Chapter XXI

His Last Days


As the days lengthened Payne recovered his health, and he began to look forward to the usual feast of Saint Oyster. For some reason he determined to honour the holy personage twice that year. Perhaps it was because he was too impatient to wait till the right date. None looked forward to these functions with more pleasure than Violet (also called “Prempah”583 on account of her short frizzy hair), Mrs. Nix’s youngest daughter, whom Payne often rallied on account of her healthy appetite, a characteristic which is hinted at in Payne’s note to Mrs. Nix dated 11 March, 1914: “If it will suit you and the Romeus, we may as well have the oyster supper next Sunday. Let me know by Friday at latest, also if Violet is at home, so that I may know how many oysters to order.”

The supper was scarcely over before Payne began to form plans for honouring the real day​—​Easter Monday​—​which fell that year on 13 April.

On the 8th of the month he wrote to Mrs. Nix: “By this post I am ordering the J. A. & N. Stores to send you on Saturday two hundred oysters, which I hope will be as good as before. I am increasing the number, as it was rather a tight fit last time, with Violet in the field. I shall hope to see you on Sunday next, when you will probably be tolerably straight.”

Evidently Mrs. Nix informed him that the party would be smaller than he had supposed, but whether or not the formidable Violet made the difference is unrecorded. The following letter, dated 9 April, shows how Payne got over the difficulty:

Dear Mrs. Nix,​—

“Yours to hand. I have written to the Stores to tell them to deliver one hundred oysters only; but in case it should be too late, owing to the holiday nuisance, and the two hundred should arrive, the only way will be to have one hundred on Sunday and one hundred on Monday. As you say, the stars in their courses seem to fight against the oyster celebration this year.”

The spring of 1914 was for me a most trying one, but in April my sight seemed to improve, though the occulist had given me no hope. Replying on 13 April, 1914,584 to a letter of mine, Payne said: “Glad to hear that your eyes are better. I had a severe attack of the same thing after the Nights, obliged to lie up for six months. Just now I am very slowly recovering from the worst bout of influenza I ever had. It has knocked me all to pieces, and I do not expect, at my age, ever really to get over the effects, which have greatly aggravated all my infirmities. You are comparatively young, and so have a better chance.

“No more verse, nor (as far as I can see) any likelihood of more.”

On Saturday, 6 June, 1914, died Theodore Watts-Dunton,585 at the advanced age of eighty-two.

In the summer Payne and Mrs. Pritchard, with Miss Brereton, went for a motor tour all over Devonshire, making their headquarters Dunster and Ashburton, and through the south of Gloucestershire.

It will be remembered that Payne’s first volume, Intaglios, was stopped by the war which broke out between France and Germany in 1870. By a remarkable coincidence his last volume of original poetry, The Way of the Winepress, was also stopped by war between the same two countries​—​the war which broke out in August 1914, and ultimately involved most of the world. The MS. had been sent to Messrs. E. J. Brill, of Leyden (Holland), the firm that had printed so many of his books, and of whom he always spoke highly; and the whole of the proofs had reached him. Further than that nothing could be done, and the proofs are now in the care of his executors.

If the declaration of war gave a shock to Payne, on the other hand he rejoiced to see that his country​—​the country whose weaknesses and dangerous tendencies he had so often lamented in plaintive or bitter song​—​retained its ancient virility. He held that Germany was principally moved by the evil example of Frederick the Great, or, as he preferred to call him, “Frederick the Great Thief.”

In October, in order to be nearer to Mrs. Pritchard, he moved from Mortimer Crescent to 28 The Boltons, South Kensington, and while there he occupied himself in translating the Arabic romance already several times referred to, The Marvellous History of Seif ben Dhi Yezn, King of Yemen. He was able to finish it, but it was unpublished at the time of his death. The garden was overgrown with Giant Wild Hemlock, but he would not have it touched. He loved, he said, its purple spotted stems and great umbels.

In January he was interested in the approaching marriage of Mr. Sidney Nix with Miss Boone, who, he says in a letter to Mrs. Nix dated the 22nd of that month, “I am sure will make him an excellent wife.”

In March he complained that his eyes were weaker, and saw a specialist, who merely recommended stronger glasses. In June he went with Mrs. Pritchard and Miss Brereton to Bræmar, but was obliged to return hastily to London in order to consult the specialist again; and then it transpired that his eyes were in a serious condition. Gradually he became quite blind.

Miss Brereton tended him with the most watchful care, anticipating his wants and endeavouring to gratify his sudden wishes. He liked to talk of his early struggles, and sometimes, when the old Adam came over him, he would make, as in former days, a tremendous lunge at some unfortunate musical composer or critic, which would be followed by the old-time ripple of laughter.

The next step was to arrange for some one to read to him, for he had, of course, become totally dependent on others. But he was very particular as to the qualifications of a reader. When Miss Brereton said, “Shall we try to get Mr. Wright to come up?” he replied, “No; the reading would try his eyes too much; besides, Olney is too far away, and he could not stay long.”

Miss B. How about Mrs. So-and-so?

P. No; she has lost a front tooth.

Miss B. Mr. Dash?

P. No; he has a white voice [meaning that it was monotonous and spiritless].

Eventually it was decided to enlist the services of Mr. Forman, and he and Miss Brereton divided the labour, and at the same time received lessons in delivery. Often they read to him his own poems and portions of his translation of Omar Kheyyam. Once he rang Miss Brereton up in the middle of the night, and asked her to read to him the Smetana sonnet.586

“Of his own poems,” says Miss Brereton, “the one he liked best to hear was ‘A Grave at Montmartre,’ and he took a great deal of trouble in teaching Mr. Forman and me to read it with proper emphasis. Of the quatrains in the Rubaiyat that were read to him, the one that most affected him was the bitter No. 377, in which Omar Kheyyam, at the approach of death, laments the stiff-neckedness and folly of the public which prevented him from giving to the world many high thoughts and jewels of meaning and exposition with which his soul was pregnant​—​the quatrain that ends

A thousand fine conceits and thoughts an hundred thousand

For the witlessness of the folk, each unexpressed abideth.”

Payne’s experience was precisely Omar Kheyyam’s over again. Once more, how the world does waste its great men! Instead of trying to help Payne, almost everybody in the literary world seemed to want to hinder him​—​to prevent his poetry and his wisdom from getting to the knowledge of the public. His “Re Infecta” (Vigil and Vision, p. 115) is on this same theme.

Mr. Harry Payne read fiction to him; but never the poems, because it was held that he “could not do justice to them.”

“I wonder, Mr. Payne, you never married,” Miss Brereton once said to her patient.

“When I was young,” he explained, “I was too poor, and now I am better off I am too particular.”

On 18 November died at Colon, Panama, at the advanced age of eighty-one, his old friend Tracy Robinson.

Mrs. Vinter (Miss Daisy Hutt), Mrs. Nix, and Mr. and Mrs. Romeu (Miss Ida Nix) often visited him during his last illness.

The following letter, written to Mrs. Romeu, is of pathetic interest, considering the sadness of his state; for it contains, as will be seen, a reference to the old pleasant times when he and his friends of the “House of the Four Winds” worshipped at the shrines of Saints Oyster and Lobster:

28 The Boltons,

South Kensington.

December 25th, 1915.

My Dear Ida,​—

“Many thanks for your kind letter and remembrance. I am still in a very suffering state and am quite blind, though the doctors give some hopes of recovery, but as soon as I am able to receive visitors you can be assured you will be among the first to be asked. Please give my best regards to your husband and brother, and the rest of the family. Tell them how much I should like to be able to be with them on Bank Holiday as usual.

“Yours affectionately,

John Payne.

“He was a brave man,” said Miss Brereton, “all through his painful illness, and was the same great and good man to the last hour.” No one, indeed, could fail to recognize the uprightness of all his motives. “He was quite happy,” she continues, “in spite of his blindness, and he was always looking forward to giving to the world some more of his poems.” Yet his last four months were a living death.

Mrs. Pritchard was much with him. My eye trouble having returned, I was prevented from visiting him, and my correspondence got sadly in arrears. Mrs. Pritchard told me afterwards​—​and I was much touched to hear it​—​that he often spoke of me, expressing appreciation of my efforts to bring popularity to his poetry, and stated that he should ever value my “kindness and friendship.” Though himself quite blind, he thought about my own difficulty, and several times he said to Mrs. Pritchard, “I wonder how Wright is​—​good chap! I have heard nothing of him for so long.”587

On 10 February I sent him a four-page letter, in which I gave news of my family, and inquired respecting his health. But the sombre fairy tale of his life588 was nearly at an end; the beautiful ghittern, as Omar Kheyyam589 would have said, was about to be untuned. He had all but reached the Last Inn, to use an expression then frequently on his lips, and it will be remembered that there is in The Way of the Winepress a sonnet with that title. One day, when he realized that the end could not be far off, he said to Mrs. Pritchard: “The wonder sometimes comes over me whether after all I may not have been mistaken in respect to the value of my poetry.”

She assured him that its merits would ultimately be recognized.

A curious little incident connected with these last days recalls the Stilton cheese story related on an early page. Payne had a craving for an unsweetened cake, and nobody seemed to know how to make one. One day Harry said: “Flo” [meaning his wife] “will help you,” and a day or two afterwards he brought a Simnel cake of her making. Payne pronounced it perfect, and he equally enjoyed two others that followed. When, however, he tasted the fourth he shook his head and said: “It’s not so good as the others, there is too much sugar in it.” As a matter of fact the ingredients were precisely the same as those of the former cakes, but he was not to be convinced.

On the morning of 11 February, which proved to be the last day of his life, he seemed very much better, and in the afternoon Miss Brereton read to him several of his original poems. At half-past four Mr. Forman called. “Good afternoon,” said Payne, “we won’t have any reading to-day.” In the evening he expressed the wish for some new sheets and pillow-cases, and with his usual impatience he sent her out to buy them. “He was very keen,” Mrs. Pritchard told me, “about these purchases.”

On Miss Brereton’s return he said eagerly: “Have you got the sheets?”

“Don’t talk,” she said, and gave him some lemonade.

“Did you get the pillow-cases?”

“Don’t talk.”

A few minutes later his face changed, and he was gone.

He had died young, at the age of seventy-three. His was the eternal youth of the poet. The third member of the Triumvirate had fallen.

A reply to my last communication to him came from his brother Harry, with whom I had often been in correspondence. It was dated 12 February, 1916, and commenced: “In answer to your kind letter to my brother John, I regret to tell you that he died last night.” I was informed that the remains were, according to Payne’s express wish, to be cremated at Golder’s Green​—​he said he wanted “to return to nature as soon as possible”​—​and I was invited to be present​—​but circumstances prevented me from leaving home. The date chosen was 14 February, and the ashes were scattered over the grounds of the crematorium by his nephew, his brother Harry, Mr. Alfred Forman and Miss Brereton.

He has entered into the substance of the flowers. Their perfume is the perfume of his verses. He is part of the rose-campions, the zinnias, and the lilies that he loved and sang. The lily is his marble monument, its yellow stamens are the epitaph. He had himself selected the words which would best commemorate him, and in the bell of the lily, for those who can read, are the words Linguam Anglicam Amavit.

Poet, take your well-earned rest! The victory which, to our disappointment failed to arrive in your lifetime, but which you so often prophesied would ultimately be attained, is at last in sight!

Among the little treasures found after his death among his belongings were a portrait of “Helen” and a lock of that golden hair which he had so often sung.

The obituaries of the greatest man of letters of the century will be looked back upon as among the curiosities of literature. When Tennyson died (and the amount of him that is imperishable is quite trivial) there were notices by the acre​—​many of them illustrated. One would have thought the crack of doom had come. Even for so minute a poetaster as Sir Lewis Morris there was no stint of journalistic crape. When Payne died The Times gave him exactly four and a half inches of feeble comment, and even for that his patient ghost had to wait thirteen days, for the notice did not appear till 24 February. Other leading papers wasted even less upon him. Most of them, even to this very day, are in blissful ignorance that the greatest writer of recent years has passed away.

By far the best and most sympathetic of the notices was that in the Birmingham Daily Post, 15 February, 1916. An article in the Sphere (accompanied by a portrait), 11 March, was headed “The Best Translator of the Decameron” The writer, Mr. Clement Shorter, who was subsequently able to throw valuable light on the early period of Payne’s career, spoke of the deceased as “a man of great distinction,” and probably the only poet in whose lifetime and in whose honour a Society was instituted, adding “what Dr. Furnivall did for Browning Mr. Wright, of Olney, did for Payne.” Mr. Shorter also spoke of the pleasure given him by Payne’s translations of the Arabian Nights and Bandello. In short, apart from the notices in the Birmingham Daily Post and the Sphere the fact of the death of Payne was practically ignored by the Press. Under this head I could say many bitter words, but I prefer to suppress them. I prefer to say to the English Press: Let bygones be bygones. If you had any animus against Payne, forget it. Do this great man justice now. It is not too late. You will honour yourselves by honouring him.

As soon as possible I called on Mrs. Pritchard at Cleeve Lodge, and on that occasion, and on later occasions when I saw her, she gave me a number of the particulars recorded in these pages. In a letter to her, written in February 1916, I had expressed the hope that Burton’s letters to Payne would be carefully preserved, as they substantiated all the principal statements made in my Life of Sir Richard Burton respecting the rival translations. She replied on 28 February, and said that she had given orders that all the Burton letters should be tied together and sent to her.

I had also said: “As the work in Humoristica (Series 1st and 2nd) is for the most part unworthy of Payne’s pen, do you not think it would be well to have the copies destroyed?” She replied: “I don’t see eye to eye with you on the subject of the Humoristicas. They were, of course, mere trivialities compared to his serious work, but they expressed a humour peculiar to him, and for that I value them.” I think now that Mrs. Pritchard was right, and I was wrong, for I feel sure the world will, out of gratitude for all that Payne has done for it, be lenient towards these foibles. In any case my suggestion came too late, for a number of copies (sent out by Payne himself) were in the hands of his admirers. My position is that although Payne had a humour of a pawky and always delightful trend, which constantly revealed itself in conversation (though it is difficult to reproduce it​—​the amusement being derived rather from how he said a thing rather than from what he said), yet immediately he put pen to paper that humour for the most part evaporated. I should, of course, be glad to be assured that I am wrong.

In reply to a request from Mrs. Pritchard I then lent her Payne’s Autobiography, which she kindly enriched with a number of notes supplied in the letter590 that accompanied its return. The last letter which I received from her was written on 30 January, 1917. On 3 February I spent a very pleasant afternoon with her, and we never afterwards met. She​—​the truest of true sisters​—​died on 1 April of that year.

Mr. Harry Payne died on 12 November, 1916, and Miss Nora Payne on 16 September, 1917. Only one member of the family therefore now remains​—​Mrs. Byam.

The proofs of The Way of the Winepress and the manuscript of the translation of The Marvellous History of Seif ben Dhi Yezn, King of Yemen are in the possession of Payne’s executors.

Such was the career of John Payne, who, take him as original poet and translator, was undoubtedly the greatest English man of letters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When his original work receives the careful study which of a certainty it must receive, he will be found to have been equalled by no poet of his time, with the exception of Swinburne. As a translator he reigns supreme. In the particular department of prose work, which he made specially his own, no other writer in any age or country can be named in the same breath with him. He has given to Kilburn (and who before ever heard of Kilburn!) a literary prominence of the kind that belongs to a Shiraz, an Avignon, a Weimar.

Every lover of England should be proud that so great a writer was also an Englishman.

The End.

[583] An African king. A name given to her by Payne.

[584] Letters to T. W., No. 90.

[585] He was born in 1832. He married in 1905 Clara Jane Reich.

[586] See p. 134.

[587] Letter of Mrs. Pritchard to me, 28 February, 1916.

[588] See Vigil and Vision, p. 109.

[589] See Payne’s translation, p. 309.

[590] Letters of Mrs. Pritchard to T.W., No. 11.