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On This Date Elizabeth Barrett Browning Died

June 29, 2017

On this date in 1861 Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Florence at the age of 55.

Book Knife-at-Work

Years after her death, her husband Robert Browning found among the posthumously published letters of Edward FitzGerald—author of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám—a letter written directly after his wife’s death. FitzGerald wrote, “Mrs. Browning’s death is rather a relief to me, I must say: no more Aurora Leighs. . . . She and her sex had better mind the kitchen and the children.” Browning sent this poem in to the Athenaeum.

To Edward FitzGerald

By Robert Browning

I chanced upon a new book yesterday;
I opened it, and, where my finger lay
‘Twixt page and uncut page, these words I read –
Some six or seven at most – and learned thereby
That you, Fitzgerald, whom by ear and eye
She never knew, “thanked God my wife was dead.”
Aye, dead! and were yourself alive, good Fitz,
How to return you thanks would task my wits.
Kicking you seems the common lot of curs –
While more appropriate greeting lends you grace,
Surely to spit there glorifies your face –
Spitting from lips once sanctified by hers.

 

 

A Book of Verses, a Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread and Thou: Edward FitzGerald’s Birthday

March 31, 2017

A Book of Verses, a Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread and Thou

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On this day in 1809 Edward FitzGerald the author of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was born in Woodbridge, Suffolk, England. Fittingly for my blog post, the celebrated author of one of the most famous poems about Spring was born in Spring. So here we go, folks. Happy Spring.

FitzGerald claimed his version (actually he wrote three distinctly different versions) of the Persian poem by Omar Khayyám was a translation of the poem from the original language. Well, let’s just say, kindly perhaps, that his translation bears as much relation to the original Persian as, say an Amazon.com suggestion that, hey, if you liked this Persian poem then maybe you will like this other thingy by the Victorian poet Edward FitzGerald. Nevertheless, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was a Victorian bestseller and since 1859 has been issued in nearly a thousand editions. I haven’t seen a copy in the last few years, but at one time you could count on nearly every Hallmark store and other stores selling inexpensive gift books to have on hand an illustrated copy of the Rubáiyát.

What makes the poem interesting for readers of Great Literature is the way the melancholy “eat, drink, and be happy” theme runs so counter to the usual popular literary fare of its time. Many readers read the poem as a celebration of life right now, while others read the poem as a celebration of wanton hedonism, specifically in its celebration of living life for the sake of drinking all the wine you can.

Here are some lines from the beginning of the 30-40-page poem. I conclude with its most famous lines.

I
Wake! For the Sun who scatter’d into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heav’n, and strikes
The Sultán’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.
II
Before the phantom of False morning died,
Methought a Voice within the Tavern cried,
“When all the Temple is prepared within,
“Why nods the drowsy Worshipper outside?”
III
And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted–“Open then the Door!
“You know how little while we have to stay,
“And, once departed, may return no more.”
VII
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter–and the Bird is on the Wing.
VIII
. . . .

Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.
IX
Each Morn a thousand Roses brings, you say:
Yes, but where leaves the Rose of Yesterday?
. . . .
XII
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

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