12 September, 1885–1886

As we have seen, Payne had for some time been engaged upon a translation of the Decameron. Boccaccio’s masterpiece had often before been Englished, but all previous renderings were absurdly inadequate, most, indeed, being mere paraphrases of the loosest and most incorrect description, while the best of them are full of errors and misrepresentations. Some of the stories, indeed, are practically unintelligible as they appear in the renderings of the old translators, who, as Payne amusingly observes, “with touching unanimity concur in missing the points upon which they turn,” and the same remark applies to many other passages in the work which had never been correctly rendered until the appearance of Payne’s monumental translation. The truth is, all previous translators were either smatterers or mere scholars. The Decameron abounds in obscure, incoherent and confused passages. The smatterers deftly jumped over them, the dryasdusts, who brought to the task only their own arid brains, translated them wrongly. Mere scholarship, indeed, unaided by imagination and the literary faculty, can make nothing whatever of the Decameron; especially as the Italian commentators “almost entirely confined themselves to the elaborate explanation of perfectly obvious passages whilst altogether neglecting those which present any real difficulty.” Only a poet, man of genius and scholar combined, could do justice to Boccaccio; and such a man came forward in Payne.

His work was published in three volumes in 1886. An expurgated and illustrated edition which appeared in 1893 is preceded by an outline of Boccaccio’s life written by Payne. This “outline” is really Part 1 of a manuscript article entitled “Giovanni Boccaccio” which was placed in my hands by Payne.

Part 2155 is, however, far more interesting, containing as it does Payne’s estimate of the Decameron itself. “Of the literary qualities of the work,” he says, “it would be difficult to speak too highly. When dealing with a ‘merry geste’ or an amorous adventure, Boccaccio’s touch is as light as Voltaire’s own, whilst in tragic and sentimental passages his treatment leaves nothing to be desired in the matter of dignity, pathos and poignancy. … His satire, whilst not devoid of the necessary mordancy and severity when he exposes the greed, sensuality and hypocrisy of the unworthy priests and monks and the corruption and malignity of the courtiers and sycophants of his day, is yet never suffered to degenerate into grossness or malice, nor does he ever overpass the limits of legitimate self-defence. In narrative and description of natural beauty, in their every variety, he is equally at home; witness the magnificent introductory recital of the terrors of the Plague at Florence, with its tragic note of ‘alto pianto’ and the exquisite smiling pictures of the Garden (Introduction to Day III) and of the Ladies’ Valley (Conclusion to Day VI). But it is perhaps in pathos that he most unreservedly excels; in such passages as the death of Ghismunda156 and the piteous stories of the hapless loves of Lisabetta and Lorenzo,157 Andrevuola and Gabriotto,158 Simona and Pasquino,159 Salvestra and Girolamo160 he is unsurpassable; whilst even his great master and exemplar, Dante, could hardly have added to ‘the terror of the tale’ in the overpowering tragedy of the Spectral Chase161 enacted before the horror-stricken eyes of Nastagio delgi Onesti.

The Burtons were in England again in June 1886, and remained here until January 1887. During that time Payne and Burton were much in each other’s company. Burton was to take tea with Payne just before leaving, but on 10 January, 1887,162 he writes to Payne: “That last cup of tea came to grief, I ran away from London abruptly feeling a hippishness gradually creep over my brain; longing to see a sight of the sun and so forth.”

On 13 January Sir Richard was in Paris, where he met Zotenberg, and thence he made for his home at Trieste.

[155] Which is still unpublished.

[156] Payne, ii. 62, Tancred, Prince of Salerno.

[157] Payne, ii. 96, Lisabetta’s brothers slay her lover.

[158] Payne, ii. 102, Andrevuola loveth Gabriotto.

[159] Payne, ii. 112, Simona loveth Pasquino.

[160] Payne, ii. 118, Girolamo loveth Salvestra.

[161] Payne, ii. 214, Nastagio delgi Onesti.

[162] Letters of Burton to Payne, No. 34.