Chapter XVI

Carol and Cadence


Another verse-flow came upon Payne at Christmas 1907, and continued through January and February 1908. He worked in a fury of white hot emotion. As the poetry poured out so he set it down. Early in the latter month, taking advantage of the state of his mind, I asked for a sonnet on Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, upon a biography of whom I was then engaged. On 13 February he wrote, “Here’s your sonnet, which came out unexpectedly this morning after I had well-nigh forgotten it”:

Thou wast of those with heart and hand who reared

Our England to her high imperial place,

And her therein maintained, despite the base

Curst crew, that fain upon the rocks had steered,

Her constant son, who none and nothing feared,

Nor at life’s hand asked any greater grace

Than leave to look far Danger in the face

And pluck rebated Peril by the beard.

As first, so last, the Fates to thee were kind,

Vouchsafing thee the true man’s most desire,

Occasion for the land thou lovedst so well,

Fighting to fall and on the desert wind

Pass, borne of Battle’s chariots of fire,

To where, death-shrined, the high-souled heroes dwell.476

On receiving the sonnet I asked him a question respecting the words “most desire.”

He replied, 14 February, 1908477: “‘Most desire’​—​this appears to startle you, probably because you do not bear in mind that most is properly an adjective, a fact obscured by our modern slipshoddishness and insincerity. I could give you any number of instances from Shakespeare, Sidney, etc. But you will soon get reconciled to it, specially if you try the experiment of replacing most by another word. You may trust me in the matter of English.”

Of course he misunderstood me. I did not mean that he was wrong. He was never that. I merely meant that he was too archaic. It was the servum pecus trouble over again.

In the same letter he said, “I am afraid I cannot undertake to read your Burnaby proofs [he afterwards consented to read some of them, and carried out his promise] as I am (and expect to be for some time to come) very busy with family matters and work for friends. Besides which, poetry is still oozing from every pore, sometimes very fast, as you will understand when I tell you that I have written 1,500 lines since Christmas.”

Carol and Cadence,478 which was in the hands of subscribers in March 1908, is in many respects Payne’s finest volume of poetry. In it he opens all the secret chambers of his heart. In it he expressed his strongest emotions (or rather they expressed themselves, for his hand was only the instrument), and emotions equivalent to them they inevitably provoke in the reader.

In its pages he returns to the department of literature in which he had no peer​—​that of ballad writing. Again and again I had urged him to this course. I had pointed out that beautiful as were his sonnets, important as they might be as treatises of philosophy in compendious form, prized as they must be by men of taste and culture, yet to the general reader he would certainly continue to be comparatively unknown unless he could return to his earlier methods, or adopt some other and more popular medium479 of expressing himself. “It was the ballad,” I said, “that first gave you fame; to the ballad, therefore, return.” As the result of my pleading Carol and Cadence is enriched with such treasures as “The Rime of Melisande,” “The Death of Hafiz,” and “The Wrath of Venus.” Very beautiful is the description in the first of these poems of the death of the lover-poet, Rudel. As the captain said:

He’ll never again the folk rejoice

With ditties dearer than gems of choice,

He’ll never again uplift his voice

Or sing to the laughing lute.

In the arms of his lady the dying poet thought himself already in Paradise:

He felt him pillowed upon her breast

And thought him already at rest, at rest

Encompanied round of the ransomed blest

In Paradise above.

He thanked God for the “gotten goal”:

He had lighted at last on the Golden Shore,

He had entered in at the Heavenly Door;

There was nothing on earth to live for more

And so in Heaven he died.

“The Death of Hafiz” carries the mind back to that great triumph of Payne’s muse, “The Prelude to Hafiz.” Noteworthy, too, is a fine poem called “Risus Solamen”​—​Laughter the sanctum​—​in which he says:

Laughter the lodge is in the wilderness

Whereto the hermit soul

Withdraws for shelter from life’s labouring stress.

To laughter, indeed, Payne invariably had recourse when he was angry with the world.480 I have often heard him, after a tirade against various persons and certain conditions of things, find refuge in this “sanctum”​—​and his laughter on such occasions, unlike that of his verse, which is sardonic, was always of the good-humoured, merry kind. He often referred me to “Scorn and Sympathy” and “In the Crucible” as summing up his attitude towards humanity, and it will be noticed that the motto to the former is Schopenhauer’s Unendliche Verachtung Unendliches Mitleid481 already referred to. In the portions of the volume called “The Book of Birds,” and “The Book of Beasts,” are revealed Payne’s continued love for his old favourites of the garden and the streets. He loved all the birds, even the hawfinch, that pirate in the brown bib, which with its toucan bill fed on his pears and drove away the blackbirds and other songsters. The cat and the donkey obtain, of course, more than their share of eulogy.

In “London Voices” his affection for the metropolis once more manifests itself, and on every page we are reminded of the quickness of his eye for anything great or small of natural beauty.

I said that the ballads were one of the great charms of this book; but after all it is not the ballads, beautiful as they are, which will most endear it to the sensitive reader. Its leading charm is the place occupied in it by the lady whom he had so persistently idealized​—​Helen Snee. Poem after poem is crowded with references to her, tribute after tribute is paid to the grace and loveliness of her person, the sweetness of her character and the beauty of her mind. In order that there should be no doubt whatever as to the identity of this lady he gives her Christian name, the date of her death, “Five lustres past,” and in another place “five times five years,” and tells​—​giving even minute particulars​—​the whole story of his passion for her​—​his exalted worship of her.

Two of the stanzas in which he recalls the terrible blow that her death dealt to him, we have already quoted.482

He further says:

You in June483 were born, in middle flower and suntime,

When the revel of the roses is most high.

I at August ending,484 hard on Summer done time,

When the world is growing grave for Autumn nigh.

But of all the poems on Helen Snee, the most beautiful and most affecting is that entitled “Her Grave.”485 She is buried, as we said, in Kensal Green (Catholic) Cemetery. Particularly touching are the following stanzas:

Quiet is the night

And the moon upon the graves is shining, shining:

And it’s oh, my love, my love, I’m pining, pining

For your sight!

About me and above,

The summertide is merry making, making,

And it’s oh, my heart, my heart is breaking, breaking

For my love!

* * * * *

Like waves upon the beach,

The grasses o’er your head are thronging, thronging:

And the soul in me, the soul is longing, longing

For your speech.

At your grave I bend the knee,

Where beneath the clay you sleep, your narrow cell in;

And with lips to earth, I whisper, “Helen! Helen!

“Speak to me!”

* * * * *

In the moon’s unearthly light,

Through your covering-stone, pellucid seeming, seeming,

Methinks I see your forehead’s dreaming, dreaming

Arch of white.

And in the pearl-grey skies,

Where the moon whiles veils her figure, slender, slender,

Methinks I see the grey so tender, tender

Of your eyes.

You left me long agone

For the sleep that hath no earthly waking, waking:

And it’s oh, my heart, my heart is aching, aching

For the dawn!

* * * * *

You were young and I am old;

But, when age and youth in death are meeting, meeting,

Both from memory as a tale go fleeting, fleeting,

That is told.

I shall know you, when you rise,

With your seraph-garments round you streaming, streaming,

By your turn of head and by the beaming, beaming

Of your eyes.

But scarcely less beautiful are the references to her in the poem called “Alas!”

I saw a woman with your eyes to-day,

My love, long lost unto my sorry sight;

Your graceful, tender, bird-like turn of head,

Your very same half-hesitating play

Of humour round the lips, your delicate

Rose-campion mouth and forehead wild flower-white,

Your dainty trick of speech, my love long dead,

Your very voice she had, and kind child air.

I deemed you dead and buried long ago,

Nought left of you except two words on stone.486

He further tells us that she used to come back to him in dreams and visions, and when I read that I understood his disquietude when I made fun of Sir Richard Burton’s apparition.487

To quote all the references to her, however, would be to give almost half the book. Carol and Cadence, in short, is Payne’s Vita Nuova. It is a great book, a book to take to heart. No other volume gives so clear a presentment of his extraordinary mentality. At the end of Carol and Cadence is the announcement: “In Preparation: ‘Volund the Smith,’ ‘The Lovers of Ravenna,’ ‘Marien-Kindchen and other Romances in Verse.’” A translation of the poems of Leopardi is also promised; but none of these projects seems to have materialized.

A review of Carol and Cadence, which appeared in the Birmingham Daily Post, gave Payne unusual pleasure. After appreciative comments on a number of the poems it said: “To realize the heights to which Payne can rise upon occasion, one must turn to such another as the ‘De Profundis.’488 A poet has a right to be judged by his best work. Mr. Payne’s best is the best that any living poet has to offer.”

In a P.S. to the letter to me of 6 March, 1908,489 Payne observed: “It is the most appreciative review that has appeared of me for many years. It might, therefore, be useful for John Payne Society purposes.” The review not only gave him pleasure, it encouraged him to write poems which otherwise would never have been written.

Oh, if only the leading literary reviews had been equally encouraging! But they seemed ignorant of his very existence. How the world wastes its great men! How busy it is placing bays on the brows of peddlers!

I would here warn any future student of Payne of a certain joke, at the expense of the public, to which he was addicted​—​that of ascribing mottoes to Cicero and other authors that are not to be found in their pages. A number of these quotations, as he admitted to me, were of his own composition. It would, therefore, be a waste of time to try to verify them. In Payne, indeed​—​and the same could be said of most other great poets​—​there was much of the child. With all his genius and learning​—​indeed, because of it​—​he was a big baby.490 Another childish feature in his character was his impatience. Whatever he wanted done, had to be done at that moment, and he could even be petty at times.

If to a woman he has paid some of the finest tributes that ever escaped from human lips, on the other hand few writers have said of women anything more bitter. He fully endorsed the teaching of the story of Pandora which is that when the gods made man they, in order to defend themselves against the “creature new,” created “a check and woman made to clog his wings.”491 He also held and expressed himself in a sentence that seems reminiscent of Lyly, that women, who are the immediate tools by which nature shapes her aims, “Do for the most part love and tender fools.”492 “Woman, as wine,” he tells us in Ibn et Tefrid,493 “is the prize of the boor.” Quatrains 47 and 48 of the same poem run:

God woman, when Heaven and Earth He created,


And afterthoughts oft by success vindicated

Are not.

His thought may have, lads in providing with lasses,

Been kind

But why He should make them so crooked, it passes

My mind.

Like the man in the Arabian Nights, however, Payne was not one “who deemeth all women to be alike.” Indeed, he was humane enough to write to me, “No man would wish to kill even the worst woman,” adding, however, “but many even of the best of the sex are better for an occasional dose of the argumentum baculinum.494

He had noticed that the wives of nearly all his principal friends tormented their husbands. “Nearly all the miseries that have befallen empires,” he said, “have resulted from intemperate love of some woman,”495 and yet how fiercely he turned on the murderers of the Queen of Servia in his sonnet headed “June llth, 1903”!

I had asked Payne to look over the proof sheets of my Life of Fred Burnaby, but he declined on account of overwork. Evidently, however, he subsequently consented to read portions of them, for on 25 May, 1908,496 he writes: “I return proof corrected. I think it was during the election campaign of 1874 that Disraeli spoke those memorable words about the Grand Old Gammoner, but am not quite sure. Verse still trickling fitfully and a new volume, Flower o’ the Thorn, ready for the press, but whether and when I shall print it I do not know. At present I am too completely discouraged and disgusted to think of a new campaign. I have had a severe attack of influenza and am still, after six weeks, in a state of mental and physical prostration, but start for three weeks’ sea-side on Wednesday, which I hope will pick me up a bit.”

On 22 July, 1908, I received my first letter from the Golden Sister, and many other letters followed. She was kindness itself, and whenever I wanted help for the John Payne Society she was swift to render it.

On 30 July, 1908, I visited Payne at the usual time at 10 Oxford Road. I noticed that his eyebrows were still dark (they were so long497 that Daisy Hutt, when a little child, used to curl them), but that his beard was quite gray. He was within a few days of sixty-six. The weather was hot​—​77 degrees, I remember, in the shade​—​and I was amused to see him spraying the room with eau-de-cologne. He said there was nothing like that for cooling a place.

He read to me a number of his new poems, which later appeared in Flower o’ the Thorn, and also the pretended translation, consisting of 131 stanzas, entitled The Quatrains of Ibn et Tefrid, which he issued that year as a paper-covered booklet of 36 pages.

Ibn et Tefrid is described in the Prefatory note as an inhabitant of Demawend, near Teheran, and he is made the subject of a long and circumstantial biography, but I may as well at once say that no such being ever existed. The invention of this personage was merely one more of Payne’s little jokes at the expense of a public whom I am afraid he still despised and pitied. These quatrains, indeed, are an original poem by Payne himself. Many of them are most musical, though Payne the philosopher is as much to the fore as Payne the poet. They present an estimate of life something after the fashion of FitzGerald’s Omar Kheyyam. One proof of the power of the poem is the fact that many of the stanzas cling like burrs to the memory, as for example:

If God of my mind is, the little birds’ singing

So clear

He rather than all the priests’ chants and bell-ringing

Would hear.

He agreed with me that only children and savages love noises. Then again:

The huckster, the hustler, when forced to live lonely,

Go mad;

But the thinker, the dreamer, in solitude only

Are glad.

The fourth stanza runs:

I’ve always accounted this earth where we languish

For hell;

It answers the picture of it and its anguish

So well.

But when I read this I am apt to recall that dinner of partridges and mushrooms, to which on an earlier page I alluded. In Payne’s desert​—​the earth where he languished​—​there were certainly some verdant and very pleasant oases. Then, too, he did not always live up to his teaching, for in stanza 123 he says:

The word of the puzzle (to sum up the matter)

Is, while

Thou livest, to take what Life lays on thy platter

And smile.

In the middle of the poem will be found a number of stanzas498 which gird at FitzGerald. I considered them entirely unworthy of him and begged him to delete them, as well as several which refer to the Deity in a way that could only give pain to many readers. He defended these stanzas with acerbity, but afterwards, in respect to those relating to FitzGerald, he yielded to my request. The others he modified. If the reader compares this 1st edition with the 2nd edition, which was issued in 1910, he will notice the alterations to which I refer. He said subsequently to his sister Mrs. Pritchard, “Wright’s advice was sound, after all.”

But, if in deference to my feelings he deleted certain stanzas, he introduced others to which I took equal exception, as

No God who’s a spirit for flesh and blood troubles

Might care.

As well expect Ocean to tender the bubbles

Of air.

Believing, as I most firmly do, in a Providence that watches over and directs all who call upon Him, stanzas of that kind were necessarily repugnant to me. On this subject we had in conversation more than once touched, but as on each occasion he displayed extreme irritation, I endeavoured to avoid it. Although unsatisfactory as a whole​—​for it is spoilt by the influence of Heine at his worst​—​Ibn et Tefrid contains many forcible and extremely beautiful stanzas. Both editions were issued anonymously.499

Payne, as I said, first read Ibn et Tefrid to me on 30 July, 1908. On the same occasion he read “In the Crucible,”500 and then made the following remarks respecting his method of work​—​or rather his absence of method, for he regarded himself only as the instrument. He said, “I sow seed, I have no control over the flower,” and then: “How complex one must be to get real simplicity. This idea is exactly expressed in the sonnet​—​a very illuminating sonnet​—​which I have just read. My favourite resort is Kensington Gardens.501 I wrote ‘Land of the Midnight Calm’502 on the bridge over Regent’s Canal, Edgware Road, Maida Vale, and ‘Sundown’503 on the railway bridge near Maida Vale Station, Kilburn. I have treated London under all aspects.”

The conversation then ran on to literature in general. “Dryden,” he said, “stands for improvements. He is a. maker of technique. He is the Beethoven of poetry. He has vanished except as a milestone in the history of literature, but we are very much beholden to him all the same.” Payne had, in earlier days, been a lover of Dryden, whom in “Love Solicitous”504 he had called:

Our English amorist.

Well skilled the tangles of the wildering maze

Of loveful thought to loose and wind again,

Our minnesinger of the latter days,

Who said, nor said in vain,

“All other pleasures are not worth its pain.”505

Manfred” he continued, “is Byron’s best book. It stands above all his other poems as heaven stands above earth. He had got something that he could feel only in verse.506 As a rule what Byron wrote in verse could be expressed just as well in prose. Shelley was at his best in his short lyrics and in ‘Adonais.’ He had not sufficient strength of wing for the longer flights. I cannot place him by Keats.”

Speaking of Buckinghamshire he said​—​and I do not know whence he got his idea​—​“It is the county of snakes.”

On 8 August, 1908,507 I received from him a letter in which he deals with my criticisms of Ibn et Tefrid. He says: “First, as a matter of principle the alterations you suggest are not “improvements” as matters of refinement and burnishment, but of sheer watering, weakening, and debasement. Artistically considered the quatrains should stand as they are. Their chief charm is in the inextricable blend of reckless (if you like, brutal) humour with pathos and subtlety, ‘the sublime hiding behind the masque of the grotesque.’ On the other hand I thoroughly allow that concessions must be made to the timidity and narrowness of the publisher and public, though I expect it all to end in smoke. So here goes animo liberato.

“(1) Omissions: I quite agree that 44, 59, 68, 73, 74 and 117 had better be omitted; but I do not see your reason for objecting to 116 and 118. God in the former manifestly does not mean the head of the Hebrew Olympus. (2) Alterations [he appends a long list chiefly of concessions to my objections and then goes on]: Of course you know I am not a supernaturalist. If I believed in your ‘Almighty’ (whom, as a matter of fact, I regard as no more worthy of respect or consideration than any other of the innumerable Gods invented by the weakness and folly of humanity for their own amusement and mystification) my attitude towards him would be, not that of Job (who was a decent chap and a good pessimist in his way), ‘but though he slay me, yet will I scorn him,’ the necessary attitude of the philosopher who feels the soul to be the one thing immortal and who is, therefore, on the hither side of God and religions​—​jenseits aller Götter. As to Pessimism, the Optimist is like the traditional ostrich, and burying his head in the sand of theology imagines himself unseen because he cannot see; he is afraid to face the facts of life because they are unpleasant, and so narcotizes himself into the desired unthinking complacency by the use of theological and metaphysical opiates such as St. Paul, Tennyson, and Browning. Pessimist is the silly nickname (about equivalent to the name ‘Jingo,’ fastened by the pro-Boer on the patriot) bestowed by the Optimist upon the independent thinker who has arrived at the truth by an agony and bloody sweat of intellectual toil and moral suffering inconceivable to his libeller, and who has the sad and stern courage to look life in the face and accept its good and its evil as alike contemptible, finding his only solace in nature, and in that tragic power of laughter, which alone renders life in this hideous world possible to such as he. His attitude towards humanity is not one of hate, but pity, love and scorn. Infinite pity and infinite contempt. See my sonnet, p. 177, and ‘Risus Solamen,’ p. 264, Carol and Cadence, also many other passages, especially of Vigil and Vision. No spiritual good ever came of Optimism. It is necessary for carrying on the material, mechanical work of the world (if the servum pecus could see life as it really is, they would despair and die, not being strong enough to laugh and live); but all the spiritual work, all the great artistic and mental work of the world has been done by the so-called ‘pessimist’ from Job, the Ecclesiast, and Plato to Wagner and Schopenhauer. Verb. sap.

“P.S. Any other omissions you might suggest I would, of course, consider.”

It may here be said that although we could talk freely, as we often did talk, on the subject of the Bible, on orthodox religion we could never talk. At the mere mention of the subject the air suddenly became electric, he railed at “Semitic Optimism” and at the “foetor Judaicus,” and hurled at my unfortunate person bombs from Omar Kheyyam, Ferdausi, the Upanishad, the Kathopanishad, the Atmapuranopanishad,508 and Heaven knows what.

On 22 August a meeting of the John Payne Society was held at Olney in honour of Payne’s sixty-sixth birthday​—​although the actual day was, of course, the 23rd. Messages from Payne and Sir Edward Ross were read and Mr. John Casey and Mr. W. F. Kirby delivered addresses. Reference was made to the new translation Seif ben Dhi Yezn, upon which Payne was engaged, and several of Payne’s poems were recited.

On 13 August (1908)509 Mrs. Pritchard wrote from Switzerland to tell me that she would do all in her power in the interests of the Society, in the hopes that by its efforts her “dear and wonderful brother would take the great and unique place his genius deserves.”

She concluded: “I would ask you kindly not to let my brother see this letter, as he is so extremely sensitive on the point of self-advertising, and I am so nearly related to him. Thanking you for your disinterested and enthusiastic appreciation of fine work,

“Believe me, sincerely yours,

A. H. Mostyn Pritchard.

[476] This sonnet was afterwards included in Flower o’ the Thorn, p. 135.

[477] Letters to T. W., No. 73.

[478] The dedication is “Ad Arrigo Boito Amicizia ed ammirazione.” Arrigo Boito, the composer, died at Milan 10 June, 1918.

[479] I subsequently learnt that some twenty-four years previous Matthew Arnold had given Payne similar advice. Arnold had written: “The sonnet is an alluring form, but I doubt if it does not, when too much followed, disincline one for others, which, after all, can do what it cannot do.” See p. 43.

[480] See also p. 153. Cf. “Without laughing my spleene would split.” John Lyly: Mother Bombie.

[481] See p. 174.

[482] P. 66.

[483] 15 June.

[484] 23 August.

[485] P. 134.

[486] Notice, too, the pathetic “In Vain,” p. 250.

[487] See p. 176.

[488] Page 253.

[489] Letters to T. W., No. 74.

[490] A real genius never grows old.

[491] Vigil and Vision. See also Ibn et Tefrid, 1st ed., p. 51, and compare Omar Kheyyam’s quatrain:

No man in this our world a rose cheeked fair attaineth to

But, by Fate’s spite, his heart a thorn of care attaineth to.

[492] Vigil and Vision, p. 89. “Fools please women best.” Lyly: Mother Bombie.

[493] First ed., q. 41.

[494] That is to say, for a touch of the stick. Written on Galley No. 40 of my Life of Sir R. Burton.

[495] See also Vigil and Vision, p. 85.

[496] Letters to T. W., No. 74.

[497] This was a characteristic of the family. Payne’s father’s eyebrows were so long that his daughter Frances used to cut them.

[498] Sixty-nine to seventy-six.

[499] Payne gave me a copy of the 1st edition on 30 July, 1908, and a copy of the 2nd on 26 August, 1910.

[500] Carol and Cadence, p. 177.

[501] See Carol and Cadence, p. 84.

[502] Flower o’ the Thorn, p. 4.

[503] Songs of Life and Death, p. 107; Collected Poems, ii. 251.

[504] Songs of Consolation, p. 110.

[505] Tyrannic Love, Act IV, Scene 1:

Pains of love be sweeter far

Than all other pleasures are.

[506] It is interesting to compare with these words the eulogy of Manfred in Turck’s work, The Man of Genius, English translation, 1914.

[507] Letter to T. W., No. 76.

[508] See his Omar Kheyyam, pp. xlix, lv, 14, 73.

[509] Letters of Mrs. Pritchard to T. W., No. 1.