Fitzgerald’s reputation as a poet rests on his brilliant “translation” called the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1859). Drawing from hundreds of short poems written by the 12th-c. Persian poet Omar Khayyám, Fitzgerald forged an English masterpiece that is sensuously musical in style, exotically colorful in imagery, and daringly skeptical in its largely epicurean and nihilistic outlook. Upon its first appearance in 1859, the Rubáiyát went almost totally unnoticed. By 1900, it was widely recognized as a unique and fundamentally original contribution to English poetry, and it has come to be one of the most popular and widely known poems in the English language.
Fitzgerald’s first significant publication was Euphranor (1851; rev. ed., 1855), a prose dialogue on education and chivalry influenced by Plato’s symposia. Neither this nor his next work, a collection of aphorisms called Polonius (1852), was notably successful. His highly distinctive career as a translator began with his Six Dramas of Calderón (1853) and was continued through his Salámán and Absál (1856), Agamemnon (1865), and The Downfall and Death of King Oedipus (2 vols., 1880). In all of these works, Fitzgerald demonstrates his very personal approach to translation. He treats his Greek, Spanish, or Persian texts less as originals than as sources. He emphasizes what interests him, deletes what does not, and imparts to all of the works under his hand his own distinctively sensuous, musical, and graceful style. The result in each case is an essentially original production in the guise of a translation.
Fitzgerald’s abilities, especially his artistic command of the English language, are evident in all of his published work, but Fitzgerald’s real place in English literature is, of course, based on the Rubáiyát. In the early 20th c., there was much debate about the “faithfulness” of Fitzgerald to Omar Khayyám. More recent critics have realized that this debate is largely beside the point. Fewer than half of Fitzgerald’s 101 stanzas represent paraphrases of actual individual poems by Omar; the rest are based on combinations of Omar’s poems or do not derive from him at all. Moreover, Fitzgerald’s Rubáiyát has a unity of structure, theme, imagery, and tone that is nowhere to be found in Omar. Also, whatever may be the poetic merit of Omar’s original poems, the diction, prosody, music, and cadences of Fitzgerald’s poem belong to the English language and to Fitzgerald himself.
Fitzgerald’s special stylistic magic in the Rubáiyát is largely the result of his exotic and sensuous imagery and his characteristic diction, which is both resonant and simple, haunting and direct. Fitzgerald’s verse form is, in addition, a very successful and original contribution to English prosody. His stanza, now usually called “the Rubáiyát stanza,” is an iambic pentameter quatrain rhyming aaba. In terms of themes and vision, Fitzgerald’s Rubáiyát is a powerful meditation on life, death, and the cosmos. From a notably skeptical point of view, it celebrates sensuous and immediate experience while rejecting worldly glory and religious doctrine. The poem’s treatment of conventional views of God is questioning, sardonic, and even satiric, and the epicureanism and nihilism of the poem shocked and fascinated Victorian readers.
Modern critics see in the Rubáiyát a great English poem that is only nominally a translation. Those critics have also begun to see in Fitzgerald’s roughly four thousand letters one of the great literary correspondences in English.
Bibliography Alexander, D., Creating Literature Out of Life: The Making of Four Masterpieces (1996); Martin, R. B., With Friends Possessed: A Life of E. F. (1985); Terhune, A. M., The Life of E. F. (1947)
Phillip B. Anderson
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