The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XXXIII

19th March 1888-15th October 1888

The Last Visit to England

“The Supplemental Nights”


76. 1st Vol. Supplemental Nights, 1st December 1886. 6th Vol. 1st August 1888.

152. Meeting with Mr. Swinburne and others, 18th July 1888-15th October 1888.

Burton’s health continuing weak, he again endeavoured to induce the Government to release him from his duties. Instead of that, they gave him what he calls “an informal sick certificate,” and from the following letter to his sister (26th May 1888) we may judge that it was not given gracefully.

“Yesterday,” he says, “I got my leave accompanied by some disagreeable expressions which will be of use to me when retiring. We leave Trieste in June and travel leisurely over the St. Gothard and expect to be in England about the 10th. . . . The meteorologists declare that the heat is going to equal the cold. Folky554 folk are like their neighbours, poor devils who howl for excitement — want of anything better to do. The dreadful dull life of England accounts for many British madnesses. Do you think of the Crystal Palace this year? We have an old friend, Aird, formerly the Consul here, who has taken up his abode somewhere in Sydenham. I don’t want cold water bandages, the prospect of leave makes me sleep quite well. With love and kisses to both,555 Your affectionate brother, R. F. B.”

Burton and his wife reached Folkestone on July 18th. Next day they went on to London, where they had the pleasure of meeting again Commander Cameron, Mr. Henry Irving, M. Du Chaillu, Mr. A. C. Swinburne, and Mr. Theodore Watts[-Dunton]. What Burton was to Mr. Swinburne is summed up in the phrase — “the light that on earth was he.”556

554 Folkestone, where Lady Stisted was staying.

555 Lady Stisted and her daughter Georgiana.

556 Verses on the Death of Richard Burton. — New Review. Feb. 1891.

153. H. W. Ashbee.

His principal place of resort, however, during this visit was the house of Mr. H. W. Ashbee, 54, Bedford Square, where he met not only Mr. Ashbee, but also Dr. Steingass, Mr. Arbuthnot, Sir Charles Wingfield and Mr. John Payne, all of whom were interested, in different ways, in matters Oriental. Ashbee, who wrote under the name of Pisanus Fraxi (Bee of an ash), was a curiously matter-of-fact, stoutish, stolid, affable man, with a Maupassantian taste for low life, its humours and laxities. He was familiar with it everywhere, from the sordid purlieus of Whitechapel to the bazaars of Tunis and Algiers, and related Haroun Al-Raschid-like adventures with imperturbably, impassive face, and in the language that a business man uses when recounting the common transactions of a day. This unconcernedness never failed to provoke laughter, even from those who administered rebukes to him. Of art and literature he had absolutely no idea, but he was an enthusiastic bibliophile, and his library, which included a unique collection or rare and curious books, had been built up at enormous expense. Somebody having described him as “not a bad old chap,” Mr. Payne added characteristically, “And he had a favourite cat, which says something for him.”

154. A Bacon Causerie.

The serenity of these gatherings, whether at Mr. Ashbee’s or at Mr. Arbuthnot’s, was never ruffled unless somebody happened to introduce politics or the Shakespere-Bacon Question. Arbuthnot the Liberal was content to strike out with his back against the wall, so to speak, when attacked by the Conservative Burton, Ashbee and Payne; but Arbuthnot the Baconian frequently took the offensive. He would go out of his way in order to drag in this subject. He could not leave it out of his Life of Balzac even. These controversies generally resolved themselves into a duel between Mr. Arbuthnot and Mr. Payne — Burton, who loved a fight between any persons and for any reasons, looking on approvingly. Mr. Ashbee and Dr. Steingass were inclined to side with Mr. Payne. On one of these occasions Mr. Payne said impatiently that he could not understand “any sensible man taking the slightest interest in the sickening controversy,” and then he pointed out one by one the elements that in his opinion made the Baconian theory ridiculous.

“But,” followed Mr. Arbuthnot, “Shakespere had no education, and no person without an extremely good education could have written the play erroneously published under the name of William Shakespere.”

“If,” retorted Mr. Payne, “Shakespere had been without education, do you think the fact would have escaped the notice of such bitter and unscrupulous enemies as Nash, Greene, and others, who hated him for his towering superiority?”

Upon Mr. Arbuthnot admitting that he studies Shakespere merely from a “curio” point of view, and that for the poetry he cared nothing, Mr. Payne replied by quoting Schopenhauer: “A man who is insensible to poetry, be he who he may, must be a barbarian.”

Burton, who regarded himself as a poet, approved of the sentiment; Dr. Steingass, who wrote execrable verses in English which neither rhymed nor scanned, though they were intended to do both, was no less satisfied; Mr. Ashbee, who looked at matters solely from a bibliographical point of view, dissented; and Mr. Arbuthnot sweetly changed the conversation to Balzac; with the result, however, of another tempest, for on this subject Burton, who summed up Balzac as “a great repertory of morbid anatomy,” could never see eye to eye with Balzac’s most enthusiastic English disciple.

At Oxford, Burton met Professor Sayce, and did more literary work “under great difficulties” at the Bodleian, though he escaped all the evil effects; but against its wretched accommodation for students and its antediluvian methods he never ceased to inveigh. Early in August he was at Ramsgate and had the amusement of mixing with a Bank Holiday crowd. But he was amazingly restless, and wanted to be continually in motion. No place pleased him more than a day or two.

155. The Gypsy, August 1888.

Among the deal tables in Burton’s rooms at Trieste was one devoted to a work on the Gypsies, a race concerning whom, as we have seen, he had long been curious. He had first proposed to himself to write on the subject when he was in Sind, where he had made investigations concerning the affinity between the Jats and the Gypsies; and now with abundance of leisure he set about the work in earnest. But it was never finished, and the fragment which was published in 1898557 contains, Mr. Watts-Dunton558 assures me, many errors. Burton’s idea was to describe the Gypsy in all lands. Perhaps he is happiest in his account of the Spanish Gypsy woman. “Their women,” he says, “sell poultry and old rags. . . . and find in interpreting dreams, in philter selling, and in fortune-telling the most lucrative industries. They sing, and play various instruments, accompanying the music with the most voluptuous and licentious dances and attitudes; but woe to the man who would obtain from these Bayaderes any boon beyond their provocative exhibition. From the Indus to Gibraltar, the contrast of obscenity in language and in songs with corporal chastity has ever been a distinctive characteristic. . . . Gypsy marriages, like those of the high caste Hindus, entail ruinous expense; the revelry lasts three days, the ‘Gentile’ is freely invited, and the profusion of meats and drinks often makes the bridgegroom a debtor for life. The Spanish Gypsies are remarkable for beauty in early youth; for magnificent eyes and hair, regular features, light and well-knit figures. Their locks, like the Hindus, are lamp black, and without a sign of wave:559 and they preserve the characteristic eye. I have often remarked its fixity and brilliance, which flashes like phosphoric light, the gleam which in some eyes denotes madness. I have also noticed the ‘far-off look’ which seems to gaze at something beyond you and the alternation from the fixed stare to a glazing or filming of the pupil.”560

This peculiarity of the gypsy’s eyes, Burton had himself, for which reason alone, some writers, as we have already observed, have claimed him for the tribe. But he shared other peculiarities with them. For example, there was his extraordinary restlessness — a restlessness which prevented him from every settling long in any one place. Then, like the gypsies, he had an intense horror of a corpse — even of pictures of corpses. Though brave to temerity he avoided churchyards, and feared “the phosphorescence of the dead.” Many of his letters testify to his keen interest in the race. For example, he tells Mr. J. Pincherle, author of a Romani version of Solomon’s Song,561 the whole story of his wife and Hagar Burton. In 1888 he joined the newly-founded “Gypsy Lore Society,” and in a letter to Mr. David MacRitchie (13th May 1888) he says in reference to the Society’s Journal: “Very glad to see that you write ‘Gypsy.’ I would not subscribe to ‘Gipsy.’” In later letters he expresses his appreciation of Mr. MacRitchie’s article “The Gypsies of India,” and wishes the Society “God speed,” while in that of 13th August 1888, he laments the trifling results that followed his own and Arbuthnot’s efforts in behalf of Orientalism. “We [The Gypsy Lore Society]” he says, “must advance slowly and depend for success upon our work pleasing the public. Of course, all of us must do our best to secure new members, and by Xmas I hope that we shall find ourselves on the right road. Mr. Pincherle writes to me hopefully about his practical studies of Gypsy life in Trieste. As regards Orientalism in England generally I simply despair of it. Every year the study is more wanted and we do less. It is the same with anthropology, so cultivated in France, so stolidly neglected in England. I am perfectly ashamed of our wretched “Institution” in Hanover Square when compared with the palace in Paris. However, this must come to an end some day.”

On 13th August 1888, Burton writes to Mr. A. G. Ellis from “The Langham,” Portland Place, and sends him the Preface to the last Supplemental Volume with the request that he would run his eye over it. “You live,” he continues, “in a magazine of learning where references are so easy, and to us outsiders so difficult. Excuse this practical proof that need has no law.” On September 26th he sent a short note to Mr. Payne. “Arbuthnot,” he said, “will be in town on Tuesday October 2nd. What do you say to meeting him at the Langham 7 p.m. table d’hote hour?. . . . It will be our last chance of meeting.”

Sir Richard and Lady Burton, Dr. Baker, Arbuthnot, and Payne dined together on the evening appointed; and on October 15th Burton left London, to which he was never to return alive.

557 With The Jew and El Islam.

558 Mr. Watts-Dunton, need we say? is a great authority on the Gypsies. His novel Aylwin and his articles on Borrow will be called to mind.

559 My hair is straight as the falling rain

And fine as the morning mist.

— Indian Love, Lawrence Hope.

560 The Jew, The Gypsy, and El Islam, p. 275.

561 It is dedicated to Burton.

156. The Supplemental Nights. 1st December 1886-1st August 1888.

The translation of the Supplemental Nights, that is to say, the collection of more or less interesting Arabian tales not included in the Nights proper, was now completed. The first volume had appeared in 1886, the last was to be issued in 1888. Although containing old favourites such as “Alaeddin,” “Zayn Al Asnam,” “Ali Baba,” and the “Story of the Three Princes,” the supplemental volumes are altogether inferior to the Nights proper. Then, too, many of the tales are mere variants of the versions in the more important work. Burton’s first two supplemental volumes are from the Breslau text, and, as we said, cover the same ground as Mr. Payne’s Tales from the Arabic. In both he followed Mr. Payne closely, as will be seen from his notes (such as “Here I follow Mr. Payne, who has skilfully fine-drawn the holes in the original text”)562 which, frequent as they are, should have been multiplied one hundred-fold to express anything like the real obligation he owed to Mr. Payne’s translation. “I am amazed,” he once said to Mr. Payne, “at the way in which you have accomplished what I (in common with Lane and other Arabists) considered an impossibility in the elucidation and general re-creation from chaos of the incredibly corrupt and garbled Breslau Text. I confess that I could not have made it out without your previous version. It is astonishing how you men of books get to the bottom of things which are sealed to men of practical experience like me.” And he expressed himself similarly at other times. Of course, the secret was the literary faculty and intuition which in Burton were wanting.

Burton’s Third Volume 563 consists of the tales in Galland’s edition which are not in the Nights proper. All of them, with the exception of “Alaeddin” and “Zayn Al Asnam,” are reproductions, as we said, from a Hindustani translation of the French text — the Arabic originals of the tales being still (1905) undiscovered.

His Fourth and Fifth Volumes 564 are from the Wortley-Montague Text. His sixth and last 565 contains the Chavis and Cazotte Text — the manuscript of which is reputed to have been brought to France by a Syrian priest named Shawish (Frenchlifted into Chavis), who collaborated with a French litterateur named Cazotte. The work appeared in 1788. “These tales,” says Mr. Payne, “seem to me very inferior, in style, conduct, and diction, to those of ‘the old Arabian Nights,’ whilst I think ‘Chavis and Cazotte’s continuation’ utterly unworthy of republication whether in part or ‘in its entirety.’ It is evident that Shawish (who was an adventurer of more than doubtful character) must in many instances have utterly misled his French coadjutor (who had no knowledge of Arabic), as to the meaning of the original.” — Preface to Alaeddin, &c., xv., note. Mr. Payne adds, “I confess I think the tales, even in the original Arabic, little better than rubbish, and am indeed inclined to believe they must have been, at least in part, manufactured by Shawish.”566

562 Burton’s A. N., Suppl. i., 312; Lib. Ed., ix., 209. See also many other of Burton’s Notes.

563 Lib. Ed., vol. x.

564 Lib. Ed., x., p. 342. xi., p. 1.

565 Lib. Ed., xii.

566 Burton differed from Mr. Payne on this point. He thought highly of these tales. See Chapter xxxv, 167.

157. Comparison.

Burton’s supplementary volume containing “Alaeddin” and “Zayn Al Asnam,” appeared, as we have seen, in 1887; and in 1889 Mr. Payne issued a Translation from Zotenberg’s text. When dealing with the Nights proper we gave the reader an opportunity of comparing Burton’s translation with Payne’s which preceded it. We now purpose placing in juxtaposition two passages from their supplemental volumes, and we cannot do better than choose from either “Alaeddin” or “Zayn Al Asnam,” as in the case of both the order is reversed, Burton’s translation having preceded Payne’s. Let us decide on the latter. Any passage would do, but we will take that describing the finding of the ninth image:

Payne Burton

Then he set out and Then he set out nor gave not over journeying ceased travelling till such till he came to Bassora, time as he reached Bassorah, and entering his palace, when he entered saluted his mother and his palace; and after told her all that had saluting his mother, he befallen him; whereupon apprized her of all things quoth she to him “Arise, that had befallen him. O my son, so thou mayst She replied, “Arise, O see this ninth image, for my son, that we may look that I am exceedingly upon the Ninth statue, rejoiced at its presence with for I rejoice with extreme us. So they both joy at its being in our descended into the underground possession.” So both hall wherein were descended into the pavilion the eight images, and where stood the eight found there a great marvel; images of precious gems, to wit, instead of the and here they found a ninth image, they beheld mighty marvel. ’Twas the young lady resembling this: In lieu of seeing the the sun in her loveliness. Ninth Statue upon the The prince knew her golden throne, they found when he saw her, and seated thereon the young she said to him, “Marvel lady whose beauty suggested not to find me here in the sun. Zayn place of that which thou al-Asnam knew her at soughtest; me thinketh first sight and presently thou wilt not repent thee she addressed him saying, an thou take me in the “Marvel not for that stead of the ninth image.” here thou findest me “No, by Allah, Oh my in place of that wherefor beloved!” replied Zein thou askedst; and I ul Asnam. “For that thou deem that thou shalt not art the end of my seeking, regret nor repent when and I would not exchange thou acceptest me instead thee for all the jewels in of that thou soughtest.” the world. Didst thou Said he, “No, verily, but know the grief which thou art the end of every possessed me for thy wish of me nor would separation, thou whom I I exchange thee for all the took from thy parents gems of the universe. by fraud and brought thee Would thou knew what to the King of the Jinn!” was the sorrow which

surcharged me on account of

our separation and of my

reflecting that I took thee

from thy parents by fraud

and I bore thee as a present

to the King of the Jinn.

Indeed I had well nigh

determined to forfeit all

my profit of the Ninth

Statue and to bear thee

away to Bassorah as my

own bride, when my comrade

and councillor dissuaded

me from so doing lest

I bring about my death.”567

Scarce had the prince Nor had Zayn al Asnam made an end of his speech ended his words ere they when they heard a noise heard the roar of thunderings of thunder rending the that would rend a mountains and shaking mount and shake the the earth, and fear gat earth, whereat the Queen hold upon the queen, the Mother was seized with mother of Zein ul Asnam, mighty fear and affright. Yea and sore trembling; But presently appeared but, after a little, the the King of the Jinn, King of the Jinn who said to her, “O my appeared and said to her, lady, fear not! Tis I, the “O Lady, fear not, it is protector of thy son, whom I who am thy son’s I fondly affect for the protector and I love him affection borne to me by with an exceeding love his sire. I also am he who for the love his father manifested myself to him bore me. Nay, I am he in his sleep, and my object who appeared to him in therein was to make trial his sleep and in this I of his valiance and to learn purposed to try his an he could do violence to fortitude, whether or not his passions for the sake he might avail to subdue of his promise, or whether himself for loyalty’s the beauty of this lady sake.” would so tempt and allure

him that he could not

keep his promise to me

with due regard.”

Here, again, Payne is concise and literal, Burton diffuse and gratuitously paraphrastic as appears above and everywhere, and the other remarks which we made when dealing with the Nights proper also apply, except, of course, that in this instance Burton had not Payne’s version to refer to, with the consequence that in these two tales (“Alaeddin” and “Zayn Al Asnam”) there are over five hundred places in which the two translators differ as to the rendering, although they worked from the same MS. copy, that of M. Houdas, lent by him to Burton and afterwards to Payne. Arabists tell us that in practically every instance Payne is right, Burton wrong. The truth is that, while in colloquial Arabic Burton was perfect, in literary Arabic he was far to seek,568 whereas Mr. Payne had studied the subject carefully and deeply for years. But Burton’s weakness here is not surprising. A Frenchman might speak excellent English, and yet find some difficulty in translating into French a play of Shakespeare or an essay of Macaulay. Burton made the mistake of studying too many things. He attempted too much.

But in the Supplemental Nights, as in the Nights proper, his great feature is the annotating. Again we have a work within a work, and the value of these notes is recognised on all sides. Yet they are even less necessary for elucidating the text than those in the Nights proper. Take for example the tremendous note in Vol. i. on the word “eunuchs.” As everybody knows what a eunuch is, the text is perfectly clear. Yet what a mass of curious knowledge he presents to us! If it be urged that the bulk of Burton’s notes, both to the Nights proper and the Supplemental Nights, are out of place in a work of this kind — all we can say is “There they are.” We must remember, too, that he had absolutely no other means of publishing them.

567 This paragraph does not appear in the original. It was made up by Burton.

568 One friend of Burton’s to whom I mentioned this matter said to me, “I was always under the impression that Burton had studied literary Arabic, but that he had forgotten it.”

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