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A Gipsy Genius Post by :c.t.coburn Category :Essays Author :William Cowper Brann Date :July 2011 Read :3206

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A Gipsy Genius


Men are the only things worth while, in this world, and I purpose to write briefly of a man, who, though living in these, our own, so-called, degenerate days, would have found a perfect setting in "the spacious times of great Elizabeth." He would have been a worthy companion of Raleigh, half-pirate and half-poet. He had in his time but one soul-kinsman, and that man was at once England's shame and glory, embalmed forever in the ominous work, Khartoum.

Sir Richard Burton was the last of the English "gentleman adventurers." He came late into the world, but he had in him the large, strong qualities that have made England master of the world. He was a Gypsy genius, though his utmost research could never find more clew to a Romany ancestry than the fact that there was a Gypsy family of the same name. He looked the Gypsy in ever feature, and he had upon him such an urging restlessness as no man ever had, save, perhaps, the Wandering Jew. His life was an epic of thought, of investigation and of adventure. The track of his wanderings laced the globe. He loved "the antres vast and deserts idle," and he had the FLAIR, the houndscent, as it were, to find the hearts of strange peoples. His "Life," by his wife, is the most interesting biography since that of Boswell, and strangely enough, it is, like the famous "Johnson," as interesting for its revelation of the biographer as for its portrayal of the subject. Burton's wife was the loving-est slave that ever wedded with an idol. The story of the courtship is ridiculous almost to the verge of tragic. As a girl, a gypsy woman named Burton, told Isabel Arundell that she would marry one of the palmist's name, would travel much, and receive much honor.

One day, at Boulogne, she was on the ramparts, with companions, when she saw Burton. She describes him raptuously; tall, thin, muscular, very dark hair, black, clearly-defined, sagacious eye-brows, a brown weather-beaten complexion, straight Arab features, a determined looking mouth and chin. And then she quotes a clever friend's description, "That he had the brow of a God, the jaw of a Devil."

His eyes "pierced you through and through." When he smiled, he did so "as though it hurt him." He had a "fierce proud melancholy expression," and he "looked with contempt at things generally." He stared at her, and his eyes looked her through and through. She turned to a friend and said in a whisper, "That man will marry ME." The next day they walked again. This time this man wrote on the wall, "May I speak to you?" She picked up the chalk and scrawled, "No, mother will be angry." A few days later they met in formal manner, and were introduced. She started at the name, Burton. Her naif rhapsodies on the meeting are refreshing. One night he danced with her. She kept the sash and the gloves she wore that night as sacred mementoes. Six years passed before she saw her Fate again. He had been in the world though, and she had kept track of his actions. In 1856 she met him in the Botanical Gardens "walking with the gorgeous creature of Boulogne--then married." They talked of things, particularly of Disraeli's "Tancred." He asked her if she came to the Gardens often. She said that she and her cousin came there every morning. He was there next morning, composing poetry to send to Monkton-Milnes. They walked and talked and did it again and again. "I trod on air," wrote the lady in her old, old age. Why not? She was one woman who had found a real hero. He asked her if she could dream of giving up civilization, and of going to live there if he could obtain the Consulate of Damascus. He told her to think it over. She said, "I don't WANT to think it over--I've been thinking it over for six years, ever since I first saw you, at Boulogne, on the ramparts. I have prayed for you every day, morning and night. I have followed all your career minutely. I have read every word you ever wrote, and I would rather have a crust and a tent with YOU than to be Queen of all the world. And so I say now, yes, yes, yes." She lived up to this to the day of his death, and long after it.

In 1859 she was thinking of becoming a Sister of Charity. She had not heard from Burton in a long time. He had left her without much ceremony to search for the sources of the Nile with Speke. Speke had returned alone, Burton remained at Zenzibar, and she says, "I was very sore "because Burton, according to report, was not thinking of coming home, to his love, but of going for the source of the Nile once more. She called on a friend. The friend was out. She waited, and while waiting Burton popped in upon her. He had come to see the friend to get her address. Her description of the meeting is a pitifully exact reproduction of her emotions over the reunion. He was weakened by African fevers. Her family, ardent Catholics, opposed the idea of marriage. The lovers used to meet in the Botanical Gardens, whence she often had to escort him fainting, to the house of sympathetic friends, in a cab. He was poor. He was out of favor with the government. Speke had pre-empted the honors of the expedition. But she was happy.

Then one day, in April, 1860, she was walking with some friends when "a tightning of the heart" came over her, that "she had not known before." She went home, and said to his sister, "I am not going to see Richard for some time." Her sister re-assured her. "No, I shall not," she said, "I don't know what is the matter." A tap came at the door, and a note was put in her hand. Burton was off on a journey to Salt Lake City, to investigate Mormonism. He would be gone nine months and then he was to come back, to see if she would marry him. He returned about Christmas, 1860. In the later part of January they were married, the details of the affair being appropriately unconventional, not to say exciting. The marriage was, practically, an elopement. Lady Burton's description of the event, and of every event in their lives, ever after, discloses an idolatry of the man that was almost an insanity. She reveals herself as a help-mate, with no will but her husband's, no thought that was not for, and of, him. She annihilated herself as an individual, and she has left in her own papers a set of "Rules For a Wife," that will make many wives, who are regarded as models of devotion, smile contemptuously at her. She was utterly happy in complete submission to his will. She described how she served him almost like an Indian squaw. She packed his trunks, was his amanuensis, attended to the details of publishing his books, came, or went, as he bade, suffered long absence in silence, or accompanied him on long journeys of exploration, uncomplainingly, was proud when he hypnotized her for the amusement of his friends. One can but feel deeply sorry for her, for with all her servility, she was a woman of the finer order of mind. The pity of her worship grows, as the reader of his life, and hers, realizes how little return in demonstrative affection she received as the reward for her vast, and continuous lavishment of love. She strikes me, in this, as a strange blend of the comic and the tragic. The world neglected Burton. He almost deserved it; so great a sacrifice as his wife consecrated of her life to him would compensate for the loss of anything. You admire it; but you catch yourself suspecting that this consecration must have been, at times, an awful bore to him. He was unfaithful to her, it is said, with ethnological intent, in all the tribes of the earth. He had no morals to speak of. He had no religion, having studied all. He was a pagan beyond redemption, though his wife maintained that he was a Catholic. Unfortunately, for her, his masterpiece refutes her overwhelmingly. He wrote the most remarkable poem of the last forty years, one that is to be classed only with Tennyson's "In Memoriam" and the "Rubaiyat" of Omar Khayyam. By this poem, and, probably, by the revelation of the love he excited in one woman, he will live. This poem expresses himself, and his conclusion, after years spent in wandering, fighting, studying languages, customs and religions. To understand the man and his poem, we must understand what he did, and since the time of the Old Romance, no man surpassed him in "deeds of derring-do." He was a modern, a very modern, Knight of the Round Table. He was the possessor of innumerable abstruse, and outlandish accomplishments. He was a scientist, a linguist, a poet, a geographer, a roughly clever diplomat, a fighter, a man with a polyhedric personality, that caught and gave, something from and to every one. And he died dissatisfied, at Trieste, in 1890, at the age of sixty-nine, and Swinburne sang a dirge for him that was almost worth dying for.

What he did is hard to condense into an article. I can do no more than skim over his career, and make out a feature here and there. He was an unstudious youth. He was not disciplined. He grew as he might, and he absorbed information at haphazard from any book he found to his liking, but he was a sort of intellectual Ishmael. He studied things not in the curriculum. He plunged into Arabic and Hindustani, and was "rusticated." He cared nothing for the classics, yet he left a redaction of Catullus that is a splendid exposition of that singer's fearful corruption, and with all of his art. He entered the Indian Army, and he became so powerful, though a subordinate, that he was repressed. His superiors feared, that in him, they would find another Clive or Hastings. Then he joined the Catholic church, but he joined many a church thereafter to find its hidden meaning. He was trusted to a limited extent by Sir Charles Napier, and he so insinuated himself with the natives, that he was one of them, and sharer of their mysterious powers. Kipling has pictured him under the name of "Strickland" as an occultly powerful personage in several of his stories. He was close to the Sikh war, and he mingled with the hostile natives in disguise, until he knew their very hearts. His pilgrimage to Mecca was a feat that startled the world. He was the first "infidel" to kiss the Kaabba. To do this he had to become a Mohammedan, and to perform almost hourly minute ceremonials, in which, had he failed of perfection, he would have been torn to pieces. His book on this journey is a narration that displays the deadly cold quality of his courage, and indeed a stupendous consciencelessness in the interest of science. Next we find him in the Crimea in the thick of things, and always in trouble. He said that all his friends got into trouble, and Burton was, usually, "agin the government." It was after the Crimea that he met the lady who became his remarkable wife, in the remarkable manner I have sketched. Then he went off to discover the sources of the Nile, and with Speke navigated Lake Tanganyika. He knew that he had not discovered the source, and he wanted to try again, but he and Speke quarreled, and pamphleteered against each other in the press. Burton, deficient in money, and in sycophancy, was discredited for a time, although now his name is immortal in geography as a pioneer of African travel. We have seen how he left his betrothed to study the Mormons, and he studied them more closely than his wife's book intimates, for she everything extenuated and ignored for her God-like Richard.

After his experiences of marriage in Mormondom, undertaken it now seems, in a desire to ascertain if polygamy were not better for him than monogamy, he returned to London, and was married despite the objections of Isabel Arundell's Catholic family. The lot of the couple was poverty, although now and then, thoughtful friends invited them to visit, and they accepted to save money. After a long wait he was appointed Consul at Fernando Po, on the West African coast. This was a miserable place, but Burton made it lively; he disciplined the negroes, and he made the sea captains fulfill their contracts under threat of guns. He went home, and then went back to Fernando Po, and undertook delicate dealings with the king of Dahomey, and explored the west coast. He went to Ireland, but Ireland was too quiet for him, but he found there were Burtons there, which accounted to himself for much of himself. After that he went to Brazil as Consul at Santos, Sao Pablo, another "Jumping off place." He explored. He found rubies, and he obtained a concession for a lead mine for others. He met there the Tichborne Claimant, and invented a Carbine pistol. He visited Argentina. All this time he was writing upon many things, or having his wife take his dictation. She went into the wilds, down into the mines, everywhere with him. Next he was transferred to Damascus, where his honesty got him into trouble, and his wife's Catholicity aroused great sentiment against him. He went into Syria, and he created consternation among the corrupt office holders in Asia Minor. One can scarcely follow his career without dizziness. By way of obliging a friend, who wanted a report on a mine, he went to Iceland, and came back to take the Consulship at Trieste. He went back to India and into Egypt, and then returned to Trieste to die. He wrote pamphlets, monographs, letters and books about everything he saw, and every place he visited. He had information exact, and from the fountain head about innumerable things; religions, races, ruins, customs, languages, tribal genealogies, plants, geology, archaeology paleontology, botany, politics, morals, almost everything that was of human interest and value, and besides all this, he was familiar with Chaucer's vocabulary, with recondite learning about Latin colloquialisms, and read with avidity everything from the Confessions of Saint Augustine to the newspapers. He wrote a "Book of the Sword," that is the standard book on that implement for the carving of the world. His translations of the "Arabian Nights" is a Titanic work, invaluable for its light upon Oriental folk lore, and literal to a degree that will keep it forever a sealed book to the Young Person. His translations of Camoens is said to be a wonderful rendition of the spirit of the Portuguese Homer. His Catullus is familiar to students, but not edifying. He wrote a curious volume on Falconry in India, and a manual of bayonet exercise. He collated a strange volume of African folk-lore. He translated several Brazilian tales. He translated Apulius' "Golden Ass." And he had notes for a book on the Gypsies, on the Greek Anthology, and Ausonius. The Burton bibliography looks like the catalogue of a small library. All the world knows about his book, "The Scented Garden," which he translated from the Persian, and which, after his death, his wife burned rather than permit the publication of its naked naturalism. It was in the same vein as his "Arabian Nights," and contained much curious comment upon many things that we Anglo Saxons do not talk about, save in medical society meetings, and dog Latin.

When such a man sat down to write a poem, embodying his view of "the Higher Law," what could have been expected but a notable manuscript. With his poem, "the Kasidah," we shall now concern ourselves. It purports to be a translation from the Arabic of Haji Abdu El Yezdi. Its style is like that of the Rubaiyat. It is erude, but subtile. It is brutal in its anti-theism, and yet it has a certain tender grace of melancholy, deeper than Omar's own. It is devoid of Omar's mysticism and epicureanism, and appallingly synthetic. It will not capture the sentimentalists, like the Rubaiyat, but, when it shall be known, it will divide honors with the now universally popular Persian poem. Burton's "Kasidah" is miserably printed in his "Life," but Mr. Thomas Mosher, of Portland, Maine, has issued it in beautiful and chaste form, for the edification of his clientele of searchers for the literature that is always almost, but never quite completely forgotten. The "Kasidah" was written in 1853, and it is, in its opening, much like Fitz Gerald's Rubaiyat, though Burton never saw that gem of philosophy and song, until eight years after. "The Kasidah" was not printed until 1880. It is difficult to interpret, because it so clearly interprets itself. It must be read. It cannot be "explained."

The Kasidah consists of about 300 couplets of remarkable vigor in condensation. It reviews all the explanations of "the sorry scheme of things" that man has contrived, and it holds forth the writer's own view. He maintains that happiness and misery are equally divided, and distributed in this world. Self cultivation is, in his view, the sole sufficient object of human life, with due regard for others. The affections, the sympathies, and "the divine gift of Pity" are man's highest enjoyments. He advocates suspension of judgment, with a proper suspicion of "Facts, the idlest of superstitions." This is pure agnosticism. There runs all through the poem a sad note that heightens the courage with which the writer faces his own bleak conclusion, and, "the tinkling of the camel bell" is heard faint and far in the surge of his investive, or below the deepest deep of his despair. In Arabia, Death rides a camel, instead of a white horse, as our occidental myth has it, and the camel's bell is the music to which all life is attuned. Burton reverts from time to time to this terrifying tintinnabulation, but he blends it with the suggested glamour of evening, until the terror merges into tenderness. The recurrence of this minor chord, in the savage sweep of Burton's protest against the irony of existence, is a fascination that the "Kasidah" has in common with every great poem of the world. The materialism of the book is peculiar in that it is Oriental, and Orientalism is peculiarly mystical. The verse is blunt, and almost coarse in places, but here and there are gentler touches, softer tones, that search out the sorrow at the heart of things. It is worthy, in its power, of the praise of Browning, Swinburne, Theodore Watts, Gerald Massey. It is Edward Fitz Gerald minus the vine and the rose, and ali Persian silkiness. The problem he sets out to solve, and he solves it by a petitio principii, is

Why must we meet, why must we part, why must we bear this yoke of Must,
Without our leave or ask or given, by tyrant Fate on victim thrust?

The impermanence of things oppresses him, for he says in an adieu,

. . . Haply some day we meet again; Yet ne'er the self-same man shall meet; the years shall make us other men.

He crams into one couplet after another, philosophy after philosophy, creed after creed, Stoic, Epicurean, Hebraic, Persian, Christian, and puts his finger on the flaw in them all. Man comes to life as to "the Feast unbid," and finds "the gorgeous table spread with fair-seeming Sodom-fruit, with stones that bear the shape of bread."

There is an echo of Koleleth in his contempt for the divinity of the body. It is unclean without, impure within. The vanity of vanity is proclaimed with piteous indignation.

"And still the weaver plies his loom, whose warp and woof is wretched Man,
Weaving the unpattern'd, dark design, so dark we doubt it owns a plan.
Dost not, O Maker, blush to hear, amid the storm of tears and blood,
Man say thy mercy made what is, and saw the made and said 'twas good?"

And then he sings:

Cease Man to mourn, to weep, to wail; enjoy the shining hour of sun;
We dance along Death's icy brink, but is the dance less full of fun?

In sweeping away the old philosophies and religions, he is at his best as a scorner, but he has "the scorn of scorn" and some of "the love of love" which, Tennyson declares, is the poet's dower. His lament for the Greek paganism runs:

And when at length, "Great Pan is dead" uprose the loud and dolorous cry,
A glamour wither'd on the ground, a splendor faded in the sky.
Yes, Pan is dead, the Nazarene came and seized his seat beneath the sun,
The votary of the Riddle-god, whose one is three, whose three is one. . . .

Then the lank Arab, foul with sweat, the drainer of the camel's dug,
Gorged with his leek-green, lizard's meat, clad in his filmy rag and rug,
Bore his fierce Allah o'er his sands
Where, he asks, are all the creeds and crowns and scepters, "the holy grail of high Jamshid?"
Gone, gone where I and thou must go, borne by the winnowing wings of Death,
The Horror brooding over life, and nearer brought with every breath.
Their fame hath filled the Seven Climes, they rose and reigned, they fought and fell,
As swells and swoons across the wold the tinkling of the camel's bell.

For him "there is no good, there is no bad; these be the whims of mortal will." They change with place, they shift with race. "Each Vice has borne a Virtue's crown, all Good was banned as Sin or Crime." He takes up the history of the world, as we reconstruct it for the period before history, from geology, astronomy and other sciences. He accepts the murderousness of all processes of life and change. All the cruelty of things

"Builds up a world for better use; to general Good bends special Ill."
And thus the race of Being runs, till haply in the time to be
Earth shifts her pole and Mushtari-men another falling star shall see:
Shall see it fall and fade from sight, whence come, where gone, no Thought can tell,--
Drink of yon mirage-stream and chase the tinkling of the camel-bell.
Yet follow not the unwisdom path, cleave not to this and that disclaim;
Believe in all that man believes; here all and naught are both the same.
Enough to think that Truth can be; come sit me where the roses glow,
Indeed he knows not how to know who knows not also how to unknow.

He denies the Soul and wants to know where it was when Man was a savage beast in Primeval forests, what shape it had, what dwelling place, what part in nature's plan it played. "What men are pleased to call the Soul was in the hog and dog begun."

Life is a ladder infinite-stepped that hides its rungs from human eyes:
Planted its foot in chaos-gloom, its head soars high above the skies.

The evolution theory he applies to the development of reason from instinct. He protests against the revulsion from materialism by saying that "the sordider the stuff, the cunninger the workman's hand," and therefore the Maker may have made the world from matter. He maintains that "the hands of Destiny ever deal, in fixed and equal parts their shares of joy and sorrow, woe and weal" to all that breathe our upper air. The problem of predestination he holds in scorn. The unequality of life exists and "that settles it" for him. He accepts one bowl with scant delight but he says "who drains the score must ne'er expect to rue the headache in the morn." Disputing about creeds is "mumbling rotten bones." His creed is this:

Do what thy manhood bids thee do, from none but self expect applause:
He noblest lives and noblest dies who makes and keeps his self-made laws.
All other Life is living Death, a world where none but Phanton's dwell,
A breath, a wind, a soul, a voice, a tinkling of the Camel's bell.

He appreciates to the full the hedonism of Omar but he casts it aside as emptiness. He tried the religion of pleasure and beauty. His rules of life are many and first is "eternal war with Ignorance." He says: "Thine ignorance of thine ignorance is thy fiercest foe, thy deadliest bane. The Atom must fight the unequal fray against a myriad giants. The end is to "learn the noblest lore, to know that all we know is naught." Self-approval is enough reward. The whole duty of man is to himself, but he must "hold Humanity one man" and, looking back at what he was, determine not to be again that thing. "Abjure the Why and seek the How." The gods are silent. The indivisible puny Now in the length of infinite time is Man's all to make the best of. The Law may have a Giver but let be, let be!

Thus I may find a future life, a nobler copy of our own, Where
every riddle shall be ree'd, where every knowledge shall be known;
Where 'twill be man's to see the whole of what on earth he sees a part;
Where change shall ne'er surcharge the thought; nor hope deferred shall hurt the heart.
But--faded flower and fallen leaf no more shall deck the parent tree;
A man once dropt by Tree of Life, what hope of other life has he?
The shattered bowl shall know repair; the riven lute shall sound once more;
But who shall mend the clay of man, the stolen breath to man restore?
The shivered clock again shall strike, the broken reed shall pipe again;
But we, we die and Death is one, the doom of brutes, the doom of men.
Then, if Nirvana round our life with nothingness, 'tis haply blest;
Thy toils and troubles, want and woe at length have won their guerdon--Rest.
Cease, Abou, cease! My song is sung, nor think the gain the singer's prize
Till men hold Ignorance deadly sin till Man deserves his title, "Wise."
In days to come, Days slow to dawn, when Wisdom deigns to dwell with men,
These echoes of a voice long stilled haply shall wake responsive strain:
Wend now thy way with brow serene, fear not thy humble tale to tell--
The whispers of the Desert wind: the tinkling of the Camel's bell.

So ends the song. The notes appended thereto by Burton are a demonstration of his learning and his polemic power. The poem is his life of quest, of struggle, of disappointment coined into song more or less savage. It seems to me that he overlooked one thing near to him that would have lighted the darkness of his view, while looking To Reason for balm for the wounds of existence. He ignored his wife's love which, silly and absurd as it seems at times, in the records she has left us, is a sweeter poem than this potent plaint and protest he has left us. He explored all lands but the one in which he lived unconsciously--the Land of Tenderness. This is the pity of his life and it is also its indignity. He was crueler than "the Cruelty of Things." He "threw away a pearl richer than all his tribe"--a woman's heart. But--how we argue in a circle!--that he, with his fine vision could not see this, is perhaps, a justification of his poem's bitterness. Even her service went for naught, seeing it brought no return of love from its object.

Burton was a great man, though a failure. His wife's life was one continuous act of love for him that he ignores and her life was a failure, too, since she never succeeded in making the world worship him as she did. Still "the failures of some the infinities beyond the successes of others" and all success is failure in the end. Still again, it is better to have loved in vain than never to have loved at all, and fine and bold and brave as was Richard Francis Burton, his wife, with her "strong power called weakness," was the greater of the two. She wrote no "Kasidah" of complaint, but suffered and was strong. St. Louis, August 16th, 1897.

(The end)
William Cowper Brann's essay: Gipsy Genius

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