Victorian Literature Edward FitzGerald
Erik Gray
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0168


Edward FitzGerald (b. 1809–d. 1883) was an English poet and translator, best remembered today for a single work, his Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1859). FitzGerald was born into an extremely wealthy family in Suffolk. After graduating from Cambridge, where he had spent perhaps the happiest years of his life and formed a number of lifelong friendships, FitzGerald returned to Suffolk. There he lived very modestly, either in a cottage on the outskirts of his family’s estate or in rented lodgings in a nearby town, occupying himself with reading and writing. In the early 1850s he began to translate from Spanish, publishing Six Dramas of Calderon in 1853. The very free and unliteral method of translation he used in this work would mark all of his later translations as well, which included works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and the Persian poet Jámí. But it was his translation, or adaptation, of certain rubáiyát (quatrains) attributed to the 12th-century Persian polymath Omar Khayyám that caused a worldwide sensation. The first edition of Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which FitzGerald published anonymously (like his other works), in 1859, consisted of seventy-five quatrains. At first no one noticed or purchased the small, pamphlet-like book, but a few years later it was discovered by chance by members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, who became passionately devoted to it. A second edition of 110 quatrains was published in 1868 and began to draw attention in North America as well as in Britain. Two more editions followed, each varying fairly significantly from the others, before FitzGerald’s death in 1883, by which time the poem was known throughout the world. It was translated into numerous languages, and Omar Khayyám clubs were founded in many cities. Critics have attributed this popularity to the poem’s frank embrace of a skeptical, resigned, epicurean view of life, which caught the spirit of a doubting, world-weary age. Its very success—by 1900 the Rubáiyát was the most popular and most frequently reprinted poem in English—led to its being dismissed and ignored by literary critics for much of the 20th century. But a critical revival began in the late 1990s, as scholars started to reappraise the poem’s cultural significance as well as its literary achievement.

General Works

Victorian readers of the Rubáiyát had very little context to help them evaluate it. They knew almost nothing about FitzGerald, who studiously avoided publicity and protected his anonymity, nor about his methods as a translator, beyond his own descriptions in his prefaces to the various editions. But by the early 20th century FitzGerald’s letters were being published, the first book-length biography appeared, and scholars began collating and comparing the different editions of the poem, as well as comparing FitzGerald’s version to its Persian sources. This work has continued into the 21st century, as new biographical and textual scholarship has continued to enrich our understanding of the poem.

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