The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XXI

27th December 1879-August 1881



60. Camoens, 6 vols. 1 and 2, the Lusiads. 1880. 3 and 4, Life of Camoens and Commentary. 1882. 5 and 6, The Lyrics. 1884.

61. The Kasidah. 1880.

62. Visit to Lissa and Pelagoza. 1880.

63. A Glance at the Passion Play. 1881.

64. How to deal with the Slave Trade in Egypt. 1881.

65. Thermae of Montfalcone. 1881.

98. The Lusiads.

Burton had brought with him to Egypt his translation of The Lusiads, which had been commenced as early as 1847, and at which, as we have seen, he had, from that time onward, intermittently laboured. At Cairo he gave his work the finishing touches, and on his return to Trieste in May it was ready for the press. There have been many English translators of Camoens, from Fanshawe, the first, to Burton and Aubertin; and Burton likens them to the Simoniacal Popes in Dante’s Malebolge-pit — each one struggling to trample down his elder brother.322 Burton’s work, which appeared in 1882, was presently followed by two other volumes consisting of a Life of Camoens and a Commentary on The Lusiads, but his version of The Lyrics did not appear till 1884.

Regarded as a faithful rendering, the book was a success, for Burton had drunk The Lusiads till he was super-saturated with it. Alone among the translators, he had visited every spot alluded to in the poem, and his geographical and other studies had enabled him to elucidate many passages that had baffled his predecessors. Then, too, he had the assistance of Aubertin, Da Cunha and other able Portuguese scholars and Camoens enthusiasts. Regarded, however, as poetry, the book was a failure, and for the simple reason that Burton was not a poet. Like his Kasidah, it contains noble lines, but on every page we are reminded of the translator’s defective ear, annoyed by the unnecessary use of obsolete words, and disappointed by his lack of what Poe called “ethericity.” The following stanza, which expresses ideas that Burton heartily endorsed, may be regarded as a fair sample of the whole:

“Elegant Phormion’s philosophick store

see how the practised Hannibal derided

when lectured he with wealth of bellick lore

and on big words and books himself he prided.

Senhor! the soldier’s discipline is more

than men may learn by mother-fancy guided;

Not musing, dreaming, reading what they write;

’tis seeing, doing, fighting; teach to fight.”323

The first six lines contain nothing remarkable, still, they are workmanlike and pleasant to read; but the two concluding lines are atrocious, and almost every stanza has similar blemishes. A little more labour, even without much poetic skill, could easily have produced a better result. But Burton was a Hannibal, not a Phormion, and no man can be both. He is happiest, perhaps, in the stanzas containing the legend of St. Thomas,324 or Thome, as he calls him,

“the Missioner sanctified

Who thrust his finger in Lord Jesu’s side.”

According to Camoens, while Thorme was preaching to the potent Hindu city Meleapor, in Narsinga land325 a huge forest tree floated down the Ganges, but all the king’s elephants and all the king’s men were incompetent to haul it ashore.

“Now was that lumber of such vasty size,

no jot it moves, however hard they bear;

when lo! th’ Apostle of Christ’s verities

wastes in the business less of toil and care:

His trailing waistcord to the tree he ties,

raises and sans an effort hales it where

A sumptuous Temple he would rear sublime,

a fit example for all future time.”

This excites the jealousy and hatred of the Brahmins, for

“There be no hatred fell and fere, and curst

As by false virtue for true virtue nurst.”

The chief Brahmin then kills his own son, and tries to saddle the crime on Thome, who promptly restores the dead youth to life again and “names the father as the man who slew.” Ultimately, Thome, who is unable to circumvent the further machinations of his enemies, is pierced to the heart by a spear; and the apostle in glory is thus apostrophised:

“Wept Gange and Indus, true Thome! thy fate,

wept thee whatever lands thy foot had trod;

yet weep thee more the souls in blissful state

thou led’st to don the robes of Holy Rood.

But angels waiting at the Paradise-gate

meet thee with smiling faces, hymning God.

We pray thee, pray that still vouchsafe thy Lord

unto thy Lusians His good aid afford.”

In a stanza presented as a footnote and described as “not in Camoens,” Burton gives vent to his own disappointments, and expends a sigh for the fate of his old friend and enemy, John Hanning Speke. As regards himself, had he not, despite his services to his country, been relegated to a third-rate seaport, where his twenty-nine languages were quite useless, except for fulminating against the government! The fate of poor Speke had been still more lamentable:

“And see you twain from Britain’s foggy shore

set forth to span dark Africk’s jungle-plain;

thy furthest fount, O Nilus! they explore,

and where Zaire springs to seek the Main,

The Veil of Isis hides thy land no more,

whose secrets open to the world are lain.

They deem, vain fools! to win fair Honour’s prize:

This exiled lives, and that untimely dies.”

Burton, however, still nursed the fallacious hope that his merits would in time be recognised, that perhaps he would be re-instated in Damascus or appointed to Ispahan or Constantinople.

322 Inferno, xix.

323 Canto x., stanza 153.

324 Canto x., stanzas 108-118.

325 Between the Indus and the Ganges.

99. At Ober Ammergau, August 1880.

In August (1880) the Burtons paid a visit to Ober Ammergau, which was just then attracting all eyes on account of its Passion Play. Burton’s object in going was “the wish to compare, haply to trace some affinity between, this survival of the Christian ‘Mystery’ and the living scenes of El Islam at Mecca,” while Mrs. Burton’s object may be gauged by the following prayer which she wrote previous to their departure from Trieste: “O Sweet Jesu . . . Grant that I, all unworthy though I be, may so witness this holy memorial of thy sacrificial love, Thy glorious victory over death and hell, that I may be drawn nearer to Thee and hold Thee in everlasting remembrance. Let the representation of Thy bitter sufferings on the cross renew my love for Thee, strengthen my faith, and ennoble my life, and not mine only, but all who witness it.” Then follows a prayer for the players.

Burton found no affinity between the scenes at Ober Ammergau and those at Mecca, and he was glad to get away from “a pandemonium of noise and confusion,” while Mrs. Burton, who was told to mind her own business by a carter with whom she remonstrated for cruelly treating a horse, discovered that even Ober Ammergau was not all holiness. Both Burton and his wife recorded their impressions in print, but though his volume326 appeared in 1881, hers327 was not published till 1900.

326 A Glance at the Passion Play, 1881.

327 The Passion Play at Ober Ammergau, 1900.

100. Mrs. Burton’s Advice to Novelists. 4th September 1880.

The following letter from Mrs. Burton to Miss Stisted, who had just written a novel, A Fireside King,328 gives welcome glimpses of the Burtons and touches on matters that are interesting in the light of subsequent events. “My dearest Georgie, On leaving you I came on to Trieste, arriving 29th May, and found Dick just attacked by a virulent gout. We went up to the mountains directly without waiting even to unpack my things or rest, and as thirty-one days did not relieve him, I took him to Monfalcone for mud baths, where we passed three weeks, and that did him good. We then returned home to change our baggage and start for Ober Ammergau, which I thought glorious, so impressive, simple, natural. Dick rather criticises it. However, we are back. . . . I read your book through on the journey to England. Of course I recognised your father, Minnie,329 and many others, but you should never let your heroine die so miserably, because the reader goes away with a void in his heart, and you must never put all your repugnances in the first volume, for you choke off your reader. . . . You don’t mind my telling the truth, do you, because I hope you will write another, and if you like you may stand in the first class of novelists and make money and do good too, but put your beasts a little further in towards the end of the first volume. I read all the reviews that fell in my way, but though some were spiteful that need not discourage . . . Believe me, dearest G., your affectionate Zookins.”

Miss Stisted’s novel was her first and last, but she did write another book some considerable time later, which, however, would not have won Mrs. Burton’s approval.330

328 A Fireside King, 3 vol., Tinsley 1880. Brit. Mus. 12640 i. 7.

329 See Chapter xx., 96. Maria Stisted died 12th November 1878.

330 See Chapter xli.

101. The Kasidah, 1880.

This year, Burton, emulous of fame as an original poet, published The Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi, A Lay of the Higher Law, which treats of the great questions of Life, Death and Immortality, and has certain resemblances to that brilliant poem which is the actual father of it, Edward FitzGerald’s rendering of The Rubaiyat of Oman Khayyam. Lady Burton tells us that The Kasidah was written about 1853, or six years before the appearance of FitzGerald’s poem. Nothing, however, is more certain than that, with the exception of a few verses, it was written after FitzGerald’s poem. The veriest tyro in literature, by comparing the two productions, would easily understand their relationship.331 The facts are these. About 1853, Burton, in a time of dejection, caused by the injustice done him in India, planned a poem of this nature, wrote a few stanzas, and then put it by and forgot all about it. FitzGerald’s version of Omar Khayyam appeared in 1859, and Burton no sooner read than he burned to rival it. So he drew from the pigeon-hole what he called his Lay, furbished up the few old verses, made a number of new ones, reconstructed the whole, and lo, The Kasidah! Burton calls it a translation of a poem by a certain Haji Abdu. There may have been a Haji Abdu who supplied thoughts, and even verses, but the production is really a collection of ideas gathered from all quarters. Confucius, Longfellow, Plato, the FitzGeraldian Oman Khayyam, Aristotle, Pope, Das Kabir and the Pulambal are drawn upon; the world is placed under tribute from Pekin to the Salt Lake City. A more careless “borrower” to use Emerson’s expression, never lifted poetry. Some of his lines are transferred bodily, and without acknowledgment, from Hafiz;332 and, no doubt, if anybody were to take the trouble to investigate, it would be found that many other lines are not original. It is really not very much to anyone’s credit to play the John Ferriar to so careless a Sterne. He doesn’t steal the material for his brooms, he steals the brooms ready-made. Later, as we shall see, he “borrowed” with a ruthlessness that was surpassed only by Alexandre Dumas. Let us say, then, that The Kasidah is tesselated work done in Burton’s usual way, and not very coherently, with a liberal sprinkling of obsolete words. At first it positively swarmed with them, but subsequently, by the advice of a friend, a considerable number such as “wox” and “pight” was removed. If the marquetry of The Kasidah compares but feebly with the compendious splendours of FitzGerald’s quatrains; and if the poem333 has undoubted wastes of sand, nevertheless, the diligent may here and there pick up amber. But it is only fair to bear in mind that the Lay is less a poem than an enchiridion, a sort of Emersonian guide to the conduct of life rather than an exquisitely-presented summary of the thoughts of an Eastern pessimist. FitzGerald’s poem is an unbroken lament. Burton, a more robust soul than the Woodbridge eremite, also has his misgivings. He passes in review the great religious teachers, and systems and comes to the conclusion that men make gods and Gods after their own likeness and that conscience is a geographical accident; but if, like FitzGerald, he is puzzled when he ponders the great questions of life and afterlife, he finds comfort in the fact that probity and charity are their own reward, that we have no need to be anxious about the future, seeing that, in the words of Pope, “He can’t be wrong, whose life is in the right.” He insists that self-cultivation, with due regard for others, is the sole and sufficient object of human life, and he regards the affections and the “divine gift of Pity” as man’s highest enjoyments. As in FitzGerald’s poem there is talk of the False Dawn or Wolf’s Tail, “Thee and Me,” Pot and Potter, and here and there are couplets which are simply FitzGerald’s quatrains paraphrased334 — as, for example, the one in which Heaven and Hell are declared to be mere tools of “the Wily Fetisheer.”335 Like Omar Khayyam, Haji Abdu loses patience with the “dizzied faiths” and their disputatious exponents; like Omar Khayyam too, Haji Abdu is not averse from Jamshid’s bowl, but he is far less vinous than the old Persian.

Two of the couplets flash with auroral splendour, and of all the vast amount of metrical work that Burton accomplished, these are the only lines that can be pronounced imperishable. Once only — and only momentarily — did the seraph of the sanctuary touch his lips with the live coal.

“Do what thy manhood bids thee do, from none but self expect applause;

He noblest lives and noblest dies who makes and keeps his self-made laws.”


“All other life is living death, a world where none but phantoms dwell

A breath, a wind, a sound, a voice, a tinkling of the camel-bell.”

We are also bidden to be noble, genuine and charitable.

“To seek the true, to glad the heart, such is of life the Higher Law.”

Neglecting the four really brilliant lines, the principal attraction of The Kasidah is its redolence of the saffron, immeasurable desert. We snuff at every turn its invigorating air; and the tinkle of the camel’s bell is its sole and perpetual music.

At first Burton made some attempt to create the impression that there was actually a Haji Abdu, and that the verses were merely a translation. Indeed, he quotes him, at the end of his Supplemental Nights, vol. ii., and elsewhere, as an independent author. Later, however, the mask which deceived nobody was removed. Not only was The Kasidah written in emulation of FitzGerald’s Omar, but Burton made no secret that such was the case. To further this end Mr. Schutz Wilson, who had done so much for the Rubaiyat, was approached by one of Burton’s friends; and the following letter written to Burton after the interview will be read with some amusement. “Dear Richard,” it runs, “‘Wox’ made me shudder! If you give more specimens do be good and be sparing of the ‘pights,’ ‘ceres’ and ‘woxes.’ I showed the Lay to Schutz Wilson. He seemed absorbed in the idea of Omar, and said ‘Oh! I am the cause of its going through five editions.’ I told him this was even more striking than Omar, but he didn’t seem able to take in the new idea! When you want people’s minds they are always thinking of something else.”336 Although the critics as a body fell foul of The Kasidah, still there were not wanting appreciators, and its four great lines have often been quoted.

331 Only an admirer of Omar Khayyam could have written The Kasidah, observes Mr. Justin McCarthy, junior; but the only Omar Khayyam that Burton knew previous to 1859, was Edward FitzGerald. I am positive that Burton never read Omar Khayyam before 1859, and I doubt whether he ever read the original at all.

332 For example:—

“That eve so gay, so bright, so glad, this morn so dim and sad

and grey;

Strange that life’s Register should write this day a day, that

day a day.”

Amusingly enough, he himself quotes this as from Hafiz in a letter to Sir Walter Besant. See Literary Remains of Tyrwhitt Drake, p. 16. See also Chapter ix.

333 We use the word by courtesy.

334 See Life, ii., 467, and end of 1st volume of Supplemental Nights. Burton makes no secret of this. There is no suggestion that they are founded upon the original of Omar Khayyam. Indeed, it is probable that Burton had never, before the publication of The Kasidah, even heard of the original, for he imagined like J. A. Symonds and others, that FitzGerald’s version was a fairly literal translation. When, therefore, he speaks of Omar Khayyam he means Edward FitzGerald. I have dealt with this subject exhaustively in my Life of Edward FitzGerald.

335 Couplet 186.

336 Preserved in the Museum at Camberwell. It is inserted in a copy of Camoens.

102. Lisa.

By this time Mrs. Burton had provided herself with another Chico. Chico the Third (or Chica the Second) was a tall and lank, but well-built Italian girl, daughter of a baron. Lisa had Khamoor’s ungovernable temper, but to the Burtons she at first exhibited the faithfulness of a dog. Her father lived formerly at Verona, but in the war of 1866, having sided with Austria,337 he fell upon evil days; and retired to Trieste on a trifling pension. Mrs. Burton and Lisa had not been long acquainted before Lisa became a member of the Burton household as a kind of lady’s maid, although she retained her title of Baroness, and Mrs. Burton at once set about Anglicising her new friend, though her attempt, as in Khamoor’s case, was only partially successful. For instance, Lisa, would never wear a hat, “for fear of losing caste.” She was willing, however, to hang out her stocking on Christmas eve; and on finding it full next morning said, “Oh, I like this game. Shall we play it every night!” Just however, as a petted Khamoor had made a spoilt Khamoor; so a petted Lisa very soon made a spoilt Lisa.

With Mrs. Burton, her Jane Digbys, her Chicos, and her servants, Burton rarely interfered, and when he did interfere, it was only to make matters worse; for his judgment was weaker even than hers. On one occasion, however, he took upon himself to dismiss the cook and to introduce another of his own finding. On being requested to prepare the dinner the new acquisition set about it by drinking two bottles of wine, knocking down the housemaid, and beating the kitchenmaid with the saucepan. Burton, who flew to their rescue, thought he must be in Somali-land once more.

337 Italy having sided with Prussia in the war of 1866 received as her reward the long coveted territory of Venice.

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