Thomas Wright of Olney (1859–1936)

Thomas Wright will be known to most readers of this essay for The Life of Edward FitzGerald (2 volumes, Grant Richards, London 1904) and possibly also for his book of Omar–related verse, Heart’s Desire (Long’s Publications Ltd, London 1925.) We shall return to the second of these books in some detail later. Meanwhile, it is curious that Wright was born in 1859, the year of publication of FitzGerald’s first edition, albeit a month and a half later. A photograph of Wright, taken in 1921, is shown in Fig.1.

Wright’s Life was by no means the first to appear – John Glyde’s Life had been published by C. Arthur Pearson Ltd. of London in 1900 (1). But it was certainly the most detailed, and had the benefit, as he tells us in his Preface, of interviews with W. Aldis Wright, FitzGerald’s literary executor; Professor E.B. Cowell, who introduced FitzGerald to Omar; Rev. E. Kenworthy Browne, the son of William Kenworthy Browne, the young man with whom FitzGerald was infatuated before his early death in 1859; ‘Posh’ Fletcher, the fisherman with whom FitzGerald was also infatuated; and a long list of local people whose names are unknown to history, but who, in one way or another, had known FitzGerald personally during his lifetime. (In fairness, Glyde’s book, which Wright acknowledged in his Preface, also used interviews with local people who had known FitzGerald, but not to the extent that Wright’s did.) Worthy of note is that at the end of volume 2, Wright reproduced in facsimile FitzGerald’s “Museum Book” of 1833, mainly to show that not only did FitzGerald know a lot about art, he was “himself no inconsiderable artist.”

But FitzGerald and his Rubaiyat were not actually Wright’s main interest, for as he tells us in his Preface (p.xi), the writing of a Life of FitzGerald was suggested to him by a friend when he found himself at a literary loose-end, with his edition of Cowper’s Letters being in the press.

By way of explanation, the poet William Cowper was born in Berkhamstead in 1731, but in 1767 he moved to Olney, near Bedford, where he lived until his death in 1800. Olney was Wright’s birthplace, and where he spent most of his life, so with an interest in poetry, it was almost inevitable that he would take a particular interest in a great poet with local connections. Thus he wrote The Town of Cowper: or the Literary and Historical Associations of Olney and its Neighbourhood (Sampson Low & Co., London 1886); The Life of William Cowper (T. Fisher Unwin, London 1892), The Loved Haunts of Cowper – being an outline of the Life of William Cowper with special Reference to his Favourite Resorts in Olney and Weston Underwood (T. Fisher Unwin, London 1894); The Unpublished and Uncollected Poems of William Cowper (T. Fisher Unwin, London 1900) and the above–mentioned book, The Correspondence of William Cowper (4 volumes, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1904.) Wright was also instrumental in founding the Cowper Museum, in the poet’s former house in Olney, in 1900, and as we shall see presently, he also ran the Cowper School in Olney for many years. This is all worth mentioning in some detail to show that not only was Wright a conscientious and prolific author, he was also active in local affairs (he served on Olney Parish Council for three years, for example.) Bear in mind that during the period spanned by the above–mentioned books he had also found the time to write The Life of Daniel Defoe (Cassell & Co., London 1894.) and The Acid Sisters, and Other Poems (Self–published, Olney, 1897.)

This last is perhaps worthy of an aside, though to be honest it is for the most part a rather dull example of Victorian poetry. Taking its title from the longest poem in the book, a medieval tale of four distinctly unpleasant sisters, set in Olney and its environs, it would hardly be worth mentioning here were it not for the poem “Edward FitzGerald at Bedford”, which I reproduce here as Fig.2. FitzGerald’s connection with Bedford, like Cowper’s with Olney, was of great interest to Wright, for whom local history held great fascination – hence “The Acid Sisters” and eleven other poems in the book with local connections.

But moving away from his poems, Wright also continued to collect the letters of Cowper and to acquire items for the Cowper Museum, resulting some years down the line in The Unpublished and Uncollected Letters of William Cowper (C.J.Farncombe & Sons Ltd., London 1925.)

So who was Thomas Wright ? The story is not at all a dry–as–dust account of scholarly pursuits and local good deeds.

Some Biographical Details.

We are fortunate that Wright was prominent enough for The Autobiography of Thomas Wright of Olney to be published by Herbert Jenkins Ltd. in 1936. Fig.1 is taken from it. The closing words of the autobiography are, “if I were to have my choice I should like to die with a pen in my hand and a sentence half–written.” Whether this literally came to pass I do not know, but he died of bronchial pneumonia at his home in Olney on 3 April 1936 just short of his 77th birthday. His obituary appeared in The Times on 6 April 1936 (p.17, col.3). There is nothing factual in it that is not in the following, though it does make this rather carping comment:

It must be said, however, that his skill and industry in the collection of facts were superior to his literary style, his critical faculty and his selection and arrangement of his material.

More appreciative obituaries featured in the local press (2).

The basic facts of his life are these (in what follows, A.25, for example, will mean Autobiography p.25.) He was born in Olney on 16 May 1859, the son of William Samuel Wright, a trained artist but a photographer by profession, and his wife, Ann (A.13–6.) In 1873 his father placed him as an articled pupil at Buxton College, Forest Gate, London. Articled for five years he was effectively a trainee teacher and a pupil at the same time (A.37). By 1882, though, he was back in Olney and opened a private school there (A.44). This was the Cowper School (Fig.3), and Wright was effectively re–opening his own old school, which had been founded in 1868 by “the corpulent and scholarly Mr John Kidd, who unfortunately wrecked his prospects by intemperance.” (A.27). The School was also his home, and remained such when he retired and closed the school 33 years later, in 1915 (A.148).

In 1884 he married Angelina Edwards (A.45). The marriage was a happy one and they had four children Philip Allden (b.1890), Christabel (b.1892), Una (b.1896) and Alice Genevieve (b. 1901). Sadly, Christabel died in 1899 just short of her seventh birthday. In one of those details that make Wright’s autobiography so readable, he says of this sad event: “Five pretty little letters written by Christabel to me when she was from home and the portrait already mentioned [a photograph] are among my treasures.” (A.70) On a lighter note, he records the sayings of their children when they were little:

When some rich man died I referred to the death duties and said, “They’ll make him pay £900,000.” “But why?” asked Philip, “He couldn’t help dying!” (A.133)

Likewise, much later, he tells us that when his granddaughter Heather felt that he was not paying her enough attention on account of working on his autobiography, she said, “It is not an autobiography but a naughty –biography.” (A.219) Wright had a good sense of humour – he joked that before their marriage, Angelina had looked forward to a life of being surrounded by books, but that after their marriage, she felt she was surrounded by too many! (A.180) “I have tried to see the humorous side of life,” he wrote (A.176). We shall have more examples of this side of him as we go along.

Angelina Wright helped out at the school, as Wright explains in the following neat snapshot of days gone by:

Our school, for my wife helped in it, gradually prospered and at one time we had fifty pupils and gave private lessons in the evenings. Like other school–masters of the old–fashioned type of those days I wore a white bow – a custom which, as will be seen, provoked witticisms in my family. We often took our pupils (we had girls as well as boys) into the villages and gave them history lessons under the yawning gargoyles and shielded corbels of ancient churches or on the sites of old abbeys and castles, endeavouring to make the occasion interesting by description and anecdote. My wife would instruct them in botany under the oaks and among the anemones of Yardley Chase. (A.45–6)

The school, however, was not his only source of income, for he tells us that as a back–up, lest his school might fail financially, he decided to invest in property, buying and selling houses and cottages, and renting them out. “I collected the rents myself,” he tells us, “and had some amusing experiences.”(A.54) My own favourite is this:

I like pretty things, including pretty faces. My rule in letting is, first come, first serve, but once three persons applied, all speaking grammatically, and then came a newly married young woman, who asked, “‘Ave you an ‘ouse to let ?” I ought to have been shocked, but she looked so pretty – besides she had a dimple and a retroussé nose, so I let her have it. But what chance has the King’s English against a dimple and a retroussé nose! (A.55)

As we shall see several times in the course of this essay, Wright had a weak spot for the fair sex.

As indicated earlier, Wright was instrumental in founding the Cowper Museum in Olney (Fig.4). The project began in 1890 with the formation of a collection of Cowper manuscripts and relics in his own home. As this accrued, he began a campaign of public addresses and letters to the press urging the acquisition of Cowper’s House to serve as a museum which would then be the property of the nation. (A.53) It took eight years, but he succeeded, the grand opening taking place on 25 April 1900, the centenary of Cowper’s death (A.72).

Exactly a year later, the first meeting of Wright’s Cowper Society took place (A.79), its first president being Lord Cowper (3), on whom is centred one of Wright’s numerous amusing anecdotes. It took place in 1892:

In the spring a stranger called to see me, and my mother, deceived by his plausible talk, invited him in, and asked him to tea. He turned out to be little more than a tramp. On 28 July another stranger called, but this time my mother was more cautious, for she came to me saying, “There’s somebody else asking for you. He’s not so well dressed as the other man, and he’s lame – another tramp no doubt, so I did not ask him in.” I went to the door and discovered that the supposed tramp was Lord Cowper, who had been reading my Town of Cowper and the announcements of the forthcoming biography and wanted to make my acquaintance.” (A.57–8)

Not surprisingly, much of Wright’s autobiography is taken up with accounts of his research and writing, but before we follow him into the next phase of this, involving his studies of Omar, it might be useful to say something about Wright’s religious views.

He was a devout Christian, with “Puritan leanings owing to heredity,” as he put it (A.166). He wrote:

As to religion, I believe the simple teaching of Jesus Christ to be the best. He required no frillings. When excessive ceremonialism comes in spirituality goes out. (A.178)

During the First World War he held Prayer Meetings in his schoolroom and delivered sermons in local churches whose preachers had been called to the Front (A.145f.) There were daily Bible readings in the Wright household, and he considered the Authorised Version “beyond praise.” (A.153) He had a great interest in hymns, and in 1909 decided to write the biographies of the British hymn writers in a projected twelve volumes (A.135, 145 & 153), though not all of these were published in the end (4). He was “a firm believer in a personal God taking a personal interest in us – (He is Master of all events) – and in the power of prayer” (A.166). But he was also puzzled by the unsought–for and seemingly unjust calamities that beset some lives, admitting that, “impenetrable, in our present state, are the designs of Providence.” (A.166) But he also said, “I try to regard misfortune, not as a misfortune, but as a blessing which I shall later understand.” (A.167). He believed, with Seneca, that “a life that is secure and unmolested by any attack of fortune is a Dead Sea.” (A.172) He believed, too, in the Immortality of the Soul, though on grounds which will seem suspect today to anyone with any experience of dementia or the effects of a stroke:

That which convinces me that the soul is immortal is the fact that a healthy man retains his mental faculties to the very end. (A.192)

All in all, then, Wright is rather an unlikely Omarian, and unfortunately he doesn’t tell us in his autobiography how he first came to be drawn to Omar, simply that he was drawn to writing his biography of FitzGerald by living close to Bedford. But we do know that a particular interest in Omar was down to John Payne’s translation The Quatrains of Omar Kheyyam of Nishapour published by the Villon Society, by private subscription and for private circulation only, in London in 1898. An accurate and scholarly translation of 845 quatrains it might be, but most of us would readily admit that it isn’t a patch on FitzGerald’s rendering, though Wright would certainly not agree with such a view, as we shall see.

John Payne (1842–1916)

John Payne could apparently speak fifteen languages. He had translated the poems of François Villon from French and The Decameron of Boccaccio from Italian, in addition, of course, to The Rubaiyat from Persian. He was also a poet, having published, for example, The Masque of Shadows and Other Poems (1870), Intaglios (1871) and Songs of Life and Death (1872). He was a man of many talents. As Wright put it:

Dinner with Payne was an elaborate function for he was an epicure. He had quite a library of cookery books and he was himself a skilful cook, but what was he not ? He was joiner, chemist, strategist, politician, gardener – to say nothing of musician, scholar and poet. He was everything. (A.101)

But that is background. In 1882–4 the Villon Society (5) had published Payne’s translation from Arabic of The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night and in 1904, when Wright was researching what was to become his Life of Sir Richard Burton (2 volumes, Everett & Co., London 1906), he wrote to Payne requesting an interview. But Payne was rather a prickly and reclusive character, and at first he was unwilling to meet Wright. (A.98) But Wright persevered, and in September 1904 he was finally given the go–ahead to call on Payne at his house in Kilburn (London). He describes the occasion as follows:

I was shown into the drawing–room – two apartments thrown, by the disuse of folding doors, into one. It was filled with antique and oriental furniture surrounded with a rich duskiness of colour – for Payne had a gorgeous sense of life – and shelves crowded with books. On all sides were old gold, ebony, lac. I might have been in Persia or Arabia. Near the back window was a piano, for Payne was a skilled musician. Such was the cell. When the anchorite appeared I saw to my surprise a comparatively young–looking man, though he had passed 62. He was slight in build, with a peaked beard and heavy dark eyebrows, and looked like an Elizabethan transferred bodily into the twentieth century, his ruff and slashed sleeves lost in transit. He wore dark clothes and an orange tie, passed through a gold ring. (A.98–9)

A photograph of Payne taken in about 1904 is shown in Fig.5.

The meeting was a great success and the two “were on intimate terms in less time than can be recorded” their friendship becoming “the event of my life.” (A.98–9) In the end, he visited Payne so many times that one day a bus–driver recognised him and told him he was on the wrong bus: “Sir, this is not the Kilburn bus. It goes to Hammersmith” (A.102). Payne, however, could not be persuaded to visit Olney: “he was a limpet and there was no detaching him from his rock.” (A.102)

Wright’s most controversial claim in his biography of Burton, based on Burton’s unpublished letters to Payne, and on a comparative study of their respective translations, was “that Burton’s was merely Payne’s, altered and spoilt” (A.109–10), indeed “that Burton had stolen his translation from Payne.” (A.114) Actually, this is not altogether true. Whilst Burton seems to have taken short–cuts and plagiarised passages of Payne’s translation (6a), Payne had skirted round the erotic content of The Arabian Nights, whereas Burton translated (and annotated) these with gusto. As one reviewer put it, Payne’s translation was for the Study; Burton’s for the Sewers (6b). Payne for his part had a great respect for Burton as a man of action, and as regards his knowledge of Oriental customs, but thought his grasp of literary Arabic was poor. He was well aware that Burton had relied heavily upon his translation when it came to many of the difficult passages in The Arabian Nights, but this did not bother Payne much. What really irked Payne was that Burton’s reputation as a great traveller in the East had led to a popular belief that Burton’s was the more accurate version. (7a)

On 14 September 1912 there appeared in The Academy an article by Wright entitled “John Payne and his Work.” Unfortunately, as Wright put it in a letter to Payne:

The Editor has left out one sentence, so it reads as though your cat, and not you, were master of and had translated from fifteen languages. I think the world has treated you pretty badly. First it gave Burton the honour of being the translator of the Arabian Nights, and now it makes your cat (D’Indy) the author of the rest of your Translations. Nothing remains now for it except to father your original poems on somebody else. (A.142–3)

Talking of Payne’s poems, Wright was also a great fan of them, and on some of his visits to Payne’s house, he was ’treated’, if that is the right word, to a recitation of some of them. Wright was also ’treated’ to Payne’s views on a wide range of things.

He praised the “elemental greatness” of Carlyle but would not hear a word in favour of Oscar Wilde, whose volume Intentions I declared to be a fine piece of work. He called him “a temporary god in a temporary niche.” (A.107–8)

Of Swinburne (in 1907) he expressed an opinion often expressed by others: “When he was a young man and drank he wrote fine poetry; now he is sober he writes nothing of consequence.” (A.118) Wright disagreed with this, arguing that drink had nothing to do with it:

As a young man he wrote, his blood being hot, amorous – and melodious – poetry. When a man passes middle life such themes lose their interest for him. (A.118)

Given the abnormal nature of Swinburne’s sexuality, this is disputable, but either way it shows that Wright certainly did not agree with everything that Payne said.

Incidentally, Wright knew Swinburne. They first made contact by letter in January 1905 (A.105), and in June of that year he paid his first visit to The Pines, the house where Swinburne lived with his ‘minder’, Theodore Watts–Dunton (A.106) – Wright includes photographs of both men in his autobiography. Readers of this essay will be particularly interested in an event which occurred on a later visit to The Pines in March 1906:

Swinburne then showed me his penny copy of FitzGerald’s Omar Khayyam. “I remember,” he said, “Rossetti’s pretended indignation when the price was afterwards raised to twopence.” (A.113)

Not unexpectedly, of FitzGerald Payne said: “FitzGerald’s Omar Khayyam is a mere rifacimento of a few [of] Khayyam’s verses” (A.101) (7b), a view with which, as we shall see later, Wright agreed. Payne went on to say that his own translation was a great success financially, but that the reviews were pitiable: “They call the Persian poet Omar. It is just as sensible to refer to the plays of William, instead of the plays of Shakespeare.” (A.101) That is a slap on the wrist for many of us today, I suspect!

Clearly to some extent Wright hero–worshipped Payne, and it is not surprising that in 1905 he set up the John Payne Society (A.106), not without some objections from Payne himself (A.185–6). These overcome, the formation of the Society went ahead, though Payne objected again when members of the Society began to write to him (A.119.) As Wright put it, he became a Buffer State between Payne and his ‘fans’.

Incidentally, Angelina Wright said of Payne that “he was a very great man, and had unusual will power, but not enough flexibility” (A.149) and on one occasion she gave an address to the John Payne Society, having made a special study of Payne’s “London Poems” (A.109).

Payne died in 1916 (A.185), and Wright’s close contact with him over the years led to his writing The Life of John Payne (T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1919) (A.183). Payne thought enough of Wright to give him the manuscript of his autobiography, which was dutifully edited and published in a limited edition of 225 copies as The Autobiography of John Payne (Olney 1926). For anyone wanting to know about Payne’s life, though, as opposed to reading about, for example, how the literary world had greatly undervalued him, his justifications for using unnecessarily obscure words in his poems, his disdain for the slackers and spongers among the lower classes, and his complaints about what a Philistine his father was, his autobiography is a disappointment, and Wright’s biography is much more useful. (7c)

To remind ourselves of Wright’s industry it is worth noting that during his involvement with Payne he had also written The Life of Walter Pater (2 volumes, Everett & Co., London 1907) (A.119); The Life of Colonel Fred Burnaby (Everett & Co., London 1908) (A. 39 & 130–1) and The Life of William Huntington, SS (C.J. Farncombe & Sons, London 1909) (A.131). By way of explanation, Col. Burnaby was a local worthy who was a friend of the Wright family, particularly of Wright’s father’s cousin, another Thomas Wright, a balloonist, with whom the colonel had crossed the Channel in 1882. (A.39) William Huntington was the author of God the Guardian of the Poor and The Bank of Faith (Part 1, 1785; Part 2, 1802) and The Kingdom of Heaven taken by Prayer (1784) both of which had greatly influenced Wright. The SS in the title of Wright’s Life stands for “sinner saved”, incidentally. (A.130)

For the Love of a Lady

As already indicated, Wright had a weakness for the fair sex. On one occasion, on a visit to Mrs (later Lady) Throckmorton, whilst perusing a volume of pictures of Egyptian ladies of the time of the early Pharaohs, he pointed to one and said, “I’m afraid I’m in love with that lady. I suppose there is no harm in a married man falling in love with a lady who has been dead four thousand years?” Mrs Throckmorton replied, “It’s safe.” (A.201)

Wright had a theory that great artists and writers have a strong sex–drive. “It will be found,” he wrote, “that the man of genius has no mere fondness, but a flaming passion, for someone of the opposite sex – a wife, as in the case of Pliny; a mistress, as in the case of Diderot; an impossible ideal, as in the case of Dante – a someone.” (A.163) (As regards women of genius, he said nothing, and the notion of a homosexual genius seems not to have occurred to him. But that is by the by.) As a result, he had a particular interest in the love–lives of men of genius (A.181) – including Casanova (A.189–90) – and especially in those cases where the passion was unreciprocated by the lady in question. He wrote:

What a debt we owe to Sarah Walker who made possible Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris ! Yet she cared not a pepper–corn for the man who deified her. She flung herself into the arms of an ordinary lodger, and married him. Then there was Ernest Dowson and his Cynara. He might call for “madder music and for stronger wine,” but she gave herself not to him but to a waiter, one who served drink at her father’s counter. That, however, did not prevent the dreams Dowson had of her or the production of his “Non sum Qualis.” Then there was Laurence Sterne sighing for his Eliza. But what cared Eliza for him; her heart being with that of the nobody, Thomas Limbrey Sclater; but were those sighs wasted! By no means. Nothing is wasted in this world. Rousseau’s infatuation for Madame Houdetot made possible La Nouvelle Héloïse, but she cared no more for Rousseau than for any one of the hundred fops that fluttered round her. Dickens was madly in love with his mistress, Ellen Lawless Ternan. The greatness and fame of the man dazzled her, and she gave herself to him, though she never really loved him and he knew it. Yet his passion for her gave life to his last three novels. (A.165)

To the list he might have added Payne’s infatuation with Mrs Helen Snee, mentioned only briefly in his (Wright’s) autobiography (A.151 & 185) but in more detail in his Life of John Payne (7d) Though some of Payne’s early poems are thought to have been inspired by her, it was only in many of the poems in his Carol and Cadence, published in 1908, over twenty–five years after the death of Mrs Snee, that he could openly express his love for her.

It is interesting, too, that in Wright’s book The Land of Souls and Other Poems, published by himself in a limited edition of 225 copies in Olney in 1927 (A.205–6), the poem “Celeste” is devoted to a woman idealised by the poet, but rejected by her in favour of another man. In contrast, the poem “Susarion” deals with the life–long love between Susarion and his beloved Chloris, the passage of life and time, and the hope that they will be reunited after death. A similar theme, but of idealised love, is expressed in the poem “Elara”. We shall have more to say about The Land of Souls later, but suffice it to say here that it is much more interesting than his first book of poems, The Acid Sisters.

Heart’s Desire

Wright’s book of Omar–related verse, Heart’s Desire, published in 1925, was mentioned in the opening paragraph of this article. It was dedicated to his wife. Illustrated by Cecil W. Paul Jones (8), whose name will feature many times in what follows, its Frontispiece is shown in Fig.6a and its Title–Page in Fig.6b. As the Title–Page indicates, the book is “principally a presentment from various translations of the quatrains of Omar Khayyam that relate to SAKI, the beautiful CUPBEARER.” That is, Wright opts for a beautiful girl wine–server, and not, as some would have it, a beautiful boy wine–server – for western heterosexuals things are more interesting that way, after all.

The “various translations”, of course, include Payne’s, for Wright agreed with Payne that FitzGerald’s version was “a mere rifacimento of a few [of] Khayyam’s verses.” In his Preface to the book, Wright expressed his belief that in using so few quatrains from the number available to him, FitzGerald had given a misleading picture of Omar, depicting him as too much of an agnostic, too much of a pessimist, and too much of a wine–bibber. For example, he cited McCarthy and Payne to show that Omar sometimes had “awe, wonder and respect” for God (Payne quatrain 394; McCarthy p.43 & 82) and that far from being a persistent tippler, Omar was also on record as saying “to wine and women I have bidden adieu” (Payne, quatrains 146, 502 & 541.) But in truth any verses expressing “awe, wonder, and respect” for God are greatly outnumbered by others taking a sceptical stance, and the verses Wright cites from Payne about bidding adieu to wine and women are vastly outnumbered by others advocating just the opposite! (Indeed, the quote – from Payne 502 – is on account of Omar’s vanished youth, and age taking its toll!) But let us follow Wright’s view for now.

In his Autobiography, Wright explained the drift of Heart’s Desire thus (A.198):

I make Khayyam, as Khayyam himself does, “a woman’s property” almost to the end, and then let him break away, as in the original; for he says plainly in one quatrain, “To wine and to woman I’ve bidden adieu.” When free, he bursts out with:

Ah now on my soul comes the rhythmical rush,
I ride on the whirlwind, and Caucasus crush,
Oh who could my joy and elation believe!
Or who my ecstatical phrensy conceive!

Heart’s Desire is divided into eight sections following the above plan, bearing largely self–explanatory titles: (1) The Book of Love; (2) The Book of Joy; (3) The Book of Jealousy; (4) The Book of the Awakening; (5) The Book of Regret; (6) The Book of Pain; (7) The Book of the Relapse; and (8) The Book of Victory.

As Wright freely admitted in his Preface to Heart’s Desire, he had taken at least as many liberties with Khayyam’s original as had FitzGerald before him, but he hoped that his version would stand on its own merits, as had FitzGerald’s. It is a pity that Payne died before Heart’s Desire was published, for one would dearly have liked to hear his opinion on the matter!

Figs.6c, 6d and 6e give a good sample of the book as a whole, Fig.6e containing stanza 12, illustrated by the Frontispiece, with typical explanatory footnotes by Wright; Fig.6d is another illustration by Paul Jones (for so he signs some of his pictures), and Fig.6c contains its associated stanza 8. Figs.6f, 6g, 6h and 6i are given simply as further examples of the illustrations. The images can be browsed here.

Fig.6f rather reminds me of a Gordon Ross illustration; Fig.6g has a Cupid–like figure with the bewitching eyes of the Saki (“two pretty pools”) in the background; Fig.6h depicts Omar bidding adieu to women and wine (as Wright has it); and, following on from the previous illustration, Fig.6i depicts Omar, his soul released from the clutches of the said women and wine. The illustrations are largely self–explanatory, though the caption of Fig.6h might be puzzling to some readers, even given that gird is a medieval English word for jeer. All is made clear though by stanza 66, from whose first line it is taken. This is spoken by the Saki in the background, an overturned goblet and a broken wine pitcher being shown to the lower left:

Ah! gird at the goblet! At woman make game!
But surely ’twere fairer your weakness to blame,
Though I play, though I sing, though I dance, what’s amiss!
For you needn’t look at me – let alone kiss.

It is interesting that when, in Wright’s presence, a friend of his brought out a copy of the book to show to a lady, he observed apologetically, as she was looking at one of the illustrations, “Mr Wright is fond of the ladies.” Luckily, much to Wright’s relief, the lady simply responded with “and so he ought to be!” (A.198)

Heart’s Desire was followed by two companion volumes, Rose–in–Hood (1925) and Green Beryl (1927). Both of these were privately published by Wright of Cowper School, Olney, by then no longer a school but his private & business address (A.148), and both were illustrated by Paul Jones. By way of explanation, the former does for Hafiz what Heart’s Desire does for Omar Khayyam, Rose–in–Hood (= Rosebud) being the Beloved of Hafiz, and the latter does likewise for Sadi, Green Beryl (= Emerald) being his Wife. (A.198–200) Three sample illustrations from Rose–in–Hood are given here as Figs.7a, 7b & 7c, and three from Green Beryl as Figs.8a, 8b & 8c. These images can be browsed here.

Lest it should be thought, though, that Wright was sexist, he was not. After expressing his delight in the enormous number of happy marriages, he goes on:

But nothing of recent years has afforded me more pleasure than the success of the movement to give women their rights. My blood boils when I think of the sufferings of women – often brilliant women – from selfish, stupid and brutal husbands (the cowardly wife–beater is not even now non–extinct!) and I have not words to express the loathing that I feel for the spirit that would compel a woman to continue to live with a husband of that stamp, that would even drag in verses of scripture in support of its inhuman contention, as if a gentle and loving Saviour would not side with the sufferer. I honour and love the memory of Mary Wollstonecraft, the first and noblest of all those who have attempted the emancipation of the sex. (A.177)

More of Cecil W. Paul Jones

At this point I should add that Wright’s edition of The Autobiography of John Payne, published in 1926, had as its Appendix 2 some of the poems by Payne referred to in the text of the book, and Cecil W. Paul Jones did ten drawings illustrative of these. Five of the drawings are shown here as Figs.9a, 9b, 9c, 9d & 9e. (Browse here.)

The above–mentioned book of Wright’s poems, The Land of Souls was also illustrated by Paul Jones. Its Frontispiece and Title–Page are shown in Fig.10a. “The Land of Souls” is the first poem in the book, the Land being the human mind which, as the last line of the poem informs us, is situated “behind your brow and mine.” Fig.10b is the artist’s explanation of the Frontispiece. (It is interesting that in his autobiography, Wright said, “I like to make maps of my thoughts.” (A.178) Recall also Fig.9e.) The book, as Wright put it, “contains my philosophy of life in a nutshell.” (A.205)

In several ways this is a curious production. Readers will note from the Title–Page that some of the poems “owe their origin to the bewitchery of that QUEEN OF THE EAST – Southend–on–Sea”, the book being dedicated to the Mayor and Mayoress of that town. Wright and his wife had discovered the place in August 1926 (A.203–5), and the longest poem in The Land of Souls, “Naziad – an Idyll of Southend–on–Sea”, was inspired by seeing the statuette of a Nereid (Fig.10c). Actually, the poem was only written after a visit to Southend–on–Sea, and its theme is a visitation by a real Nereid after seeing the statue. She represents, as Wright explains in his introductory remarks to the poem, the narrator’s “Super–self, Super–Psyche or Inspiration, and she represents the state of exaltation which is experienced at times by all real men of letters and artists.” Fig.10d shows the poet calling for inspiration, but getting none, and Fig.10e represents what it says in the caption. Also in the book is “Southend–on–Sea: a Song.” This is written in praise of the town: in effect it says, never mind the Indies, never mind Borneo, never mind Mexico – give me Southend–on–Sea any day! (The above images can be browsed here.)

Also worth mentioning is that four poems in the book relate to local crafts – two (“The Bobbin” and “The Pot of Lavender”) to Lace–making – the latter is a reconstruction of a lost Lace–makers’ song – and two (“Leather and Thread and Tears” and “The Cobbler and the Likely Bor, or Apollo in Norfolk”) to Shoe–making – the Bor in the latter is a handsome young man. Wright had actually written books on these local crafts, The Romance of the Lace Pillow, or the History of Lacemaking in Bucks, Beds & Northants (H.H. Armstrong, Olney, 1919) (A.150 & 186) and The Romance of the Shoe (Farncombe & Sons, London 1922) (A.189). The two poems on shoe–making are from the latter book, in fact.

Wright also had an interest in local folk–lore and dialects, and wrote a series of ballads which incorporated both. These eventually appeared in book form under the title of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire Ballads (Self–published, Olney 1925.) (A.151)

William Blake

Wright became fascinated by Blake some time before 1912 (A.140) and began to collect material for a biography of him. It was to take him fifteen years. Meanwhile, in 1912 he founded the Blake Society (A.141) – his third society, of course, the other two being devoted to Cowper and Payne.

At some point around this time, though he says nothing about it in his autobiography, he became involved in compiling The William Blake Calendar – a quotation from the works of William Blake for every day in the year selected by Thomas Wright (Frank Palmer, London 1913.) This was one of an extensive series of such calendars published by Palmer, each using quotations from a particular author and each compiled by an authority on that author.

In the course of compiling his biography of Blake, Wright decided to write a book for people new to the study of Blake and who were struggling with his obscurities. The result was Blake for Babes – a Popular Illustrated Introduction to the Works of William Blake (Self–published, Olney 1923), the illustrations being taken from Blake’s works. As Wright explained, the book was “an introduction to the study of Blake for adult beginners, which took the form of a conversation with my grandchildren.” (A.193) Effectively a play in two acts, featuring the Secretary of the Blake Society, three children, a rag–doll, a cat and a dog, it was certainly a novel approach to Blake’s poetry!

It is also worth noting that:

Every year for a long period the [Blake] Society has, under my supervision, issued reproductions in colours of Blake’s pictures, the work having been undertaken by Mr Frederick Hollyer. On one occasion I edited for the Society The Heads of the Poets, being reproductions of the eighteen pictures by Blake now in the Manchester Art Gallery. (A.209–10)

The Heads of the Poets, with an Introduction by Thomas Wright, was published by the Blake Society in Olney in 1925.

Wright’s biography, The Life of William Blake was published in 2 volumes by C.J. Farncombe in 1929. It was hailed by reviewers as the new standard work on Blake, displacing Alexander Gilchrist’s earlier biography of 1863. (A.216)

Odds and Ends.

In May 1932 Miss Doris Hughes of Huntingdon visited Olney and presented Wright with a copy of a poem she had written, “The Cowper Museum at Olney.” Wright requested to see more of her work and he liked what he saw. At his suggestion her book The Sea Princess and other Poems, illustrated by Cecil W. Paul Jones, was published in 1933. (A.229–231). The three illustrations to the title–poem are shown here as Figs.11a, 11b & 11c. (Browse here.) There then followed a collaboration, the first result of which was the novel The Huntingdon Lady, a romance of the time of Cromwell, also published in 1933 (A.234). This was followed by another collaborative novel, this one having Daniel Defoe as one of its characters, The Girl from Godmanchester, published in 1934. Apparently Angelina Wright contributed at least two chapters to this book as well (A.235). Wright suggested a third Huntingdonshire novel, tentatively titled But, Beauty Enflames, “but Miss Hughes’s inclination to this method of collaboration had waned, and the idea was abandoned.” (A.235) One would love to know the inside story of that! Nevertheless, Wright included a photograph of her in his autobiography.

Back to biography again, now, in 1934 Wright’s book The Life of the Rev. Timothy Richard Matthews was published in London by C.J. Farncombe & Sons. It was intended as a companion volume to The Life of Edward FitzGerald (A.235), Rev. Matthews being the Bedford preacher by the power of whose oratory on Good Friday 1844 FitzGerald was much impressed (9). He is mentioned in Wright’s poem, illustrated in Fig.2.

Finally, in 1935 Wright’s book The Life of Charles Dickens was published in London by Herbert Jenkins. It was the first biography of Dickens to reveal the shoddy treatment of his wife and his affair with the actress Ellen Lawless Ternan. The affair had been concealed by Dickens’s earlier biographer John Forster (10), partly because Miss Ternan was still alive when his book came out, but mainly, one suspects, to preserve the reputation of the much–revered novelist. Naturally Wright’s revelations brought him much flak, but also much support. (A.236–8.)

Some Concluding Remarks

Though Wright wrote his Life of Edward FitzGerald and Heart’s Desire, he never thought to found a Society for FitzGerald as he had done for Cowper, Payne and Blake, but then, of course, he preferred Payne’s translation of The Rubaiyat, and in any case, the Omar Khayyam Club had been formed in London in 1892 (Appendix III of his Life of Edward FitzGerald is devoted to it.) Again, in chapter VIII of his Autobiography (“Books that have influenced me”) he makes no mention of The Rubaiyat, though perhaps he felt he had said enough on that score elsewhere in his book. But whatever, FitzGerald and his Rubaiyat seem not to have been a prime interest of his.

It would also be interesting to know whether, having illustrated Heart’s Desire, Rose–in–Hood and Green Beryl for Wright, Cecil W. Paul Jones was ever tempted or invited to illustrate an edition of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat. Though his art–work is of variable quality, it is imaginative, and it would have been interesting to see what he made of such a project. Alas, what became of our artist, professionally speaking, after Wright’s death in 1936 remains shrouded in mystery.


Note 1: Aldis Wright’s Letters and Literary Remains of Edward FitzGerald (3 vols, 1889; 7 vols. 1902–3) used FitzGerald’s letters to sketch out his life; Francis Hindes Groome, Two Suffolk Friends (1895) was more a series of reminiscences and anecdotes than a biography.

Note 2: For example, in the Buckingham Advertiser and North Bucks Free Press on 11 April 1936, p.4 col.4. A more detailed one appeared in the (Northampton) Mercury & Herald on 10 April 1936 (p.3, cols.2–3).

Note 3: He was the 7th Earl Cowper. The poet’s father’s uncle had been the 1st Earl Cowper.

Note 4: I have only actually come across three:

The Life of Joseph Hart and Contemporary Hymn Writers (Farncombe & Sons, London, 1910.) (A.135)

The Life of Augustus M. Toplady and Contemporary Hymn Writers (Farncombe & Sons, London, 1911.) (A.138)

The Life of Isaac Watts and Contemporary Hymn Writers (Farncombe & Sons, London 1914.) (A.145)

However, Wright mentions that his Toplady volume was followed by “a little work The Life of Richard Burnham, author of the hymns ‘Shout aloud for joy’ and ‘Hinder me not.’” (A.138) This was The Life of Richard Burnham (Farncombe & Sons, London, n.d.), the only copy of which known to me is in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The online library catalogue says it was one of the Pocket Series of Lives of the British Hymn Writers, though it is not clear if any others in the series were ever published (for the above–mentioned Lives of Hart, Toplady and Watts are certainly not pocket–sized, and so I would assume we have here two different series.)

It is worthy of note that Cowper was involved in the compilation of one of the earliest English hymnals, The Olney Hymns, in 1779. It contained some 66 hymns by Cowper himself, the other 282 being by Rev. John Newton, like Cowper, a resident of Olney. Wright names both Cowper and Newton on A.153.

Note 5: The Villon Society was founded in 1877 by a number of Payne’s friends who had gathered at his house to hear him recite some of his translations of the poems of Villon. Its aim was to publish translations which no other publisher would bring out, and Payne’s book The Poems of François Villon was the first to appear in 1878. In fact, the Society turned into a vehicle for publishing Payne’s books, for no other books were ever published aside from those by Payne. The Villon Society subsequently became absorbed in the John Payne Society. See Wright’s Life of John Payne p.57–8 & Payne’s Autobiography p.19 (footnote 47.)

Note 6a: Byron Farwell, Burton (1963) p.365.

Note 6b: Frank McLynn, Burton: Snow upon the Desert (1990) p.340–1.

Note 7a: For Payne on Burton see the Introduction to The Quatrains of Omar Kheyyam of Nishapour, p.lix–lx, particularly the footnote to the latter.

Note 7b: For Payne on FitzGerald see the Introduction to The Quatrains of Omar Kheyyam of Nishapour, p.lxi–lxvii. Whilst Payne admired the beauty of FitzGerald’s version, he was irked by what he saw as its overblown reputation:

It seems to me to have of late years been somewhat extravagantly overpraised and I confess that I cannot but regard as deplorable that lack of the sense of proportion, (a lack, alas! characteristic of our hysterical modern society,) which leads a certain class of literary dilettanti to speak of Mr.FitzGerald, elegant and charming versifier as he was, as a “great poet” and to even him with his really great original. (p.lxii)

As for Whinfield’s version, though his translation was “valuable as the conscientious work of a capable and painstaking scholar” his verse rendering “does not (to say the least of it) add to the value of the publication and can scarcely be called either adequate or elegant.” (p.lviii)

Note 7c: Payne had some good things to say about other poets, like Wordsworth, Swinburne and Matthew Arnold, for example, but was irked by the popularity of others. Thus, of Tennyson he wrote:

Tennyson I knew, indeed, but (with a few great exceptions, such as parts of "Maud" and "the Wellington Ode", in which he soared above his habitual defects) cared little for. With all his great qualities, he has always seemed to me no poet of the first order; he owed his popularity mainly to the way in which he pandered to the weaknesses of the intellectually lower classes and to his cunning fashion of adorning and idealising the grossest gospel of disguised materialism and crass optimism. (Autobiography of John Payne, p.13.)

Of the literary world around him, he wrote:

It is the younger generation, men of my own standing, who are jealous of me and who, having obtained complete control over the Press, contrive to keep my name and work not only from receiving its due recognition, but even from coming to the knowledge of the public. It is, I imagine, little known in America how completely corrupt is the contemporary English literary Press, which is altogether worked by a rigorous “combine” of two or three cliques, the members of which employ their power solely for the glorification of themselves and their fellow–riggers of the market, and the crushing out of notice all who do not belong to the gang, thus exalting into temporary and purely factitious notoriety a number of fourth–class litterateurs, such as *****, Lang, Dobson, *****, *****, *****, Phillips, Stevenson, Grant Allen, &c., of whom it is safe to predict that scarcely a line will be extant fifty years hence. (ibid. p.18–9)

The asterisks denote the names of some literary men who were still alive at the time of publication, one of whom was certainly Edmund Gosse (A.183). In an editorial footnote to this passage in Payne’s Autobiography, Wright felt obliged to say, “I need scarcely say that Payne was unjust to some of these writers,” adding that he was equally unjust to Edward FitzGerald, Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde.

Wright also felt the need mitigate Payne’s bitter tirades against his parents – more particularly his father – for doing everything they could “to crush out the germs of poetry in me by all means, foul or fair, going so far, for instance, as to deprive me of pocket–money, that I might not buy books, and forbidding me fire and light in winter, to hinder me from ‘segregating’ myself, in my father’s favourite phrase, for the purpose of study, all of course in vain.” (ibid. p.34) Elsewhere Payne refers to, “the doubtless well–intentioned, but altogether misguided, control of my father, an upright and well–meaning, but prejudiced and narrow–minded man, moody, soured and violent–tempered, who was a Philistine of the Philistines in all matters of art and letters – thinking nothing of any value that would not bake bread.” (ibid.p.46)

As regards Payne’s use of obscure words, Wright objected to his use of the word “skinker” (meaning a server of liquor) in his translation of The Rubaiyat. As Wright said, it seems poetically inapplicable to a girl – a saki – “with hyacinthine curls of amber–scented hair” (Payne quatrain 478) – FitzGerald’s “Cypress–slender Minister of Wine” (4th ed. quatrain 41.) But Payne was unrepentant: “Skinker is a good old English word. Both Shakespeare and Massinger use it.” (A.100) Not that Wright was innocent of the same tendency – note, for example, his use of the old English words “desidiose” (= lazy) in the poem in Fig.2 and “gird” (= jeer) in the caption of Fig.6h.

Note 7d: Mrs. Helen Snee (née Matthews) was born in London in 1845. Her story is best revealed in Wright’s Life of John Payne, and page numbers in this note refer to that work. Payne chose to say nothing at all about her in his autobiography, which, as indicated above, is largely a tirade against the cruel world and the second and third rate intellects who conspired to deny him his due recognition. Mrs. Snee is mentioned only in the heading of section 19 and a footnote to it, and these were added to the original manuscript by Wright in his capacity as editor.

Wright describes Mrs. Snee thus:

By the witchery of her manner she fascinated – hypnotized – all who came into her company. She was all melody and poetry, and beauty and grace. Payne likened her to a lovely butterfly. She delighted in the conversation of men of genius, and she had herself remarkable literary gifts. (p.27)

Quite when or how Payne first met her is not clear, but the two were certainly friends by early 1869 (p.29.) “Out of this frail–looking, poetical, ethereal woman,” as Wright put it, “Payne fabricated a goddess, such as neither earth nor Olympus ever saw.” Her attitude to Payne, though, as revealed in her letters, “is merely that of respect for a scholar and man of genius, and he is always referred to distantly as ‘Mr. Payne.’” (p.29) The friendship continued on this footing with meetings at social gatherings and exchanges of literary letters until events took a strange turn in 1876. By this time, “her health had broken down, she was often in great pain, and her mind was unhinged.” (p.53) Whether for the purposes of pain relief or as means of committing suicide is uncertain, but she paid a student to procure drugs for her. Before the scheme came to fruition, however, it came to the attention of the police. The two were arrested, tried, and found guilty of “unlawfully conspiring to kill and murder” Helen Snee. Both were imprisoned, the student for eighteen months, she for six months. (p.54–7)

She continued in ill–health after her release, and in April 1880 she asked her husband to send for Payne as she wished to see him. In Wright’s words, Payne “hastened to the house, but before he could arrive phthisis and exhaustion had done their worst.” (p.65) Payne, of course, was devastated. She was 35 years old.

Note 8: In his Preface to The Land of Souls, Wright tells us:

It is also gratifying to me to have been able to secure for the illustrating of the book the services of that marvellously imaginative artist Cecil W. Paul Jones, whose graceful pencil has caught precisely the spirit and has surrendered itself continually to the symbolism of the poems. This is the fifth work which he has illustrated for me, the others being Heart’s Desire (Omar Khayyam), Rose–in–Hood (Hafiz), Green Beryl (Sadi) and The Autobiography of John Payne (of Villon Society fame) – the total number of drawings made for me by him being 55. My readers will be interested to know that he is a lineal descendant of the famous eighteenth century admiral to whom he owes his name.

But not a word is said about the life of the artist himself, Wright’s enthusiasm for the famous admiral (John Paul Jones, of course) extending to the inclusion of a poem about him in the book!

Wright also mentions the artist in his Autobiography, in connection with Heart’s Desire, thus:

I was fortunate enough to secure a most suitable artist to illustrate my poem – Mr Cecil Paul Jones – descendant of the famous admiral. He made ten delightful illustrations for me – one in particular – Khayyam and Saki playing chess – being a masterpiece. (A.198)

So there we have the famous admiral once more, but again not a thing about the artist himself.

Little appears to be known about Cecil W. Paul Jones, and he gets no mention in Alan Horne’s book The Dictionary of 20th Century British Book Illustrators (1995), nor in Brigid Peppin and Lucy Micklethwait’s Book Illustrators of the Twentieth Century (1984). Fortunately, his distinctive name enables us to eke out a few details of his life from online ancestry records.

Cecil Watts Paul Jones was born in London on 24 April 1904. The census return for 1911 tells that he was the son of Walter Paul Jones, a physician and surgeon, who is listed as “single – divorced.” (The inscription visible in Fig.6b is clearly to the artist’s father, then.) At the time of the 1911 census father and son were living at 1 Walton Place, Knightsbridge, London, with a governess, a cook and a housemaid in residence. There is no indication that our artist had any brothers or sisters.

In 1936, Cecil W.P. Jones married Esther Grant at Hammersmith, London. By 1937 he had hyphenated his name to Cecil Watts Paul–Jones, for his name is rendered thus in the electoral rolls for both 1937 and 1938, during which period he and his wife, Esther Paul–Jones, were living at 19 St. Peter’s Square, Hammersmith.

Whether she died or they were divorced is not clear, but in 1942 Cecil W.P. Jones married Rowena B. McBean or Chubb at Wincanton, Somerset.

Finally, in the electoral rolls for 1953 Cecil W. Paul–Jones was living with an Audrey B. Paul–Jones, a Walter P. Jones (presumably his father) and a Margaret E. Greenall (but not his wife Rowena) at 2 Talbot Road, Carshalton, Surrey. Walter Paul Jones of that address died on 17 July 1957. Who Audrey B. Paul–Jones and Margaret E. Greenall were is not clear. The former is clearly a relative of some sort, though not, apparently the artist’s daughter, for I could find no trace of her as his child by either Esther or Rowena. In fact she is quite elusive in the online records, and she surfaces again only upon her marriage to John S. Archer in Westminster in 1964.

Cecil Watts Paul Jones died in Frome, Somerset, on 30 May 1980.

I can find no other books illustrated by him besides those done for Wright and the Doris Hughes book, nor any details of his artistic training, if any. Plus it is intriguing that Jones was fully 45 years younger than Wright, so one wonders how their paths came to cross. Given that Wright had such an interest in Admiral John Paul Jones, one wonders if it was that which led to their meeting somehow. Perhaps it is worth mentioning, though, that Wright’s interest in the admiral can have had nothing to do with local history, for John Paul Jones had no discernable links with Olney and its environs. Wright’s interest, going off his poem “Paul Jones” in The Land of Souls, may well be connected with his interest in the love–lives of the famous, for the poem is based on a letter written to the admiral by his mistress, Aimée de Telison in 1780.

Note 9: See Wright’s Life of Edward FitzGerald, vol.1, p.185 & 206–10 and vol.2, Appendix XIII (which gives the inscription on Rev. Matthews’s tomb.) See also Alfred McKinley Terhune, The Life of Edward FitzGerald (1947) p.59, and Alfred McKinley Terhune & Annabelle Burdick Terhune, The Letters of Edward FitzGerald (1980), vol.1, p.430 & 432 (both letters to Bernard Barton written on 7 & 11 April 1844.) FitzGerald also mentioned him in two letters to John Allen written in August 1842 (vol.1, p.335 & p.336), and noted with sadness his death in a letter to Bernard Barton dated 8 September 1845: “I am going this afternoon to attend his Funeral.” (vol.1, p.509.)

Note 10: John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens was published in London in three volumes, vol.1 in 1872; vol.2 in 1873 & vol.3 in 1874.


My thanks are due to Keith Smith for supplying scans of Cecil W. Paul Jones’s illustrations to Doris Hughes’s The Sea Princess and Other Poems. I must also thank Joe Howard, Sandra Mason and Bill Martin, and Fred Diba for proof–reading this article, and making a number of helpful suggestions as a result.


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