A Neglected Genius: Sir Richard Burton


One hundred years ago, on March 19th, 1821, Sir Richard Burton was born; he died at Trieste on October 19th, 1890, in his seventieth year. He was superstitious; the fact that he was born and that he died on the nineteenth has its significance. On the night when he expired, as his wife was saying prayers to him, a dog began that dreadful howl which the superstitious say denotes a death. It was an evil omen; I have heard long after midnight dogs howl in the streets of Constantinople; their howling is only broken by the tapping of the bekjé’s iron staff; it sounds like loud wind or water far off, waning and waxing, and at times, as it comes across the water from Stamboul, it is like a sound of strings, plucked and scraped savagely by an orchestra of stringed instruments.

In every age there have been I know not how many neglected men of genius, undiscovered, misunderstood, mocked at in the fashion Jesus Christ was mocked by the Jews, scorned as Dante was scorned when he was exiled from Florence, called a madman as Blake used to be called, censured as Swinburne was in 1866, for being “an unclean fiery imp of the pit” and “the libidinous Laureate of a pack of satyrs;” so the greatest as the least—the greatest whose names are always remembered and the least whose names are invariably forgotten—have endured the same prejudices; have been lapidated by the same stones; such stones as Burton refers to when he writes in Mecca:

On the great festival day we stoned the Devil, each man with seven stones washed in seven waters, and we said, while throwing the stones, “In the name of Allah—and Allah is Almighty—I do this in hatred of the Devil, and to his shame.”

Burton was a great man, a great traveler and adventurer, who practically led to the discovery of the sources of the Nile; a wonderful linguist, he was acquainted with twenty-nine languages: he was a man of genius; only, the fact is, he is not a great writer. Continually thwarted by the English Government, he was debarred from some of the most famous expeditions by the folly of his inferiors, who ignorantly supposed they were his superiors; and, as Sir H. H. Johnston says in some of his notes, not only was Burton treated unjustly, but his famous pilgrimage to Mecca won him no explicit recognition from the Indian Government; his great discoveries in Africa, Brazil, Syria and Trieste were never appreciated; and, worst of all, he was refused the post of British Minister in Morocco; it was persistently denied him. He adds: “Had he gone there we might long since have known—what we do not know—the realities of Morocco.”

Still, when Burton went to India, I do not imagine he was likely to suffer from any hostility on the part of the natives nor of the rulers. Lord Clive, who, in Browning’s words, “gave England India,” which was the result of his incredible victory in 1751 over the Nabob’s army of 60,000 men, was never literally “loved” by the races of India; no more than Sir Warren Hastings. Still, Clive had genius, which he showed in the face of a bully he caught cheating at cards and in his mere shout at him: “You did cheat, go to Hell!” Impeached for the splendid service he had done in India he was acquitted in 1773; next year, having taken to opium, his own hand dealt himself his own doom. So he revenged himself on his country’s ingratitude. So did Burton revenge himself—not in deeds, but in words, words, if I may say so, that are stupendous. “I struggled for forty-seven years, I distinguished myself honourably in every way I possibly could. I never had a compliment nor a ‘Thank you,’ nor a single farthing. I translated a doubtful book in my old age, and I immediately made sixteen thousand guineas. Now that I know the tastes of England, we need never be without money.”

Burton first met Swinburne in 1861 at Lord Houghton’s house, who, having given him The Queen Mother, said: “I bring you this book because the author is coming here this evening, so that you may not quote him as an absurdity to himself.” In the summer of 1865 Swinburne saw a great deal of Burton. These two men, externally so dissimilar, had taken (as Swinburne said to me) a curious fancy, an absolute fascination, for each other. Virile and a mysterious adventurer, Burton was Swinburne’s senior by sixteen years; one of those things that linked them together was certainly their passionate love of literature. Burton had also—which Swinburne might perhaps have envied—an almost unsurpassable gift for translation, which he shows in his wonderful version of The Arabian Nights. He used to say:

I have not only preserved the spirit of the original, but the mécanique. I don’t care a button about being prosecuted, and if the matter comes to a fight, I will walk into court with my Bible and my Shakespeare and my Rabelais under my arm, and prove to them that before they condemn me, they must cut half of them out, and not allow them to be circulated to the public.

In his Foreword to the first volume of his Translation, dated Wanderers’ Club, August 15th, 1885, he says:

This work, laborious as it may appear, has been to me a labor of love, an unfailing source of solace and satisfaction. During my long years of official banishment to the luxurious and deadly deserts of Western Africa, it proved truly a charm, a talisman against ennui and despondency. The Jinn bore me at once to the land of my predilection, Arabia. In what is obscure in the original there are traces of Petronius Arbiter and of Rabelais; only, subtle corruption and covert licentiousness are wholly absent.

Therefore, in order to show the wonderful quality of his translation, I have chosen certain of his sentences, which literally bring back to me all that I have felt of the heat, the odor and the fascination of the East.

So I donned my mantilla, and, taking with me the old woman and the slave-girl, I went to the Khan of the merchants. There I knocked at the door and out came two white slave-girls, both young, high-bosomed virgins, as they were Moons. They were melting a perfume whose like I had never before smelt; and so sharp and subtle was the odor that it made my senses drunken as with strong wine. I saw there also two great censers each big as a mazzar bowl, flaming with aloes, nard, perfumes, ambergris and honied scents; and the place was full of their fragrance.

The next quotation is from the Tale of the Fisherman and the Jinn:

He loosened the lid from the jar, he shook the vase to pour out whatever might be inside. He found nothing in it; whereat he marvelled with an exceeding marvel. But presently there came forth from the jar a smoke which spread heavenwards into ether (whereat again he marvelled with mighty marvel) and which trailed along earth’s surface till presently, having reached its full height, the thick vapors condensed, and became an Ifrit, huge of bulk, whose crest touched the clouds when his feet were on the ground.

I have before me Smithers’ privately printed edition (1894) of The Carmina of Valerius Catullus now first completely Englished into Verse and Prose, the Metrical Part by Capt. Sir Richard Burton, and the Prose Portion by Leonard C. Smithe. Burton is right in saying that “the translator of original mind who notes the innumerable shades of tone, manner and complexion will not neglect the frequent opportunities of enriching his mother-tongue with novel and alien ornaments which shall justify the accounted barbarisms until formally naturalized and adopted. He must produce an honest and faithful copy, adding nought to the sense or abating aught of its cachet.” He ends his Foreword: “As discovery is mostly my mania, I have hit upon a bastard-urging to indulge it, by a presenting to the public of certain classics in the nude Roman poetry, like the Arab, and of the same date.”

Certainly Burton leaves out nothing of the nakedness that startles one in the verse of Catullus: a nakedness that is as honest as daylight and as shameless as night. When the text is obscene his translation retains its obscenity; which, on the whole, is rare: for the genius of Catullus is elemental, primitive, nervous, passionate, decadent in the modern sense and in the modern sense perverse. In his rhymed version of the Attis Burton has made a prodigious attempt to achieve the impossible. Not being a poet, he was naturally unable to follow the rhythm—the Galliambic metre, in which Catullus obtains variety of rhythm; for, as Robinson Ellis says:

It remains unique as a wonderful expression of abnormal feeling in a quasi-abnormal meter. Quasi-abnormal, however, only: for no poem of Catullus follows stricter laws, or succeeds in conveying the idea of a wild freedom under a more carefully masked regularity.

As one must inevitably compare two translations of the same original, I have to point out that Burton’s rendering is, both metrically and technically, inaccurate; whereas, in another rendering, the translator has at least preserved the exact metre, the exact scansion, and the double endings at the end of every line; not, of course, in this case, employing the double rhymes Swinburne used in his translation from Aristophanes. These are Burton’s first lines:—

O'er high deep seas in speedy ship his voyage Atys sped
Until he trod the Phrygian grove with hurried, eager
And as the gloomy tree-shorn stead, the she-God's
home he sought,
There sorely stung with fiery ire and madman's raging
Share he with sharpened flint the freight wherewith
his frame was fraught.

These are the first lines of the other version:—

Over ocean Attis sailing in a swift ship charioted
When he reached the Phrygian forests, and with rash
foot violently
Trod the dark and shadowy regions of the goddess,
And with ravening madness ravished, and his reason
abandoning him,
Seized a pointed flint and sundered from his flesh his


Burton himself admitted that he was a devil; for, said he: “the Devil entered into me at Oxford.” Evidently, also, besides his mixture of races, he was a mixture of the normal and the abnormal; he was perverse and passionate; he was imaginative and cruel; he was easily stirred to rage. Nearly six feet in height, he had, together with his broad shoulders, the small hands and feet of the Orientals; he was Arab in his prominent cheek-bones; he was gypsy in his terrible, magnetic eyes—the sullen eyes of a stinging serpent. He had a deeply bronzed complexion, a determined mouth, half-hidden by a black mustache, which hung down in a peculiar fashion on both sides of his chin. This peculiarity I have often seen in men of the wandering tribe in Spain and in Hungary. Wherever he went he was welcomed by the gypsies; he shared with them their horror of a corpse, of death-scene, and of graveyards. “He had the same restlessness,” wrote his wife, “which could stay nowhere long nor own any spot on earth. Hagar Burton, a Gypsy woman, cast my horoscope, in which she said: ‘You will bear the name of our Tribe, and be right proud of it. You will be as we are, but far greater than we.’ I met Richard two months later, in 1856, and was engaged to him.” It is a curious fact that John Varley, who cast Blake’s horoscope in 1820, also cast Burton’s; who, as he says, had finished his Zodiacal Physiognomy so as to prove that every man resembled after a fashion the sign under which he was born. His figures are either human or bestial; some remind me of those where men are represented in the form of animals in Giovanni della Porta’s Fisonomia dell’ Huomo (Venice, 1668), which is before me as I write; Swinburne himself once showed to me his copy of the same book. Nor have I ever forgotten his saying to me—in regard to Burton’s nervous fears: “The look of unspeakable horror in those eyes of his gave him, at times, an almost unearthly appearance.” He added: “This reminds me of what Kiomi says in Meredith’s novel: ‘I’ll dance if you talk of dead people,’ and so begins to dance and to whoop at the pitch of her voice. I suppose both had the same reason for this force of fear: to make the dead people hear.” Then he flashed at me this unforgettable phrase: “Burton had the jaw of a Devil and the brow of a God.”

In one of his letters he says, I suppose by way of persiflage in regard to himself and Burton: “En moi vous voyez Les Malheurs de la Virtu, en lui Les Prospérités du Vice.” In any case, it is to entertain Burton when he writes: “I have in hand a scheme of mixed verse and prose—a sort of étude à la Balzac plus the poetry—which I flatter myself will be more offensive and objectionable to Britannia than anything I have done: Lesbia Brandon. You see I have now a character to keep up, and by the grace of Cotytto I will.”

Swinburne began Lesbia Brandon in 1859; he never finished it; what remains of it consists of seventy-three galleys, numbered 25 to 97, besides four unprinted chapters. The first, “A Character,” was written in 1864; “An Episode” in 1866; “Turris Eburnea” in 1886; “La Bohême Dédorée” must have been written a year or two later. Mr. Gosse gives a vivid description of Swinburne, who was living in 13, Great James Street, and who was never weary of his unfinished novel, reading to him parts of two chapters in June, 1877. “He read two long passages, the one a ride over a moorland by night, the other the death of his heroine, Lesbia Brandon. After reading aloud all these things with amazing violence, he seemed quite exhausted.” It is possible to decipher a few sentences from two pages of his manuscript; first in “Turris Eburnea. ‘Above the sheet, below the boudoir,’ said the sage. Her ideal was marriage, to which she clung, which revealed to astonished and admiring friends the vitality of a dubious intellect within her. She had not even the harlot’s talent of discernment.” This is Leonora Harley. In La Bohême Dédorée we read:

Two nights later Herbert received a note from Mr. Linley inviting him to a private supper. Feverish from the contact of Mariani and hungry for a chance of service, he felt not unwilling to win a little respite from the vexation of patience. The sage had never found him more amenable to the counsel he called reason. Miss Brandon had not lately crossed his ways. Over their evening Leonora Harley guided with the due graces of her professional art. It was not her fault if she could not help asking her younger friend when he had last met a darker beauty: she had seen him once with Lesbia.


In 1848 Burton determined to pass in India for an Oriental; the disguise he assumed was that of a half-Arab, half-Iranian, thousands of whom can be met along the northern shore of the Persian Gulf. He set out on his first pilgrimage as Mirza Abdulla the Bushiri, as a buzzaz, vendor of fine linen, muslins and bijouterie; he was admitted to the harems, he collected the information he required from the villagers; he won many women’s hearts, he spent his evenings in the mosques; and, after innumerable adventures, he wended his way to Mecca. His account of this adventure is thrilling. The first cry was: “Open the way for the Haji who would enter the House!” Then:

Two stout Meccans, who stood below the door, raised me in their arms, whilst a third drew me from above into the building. At the entrance I was accosted by a youth of the Benu Shazban family, the true blood of the El Hejaz. He held in his hand the huge silver-gilt padlock of the Ka’abeh, and presently, taking his seat upon a kind of wooden press in the left corner of the hall, he officially inquired my mother-nation and other particulars. The replies were satisfactory, and the boy Mohammed was authoritatively ordered to conduct me round the building and to recite the prayers. I will not deny that, looking at the windowless walls, the officials at the door, and a crowd of excited fanatics below—

“And the place death, considering who I was,”

my feelings were those of the trapped-rat description, acknowledged by the immortal nephew of his uncle Perez. A blunder, a hasty action, a misjudged word, a prayer or bow, not strictly the right shibboleth, and my bones would have whitened the desert sand. This did not, however, prevent my carefully observing the scene during our long prayer, and making a rough plan with a pencil upon my white ihram.

After having seen the howling Dervishes in Scutari in Asia, I can imagine Burton’s excitement when in Cairo he suddenly left his stolid English friends, joined in the shouting, gesticulating circle, and behaved as if to the manner born: he held his diploma as a master Dervish. In Scutari I felt the contagion of these dancers, where the brain reels, and the body is almost swept into the orgy. I had all the difficulty in the world from keeping back the woman who sat beside me from leaping over the barrier and joining the Dervishes. In these I felt the ultimate, because the most animal, the most irrational, the most insane, form of Eastern ecstasy. It gave me an impression of witchcraft; one might have been in Central Africa, or in some Saturnalia of barbarians.

There can be no doubt that Burton always gives a vivid and virile impression of his adventures; yet, as I have said before, something is lacking in his prose; not the vital heat, but the vision of what is equivalent to vital heat. I have before me a letter sent from Hyderabad by Sarojini Naidu, who says: “All is hot and fierce and passionate, ardent and unashamed in its exulting and importunate desire for life and love. And, do you know, the scarlet lilies are woven petal by petal from my heart’s blood, those quivering little birds are my soul made incarnate music, these heavy perfumes are my emotions dissolved into aerial essence, this flaming blue and gold sky is the ‘Very You’ that part of me that incessantly and insolently, yes, and a little deliberately, triumphs over that other part—a thing of nerves and tissues that suffers and cries out, and that must die tomorrow perhaps, or twenty years hence.” In these sentences the whole passionate, exotic and perfumed East flashes before me—a vision of delight and of distresses—and, as it were, all that slumbers in their fiery blood.

“Not the fruit of experience,” wrote Walter Pater, “but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given us of a variegated dramatic life. To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” Alas, how few lives out of the cloud-covered multitude of existences have burned always with this flame! I have said somewhere that we can always, in this world, get what we want if we will it intensely enough. So few people succeed greatly because so few people can conceive a great end, and work toward that without tiring and without deviating. The adventurer of whom I am writing failed, over and over again, in spite of the fact that he conceived and could have executed great ends: never by his own fault, always by the fault of others.


Richard Burton dedicated his literal version of the epic of Camões “To the Prince of the Lyric Poets of his Day, Algernon Charles Swinburne.” He begins:

My dear Swinburne, accept the unequal exchange—my brass for your gold. Your Poems and Ballads began to teach the Philistine what might there is in the music of language, and what marvel of lyric inspiration, far subtler and more ethereal than poetry, means to the mind of man.

In return for this Swinburne dedicated to him Poems and Ballads, Second Series.

Inscribed to Richard F. Burton in redemption of an old pledge and in recognition of a friendship which I must always count among the highest honors of my life.

It was nine years before then, when they were together in the south of France, that Swinburne was seized by a severe illness; and, as he assured me, it was Burton who, with more than a woman’s care and devotion, restored him to health. The pledge—it was not the covenant sealed between the two greatest, the two most passionate, lovers in the world, Iseult and Tristan, on the deck of that ship which was the ship of Life, the ship of Death, in the mere drinking of wine out of a flagon, which, being of the nature of a most sweet poison, consumed their limbs and gave intoxication to their souls and to their bodies—but a pledge in the wine Swinburne and Burton drank in the hot sunshine:—

For life's helm rocks to windward and lee,
And time is as wind, and waves are we,
And song is as foam that the sea-waves fret,
Though the thought at its heart should be deep as the

It was in July, 1869, that Swinburne joined the Burtons and Mrs. Sartoris at Vichy. As I have never forgotten Swinburne’s wonderful stories about Burton—besides those on Rossetti and Mazzini—I find in a letter of his to his mother words he might really have altered.

If you had seen him, when the heat and the climb and the bothers of travelling were too much for me—in the very hot weather—helping, waiting on me—going out to get me books to read in bed—and always kind, thoughtful, ready, and so bright and fresh that nothing but a lizard (I suppose that is the most insensible thing going) could have resisted his influence—I feel sure you would like him (you remember you said you didn’t) and then—love him, as I do. I never expect to see his like again—but him I do hope to see again, and when the time comes to see him at Damascus as H.B.M. Consul.

They traveled in carriages, went to Clermont-Ferrand, where Pascal was born; then to Le Puy-en-Velay. In 1898 I stayed with the Countess De la Tour in the Château de Chaméane, Puy de Dôme, and after leaving her I went to Puy-en-Velay. I hated it, the Burtons did not. Stuck like a limpet on a rock, the main part of the town seems to be clinging to the side of the hill on which the monstrous statue desecrates the sky. At night I saw its gilt crown merge into a star, but by day it is intolerably conspicuous, and at last comes to have an irrational fascination, leading one to the very corners where it can be seen best. And always, do what you will, you can not get away from this statue. It spoils the sky. The little cloister, with its ninth-century columns, is the most delightful spot in Le Puy; only the intolerable statue from which one can not escape showed me nature and humanity playing pranks together, at their old game of parodying the ideal. This is Swinburne’s comment:—

Set far between the ridged and foamless waves
Of earth more fierce and fluctuant than the sea,
The fearless town of towers that hails and braves,
The heights that gild, the sun that brands Le Puy.

This year there has been a great Pardon at Le Puy. I have seen several pilgrimages, in Moscow, for instance, at Serjevo, which is an annual pilgrimage to the Troitsa Monastery, and in these people there was no fervor, no excitement, but a dogged desire of doing something which they had set out to do. They were mostly women, and they flung themselves down on the ground; they lay there with their hands on their bundles, themselves like big bundles of rags. How different a crowd from this must have assembled at Le Puy; made so famous so many centuries ago by the visitations of Charlemagne and Saint Louis, who left, in 1254, in the Cathedral a little image of Horns and Isis. Then there was Jeanne d’Arc, who in 1429 sent her mother there instead of herself, being much too busy: she was on the way to Orléans.

As it is, Our Lady gets all the honors; only, there is a much older Chapel of Saint Michael, which is perched on the sheer edge of a rock; it is perhaps more original than any in France, with the exception of the Chapel of Saint Bonizel in Avignon. When I stood there and looked down from that great height I remembered—but with what a difference!—Montserrat in Spain, where the monastery seemed a part of the mountain; and from this narrow ledge between earth and heaven, a mere foothold on a great rock, I looked up only at sheer peaks, and down only into veiled chasms, or over mountainous walls to a great plain, ridged as if the naked ribs of the earth were laid bare.


I have been assured, by many who knew him, that Richard Burton had a vocabulary which was one of his inventions; a shameless one—as shameless as the vocabularies invented by Paul Verlaine and by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, which are as vivid to me as when I heard their utterance. These shared with Villiers de Isle-Adam that sardonic humor which is not so much satire as the revenge of beauty on ugliness, the persecution of the ugly: the only laughter of our generation which is as fundamental as that of Rabelais and of Swift. Burton, who had much the same contempt for women that Baudelaire imagined he had, only with that fixed stare of his that disconcerted them, did all that with deliberate malice. There was almost nothing in this world that he had not done, exulted in, gloried in. Like Villiers, he could not pardon stupidity; to both it was incomprehensible; both saw that stupidity is more criminal than even vice, if only because stupidity is incurable, if only because vice is curable. Burton, who found the Arabs, in their delicate depravity, ironical—irony being their breath of life—might have said with Villiers: “L’Esprit du Siècle, ne l’oublions pas, est aux machines.”

Every individual face has as many different expressions as the soul behind it has moods; therefore, the artist’s business is to create on paper, or on his canvas, the image which was none of these, but which those helped to make in his own soul. I see, as it were, surge before me an image of Swinburne in his youth, when, with his passionate and pale face, with its masses of fiery hair, he has almost the aspect of Ucello’s Galeazzo Malatesta. Burton’s face has no actual beauty in it; it reveals a tremendous animalism, an air of repressed ferocity, a devilish fascination. There is almost a tortured magnificence in this huge head, tragic and painful, with its mouth that aches with desire, with those dilated nostrils that drink in I know not what strange perfumes.


Arthur Symons (1865-1945) was a British poet, critic and editor.

Featured: Sir Richard Francis Burton by Frederic Leighton, ca. 1872-1875.