Chapter XVIII



In January 1910 Payne removed from 10 Oxford Road to a larger house with a conservatory and a large garden​—​Kingswood, Mortimer Crescent, Kilburn Priory, and while there he commenced his translation of the poems of Heine. I was very sorry to learn that he had left his old home, in which so much of his best work had been done, and which had for me so many pleasant memories. It seemed like tearing up a tree by the roots, and I think he himself sometimes regretted the change.

I asked whether the removal of so many books did not worry him. “No,” he said, “I gave minute directions to my servant, and then went away for a fortnight. When I returned everything in the new house was ship-shape.”

He further informed me that his principal reason for moving was to get a little further away from the church bells and the motor buses. The bells and the cars were to Payne what the demon fowls were to Carlyle.

Among the pleasantest of my visits to Payne that year was the one made on 29 August, a sweltering hot day, after my return to London from Sidmouth where I had been collecting materials for my biography of Toplady. He had erected a tent on the burnt lawn and we sat in it and chatted. The ritual at tea-time was more elaborate than ever. He used on this occasion two tea-pots, each seven and a half inches high. They looked, however, more like coffee-pots. He called them Ridgeway’s Hawthornden, and he advised me to get a pair like them. When the impressive function was over, the following conversation ensued.

P. I am sixty-eight and my health is steadily declining.522

T. W. You look younger than I. I am quite gray, whereas your moustache is brown and your eyebrows are still jet black.

P. My friend Sir George Lewis523 accused me of dyeing them. I said, “Haven’t I done it well to leave some gray hairs!”

T. W. I have been taken for seventy. (I was fifty-one.)

P. That is nonsense. Your full beard and blue glasses make you look six years older, no more.

He then read to me the second edition of Ibn et Tefrid and gave me the copy. We talked next of his translation of Heine, and at my request he read me a number of the poems, all of which were written on folio sheets of flimsy paper. He told me that the work owed its completion to the urgent instance of Sir Edward Burne-Jones.524

T. W. There is a great freshness in these poems.

P. I always enter into the very spirit of any writer I translate. In this work I intend to incorporate a few translations from Heine made when I was a boy.

T. W. Which are Heine’s best poems?

P. Those which he wrote on his deathbed. Heine is the first poet of Germany. His only rival is Goethe. No woman could appreciate Heine. Indeed you would not like her if she could.

When reading, Payne every now and then fell into his old habit of shrugging his left shoulder​—​evidence, as I have already noticed, of nervous delight. The orange tie flamed under his chin, and between the poems he removed his magenta handkerchief to rub his glasses.

P. Heine is thoroughly spontaneous. The love-poems were written to his first sweetheart Amelie. “I think,” he said, with an accent of conviction, “I am Heine redivivus.”

T. W. Heine is to Germany what Burns is to Scotland.

P. Much more. Burns is merely a humorist.525 His poetry is utter commonplace. Heine has often been translated, but never before by a poet.

He then read “The Two Grenadiers.”

T. W. The death of Swinburne must have been a shock to you?

P. When I heard that he was ill, I wrote to Watts [Payne would still never say Watts-Dunton], expressed sympathy and said I would gladly call if it would be agreeable to him. He replied courteously, but took no notice of my hint.

Payne then talked of his early days.526 “My greatest friend,” he said, “was Max Eberstadt,527 secretary to Sir Ernest Cassel. Sir George Lewis’s528 wife was Eberstadt’s twin sister. My friend Cazalis,529 who was doctor at Aix-les-Bains and practised in winter at Paris, where I stayed with him, came to see me last April. Dear old thing! He embraced me French fashion. He died last June (1910). To return to my manuscript, Heine seems so formless after Leconte de Lisle.”

After reading “The Blue Eyes,” “New Spring,” and other translations from Heine, he talked of his boyhood at Bristol, and Bristol scenes and associations. He called Chatterton “a poor poet.”

Of Payne’s sufferings from insomnia we have already spoken. By this time they had become well-nigh unbearable, and in September he went to Harrogate in order to try whether the hot baths would do him any good.

Mrs. Pritchard, who was then an invalid, and her nurse Miss Brereton, were also to visit Harrogate, and it was arranged that Payne should meet them at the station. He was not there, but they came upon him some little way off, peering characteristically into a draper’s window, Marshall and Snelgrove’s, the contents of which had so interested him that he had forgotten the appointment.

He stayed at Harrogate several weeks, but derived no benefit from his visit.

On 23 November occurred the death of his brother William.

Early in 1911 I asked him to write a sonnet on Dryden and another poem dealing with Cowper, but as the following letter shows, I was unsuccessful.

He says, 11 January, 1911530: “I am afraid there is no chance of a sonnet. Dryden is outside my range, and all I could say of Cowper I have already done.

“Heine, as you will see by enclosed, is being launched, but it will depend upon subscriptions,” he said, “whether it will be printed. I do not intend to spend any more money upon the stupid and ungrateful public. Insomnia very bad. Hot baths531 no use in my case. I tried them long ago. The best remedy I know is a piece of cake or the like eaten about one o’clock a.m. That often gives me a few hours’ sleep. As you know, I have all my life been an open-air and exercise man, practically all my poems having been composed on the march and mostly in the London streets. To this I attribute my comparative youthfulness, notwithstanding extreme frailty of physique.”

For some time Payne had had difficulties with his servant Parsley, and he was in daily expectation that Parsley would give him notice. How highly strung was Payne’s organism we have again and again pointed out, but it will hardly be believed that when on 11 March, 1911, Parsley gave the expected notice, his master turned white and fainted.

I, too, was sorry when I heard of the departure of that sleek-looking impassive janitor whom I had come to regard as much a part of the establishment as the little Chinaman or even as Payne himself. Parsley, too, one thinks, must sometimes have regretted the change.

By this time Payne’s cat Top, who was aged, had lost its teeth, and a visitor to Mortimer Crescent suggested that it should be destroyed.

“Have it destroyed!” burst out Payne in astonishment, “I wonder you did not ask me to have my grandmother destroyed when she was in the same condition.” A little later, however, Top dealt with the difficulty himself, for he died at the advanced age of eighteen.

In May 1911 Payne and the Nix family were agitated about a certain kitten which belonged to Payne and which, as it had one eye closed, had received the appropriate name of Polyphemus. Imagining that it was not a real Persian Payne (in no very generous mood) presented it to Mrs. Nix. Next time he saw it, however, he was astonished at its beauty, for it had turned out to be a pure bred.

“I didn’t know,” he said, “that it was going to be like this. You must let me have it back again.”

And he had it. But then he was a poet, and poets should always be given everything they ask for. They are the only sort of children that can be indulged without danger of being spoilt.

In the summer of 1911 Payne, Mrs. Pritchard and Miss Brereton visited Lynton, Lynmouth and Clovelly and parts of Gloucestershire.

By the end of the year the Heine was in the hands of the subscribers. It was prefaced by the poem entitled “A Grave at Montmartre,” which had first appeared in the selection called The Descent of the Dove (see pages 125 and 131).

In this powerful original poem Payne represents a staid and unusually phlegmatic Englishman shaking his head at such productions as Heine’s:

“Heine’s not the man,” you say, “for me,

Tennyson or Kipling is my poet.

If I must be plagued with poetry

Let me have it as at home they grow it.

* * *

“Something sapid, cut and come again,

On the tickled palate such as lingers;

Not like Heine, jam who gives you, then

Raps you with the spoon upon the fingers;

* * *

“Verse (sec. me) should be a proper guest

For the table of the virtuous thickhead;

Heine’s muse was mostly half-undrest,

Seldom sober, generally wicked.”

Turning upon the good dullard Payne admits that Heine,

Was a tropic weed, whose flaming blooms

Now rose-fragrant were, now henbane-sickly;

In accordance with life’s lights and glooms,

Lily-soft it showed or aloe-prickly.

But the rose is a foul-feeder, lilies spring from the marish-mud, and the sea in which we dive for pearls and coral is astir with monsters. Nature’s fashions were good enough for him. So for ending,

Here he lies, her singer every inch:

See, the very blossoms seem to know it.

Go, thy ways, du dummer, dicker Mensch!532

What hast thou to do with flowers or poet?

To give a just idea of the poetical beauty, the nimbleness of execution, the surprises, the humour, the irony, the grace and the pathos of the Heine is impossible. The work itself must be read. Beside it, all other renderings of this poet are wooden and sapless. Payne has caught the very spirit of the tender, airy, mocking, fantastic Jew; and yet, wonderful as has been his achievement, he has really done no more for Heine than he did for Villon, Boccaccio and Hafiz. In short, all are classics. The following delightful presentment of Heine at his sweetest is as light and lovely as a soap bubble; but none but Payne could have given it both rondure and iridescence and have set it sailing in our sweet English air:


(in an Album).

Doubting Thomas, I, in Heaven

I believe not, for our home,

Promised by the Churches Seven

Of Jerusalem and Rome.

But for angels, of their being,

In good sooth, I doubted ne’er;

Light shapes faultless, for our seeing,

Still upon the earth they fare.

Only wings I, gracious lady,

To these beings must deny;

Marry, there are wingless angels,

As full often seen have I.

Lovesome, with their shining glances,

With their tender hands of white,

Man they shield and ward mischance’s

Arrows from the luckless wight.

Each with kindness unabated

Solace they, but most of all

Him, that double trouble freighted

One, whom men the poet call.

The following is Payne’s rendering of the Mit Rosen, Cypressen und Flittergold.534

With roses and cypress and flittergold

This book, as a coffer the dead to hold,

I fain was to garnish full fair and fine

And coffin therein these songs of mine.

O might I therein Love, too, enclose!

The flow’ret of peace on Love’s grave grows;

There blows it and thence one plucks the bloom;

But for me it blows only upon my tomb.

Here now are my songs, so wild that erst,

As a flood of lava from Etna, burst,

From the deepest depths of my soul welled out

And blazing embers that rained about.

Now mute and stirless as death they lie;

Cloud-cold and pallid they are to spy;

But the old fire glows in their veins once more,

If once Love’s spirit above them soar.

Foreweenings many wax loud at heart,

Love’s spight once thaweth the ice apart;

Once cometh this booklet unto thy hand,

My sweetest love, in a distant land.

Then loosed will the song and the sorcery be;

The death-pale letters will gaze at thee,

Will wistful look in thy lovesome eyes

And whisper of love that never dies.

With a poem of this kind Payne was in full sympathy, for his own muse, like Heine’s, was volcanic.

How charmingly again Payne translates Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne.

The rose and the lily, the sun and the dove,

These all, in Love’s rapture, erewhen did I love.

I love them no longer: now love I alone

My slight one, my bright one, my white one, my own:

For she, who the fount of all love is, in one

Herself rose and lily and dove is and sun.535

As an example of a poem of an entirely different character may be given “To the Young”536:

Be thou not bubbled, be thou not troubled

By golden apples cast in thy track!

The swords are clanging, the bowstrings twanging,

But nothing holdeth the hero back.

A bold beginning is half the winning:

An Alexander the world doth seize:

No long debating! The queens awaiting

Already the conqueror are on their knees.

We win by daring: the old King heiring,

We mount Darius’s bed and throne.

Perdition glorious! O death victorious,

With triumph drunken, in Babylon!

In the long poems Payne is no less successful. He shines in the comic and uproarious “Rhampsinitus,”537 in the sly and caustic story of the white elephant’s love for the big woman538 and in Heine’s Swan Song, the inexpressibly beautiful Für die Mouche, sometimes called “The Passion Flower.”539

It will be supposed that the whole of lettered England rose and warmly welcomed so magnificent a work. But no. It was received in absolute silence. Not a single review of it appeared. As far as the journalistic world was concerned, it might never have been written. And why? Nobody knows. Among those to whom Payne presented copies of his Heine, was his sister Nora. It was inscribed, amusingly enough: “Miss Payne, from John Payne.”

About this time I once more urged him to abandon his life of a recluse. I said: “You lose in two ways. In the first place the whole world is hungering for personal sympathy and encouragement; by mixing with it you would have opportunities, otherwise denied to you, of administering both. In the second you yourself would benefit. It would do you real good to become better acquainted with the joys and sorrows of others. It would make your own troubles seem lighter.” But my words fell on deaf ears.

As regards music, Wagner still continued in high favour with him, but he also expressed himself partial to some of the compositions of Rubenstein, Mendelssohn and Coleridge Taylor.

“He did not care much,” says Miss Brereton, “for Beethoven, whom he looked upon as the precursor of modern music​—​a man who saw and pointed the way to the Promised Land, though unable to reach it himself. He was very fond, however, of a few of Beethoven’s sonatas, and of one in particular. I think it was in the key of B. I went with him to the Albert Hall, in order to hear a Russian play it. He was delighted. We heard it rendered subsequently by Hanbrug, but Mr. Payne said it was just like a schoolboy’s performance after the Russian’s.”

“If,” said Payne, to Miss Brereton, “I had not given my life to translation and poetry I should have become a composer of music. Orchestral music would have been my work.” “He played,” commented Miss Brereton, “adorably.”

I am glad to be able to give the opinion of others in respect to this side of Payne, for my own ignorance of music is pitiable. He sometimes played to me the very finest pieces (so he said) such as were sufficient “to raise a mortal to the skies” or “draw an angel down”; but I must have been neither a mortal nor an angel, for the only feeling they excited in me was one of disquietude lest he should perceive that I was profoundly bored.

On 21 October, 1911, Payne “had a great shock in hearing of the sudden death”540 of his “old friend,” Mrs. Hutt; and on 7 December of the same year he lost another valued friend, Sir George Lewis.

[522] Mrs. Byam, his sister, used to liken him “to a highly-strung instrument.”

[523] He died in 1911. See p. 239.

[524] The work is dedicated to Burne-Jones.

[525] In a footnote in the Heine, i. 311, speaking of Burns, he refers to “the coarse but genuine humour which redeems the commonplace sentimentalities of the Scotch versifier.”

[526] Most of this conversation is incorporated in the early chapters of this work.

[527] See Vigil and Vision, p. 83.

[528] See pp. 83 and 104.

[529] In the American edition of Payne’s poem the name is spelt incorrectly. Flowers of France, The Latter Days, 1813, is dedicated “to the memory of my beloved friend Henri Cazalis, a true poet and a noble-minded man.”

[530] Letters to T. W., No. 80.

[531] I had told him that a hot bath usually helped me in such cases.

[532] You stupid, fat fellow.

[533] Vol. ii. p. 337.

[534] Vol. i. p. 27.

[535] Vol. i. p. 63.

[536] Vol. ii. p. 340.

[537] Vol. ii. p. 235.

[538] Vol. ii. p. 238 “The White Elephant.”

[539] Vol. iii. p. 228.

[540] Letter to Mrs. Nix, 23 October, 1911.