The Story of a Loss Leading to the Birth of a Great Work of Art

  July 18, 2021   Read time 3 min
The Story of a Loss Leading to the Birth of a Great Work of Art
We owe the Rubáiyát to the loss, or threatened loss, of one such friendship, and to FitzGerald’s single disastrous experiment in social conformity, his marriage to Lucy Barton. Both these events took place in 1856.

In February of that year, FitzGerald learned that his close friend, and mentor in Persian, Edward Cowell, had accepted an appointment as Professor of English History at the Presidency College in Calcutta. FitzGerald was approaching his 47th birthday; Cowell had just turned 30. They had met in 1844, when Cowell was only 18. He was the son of an Ipswich merchant, a self-made scholar with a passion for both European and Oriental languages; he taught himself Persian at the age of 14, but had to work in the family business until he was 23, when he finally matriculated at Oxford. It was there, on a ‘wet Sunday’ in December 1852, that he suggested to FitzGerald the study of Persian as an intellectual pastime, ‘and guaranteed to teach the grammar in a day’.

FitzGerald was slow to enthuse: ‘I am not greatly impressed with the desire to poke out even a smatter of Persian’, he wrote to Cowell in October 1853, and in December he told Frederick Tennyson that he was persevering only ‘because it is a point in common with [Cowell], and enables us to study a little together’. A month later he had the bug: he was ‘Persian mad’. But Cowell himself, though he never abandoned Persian, was always more interested in Sanskrit; when he graduated in 1854 he found few academic openings in England, whereas India offered both a career and an opportunity to develop his scholarship on native ground.


FitzGerald tried hard to persuade Cowell not to go to Calcutta. ‘What is to become of my Stupendous Learning when you go?’ he wrote. ‘I scarce see my old Friends, and make no new ones. I shall die starved of human regard. . . . I want you to do Work in England, as well as help to keep me alive in it.’18 But Cowell’s mind was made up; the irony is that his parting gift to FitzGerald was to stimulate his friend’s ‘Stupendous Learning’ to its highest pitch.

In April 1856 Cowell came across a fifteenth-century manuscript compilation of poems by Omar Khayyám, in Sir William Ouseley’s collection of Oriental manuscripts, purchased by the Bodleian Library in 1843. Cowell transcribed the Ouseley MS, and then made a copy of his transcript for FitzGerald, which he finished in FitzGerald’s company and gave to him on 11 July, when FitzGerald was staying with him at Rushmere, near Oxford. A week or so later FitzGerald wrote to him with what seems almost like brusqueness. ‘Thanks for Omar. I have looked over most of him since I left you.

Here are Queries etc.’ But the brusqueness covers pain that can’t quite be suppressed, for Cowell’s departure for India was imminent. A list of dry queries about vocabulary and idiom is followed by this: ‘Well — all this I have written; but my Thoughts are often upon other Things in which you are concerned: of which I less care to speak.’ His farewell letter of 28 July takes stock of his diminished expectations: ‘I shall very soon write to you; and hope to keep up something of Communion by such meagre Intercourse.’

Yet Cowell’s gift to FitzGerald of the Ouseley MS did more than FitzGerald could have hoped to establish ‘something of Communion’ between them — much more than a ‘meagre Intercourse’ of letters could have done on its own. With unconscious tact and perfect timing, Cowell had presented FitzGerald with a kind of magic mirror, in which he could see himself — ‘savage against Destiny’, as he put it, but also given to ‘Epicurean pathos’ — and also conjure the image of his absent friend.21 But Cowell’s departure, though it might have prompted FitzGerald to read and relish Omar’s ‘curious Infidel and Epicurean Tetrastichs’, would probably not have been enough for them to claim him, body and soul, as they did over the next two years. For that daemonic possession we have to thank the un-daemonic figure of Lucy Barton.