Chapter XVII

Flower o’ the Thorn


On Saturday, 10 April, 1909, died Algernon Charles Swinburne, the only poet of the day who could be regarded as Payne’s equal. Payne felt keenly the loss of one with whom he had been for so many years on the most intimate terms, and it may be noted that the dedication of his next volume of verse, Flower o’ the Thorn, is to Swinburne’s “beloved memory.”

Sometimes Payne took his friends, or rather they took him, to concerts at Queen’s Hall and other places. It was on one of these occasions that he made the remark “To me all the arts are one.” If Payne liked the performance all went well, but he was most intolerant of what he called “inferior stuff.” When he did not approve, everybody around him had to know, and it was more than his friends could do to keep him quiet. The complacency of the rest of the audience also exasperated him.

“Never mind,” once said one of his friends, “perhaps they like it”​—​a remark which did not mend matters, for Payne never allowed anybody to have an opinion of his own. Sometimes his feelings were so churned up that he could no longer contain himself, and he would then break away from his friends and stalk ostentatiously out in the direction of a favourite resort, where he would console himself with oysters. In short he was “a Tartar to take out.”

On my observing to Mrs. Byam, Payne’s sister, “It is curious that a man so abnormally shy should act so boldly at a concert,” she said: “But this shyness and audacity went side by side nevertheless. You see, at the concerts the personal touch was wanting. He was audacious in a crowd, but if it was a question of intruding himself on a person, or of a person intruding upon him, he was panic-stricken.”

In the meantime the hopes built on Flower o’ the Thorn had been cruelly dashed. The book had been printed, like many of his previous works, by E. J. Brill, of Leyden in Holland, and the edition had been limited to 300 copies of which 50 were on large paper, the prices being 7s. 6d. and 21s. respectively. The prospectuses had been sent out early in the year, but on 13 May510 he wrote to me: “The new book Flower o’ the Thorn has gone the way of the rest and more so, only 40 copies having been subscribed; so there will be no more books from me, as the public choose to fine me heavily for daring to write what is not wanted. It will be out by the end of the month.

“The winter has tried me more than usual, having produced grave symptoms of heart and liver trouble, but I am slightly better than I was. The cats are well, and the frost coming on I am in my prime of youth intellectually; but the physical burden of life weighs more hardly upon me every day.”

I may here say that I did not altogether sympathize with Payne’s attitude towards the public. He made £4,000 by his translation of the Nights, and he must by his other translations have made at least another £2,000. Payne the Translator had therefore no reason to complain (nor did he). As for Payne the Poet​—​the true Poet never has been paid and never will be. His fame, too, is almost invariably post-mortem. In Payne’s garden were bay-trees and pear-trees. The bays never grew pears.

In reply to his letter of 13 May I wrote on 22 May as follows:

Dear Mr. Payne,​—

“I ought to have begun ‘Dear King John,’ for whereas there were till lately (to use Cowper’s expression) ‘Two Kings of Brentford on one throne,’511 there is now, Swinburne being dead, only you. I am grieved to hear that your new volume of poems has met with so little success but still more grieved to hear that you have heart and liver trouble. For your own sake, for the sake of literature, for the sake of us all, take every possible care of yourself. In particular get all the fresh air you can, and do not neglect exercise. Don’t let the indifference of the public affect you. Dance to every mood. As for your place in literature, I have never, as you know, had any doubts. Good work is bound to be recognized ultimately. A few years ago people were crying up Tennyson, Browning, Newman (for his prose) and even smaller fry. Now the fiat has gone forth that Pater, Arnold, FitzGerald and Meredith were the only gods. Well, I have myself (by means of my works) had a hand in directing public opinion. Few give me credit for it, but that doesn’t matter. The fact remains, and I shall din John Payne into the unwilling heads of the public until they at last recognize your merit. By and by they will say: ‘Oh, we all knew John Payne was a great poet. We didn’t want Mr. Wright to tell us that.’ Well you know the world, and you are independent of it. I’ve told them that FitzGerald, Arnold and Pater are greater than Tennyson, Browning and Newman (who is a mere insect); and I take it to be my business to tell them that Payne is as high above FitzGerald, Arnold and Pater as these three are above Tennyson, Browning and Newman.”

There is much more, for the letter was a very long one, but I have given sufficient to show how I used to deal with Payne’s fits of despondency.

I was just then arranging for a meeting of the Cowper Society at Lincoln’s Inn, and I asked Payne to write a poem on Cowper as a law-student at the Temple, but he did not see his way to comply.

A little later Flower o’ the Thorn appeared and was found to contain some of his finest work. It is divided into two parts “Arcadia in Urbe” and “Sun and Shadow.” The former concerns itself chiefly with the London he so dearly loved​—​Kensington’s green gardens, with their peacocks,512 the “Lighted Windows,” the lilac against the garden wall, the pigeons in the street, the “Organ-Dancers” and many another city scene.

In the opening poem, “Sun and Shadow,” he compares the youth of former days with those of the twentieth century, greatly to the disadvantage of the latter, whom he calls “but puppets in the peep-show of the present”; but it is only fair to the present generation of young men to say that his views entirely changed when the Great War broke out in 1914.

The philosophic “Aim of Life” is followed by the patriotic “Britannia coram Barbaris,” in which he foresaw the terrible struggle which six years later was to rend the continent. In this splendid outburst he says:

I have loved thee, mighty Mother, since I grew to understand

What a glory is thy story, what a healer is thy hand,

What a shadeless splendour hovers o’er thy proud imperial head,

What a halo flames and flowers round the memories of thy dead.

The enormous strength of Germany led him to say:

Sad the day will be for Europe, sadder for the subject world,

When thy lions cease to ramp it, when thy rainbow flag is furled,

When the empery of the nations passes from the nations’ friend,

From the frank, free-hearted Briton to the sour, sardonic Wend.

Then his pride of England towering above all other thoughts, he exclaims:

Yet despite his strength and cunning, little cause there were to dread,

This thy new rapacious foeman, if as sovereign Shakespeare said,

To ourselves and thee, our Mother, we thy children rest but true,

If the heart of England olden beat again in England new.

He cannot believe, however, that England will pass and perish from her “place beneath the sun,” and leave her “heritage of honour to the Vandal and the Hun”; but if, indeed, it is fore-ordered “that her course is near its close,” he prays that she may not perish by inches, but “die” with the corpses of her haters for her “catafalque heaped high.” Lyrist, ballad-writer, sonneteer, Payne is also the British Tyrtaeus.

As we have already observed, the great poet has from earliest time been also a seer. Indeed the two terms have come to be regarded almost as synonymous. We have seen how forty-seven years previous to the commencement of the Great War he prophesied that England would take her stand by the side of France. He prophesied also the defeat of Russia by Japan, and in the poem just quoted he displays all the qualities of the traditional seer. Other instances of his prescience could be given.

As might be expected the volume contains a poem on Nietzsche, to whom he doles out both praise and censure.

Nietzsche, I love thee not; thine every page

With insults to my Gods my teeth doth set

On edge and flouts my fondest faiths.

And yet he cannot but love him​—​for his “thought-awakening word.”

Good or ill,

My soul it floods with fertilizing strife

And makes me know myself and what I will.

The last poem “Lethe” will cling in every reader’s memory:

Our deeds, our words undying are. In vain

Endeavour is to efface the done and said.

Yet fabled ’tis that, when a man is dead

And to the shadow land, the world inane,

He comes, he finds a river round the plain

With slack flood flowing, drowsed and dull as lead,

Whereto he may bow down his heavy head

And drink forgetfulness of joy and pain.

An idle tale! If we live after death,

Thought will live on with us and memory

Of all that in this world of mortal breath

We did and said and suffered: all that Life

Of pain and pleasance, solace had and strife,

Will dure with us to all eternity.

To the woe that for so many years proved the Grave of his Songs there are touching references both in “Phantom Quest”513 and “Walls of Severance.”514

He issued privately in 1909 some political skits called Humoristica, First and Second Series. The First Series consists of attacks in the shape of adaptations of Nursery Rhymes against various members of the Liberal Party, among those included being Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Augustine Birrell, Campbell-Bannerman (that hyphen again!), Asquith, F. C. Gould, John Burns, John Morley, Jeremiah Flavin and Keir Hardie. There are also verses on the modern murderers of sleep​—​“The Night Cabman,” “The Coal-man” and others. The booklet is signed “Castigat Ridendo.”515

In the Second Series are more verses against the murderers of sleep​—​“Midnight Revels” and the “Modern Juggernaut” (The Motor Bus) for example, but the tirades are mainly directed against the Liberal leaders and others, the names in addition to those mentioned in the first series being Dr. Macnamara, W. Redmond, Herbert Samuel, T. W. Russell, Bob Reid, Will Robson, Hilaire Belloc, George Bernard Shaw, James Bryce, and T. P. O’Connor. The Bishop of London (Ingram) and Sir Oliver Lodge are let off lightly. Rudyard Kipling’s offence consisted chiefly in his “brain-abraiding name,” but he is allowed to be a “clever and unassuming writer.”

Mr. (now Sir) A. T. Quiller-Couch, another unblushing hyphener, is addressed in the following lines:


Mr. Couch, since your name is A. T.,

Why carry a deck-load of “Quiller”?

Why pile up four names upon three,

Mr. Couch, since your name is A. T.?

What ship to Posterity’s sea

Ever steered with a hyphen for tiller?

Mr. Couch, since your name is A. T.,

Why carry a deck-load of “Quiller”?

Against the Jews he is exceptionally bitter. In imagination he hears them singing the “Hebrew National Anthem: ‘I’d love to be an agent and with the agents stand,’” and there is a reference to “the late Dean Farrar’s comic life of Christ.”

I was at this time engaged on biographies of William Huntington, Joseph Hart, Augustus Toplady and Isaac Watts. I did not send copies to Payne for I knew he would not read them. He had no sympathy whatever with my Evangelicalism​—​shall I say my Calvinism! In the margin of my Life of Burton he wrote: “Exaggerated Protestantism is to me worse than the other thing.” To Romanism he was always, much as he despised its tenets, a little indulgent, and I have no doubt the fact that Mrs. Snee was nominally516 a Catholic influenced him to some extent. Even in his essay on Dolet,517 done to death by the Romanists, he shows some leniency towards Mrs. Snee’s religion. At the same time for the pretensions of the priests and the stories of the saints he had the utmost contempt. He called “the tale of Joan of Arc” “pure trash.”518

At the house of his old friend Dr. Nix, 11 Weymouth Street, Portland Place, Payne was a frequent visitor. He used to go every Sunday evening and would stay till midnight chatting or reading aloud his poems. It is true that with Dr. Nix, who was an advocate of fresh air and plenty of it, Payne did not see eye to eye, but he had for Mrs. Nix and her cookery a profound respect, and he loved the children, who came to regard him almost as a second father. Even Bishop Latimer was not fonder of a pudding519 than was Payne, and he spoke of Mrs. Nix’s puddings and pastry as he would of other poems for which he had a vast appreciation​—​those, for example, of Keats and Beddoes. He nursed all the children at different times in their long clothes, and when they grew to be big children he used to like to take all the family to a lobster supper at Pagani’s in Great Portland Street. Indeed, every Bank Holiday he insisted on either a lobster supper at Pagani’s (“the usual table” always, if possible, being engaged), or an oyster supper at Dr. Nix’s​—​his custom being to order 150 oysters to be sent to the house a day or two before the great event. But for the wind​—​and he called Dr. Nix’s “The House of the Four Winds”​—​11 Weymouth Street would have been heaven below. To this drawback he alludes in a letter of 14 November, 1909, written to the eldest daughter, Mrs. Cunnington.520 He says: “Dear Ida,​—​I am nursing a baddish cold and hope by stopping at home to-night (what weather!) to keep it from becoming one of my ‘peculiars,’ which would mean a week of abject misery. Would I could pass it to Winnie or our Dave! [Winston Churchill and Lloyd George.] I suppose the governor is sleeping on the roof-top à l’oriental, in order to enjoy his favourite weather to the full. I hope you are giving him the full benefit of it indoors, having all the doors and windows nicely open so that the balmy breezes may percolate freely through his organism and chasten the bacilli. I hear that Shackleton contemplates camping out for a week or two in Portland Place, as a preparatory training for the Antarctic Pole, where the climate is much of the same type.

“Yours affectionately,

John Payne.

As of old, Dr. Nix refused to see the dark side of things. There wasn’t a dark side. He himself was all cheerfulness. His patients welcomed him. His medicines operated before they were taken. He was, in short, an incurable optimist. He even took his fees cheerfully. Curiously enough, Dr. Nix’s salient characteristic appealed forcibly to Payne, who once said to him: “All doctors are useless unless they cheer you up.”

To Payne’s dislike of double-barrelled names reference has several times been made in these pages. He went so far as to make a little book of them, which he carried about in his pocket, and he would read them out at Dr. Nix’s, amid roars of laughter. “Have you found a new one?” he would ask almost every time he went to the “House of the Four Winds.” “Here is a gem,” Mrs. Nix said to him one day, “Arthur Wigglesworth-Owen.” Payne burst out with uncontrollable laughter​—​that laughter which was so infectious, the whole family joining in, and with his eyes glued to his note-book he entered the delicious name of Arthur Wigglesworth-Owen.

Occasionally he and Dr. Nix went on an excursion to the New Forest together; but Payne, as already hinted, was not an unmixed joy to take out, for he was most outspoken in his criticisms of persons they passed​—​especially if they happened to be dressed inappropriately, and he used to take upon himself to alter the displayed advertisements on hoardings if they displeased him. On one of these the public were urged to “Try Lipton’s Tea. There is nothing like it.” Underneath Payne wrote, in bold letters, “Thank God!”

In the summer of this year Payne, Dr. Nix, Colonel Stephans (an old fellow-student of Dr. Nix’s) and Dr. Nix’s daughters Ethel and Christine went for a yachting trip.521 They started from Southampton and did the south coast, visiting among other places Bournemouth, Portland, Plymouth, Fowey and Falmouth.

[510] Letters to T. W., No. 78.

[511] Cowper, Task, i. 78.

[512] Flower o’ the Thorn, p. 21.

[513] Page 137.

[514] Page 138.

[515] Which may be translated, “Laughter, the whip.”

[516] In her letter of 10 May, 1876, to O’Shaughneasy, she asks him to take from her a sovereign to her mother. She adds: “Do not give more, it would only find its way into the pockets of Catholic priests.”

[517] MS. Essay on Dolet, p. 35.

[518] Humoristica, Second Series, p. 40.

[519] “You could draw me all round the town with a pudding,” said Latimer.

[520] Afterwards (20 January, 1912) Mrs. Romeu.

[521] The yacht was lent by one of Dr. Nix’s patients.