This seems to be the week for winding down the biographies of long-lived, long-winded Victorians. Charles Montagu Doughty (1843-1926) is probably best remembered for Travels in Arabia Deserta, perhaps the single greatest Briton's-eye venture into the xenophobic world of the 19th-century Arabian Peninsula. Lawrence of Arabia worshipped the book, & indeed found it so accurate & comprehensive that he used a copy as a kind of Baedeker during the military adventures that would fill The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
But Travels in Arabia Deserta is not merely an incomparable travelogue, but an eccentric masterpiece of English prose – an idiom which Doughty felt had only gone downhill since Spenser and Chaucer. Like his contemporary G. M. Hopkins, Doughty favors an out-of-the-way, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, and constructs his sentences around Biblical, sometimes recondite cadences. As Andrew Taylor shows in God's Fugitive: The Life of C. M. Doughty (HarperCollins UK, 1999), Doughty came to value his poetry – he wrote a number of epics and closet dramas – over his travel writing: his memorial tablet reads "Poet, Patriot and Explorer," & it's in that order he hoped to be remembered. It's turned out much the opposite: Doughty's known as an explorer-writer first; a handful of experts (if that many) know his poems; and the less said about his bloody-minded boosterism of the Boer War and the First World War the better.
Taylor's a solid, businesslike writer, a veteran journalist who's spent many years in the Middle East. So while he does his best to do Doughty's poetry justice, a solid half of the book is taken up with an almost day-by-day recounting of Doughty's 2 years in Arabia. Many a time I was tempted to just chuck the biography and dive into Travels in Arabia Deserta itself – which, mind you, is not at all an improper response to a biography.
Best of all, Taylor manages to give a vivid if somewhat distant personal impression of one of the weirder of the great Victorian writers.* And he says just enough about the poetry to make me want to hunt up some of those antique volumes & plunge in – even if Pound & Yeats together made little headway: as EP recalls in The Pisan Cantos: "did we ever get to the end of Doughty: / The Dawn in Britain? / perhaps not..."
*Weird, I suppose, in a tameish sense, compared to the double-household-maintaining Wilkie Collins, the pedophilic Ruskin, the whip-fetishist Swinburne, & so forth.