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The Man behind the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: a new book by William H Martin and Sandra Mason

September 5, 2016

EFGcoverimageOur new book, just published by I B Tauris in London, is sub-titled The Life and Letters of Edward FitzGerald.  In it, we look in detail at the many letters of the ‘translator’ of the Rubáiyát, and other information, to see what this can tell us about the man Edward FitzGerald and the world in which he lived.  The book contains a new assessment of FitzGerald as a person as well as many quotation from the letters, which give a clear idea of his distinctive views on a wide range of literary and other topics. 

The following post summarises something of what we have learned about the circumstances and pressures under which FitzGerald created his first version of the Rubáiyát.  They formed the basis of our presentation to the Rubaiyat Research Day in Cambridge on 9th July 2016.

Full details of the book are given at the end of the post.  Copies can be obtained via the following link: http://www.ibtauris.comFor UK buyers, there is a special offer at a price of £17.50 using the code AN2;  the offer lasts until 30th December 2016.  The book will be published shortly in North America.

FitzGerald is sometimes portrayed as a rather sad recluse, especially in his later years, living a lonely existence in various locations in East Anglia.  His letters tell a very different story.  FitzGerald was a convivial and very supportive friend and family member.  He was genuinely concerned about what happened to his close friends and their children, and he welcomed them and the younger members of his family to his final home in Woodbridge.  He was a very perceptive and entertaining writer, both sharp and open in his comments on literature, the arts and the more ordinary aspects of life;  we learn for example that he was a great lover of toasted cheese.  And he was a very hard worker and a stickler for detail, something that shows up in the many exchanges with Edward Cowell, the friend and scholar who introduced him to Persian and to the verses of Omar Khayyám.

Edward Cowell found a manuscript of verses by Omar Khayyám in the Oxford Bodleian library in the spring of 1856.  He copied them out into a little notebook and sent this to his friend FitzGerald.  The latter was to work on the translation and interpretation of the verses over the next couple of years, finally arranging for their publication early in 1859.  What is remarkable, as our study of the letters shows, is that FitzGerald achieved this at a time of great personal trauma.  Several factors contributed to FitzGerald’s difficulties.  First, Edward Cowell and his wife, who were both close personal friends, departed to work in India.  Second, perhaps slightly on the rebound from the Cowells’ departure, FitzGerald entered into a disastrous marriage with Lucy Barton, the daughter of an old friend.  They were quite incompatible, as well as very set in their separate ways, and the marriage lasted a difficult nine months.  Third, another old friend and personal support, the Rev. George Crabbe, died late in 1857, and finally, early in 1859, his very close younger friend, William Kenworth Browne of Bedford, was badly injured in a riding accident and died six weeks later, almost at the same time as FitzGerald was organising the final stage of publication of his Rubáiyát.

The letters show that, through all these emotional difficulties, the thoughts and philosophy of the mediaeval Persian poet Omar Khayyám were ‘something of a consolation’ to FitzGerald.  Hard work on his text may well have acted as a distraction from what was going on in his own life.  Certainly we know that out of the trauma, FitzGerald produced a remarkable poem that many people have found a source of inspiration and consolation in their own lives.  This is shown, for example, by the many little copies of the poem that were taken in the knapsacks of soldiers in two World Wars.  FitzGerald’s poem has continued to be published up to this day, and has been the inspiration to artists, musicians and many others.

As well as giving us the story of how the Rubáiyát came into existence, FitzGerald’s letters tell us much more about his fascinating life and about the intellectual life and society of the Victorian period.  They cover a seminal period of 53 years and, in our book*, we have analysed the correspondence in detail with many quotations, that show FitzGerald’s skill as a writer, his trenchant wit and his humanity.   There is much of value there for us in the 21st century, just as the wisdom and thought of the Rubáiyát continues to be relevant in a world very different from that of mediaeval Persia or Victorian England.

* Martin, W. H. and Mason, S., The Man behind the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:  The Life and Letters of Edward FitzGerald. (London: I. B. Tauris, 2016).  ISBN 978 1 78453 659 6.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Garry Garrard permalink
    September 5, 2016 4:26 pm

    Dear Bill and Sandra

    Many thanks for the copy of The Man behind…

    I must say IB Taurus have produced a fine edition that is a pleasure to handle – I love the feel of a nicely produced new book. This is one that will sit comfortably on my shelves – when I am not using it that is!

    I’m sure you’ll be pleased to hear that I have already put it to good use; you had identified a letter I hadn’t noticed before that makes a new point in my discussion.

    All I have to do now is get through the final stages of my own, somewhat slimmer, volume!

    Best regards


  2. September 5, 2016 5:41 pm


  3. September 5, 2016 6:02 pm

    Thanks to Macmillan Distribution, my copy is on the way to North Carolina. Tauris provided the discount as well!
    I couldn’t wait and after I read the description above, I was right not to wait. From the letters I knew of the close, friendly and collegial relationship FitzGerald had with Cowell. In not reading through all the letters but relying on what others have written, I took FitzGerald to be rather gloomy. So, Sandra and Bill, congratulations to you for the book and, I am sure, a new-true portrayal of FitzGerald.
    I continue to draw inspiration from the Rubáiyát, and when I look at the Persian, I see, again and again, FitzGerald’s genius.

  4. September 6, 2016 9:12 am

    Thanks to all for your kind comments. We are very glad to know that potential US buyers can already get copies via the IB Tauris distributors, and also receive the discount. Good luck with your own book, Garry.

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