Chapter XV

Flowers of France, The Renaissance


At the end of 1906, aware that Payne was in the midst of a verse-flow, I had asked him to write me a sonnet for inclusion in a biography of Matthew Arnold which I had in hand. On 2 January436 he wrote: “It being still flood-tide, here is your Arnold sonnet. It is a question of now or never. Another few days (or perhaps even hours) it will be full ebb and there will probably be not another line to be got out of me for love or money for at least two years, if ever again.”437 The following is the sonnet:


Arnold, no trumpets thunder in thy song;

The shrill-voiced fife too harsh was for thy need.

The Dorian flute, wherewith thou sought’st to lead

Men’s footsteps, piping low, the meads along

Of plaintive thought, unnoted of the throng

Passed in our troublous times, when men scant heed

Yield to what serveth not their lust and greed;

Nor was thy voice for many enough strong.

Yet, for those spirits, few and far to find,

In whom the Delicate outvies the Loud,

The subtle part above the coarser whole

Who prize, ’tis well, thy guiding feet behind,

To wander, careless of the unthinking crowd,

Among the quiet byways of the soul.

“The Rime of Melisande” and the “Death of Pan,” written about this time, owed their origin to my urging that he should write more ballads.

On 30 January, 1907,439 Payne wrote to Tracy Robinson: “You will be glad to hear that I have been writing (or rather producing) poetry without interruption for the last ten weeks with the result of 160 new poems. They are, I feel, the finest I have ever written; but I expect I shall finish by putting them all on the fire​—​and that, indeed, would be the most sensible thing to do, as I am strictly boycotted by the Press and the Publishing Trade here, and my private public, which has hitherto enabled me to issue my translations, has now failed me. My last undertaking, Flowers of France​—​a history-anthology of French poetry from the twelfth century, has had to be dropped for want of support after the third volume (there were to have been seven in all), so you see I have no reason to consider the stupid and ungrateful public. Sunt lachrymae rerum!

Early in the year he sent me for inclusion in the third edition of my Life of Sir Richard Burton the sonnet entitled “Richard Frances Burton,” which, however, arrived too late for this purpose,440 but it was included in Payne’s next volume of poems Carol and Cadence.441

I spent the evening of 15 January with him. He read a number of the poems from Flowers of France, The Renaissance, including “The Skylark,”442 “Adieu to Life,”443 and “Of Poets’ Immortality.”444 When he reached the fifth stanza of the last I interrupted him with, ”What do you mean by ‘From Ursa to the Blackmoor’s spall’?”

P. “Spall,” a word used by Spenser, means “shoulder.” In other words “From the North to the South Pole.”

T. W. You ought to put plenty of footnotes​—​and then occurred another little duel445 on this subject.

P. It is not necessary. I do not write for the vile crowd.

T. W. There is not one educated man in a thousand who would know what “spall” means. Of course he could look the word up, but life is short. You assume that everybody has as large a vocabulary as you have. I believe in footnotes.

P. I don’t.

T. W. In any case it’s a fine poem with lines that cling to the ear. When people get tired of the road from “Dan to Beersheba” it will be a pleasant change to fluctuate between “Ursa” and “the Blackmoor’s spall.”

P. Du Bellay is good, but Rémi Belleau is the sweetest of the Pleiad.

T. W. Speaking of this group, I find that books vary as to the members. Kindly give me their names.

P. Jean Dorat, . . .

I wrote it in my note-book and then, offering the notebook to him, I said: “Please put the rest down yourself and then there will be no mistake in the spelling”; and he wrote: Pontus de Tyard, Pierre de Ronsard, Joachim du Bellay, J. A. Baïf, Remi Belleau, Etienne Jodelle, and after doing so he read all the selections from Rémi Belleau.

Swinburne’s name having occurred Payne said with a laugh, “When he was a young man and drank he wrote fine poetry; now he is sober he writes nothing of consequence.”

“You are pleased,” I said, “to be facetious. Drink had nothing to do with it. As a young man he wrote, his blood being hot, amorous​—​and melodious​—​poetry. When a man passes middle life such themes lose their interest for him. You have the advantage in that you are a philosopher as well as a poet. The lover dies, the philosopher lives till he dies. He is never at a loss for a theme. This explains how it is that your later poems are superior to your earlier ones.”

He was pleased with these remarks.

In January two of the members of the John Payne Society had the temerity to write to him. He replied courteously, but the incident upset him, for he thought the Deluge was coming.

He says, writing to me on 4 February,446 “People seem to have an idea that I should be entirely at their disposal and in that idea I do not concur. In fact I live a retired life, as you know, to keep clear of the importunate. … I look to you to keep people off me as far as possible, as I know you understand and sympathize with me in this point.” And so I became a Buffer State.

In a postscript he says: “Verse-flow has now ceased after producing 161 poems, including three more ballads, one long, ‘The Wrath of Venus,’447 and two short. I still incline to put them all in the fire and am convinced that this would be the best thing to do. I wish I had burned those written in 1902 and 1903, instead of printing them. It would save me much in every way.”

About this time a Hebrew professor approached Payne with the suggestion that he should undertake a new translation of the Bible, and Payne asked my opinion. The following conversation then ensued.

T. W. Do it by all means. A translator of the Bible should be a master of English (you are that), a brilliant oriental scholar (you are that), a true poet (you are that), and a layman (you are not in Orders). The whole of these four qualifications have never before occurred in an Englishman. The authors of the Authorized Version had the disadvantage of being professed theologians; moreover their ignorance of oriental knowledge was colossal. Still they were masters of English and they had poetical souls. That saved them. Their very blunders are beauties.

P. The Authorized Version forms, with the Plays of Shakespeare, the main heritage and principal glory of the English language.

T. W. I agree with you. Now we come to the Revised Version. Its authors were mere pedants and precisians, and, as your friend448 Washington Moon has proved, by hundreds of citations, their English​—​their grammar​—​is far to seek. They lacked not only oriental knowledge but also imagination. How can men who are not poets translate a work that teems with the highest poetry? Aldis Wright, a great Hebraist, is a fair sample of them. Read his annotations to Shakespeare in the Pitt Press series. Take anything he has written. Most of his work consists of notes upon the notes of others, but he made dust dustier. I cannot imagine any books more likely to repel a youth from Shakespeare. For such men to translate the Bible, whatever their other qualifications, was an outrage on commonsense. Thou art the man!

P. I am too old.

I thought for a moment, and then said: “Yes, I am afraid you are. But if you could do only a part​—​only one book​—​you would win the gratitude of your country.

He was not, however, the man to commence what he feared he could never complete; and even his Atlantean shoulders were incapable at such an age (64) of lifting so tremendous a burden.

A translation of the Bible by Payne would have fallen like a bombshell on Christendom. The protest caused by the Nights would have been nothing to it. But what a feast it would have been!

On 14 February, 1907, I sent copies of my biography of Pater449 to Swinburne and Watts-Dunton. I find that in my letter which accompanied Watts-Dunton’s copy I said: “I am now busy on a companion work, The Life of Matthew Arnold, and I hope you will some day let me talk to you about it. I often see Mr. Payne, but never without urging him to go and see you and Mr. Swinburne, but he is quite the hermit. He is now engaged upon some charming translations from the French poets​—​Flowers of France. You and Mr. Swinburne and he are the three finest men in England, and this I will maintain against all comers.”

On 8 March (1907) appeared an article of mine in T. P.’s Weekly on Payne’s Flowers of France, The Romantic Period, the title being “A Great Anthology.”450

On 12 March (1907)451 he wrote: “I am in a very low state of health, both physical and mental, and can hardly expect to hold out much longer. It is wonderful though how much the wretched body can endure without dissolution. My life has been one of suffering and misery enough to kill a regiment of pro-Boers, one would think, and yet here I am half-way to sixty-five! Sunt lachrymae rerum! Glad to see you on April 3rd.”452

Swinburne, in a long letter of 14 March, 1907, after thanking me for my volumes said: “I know so little of Pater’s work that I am quite incompetent to offer an opinion on their contents. I remember telling him how beautiful and how happy in its expression of a critical truth I thought a passage in his first book of which he had sent me a copy. I shall be delighted to discuss Matthew Arnold with you whenever you care to call on me. I still retain a very warm admiration for his best poetry, and I heartily agreed with Jowett’s admiration of his Literature and Dogma​—​of his religious criticism. As a literary critic I never thought him worth serious consideration, but simply, when writing of English or French poetry, as a cultured dunce​—​most seriously and sedately silly.”

Watts-Dunton wrote (10 March, 1907)453: “I have been reading with great interest the two fine volumes you have sent me, which are packed with matter of the most valuable kind. We shall be charmed to see you when you can call, but give me notice of your time of coming. When you do come I should like to get your opinion upon my recently published essay in the Supplement of the Encyclopaedia Britannica upon Matthew Arnold and his work in prose and verse.” Towards the end of the letter he calls Arnold “one of the most remarkable figures of our time.”

Payne was equally pleased when I communicated to him that my biography of Arnold454 was making headway.

In his Autobiography (page 4) he had written: “Matthew Arnold I knew (in early days) though not so well as I came to know him later. He is the one man after Swinburne whom I should call ‘master.’ I mean, of course, as a matter of appreciation and not of discipleship, as I can, on reviewing my life’s work, see little or no trace of the influence of either poet.”

I spent the evening of 3 April with him. In the morning I had called on Mr. Ramsay Colles, a Beddoes authority and enthusiast, and after mentioning the fact I asked Payne’s opinion respecting Beddoes’ poems. As a result of this conversation he wrote the fine sonnet entitled “Thomas Lovell Beddoes” which appears in Flower o’ the Thorn, page 135.

I spent the next evening with Swinburne and Watts-Dunton. Of the long and interesting conversation that ensued I shall mention here only those portions that concerned Payne. Swinburne having by this time become very deaf, Watts-Dunton (whose voice was much clearer than mine) acted as interpreter. I asked Watts-Dunton whether he knew Mr. Colles. He answered: “Yes, he is the Beddoes authority. A man who has studied Beddoes is a man worth knowing.”

I spoke next of Payne’s sonnet on Arnold.

Watts-Dunton to Swinburne. We knew Arnold didn’t we?

Swinburne. Yes, he was a bright fellow was he not! But he made some absurd remarks in his essays. He said there were no good prose writers before Addison. There were many. Think of Daniel’s “Defence of Rhyme” and Holingshed’s “Chronicle.” Payne would agree with us. Have you read Arden of Feversham in Hollingshed?

T. W. (Shaking head.) No.

Swinburne. Then read it by all means, it contains important things that Shakespeare made no use of. Then there was Tom Delaney, a master of prose, but a scribbler in verse. Read Thomas of Reading, a prose fiction by Delaney. The story is told with amazing power. It is about an inn kept by murderers on the Oxford Road. He then said “Have you read…”

But I did not catch the words.

Noticing that I looked puzzled he said: “Let me put it in your note-book.”

He then wrote in it, in his schoolboy’s hand,

Sainte-Beuve, Chroniques Parisiennes.

I said “No.”

“Then by all means read it;” and he added: “If you want to please me you must praise Chastelard.”

I then handed him a copy of the programme of the approaching Newton centenary celebrations and Payne’s poem “Cowper and Newton” which was to be recited on the occasion.

On taking the poem he burst out laughing. “How funny!” he said, “John Payne, the translator of Boccaccio!” and he again began to laugh; but then, out of courtesy to me, he checked himself.

I said: “I see nothing surprising in it. Nature delights in incongruities. So do I. Besides, the great love for animals which Payne shares with Cowper forms an unmistakable link between the two poets.”

I found that Swinburne’s attitude towards religion was similar to Payne’s. After some conversation on this subject he observed: “The priests have been the cause of trouble all down the ages.”

Like Payne, Watts-Dunton thought lightly of Pater. He said: “A man is either a fountain or a reservoir. Pater was a reservoir.”

A long conversation then followed which had nothing to do with Payne. It was chiefly on the early English writers.

Just as I was about to leave, Watts-Dunton said, “Swinburne is about to look out one of Scott’s stories. He reads to me every evening. He has the Scotch accent perfectly.”

T. W. Then Scott still retains his hold on you both?

Watts-Dunton. Oh, yes. He is delightful.

As I left they bade me remember them in kindest terms to Payne. “Tell him,” said Swinburne, “to come and see me when he has nothing better to do.”

In April (1907) Payne issued the third volume of his Flowers of France, a work that covers the Renaissance Period. It opens with the noble “Canticle” of Etienne Dolet. One of the most beautiful poems is Rémi Belleau’s “April,” which contains the lines:

But I, forsooth, I give my voice

And my choice

To the month that its lovesome name owes

To the goddess so frank and so free

From the sea,

Of old, that in bubbles arose.455

The same author’s “Wealth and Death” is equally beautiful. The amusing “Of Freedom in Love,” by Olivier de Magny, is good in every stanza. He gives many fine reasons in support of his practice of passing from Anne to Margaret, and from Margaret to numerous other Annes and Margarets, one of the most convincing being:

By travel and discourse in various lands and seas,

By talk with divers folk in divers languages,

A man approves himself more rare and gains the fame

Of one who’s seen the world, a man of wit and name.

One of the freshest, most beautiful and most original poems in the collection is that “In Praise of a Country Life,” by the gentle-minded Philippe Desportes. The line its author takes may be gauged by the following stanza, in which it is observed of the man living in seclusion:

Ambition stirs his heart not to a glow;

He masketh not his mind with cheating show

Not violates his faith in anything.

He importuneth not a prince’s ear,

But, with his lot contented, lives in cheer,

Is his own court, own favour and own king.

To Lady Lewis, 18 April, 1907, Payne wrote: “I am in a very low state of health just now, the usual sequel of my periodical attacks of verse production, one of which (and an unusually severe one, as you may judge from the fact that it produced 175 new poems, or 8,000 lines of verse, in eleven weeks) has just passed away and left me in a parlous condition of nerve exhaustion. It is altogether ‘a ridiculous opportunity,’ as Mr. Podsnap would say, for nobody wants my verse and I do not know what to do with it when it is written; but it is like murder and . . .456 it will out.”

Early in 1907 Yacoub Artin Pasha procured for Payne a Romance in Arabic entitled The Marvellous History of Seif ben Dhi Yezn, King of Yemen, and Payne commenced a translation of it, but the work was then put aside in order that he might prepare for the press his original poems and his additions to Flowers of France.

On 25 April the Newton celebrations took place at Olney, and in the midst of the proceedings was recited the poem “Cowper and Newton” which had been written by Payne for the occasion.457

On 5 June, 1907,458 Payne wrote: “I am very busy just now getting ready for the new issue (which will be my new poems) of the S.S. (Songs of Silence459). I hope that the prospectuses will be sent out next week. You will be interested to hear that verse is still coming, number 202 having made its appearance yesterday.”

The next letter, 18 June, 1907,460 refers to a book The Real Sir Richard Burton, by Mr. W. P. Dodge, published by Mr. Fisher Unwin: “Have you seen W. P. Dodge’s Real Sir R. Burton (published by the High Tea Man)? The notices I have seen of it have been very slighting, but it is said to have been written as a counterblast to yours,” and he concluded the letter by asking for the return of some books on Matthew Arnold which he had lent me.

On 30 June, 1907,461 he writes: “Herewith cutting from Observer, the only other notice I have seen of Dodge’s silly book.” He then refers to an attack made on me in a letter printed in the Saturday Review. He says: “I imagine both the Academy and the Saturday Review are nearly moribund; they certainly carry nowadays no particle of the authority they used to have. Hatred of me is common to both. Why, I know not. It is shown, among other things, by their refusing to take any notice of my books. I should like you, as soon as you find it convenient, to come up to London as I want to consult you upon a scheme I have as to my new poems, the flow of which ceased some three weeks ago at 221. I am very unwell and dejected.” I at once wrote: “Cast away doubt, poet!” At any rate that was the substance of a cheery letter which I sent him, and which, I trust, had the effect of raising his spirits.

On a similar occasion I pointed out to him that his dejection could be traced to the insomnia trouble, the result of overwork, adding: “We are all of us the victims of our virtues.”

On 4 July, 1907,462 he tells me that he is “revising 10,000 lines of new verse for the press, a hateful task, as you may imagine, specially in view of the utter uselessness of the whole thing and the prospect of a heavy loss over the book.”

On 23 December, 1907, contrary to my usual custom I called on Payne in the morning and had lunch with him. The conversation was chiefly on French authors. Of De Banville, who, as has been seen, was one of his most intimate friends, he spoke with great affection. He said: “De Banville revived old measures, the rondeau, rondel, villanelle, ballade and chant royal. A sort of French Sir Walter Scott in his passion for building, he lived in a large house at Nevers​—​one wall connected with which cost him a thousand pounds; and he nearly killed himself with work in his endeavour to raise money for his fancies.”463

Payne was drawn to Senancour464 and Lamennais.465 Berenger and Musset466 he despised.

T. W. What of Verlaine?

P. Verlaine was not a great poet. He was nobody. Later, however, his opinion must have undergone some change, for in his Latter Days there are translations of seven of Verlaine’s poems.

T. W. And now as to the modern novelists.

P. Pierre Loti467 is marvellously picturesque, but he is a fearfully sad man. One of his tales is about a neglected cat. I could not sleep for months after reading it. Paul Bourget468 is the daintiest novelist that France has produced.”469

He regarded Hugo as “the shallowest, the vainest, the most recklessly disregardful of truth of all great writers.”470

Of Barbey d’Aurevilly, whom he once met, he said: “He was coarse of speech, and in the habit of saying whatever came into his mind, even in the company of women, without regard to anyone’s feelings. As to his works, he is too inflated and diluted.” A translation of one of Barbey d’Aurevilly’s poems will be found in Payne’s Latter Days.

When I asked Payne some questions respecting the Bibliography of his early period, he said he had kept no list of his contributions to magazines and reviews and so was not able to render me under that head very much assistance. The information I was able to obtain from him and others will be found earlier in this work and in the appendices.

I then spoke of Watts-Dunton’s admiration for Beddoes,471 and added (by mistake472) that Swinburne shared it.

P. Then he is a convert, he cared nothing for Beddoes once​—​for nobody, indeed, who resembles Marston. He once said to me, “I am surprised, Payne, that a man producing such good lyric work as you should care for Beddoes.”

T. W. Your own admiration of Beddoes, then, is as pronounced as ever?

P. I know him almost by heart. He has a most extraordinary power of crystallizing fantastic moods. His verses continually open a window upon the invisible world. Sometimes he accomplishes this merely by a word or two. He conveys a greater sense of the mysteries that surround life than any other poet I know. He is the nineteenth century ectype of Marston. He is Marston born over again. “The old gods are only men and wine.” One thinks, too, of the massiveness of Beddoes’ mind, and its intense richness.

T. W. A Marstonite is therefore a Beddoesite?

P. Certainly. Read Marston’s Antonio and Mellida, and Antonio’s Revenge. The Dutch Courtezan is a wonderful comedy. Marston is rough. In him heaven and hell have become neighbours.

T. W. An attempt has recently been made to create an interest in Darley.473

P. Darley is very thin.

T. W. How can I get information respecting your early days?

P. Ask Mrs. Hutt and her daughter. They will help you.

Something that I said then led him to make remarks complimentary to the Turks.

T. W. Is there any hope for the regeneration of Turkey?

P. No, because there is not timber enough to hang the Eastern Christians.

Owing to Gladstone’s championship of the Bulgarians and others he used sometimes to call them in derision “the beautiful Eastern Christians.”

In “A Grave at Montmartre” (of all places!) he girds at them as “God’s Masterpiece,” and his terrible sonnet “Turk and Slav”474 may also be recalled. One of the reasons why he loved the Turks was “because they ‘very properly’ put a veto on the church bell-ringing nuisance, thereby obliging the ‘beautiful Eastern Christian’ to content himself with banging upon a sort of wooden gong​—​a nacous.”

When I observed that his sympathies, like those of Sir Richard Burton, were rather with Mohammedanism than Christianity, he said: “Every one must recognize the infinite charm of the personality of Christ. He revitalized old truths, for instance the idea of righteousness.”475

[436] Letters to T. W., No. 65.

[437] With this letter he sent me the addresses of his two brothers William and Harry and some of his friends, who he thought would like to hear of the formation of the John Payne Society. Mr. Harry Payne became one of the most enthusiastic members.

[438] This sonnet was also printed in Carol and Cadence, p. 173.

[439] Letters to Tracy Robinson, No. 15.

[440] The third edition had been issued the previous week. Referred to in Letters to T. W., No. 64.

[441] Page 175.

[442] Page 68.

[443] Page 71.

[444] Page 52.

[445] See Chapter XIII, pages 163 and 164.

[446] Letter to T. W., No. 67.

[447] Carol and Cadence, pp. 143–53.

[448] Washington Moon, as I very well knew, was no friend of Payne’s. All the same, Moon did a very valuable work, and I shall always hold his name in honour.

[449] It is a detailed biography, founded on manuscripts, letters and poems by Pater and his friends.

[450] It had been read by Payne and returned to me in a letter of 9 January, 1907. Letters to T. W., No. 66.

[451] Letters to T. W., No. 68.

[452] With his letter came a present of the proofs of the Renaissance Period, which he said would appear that week, and also a complete list of subscribers to his works.

[453] Letters of Watts-Dunton to T. W., No. 11.

[454] For Payne’s sonnet on Arnold see p. 192.

[455] Greek: Aphros, foam; Aphrodite, foam-born.

[456] Four words which I cannot decipher.

[457] See p. 191.

[458] Letters to T. W., No. 69.

[459] Title afterwards altered to Carol and Cadence.

[460] Letters to T. W., No. 70.

[461] Letters to T. W., No. 71.

[462] Letters to T. W., No. 72.

[463] De Banville died March 1891.

[464] In the sonnet on Vigil and Vision, p. 52, he quotes Senancour’s last words, “Eternity be thou my sanctuary.”

[465] See Collected Poems, ii. 256.

[466] Carol and Cadence, p. 222.

[467] Born 1850.

[468] Cf. Vigil and Vision, p. 82.

[469] In the sonnet “Mens Anglica,” Vigil and Vision, p. 82, he quotes Paul Bourget’s saying: “Les Anglais ont le fanatisme de la loyauté” (The English have the passion of fair play).

[470] Flowers of France, Romantic Period, i. 85.

[471] There is an interesting account of Beddoes in Mr. Gosse’s Critical Kit-Cats, p. 29.

[472] This I discovered afterwards by referring to my notes.

[473] George Darley (1795–1846), author of “Nepenthe,” and the lyric “It is not beauty I demand.” He also wrote some dramas which, in Swinburne’s phrase, have gone the way of all waxwork. See Quarterly Review, July 1902.

[474] Vigil and Vision, p. 103.

[475] Renan in his Life of Jesus (Chap. V) had made a similar observation.