The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night

Opinions of the Press.

Morning Advertiser, September 15th, 1885.

As the holiday season draws to a close the publishers’ announcements of “new books” fill column after column of the organs chosen from these special communiqué’s. But there is one work which is not entered in these lists, though for years scholars, and many people who are not scholars, have been looking for it with an eagerness which has left far behind the ordinary curiosity which is bestowed on the greatest of contributions to current literasure. And to-day the chosen few who are in possession of the volume in question are examining it with an interest proportionate to the long toil which has been bestowed on its preparation. We refer to Captain Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights Entertainments, now entitled The Book of The Thousand Nights and a Night, of which the first tome has just been issued. . . . Captain Burton scorns any namby pambyism. In the Arabic a spade is usually called a spade, and in the latest English translation it is never designated an agricultural implement. Moreover the endless footnotes which the editor appends speak with much freedom of many things usually avoided as themes for conversation in polite society, though they throw a flood of light on hundreds of features of Oriental life on which, since travellers have been compelled to write for “refined” audiences the student has failed to be informed . . . .

Yet, admitting that The Nights are often coarse and indelicate, and sometimes even gross it is a mistake to suppose that they are demoralising in the same way that a French novel of the Zola type is, or might be. Indeed, what we would call its impropriety is only a reflection of the naïve freedom with which talk is to this day carried on in the family circles of the East. They see no harm in what we should regard as indecency. So that when Captain Burton prefaces his unbowdlerised version with the Arab proverb, “To the pure in heart all things are pure,” he presents perhaps the best defence he could against the attack which it is quite possible may be made on him for devoting many years of his life to what he terms “a labour of love.” . . . Captain Burton, thirty-three years ago, went in the disguise of an Indian pilgrim to Mecca and Al-Medinah, and no one capable of giving the world the result of his experience has so minute, so exhaustive a knowledge of Arab and Oriental life generally. Hence the work now begun — only a limited number of students can ever see — is simply priceless to any one who concerns himself with such subjects, and may be regarded as marking an era in the annals of Oriental translation.

St. James’ Gazette, September 12th, 1885.

One of the most important translations to which a great English scholar has ever devoted himself is now in the press. For three decades Captain Burton has been more or less engaged on his translation of the Arabian Nights, the latest of the many versions of that extraordinary story which has been made into English, the only one at all worthy of a great original.

Whitehall Review, September 17th, 1885.

The publication of the first volume of Captain Burton’s translation of the Alif Laïla enriches the world of Oriental investigation with a monument of labour and scholarship and of research. . . . In the name of the whole world of Oriental scholarship, we offer our heartfelt thanks and congratulations to Captain Burton upon the appearance of this first volume; and we look forward with the keenest interest for its successors.

Home News, September 18th, 1885.

Captain Burton has begun to issue the volumes of his subscription translation of the Arabian Nights, and its fortunate possessors will now be able to realize the full flavour of Oriental feeling. They will now have the great storehouse of Eastern folk-lore opened to them, and Captain Burton’s minute acquaintance with Eastern life makes his comments invaluable. In this respect, as well as in the freeness of the translation, the version will be distinguished from its many predecessors. Captain Burton’s preface, it may be observed, bears traces of soreness at official neglect. Indeed it seems curious that his services could not have been utilised in the Soudan, when the want of competent Arabic scholars was so severely felt.

Nottingham Journal, September 19th, 1885.

But to scholars and men who have sufficient love of the soul of these sweet stories to discern the form in its true proportions, the new edition will be welcome. From an Oriental point of view the work is masterly to a degree. The quatrains and couplets, reading like verses from Elizabethan mantels, and forming a perfect rosary of Eastern lore, the constant succession of brilliant pictures, and the pleasure of meeting again our dear old friend Shahrázád, all these combine to give a unique charm and interest to this “perfect expositor of the mediæval Moslem mind.”

The Bat, September 29th, 1885.

Captain Burton, in his way, renders a gigantic service to all students of literature who are not profound Orientalists, and to many who are, by giving them a literal, honest, and accurate translation of the Arabian Nights. . . . Some idiotic persons here and there, and certain journals which have earned an infamous notoriety by doing their best to deprave public morals, have raised a foolish clamour against Captain Burton and his translation. Journalists, who had no objection to pandering to the worst tastes of humanity at a penny a copy, are suddenly inspired by much righteous indignation at a privately printed work which costs a guinea a volume, and in which the manners, the customs, and the language of the East are boldly represented as they were and as they are. Such critics Captain Burton, and the readers of Captain Burton’s translation, can afford to despise and to ignore. The Arabian Nights Entertainment has been the playbook of generations, the delight of the nursery and the school-room for nearly two hundred years. Now it is high time that scholars and students should be allowed to know what the Arabian Nights Entertainment really is. Lovers of Arabic have long since known something of the truth concerning the Alif Laila. It needs no Burton, it needed no Payne to tell the masters of Oriental languages that The Thousand Nights and a Night was a very different thing from what either Galland or Lane had made it out to be. Mr. Payne in his way, rendered no slight service, Captain Burton, in his way, renders a gigantic service to all students of literature who are not profound Orientalists, and to many who are, by giving them a literal, honest, and accurate translation of the “Arabian Nights.”

The Academy, October 3rd, 1885.

As Capt. Richard F. Burton’s translation of The Thousand and One Nights is likely for several reasons to awaken a literary controversy, the following letter from Mr. John Addington Symonds in the Academy of October 3 will be read with interest. The subject upon which it touches is an important one, and one which must be regarded from a scholarly as well as a moral point of view. Mr. Symonds writes like the scholar that he is; we shall soon see how the moralists write, and if they say anything to the point we shall copy it:—

“There is an outcry in some quarters against Capt. Burton’s translation of the Arabian Nights. Only one volume of the work has reached me, and I have not as yet read the whole of it. Of the translator’s notes I will not speak, the present sample being clearly insufficient to judge by, but I wish to record a protest against the hypocrisy which condemns his text. When we invite our youth to read an unexpurgated Bible (in Hebrew and Greek, or in the authorised version), an unexpurgated Aristophanes, an unexpurgated Juvenal, an unexpurgated Boccaccio, an unexpurgated Rabelais, an unexpurgated collection of Elizabethan dramatists, including Shakespeare, and an unexpurgated Plato (in Greek or in Prof. Jowett’s English version), it is surely inconsistent to exclude the unexpurgated Arabian Nights, whether in the original or in any English version, from the studies of a nation who rule India and administer Egypt.

“The qualities of Capt. Burton’s translation are similar to those of his previous literary works, and the defects of those qualities are also similar. Commanding a vast and miscellaneous vocabulary, he takes such pleasure in the use of it that sometimes he transgresses the unwritten laws of artistic harmony. From the point of view of language, I hold that he is too eager to seize the mot propre of his author, and to render that by any equivalent which comes to hand from field or fallow, waste or warren, hill or hedgerow, in our vernacular. Therefore, as I think, we find some coarse passages of the Arabian Nights rendered with unnecessary crudity and some poetic passages marred by archaisms and provincialisms. But I am at a loss to perceive how Burton’s method of translation should be less applicable to the Arabian Nights than to the Lusiad. So far as I can judge, it is better suited to the naïveté combined with stylistic subtlety of the former than to the smooth humanistic elegancies of the latter.

“This, however, is a minor point. The real question is whether a word for word version of the Arabian Nights, executed with peculiar literary vigor, exact scholarship, and rare insight into Oriental modes of thought and feeling, can under any shadow of presence be classed with ‘the garbage of the brothels.’ In the lack of lucidity, which is supposed to distinguish English folk, our middle-class censores morum strain at the gnat of a privately circulated translation of an Arabic classic, while they daily swallow the camel of higher education based upon minute study of Greek and Latin literature. When English versions of Theocritus and Ovid, of Plato’s Phaedrus and the Ecclesiazusae, now within the reach of every school-boy, have been suppressed, then and not till then can a ‘plain and literal’ rendering of the Arabian Nights be denied with any colour of consistency to adult readers. I am far from saying that there are not valid reasons for thus dealing with Hellenic and Graeco-Roman and Oriental literature in its totality. But let folk reckon what Anglo Saxon Puritanism logically involves. If they desire an Anglo-Saxon Index Librorum Prohibitorum, let them equitably and consistently apply their principles of inquisitorial scrutiny to every branch of human culture.

“John Addington Symonds.”

The Lincoln Gazette, Saturday, October 10th, 1885.

Thousand Nights and a Night.
First Notice

Everything comes to him who waits — even the long-promised, eagerly-expected “Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights,” by Richard F. Burton. It is a whole quarter of a century since this translation of one of the most famous books of the world was contemplated, and we are told it is the natural outcome of the well-known Pilgrimage to Medinah and Mecca. Of Captain Burton’s fitness for the task who can doubt. It was during that celebrated journey to the tomb of the Prophet that he proved himself to be an Arab — indeed, he says, in a previous state of existence he was a Bedouin. Did he not for months at a stretch lead the life of a Son of the Faithful, eat, drink, sleep dress, speak, pray like his brother devotees, the sharpest eyes failing to pierce his disguise. He knows the ways of Eastern men — and women — as he does the society of London or Trieste. How completely at home he is with his adopted brethren he showed at Cairo when, to the amazement of some English friends who were looking on at the noisy devotions of some “howling” Dervishes, he suddenly joined the shouting, gesticulating circle and behaved as if to the manner born. He has qualified as a “Howler,” he holds a diploma as a master Dervish (see vol. iii. of his “Pilgrimage”), and he can initiate disciples. Clearly to use a phrase of Arabian story, it was decreed by Allah from the beginning, and fate and fortune have arranged, that Captain Burton should be the one of all others to confer upon his countrymen the boon of the genuine unsophisticated Thousand Nights and a Night. In the whole of our literature no book is more widely known. It is spread broadcast like the Bible, Bunyan and Shakespeare; yet although it is in every house, and every soul in the kingdom knows something about it, yet nobody knows it as it really exists. We have only had what translators have chosen to give — selected, diluted and abridged transcripts. And of late some so-called “original” books have been published containing minor tales purloined bodily from the Nights. There have been many versions, beginning with the beautiful Augustan French example of Professor Galland, but all have failed, or rather no one has attempted, to reproduce the great Oriental masterpiece. Judged by the number of editions — a most fallacious test of merit — Lane’s three volumes, on the whole, have found greatest favour with the British public. He was too timid to give to the world the full benefit of his studies, and he kept a drawing-room audience in view. He was careful to adapt his picture to the English standard of propriety, and his suppressions and omissions are on a wholesale scale. Lord Byron said of English novelists that they give a full length of courtship and but a bust of marriage. Mr. Lane thought it expedient to draw a tight veil, to tell only half the truth — in short he stops at the bust. Moreover he destroyed all the mécanique of his original, and cruelly altered the form. He did away with the charming and dramatic framework of the tales, turned the Arabian Nights into the Arabian Chapters, and too often into the Arabian Notes. The first sole and complete translation was furnished recently by Mr. John Payne, whose “Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night” is dedicated to Captain Burton. Mr. Payne printed 500 copies for private circulation, a mere drop in the ocean. His edition was instantly absorbed, clutched with avidity, and is unprocurable — unless, as has happened several times, a stray copy finds its way into the market, and is snatched up at a fancy price. It so happened that Mr. Payne and Captain Burton applied themselves to the same task quite unconscious of each other’s labour. They were running on the same rails, like Adams and Leverrier, the joint discoverers of Neptune, or like Darwin and Wallace, who simultaneously evolved the theory of Natural Selection. Hearing of a competitor, Captain Burton, who was travelling to the Gold Coast, freely offered his fellow worker precedence. Mr. Payne’s production served to whet curiosity, and the young scholars of the day applied themselves to Arabic in order to equip their minds, and to be in a more blissful state of preparation for the triumphant edition to follow. Captain Burton’s first volume in sombre black and dazzling gold — the livery of the Abbasides — made its appearance three weeks ago, and divided attention with the newly-discovered Star. It is the first volume of ten, the set issued solely to subscribers. And already, as in the case of Mr. Payne’s edition, there has been a scramble to secure it, and it is no longer to be had for love or money. The fact is, it fills a void, the world has been waiting for this chef d’æuvre, and all lovers of the Arabian Nights wonder how they have got on without it. We must break off from remarks to give some idea of the originality of the style, of the incomparable way in which the very essence and life of the East is breathed into simple, straightforward Anglo-Saxon English. In certain of Captain Burton’s books he borrows words from all languages, there are not enough for his use, and he is driven to coin them. But in the character of Arabian story-teller he is simplicity itself, and whilst avoiding words of length, he introduces just enough of antique phrase as gives a bygone and poetic flavour. The most exacting and the most fastidious will be satisfied at the felicitous handling of immortal themes. A delightful characteristic is the division of the text into Nights. Lane and Payne, for peculiar reasons of their own, have both omitted to mark the breaks in the recital. But now for the first time the thread on which all is strung is clearly kept in view, and justice is done to the long drawn-out episode of the young wife who saves her own neck and averts a wholesale massacre of maidens by her round of stories within stories.

The reader most familiar with the ordinary versions at once is in a new atmosphere. The novelty is startling as it is delightful. We are face to face with the veritable East, where Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad are known to us as London or Lincoln. The whole life of the people is represented, nothing is passed over or omitted. The picture is complete, and contains everything as the “white contains the black of the eye,” a phrase which, by- the-bye, in Arabic is all contained in one word. We have before alluded to the strength and beauty of the style. The felicities of expression are innumerable. What could be better than the terms to express grief and joy, “his breast broadened,” “his breast straitened,” or the words used of a person in abject terror, “I died in my skin,” or the cruelty of the scourger who persevered “till her forearm failed,” or the expression of despair “The light before his face became night,” or the grand account of the desert storm “when behold a dust cloud up-flew and grew until it walled the horizon from view.” Another speciality of Captain Burton’s edition is the Notes. He is celebrated for sowing the bottom of his pages with curiously illuminating remarks, and he has here carried out his custom in a way to astonish. He tells us that those who peruse his notes in addition to those of Lane would be complete proficients in the knowledge of Oriental practices and customs. Lane begins with Islam from Creation to the present day, and has deservedly won for his Notes the honour of a separate reprint. Captain Burton’s object in his annotations is to treat of subjects which are completely concealed from the multitude. They are utterly and entirely esoteric, and deal with matters of which books usually are kept clear. Indeed he has been assured by an Indian officer who had been 40 years in the East, that he was entirely ignorant of the matters revealed in these Notes. Without these marvellous elucidations the Arabian Nights would remain only half understood, but by their aid we may know as much of the Moslems as the Moslems know of themselves.

The Lincoln Gazette, Saturday, October 17th, 1885.

Second Notice.

In bringing out his Arabian Nights Captain Burton has made a bold attempt to dispense with the middleman the publisher. He has gone straight to the printer, he himself undertaking the business of distribution. It is time somebody should be energetic. With curious submission authors go on bearing their grievances, and sow that others may reap. Whole editions of travels are issued, and the person most concerned, the author, gets a pittance of £5. And only the other day Walt Whitman, most illustrious of American poets, and in the opinion of capable judges the most illustrious man of letters across the Atlantic, publicly that the profits on his writings for a whole year amounted to a few dollars. Captain Burton has broken through the bondage, and the result promises to be highly satisfactory. But he has been threatened with pains and penalties, one trade journal, the Printing Times and Lithographer, under the immediate direction of an eminent bookseller, known for his vast purchases of rare publications, announced that The Arabian Nights would be suppressed unless its tone and morals were unexceptionable! In short, publishers are exasperated, and, like the Peers, they do not see the force of being abolished. The authors, however, who sigh to be independent, must not take it for granted that the experiment is easy, or likely to be often successful. In this particular instance it is a case of the Man and the Book. There is only one Arabian Nights in the world, and only one Captain Burton.

The Thousand Nights and a Night offers a complete picture of Eastern peoples. But the English reader must be prepared to find that the manners of Arabs and Moslems differ from his own. Eastern people look at things from a more natural and primitive point of view, and they say what they think with all the unrestraint of children. At times their plain speaking is formidable, but they are not conscious of impropriety, and their coarseness is not intentional. It is their nature to be downright, and to be communicative on subjects about which the Saxon is shy or silent, and it must be remembered that the separation of the sexes adds considerably to this freedom of expression. Their language is material in quality, every root is objective; as an instance, for the word soul they have no more spiritual equivalent than breath. Even the conversation between parents and children is of incredible frankness, and the Wazir of Egypt talks to his daughter “the Lady of Beauty,” in a fashion astonishing to the West. But the Arabs are a great mixture. They are keenly alive to beauty, and every youth and every damsel is described in glowing, rapturous terms. We have heard in our own country, so far north as chilly Scotland, of a whole audience standing up in a theatre to applaud the entrance and acknowledge the charms of a beautiful woman. In the East they are far more readily subjugated, and the event is of everyday occurrence, and not a wonder. “When the people of Damascus saw Ajib’s beauty and brilliancy and perfect grace and symmetry (for he was a marvel of comeliness and winning loveliness, softer than the cool breeze of the North, sweeter than limpid waters to man in drouth, and pleasanter than the health for which sick man sueth), a mighty many followed him, whilst others ran on before and sat down on the road until he should come up, that they might gaze on him.” The Arabs are highly imaginative, and their world is peopled with supernatural beings, whilst Ovid is surpassed in the number and ingenuity of their metamorphoses. Their nerves are highly strung, they are emotional to the hysteric degree, and they do everything in the superlative fashion. They love at first sight, and one glimpse of a face is enough to set them in flames; they cease to sleep or to eat until they are admitted to the adored presence, they weep till they faint, they rend their garments, pluck their beards, buffet their faces, and after paroxysms of passion they recover sufficiently to recite verses —“and he beat his face and head and recited these couplets”—“then she recited, weeping bitterly the while”—“When the young man heard these words he wept with sore weeping, till his bosom was drenched with tears and began reciting.” All this effervescence, so different to our rigid repression, all this exuberance of feeling is the gift of a hot climate. And, besides this easy stirring of their passions, they always live in supreme consciousness that every impulse, every act is decreed, that they drift without will of their own, and are the helpless creatures of destiny. Half their talk consists of invocations to Allah, the All-ruling, All-gracious Allah! This fatalistic element is a leading feature in the Nights. All that happens is accepted with submission, and with the conviction that nothing can be averted. The Wazir’s eye is knocked out, “as fate and fortune decreed,” the one pomegranate seed escapes destruction, and the Princess dies in consequence; the beautiful lad secreted in a cave under the earth to keep him from harm, because it is foretold by the astrologers that he will die on a certain day, meets with his death at the appointed hour despite all precautions. This is one of the myriad instances, says Captain Burton, showing “that the decrees of Anagké, Fate, Destiny, Weird are inevitable.” And yet, in the face of overwhelming evidence that Moslems in all things bow to the stroke of destiny, it is singular to note that a Turkish scholar like Mr. Redhouse, translator of the “Mesnevi,” fails to realise this most characteristic trait of Mahometan belief, and confuses it with the Christian idea of Providence and Premonition. The folk in Arabian tales, as might be expected, meet calamity in the shape of death with fortitude. The end of life is not a terror acutely feared as with us. They die easily, and when the time comes they give up the ghost without repining, although the mourning by survivors is often loud and vehement, and sometimes desperately prolonged. This facility in dying is partly due to their fatalistic philosophy, and partly it is the effect of climate. It is in rugged climes that death is appalling, and comes as the King of Terrors, but the hotter the country the easier it is to enter the Door of Darkness. All these things which make the difference between Orientals and ourselves must be taken into account by readers of Arabian story, and the coarseness, as Captain Burton shows, is but the shade of a picture which otherwise would be all light;” the general tone of the Nights “is exceptionally high and pure, and the devotional fervour often rises to boiling point.” We have shown how Captain Burton has rendered the prose of the Nights, how vigorous, yet simple, is the language, how pleasant is his use of antique phrase, serving as it often does to soften the crudity of Oriental expression. In translating the poetry, which finally will amount to nearly 10,000 lines, he has again started on a path of his own. He has closely preserved the Arab form, although, as he says, an absolutely exact copy of Arabic metres is an impossibility.

A striking novelty in Captain Burton’s translation is the frequent occurrence of passages in cadenced prose, called in Arabic “Saj’a,” or the cooing of a dove. These melodious fragments have a charming effect on the ear. They come as dulcet-surprises, and mostly occur in highly-wrought situations, or they are used to convey a vivid sense of something exquisite in art or nature. We give one or two instances of these little eddies of song set like gems in the prose. Their introduction seems due to whim or caprice, but really is due to profound study of the situation, as if the tale-teller felt suddenly compelled to break into the rhythmic strain. The prose ripples and rises to dancing measure when the King of the Age, wandering in a lonely palace, comes upon the half-petrified youth, “the Ensorcelled Prince.”

“Now when the Sultan heard the mournful voice he sprang to his feet, and following the sound found a curtain let down over the chamber door. He raised it and saw behind it a young man sitting upon a couch about a cubic above the ground: he fair to the sight, a well- shaped wight, with eloquence dight, his forehead was flower-white, his cheek rosy bright, and a mole on his cheek breadth like an ambergris mite.”

It is broken again to bring into fuller notice the perfections of one of the three merry ladies of Baghdad, sitting under a silken canopy, the curtains “looped up with pearls as big as filberts and bigger.” We are told to note how eastern are the metaphors, how confused the flattery.

“Thereupon sat a lady bright of blee, with brow-beaming brilliancy, and her eyebrows were arched as for archery; her breath breathed ambergris and perfumery, and her lips were sugar to taste and carnelian to see. Her stature was straight as the letter I (the letter Alif a straight perpendicular stroke), and her face shamed the noon sun’s radiancy; and she was even as a galaxy or a dome with golden marquetry, or a bride displayed on choicest finery, or a noble maid of Araby.”

And prose is not thought adequate to do justice to the natural beauty of a garden “like one of the pleasaunces of Paradise.”

“It was a garden with trees of freshest green and ripe fruits of yellow sheen; and its birds were singing clear and keen, and rills ran wimpling through the fair terrene.”

It is a marvel that these cadences have never been reproduced before. They have been faintly attempted by Eastwick, in his “Gulistan,” whilst Mr. Payne simply passed them over, rejected them as of no account. They fall in with Captain Burton’s plan of omitting nothing; of giving the Nights intact in the precise form in which they are enjoyed by the Oriental. Beside the verses so characteristic of exaggerated Arabic sentiment, and the rhymed cadences, let like precious stones into the gold of the prose, the proverbs embodying the proverbial wit and wisdom are all rhymed as in the original Arabic. What Arabists think of this translation we may learn from a professed Arabist writing to this effect:—“I am free to confess, after many years study of Arabic, a comparison of your translation with the text has taught me more than many months of dry study,” whilst Englishmen who for years have lived in the East are making the discovery that, after all, they have known little or nothing, and their education is only beginning with this version of the Arabian Nights. It is only knowledge that knows how to observe; and it is satisfactory to observe that Captain Burton’s amazing insight into Eastern peculiarities has been put to its best use in giving a true idea of the People of the Sun and a veritable version of their Book of Books. The labour expended on this edition has been enormous. The work could only have been completed by the most excessive and pertinatious application. All the same we are told it has been “a labour of love,” a task that has brought its own exceeding great reward.

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