Chapter XIV

Flowers of France, The Romantic Period


On 1 January, 1906,402 Payne wrote to Tracy Robinson respecting the American Selection of the poems: “I am sorry to hear of your trouble with * * * * ,403 but I am afraid you can do nothing ‘to punish him.’ I should not worry myself about the matter, the number printed will no doubt prove right; and as to the rest you are powerless. He will only laugh at you. Experience leads me to believe publishers capable of anything. They seem altogether to lack moral sense. It is a curious thing that (as Dickens remarks of the horse) a fine honest thing like a book should make a rascal of every one who has to do with the business part of it. The favourite and most generally effectual weapon of the publishing fiend is that of body and soul destroying delay​—​and against this the fine sort are quite helpless. Napoleon the First was perhaps the greatest rascal that ever lived (Gladstone, though marvellously gifted for mischief, was after all but a small kind of political sneak-thief in comparison). But he (Napoleon) once shot a publisher, and for this we may be sure that much has been forgiven him.

“Yours as ever,

John Payne.

“15 January, 1906. I have delayed this hoping the books might come; but no sign of them yet!

“The political mud volcano404 is in full eruption here, and we have the pleasing prospect before us of living (?) for the next five or six years under the most obscenely corrupt and immoral despotism imaginable, that of unadulterated democracy. God help us!

“I have heard nothing of the book. I carefully avoid the printed garbage facetiously known as the ‘Literary Press’; and have received no copy or communication of any kind on the subject from ****.​—​J.P.”

A little later the book appeared, and Payne received his copies, one of which he gave to me.

My Life of Sir Richard Burton appeared on 1 March, 1906. In it I gave the whole of the history (drawn from Burton’s own letters to Payne) of Payne’s and of Burton’s translations of the Nights, and proved by the use of parallel passages that Burton’s was merely Payne’s altered and spoilt.

I called on Payne at the usual time (4 p.m.) on Thursday, March 8th, and he warmly congratulated me. When sending copies of the book to Watts-Dunton and Swinburne, I mentioned that I was engaged on a biography of Walter Pater, and asked whether they could help me with reminiscences.

On 7 March, 1906,405 Watts-Dunton wrote to thank me in behalf of Swinburne and himself for my gift.

He says: “At this moment we are both absorbed in the book. A few minutes ago Mr. Swinburne was expressing to me his admiration of it, especially of the judicious way you have approached the difficult and delicate subject of Lady Burton’s relations to Burton’s life. It is charming to think that you will be able to call upon us on Friday. Will you come about four and take tea, and have a chat about Burton, Pater and other subjects?”

Swinburne wrote on the same day: “Very many thanks for the gift of your admirable life of Burton. I have already read a good deal of it with great interest. I should like of all things to tell you in person something of the days we passed together in the south of France in 1869. They seem to me more like two or three than thirty-seven years ago. If you should care to look me up on the day after to-morrow, I should be happy to see you in the afternoon. My acquaintance with the late Mr. Pater was of the very slightest. I should doubt if we ever met more than three or four times.”

On 9 March I made my way to the Pines where I arrived about four.

After I had chatted with Watts-Dunton, Swinburne came in​—​a slight figure in black, with a rather bald head, a red-gold shaggy beard mixed with gray, and a punctiliously neat​—​an obtrusively clean​—​appearance. He was kindness itself, and he had a curious stiff way of walking​—​a sort of side-long strut. That morning a very long and hostile review of my book had appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, a periodical which, whatever it may have been at that time, is now a joy to read if only for its brilliant leading articles. Both Swinburne and Watts-Dunton were just then very bitter against this periodical, but why I do not know. Anyhow, after greeting me Swinburne406 said: “Mr. Wright, some ass in The Times has been reviewing your Life of Burton; but I think it a good book, Mr. Watts-Dunton thinks it a good book, and if we think it is a good book it does not matter in the least what anybody else thinks.”

Watts-Dunton also assumed that I wanted comfort, and he told me several anecdotes in order to raise my spirits. In reality, however, they did not want raising, for the first edition of the book had been sold on the day of publication, and the second was fast running out.

After mentioning to Swinburne how greatly Payne admired his works, I said: “Another friend of mine, who also values them, the Rev. G. F. Sams of Emberton, wants you to tell him the meaning of the expression ‘white and brown’ in ‘A Ballad of Burdens’”407:

The burden of sweet speeches. Nay, kneel down,

Cover thy head, and weep; for verily

These market men who buy thy white and brown

In the last days shall take no thought for thee.

“The reference,” said Swinburne, “is to the colour of the girls’ hair and the tint of their cheeks. I remember the sense is packed rather close.”

I happened next to speak of Mr. James Douglas’s biography of Watts-Dunton, and Watts-Dunton presented me a copy in which he had made a number of marginal notes in pencil. We then talked of Walter Pater, and Watts-Dunton explained to me his theory on the Renaissance of Wonder.

T. W. America has produced only one poet​—​Edgar Allan Poe.

S. Quite right.

T. W. Payne, who was influenced by Poe, regards Longfellow merely as a rhymer.408

Swinburne then rose to look for some book, and as he walked about he several times quoted Mrs. Gamp, saying, for example, that he would do something or other if he felt “dispoged.” I wished he would refrain, for it affected me in the same way as did the information imparted to me when I was a boy that the Bird of Paradise fed on caterpillars.

During tea both Swinburne and Watts-Dunton talked much about Payne and eulogized his poems, but I have earlier in this work quoted their principal remarks.

Swinburne then took me up into his study where he showed me his collection of the Elizabethan dramatists, on which we chatted for, I suppose, a couple of hours. As, however, the conversation did not concern Payne, I omit it. I may observe, however, that when I said to him, “Who, Mr. Swinburne, stands next to Shakespeare as a dramatist?" he replied, “Webster, certainly.” Recalling the trouble this poet had caused between Swinburne and Payne, I made no comment.

On this occasion and on every subsequent visit to the Pines I carried kindly messages between Payne and his two old friends. My hope, however, that visits would again be exchanged between them was not realized.

On 14 March, 1906,409 Payne wrote to me: “I am glad you enjoyed your visit to Putney. The Times seems to be completely in the hands of the Philistines. . . . Sub-acid Review in Telegraph to-day. Evidently Press inclined to be disagreeable.”

Next day I returned him his copies of the Nights (13 vols.) Boccaccio (3 vols.), and Bandello (6 vols.), which he had lent me for the purpose of this biography.

He acknowledged receipt of these books on 16 March, 1906410: “As to Reviews,” he said, “your book will last and they will pass. I quite agree with you that your Burton is the best book you have written, and think it a model of what a biography should be. I am very glad to hear that it is selling well.”

For some time I had been planning in connection with the John Payne Society a John Payne Birthday-book, and in this same letter Payne says: “The more I think of your idea the more I approve. I think it excellent.” Twelve members were to take a month each​—​Mrs. Hutt agreed to do January, Mr. Casey February, and so on, but one event or another hindered, and the project has not yet been carried out.

On 15 March Mr. Mostyn Pryce, a relative of Burton’s, made an attack on my Life of Burton by means of a letter inserted in the Standard. I sent the cutting to Payne, who said, 19 March, 1906411: “I return Pryce’s feeble ‘kick,’ which is hardly worth noticing. All these puddling little attacks ‘mean venom’ but will do nothing but advertise the book.”

On 13 April, 1906,412 he wrote: “I am delighted to hear of the second edition of your book. It is the best possible answer to the very unjust sneers of the Athenæum and other logroller-governed papers. I repeat what I have told you, that I think your book a model of what a biography should be: and I am bold enough to think myself a better judge than the rancorous prigs of The Times and the Athenæum.

“I am in a very low state of health at present and much distressed by the loss of my dear Partie,413 who died a fortnight ago of influenza and whose death is a cruel shock to me. It is dreadful to lose a creature that loves one as he loved me.”

On 14 April, 1906,414 Payne wrote to Mr. Tracy Robinson: “Have you seen Thomas Wright’s new Life of Sir Richard Burton? You would like it. There is a lot about me in it, and he wields the cudgels manfully in my defence generally. … I have been ailing all this winter. Every new year brings a perceptible loss of strength and health generally; and the surrounding circumstances, literary and political, here are ill calculated to encourage anything but dejection. Why one lives on it is difficult to say, except that life is the worst and most obdurate of habits.”

On 15 May a very appreciative and charming review of my Life of Sir Richard Burton appeared in The Morning Post, but what pleased me most was the following sentence: “We imagine that for the first time Burton has been shown as he was, and full justice has been done to that fine scholar, Mr. Payne. As far as the Arabian Nights goes, the glory that has been Burton’s is now Mr. Payne’s.”

Of course I at once wrote to inquire whether Payne had seen it.

On 16 May, 1906,415 he replied: “Many thanks for yours. I take The Morning Post, which is about the only decent paper left, so have already seen the notice, which pleased me as doing you a little more justice than some of the others.”

In reality, however, the Press had on the whole treated me well. One of my principal objects in writing the book had been to show that Burton had stolen the translation from Payne, and the verdict of the Press was, to use the words of the Pall Mall Gazette,416 “Mr. Wright may be considered to have proved his case.”

In respect to an attack on my book by “Ouida” Payne wrote, 4 June, 1906,417 to ask whether I intended to take any notice of it. He added: “I should say not. It is silly enough.”

On 6 June418 he wrote asking me to spend the evening with him on the following Thursday.

I accepted the invitation, and we talked chiefly about the Elizabethan translations, including Adlington’s Apuleius, his copy of which he had lent me, and North’s Plutarch. He praised both, but placed the latter far higher than the former.

On 13 June, 1906, I spent the evening at the Pines, and on 14 June I was with Payne again. He spoke of his friendship with Dr. Richard Garnett, who died on 13 April, 1906, but the conversation was chiefly about my book and his work the Flowers of France, Romantic Period, much of which he read to me. He also read “The Death of Hafiz” and “The Wrath of Venus.” With the Flowers of France he had by this time made considerable headway. His idea was to render isometrically into English verse representative French poems from the 12th century to the present time, and the work was to consist of the following volumes:

1 and 2. The Dawn,419 12th to 15th centuries (Châtelain de Coucy to Mellin de St. Gelais).

3. The Renaissance, 16th century (Ronsard to Saint Amant). Pub. 1907.

4. The Dark Ages, 17th and 18th centuries (Malherbe to André Cherier).

5 and 6. The Romantic Period, 19th century (Hugo to Leconte de Lisle) 2 vols. Pub. 1906.

7 and 8. The Latter Days, late 19th and early 20th centuries (Coppée to Paul Fort). 2 vols. Pub. 1913.

Of these he lived to publish only Vols. 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8. The Romantic Period, which he finished first, was issued in 1906. Among the poets drawn upon were Hugo, De Musset, Baudelaire, Lamartine, Barbier, Gautier and Leconte de Lisle, figures who would do honour to the literature of any race or time. The two volumes form, in Payne’s words, “a complete Florilegium of the period.”

Among the selections from Hugo is “The Captive Maid,” which closes with the lovely stanza:

But, o’er all, when the light

Breeze skims me with its van,

I love to sit by night,

With dreaming eyes to scan

The sea that lies asleep,

Whilst, from the heavenly steep,

The moon, above the deep,

Opens her silver fan.

It is impossible to view the sea by moonlight without recalling the haunting beauty of these lines. Hugo is pre-eminently the poet of the beach. From Gautier​—​that seductive stylist and indomitable apostle of the dictery “Art for Art’s sake” are taken forty-nine poems​—​“The Manor of Memory” being perhaps the finest. Who can forget that perfect stanza:

Betwixt her scarlet lips that pout

Half-parted, pearly lightnings run;

Her splendid beauty opens out

Like a pomegranite in the sun!

In the second volume we have examples of the Muse of Sainte Beuve, De Nerval, Baudelaire, De Banville, Leconte de Lisle and others. De Banville’s humorous lines on “The Poverty of Rothschild,” are superbly rendered:

The other day in vain awaiting the receipt

Of cash for that and this,

I could not choose but weep for thinking in the street

Of how poor Rothschild is.

Without a rap I was, propped up against a post,

Like any beggar base;

And yet, above all else, that which concerned me most

Was Rothschild’s sorry case.

* * * * *

While taking lute or flute, I follow Fancy’s flight,

Where’er the baggage gads,

He, convict of the desk, divorced from all delight,

Figure to figure adds.

Each day he reckons up that fabulous amount

Of his, his milliards twain;

And if the wretched man but farthings two miscount

He must begin again.

* * * * *

Oh, how poor Rothschild is! He never has the meads

Seen, where the sun shines bright.

The true rich man for me the poet is who needs

But sun and air and light.

Of the fifty-three selections from Leconte de Lisle the most striking are “The Elephants,” “The Bernica,” “The Supreme Illusion” and “The Aboma” (the ringed boa.)

From the middle of June to 7 July Payne was at Tors Hotel, Lynmouth, North Devon, whence he sent me on 21 June, 1906,420 some of the proof sheets of the Romantic Period in order that the poems on them could be read at the approaching second meeting of the John Payne Society. He says of these poems: “‘Veni, vidi, vixi,’421 and others exactly express my own attitude towards life. You may as you suggested like to read some of them at the meeting. Weather overcast, but pleasant here, the loveliest spot in England, perhaps.” At Lynmouth he finished preparing for the press Vol. 3 of Flowers of France, The Renaissance.

This second meeting of the Society took place in my garden at Olney on the 23rd of June, the speakers being the Rev. G. F. Sams (Rector of Emberton, Bucks), Dr. Oliver Smithson (Luton), Mr. E. F. Beesly (Bristol) and Mr. W. F. Kirby (London). Payne’s friends, Mrs. and Miss Hutt, were also present.422

In July Payne consented to read the manuscript of Chapter 28 of my life of Pater, which I duly sent him.

The letter of 26 July,423 which accompanied its return, closes with: “I am in a pretty abject state of nervous depression and general physical debility just now, which keep me turning in vain round the work I want and ought to do. There is no greater hell than ‘in suing long to bide’ to the invisible powers for leave to produce the things that are in me.” I could not just then leave home or I would have made for London in order to try to cheer him. Thinking, however, another change would do him good, and promising myself great pleasure in his company, I invited him to Olney.

He replied on 27 July,424 and included a sonnet as a specimen of Du Bellay’s more substantial work, which he allowed me to print in the Pater. He adds: “The sadness of it is characteristic of the man, who spent the best years of his life in what was to him an abhorrent exile at Rome.

“It is very kind of you to want me to come down to Olney, but it is out of the question, at all events, for the present. I have always found home and solitude the best medicine.”

On 3 August, 1906,425 Payne wrote chiefly in order to send me a couple of newspaper cuttings respecting himself for the purpose of this biography. He says: “Herewith cutting from New York Herald to add to your collection. You will be amused to see by the enclosed (from Daily Telegraph)426 how infallibly my name stirs up the venom of the half-a-dozen scribblers who monopolize (hence the, to the outsider, amazing unanimity of their pronouncements) the verse criticism (save the mark!) of the English Press. They are, of course, mostly themselves minute rhymsters (hence their peculiar venom!).”

He asked me to spend the evening of 16 August427 with him, and apparently I went, but my notes are missing.

On 7 and 14 September appeared in T. P.’s Weekly a contribution from me entitled “Hafiz and John Payne,”428 and on 9 September Payne suggested that if I thought of another article for T. P.’s Weekly, Flowers of France would be a suitable subject, a suggestion which I decided to follow.

In October I sent him the proofs of my Life of Pater, which he had kindly consented to look over. He writes on 17 October, 1906429: “Herewith I return you first set of proofs, on which I have noted a few small corrections and suggestions. They are quite insignificant and turn mainly on slight matters of style, which I myself should be inclined to treat differently. But it is, of course, entirely for yourself to decide whether you will follow my lead or not. The account of Pater’s school-boy life is very interesting.”

In December I sent him a copy of my Life of Cowper, and asked him to write a poem suitable to be recited at the approaching John Newton centenary celebrations at Olney. On 19 December, 1906,430 he replied: “Many thanks for the Cowper, which I am very pleased to have. As to the verses, all I can say is that I will drop the suggestion into the Lion’s Mouth,431 and if the Powers behind (whatever they are) choose to send me anything to the point you shall have it. But you must not count upon it; I have often explained to you how absolutely impossible it is for me to write to order. And Cowper, though I have a gentle but genuine regard for him, is not an inspiring subject to me, which is, of course, a matter of temperament and personal idiosyncracy. When do you expect to be in town next? You will be glad to hear that it has been flood-time432 with me lately and that in consequence the new book of (original) poems [Carol and Cadence] is now practically completed in MS. I should like to discuss pros and cons with you as to publication. As to Flowers of France, The Renaissance (Third Volume) is three parts printed. The remaining four volumes433 I have had to abandon for lack of support, the first time such a thing has happened to me. As it is, I shall not only receive nothing for two or three years’ labour, but shall actually lose by the issue.”

On December 20, 1906,434 he sent me the required verses for the Newton centenary, observing: “The Powers have proved propitious and here are your verses! They are simple as befits the subject, but I hope you will like them.”

I did like them, for they are very beautiful, but I was not satisfied because they dealt entirely with Cowper​—​Newton’s name not even being mentioned. To oblige me he was good enough to write two additional stanzas, which he enclosed in a letter of 22 December.435

This year was published the second volume issued by the John Payne Society​—​Abou Mohammed the Lazy.

[402] Robinson Letters, No. 13.

[403] The English publisher of Mr. Robinson’s Selections from the Poetry of John Payne.

[404] When Parliament was dissolved on 8 January, 1906, there was a Unionist majority of 74 members. After the General Election there was a huge Liberal majority. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman became Prime Minister.

[405] Watts-Dunton’s Letters to T. W., No. 4.

[406] Mr. Churton Collins who, in 1900, after fourteen years’ estrangement, visited Swinburne found him “almost stone deaf.” Oh this occasion (9 March, 1906) Swinburne could hear quite easily. Watts-Dunton used to say of him, “He was deaf only when persons he did not care to see happened to call on him.”

[407] Collected Poems, in 6 vols., 1904. Vol. i. p. 125.

[408] “The American Rhymer” he calls him in the Heine, i. 311.

[409] Letters to T. W., No. 41.

[410] Letters to T. W., No. 42.

[411] Letters to T. W., No. 43.

[412] Letters to T. W., No. 44.

[413] Parthenopæus, the Persian cat.

[414] Letters to T. Robinson, No. 14.

[415] Letters to T. W., No. 46.

[416] 12 March, 1906.

[417] Letters to T. W., No 47.

[418] Letters to T. W., No. 48.

[419] Advertised as The Beginnings. See Letter to M. P. Berger, 15 September, 1912, p. 251.

[420] Letters to T. W., No. 49.

[421] Romantic Period, vol. i. p. 28. Poem is by Hugo.

[422] A little later (on 15 August) died one of the most enthusiastic members of the Society, Mr. James Stanley Gilbert, the Panama poet. He was a friend of Mr. Tracy Robinson.

[423] Letters to T. W., No. 53.

[424] Letters to T. W., No. 54.

[425] Letters to T. W., No. 56.

[426] A letter, I presume. I have mislaid the cutting.

[427] Letters of T. W., No. 57.

[428] The quotation in it from Yacoub Artin Pasha was inserted by Payne’s especial request.

[429] Letters to T. W., No. 60.

[430] Letters to T. W., No. 61.

[431] A reference to the Lion’s Mouth at Button’s—referred to in the Spectator.

[432] It began on 19 November, 1906.

[433] In 1913 he issued two more vols., Flowers of France, The Latter Days.

[434] Letters to T. W., No. 62.

[435] Letters to T. W., No. 63. The complete poem will be found in Carol and Cadence, p. 187.