Monday, March 30, 2009


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.


dan visel said...

Might be worth pointing out that his immensely long epic The Dawn in Britain is available on Google Books - always meant to give this a go, but haven't got around to it yet.

Joseph said...

Thanks for this post. From somewhere, maybe Yeats and Pound -- does this book show up in the stone cottage period? -- or maybe in regard to Yeat's own Arab fantasias, a mental note arose, to track this down, and promptly got misfiled. Is there an edition of Travels around?

Mark Scroggins said...

Thanks for the tip, Dan, but where're the first 3 volumes???

Joe--yes, Dawn in B. was evening 'relaxing' reading at Stone Cottage, I seem to recall. Penguin has a good abridgement of Travels that I think is much in print, and the folks at Dover, G-d bless 'em, have the big 2-volume complete edition in paper, last time I checked.

Mark Scroggins said...

Oh bugger -- both the Penguin abridgement & the Dover complete are out of print; only a selection of "passages" from Dover. But all surely available from a used bookstore near you.

Michael Peverett said...

I don't think you can actually read any of the Dawns in Britain in GoogleBooks, unless I am being particularly thick. However, volume three is here:

This volume happens to include the brilliant lay of Cloten and Esla, (bk IX sect 15) which coincidentally I re-read last week in the Auden-Pearson Anthology of poets of the English Language - Doughty came up in the course of writing this:

Michael Peverett said...

I should add, that in this online text the mixture of Doughteyan syntax and numerous OCR mistakes (especially punctuation) makes for wonderfully strenuous reading:

And when those all, in the king's ship, had spoiled ;
They Clotcn, did, on thwart row-bank, compel.
To drag an oar. But, displeased, the sea-gods
Loosed a main-tempest, on those pirate keels ;
So that o*er-beat, the rugged risen waves.
Their boards. Nor labouring they, at sea, all night.
Might win to any haven. When gainst day, was ;
They, fallen mongst breakers, split on some sharp

skerries :
And every pirate soul drenched on their boards.