The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XXXI

Burton’s Religion

145. Burton’s Religion.

As regards religion, Burton had in early life, as we have seen, leaned to Sufism; and this faith influenced him to the end. For a little while he coquetted with Roman Catholicism; but the journey to Mecca practically turned him into a Mohammedan. At the time of his marriage he called himself an agnostic, and, as we have seen, he was always something of a spiritualist. Lady Burton, charmingly mixing her metaphors,521 says “he examined every religion, and picked out its pear to practise it.” The state of his mind in 1880 is revealed by his Kasidah. From that time to his death he was half Mohammedan and half Agnostic. His wife pressed him in season and out of season to become a Catholic, and, as we shall see, he did at last so far succumb to her importunities as to sign a paper in which, to use Lady Burton’s expression, “he abjured the Protestant heresy,” and put himself in line with the Catholics.522 But, as his opinions do not seem to have changed one iota, this “profession of faith” could have had little actual value. He listened to the prayers that his wife said with him every night, and he distinctly approved of religion in other persons. Thus, he praised the Princess of Wales523 for hearing her children say their “little prayers,”524 every night at her knee, and he is credited with the remark: “A man without religion may be excused, but a woman without religion is unthinkable.” Priests, ceremonials, services, all seemed to him only tinkling cymbals. He was always girding at “scapularies and other sacred things.” He delighted to compare Romanism unfavourably with Mohammedanism. Thus he would say sarcastically, “Moslems, like Catholics, pray for the dead; but as they do the praying themselves instead of paying a priest to do it, their prayers, of course, are of no avail.” He also objected to the Church of Rome because, to use his own words, “it has added a fourth person to the Trinity.”525 He said he found “four great Protestant Sommites: (1) St. Paul, who protested against St. Peter’s Hebraism; (2) Mohammed, who protested against the perversions of Christianity; (3) Luthur, who protested against the rule of the Pope; (4) Sir Richard Burton, who protested against the whole business.” The way in which he used to ridicule the Papal religion in his wife’s presence often jarred on his friends, who thought that however much he might disapprove of it, he ought, for her sake, to have restrained his tongue. But he did not spare other religious bodies either. He wanted to know, for instance, what the clergy of the Church of England did for the £3,500,000 a year “wasted on them,” while he summed up the Nonconformists in the scornful phrase: “Exeter Hall!” He considered anthropomorphism to explain satisfactorily not only the swan maiden, and the other feathered ladies526 of the Nights, but also angel and devil. Both Arbuthnot and Payne regarded him as a Mohammedan. Another friend described him as a “combination of an Agnostic, a Theist and an Oriental mystic.” Over and over again he said to his cousin, St. George Burton, “The only real religion in the world is that of Mohammed. Religions are climatic. The Protestant faith suits England.” Once he said “I should not care to go to Hell, for I should meet all my relations there, nor to Heaven, because I should have to avoid so many friends.” Lady Burton, who prayed daily “that the windows of her husband’s soul might be opened,” relied particularly on the mediation of “Our Lady of Dale” — the Dale referred to being a village near Ilkestone, Derbyshire, which once boasted a magnificent Premonstratensian monastery,527 and she paid for as many as a hundred masses to be said consecutively in the little “Church of Our Lady and St. Thomas,”528 at Ilkeston, in order to hasten that event. “Some three months before Sir Richard’s death,” writes Mr. P. P. Cautley, the Vice-Consul at Trieste, to me, “I was seated at Sir Richard’s tea table with our clergy man, and the talk turning on religion, Sir Richard declared, ‘I am an atheist, but I was brought up in the Church of England, and that is officially my church.’529 Perhaps, however, this should be considered to prove, not that he was an atheist, but that he could not resist the pleasure of shocking the clergyman.”

521 This was no solitary occasion. Burton was constantly chaffing her about her slip-shod English, and she always had some piquant reply to give him.

522 See Chapter xxxv., 166.

523 Now Queen Alexandra.

524 Life, ii., 342.

525 This remark occurs in three of his books, including The Arabian Nights.

526 Stories of Janshah and Hasan of Bassorah.

527 One arch now remains. There is in the British Museum a quarto volume of about 200 pages (Cott. MSS., Vesp., E 26) containing fragments of a 13th Century Chronicle of Dale. On Whit Monday 1901, Mass was celebrated within the ruins of Dale Abbey for the first time since the Reformation.

528 The Church, however, was at that time, and is now, always spoken of as the “Shrine of Our Lady of Dale, Virgin Mother of Pity.” The Very Rev. P. J. Canon McCarthy, of Ilkeston, writes to me, “The shrine was an altar to our Lady of Sorrows or Pieta, which was temporarily erected in the Church by the permission of the Bishop of Nottingham (The Right Rev. E. S. Bagshawe), till such time as its own chapel or church could be properly provided. The shrine was afterwards honoured and recognised by the Holy See.” See Chapter xxxix.

529 Letter to me, 18th June 1905. But see Chapter xxxv.

146. Burton as a Writer.

On Burton as a writer we have already made some comments. One goes to his books with confidence; in the assurance that whatever ever he saw is put down. Nothing is hidden and there is no attempt to Munchausenize. His besetting literary sin, as we said, was prolixity. Any one of his books reduced to one-quarter, or better, one-sixth the size, and served up artistically would have made a delightful work. As it is, they are vast storehouses filled with undusted objects of interest and value, mingled with heaps of mere lumber. His books laid one on the top of another would make a pile eight feet high!

He is at his best when describing some daring adventure, when making a confession of his own weaknesses, or in depicting scenery. Lieutenant Cameron’s tribute to his descriptive powers must not be passed by. “Going over ground which he explored,” says Cameron, “with his Lake Regions of Central Africa in my hand, I was astonished at the acuteness of his perception and the correctness of his descriptions.” Stanley spoke of his books in a similar strain.

Burton owed his success as a narrator in great measure to his habit of transferring impressions to paper the moment he received them — a habit to which he was led by reading a passage of Dr. Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands. “An observer deeply impressed by any remarkable spectacle,” says Johnson, “does not suppose that the traces will soon vanish from his mind, and having commonly no great convenience for writing, defers the description to a time of more leisure and better accommodation. He who has not made the experiment or is not accustomed to require vigorous accuracy from himself, will scarcely believe how much a few hours take from certainty of knowledge and distinctness of imagery; how the succession of objects will be broken, how separate parts will be confused, and how many practical features and discriminations will be found compressed and conglobated into one gross and general idea.”530 “Brave words,” comments Burton, “somewhat pompous and diffused, yet worthy to be written in letters of gold.”531 Very many of Burton’s books, pamphlets and articles in the journals of the learned societies appeal solely to archaeologists, as, for example Etruscan Bologna,532 an account of the Etrurian people, their sharp bottomed wells, the pebble tombs of the poor and the elegant mausoleums of the wealthy with their figures of musicians and dancing girls “in garments of the most graceful form, finest texture and brilliant hues;” reminding us of the days when Veii fell, and its goddess, who “was light and easily removed, as though she followed willingly,” as Livy, with his tongue in his cheek, says, was conveyed to Rome; and of the later days when “Lars Porsena of Clusium” poured southward his serried host, only, according to the Roman historians, to meet with defeat and discomfiture.

Of Burton’s carelessness and inaccuracies, we have already spoken. We mentioned that to his dying day he was under a wrong impression as to his birthplace, and that his account of his early years and his family bristles with errors. Scores of his letters have passed through my hands and nearly all are imperfectly dated. Fortunately, however, the envelopes have in almost every case been preserved; so the postmark, when legible, has filled the lacuna. At every turn in his life we are reminded of his inexactitude — especially in autobiographical details. And yet, too, like most inexact men, he was a rare stickler for certain niceties. He would have defended the “h” in Meccah with his sword; and the man who spelt “Gypsy” with an “i” for ever forfeited his respect.

Burton’s works — just as was his own mind — are vast, encyclopaedic, romantic and yet prosaic, unsystematic; but that is only repeating the line of the old Greek poet:

“Like our own selves our work must ever be.”533

530 Murphy’s Edition of Johnson’s Works, vol, xii., p. 412.

531 Preface to The City of the Saints. See also Wanderings in West Africa, i., p. 21, where he adds, “Thus were written such books as Eothen and Rambles beyond Railways; thus were not written Lane’s Egyptians or Davis’s Chinese.”

532 The general reader will prefer Mrs. Hamilton Gray’s Tour to the Sepulchres of Etruria, 1839; and may like to refer to the review of it in The Gentleman’s Magazine for April, 1841.

533 Phrynichus.

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