The Life of John Payne

Chapter I

Boyhood and Early Manhood


John Payne, the distinguished poet, scholar and translator of Villon, the Arabian Nights, Boccaccio, Omar Kheyyam, Hafiz and Heine, was born on 23 August, 1842, at 25 Great Queen Street, Bloomsbury. His ancestors had been an opulent county family settled at Rockbeare, near Exeter, their crest being a bear’s paw holding a broken javelin, and a demi-Moor hung in chains. They spelt their name Paynes,1 which became Payn and finally Payne. John Payne’s father, John Edward Hawkins-Payne, a man of handsome appearance (his portrait shows him bearded and spectacled), a student, a linguist, and an inventor,2 was descended from Sir John Hawkins, the famous Elizabethan admiral, and there had been for many generations a Hawkins Payne in the family. John, who had a particular detestation for conjoined names, would never use the hyphenated form. His mother was Betsy, daughter of William Rogers,3 a wealthy west-country merchant who resided in a fine old rambling house in College Place, College Green, Bristol. Mrs. Payne, small, gentle and agile, and at the same time the most dignified of her sex, was a skilful pianist, and could play a whole opera through without notes.

Directories of 1842 give under Great Queen Street the entry:

25, Payne, Mary Ann and Co., Coach-lace Manufacturers.

This Mary Ann Payne​—​“old Aunty Payne”​—​a widow, in whose house the poet was born, was his great aunt by marriage. She and her husband, who were childless, had adopted Hawkins-Payne.

From about 1846 to 1855 the home of Hawkins-Payne was in Clarendon Road, Notting Hill, and his family finally consisted of three sons and three daughters, namely John, the subject of this work, Annie, William, Nora, Frances and Harry.4

At an early age John was sent to a school kept by Mr. Ebenezer J. Pearce, 5 Pembridge Villas,5 Pembridge Gardens, Westbourne Park, where his principal companion was Charles Leigh Lewes, son of George Henry Lewes, friend of George Eliot.6 Another companion of his childhood was Mackay (who was to become General) Heriot,7 “Mac,” as he was called. He and Payne fell in love with a Miss Adlebert, the twelve-year-old daughter of a coach-builder, and sad to say “fought over her,” but before their school-days were passed the young lady went out of the life of both combatants. When only ten years old, Payne translated into English verse some of Horace’s odes, and at twelve he wrote a poem, in the style of Macaulay’s Lays, on Caesar’s conquest of Britain.

In the meantime the circumstances of his father, owing to heavy losses in business (for which he had no aptitude), had become seriously straitened, and in 1855 the boy was removed from school and obliged to enter at once on the struggle for a livelihood. Being of a shy and nervous nature, Payne detested the new life, and in after years, when recalling it, he was apt to judge his father harshly. Indeed he was bitter against him as late as 1902 when he wrote his Autobiography8​—​the Memoranda​—​the manuscript of which is in my possession. In that work Payne says9: “The result of this harsh and ill-considered treatment by my father (completely unsuccessful, I need hardly say, so far as regarded its prime object, the crushing out the germ of literature in me) was to innoculate me with what Senancour calls l’habitude rêveuse d’une âme comprimée, to deprive me of all self-confidence and to send me out into the world a mere mass of naked nerve, to fight a solitary battle at a frightful disadvantage.”

The elder Payne, however, despite his errors of judgment was really a man of a most kind and affectionate disposition, and he always endeavoured to do the best possible for his family.

When Payne was thirteen Hawkins-Payne removed from London to Redcliffe Parade, Bristol, in order to undertake the charge of a manufacturing dry-saltery business, which had been bought for him by Mr. Rogers. John, who was interested in chemicals, spent many hours in the warehouse, and he preserved delightful memories of his grandfather’s old rambling house on College Green, of Brandon Hill and the ancient and storied city huddled round it. Payne loved Bristol, and the romantic surroundings had over him much the same influence that Stoke Newington​—​especially the picturesque thoroughfare of Church Street​—​had over the youthful Edgar Allan Poe.10 It is to the fascination of Bristol and to the stories of its old buccaneers and merchants and their adventures on the cruel tumbling sea that we owe a number of the ballads that are among the best products of his genius.

Within five years after leaving school Payne passed through the various experiences of clerk to an auctioneer, to a coach-builder and to an architect, assistant in the office of a Bristol newspaper, and usher first in his old school in Pembridge Gardens and subsequently in another school. His most distasteful experiences of all were those at the schools, the horrors of which, he said, would have furnished a new circle in Dante’s hell.11 His heart, indeed, was never either at the desk or the blackboard, but with his beloved books.

He had already developed a passion for languages; the masterpieces in the various literatures held him spell-bound, and he longed to render them into noble and beautiful English. The poet, too, was already revealed. Between the ages of fourteen and nineteen he made metrical translations of the whole of Dante, Goethe’s Hermann and Dorothea, the second part of Faust, Lessing’s Nathan der Weise, Calderon’s Magico Prodigioso, and a great number of shorter poems from a dozen or more languages, including German, old and modern French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, Persian, Arabic, Greek and Latin, all which languages, with the exception of French, Latin and Greek (learnt at school) were acquired by private study.

While the Paynes were living at Bristol, or rather at Redland Park, Clifton, which was their home after the death (in 1859) of Mr. Rogers, Hawkins-Payne paid a visit to Rockbeare and was shown the communion plate that had been presented to the church by one of his ancestors, hidden in Cromwell’s days, and dug up when the edifice was restored in modern times. On the back of the platter was the family coat-of-arms. To his daughter Frances he said: “We owned all that land and were of consequence in those days before the bad times came.”

When the volunteer movement was in its infancy Payne, whose patriotism was always conspicuous, enrolled himself at Bristol. Had he been satisfied with his uniform, accoutrements and arms, and with drilling on Durdham Downs all would have been well; but it is on record that the charwoman who assisted the family, having on some occasion offended him, he straightway, his martial spirit being suddenly aroused, chased the wretched woman about the house with his rifle until she at last took refuge in the cellar. This, I believe, was the only military engagement in which Payne ever took part. The enemy, as is usual in modern warfare, would not admit defeat. She had merely retired for strategic reasons.

[1] Whence Hawkins-Payne always stamped his letters with a double P. James Payn, the novelist, was a cousin of Hawkins-Payne. Mr. de V. Payen-Payne of 49 Nevern Square is of the same family.

[2] He invented a shuttle which to-day is used in the looms, but others got all the profit.

[3] He died in 1859.

[4] William died 23 November, 1910; Harry (H. R.) 12 November, 1916; Annie (Mrs. Pritchard), 1 April, 1917; and Nora, 16 September, 1917. Frances (Mrs. Byam) still survives.

[5] Two houses thrown into one.

[6] From 1854 till Lewes’s death in 1878. She died in 1880.

[7] Son of Major Mackay Heriot, Royal Marines, who married as second wife Joanna Wood, daughter of Evelyn Wood, first cousin of Payne’s father. He died in November 1918.

[8] Part of the first page of which we reproduce.

[9] Page 23.

[10] Payne was influenced by Poe. See pp. 29, 59 and 183.

[11] Autobiography, p. 23.