The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XXX

21st November 1885-5th June 1886



74. Six Months at Abbazia. 1888.

75. Lady Burton’s Edition of the Arabian Nights. 1888.

141. In Morocco, 21st November 1885.

On October 28th the Burtons went down to Hatfield, where there was a large party, but Lord Salisbury devoted himself chiefly to Burton. After they had discussed the Eastern Question, Lord Salisbury said to Burton “Now go to your room, where you will be quiet, and draw up a complete programme for Egypt.”

Burton retired, but in two or three minutes returned with a paper which he handed to Lord Salisbury.

“You’ve soon done it,” said his Lordship, and on unfolding the paper he found the single word “Annex.”

“If I were to write for a month,” commented Burton, on noticing Lord Salisbury’s disappointment, “I could not say more.”

However, being further pressed, he elaborated his very simple programme.500 The policy he advocated was a wise and humane one; and had it been instantly adopted, untold trouble for us and much oppression of the miserable natives would have been avoided. Since then we have practically followed his recommendations, and the present prosperous state of Egypt is the result.

On 21st November 1885, Burton left England for Tangier, which he reached on the 30th, and early in January he wrote to the Morning Post a letter on the Home Rule question, which he thought might be settled by the adoption of a Diet System similar to that which obtained in Austro-Hungary. On January 15th he wants to know how Mr. Payne’s translation of Boccaccio501 is proceeding and continues: “I look forward to Vol. i. with lively pleasure. You will be glad to hear that to-day I finished my translation and to-morrow begin with the Terminal Essay, so that happen what may subscribers are safe. Tangier is beastly but not bad for work. . . . It is a place of absolute rascality, and large fortunes are made by selling European protections — a regular Augean stable.”

Mrs. Burton and Lisa left England at the end of January, and Burton met them at Gibraltar.

500 Lady Burton gives the extension in full. Life, vol. ii, p. 295.

501 The Decameron of Boccaccio. 3 vols., 1886.

142. K.c.m.g., 5th February 1886.

When the first volume of The Arabian Nights appeared Burton was sixty-four. So far his life had been a long series of disappointments. His labours as an explorer had met with no adequate recognition, the Damascus Consulship could be remembered only with bitterness, his numerous books had sold badly. Every stone which for forty years he had rolled up proved to be only a Sisyphus stone. He was neglected, while every year inferior men — not to be mentioned in the same breath with him — were advanced to high honours. Small wonder that such treatment should have soured him or that — a vehement man by nature — he should often have given way to paroxysms of anger. Still he kept on working. Then all of a sudden the transplendent sun sailed from its clouds and poured upon him its genial beams. He had at last found the golden Chersonese. His pockets, so long cobwebbed, now bulged with money. Publishers, who had been coy, now fought for him. All the world — or nearly all — sang his praises.502 Lastly came the K.C.M.G., an honour that was conferred upon him owing in large measure to the noble persistency of the Standard newspaper, which in season and out of season “recalled to the recollection of those with whom lay the bestowal of ribbons and crosses the unworthy neglect with which he had been so long treated.”

Lady Burton thus describes the reception of the news. “On the 5th of February 1886, a very extraordinary thing happened503 — it was a telegram addressed ‘Sir Richard Burton!’ He tossed it over to me and said, ‘Some fellow is playing me a practical joke, or else it is not for me. I shall not open it, so you may as well ring the bell and give it back again.’ ‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘I shall open it if you don’t.’”

It was from Lord Salisbury, conveying in the kindest terms that the queen had made him K.C.M.G. in reward for his services. He looked very serious and quite uncomfortable, and said, “Oh, I shall not accept it.”504 His wife told him, however, that it ought to be accepted because it was a certain sign that the Government intended to give him a better appointment. So he took it as a handsel.

502 Any praise bestowed upon the translation (apart from the annotations) was of course misplaced — that praise being due to Mr. Payne.

503 Lady Burton’s surprise was, of course, only affected. She had for long been manoeuvering to bring this about, and very creditably to her.

504 Life, ii., 311.

143. Burton at 65.

Having accompanied Sir Richard Burton to the meridian of his fame, we may fitly pause a moment and ask what manner of a man he was at this moment. Though sixty-five, and subject to gout, he was still strong and upright. He had still the old duskened features, dark, piercing eyes, and penthouse brows, but the long and pendulous Chinaman moustaches had shrunk till they scarcely covered his mouth. The “devil’s jaw” could boast only a small tuft of hair. There were wrinkles in “the angel’s forehead.” If meddlesome Time had also furrowed his cheeks, nevertheless the most conspicuous mark there was still the scar of that great gash received in the ding-dong fight at Berbera. His hair, which should have been grizzled, he kept dark, Oriental fashion, with dye, and brushed forward. Another curious habit was that of altering his appearance. In the course of a few months he would have long hair, short hair, big moustache, small moustache, long beard, short beard, no beard. Everyone marked his curious, feline laugh, “made between his teeth.” The change in the world’s treatment of him, and in his circumstances, is noticeable to his countenance. In photographs taken previous to 1886 his look betrays the man who feels that he has been treated neglectfully by an ungrateful world for which he had made enormous sacrifices. Indeed, looking at the matter merely from a pecuniary standpoint, he must have spent at least £20,000 of his own money in his various explorations. He is at once injured, rancorous, sullen, dangerous. All these pictures exhibit a scowl. In some the scowl is very pronounced, and in one he looks not unlike a professional prize-fighter. They betray a mind jaundiced, but defiant. A restless, fiery soul, his temper, never of the best, had grown daily more gnarled and perverse. Woe betide the imprudent human who crossed him! What chance had anybody against a man who had the command of all the forcible words in twenty-eight languages! His peremptory voice everywhere ensured obedience. To all save his dearest friends he was proud and haughty. Then came the gold shower. There was actually a plethora of money. The world, so long irreconcilable, had acknowledged his merits, and the whole man softened. The angelical character of the forehead gradually spread downwards, and in time tempered even the ferocity of the terrible jaw. It was the same man, but on better terms with himself and everybody else. We see him sitting or strolling in his garden with quite a jaunty air — and when there is a cigar in his mouth, the shadow of which modifies still more the characteristics of that truculent region, it is hard to believe that we are looking at the same man. He has a youthful vigour, an autumnal green. In one photograph Lady Burton, devoted as ever to her husband, is seen nestling at his side and leaning her head against his shoulder. She had grown uncomfortably stout and her tight-fitting dress was hard put to it to bear the strain. Her glorious hair was now grown gray and thin, and it was generally hidden by a not very becoming big yellowish wig with curls, which made her look like a magnified Marie Antoinette.

Burton’s chief pleasure in his garden was feeding the birds. They used to wait for him in flocks on an almond tree, and became “quite imperious in their manners if he did not attend to them properly.” He loved the sparrow especially, for Catullus’ sake.

His gigantic personality impressed all who met him. Conversation with him reduced the world from a sphere to a spherule. It shrank steadily — he had traversed so much of it, and he talked about out-of-the-way places so familiarly. As of old, when friends stayed with him he never wanted to go to bed, and they, too, listening to his learned, animated and piquant talk, were quite content to outwatch the Bear. As an anthropologist his knowledge was truly amazing. “He was also a first-rate surgeon and had read all the regular books.”505 People called him, for the vastness of his knowledge, the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He looked to the past and the future. To the past, for no one was more keenly interested in archaeology. He delighted to wander on forlorn moors among what Shelley calls “dismal cirques of Druid stones.” To the future, for he continued to study spiritualism, and to gaze into crystals. He longed to make himself master of the “darkling secrets of Eternity.”506 Both he and Lady Burton were, to use Milton’s expression, “struck with superstition as with a planet.” She says: “From Arab or gipsy he got. . . . his mysticism, his superstition (I am superstitious enough, God knows, but he was far more so), his divination.”507 Some of it, however, was derived from his friendship in early days with the painter-astrologer Varley. If a horse stopped for no ascertained reason or if a house martin fell they wondered what it portended. They disliked the bodeful chirp of the bat, the screech of the owl. Even the old superstition that the first object seen in the morning — a crow, a cripple, &c. — determines the fortunes of the day, had his respect. “At an hour,” he comments, “when the senses are most impressionable the aspect of unpleasant spectacles has a double effect.”508 He was disturbed by the “drivel of dreams,” and if he did not himself search for the philosopher’s stone he knew many men who were so engaged (he tells us there were a hundred in London alone) and he evidently sympathised with them.

Fear of man was a feeling unknown to him, and he despised it in others. “Of ten men,” he used to say, quoting an Osmanli proverb, “nine are women.” Behind his bed hung a map of Africa, and over that a motto in Arabic which meant:

“All things pass.”

This saying he used to observe, was always a consolation to him.

If he had been eager for money, it was only for what money would buy. He wanted it because it would enable him to do greater work. “I was often stopped, in my expeditions,” he told Dr. Baker, “for the want of a hundred pounds.” He was always writing: in the house, in the desert, in a storm, up a tree, at dinner, in bed, ill or well, fresh or tired — indeed, he used to say that he never was tired. There was nothing histrionic about him, and he never posed, except “before fools and savages.” He was frank, straightforward, and outspoken, and his face was an index of his mind. Every thought was visible just “as through a crystal case the figured hours are seen.” He was always Burton, never by any chance any one else. As. Mr. A. C. Swinburne said of him: “He rode life’s lists as a god might ride.” Of English Literature and especially of poetry he was an omnivorous reader. He expressed warm admiration for Chaucer, “jolly old Walter Mapes,” Butler’s Hudibras, and Byron, especially Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, with its allusions to his beloved Tasso, Ariosto and Boccaccio. Surely, however, he ought not to have tried to set us against that tender line of Byron’s,

“They keep his dust in Arqua, where he died,”509

by pointing out that the accent of Arqua is rightly on the second syllable, and by remarking: “Why will not poets mind their quantities in lieu of stultifying their lines by childish ignorance.”510 Then, too, he savagely attacked Tennyson for his “rasher of bacon line” — “the good Haroun Alraschid,”511 Raschid being properly accented on the last syllable. Of traveller authors, he preferred “the accurate Burckhardt.” He read with delight Boswell’s Johnson, Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, Renan’s Life of Jesus, Gibbon, whom he calls “our great historian”512 and the poems of Coleridge. At Cowper he never lost an opportunity of girding, both on account of his Slave Ballads513 and the line:

“God made the country and man made the town.”514

“Cowper,” he comments, “had evidently never seen a region untouched by the human hand.” It goes without saying that he loved “his great namesake,” as he calls him, “Robert Burton, of melancholy and merry, of facete and juvenile memory.” Of contemporary work he enjoyed most the poems of D. G. Rossetti, Mr. Swinburne, Mr. John Payne and FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, and we find him praising Mr. Edmund Gosse’s lyrics. Of novelists Dickens was his favourite. He called Darwin “our British Aristotle.” Eothen515 was “that book of books.” He never forgave Carlyle for denouncing The Arabian Nights as “downright lies” and “unwholesome literature;” Miss Martineau, as an old maid, was, of course, also out of court. If she had written Shakespeare, it would have been all the same. He enjoyed a pen and ink fight, even as in those old Richmond School days he had delighted in fisticuffs. “Peace and quiet are not in my way.” And as long as he got his adversary down he was still not very particular what method he employed.

Unlike so many of his fellow-countrymen, he was a lover or art, and had visited all the galleries in Europe. “If anyone,” he used to say, “thinks the English have the artistic eye, let him stand in the noblest site in Europe, Trafalgar Square, and look around.” On another occasion he described the square as “the nation’s last phase of artistic bathos.” The facade of the National Gallery was his continual butt.

A fine handwriting, he said, bespoke the man of audacity and determination; and his own might have been done with a pin. Then he used to split his words as if they were Arabic; writing, for example, “con tradict” for contradict. When young ladies teased him to put something in their albums he generally wrote:

“Shawir hunna wa khalif hunna,”

which may be translated:

“Ask their advice, ye men of wit

And always do the opposite.”

Another of his favourite sayings against women was the Persian couplet:

“Agar nek budi zan u Ray-i-Zan

Zan-ra Ma-zan nam budi, na Zan,”516

which may be rendered:

“If good were in woman, of course it were meeter

To say when we think of her, Beat not, not Beat her.”

Zan meaning “woman” and also “beat,” and ma-zan “beat not.”

There was in Burton, as in most great men, a touch of the Don Quixote, derived, no doubt, in his case, from his father. He was generous and magnanimous, and all who knew him personally spoke of him with affection. He was oftenest referred to as “a dear chap.” Arbuthnot regarded him as a paladin, with no faults whatever. When younger he had, as we have noticed, never undervalued a good dinner, but as he advanced in years, everything — food, sleep, exercise — had to give way before work.

505 Dr. Baker, Burton’s medical attendant.

506 Burton’s Camoens, i., p. 28.

507 Life, vol. i., p. 396.

508 Note to “Khalifah,” Arabian Nights, Night 832.

509 Childe Harold, iv., 31, referring, of course, to Petrarch.

510 Terminal Essay, Arabian Nights.

511 It reminded him of his old enemy, Ra’shid Pasha. See Chap. xiv.

512 Pilgrimage to Meccah, ii., 77.

513 Mission to Gelele, ii., 126.

514 Task, Book i.

515 By A. W. Kinglake.

516 See Lib. Ed. Nights, Sup., vol. xi., p. 365.

144. More Anecdotes.

For silver he had a conspicuous weakness. “Every person,” he used to say, “has some metal that influences him, and mine is silver.” He would have every possible article about him of that metal — walking-stick knobs, standishes, modern cups, ancient goblets — all of gleamy silver. Had he been able to build an Aladdin’s palace it would have been all of silver. He even regarded it as a prophylactic against certain diseases. If his eyes got tired through reading he would lie on his back with a florin over each. When the gout troubled him, silver coins had to be bound to his feet; and the household must have been very thankful for this supposed panacea, for when in pain, Burton, never a placid creature, had tremendous outbursts of anger. One of these scenes, which occurred at an hotel, is thus described by a witness. “The dinner had been ordered at six. At half-past the hour it was not ready. The waiter was summoned. He made excuse. “Mille tonnerres! Ventrebleu!” roared Burton with a volley of unutterable language which he only could translate. The waiter literally flew before the storm, looking back at the witness with “Mais, mon Dieu, l’Anglais!” The dinner quickly arrived, and with the soup, Burton recovered his equanimity, though inveighing against all waiters, and the Triestine in particular.”517

Another anecdote of this period reveals Burton doing a little smuggling. One day, we are told, Lady Burton invited the consular chaplain to accompany her to the quay. Stopping her cab just in front of the Custom House, she induced her companion to talk to the Custom house officer while she herself went on board a vessel to see about a case of wine for her husband. Presently a porter came with the case and some loose bottles, the later being placed by the chaplain’s orders in the bottom of the carriage. No sooner had this been done than Lady Burton followed, and stepping into the cab bade the coachman drive off. Up to this moment the chaplain had kept watch, smoking a cigar, at the window of the carriage. The officer seeing a case being placed in the carriage was about to make inquiry just as the coachman whipped up the horse. Lady Burton smilingly saluted the officer from the window and thus allayed his suspicions. He returned her nod with a military salute, and was soon invisible. The speed, however, was too much for the loose bottles, and the duty was paid in kind, as the wine flowed freely at the bottom of the cab, while Burton pretended to rate his wife for exposing him to the charge of smuggling and damaging the reputation of the chaplain.518

At Trieste Burton was always popular. The people appreciated his genius and sympathised with his grievances, and he could truly say of them in the words of his prototype, Ovid:

“They wish, good souls, to keep me, yet I know

They wish me gone, because I want to go.”519

Not that he pleased everyone. Far from it, and hereby hangs a delectable anecdote. Some Englishman at Trieste, who took umbrage on account of the colossal muddle Burton made with his accounts and the frequency of his absence, wrote to the Foreign Office something to this effect. “As Sir Richard Burton is nearly always away from his post and the Vice-Consul has to do the greater portion of the work, why on earth don’t you get rid of Sir Richard and let the Vice-Consul take his place? I wonder the Foreign Office can put up with him at all.”

To which came the following graceful reply. “Dear Sir — We look upon the consulship of Trieste as a gift to Sir Richard Burton for his services to the nation, and we must decline to interfere with him in any way.”520

517 Chambers’s Journal, August 1904.

518 Chambers’s Journal.

519 Ex Ponto, iv., 9.

520 Or words to that effect.

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