The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XXXVI

“The Priapeia”


80. Priapeia. 1890.

168. The Priapeia.

The share that Sir Richard Burton had in the translation of the Priapeia has been the subject of dispute; but we are able to state positively that he was the author of the metrical portion. Indeed, he made no secret of it among his intimates. For some reason or other, however, he did not wish to have his name publicly associated with it; so the following passage was inserted in the preface: “The name of Sir Richard Burton has been inadvertently connected with the present work. It is, however, only fair to state that under the circumstances he distinctly disclaims having taken any part in the issue.” We have no other ground for the assumption, but this passage seems to point to a quarrel of some kind. It certainly does not alter the fact that every page bears evidence of Burton’s hand. The preface then goes on to say that “a complete and literal translation of the works of Catullus, on the same lines and in the same format as the present volume, is now in preparation.” A letter, however, written621 by Burton to Mr. W. F. Kirby, sets the matter entirely at rest. “I am at present,” he says, “engaged in translating the Priapeia, Latin verse, which has never appeared in English, French, or German garb; it will have the merit of novelty.”

The Priapeia, in its Latin form Priapeia sine Diversoreun poetarum in Priapum Lusus, is a work that has long been well known to scholars, and in the 16th and 17th centuries editions were common. The translation under consideration is entitled “Priapeia, or the Sportive Epigrams of divers Poets on Priapus: the Latin text now for the first time Englished in verse and prose (the metrical version by Outidanos) [Good for Nothing], with Introduction, Notes, Explanatory and Illustrative and Excursus, by Neaniskos [a young man],” whose name, we need hardly say, is no secret.

The image of Priapus, the god of fruitfulness, was generally a grotesque figure made of rough wood painted red and carrying a gardener’s knife and a cornucopia. Placed in a garden it was supposed to be a protection against thieves. “In the earliest ages,” observes the writer of the preface, “the worship of the generative energy was of the most simple and artless character . . . the homage of man to the Supreme Power, the Author of Life. . . . Afterwards the cult became depraved. Religion became a pretext for libertinism.” Poets wrote facetious and salacious epigrams and affixed them to the statues of the god — even the greatest writers lending their pens to the “sport” — and eventually some nonentity collected these scattered verses and made them into a book. Everybody knows Catullus’s contribution, which begins:

“A log of oak, some rustic’s blade

Hewed out my shape; grotesquely made

I guard this spot by night and day,

Scare every vagrant knave away,

And save from theft and rapine’s hand

My humble master’s cot and land.”

The chief complaint to be made against the writers of these verses is that they so rarely strayed from their subject. The address entitled “A Word to the Reader,” is padded with citations from Burton’s Camoens and his Supplemental Nights, including the well-known passage concerning his estimate of a translator’s office,622 and the whole work bears evidence of extreme haste. We are assured that it will be “most interesting to anthropologists and humanists.”

621 6th November 1889.

622 Lib. Ed., vol. xii., p. 226.

169. Catullus and the Last Trip, July — September 1890.

Burton, as we have seen, had commenced his translation of Catullus, 18th February 1890, at Hammam R’irha. He finished the first rough copy of Trieste March 31st, and commenced a second copy on May 23rd. “He would bring his Latin Catullus,” says Lady Burton, “down to the table d’hote with him, and he used to come and sit by me, but the moment he got a person on the other side who did not interest him he used to whisper to me ‘Talk, that I may do my Catullus.’” “Sir Richard,” says Mr. Leonard Smithers, upon whom had devolved the task of making the prose translation that was to accompany it, “laid great stress on the necessity of thoroughly annotating each translation from an erotic and especially pederastic point of view.”623

On July 1st the Burtons, accompanied as usual by Dr. Baker, Lisa and the magpie trunk, set out on what proved to be their last trip — a journey through the Tyrol and Switzerland. They arrived at Zurich just in time for “the great Schiefs-Statte fete, the most important national function of Switzerland,” which was held that year at the neighbouring town of Frauenfeld. Seven thousand pounds had been set aside for prizes for shooing, and forty thousand persons were present. Next day there was a grand Consular dinner, to which Burton was invited. Dr. Baker having expressed regret that he also had not been included, Burton remarked, “Oh, I’ll manage it. Write a letter for me and decline.” So a letter was written to the effect that as Sir Richard Burton made it a rule not to go anywhere without his medical attendant he was obliged to decline the honour, &c., &c. Presently, as had been expected, came another invitation with Dr. Baker’s name added. Consequently they went, and a very grand dinner it proved — lasting, by Lady Burton’s computation, six hours on end. At St. Mortiz-Kulm, and often after, they met Canon Wenham of Mortlake, with whom both Sir Richard and Lady Burton had long been on terms of friendship.

623 See Introduction by Mr. Smithers.

170. At Maloja, July 1890.

At Davos they found John Addington Symonds, and at Maloja Mr. Francis R. S. Wyllie, Mr. and Mrs. (Sir and Lady) Squire Bancroft, the Rev. Dr. Welldon and Mr. and Mrs. (Sir and Lady) Henry Stanley. Mrs. Stanley, apparently at Lady Burton’s suggestion, took a sheet of paper and wrote on it, “I promise to put aside all other literature, and, as soon as I return to Trieste, to write my autobiography.” Then doubling the paper she asked for Burton’s autograph; and her request having been complied with, she showed him what he had put his hand to. The rest of the company signed as witnesses.

For some days, though it was early autumn, the party was snow-bound, and Burton relieved the wearisomeness of the occasion by relating some of his adventures. Mrs. Bancroft told him many amusing stories as they walked together in a sheltered covered way.

“He had interested me so greatly,” writes Lady Bancroft to me,624 “that I felt myself in his debt, and so tried by that means to make it up to him. He laughed heartily at them. Indeed, I never knew anyone who more enjoyed my stories. One morning early I played a practical joke upon him. He politely raised his hat and said: ‘I will forgive you, dear friend, on one condition. Play the same trick on Stanley when he comes down and I will watch.’ I agreed, and fortunately brought down my second bird. Both victims forgave me. One day I posed the Burtons, the Stanleys, Captain Mounteney Jephson (Stanley’s friend and companion), with Salah (Stanley’s black servant) for a photograph, which was taken by a young clergyman. I have the delightful result in my possession. I remember on a splendid morning, when the weather had mended and the sun was dancing over a neighbouring glacier, my husband saying to the black boy, ‘Salah, isn’t this a lovely day — don’t you like to see the beautiful sun again?’ ‘No, sir,’ was the answer, ‘ice makes him cold.’ Both Stanley and Sir Richard interested me more than I can say; they were wonderful personalities, and those were, indeed, happy days.”

Almost every day during the trip Sir Richard brought the Catullus to the table d’hote, and on 21st July he had finished his second copy. He then wrote in the margin, “Work incomplete, but as soon as I receive Mr. Smithers’ prose, I will fill in the words I now leave in stars, in order that we may not use the same expressions, and I will then make a third, fair and complete copy.”625 During this trip, too, Burton very kindly revised the first half of Dr. Baker’s work The Model Republic. The second half was revised by John Addington Symonds after Burton’s death.

Burton was back again at Trieste on 7th September. He and the magpie trunk were never again to make a journey together. The melancholy fate of the Catullus, which Burton had put aside in order that he might finish The Scented Garden, will be recorded in a later chapter.

624 11th July 1905.

625 We quote Lady Burton. Mr. Smithers, however, seems to have doubted whether Burton really did write this sentence. See his Preface to the Catullus.

171. The Golden Ass.

Another work that Burton left unfinished was a translation of The Golden Ass of Apuleius — a work known to Englishmen chiefly by Bohn’s edition,626 and the renderings of the episode of Cupid and Psyche by Adlington and Walter Pater (in Marius the Epicurean). The manuscript of Burton’s translation is now in the possession of M. Charles Carrington, the Paris publisher, who is arranging for its completion by a competent hand. The portions due to Burton will, of course, be indicated. These consist of “The Author’s Intent,” about two pages small 4to; nearly all the story of Cupid and Psyche; and fragments of Books 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10 and 11.627

On 30th September Burton wrote again to Mr. W. F. Kirby. “Your collaboration,” he says, “has been most valuable to me. Your knowledge of Folk Lore is not only ample, it is collected and controlled by the habit of accuracy which Science gives and which I find in all your writings upon imaginative subjects. . . . Let me hope that new scenes will not cause you to forget old subjects, and remind you of the infinite important fact that I am a subscriber to the Kalevala.”

626 A Translation by Francis D. Bryne appeared in 1905.

627 I am indebted to M. Carrington for these notes.

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