The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XXIX

Burton’s Notes

137. Burton’s Notes.

These Notes, indeed, are the great speciality of Burton’s edition of the Nights. They are upon all manner of subjects — from the necklace of the Pleiades to circumcision; from necromancy to the characteristics of certain Abyssinian women; from devilish rites and ceremonies to precious stones as prophylactics. They deal not only with matters to which the word erotic is generally applied, but also with unnatural practices. There are notes geographical, astrological, geomantic, bibliographical, ethnological, anthropomorphitical; but the pornographic, one need hardly say, hugely predominate. Burton’s knowledge was encyclopaedic. Like Kerimeddin480 he had drunk the Second Phial of the Queen of the Serpents. He was more inquisitive than Vathek. To be sure, he would sometimes ask himself what was the good of it all or what indeed, was the good of anything; and then he would relate the rebuke he once received from an indolent Spaniard whom he had found lying on his back smoking a cigarette. “I was studying the thermometer,” said Burton, and I remarked, “‘The glass is unusually high.’ ‘When I’m hot, it’s hot,’ commented the Spaniard, lazily, ‘and when I’m cold it’s cold. What more do I want to know?’” Burton, as we have seen, had for a long time devoted himself particularly to the study of vice and to everything that was bizarre and unnatural: eunuchs, pederasts, hermaphrodites, idiots, Augustus-the-Strongs, monstrosities. During his travels he never drank anything but green tea, and if Le Fanu’s ideas481 in In a Glass Darkly are to be respected, this habit is partly responsible for his extraordinary bias. He deals with subjects that are discussed in no other book. He had seen many lands, and, like Hafiz, could say:

“Plunder I bore from far and near,

From every harvest gleaned an ear;”

and blighted ears some of them were. No other man could have written these notes; no other man, even if possessed of Burton’s knowledge, would have dared to publish them. Practically they are a work in themselves. That they were really necessary for the elucidation of the text we would not for a moment contend. At times they fulfil this office, but more often than not the text is merely a peg upon which to hang a mass of curious learning such as few other men have ever dreamt of. The voluminous note on circumcision482 is an instance in point. There is no doubt that he obtained his idea of esoteric annotation from Gibbon, who, though he used the Latin medium, is in this respect the true father of Burton. We will give specimens of the annotations, taken haphazard — merely premising that the most characteristic of them — those at which the saints in heaven knit their brows — necessarily in a work of this kind exclude themselves from citations:

“Laughter. ‘Sweetness of her smile’(Abu al Husn and Tawaddud). Arab writers often mention the smile of beauty, but rarely, after European fashion, the laugh, which they look upon as undignified. A Moslem will say ‘Don’t guffaw (kahkahah) in that way; leave giggling and grinning to monkeys and Christians.’ The Spaniards, a grave people, remark that Christ never laughed.”483

“Swan-maidens. ‘And became three maidens’ (Story of Janshah).484 We go much too far for an explanation of the legend; a high bred girl is so much like a swan485 in many points that the idea readily suggests itself. And it is also aided by the old Egyptian (and Platonic) belief in pre-existence, and by the Rabbinic and Buddhistic doctrine of Ante-Natal sin, to say nothing of metempsychosis. (Josephus’ Antiq., xvii., 153).”

“The Firedrake. ‘I am the Haunter of this place’ (Ma’aruf the Cobbler).486 Arab, Amir=one who inhabiteth. Ruins and impure places are the favourite homes of the Jinn.”

“Sticking Coins on the Face. ‘Sticks the gold dinar’ (Ali Nur al-Din).487 It is the custom for fast youths in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere to stick small gold pieces, mere spangles of metal, on the brows, cheeks and lips of the singing and dancing girls, and the perspiration and mask of cosmetics make them adhere for a time, till fresh movement shakes them off.”

“Fillets hung on trees. ‘Over the grave was a tall tree, on which hung fillets of red and green’ (Otbah and Rayya).488 Lane and many others are puzzled about the use of these articles. In many cases they are suspended to trees in order to transfer sickness from the body to the tree and to whoever shall touch it. The Sawahili people term such articles a Keti (seat or vehicle) for the mysterious haunter of the tree, who prefers occupying it to the patient’s person. Briefly the custom, still popular throughout Arabia, is African and Fetish.”

The value of the notes depends, of course, upon the fact that they are the result of personal observation. In his knowledge of Eastern peoples, languages and customs Burton stands alone. He is first and there is no second. His defence of his notes will be found in the last volume of his Supplemental Nights. We may quote a few sentences to show the drift of it. He says “The England of our day would fain bring up both sexes and keep all ages in profound ignorance of sexual and intersexual relations; and the consequences of that imbecility are particularly cruel and afflicting. How often do we hear women in Society lamenting that they have absolutely no knowledge of their own physiology. . . . Shall we ever understand that ignorance is not innocence. What an absurdum is a veteran officer who has spent a quarter of a century in the East without knowing that all Moslem women are circumcised, and without a notion of how female circumcision is effected,” and then he goes on to ridicule what the “modern Englishwoman and her Anglo-American sister have become under the working of a mock modesty which too often acts cloak to real devergondage; and how Respectability unmakes what Nature made.”489

Mr. Payne’s edition contains notes, but they were intended simply to elucidate the text. Though succinct, they are sufficient for the general reader. Here and there, however, we come upon a more elaborate note, such as that upon the tuning of the lute (Vol. viii., 179), where Mr. Payne’s musical knowledge enables him to elucidate an obscure technical point. He also identified (giving proper chapter and verse references), collated, and where needful corrected all the Koranic citations with which the text swarms, a task which demanded great labour and an intimate knowledge of the Koran. The appropriate general information bearing on the work he gave in a succinct and artistic form in his elaborate Terminal Essay — a masterpiece of English — in which he condensed the result of erudition and research such as might have furnished forth several folio volumes.

480 Or Karim-al-Din. Burton’s A. N., v., 299; Lib. Ed., iv., 246; Payne’s A. N., v. 52.

481 Le Fanu had carefully studied the effects of green tea and of hallucinations in general. I have a portion of the correspondence between him and Charles Dickens on this subject.

482 Burton’s A. N., Suppl. ii., 90-93; Lib. Ed., ix., 307, 308.

483 Lib. Ed., iv., 147.

484 “The Story of Janshah.” Burton’s A. N., v., 346; Lib. Ed., iv., 291.

485 One recalls “Edith of the Swan Neck,” love of King Harold, and “Judith of the Swan Neck,” Pope’s “Erinna,” Cowper’s Aunt.

486 Burton’s A. N., x., 6; Lib. Ed., viii., 6.

487 Burton’s A. N., viii., 275; Lib. Ed., vii., 12.

488 Burton’s A. N., vii., 96; Lib. Ed., v., 294.

489 Burton’s A. N., Suppl. Nights, vi., 438; Lib. Ed., xii., 258.

138. The Terminal Essay.

Finally there is the Terminal Essay, in which Burton deals at great length not only with the origin and history of the Nights and matters erotic, but also with unnatural practices. This essay, with the exception of the pornographic portions, will be found, by those who take the trouble to make comparisons, to be under large obligations to Mr. Payne’s Terminal Essay, the general lines and scheme of which it follows closely. Even Mr. Payne’s special phrases such as “sectaries of the god Wunsch,”490 are freely used, and without acknowledgement. The portions on sexual matters, however, are entirely original. Burton argues that the “naive indecencies of the text of The Arabian Nights are rather gaudisserie than prurience.” “It is,” he says, “a coarseness of language, not of idea. . . . Such throughout the East is the language of every man, woman and child, from prince to peasant.” “But,” he continues, “there is another element in the Nights, and that is one of absolute obscenity, utterly repugnant to English readers, even the least prudish.” Still, upon this subject he offers details, because it does not enter into his plan “to ignore any theme which is interesting to the Orientalist and the Anthropologist. To assert that such lore is unnecessary is to state, as every traveller knows, an absurdum.”

That these notes and the Terminal Essay were written in the interests of Oriental and Anthropological students may be granted, but that they were written solely in the interests of these students no one would for a moment contend. Burton simply revelled in all studies of the kind. Whatever was knowledge he wanted to know; and we may add whatever wasn’t knowledge. He was insatiable. He was like the little boy who, seeing the ocean for the first time, cried, “I want to drink it all up.” And Burton would have drunk it all. He would have swallowed down not only all the waters that were under the firmament but also all the creatures, palatable and unpalatable — especially the unpalatable — that sported therein.

490 Burton’s A. N., x., 199; Lib. Ed., viii., 174; Payne’s A. N., ix., 370.

139. Final Summing up.

To sum up finally: (1) Both translations are complete, they are the only complete translations in English, and the world owes a deep debt of gratitude to both Payne and Burton.

(2) According to Arabists, Payne’s Translation is the more accurate of the two.491

(3) Burton’s translation is largely a paraphrase of Payne’s.

(4) Persons who are in love with the beauty of restraint as regards ornament, and hold to the doctrine which Flaubert so well understood and practised, and Pater so persistently preached will consider Payne’s translation incomparably the finer.

(5) Burton’s translation is for those who, caring nothing for this doctrine, revel in rococo work, a style flamboyant at all costs, and in lawless splendours; and do not mind running against expressions that are far too blunt for the majority of people.

(6) Payne’s rendering of the metrical portions is poetry; Burton’s scarcely verse.

(7) Burton’s Terminal Essay, with the exception of the pornographic sections, is largely indebted to Payne’s.

(8) The distinctive features of Burton’s work are his notes and the pornographic sections of his Terminal Essay — the whole consisting of an amazing mass of esoteric learning, the result of a lifetime’s study. Many of the notes have little, if any, connection with the text, and they really form an independent work.

Burton himself says: “Mr. Payne’s admirable version appeals to the Orientalist and the Stylist, not to the many-headed; and mine to the anthropologist and student of Eastern manners and customs.” Burton’s Arabian Nights has been well summed up as “a monument of knowledge and audacity.”492

Having finished his task Burton straightway commenced the translation of a number of other Arabic tales which he eventually published as Supplemental Nights493 in six volumes, the first two of which correspond with Mr. Payne’s three volumes entitled Tales from the Arabic.

491 The writer of the article in the Edinburgh Review (no friend of Mr. Payne), July 1886 (No. 335, p. 180.), says Burton is “much less accurate” than Payne.

492 New York Tribune, 2nd November 1891.

493 See Chapter xxxiii.

140. Mr. Swinburne on Burton.

Congratulations rained in on Burton from all quarters; but the letters that gave him most pleasure were those from Mr. Ernest A. Floyer and Mr. A. C. Swinburne, whose glowing sonnet:

“To Richard F. Burton

On his Translation of the Arabian Nights”

is well known. “Thanks to Burton’s hand,” exclaims the poet magnificently:

“All that glorious Orient glows Defiant of the dusk. Our twilight land Trembles; but all the heaven is all one rose, Whence laughing love dissolves her frosts and snows.”

In his Poems and Ballads, 3rd Series, 1889, Mr. Swinburne pays yet another tribute to the genius of his friend. Its dedication runs:— “Inscribed to Richard F. Burton. In redemption of an old pledge and in recognition of a friendship which I must always count among the highest honours of my life.”

If private persons accorded the work a hearty reception, a large section of the press greeted it with no les cordiality. “No previous editor,” said The Standard, “had a tithe of Captain Burton’s acquaintance with the manners and customs of the Moslem East. Apart from the language, the general tone of the Nights is exceptionally high and pure. The devotional fervour . . . often rises to the boiling point of fanaticism, and the pathos is sweet and deep, genuine and tender, simple and true. . . . In no other work is Eastern life so vividly pourtrayed. This work, illuminated with notes so full of learning, should give the nation an opportunity for wiping away that reproach of neglect which Captain Burton seems to feel more keenly than he cares to express.” The St. James’s Gazette called it “One of the most important translations to which a great English scholar has ever devoted himself.”

Then rose a cry “Indecency, indecency! Filth, filth!” It was said, to use an Arabian Nights expression, that he had hauled up all the dead donkeys in the sea. The principal attack came from The Edinburgh Review (July 1886). “Mr. Payne’s translation,” says the writer, “is not only a fine piece of English, it is also, save where the exigencies of rhyme compelled a degree of looseness, remarkably literal. . . . Mr. Payne translates everything, and when a sentence is objectionable in Arabic, he makes it equally objectionable in English, or, rather, more so, since to the Arabs a rude freedom of speech is natural, while to us it is not.” Then the reviewer turns to Burton, only, however, to empty out all the vials of his indignation — quite forgetting that the work was intended only for “curious students of Moslem manners,” and not for the general public, from whom, indeed, its price alone debarred it.494 He says: “It is bad enough in the text of the tales to find that Captain Burton is not content with plainly calling a spade a spade, but will have it styled a dirty shovel; but in his notes he goes far beyond this, and the varied collection of abominations which he brings forward with such gusto is a disgrace and a shame to printed literature. . . . The different versions, however, have each its proper destination — Galland for the nursery, Lane for the library, Payne for the study and Burton for the sewers.”495

Burton’s spirited reply will be found in the last volume of his Supplemental Nights. Put compendiously, his argument is: “I had knowledge of certain subjects such as no other man possessed. Why should it die with me? Facts are facts, whether men are acquainted with them or not.” “But,” he says, “I had another object while making the notes a Repertory of Eastern knowledge in its esoteric form. Having failed to free the Anthropological Society496 from the fetters of mauvaise honte and the mock-modesty which compels travellers and ethnographical students to keep silence concerning one side of human nature (and that side the most interesting to mankind) I proposed to supply the want in these pages. . . . While Pharisee and Philistine may be or may pretend to be ‘shocked’ and ‘horrified’ by my pages, the sound commonsense of a public, which is slowly but surely emancipating itself from the prudish and prurient reticences and the immodest and immoral modesties of the early 19th century, will in good time do me, I am convinced, full and ample justice.”

In order to be quite ready, should prosecution ensue, Burton compiled what he called The Black Book, which consisted of specimens, of, to use his own expression, the “turpiloquium” of the Bible and Shakespeare. It was never required for its original purpose, but he worked some portions into the Terminal Essay to The Arabian Nights.497 And here it may be said that when Burton attacks the Bible and Christianity he is inconsistent and requires to be defended against himself. The Bible, as we have seen was one of the three books that he constantly carried about with him, and few men could have had greater admiration for its more splendid passages. We know, too, that the sincere Christian had his respect. But his Terminal Essay and these notes appeared at a moment when the outcry was raised against his Arabian Nights; consequently, when he fires off with “There is no more immoral work than the Old Testament,” the argument must be regarded as simply one of Tu quoque. Instead of attacking the Bible writers as he did, he should, to have been consistent, have excused them, as he excused the characters in The Arabian Nights, with: “Theirs is a coarseness of language, not of idea, &c., &c. . . . Such throughout the East is the language of every man, woman and child,”498 and so on. The suggestion, for example, that Ezekiel and Hosea are demoralizing because of certain expressions is too absurd for refutation. The bloodshed of the Bible horrified him; but he refused to believe that the “enormities” inflicted by the Jews on neighbouring nations were sanctioned by the Almighty.499 “The murderous vow of Jephthah,” David’s inhuman treatment of the Moabites, and other events of the same category goaded him to fury.

If he attacks Christianity, nevertheless, his diatribe is not against its great Founder, but against the abuses that crept into the church even in the lifetime of His earliest followers; and again, not so much against Christiantiy in general as against Roman Catholicism. Still, even after making every allowance, his article is mainly a glorification of the crescent at the expense of the cross.

494 Still, as everyone must admit, Burton could have said all he wanted to say in chaster language.

495 Arbuthnot’s comment was: “Lane’s version is incomplete, but good for children, Payne’s is suitable for cultured men and women, Burton’s for students.”

496 See Chapter xii., 46.

497 Burton’s A. N., x., 180, 181; Lib. Ed., viii., 163.

498 Burton’s A. N., x., 203; Lib. Ed., viii., 184.

499 Of course, all these narratives are now regarded by most Christians in quite a different light from that in which they were at the time Burton was writing. We are all of us getting to understand the Bible better.

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