The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XXII

August 1881-May 1882

John Payne

103. With Cameron at Venice, August 1881.

Burton had for several years been acquainted with the African traveller V. Lovett Cameron,338 and in August 1881 they met accidentally at Venice. A geographical conference was being held in the city and representatives from all nations were assembled; but, naturally, the first geographer of the day, Captain Burton, was not invited either to speak or even to be present. On the morning of the conference, Burton, Mrs. Burton and Cameron gave themselves the treat of going over to the Lido for bathing and breakfast; and being in puckish mood, the two men, notwithstanding the great crowd of pleasure seekers, took off their shoes and stockings, turned up their trousers, and made sand castles. “Look, nurse,” bawled Burton to his wife, “see what Cammy and I have done!” “If you please, nursey,” whined Cameron, “Dick’s snatched away my spade.” At that moment Lord Aberdeen, President of the Royal Geographical Society, and a party of grave antiquaries and geographers, mostly run to nose, spectacles, and forehead, arrived on the scene; with the result of infinite laughter, in which Burton and Cameron joined heartily; and henceforward Mrs. Burton answered to no name but “Nursey.” Burton, however, was justly indignant on account of his not having been invited to the conference, and his revenge took the shape of a pungent squib which he wrote on his card and left in the Congress Room. Next day, while Burton and Cameron were strolling in front of St. Mark’s, a Portuguese gentleman came up and saluted them. To Burton’s delight it was his old friend Da Cunha, the Camoens enthusiast; and then ensued a long argument, conducted in Portuguese, concerning Burton’s rendering of one of Camoens’ sonnets, Burton in the end convincing his friend of its correctness. Having parted from Da Cunha, they ran against an Egyptian officer who had just visited Mecca and brought back a series of photographs. The conversation this time was conducted in Arabic, and Burton explained to the Egyptian the meaning of much of the ritual of the pilgrimage. “As a cicerone,” says Cameron, “Burton was invaluable. His inexhaustible stock of historical and legendary lore furnished him with something to relate about even the meanest and commonest buildings.”339 There were trips about the green canals in a long black gondola on the day and night of the regatta, when the Grand Canal and St. Mark’s were illuminated, all of which Burton enjoyed thoroughly, for round him had gathered the elite of Venice, and his brilliant personality, as usual, dazzled and dominated all who listened to him.

338 Born 1844. Appointed to the command of an East Coast expedition to relieve Livingstone, 1872. Crossed Africa 1875.

339 “Burton as I knew him,” by V. L. Cameron.

104. John Payne, November 1881.

We now come to that absorbing period of Burton’s life which is connected principally with The Arabian Nights. Amazing as the statement may seem, we feel ourselves compelled to say at once, though regretfully, that Burton’s own account of the history of the translation, given in his Translator’s Foreword to the Arabian Nights, and Lady Burton’s account, given in her life of her husband, do not tally with the facts as revealed in his letters. In matters relating to his own history Burton often spoke with amazing recklessness,340 and perhaps he considered he was justified in stating that his translation of The Arabian Nights was well advanced by November 1881, seeing that it had for thirty years intermittently occupied his thoughts. As regards Lady Burton, no doubt, of some of the facts presently to be given, she was unaware. But she was one who easily deceived herself. Whatever she wished, she was apt to believe. The actual facts compiled from existing documentary evidence — including Burton’s own letters — will now be revealed for the first time; and it will be found, as is generally the case, that the unembroidered truth is more interesting than the romance. The story is strangely paralleled by that of the writing of The Kasidah; or in other words it recalls traits that were eminently characteristic of Burton. As early as 1854, as we have seen, Burton and Steinhauser had planned a translation of The Arabian Nights, Steinhauser was to furnish the prose, Burton the poetry. They corresponded on the subject, but made only trifling progress. Steinhauser died in 1866, his manuscripts were scattered, and Burton never heard of them again. Absolutely nothing more was done, for Burton was occupied with other matters — travelling all over the world and writing piles of voluminous books on other subjects. Still, he had hoards of Eastern manuscripts, and notes of his own on Eastern manners and customs, which had for years been accumulating and an even greater mass of curious information had been stored in his brain. Again and again he had promised himself to proceed, but something every time hindered.

In November 1881, Burton, who was then at Trieste, noticed a paragraph in The Athenaeum341 to the effect that Mr. John Payne, the well-known author of The Masque of Shadows and of a famous rendering of The Poems of Francois Villon, was about to issue a Translation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and one Nights. Burton, who was an enthusiastic admirer of the Villon and who, moreover, had not relinquished his own scheme, though it had lain so long quiescent, wrote at once to The Athenaeum a letter which appeared on 26th November 1881. He said: “Many years ago, in collaboration with my old and lamented friend, Dr. F. Steinhauser, of the Bombay Army, I began to translate the whole342 of The Thousand Nights and a Night. The book, mutilated in Europe to a collection of fairy tales, and miscalled the Arabian Nights, is unique as a study of anthropology. It is a marvellous picture of Oriental life; its shiftings are those of the kaleidoscope. Its alternation of pathos and bathos — of the boldest poetry (the diction of Job) with the baldest prose (the Egyptian of to-day) and finally, its contrast of the highest and purest morality with the orgies of Apuleius and Petronius Arbiter, take away the reader’s breath. I determined to render every word with the literalism of Urquhart’s Rabelais, and to save the publisher trouble by printing my translation at Brussels.

“Not non omnia possumus. Although a host of friends has been eager to subscribe, my work is still unfinished, nor could it be finished without a year’s hard labour. I rejoice, therefore, to see that Mr. John Payne, under the Villon Society, has addressed himself to a realistic translation without ‘abridgments or suppressions.’ I have only to wish him success, and to express a hope that he is resolved verbum reddere verbo, without deference to any prejudice which would prevent his being perfectly truthful to the original. I want to see that the book has fair play; and if it is not treated as it deserves, I shall still have to print my own version.343 ‘Villon,’ however, makes me hope for the best.”

In this letter Burton oddly enough speaks of his own work as “still unfinished.” This was quite true, seeing that it was not even begun, unless two or three pages which he once showed to Mr. Watts-Dunton,344 and the pigeon-holing of notes be regarded as a commencement. Still, the announcement of Mr. Payne’s edition — the first volume of which was actually in the press — must have caused him a pang; and the sincere good wishes for his rival’s success testify to the nobility, unselfishness and magnanimity of his character.

Mr. Payne, supposing from his letter that Burton had made considerable progress with his translation, wrote on November 28th to Burton, and, using the words Tantus labor non sit cassus, suggested collaboration. Thus commenced one of the most interesting friendships in the annals of literature. Before relating the story, however, it will be helpful to set down some particulars of the career of Mr. Payne. John Payne was born in 1842 of a Devonshire family, descended from that breezy old sea-dog, Sir John Hawkins. Mr. Payne, indeed, resembles Hawkins in appearance. He is an Elizabethan transferred bodily into the 19th and 20th centuries, his ruff lost in transit. Yet he not infrequently has a ruff even — a live one, for it is no uncommon event to see his favourite Angora leap on to his shoulders and coil himself half round his master’s neck, looking not unlike a lady’s boa — and its name, Parthenopaeus, is long enough even for that. For years Mr. Payne followed the law, and with success, but his heart was with the Muses and the odorous East. From a boy he had loved and studied the old English, Scotch and Welsh writers, with the result that all his productions have a mediaeval aroma. The Faerie Queene, Chaucer and his successors — the Scottish poets of the 15th and 16th Centuries, The Morte d’Arthur, the authorised version of the Bible and North’s Plutarch have always lain at his elbow. Then, too, with Dante, Shakespeare and Heine’s poems he is supersaturated; but the authorised version of the Bible has had more influence on him than any other book, and he has so loved and studied it from boyhood that he had assimilated its processes and learned the secrets of the interior mechanism of its style. It is not surprising that his first publication should have been a book of poetry. The merits of The Masque of Shadows and other Poems were acknowledged on all sides. It was seen that the art of ballad writing — which Goethe calls the most difficult of arts — was not, as some averred, a forgotten one. The Masque of Shadows itself is melodious and vivid from the first line to the end, but the captain jewel is the necromantic and thrilling Rime of Redemption — the story of a woman who erred and of a man who prayed and wrestled with God in prayer for her, and ultimately wrung her salvation by self-sacrifice from Divine Justice. Here and there are passages that we could have wished modified, but surely such a terrific fantasy was never before penned! It is as harrowing as The Ancient Mariner, and appeals to one more forcibly than Coleridge’s “Rime,” because it seems actual truth. Other volumes, containing impassioned ballads, lyrics, narrative poems and sonnets, came from Mr. Payne’s pen. His poems have the rush and bound of a Scotch waterfall. This is explained by the fact that they are written in moments of physical and mental exaltation. Only a mind in a quasi-delirious state, to be likened to that of the pythoness on the tripod, could have evolved the Rime of Redemption345 or Thorgerda346. No subject comes amiss to him. His chemic power turns everything to gold. “He sees everything,” as Mr. Watts-Dunton once said to the writer — “through the gauze of poetry.” His love for beautiful words and phrases leads him to express his thoughts in the choicest language. He puts his costliest wine in myrrhine vases; he builds his temple with the lordliest cedars. Mr. Payne does not write for the multitude, but few poets of the day have a more devoted band of admirers. Some readers will express a preference for The Building of the Dream,347 others for Lautrec348 or Salvestra349, and others for the dazzling and mellifluous Prelude to Hafiz. Mr. A. C. Swinburne eulogised the “exquisite and clear cut Intaglios.”350 D. G. Rossetti revelled in the Sonnets; Theodore de Banville, “roi des rimes,” in the Songs of Life and Death, whose beauties blend like the tints in jewels.351

Mr. Payne first took up the work of a translator in 1878, his earliest achievement in the new province being his admirable rendering of Villon, in which he gives the music of the thief poet, and all his humour, and this reminds us that Mr. Payne, unlike most poets, is a skilled musician. Of his life, indeed, music, in its most advanced and audacious manifestations had always been as much an essential a part as literature, hence the wonderful melodic effects of the more remarkable of his poems. Already an excellent Arabic scholar, he had as early as 1875 resolved upon a translation of The Arabian Nights, and he commenced the task in earnest on 5th February 1877. He worked with exhausting sedulity and expended upon it all the gifts in his power, with the result that his work has taken its places as a classic. The price was nine guineas. Imagining that the demand for so expensive a work would not be large, Mr. Payne, unfortunately, limited himself to the publication of only 500 copies. The demand exceeded 2,000, so 1,500 persons were disappointed.

It was at this moment that Mr. Payne became acquainted with Burton. Mr. Payne admired Burton as a traveller, an explorer, and a linguist, and recognised the fact that no man had a more intimate knowledge of the manners and customs of the East; and Burton on his part paid high tribute to Mr. Payne’s gifts as a translator and a poet.352

340 Nearly all his friends noticed this feature in his character and have remarked it to me.

341 The number is dated 5th November 1881. Mr. Payne had published specimens of his proposed Translation, anonymously, in the New Quarterly Review for January and April, 1879.

342 This was a mistake. Burton thought he had texts of the whole, but, as we shall presently show, there were several texts which up to this time he had not seen. His attention, as his letters indicate, was first drawn to them by Mr. Payne.

343 In the light of what follows, this remark is amusing.

344 See Chapter xxiii, 107.

345 In the Masque of Shadows.

346 New Poems, p. 19.

347 The Masque of Shadows, p. 59.

348 Published 1878.

349 New Poems, p. 179.

350 Published 1871.

351 Mr. Watts-Dunton, the Earl of Crewe, and Dr. Richard Garnett have also written enthusiastically of Mr. Payne’s poetry.

352 Of “The John Payne Society” (founded in 1905) and its publications particulars can be obtained from The Secretary, Cowper School, Olney. It has no connection with the “Villon Society,” which publishes Mr. Payne’s works.

105. To the Gold Coast, 25th November 1881-20th May 1882.

When Mr. Payne’s letter reached Trieste, Burton had just started off, with Commander Verney Lovett Cameron, on an expedition to the Gold Coast. In his Fernando Po period he had, as we have seen, been deeply interested in the gold digging and gold washing industries,353 had himself, indeed, to use his own words, “discovered several gold mines on that coast.” For years his mind had turned wistfully towards those regions, and at last, early in 1881, he was able to enter into an arrangement with a private speculator concerning the supposed mines. He and Cameron were to have all their expenses paid, and certain shares upon the formulation of the company. The travellers left Trieste on November 18th, being accompanied as far as Fiume by Mrs. Burton and Lisa, who on the 25th returned to Trieste; and on December 17th they reached Lisbon, whither Mr. Payne’s letter followed them. Burton, who replied cordially, said “In April, at the latest, I hope to have the pleasure of shaking hands with you in London, and then we will talk over the 1,000 Nights and a Night. At present it is useless to say anything more than this — I shall be most happy to collaborate with you. . . . . Do you know the Rev. G. Percy Badger (of the Dictionary)? If not, you should make his acquaintance, as he is familiar with the Persian and to a certain extent with the Egyptian terms of the Nights. He is very obliging and ready to assist Arabists354. . . . . I am an immense admirer of your Villon.”

Writing to Burton early in the year Payne observed that as his first volume was in type, apparently it should at once go to press, but that he would be pleased to submit subsequent volumes to Burton. Terms were also suggested.

Burton’s reply, addressed Axim, Gold Coast, and received by Mr. Payne, 20th March, 1882, runs as follows: “I received your welcome letter by the steamer of yesterday, and to-morrow morning my companion Cameron and I again proceed to the ‘bush.’ Of course you must go to press at once. I deeply regret it, but on arriving in England my time will be so completely taken up by the Gold Coast that I shall not have a moment’s leisure. It would be a useless expense to keep up the type. Your terms about the royalty,” he said, “are more than liberal. I cannot accept them, however, except for value received, and it remains to be seen what time is at my disposal. I am working out a scheme for Chinese immigration to the West African coast, and this may take me next winter to China. I can only say that I shall be most happy to render you any assistance in my power; at the same time I must warn you that I am a rolling stone. If I cannot find time you must apply in the matter of the introductory essay to the Rev. Percy Badger, Professor Robertson Smith (Glasgow) and Professor Palmer (Trinity, Cambridge). I have booked your private address and have now only to reciprocate your good wishes.”

On April 18th Mrs. Burton and Lisa set out for England in order to rejoin Burton — Lisa, as usual, without any headgear — a condition of affairs which in every church they entered caused friction with the officials. When this began Mrs. Burton would explain the position; and the officials, when they came to find that nothing they could say or do make the slightest difference to Lisa, invariably expressed themselves satisfied with the explanation.

Burton and Cameron reached Liverpool on May 20th, and were able to report both “that there was plenty of gold, and that the mines could easily be worked.” The expedition, however, was unproductive of all anticipated results and no profit accrued to Burton. Indeed it was Iceland and Midian over again. “I ought,” he says in one of his letters to Payne, “to go down to history as the man who rediscovered one Gold Country and rehabilitated a second, and yet lost heavily by the discoveries.”355

353 See Chapter xi., 43.

354 Dr. Badger died 19th February, 1888, aged 73.

355 To Payne. 20th August 1883.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52