By the 1960s, most people associated the name Richard Burton with a famous movie star, not an eccentric English explorer. If Sir Richard Burton was remembered at all it was for being the translator of an obscene(ish) version of The 1001 Nights and the Arab sex manual A Perfumed Garden. His entry in disguise into Mecca and his discovery of Lake Tangyanika sometimes ensured a degree of recognition. The main gist of the biographies, however, was that he was a wild and unpredictable force of nature, an adventurer – but certainly not a serious man. Burton’s writings don’t always help. A polyglot (with a working knowledge of over a dozen languages) Burton can’t help downloading everything he knows on a subject. The result is always fascinating but can be hard work. In those of his travel books where the narrative thread is strong, Burton’s lumpen prose is not so much of a problem. But many of his lesser works border on the unreadable. Thankfully, his poetry – which we’ll come back to in a moment – is a lot more fluent.
Though collectors have always prized his books, Burton could have ended up occupying a mere niche in history as a Victorian oddity, a ‘politically incorrect’ explorer and adventurer.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
It took the 14-page chapter entitled ‘The Higher Law’ in The Sufis by Idries Shah, to ensure a complete revaluation of the life and work of Sir Richard Burton. Admittedly, for those who cared to put in the time, there were already clues in the public record of a Burton who was utterly different to his pubic persona – a cartoon version of himself that was based on shocking the easily shockable Victorians. He liked to imply he had killed men with his bare hands, but there is no record of him killing anyone. He was sneering of conventional niceties, and yet he wrote: ‘the social position of the women is the unerring test of progress towards civilisation’. His wife – who adored and tried to emulate him in being adventurous and self-reliant – was once given the curt telegram to ‘pay, pack and follow’. And yet the poet Swinburne wrote of him, ‘I rather grudge Mrs Burton’s arrival here [since] he began at once gathering flowers to press for her.’
Burton was famous for his ‘basilisk stare’ that could reduce grown men to anxious fools. Diplomat Wilfred Scawen Blunt described it: ‘His expression as he gazed into my eyes was nothing less than atrocious.’ And yet children saw through it and adored his company.
Burton was no doubt aware of ‘the path of blame’ where a dervish courts opprobrium in order to demonstrate the essential superficiality of people’s judgements. And in the Victorian age there were plenty of people eager to pass judgement.
Burton was buried with his wife in Mortlake cemetery. The tomb is still there – and is rather unusual, modelled as it is after, not a Bedouin tent as if often surmised, but a special tent Burton and his wife used when he was Consul in Damascus – his favourite posting as a diplomat. He lies within in a steel coffin next to his beloved wife, who has a wooden one. Both are visible through a viewing window set into the roof and reached by a short viewing ladder. There are also some mysterious wires, a dud Victorian era battery and a solenoid operated camel’s bell. At one point this would have been controlled by anyone visiting the grave and opening the door – now sealed up. This apparently bizarre and somewhat kitsch set-up provides a vital clue to the real Richard Burton.
The line ‘the tinkling of a camel bell’ is the refrain, oft repeated, in Burton’s long poem ‘The Kasidah’. It was Shah who signposted the importance of this work and it was he who encouraged Octagon books to republish the book, which had been long out of print. His reason was that Burton was a Sufi and the Kasidah a poem in the great tradition of Sufi poetry. True to that tradition, Burton disguised its authorship, offering an introduction and some copious notes, claiming that the author was one Haji Abdu El-Yezdi, a Persian native speaker who, Burton says, was known to his friends as ‘our prophet’. He tells us the Haji has ‘a store of desultory various readings; scraps of Chinese and old Egyptian; of Hebrew and Syriac; of Sanskrit and Prakrit…nor was he ignorant of “the –ologies” and the triumphs of modern scientific discovery.’ In short he is a very unusual fellow – and obviously Richard Burton.
The poem, though it has many of the same themes of ancient Sufi poetry also has a new one – one that marks out Burton as the real thing and no mere imitator: it attempts to reconcile modern man, living in the era of Nietzsche and Darwin, with the eternal truths of mankind. It is an ambitious project – and an essential one for our time – and Burton initiates the process with zeal and success. Even Burton’s wife – a devout Catholic who was not sympathetic to many of his more outlandish views – would write of the book, “It is a poem of extraordinary power, on the nature and Destiny of Man, anti-Christian and Pantheistic. So much wealth of Oriental learning has rarely been compressed into so small a compass.”
He starts the introduction by telling us:
‘The author asserts Happiness and Misery are equally divided and distributed in the world. He makes Self-cultivation, with due regard to others, the sole and sufficient object of human life. He suggests that the affections, the sympathies, and the “divine gift of Pity” are man’s highest enjoyments. He advocates suspension of judgement, with a proper suspicion of “Facts, the idlest of superstitions.” Finally, although destructive to appearance, he is essentially reconstructive.’
These sentences are important. Burton is aware that his habitual ironic tone might confuse readers into thinking he is a total sceptic. Those who have read the Kasidah without paying attention might even imagine he is some kind of oddball atheist. But he is far more sophisticated than that. The ‘beliefs’ of the author sway and change as he homes in on his subject – Truth, and how best to approach this elusive beast in our sceptical age. He is ‘destroying’ a lot of the cant that has grown up around religious vocabulary. Look at the careful way he redesignates love as ‘the affections, the sympathies, and the “divine gift of Pity”.’ He wants to free us of the entrapment of words that come with emotional baggage. Quite extraordinary for the time, he both advocates suspension of judgement as well as a healthy scepticism of ‘the facts’. He is teasing out a position compatible with real science – discovery without becoming wedded to a model that will soon be out-dated. But this is to clear the ground – allowing an uninterrupted view of what has always been the heart of the matter, namely revelations of Truth. Shah writes, ‘Objective Truth is the goal of the Sufi, and it is obviously toward the need for finding this that Burton is directing his audience. All mere theories, repetitions, observances, are nothing.’
‘On Thought itself feed not thy thought;
Nor turn from Sun and Light to gaze,
At darkling cloisters paved with tombs,
Where rot the bones of bygone days’
This is again amplified with:
‘You all are right, you all are wrong,’ we hear the
Careless Sufi say,
‘For each believes his glimm’ring lamp to be the
Gorgeous light of day.’
But ‘truth cannot be found by the means which are generally used to seek it;’
“Yes, Truth may be, but ‘tis not Here; mankind
Must seek and find it There.
But Where not I nor you can tell, nor aught earth-
mother ever bare.”
“Enough to think that Truth can be; come sit we
Where the roses glow;
Indeed he knows not how to know who knows
not also how to unknow.”
It is in this zone beyond words that formerly theology and now science probe with limited degrees of approximate success. Both may provide useful information, but the journey can only be completed when it connects to the search for Objective Truth.
As Shah writes, “Burton, by relating Sufi thought to modern Western feelings, provided a bridge whereby the thinking Westerner could accept essential Sufi concepts.”
Let Burton have the last word:
“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.”
 Sir Richard Burton. The Kasidah. Octagon Press 1974.
 Idries Shah. The Sufis. P310. 2015 edition.