Chapter VI

The Arabian Nights


Early in January O’Shaughnessy, Mr. Malcolm Salaman and some other friends, after dining at the Savage Club, finished the evening at a theatre. On coming out they found themselves in the midst of a violent snowstorm. Not a cab, or any other convenient vehicle was to be had, and they were obliged to drive home on the outside of an omnibus. That terrible night is still recalled by those who weathered it. With O’Shaughnessy inflammation of the lungs set in, and death, it was seen, could be only a matter of days. During that “awful month” Mr. Salaman, Mr. George Moore and Payne went nightly to visit and read to him. Payne has told the story in in his pathetic lines “A Christmas Vigil.”125 “Let me but see the light of heaven again!” pleaded the sick man. Payne, with chill fingers, drew the curtains. “All the glass was starred with quaint frost tracery.” Then he sat by the bedside and watched his dying friend.

“The gates of death are agape for me,” said O’Shaughnessy.

Yet he feared nothing, and he added, as Payne has worded it:

“For, while I hold thy hand, dear friend, I know

Christ’s love can still in human bosoms glow

And love will round all troubles into peace,

Although the springs of light and being cease

To cheer us. I may say, with Rabelais,

As farewell word to living ‘Je m’en vais

Quérir le grand Peut-être.’ It is the end.

I carry into night thy love, O friend,

’Spite death, ’spite doubt and cold,” and spake no more.

It was characteristic of the man to die with words of both Christ and Rabelais on his lips. To Payne it seemed as though a chapter of his own life was closed. He says:

He had been

My help in autumn’s dreary blank of gray,

In winter’s night of doubt my cheer and stay;

Together had we trod the path of years,

Hoped hopes together, feared each other’s fears.126

The first of the Triumvirate had fallen.127 A new friend, however, was soon, in a sense, to fill the gap in Payne’s life​—​Mr. Tracy Robinson, of Panama. Mr. Robinson and Payne first met at 20 North Row, Park Lane, and thence-forward Mr. Robinson and his wife Lucy were in constant communication with the poet. As their home was in America, where they had many friends, they hoped to make Payne’s name well known there, and, as we shall see, they were able eventually128 to publish in the States a volume of selections from his poems.

Payne also formed a friendship with E. J. W. Gibb, who is remembered on account of his History of Ottoman Poetry, and other works.

At this time Payne was devoting the whole of his energies to his great project​—​the translation of the Arabian Nights. He worked with exhausting sedulity, and expended upon it all the gifts in his power. On 5 November, 1881, appeared in the Athenæum a paragraph to the effect that the work was ready for the press.

It caught the eye of the distinguished traveller Captain (afterwards Sir) Richard Burton, who had himself many years previous collected notes for a translation of the Arabian Nights. In a letter to the Athenæum, which appeared 26 November, 1881, Burton mentions this fact and proceeds: “the Arabian Nights is a marvellous picture of oriental life; its shiftings are those of the kaleidoscope. Its alternation of pathos and bathos​—​of the boldest poetry with the baldest prose, and finally, its contrast of the highest and purest morality with the orgies of Apuleius and Petronius Arbiter, take away the reader’s breath. I determined to render every word with the literalism of Urquhart’s Rabelais. But … my work is still unfinished. I rejoice, therefore, to see that Mr. Payne has addressed himself to a realistic translation without ‘abridgments or suppressions.’ I have only to wish him success. … I want to see that the book has fair-play; and if it is not treated as it deserves I shall still have to print my own version. Villon, however, makes me hope for the best.”

In this letter Burton speaks of his own work as “still unfinished.” This was quite true, seeing that it was not even begun, unless two or three pages which he once showed to Mr. Watts-Dunton, and the pigeon-holing of notes be regarded as a commencement.

Payne, supposing from this letter that Burton had made considerable progress with his translation, wrote, on 28 November, to Burton, and using the words Tantus labor non sit cassus, suggested collaboration. Burton replied cordially, on 17 December, 1881,129 and said: “In April at the latest I hope to have the pleasure of shaking hands with you in London, and then we will talk over the 1,000 Nights and a Night. … I am an immense admirer of your Villon.”

Writing to Burton early in the year Payne observed that as his first volume was in type, apparently it should at once go to press, but that he would be pleased to submit subsequent volumes to Burton.

In May 1882 Burton called on Payne,130 and it then transpired that Burton’s project was still entirely in nubibus. He admitted that he had no manuscript of any kind beyond “a sheet or two of notes,” and it was afterwards gathered from his words that these notes were a mere syllabus of the contents of the Boulac edition of the Nights​—​the only one of the four printed texts (Calcutta, Macnaughton, Boulac and Breslau) used and combined by Payne with which Burton was then acquainted. Incredible as the fact just stated may appear, it is certainly true as Burton’s own letters prove.131 The whole project of collaboration then, naturally, fell through. Payne’s first volume duly appeared, and as the result of further conversations it was arranged that Burton should read Payne’s subsequent proofs, though he declined to accept remuneration unless it should turn out that his assistance was necessary. The issue of Payne’s volume had two immediate results. The first is referred to in the letter of Burton to Payne of 3 June, 1882,132 in which he says: “Please send me a lot of advertisements. I can place a number of copies. Mrs. Grundy is beginning to roar, already I hear the bore133 of her. And I know her to be an arrant whore and tell her so and don’t care a damn for her.”

The second was that the proprietors of E. W. Lane’s miserable and emasculated translation of the Nights announced the issue of a new edition of that work.

By this time had been formed the Kama Shastra Society,134 the object of which was the publication of certain Hindoo erotic works​—​the leading members being Burton and F. F. Arbuthnot, and it is referred to in a letter written from Trieste, 5 August, 1882,135 by Burton to Payne.

Although Payne had no connection with the Kama Shastra Society, it was owing to its formation that he obtained a new friend, F. F. Arbuthnot. Payne described Arbuthnot to me as “A queer, brusque Scotchman, one of the best men I knew. He was generally called ‘Bunny,’ and the name suited well his gentle, kindly disposition; but he was little interested in literature and art, which are my second nature.” He had beautiful clear blue eyes, and as in photography blue becomes white, they have, in his portraits, an uncanny, washed-out appearance.

In a marginal note pencilled in the MS. of my life of Burton, Payne observes of Arbuthnot: “Though I simply loathed the line of literature [oriental pornographic] which occupied most of his thoughts, he consulted me as to every particular of his publications. His Radicalism was entirely superficial, a matter of social connection and position. We never quarrelled over it. He was good enough for a Tory.”

Of the works proposed to be issued by the Kama Shastra Society (and almost all the expense fell on Arbuthnot) only the following were printed:—​Kama Sutra, by Vatsyayana, 1883; Ananga Ranga, by Kullianmull, 1885; Burton’s Arabian Nights, 1885–1886; The Scented Garden (Burton used to refer to this as “my old version”); The Beharistan, by Jami, 1887; The Gulistan, by Sadi, 1888. A few other works, including the Nigaristan, by Jawini, are still in MS. All of them, with the exception of the Nights and The Scented Garden, were, I believe, translated by Edward Rehatsek.

Understanding that an attack was to be made in the Press on Payne’s work, Burton wrote (29 September, 1882)136: “Your book has no end of enemies and I can stir up a small wasp’s nest without once appearing in the matter. The best answer will be showing up a few of Lane’s mistakes.” With the letter Burton enclosed three sonnets (specimens of his translation of Camoens), and he asked for Payne’s opinion on them. Burton would have delighted in a battle royal with the Laneites, but the Villon Society, considering the tactics that were being employed against them, had no wish to draw the attention of the authorities to the moral question. Indeed, of the possible action of the authorities as instigated by the opposing clique the Society stood in some fear.

In a letter of 8 October, 1882,137 written from Trieste, Burton, after observing that in his own case he “should encourage a row” with the enemy, says he quite understands Payne’s reason for the opposite course. He goes on: “Meanwhile you must get a list of Lane’s lâches. I regret to say my copy of his Modern Egyptians has been lost or stolen, and with it are gone the lists of his errata I had drawn up many years ago. Of course I don’t know Arabic! but who does? One may know a part of it​—​a corner of the field, but all! Bah! Many thanks for notes on the three sonnets. The remarks are those of a scholar and a translator.”

The first proofs of Vol. 2 were read by Burton in October 1882. Writing to Payne on 21 October138 he said: “You have done your work very well, and my part is confined to a very small amount of scribble which you will rub out at discretion.” With the letter he sent more of Camoens for Payne’s criticism. On 29 October, 1882,139 writing from Trieste, Burton said: “The more I read your translation the more I like it. You have no need to fear the Poole clique; that is to say, you can give them as good as they can give you. I am quite ready to justify the ‘moral’ point. Of course we must not attack Lane till he is made the cheval de bataille, against us. But peace and quiet are not in my way, and if they want a fight they can have it.”

As regards the suggestion of collaboration Burton eventually declared that Payne required no assistance of any kind; and therefore he refused to accept remuneration for reading the proofs. Naturally they differed, as Arabists all do, upon certain points, but on all subjects save two Burton allowed that Payne’s opinion was as good as his own.

The first concerned the jingles in the prose portions of the Nights. Burton wanted them to be preserved, but Payne could not consent, and he gives his reasons in his Terminal Essay. The second exception was the treatment of revolting passages. “If anything is in any redaction of the original,” said Burton, “in it should go.” … If he sinned, he added, he sinned in good company​—​“in the company of the authors of the Authorized Version of the Bible, who did not hesitate to render literatim passages of a similar nature.” Payne, on the other hand, was inclined to minimise these passages as much as possible. Though determined that his translation should be a complete one, yet he entirely omitted coarsenesses whenever he could find excuse to do so​—​that is, when they did not appear in all the texts. If no excuse existed, he clothed the idea in skilful language. Nothing is omitted; but it is, of course, within the resources of literary art to say anything without real offence. Burton, who had no aptitude for the task, who, moreover, had other aims, constantly disagreed with Payne upon this point.

Curiously enough, all the translation of the Nights was done on the top of buses. Payne loved to “segregate himself in a crowd.” Those were the days of horse buses, and passengers by them anywhere in London must often have looked on with perplexity at the foreign-looking, near-sighted man​—​oblivious of the movement and roar around him​—​raising now an Arabic manuscript, and now a sheaf of flimsy foolscap, to his eyes. They would have been still more perplexed had they known that he had boarded the bus without troubling where it was going, that he went wherever it chose to carry him, and that he got off only when it refused, point blank, to carry him an inch further. The fascinating pages of the Arabian Nights are the sequel to these nondescript journeys.

In a letter of 23 December, 1882,140 Burton congratulates Payne “upon the subscription list being so soon filled up.” “Is it not time,” he asks, “to think of a reprint”? Then there is further reference to the Kama Shastra Society. “The idea,” says Burton, “is Rabelaisism​—​I hope you will enjoy it.”

But Payne (as already stated) did not enjoy it. He took no interest in it whatever. He once said to me: “These works have no literary qualities. I would not waste my time by giving a thought to them.”

In reply to Burton’s suggestion that there should be another edition Payne said that he had pledged himself not to reissue it in an unexpurgated form.

[125] Collected Poems, ii. 23.

[126] Collected Poems, vol. ii. p. 24.

[127] Mrs. O’Shaughnessy had died in 1879.

[128] In 1906.

[129] Burton Letters to Payne, No. 1.

[130] Visit referred to in Burton’s Letters to Payne, Nos. 3 and 4.

[131] I have had the whole of this correspondence in my hands, and I still have copies of all the letters.

[132] Burton’s Letters to Payne, No. 5, written from the Athenæum Club.

[133] The sudden rise of the tide in a river or estuary.

[134] See also my Life of Sir Richard Burton, ii., pp. 57, 87.

[135] Burton’s Letters to Payne, No. 6.

[136] Burton’s Letters to Payne, No. 9.

[137] Burton’s Letters to Payne, No. 11.

[138] Burton’s Letters to Payne, No. 12.

[139] Burton’s Letters to Payne, No. 13.

[140] Burton’s Letters to Payne, No. 14.