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Selections from the poetry of John Payne online

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Authorized Edition

Printed by Ballantynk, Hansom ^ Co.
At the BftllMityne Press

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The publication of this, the first selected edition of

Payne's verse, is an appeal to all lovers of poetry on

behalf of one of its uncrowned kings— widely known,

it is true, as a translator, but as a poet receiving less

than insular recognition.

<^ For years we have pored over his five published volumes

\^ with wonder and delight; nor have we been able to

understand how the English-speaking world can so long

^ have remained in comparative ignorance of their author's

\ genius. At last, upon the publication in London, by

, the Villon Society, of two quarto volumes, bearing

^ the date 1902 and the title, **The Poetical Works of

^ John Payne," in a limited numbered edition, we have

asked for and have been granted permission to offer to

American readers such of the poems as in our opinion

shall awaken interest and stimulate desire for more.

The Villon edition embraces some five thousand lines

of new matter, thrown off* for the most part between

the months of January and March 1902, during a

marked visitation of the muse immediately following

the completion of an exhaustive translation of the

works of the Persian poet Hafiz — a task that for nine

years had absorbed the powers, bodily and mental, of the

retired London solicitor.

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The early poems, reproduced with but slight verbal
alterations and few additional lines in the ^^ Poetical
Works,'* consisted of " The Masque of Shadows, and
Other Poems," 1870; "Intaglios,'* 1871 ; "Songs of
Life and Death,'* 1872; "Lautrec," 1878; "New
Poems,'* 1880. Among the first to feel the charm
of the new singer — who was born in London, August
23rd, 1842 — were Matthew Arnold and the aged poet
Home — the former highly commending his work; the
latter protesting almost fiercely against the reading
world's apparent indifference to it. Indeed, it was the
established men of the period — Tennyson, Browning,
Rossetti, above all Swinburne and Theodore Watts-
Dunton — who gave to John Payne the unhesitating
reception his first ventures deserved; whereas, to a
certain extent, the men of his own generation have
stood aloof, as if conscious of having little in common
with a writer unaccustomed by nature or habit to " the
sweet uses of advertisement,** and shrinking irresistibly
from the electric glare cast by cheap journalism. At
a period when an author*s personality seems of more
importance than anything he may utter, we do not
hesitate to say that, could the poetry and personality of
John Payne be no less vigorously advertised than were
Rossetti's, the "Intaglios** and "Ballad of Isobcl**
would become, to say the least, as familiar to readers
far and wide as the sonnets and "Blessed Damozel"
of the latter poet.

But while Mr. Payne's lack of acquaintance with
journalists and journalism has been such as to keep his
work in the background, nevertheless the leading journals
and critics, not only of England but of France, accorded
him from the first an appreciation genuine and discrimi-
nating as it was unstinted. The tVestminster Review^

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one of the most independent and self-centred of English
literary organs, observed at different periods : —

** Mr. Payne belongs to that small body of cultivated
men who will probably be the glory of Victorian
literature. . . . We gladly welcome Mr. Payne amongst
that select number of poets that already comprises such
names as Rossetti, Swinburne and Morris. . . . The art
of ballad-writing has long been lost in England, and
Mr. Payne may claim to be its restorer. ... He may
not be popular with the blind multitude, but he is
sure to be so with all lovers of poetry, both to-day
and to-morrow. . . . Posterity will place him between
Tennyson and William Morris, side by side with
Swinburne and D. G. Rossetti."

The Athenaum declared : —

^^ There can be no question that Mr. Payne is a poet.
Even in these da]rs, when the accomplishment of verse
is so common, the poet is just as distinguishable as he
ever was from the prose- writer who has Mearned the
trick.* The power of looking at the world through the
glamour that floats before the poet's eyes is not to be
taught, and it cannot be denied that herein Mr. Payne's
endowment is exceptional."

The Academy said of "New Poems": "Mr. Payne
has proved himself to be a master of his art. The
present volume is an advance in power upon its pre-
decessors, even as each one of them had been upon its

From The Spectator we quote : ** Really beautiful
verse, modulated ^with quite exquisite skill, and adorned
with a marvellous wealth of the richest word-painting,
of varied imagery and delicate &ncy. The power shown
in ^ Salvestra ' it would be difficult to exaggerate."

La Renaissance reviewed " Songs of Life and Death "

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at length, declaring that, to borrow the poet^s own
language : ^^ II a press6 son cceur comme une grappe
mArc, et il en est coul6 dc la po&ie— de la vraic po6sie."
Doubtless, the reviewer had in mind the despairing
protest in " Shadow-Soul " : —

** There was great love In this nuuCs soul!
Ay, bitter, cnuhed-out wine of love
Pressed out upon his CTcry word."

In an extended review in Le National Theodore de
Banville exclaimed : ^^ Mr. John Payne a public trois
livres d^licieux," and dwelt upon the ^^ chant magnifique
compost pour la France pendant Thiver de 1870-71.
Quel courage il y avait alors k Clever, seul, la voix pour
nous, seul dans TAngleterre et peut-6tre dans TEurope."
The paragraph refers to seven stanzas written shortly
before the capitulation of Paris, and published under the
title of " France," in " Songs of Life and Death," but
in the complete edition restored to their original place,
as part of the long poem " Salvestra " : —

*^ Ah, land of roses ! France, my love of lands !
How art thou fallen from thy high estate !
Bending, thou writhest in the Vandals' hands,
And the crowned spoiler sitteth in thy gate.
My heart is sore for thee."

Of " Sleepers and One that Watches," Mr. Swinburne
wrote in "The Dark-Blue" :—

"Mr. Simeon Solomon's sketch has been translated
into verse of kindred strength and delicacy, in three
fine sonnets of high rank, among the exquisite and
clear-cut * Intaglios * of Mr. John Payne."

Mr. Watts-Dunton has somewhere written : —

"There is more imagination, more romance, and

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more of what / call beauty in Mr. Payne's work than in
that of any living man, save one " — meaning, of course,

In the field of translation, according to Richard
Garnett, Mr. Payne is " literally without a rival." The
TVestminster Review asserts that " As past-master in the
difficult and ungrateful art of translation from widely
differing languages, he stands practically alone." The
paths of poet and translator often lie close together :
the poet is always, in one sense or another, and some-
times to an extraordinary degree, a linguist. The author
of the following translations, published in twenty-seven
volumes by the Villon Society, is a passionate linguist,
who has done noble work in the cause — if not in the
name — of comparative literature : —

"The Poems of Master Fran9ois Villon of Paris";
"The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night,"
nine volumes; "Tales from the Arabic," three
volumes ; " The Decameron or Boccaccio," three
volumes ; " Alaeddin and Zein ul Asnam," two stories
from the Arabic ; " The Novels of Matteo Bandello,"
six volumes ; ** The Quatrains of Omar Kheyyam " ;
" The Poems of Hafiz," three volumes.

The Society has also in preparation : —

" The Book of Kings, from the Persian of Firdausi " ;
"The Pentameron of Giambattiste Basile, done into
English from the Neapolitan original " ; " The Life and
Death of Cuculain, a romance cycle from the ancient
Irish " ; and " Fran9ois Rabelais and other Prose

At present the reputation of John Payne rests largely
upon his "Arabian Nights" and metrical translation of
Villon's "Greater and Lesser Testaments" and minor
poems. Even owners and readers of the aforesaid trans-

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lationsy who know them too well to confound their
author with John Howard Payne, the native of New
York City, who wrote the song, " Home, Sweet Home,"
have expressed surprise on being told that the English
translator is the author of more than thirty thousand
lines of original verse.

In 1 88 1, just as Mr. Payne was putting the last
stroke to the first of the nine volumes of "Nights,"
Mr. Robinson passed a delightful evening with him
in his solitary London quarters. He had found a rare
spirit Soon after returning to America he undertook
to secure the publication of the poems in the United
States, by showing them to the late Charles Dudley
Warner, as well as to many others. Mr. Warner re-
sponded heartily; he made repeated efforts to interest
publishers in the proposition, but, meeting with no
encouragement, was compelled reluctantly to abandon
it. His urgent request, in 1897, that Mr. Payne would
write the Villon article for ** A Library of the World's
Best Literature," never reached hincL To a friend in
America he wrote : " Have had several very kind letters
from Mr. Warner, who has taken a great deal of trouble
to no purpose." With the exception of the group of
selections, mainly from "Thorgerda" and the sonnets,
given in Stedman's "Victorian Anthology," we are
aware of no other attempt, on this side of the water,
to place John Payne's original work on the footing
It unquestionably merits. The copious collection of
"Ballads and Rondeaus" by Gleeson White (Walter
Scott, London), includes a greater number of the more
sparkling lyrics than are to be found in the " Victorian
Anthology " ; and in William Sharp's " Sonnets of this
Century" we detect the glimmer of three of the
"Intaglios." But the English collections, owing to

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their prescribed limits, convey no idea of the poet's
range as a thinker and scholar. The bent of his mind
was scholarly from childhood; and though his youth
was passed in uncongenial pursuits amidst unlovely sur-
roundings, he seems ever to have been like a delicate
instrument played upon by the kindred harmonies of
poetry and music In the latter a few violin lessons
in boyhood were all the instruction ever received ; yet
they fell on such soil that, had the child been reared
among musical people, we are tempted to believe that
his passion for production would have found its outlet
in sonatas rather than sonnets — in symphonic poems
rather than sea-voyages in verse. Self-instruction on
the piano (not altogether unlike the solitary methods
by which Mr. Payne has preferred to master more
than half of the languages at his command) has made
it possible — incredible as it may seem — for him to inter-
pret, not by ear, but from the piano score, the most
complicated orchestral works of Liszt, Berlioz and
Wagnen The precise effect of so persistent an absorp-
tion of musical ideas — which must have been carried
on for many years to reach a like result — ^may be diffi-
cult to determine; but the existence of the habit or
need is sufficient to account for the poet's complete —
we had almost said unique — ^mastery of metrical form.
More than the half-century of delving into poetry
ancient and modem, it explains what we venture to
regard as the ^^ musical content" of his admirably
modulated verse, embracing elements more definite than
mere sweetness and £u:ility.

In literature his earliest attempt was made at school,
when, a boy of nine or ten, he translated into English
verse, no longer preserved, a number of the odes of
Horace. Before he was twelve he had celebrated

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Caesar's conquest of Britain in lays more or less in-
spired by Macaulay's. Not only were these outpourings
and those of succeeding years allowed to perish, but by
far the greater number of the various translations made
between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one were con-
denmed to oblivion. Among these were a metrical
translation of Dante's entire work in verse ; the second
part of Goethe's "Faust," also his "Hermann und
Dorothea " ; Lessing's " Nathan der Weise," and
Calderon's "Magico Prodigioso." Innumerable shorter
poems were rendered into English from the German,
old and modern French, Provengal, Italian, Spanish,
and Portuguese ; but of the total mass only nine lyrics
of Goethe and Heine, given in the Villon edition, have
been thought worthy of preservation. Wishing to lay
stress upon Mr. Payne's inventive faculty, we have in-
cluded no translations in this volume. On the other
hand, we have selected, in further proof of his versa-
tility, as well as of his hold upon foreign tongues,
whether acquired in the closet or elsewhere, three
original effusions, two in French, the third in Italian,
&shioned, like nearly every stanza he has composed in
his native tongue, not in cold blood, but at white heat,
without labour and with the minimum of correction.

Acting upon a nature thus alive to the things of the
intellect, thus sufficient to itself, the opposite tendencies
of his fiamily — of his father, in particular — could not fail
to add flame to fiiel. The nine-year-old boy, drawn
to the dictionary by the witchery of word-analysis, is
warned that literature will never bake bread; and the
omnivorous reader's allowance is withheld lest any part
of it should be spent for books. In winter he is for-
bidden to "segregate himself" for purposes of study;
to enforce the decree, fire and light are denied him. At

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the age of fourteen the Mozart of letters, with the sensi-
tive ear and intuitive gra^p of a born philologist, and
with all his ambitions now turned in the direction of
language, is taken once for all out of school, to fill
various positions — as printer's devil in a provincial news-
paper establishment, as usher in two schools, then as
clerk in a solicitor's office. Everywhere extreme diffi-
dence engenders suffering, until in those phases of the
law lying nearest to literature — namely, chancery and
conveyancing — his brain and temperament find an occu-
pation in which they no longer appear at a disadvantage.
Enabled finally, with the assistance of friends, to found
the well-known Villon Society, he succeeded in bringing
the work of his strenuous later years before a cosmo-
politan and keenly appreciative public. In his own
words, in ** The Building of the Dream " : —

** And of a truth, no thing
Was wanting to the squire, but yet one field

Of fight, ere on his shield
The glorious blazon of a knight should shine —

Before the golden sign
Of chivalry should glance at either heel,

And the ennobling steel
Fall softly on his shoulder."

To take the lines literally, Mr. Payne's &mily name,
as borne by his father, Mr. Hawkins Payne, was knightly
enough, for the Paynes are descended from the bold
navigator and admiral of Elizabeth's England and
Kingsley's " Westward Ho ! "—Sir John Hawkins. The
old Devonshire fiunily bore the name of Hawkins until
marriage with an heiress induced a remote ancestor to
add the name of Payne to Hawkins. In revolt against

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affectation, the present generation has dropped the name
of Hawkins altogether.

Early and late in the heart of the minstrel the passion
for translation has come near superseding the poetic
faculty. In youth, no less than under the pressure of a
task like that of turning the whole of Hafiz into English,
it threatened to take full possession of him. It will not
be unpleasing to Americans to know that a minute volume
of the first twelve essays of Emerson, still treasured
among Mr. Payne's dearest books, rekindled in the
youth of nineteen the smouldering flame of ideality, in-
clining him definitely toward creative work. As a poet,
Emerson, like Byron, failed to make the faintest impres-
sion upon him. Keats and Shelley appealed to him, and
his liking for unsubstantial themes has brought him into
superficial comparison with them. But while their
poems afford scarcely a single domestic touch, John
Payne, in at least one ballad, that of ^^ Isobel," and in at
least one of the " London City Poems "— ** The Plague "
— has treated a domestic situation with the utmost
tenderness and felicity. The poets to whom he acknow-
ledges an actual debt are, first of all, the singer —

" Whose radiant brow is crowned
With triple coronals ineffable,
Attesting the assay of heaven and hell,"


** The glad master standing with one foot
On earth and one foot in the Faery land,'^

of the postlude to the narrative poem " Salvestra." After
Dante's sway and Spenser's, he owns that of minds so
diverse as Drunmiond of Hawthornden, Henry Vaughan,
Landor (in the " Hellenics ") Wordsworth, Heine (whom
at one time he knew by heart), and Browning (in ^^ Men

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and Women," ** Paracelsus," and the plays). Repelled
by Swinburne's earliest work, he came later to place him
next to Shakespeare. Before the publication of " The
Masque of Shadows," the influence of Emerson had given
way to that of Schopenhauer, and this in its turn led to
the study of the Vedantic philosophy of ancient India,
which eventually became the poet's chief mental and
moral guide. The ** blood-devouring way" of the
sonnet to Omar Khcyyam is the vedantist's thorny
path "from talk to fact," of quatrains 549 and 532.
The **new and valued friend" of the "Epilogue to
the Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night"
was Sir Richard F. Burton. The "Dead Master" of
the Threnody was Landor. The amico of the sonnet,
" With a Copy of the Divina Commedia," was the poet,
Arthur W. E. 0*Shaughnessy.

That the coarseness of an impartial unexpurgated
rendering of Oriental masterpieces never found its way
into the poet's own songs and stories — that the hand
of Villon's translator has escaped being endued with
that it works in is clear from "The Civilian's" some-
what old-fashioned — but to the general reader alwajrs
acceptable — statement that " Songs of Life and Death "
might be put into any school-girl's hands, "not only
without danger, but with the greatest advantage.^'

No estimate of Mr. Payne's work, either as scholar
or poet, would be complete without reference to the
spell that the intellect and atmosphere of France — her
language, her scenery, her great writers and foster-
children, from Rabelais to Gltlck, and from Gautier
to Auguste de Gobineau, have laid upon him. The
newly edited poems bear the inscription : —

"A la M6moire de mon bien cher et bien amirement
regrett£ St6phane Mallarmd, Esprit Exquis et Coeur


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d'Or, je dWie I'ddition d^nitive dc ccs fleurs de
tristesse qu'il aimait quand-m£me."

In a letter to America we come upon these words : —

"Your long-delayed letter finds me out, at last, on
my return from the Ardennes, where I have passed my
summer holiday under my favourite conditions, in the
midst of exquisite natural and wild beauty, and without
seeing an English face or speaking anything but French
or German — ^living, in fact, with the natives and nature."

This spontaneous tribute is ofiset, in another letter, by
one equally glowing to his mother-tongue : —

" My life is given up now to the building up of enormous
monuments of English prose, like the '^ Nights," all that
I can now do for that noble English language that I love
with an irrepressible affection and reverence, so much
so that I might wish my epitaph to be Linguam Anglicam
dilexit (He loved the English tongue)."

In "London City Poems,'* the "Requiem for Our
Dead in South Africa,'' the humorous "Dopper's
Lament," and the sonnet "England's Hope," love of
country and pride of race are overwhelmingly manifest.
Other evidence is not lacking that the student of past ages
has somehow felt the time-spirit fervently as any man of
his period, going beyond the Germans in his instantaneous
recognition of Richard Wagner, both as medievalist and
musician. Perhaps the twin voices of poetry and prophecy
were never more happily blended than in the prelude to
the volume " Songs of Life and Death " : —

<< Be not disheartened, O our Zoroaster,
O mage of our new music-world of fire —

All at thy spring shall drink and know it sweet ;
All the false temples shall fall down before thee.
Ay — and the false gods crumble at thy feet."

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These dedicatory words were written, as Mr. Fkyne
observes, in i867 - 68, ^when to mention Wagner as
a great musician was well-nigh to incur suspicion of
madness.*^ The vivid lay of **Sir Floris** also was

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Online LibraryJohn PayneSelections from the poetry of John Payne → online text (page 1 of 12)