of maturity.

A few days later FitzGerald describes his final interview with his friend in much the same terms, concluding, "Oh, the last words he wrote too were to me on Thursday Morning--in the Hand of a Child's First Attempt--to ask me to go to him. 'I love you very--whenever--WKB'" (Letters, 2:329). Browne's hovering "whenever" is as accurate as it is touching. Time has ceased to operate for him: his "last words" appear in the guise of a "Child's First Attempt," so that beginning and ending are fused. The situation strangely recalls one of the quatrains of FitzGerald's poem, published that same day but written well before: "With Earth's first Clay They did the Last Man's knead, / And then of the Last Harvest sow'd the Seed: / Yea, the first Morning of Creation wrote / What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read" (1st ed. …

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