The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XXIII

20th May 1882-July 1883

The Meeting of Burton and Payne


66. Lord Beaconsfield.

67. To the Gold Coast for Gold. 2 vols. 1883.

68. Stone Implements from the Gold Coast. Burton and Cameron.

106. Mrs. Grundy begins to roar. May 1882.

In May 1882, Burton called on Mr. Payne, and the matter of The Arabian Nights was fully discussed. It then transpired that Burton’s project was still entirely in nubibus. He told Mr. Payne that he had no manuscript of any kind beyond “a sheet or two of notes,”356 and it was afterwards gathered from his words that these notes were a mere syllabus of the contents of the Boulac edition of the Nights — the only one of the four printed texts (Calcutta, Macnaghten, Boulac and Breslau) used and combined by Mr. Payne with which Burton was then acquainted.357 Mr. Payne’s first volume was completely in type and had for some weeks been held over for Burton’s return to England. Of the remaining volumes three were ready for press, and the rest only awaited fair copying. Burton’s thoughts, however, were then completely occupied with the Gold Coast, consequently the whole project of collaboration fell through. Mr. Payne’s first volume duly appeared; and as the result of further conversations it was arranged that Burton should read Mr. Payne’s subsequent proofs, though he declined to accept any remuneration unless it should turn out that his assistance was necessary. In June, Mr. Payne submitted the first proofs of Vol. ii. to Burton. Meantime the literalism of Mr. Payne’s translation had created extraordinary stir, and Burton wrote thus forcefully on the matter (June 3rd): “Please send me a lot of advertisements.358 I can place a multitude of copies. Mrs. Grundy is beginning to roar; already I hear the voice of her. And I know her to be an arrant w —— and tell her so, and don’t care a ——— for her.”

The event at Trieste that summer was the opening of a Grand International Exhibition — the hobby of the Governor of the town — Baron de Pretis, and Burton thus refers to it in a letter written to Mr. Payne, 5th August (1882). “We arrived here just in time for the opening of the Exhibition, August 1st. Everything went off well, but next evening an Orsini shell was thrown which killed one and wounded five, including my friend Dr. Dorn, Editor of the Triester Zeitung. The object, of course, was to injure the Exhibition, and the effect will be ruinous. I expect more to come and dare not leave my post. So while my wife goes to Marienbad, I must content myself with the Baths at Monfalcone,359 distant only one hour by rail” In the next letter (August 14th) Burton refers to a proposed special quarto (large paper) edition of Mr. Payne’s Nights, the scheme for which, however, fell through. “I am delighted with the idea,” he says, “for though not a bibliophile in practice (£ s. d. preventing) I am entirely in theory.” There is also an amusing reference to a clergyman who after giving his name for a copy withdrew it. Says Burton, “If the Rev. A. miss this opportunity of grace he can blame only himself. It is very sad but not to be helped. . . . And now good luck to the venture.” Later he observes, “The fair sex appears wild to get at the Nights.360 I have received notes from two upon the nice subject, with no end of complaints about stern parients, brothers and brothers-in-law.”

In September Burton asks for the loan of Payne’s copy of the Calcutta Edition (Macnaghten) and enquires after Vol. i. He says “What news of Vol. i.? I am very anxious to see it, and so are many female correspondents. I look forward with great pleasure to the work.”

It was now understood that an attack was to be made on Payne’s volume in the press. Says Burton, September 29th (1882). “Perhaps it will be best to let ——— -361 sing his song. ———— has no end of enemies, and I can stir up a small wasp’s nest without once appearing in the matter. The best answer will be showing up a few of Lane’s mistakes, but this must be done with the greatest care, so that no hole can be picked in the critique.362 I enclose three sonnets, a specimen of my next volume of Camoens, and should much like any suggestions from you. They are line for line and mostly word for word. But that is nothing; the question is, are they readable English? They’ll be printed at my own expense, so they will ruin nobody. Switzerland has set you up and don’t let the solicitor’s office pull you down.”

On October 2nd he says: “Glad to hear of a new edition of Lane: it will draw attention to the subject. I must see what can be done with reviewers. Saturday and I are at drawn daggers, and ———— of ——— is such a stiff young she-prig that I hardly know what to do about him. However, I shall begin work at once by writing and collecting the vulnerable points of the clique. ——— is a very much hated man, and there will be no difficulty.” On the 8th, in reference to the opposing “clique,” Burton writes: “In my own case I should encourage a row with this bete noire; but I can readily understand your having reasons for wishing to keep it quiet.” Naturally, considering the tactics that were being employed against them, the Villon Society, which published Mr. Payne’s works, had no wish to draw the attention of the authorities to the moral question. Indeed, of the possible action of the authorities, as instigated by the clique, the Society stood in some fear.

Burton goes on: “I shall write to-day to T——— to know how —— is best hit. T——— hates me — so do most people. Meanwhile, you must (either yourself or by proxy) get a list of Lane’s laches. I regret to say my copy of his Modern Egyptians has been lost or stolen, and with it are gone the lists of his errata I had drawn up many years ago. Of course I don’t know Arabic, but who does? One may know a part of it, a corner of the field, but all! Bah! Many thanks for the notes on the three sonnets [Camoens]. Most hearty thanks for the trouble you have taken. The remarks are those of a scholar and a translator.”

Later, Burton sent Payne other Camoens sonnets to look over. Writing on 29th October 1882, he says, “Many thanks for the sonnet. Your version is right good, but it is yourself, not me. In such a matter each man expresses his own individuality. I shall follow your advice about the quatrains and tercets. No. 19 is one of the darkest on account of its extreme simplicity. I shall trouble you again.”

The first proofs (pp. 1-144) of Vol. ii. were read by Burton in October 1882, and returned by him October 21st. In his letter to Mr. Payne of that date he says, “It will only be prudent to prepare for an attack. I am perfectly ready to justify a complete translation of the book. And if I am obliged to say what I think about Lane’s Edition there will be hard hitting. Of course I wish to leave his bones in peace, but —— may make that impossible. Curious to see three editions of the 1,000 Nights advertised at the same time, not to speak of the bastard.363 I return you nine sheets [of proofs] by parcels post registered. You have done your work very well, and my part is confined to a very small amount of scribble which you will rub out at discretion.”

Subsequently Burton observed that Mr. Payne required no assistance of any kind; and therefore he re-refused to accept remuneration for reading the proofs. Naturally, they differed, as Arabists all do, upon certain points, but on all subjects save two Burton allowed that Mr. Payne’s opinion was as good as his own.

The first concerned the jingles in the prose portions of the Nights, such as “The trees are growing and the waters flowing and Allah all good bestowing.” Burton wanted them to be preserved, but to this Mr. Payne could not consent, and he gives the reasons in his Terminal Essay. The second exception was the treatment of the passages referring to a particular subject; and this indicates to us clearly the difference in the ideas and aims of the two men. Of artistry, of what FitzGerald calls “sinking and reducing,” Burton had no notion. “If anything is in any redaction of the original, in it should go,” he said. “Never mind how shocking it may be to modern and western minds. If I sin, I sin in good company — in the company of the authors of the Authorised Version of the Bible, who did not hesitate to render literatim certain passages which persons aiming simply at artistic effect would certainly have omitted.”

Payne on the other hand was inclined to minimise these passages as much as possible. Though determined that his translation should be a complete one, yet he entirely omitted coarsenesses whenever he could find excuse to do so — that is to say, when they did not appear in all the texts. If no such excuse existed he clothed the idea in skilful language.364 Nothing is omitted; but it is of course within the resources of literary art to say anything without real offence. Burton, who had no aptitude for the task; who, moreover, had other aims, constantly disagreed with Payne upon this point.

Thus, writing 12th May 1883, he says: “You are drawing it very mild. Has there been any unpleasantness about plain speaking? Poor Abu Nuwas365 is (as it were) castrated. I should say ‘Be bold or audace,’ &c., only you know better than I do how far you can go and cannot go. I should simply translate every word.”

“What I meant by literalism,” he says, 1st October 1883, “is literally translating each noun (in the long lists which so often occur) in its turn, so that the student can use the translation.”

This formed no part of Mr. Payne’s scheme, in fact was directly opposed to the spirit of his work, which was to make the translation, while quite faithful to the original, a monument of noble English prose and verse.

“I hold the Nights,” continues Burton, the best of class books, and when a man knows it, he can get on with Arabs everywhere. He thus comments on Payne’s Vol. iv., some of the tales of which, translate them as you will, cannot be other than shocking. “Unfortunately it is these offences (which come so naturally in Greece and Persia, and which belong strictly to their fervid age) that give the book much of its ethnological value. I don’t know if I ever mentioned to you a paper (unpublished) of mine showing the geographical limits of the evil.366 I shall publish it some day and surprise the world.367 I don’t live in England, and I don’t care an asterisk for Public Opinion.368 I would rather tread on Mrs. Grundy’s pet corn than not, she may howl on her *** *** to her heart’s content.” On August 24th (1883) Burton says, “Please keep up in Vol. v. this literality in which you began. My test is that every Arab word should have its equivalent English. . . . Pity we can’t manage to end every volume with a tidbit! Would it be dishonest to transfer a tale from one night or nights to another or others? I fancy not, as this is done in various editions. A glorious ending for Vol. iv. Would have been The Three Wishes or the Night of Power369 and The Cabinet with Five Shelves.”370

356 No doubt the “two or three pages” which he showed to Mr. Watts-Dunton.

357 This is a very important fact. It is almost incredible, and yet it is certainly true.

358 Prospectuses.

359 Its baths were good for gout and rheumatism. Mrs. Burton returned to Trieste on September 11th.

360 This is, of course, a jest. He repeats the jest, with variation, in subsequent letters.

361 The author wishes to say that the names of several persons are hidden by the dashes in these chapters, and he has taken every care to render it impossible for the public to know who in any particular instance is intended.

362 Of course, in his heart, Burton respected Lane as a scholar.

363 Apparently Galland’s.

364 Mr. Payne’s system is fully explained in the Introductory Note to Vol. i. and is consistently followed through the 13 volumes (Arabian Nights, 9 vols.; Tales from the Arabic, 3 vols.; Alaeddin and Zein-ul-Asnam, i vol.).

365 One of the poets of The Arabian Nights.

366 See Chapter iii. 11.

367 He published some of this information in his Terminal Essay.

368 Perhaps we ought again to state most emphatically that Burton’s outlook was strictly that of the student. He was angry because he had, as he believed, certain great truths to tell concerning the geographical limits of certain vices, and an endeavour was being made to prevent him from publishing them.

369 Burton’s A. N. vi., 180; Lib. Ed. v., 91, The Three Wishes, or the Man who longed to see the Night of Power.

370 The Lady and her Five Suitors, Burton’s A. N., vi., 172; Lib. Ed., v., 83; Payne’s A. N., v., 306. Of course Mr. Payne declined to do this.

107. The Search for Palmer, October 1882.

Burton was now to make what proved to be his last expedition. All the year Egypt had been ablaze with the rebellion of Arabi Pasha. Alexandria was bombarded by the English on July 11th, Arabi suffered defeat at Tell-el-Kebir three months later. On the commencement of the rebellion the British Government sent out Burton’s old friend Professor Palmer to the Sinaitic peninsula with a view to winning the tribes in that part of the British side, and so preventing the destruction of the Suez Canal. The expedition was atrociously planned, and the fatal mistake was also made of providing it with £3,000 in gold. Palmer landed at Jaffa at the end of June, and then set out via Gaza across the “Short Desert,” for Suez, where he was joined by Captain Gill and Lieutenant Charrington. In fancy one hears him as he enters on his perilous journey asking himself that question, which was so absurdly frequent in his lips, “I wonder what will happen?”

It is customary for travellers, before entering the Arabian wastes, to hire a Ghafir, that is, a guide and protector. Palmer, instead of securing a powerful chief, as the case required, selected a man of small account named Matr Nassar, and this petty shaykh and his nephew were the expedition’s only defence.

The doomed party left Suez on August 8th. On the 10th at midnight they were attacked by the Bedawin. “Palmer expostulated with his assassins; but all his sympathetic facility, his appeals to Arab honour and superstition, his threats, his denunciations, and the gift of eloquence which had so often prevailed with the wild men, were unheeded.” As vainly, Matr Nassar371 covered his proteges with his aba372 thus making them part of his own family. On the evening of August 11th the captives were led to the high bank of the Wady Sudr, where it received another and smaller fiumara yet unnamed, and bidden to prepare for death. Boldly facing his enemies, Palmer cursed them373 in Biblical language, and in the name of the Lord. But while the words were in his mouth, a bullet struck him and he fell. His companions also fell in cold blood, and the bodies of all three were thrown down the height374 — a piteous denouement — and one that has features in common with the tragic death scene of another heroic character of this drama — General Gordon.

The English Government still believed and hoped that Palmer has escaped; and on October 17th it sent a telegram to Burton bidding him go and assist in the search for his old friend.

Like the war horse in the Bible, the veteran traveller shouted “Aha!” and he shot across the Mediterranean like a projectile from a cannon. But he had no sooner reached Suez than he heard — his usual luck — that Sir Charles Warren, with 200 picked men, was scouring the peninsula, and that consequently his own services would not be required. In six weeks he was back again at Trieste and so ended Viator’s375 last expedition. The remains of Palmer and his two companions were discovered by Sir Charles and sent to England to be interred in St. Paul’s Cathedral. To Palmer’s merits as a man Burton paid glowing tributes; and he praised, too, Palmer’s works, especially The Life of Harun Al Raschid and the translations of Hafiz,376 Zoheir and the Koran. Of the last Mr. Stanley Lane-Poole says finely: It “has the true desert ring in it;.. the translator has carried us among the Bedawin tents, and breathed into us the strong air of the desert, till we fancy we can hear the rich voice of the Blessed Prophet himself as he spoke to the pilgrims on Akabah.”

In his letter to Payne of 23rd December 1882, Burton adumbrates a visit eastward. “After January,” he says, “I shall run to the Greek Islands, and pick up my forgotten modern Greek.” He was unable, however, to carry out his plans in their entirety. On January 15th he thanks Payne for the loan of the “Uncastrated Villon,”377 and the Calcutta and Breslau editions of the Nights, and says “Your two vols. of Breslau and last proofs reached me yesterday. I had written to old Quaritch for a loan of the Breslau edition. He very sensibly replied by ignoring the loan and sending me a list of his prices. So then the thing dropped. What is the use of paying £3 odd for a work that would be perfectly useless to me. . . . But he waxes cannier every year.”

371 Possibly this was merely pantomime. Besant, in his Life of Palmer, p. 322, assumes that Matr Nassar, or Meter, as he calls him, was a traitor.

372 Cloak.

373 Cursing is with Orientals a powerful weapon of defence. Palmer was driven to it as his last resource. If he could not deter his enemies in this way he could do no more.

374 Burton’s Report and Besant’s Life of Palmer, p. 328.

375 See Chapter vi., 22.

376 Palmer translated only a few songs in Hafiz. Two will be found in that well-known Bibelot, Persian Love Songs.

377 There were two editions of Mr. Payne’s Villon. Burton is referring to the first.

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