Chapter XX

Flowers of France, The Latter Days


Payne continued to be often cheered by enthusiastic letters from Mr. Tracy Robinson,564 whose friendship I, too, by this time was privileged to enjoy. Writing to me 27 August, 1908, Mr. Robinson had said: “I love Mr. Payne to-day as always, and read him whenever I am athirst for the beautiful. I never tire of him.” On 6 February, 1913, he says of Payne’s poems: “Over and over again I turn to them. I love them, and in my old age (I am in my eightieth year) they solace me beyond measure. I have your Life of Sir Richard Burton, and value it greatly. Mr. Payne gave it to me.”

On 22 April the Cowper Society, of which I was, and still am, secretary, held a meeting at the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor (Sir David Burnet) being in the chair. There was a very large attendance, and in my speech I mentioned Payne’s services to the Society and the circumstances which led him to write the poem “Cowper and Newton,” which was then recited by Miss Margaret Omar, the gifted actress and elocutionist.

On 25 April, 1913, I spent the evening with Payne, and he read to me a number of poems from The Latter Days, which a little later was issued in two volumes. He then spoke of his original poems and said: “I never write poetry except when I can’t help it. I had two great gaps, as you know​—​one from 1880 to 1902 and another from 1909 to 1911.”

After referring to the Birmingham Post review of Carol and Cadence, he said: “Write to the author565 and say that I will send him an advance copy of The Way of the Winepress. I should appreciate a general article on my poetry​—​my poetry as a whole​—​from his pen.” He then read his sonnet on Beddoes from Flower o’ the Thorn,566 and while he was reading it I noticed that he kept a piece of cotton wool between his fingers. He said he had cut himself with the coal-hod. “In Beddoes,” he observed, “we have united Hell’s red gloom and Heaven’s blithe blue and gold.” He then read “The Sanctuary Lamps,”567 “Organ Dancers,”568 and “Faces.”569

T. W. The thoughts are very beautiful.

P. They are idealizations of the commonest things in London.

T. W. Was not your “Rime of Redemption” suggested by Bürger’s “Lenore”?

P. The crude idea is in Bürger, but Bürger did not work it out. A good idea is not worked out.

All the time he was reading or talking he kept fidgeting with the cotton wool.

He then took up the MS. of The Latter Days, and said: “There are more real poets in France than in any other country now,” putting great emphasis on the now. “The modern English poets haven’t learnt the keyboard.”

He then read “The Dove,” by Louis Bouilhet⁁a poem about the Emperor Julian.

“The Romantic School,” he said, “was born in 1820. Since that time France has given to the world its deepest poetry.”

T. W. When did you compose these translations?

P. In a motor car during my summer holiday in 1912 with Mrs. Pritchard.

T. W. You do not often write poems on places.

P. No. Place poems are too mechanical. I never write them.

T. W. You forget the “Grave at Montmartre.”

P. That is not, strictly speaking, a place poem. Very little of it concerns the grave itself. I began it in 1864. I struck off six stanzas and then put it aside. It was finished at a flash in 1902. It is my finest lyric.

T. W. 1864–1902, what a tremendous distance between conception and execution!

P. Take my advice, never force yourself. By wishing a thing too much you run flat opposite to it. Let nature do as she likes.

T. W. You have certainly followed this rule.

P. My work since 1902 is incomparably superior to any done before. The long silence of twenty-two years allowed all the thoughts of life to germinate. The mind was long lying fallow.

I spoke of having lunched with some one, I forget whom.

P. Lunch is an unholy meal. I never take it. Then, with a slight guffaw, “It is not in the Bible,” and as he said it he rolled a cigarette in his usual wasteful way.

T. W. How about smoking?

P. Oh, that is in the Bible. “The Lord smoked in Zion.”570

T. W. In the Bible or out of it, smoking is a very bad habit, but I am afraid I shall never cure you of it. To return to literature, I once said to Watts-Dunton: “I have been having a little argument with a friend of mine as to whether there is a standard in literature. My friend said: ‘There is no standard.’ Watts-Dunton flew at me, and said ‘What nonsense! You might as well say Two and two do not make four.’ What view do you take of this question? In literary matters who shall judge?”

P. There is no court of appeal in literary matters. There is no public with taste.

T. W. The English are less emotional than the French.

P. We are a very hysterical people, the most sentimental people in the world, but we try to hide our sentimentality​—​we try to hide it under a mask of reserve. We are ashamed of it.

T. W. Everybody nowadays goes to look at football matches​—​everybody, I mean, except you and me​—​20,000 at the football match at the Palace the other day.

P. Great burly idiots! As it was in Isaiah’s days, so it is now, with emphasis on the now: “They sit down to eat and drink and rise up to play ” (a rather comical application of Isaiah v. 11 and 12, but precisely in Payne’s manner).

T. W. I rather think it’s the betting that is the chief attraction.

P. “Hop-scotch and pitch-and-toss,”571 he said contemptuously, “banish both, one to Scotland and the other to Ireland.”

He then read to me some passages in his Humoristica, Second Series, that were complimentary to neither of the two countries.

T. W. I have just been reading Sandys’ Ovid and Philemon Holland’s Suetonius.

P. I place them on a level with North’s Plutarch​—​or nearly on a level.

I said that during this interview Payne read to me portions of The Latter Days. Among the poems in volume 1 of this work are selections from the output of his old friends: Henri Cazalis (1840–1909),572 to whom the book is dedicated; Maurice Bouchor (1885– ) and François Coppée (1842–1910). Barbey D’Aurevilly (1808–1889) is represented by “Hatred of the Sun,” Emile Blémont (1839– ) by “Pantheism,” and the deeply pathetic “In Memory of a Child.” Perhaps the most striking poem in the first volume is “The Dove,” by Louis Bouilhet. It is a story of the Emperor Julian​—​the reviver of the worship of the Olympian gods​—​who is pictured standing lost in contemplation by the ruins of a pagan temple. Prostrate marble columns strew the cracked pavement,

High grasses climbed the walls and girt each statue’s waist;

Storks sat and dreamed upon the shoulders of the gods.

As he stood sunk in thought, the last priest laid on the last altar the last burnt-offering​—​a dove. In imagination the poet sees the downfall in its turn of the Catholic religion, and the scene of the ruined temple, the priest, and the offering is repeated. Very delightful is “The Smile” of Charles Fuster:

One cannot always laugh, but one

Come what there may, can always smile.

Volume 2 contains selections from Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898), Catulle Mendès (1842–1910), and many other poets. From Edouard Pailleron (1834–1899) is taken a powerful little poem on “Pride,” which commences:

My life’s chief weapon is my pride indomitable,

The anchor of my faith, my work’s foundation stone.

Powerful, too, by reason of its irony, is “The Three Fairies” by Jean Rameau (1859- ). The first wicked spirit bestows on a sleeping child the misfortune of ugliness, the second the horror of leprosy. The third, deeming these curses insufficient, conceives of something that will bring infinitely more misery than either. She gives him genius!

The last poem in the book is Henri Warnery’s573 sonnet “The Impossible,” in which it is insisted that we should strive toward a great goal, even though it is inaccessible; for it is better to be vanquished “than never to have striven.”

So ends a book that teems with live poetry, curious art, and unforgettable phrases.

On 15 May, 1913,574 I heard again from Mrs. Pritchard. She complained bitterly that in (Sir) Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Book of Victorian Verse Payne is represented by “the feeblest specimens of his youthful period.” There had been a passage of arms between Payne and Quiller-Couch over some article of Payne’s, and Mrs. Pritchard went so far as to say: “I imagine that was purposely done out of revenge . . . for my brother’s expression of anti-arrivist and anti-radical principles and methods.” Probably she was wrong in her assumption, but the remark did not surprise me, seeing how outrageously Payne was used by the contemporary Press.

The John Payne Society was just then planning the issue of another selection from Payne’s poems, and Mrs. Pritchard on 22 May575 sent me the list of her favourites which she hoped would be included in the proposed publication. The following is her selection with her comments in brackets:​—

Quia Multum Amavit,” “May Margaret,” “Dedication to Wagner,” “Song before the Gates of Death,” “Madrigal Triste,” “Aubade,” “Courante,” “Vocation Song,” “Song of Willow,” “Song’s End,” “Love’s Autumn” (this is one of the most perfect things he wrote), “Aspect and Prospect,” “Vere Novo,” “Prelude to Hafiz,” “Nocturn,” “Litany,” “Sunset Voices,” “De Profundis” “Last Lullaby,” “The Grave of My Songs” (one of the perfect poems), “Her Grave,” “Prelude to Flower o’ the Thorn,” two poems from that lovely work The Book of Days and Nights, first commencing “Between the Tides of Night and Day,”576 second commencing “By the Wandering Waters,”577Anima cum animo,”578 “A Last Toast.”579 “The Prelude to his Translation of Heine also occurs to me as a masterpiece.”

During this year I was engaged upon a biography of Dr. Isaac Watts, but in May my eyesight failed me, and thenceforward for several years I was seriously handicapped. A meeting of the John Payne Society had been arranged to take place at Mrs. Pritchard’s (Cleeve Lodge) on 23 July, but owing to my misfortune it was abandoned. Payne, who had himself suffered with his eyes, wrote from time to time and expressed sympathy.

In the autumn of this year he, Mrs. Pritchard and Miss Brereton went to Paris, and thence took a motoring tour with the object of seeing as many cathedrals and old chateaux as possible. On their return to Paris they visited the graves of Heine,580 Gautier,581 De Banville,582 Leconte de Lisle, and other old friends or enthusiasms, and placed wreaths. “It was a lovely autumn day,” said Miss Brereton, “and it was most pathetic to see him. He betrayed so much emotion. On De Banville’s tomb are the words, ‘Come little birds, sing on my tomb,’ and there were little birds singing on it. They seemed so happy, and might have been there specially to welcome Mr. Payne.”

In the autumn of 1913 Dr. Nix fell ill, and Payne wrote on 6 September to Mrs. Nix: “I am much grieved to hear of Nix’s serious illness. Of course, it will be better for me not to come down to-morrow as usual, as I shall only be in the way; but, weather permitting, I shall probably look in for a minute or two about 7.30 to hear how the poor old chap is getting on. If I don’t come perhaps you will kindly send me a postcard, as I shall, of course, be anxious about him.”

Dr. Nix’s days, however, were numbered, and he died on 11 September.

At Christmas (1913) Payne was very ill. Miss Brereton, by Mrs. Pritchard’s desire, went at once to his house and, after nursing him there brought him in Mrs. Pritchard’s carriage to Cleeve Lodge, where he stayed several weeks.

[564] Mr. Robinson last saw Payne at the end of 1910. He called at Mortimer Crescent.

[565] I would gladly give his name, but he prefers to remain incognito.

[566] P. 135.

[567] Flower o’ the Thorn, p. 131.

[568] Flower o’ the Thorn, p. 65.

[569] Flower o’ the Thorn, p. 63.

[570] A reference to Ps. 74, verses 1 and 2.

[571] Payne’s contemptuous names for football and cricket.

[572] To whose memory the work is dedicated.

[573] Henri Warnery (1859–1902).

[574] Letters of Mrs. Pritchard to T. W., No. 5.

[575] Letters of Mrs. Pritchard to T. W., No. 6.

[576] Carol and Cadence, p. 14.

[577] Carol and Cadence, p. 24.

[578] Carol and Cadence, p. 237.

[579] Carol and Cadence, p. 295.

[580] Cemetery of Montmartre.

[581] Cemetery of Montmartre.

[582] Cemetery of Mont Parnasse.