Eothen: Traces of Travel in the East - A. W. Kinglake
This delightful travelogue of a young Englishman's journey through the middle east, in 1835 has become a permanent classic. The authors personal observations of the characters he encounters, including Pashas, interpreters, camel merchants, slave-traders, magicians, Bedouins, governors, soldiers, Jews, monks, pilgrims, and even a famous expatriate stateswoman turned astrologist, are all amusing and give great insight into the Arab character. Kinglake braved the plague, and numerous other ills in order to undertake these travels when transportation in the area was still quite difficult and dangerous, so many of his adventures are hair-raising as well as humorous.
It is not quite easy to realise that Alexander William Kinglake was living both one and twenty and one hundred years ago. The journey that made him famous was undertaken in 1835, and "Eothen" was published in 1844, after seven years of devoted labour in the course of which the manuscript was twice rewritten. Thereafter Kinglake was to surrender the leisure of a generation to his laboured History of the Crimean War, to sit in the House of Commons for more than a decade, to enjoy the friendship of many famous men, and, having lived prosperously, to die painfully in his eighty-second year. Some few still read that graphic story of the Crimean campaign; there are men and women who remember the author and can tell you of his idiosyncrasies, his reserved manner, his gifts as a conversationalist, his long-preserved social reputation. Meredith introduces him into one of his novels and calls him "the neatest in epigram, the widest of survey." But for the most of us Kinglake's name stands for "Eothen," and there is enough in that cunningly wrought narrative for any one literary reputation, even though the manuscript was returned by many publishers, including John Murray. Here art conceals art, close-fibred thought and hammered finish lend to each phrase and every period the quality of spontaneity. But behind all the author's meticulous care are two gifts that should not be lacking in any man who would write travel books, the first, an enthusiasm for the life described, the second, a sense of humour that is seldom in abeyance.
Travel is a stern schoolmaster, more stern than Dr Keate who ruled Eton when Kinglake was a lad, but the saving grace of a sense of humour will turn away most of the penalties that travel inflicts. Even in the West the sense is useful, in the East it is indispensable, and it informed Kinglake to the finger-tips. He had more than the usual equipment, for, besides being a scholar, he had fine physique and tolerable health, could ride far without fatigue, and speak other languages than the one he used with such supreme felicity. A sane mind in a sound body, brought into relation with incongruities, acts as flint to steel.
Travellers are given to introducing much extraneous matter into their books, it was so with Kinglake, but with a difference. All his interpellations are shrewd and timely. In a young man, still on the sunny side of his thirtieth year, sound convictions so well expressed and rank prejudices so readily assumed or confidently defended are rare, one inclines to think that they were for the most part added in the seclusion of the study when the desire came to present the travel narrative as a finished work of art. But, in spite of all additions and emendations, in spite of suavely sounding phrases never turned without close labour, there is a quality of frankness about "Eothen" that impresses every reader. "As I have felt, so I have written," he says of his book, and the picture of contemporary life in the Mediterranean, in Palestine, and Syria is full of fascination that owes not a little to its absolute sincerity.
And his lines were cast in pleasant places. If the sailing vessel, in which he wandered from Smyrna to Beyrout via Cyprus, spent forty days at sea, surely it was better so to idle round the islands never knowing what the day would bring forth in the way of meals or gales than to steam under the aegis of a tourist agency after the most modern fashion, observing a time-table planned for the benefit of hotel-keepers, railway companies, touts and other necessary evils. The Mediterranean to-day is well-nigh as prosaic as the Serpentine: it has aged more in the past thirty years than in the three thousand that preceded them. But Kinglake knew "the tideless dolorous inland sea" while it was still young, and he had all, or most of, the untrammelled enthusiasms of a lad, with the sort of schooling behind him that lends enchantment to every island in the Greek Archipelago. Nor did he lack eyes that see beauty in every woman's smile.
Perhaps there are times in which many a man with the gifts, natural or acquired, that Kinglake possessed, might write a great travel book if the conditions of seventy or eighty years ago could return, and travel call once more for endurance and individuality; but to-day all the pleasant places of the earth are assailed by an army of tourists to whom circular notes and the red-covered volumes of the esteemed Baedeker have made all things plain. Isis has no mysteries, the Sphinx of the Egyptian desert and the ruins of the Acropolis are no more than backgrounds against which Messrs Brown, Smith & Jones pose to the amateur photographer of the party. One must go far indeed to savour the sense that stirs our author to the writing of the chapter entitled "My first Bivouac," the chapter in which he could speak of the journey from Tiberias to Jerusalem as "Eastern Travels." Palestine, as he saw it, has passed beyond recovery of a personally-conducted generation.
Kinglake had an intense reverence for Paganism and for Christianity, his mind was so constituted that he could find the beauty in both. The Greek islands were as enchanted as Palestine, and Paphos had for him as many stimulating thoughts as Nazareth, though he quite mistook his bearings in the search for the ruined Temple of Paphian Aphrodite. He could surrender himself to moods that were born of tradition and imagination, and give himself up to the supreme enjoyment of the moment, whether it was associated with the scent of the flowers amid the foothills of Olympus or the mystery of the Sanctuary that is in Galilee. And he could set down the mental associations of those enchanted moments in language that preserves their life after the lapse of more than seventy years.
In all his descriptive passages Kinglake adjusts finely the delicate balance between freedom and restraint. He rises to rare heights in moments of inspiration; some of his descriptive writing shows not a superfluous word or one that could be advantageously replaced, but he does not stay too long in the rarefied atmosphere, and because he soars but seldom his flights are invariably effective.
The self-consciousness of the literary artist is subdued by a strong sense of honesty throughout the book. Take, for example, the passage in the chapter on Galilee, when he is looking over the Lake and thinking of Christ's teaching there. "Ay, ay, but yet again the calm face of the lake was uplifted and smiled upon my eyes with such familiar gaze that the 'deep, low tones' were hushed—the listening multitudes all passed away, and instead there came to me a dear old memory from over the seas in England—a memory sweeter than Gospel to that poor wilful mortal, me."
How few professed English men of letters would have dared to confess that the most spiritual surroundings cannot for long turn the thoughts of a young and healthy man from mundane matters. Things of the spirit may give the familiar world a radiance that is not all its own, they may make some happy memory shine out in unexpected beauty, but the Heaven of the young is upon the earth, though few who do not belong to one or other of the Latin races will admit as much in print.
Even when he goes astray through incomplete knowledge we forgive Kinglake. His picture of a Shareef (who must needs be a descendant of Mohammed) is not always convincing and his anti-Semitism and contempt for Islam are merely diverting because one feels that they are traditional; his knowledge of camels is surprisingly inexact, and his geography of Jerusalem is now quite out of date. One would like to know, too, where he went in Jerusalem to learn that all the Jews believed in the miracles of the New Testament. Clearly he had not been long enough in the East to understand how courtesy demands that every man be told what he is supposed to desire to hear.
Not only was Kinglake romantically inclined and delightfully young when he wrote "Eothen," but in his day the Palestine pilgrims gathered more freely than they do now, and he saw the colour of life for which his descendants must needs look in vain. He was devout too, and can suggest that if the Bedouin women would learn from Christian girls how to pray "their souls might become more gentle and their limbs be clothed with grace." It is but seldom that the sense of humour leaves him in the lurch like this.
The modern enthusiasm for travel is to Kinglake's as water is to wine. He faced Cairo when the plague was rampant—it was the year of the Great Plague of Egypt—with a fear so deeply touched by interest that the resultant emotion was hardly unpleasant. The thought of danger lent an added piquancy to adventure, at a moment when he was the only European traveller in Cairo. Nothing in "Eothen" has greater interest than the Egyptian pictures, for the city has changed more than any other through which Kinglake passed, and his account of slave dealers and magicians is passing strange in these days of Egyptian commonplaces. One must always regret the magician's surrender to the Plague when he had arranged to raise the devil for the modest fee of fifty shillings.
We may be permitted a kindly smile at the few exaggerations in the story, at the dromedary from whose "bosom piteous sobs burst in the tones of human misery," and at the thought that from the ridge to which the tearful animal brought him "it is likely enough, the panting Israelites first saw the shining inlet of the Red Sea." These are little extravagances, but how rare they are in a volume written at a time when there were few men living who were competent to criticise the story, let the perennial popularity of "Eothen" tell.
The state of the Near East in 1835 did not encourage travel. Greece had but lately become an independent kingdom. Mehemet Ali, Pasha of Egypt, had rebelled against the Sultan; his son, Ibrahim, had overrun and conquered Syria. In the peace that followed, between Kinglake's return to England and the publication of "Eothen," Mehemet was forced to acknowledge that Turkish Suzerainty over Egypt, which has been such a perplexing factor in modern politics. Roumania had no existence save as Moldavia and Wallachia. Servia, Bulgaria, Roumelia were parts of Turkey. The Suez Canal was undreamt of and western Europe took scant note of Eastern problems.
How many men who have written travel books in their wander year would not, if they could, call them back to cancel many a line? Seeing them in the light of mature reflection they would cry with Cleopatra:
"My salad days,
When I was green in judgment; cold in blood,
To say as I said then."
But Kinglake must have found little to regret when his ardent youth yielded to maturity, and maturity bowed to inexorable age. He had captured the spirit of the early years and fashioned a monument in the light of it, so that even a generation for which travel is made too easy, almost absurd, may follow his journeyings with enjoyment. "Eothen" is in a certain fashion the spring song of the far-flung road that runs through countries which felt the morning of the Golden Age, and woke, when the power of the gods was waning, to the thrill of the Monotheistic idea and the coming of Him whom men name the Son of God. The land of many cultures, and of dreams for which men died, for which men live, seen as the old world knew it before modern commercialism had turned travel to a trade, and stolen the romance from realms where it seemed destined to live at least as long as Western civilisation, it found almost its last historian in Kinglake. To-day the hour of the Imperialist has come, and, following in his wake, the company promoter and concessionaire hold every shore so firmly with their dirty hands that not all the waters of the Mediterranean shall wash the littoral clean. The long procession of men, who were independent under tyranny and picturesque in rags, has passed. Look for it in "Eothen" if you will, but not along the modern beaten track. The railway that winds around the mountains of Judaea an ill-forged chain connecting Jaffa with Jerusalem has shattered a part of the romance that Kinglake knew. The writer can remember the shock that came to him when he visited Jerusalem for the first time, and found upon the station walls some of the advertisements that help to preserve the perennial ugliness of London's suburbs. In that hour something was lost to the East of his boyish imaginings. What would the Hadjis and the Shareef of Kinglake's book have thought of a world in which Baghdad would be "linked" to the Bosphorus in like fashion and the tourist ticket to Mecca would be slipping from the knees of the gods? How they would have stared to see, mid-most the jarring sects that crowd round the Holy Sepulchre at Eastertide, the motley gathering that follows the man from Cook's.
One would have had less to regret if the scene of Kinglake's travel had been left alone and the tidal wave of vulgar popularity had swept over parts of the world that have contributed less to the making of the minds and the faith of men. Seeing them as they are to-day, and reading of them as they were at the dawn of the Victorian era, one realises that the world has lost something it could ill spare. Perhaps this sense of regret that comes near to defy definition, and is yet sincere, serves to account in part for the claim that "Eothen" asserts. For those of us who are on the border line of middle age, or are stepping across it, eheu jugaces! read our Kinglake before we knew aught of the mysterious East. Then the man who had seen the glamour of it all was in our midst, having fulfilled the chief purpose of travel according to the Arabian philosophy, by setting up for himself a goodly store of pleasant memories against the season when the fire of life burns low and he makes ready to depart "along the path of Kings and Emperors," on the longest journey of all. Some of us have looked hungrily over the road Kinglake travelled, straining the eyes as the traveller over the dry, sandy plains of the Maghreb looks before the light falls from the heavens for some douar with its tents of camel skin that shall give him meagre shelter until "the Dawn's left hand is in the sky." But the landmarks have gone with those who made them, he who set them down so vividly has followed, and the trail of the commis-voyageur is over the land that the Pharaohs ruled, and is remaking the scene of the Passion of Christ. One feels that the time is coming indeed when Zion shall rebuild her palaces, but they will be Picture Palaces with a continuous programme, and perhaps the True Believer, whom Kinglake misunderstood, will be a little uncertain whether, though God's in his heaven, all is right with the world. Only a Kinglake would be quite sure. He was a typical Englishman, witness his method of riding a camel, and travelling in the desert during the "hours of fire," witness his solemn satisfaction with his own methods. To understand these things we must remember that in his day the West was content to dominate the East, it did not strive to understand the thought or way of life of subject races.
It is the supreme achievement of "Eothen" to strive with modernity for the soul of the near East, to hold it enshrined within a few hundred pages, to give us with an infinity of subtle touches a picture that stands revealed to the spirit within the sense. Here at least none may intrude, nor can all the discoveries of the archeologist, all the wrangles of "two and seventy jarring sects," all the enterprises of philanthropist, tradesman, or globe-trotter stir our deep content. Here is some meed of consolation for the disappointments of modern travel, some encouragement to seek out untrodden ways even though Ailey be not hallowed by tradition. For Kinglake saw the Greek islands in the spirit that illumines the Theocritean idylls, and none of his contemporaries save Henan brought to the Holy Land an equally far-seeing vision. Kinglake's was a catholicity that could see the kindred beauty of the lone Sphinx of the Egyptian desert and of Aphrodite new risen from the sea. Those who come after him to-day must needs look through the present to the past. They are aided here, not only by an edition that gives the story a setting worthy of its charm, but by illustrations that have carried captive the colour, mood and fashion of the world which is moving so fast into the realm that shrouds all the prototypes of the figures "Eothen" called to life.
DUTON HILL, ESSEX, September 1912.
When you first entertained the idea of travelling in the East, you asked me to send you an outline of the tour which I had made, in order that you might the better be able to choose a route for yourself. In answer to this request, I gave you a large French map, on which the course of my journey had been carefully marked; but I did not conceal from myself that this was rather a dry mode for a man to adopt when he wished to impart the results of his experience to a dear and intimate friend. Now, long before the period of your planning an Oriental tour, I had intended to write some account of my Eastern Travels. I had, indeed, begun the task, and had failed; I had begun it a second time, and failing again, had abandoned my attempt with a sensation of utter distaste. I was unable to speak out, and chiefly, I think, for this reason—that I knew not to whom I was speaking. It might be you, or perhaps our Lady of Bitterness, who would read my story; or it might be some member of the Royal Statistical Society; and how on earth was I to write in a way that would do for all three?
Well, your request for a sketch of my tour suggested to me the idea of complying with your wish by a revival of my twice-abandoned attempt. I tried; and the pleasure and confidence which I felt in speaking to you soon made my task so easy, and even amusing, that after a while (though not in time for your tour) I completed the scrawl from which this book was originally printed.
The very feeling, however, which enabled me to write thus freely prevented me from robing my thoughts in that grave and decorous style which I should have maintained if I had professed to lecture the public. Whilst I feigned to myself that you, and you only, were listening, I could not by possibility speak very solemnly. Heaven forbid that I should talk to my own genial friend as though he were a great and enlightened Community, or any other respectable Aggregate!
Yet I well understood that the mere fact of my professing to speak to you rather than to the public generally could not perfectly excuse me for printing a narrative too roughly worded, and accordingly, in revising the proof sheets, I have struck out those phrases which seemed to be less fit for a published volume than for intimate conversation. It is hardly to be expected, however, that correction of this kind should be perfectly complete, or that the almost boisterous tone in which many parts of the book were originally written should be thoroughly subdued. I venture, therefore, to ask that the familiarity of language still possibly apparent in the work may be laid to the account of our delightful intimacy rather than to any presumptuous motive. I feel, as you know, much too timidly, too distantly, and too respectfully towards the Public to be capable of seeking to put myself on terms of easy fellowship with strange and casual readers.
It is right to forewarn people (and I have tried to do this as well as I can by my studiously unpromising title-page) that the book is quite superficial in its character. I have endeavoured to discard from it all valuable matter derived from the works of others, and it appears to me that my efforts in this direction have been attended with great success. I believe I may truly acknowledge that from all details of geographical discovery or antiquarian research, from all display of "sound learning and religious knowledge," from all historical and scientific illustrations, from all useful statistics, from all political disquisitions, and from all good moral reflections, the volume is thoroughly free.
My excuse for the book is its truth. You and I know a man, fond of hazarding elaborate jokes, who, whenever a story of his happens not to go down as wit, will evade the awkwardness of the failure by bravely maintaining that all he has said is pure fact. I can honestly take this decent though humble mode of escape. My narrative is not merely righteous in matters of fact (where fact is in question), but it is true in this larger sense—it conveys, not those impressions which ought to have been produced upon any "well-constituted mind," but those which were really and truly received at the time of his rambles by a headstrong and not very amiable traveller, whose prejudices in favour of other people's notions were then exceedingly slight. As I have felt, so I have written; and the result is that there will often be found in my narrative a jarring discord between the associations properly belonging to interesting sites and the tone in which I speak of them. This seemingly perverse mode of treating the subject is forced upon me by my plan of adhering to sentimental truth, and really does not result from any impertinent wish to tease or trifle with readers. I ought, for instance, to have felt as strongly in Judaea as in Galilee, but it was not so in fact. The religious sentiment (born in solitude) which had heated my brain in the Sanctuary of Nazareth was rudely chilled at the foot of Zion by disenchanting scenes, and this change is accordingly disclosed by the perfectly worldly tone in which I speak of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
My notion of dwelling precisely upon those matters which happened to interest me, and upon none other, would of course be intolerable in a regular book of travels. If I had been passing through countries not previously explored, it would have been sadly perverse to withhold careful descriptions of admirable objects merely because my own feelings of interest in them may have happened to flag; but where the countries which one visits have been thoroughly and ably described, and even artistically illustrated, by others, one is fully at liberty to say as little (though not quite so much) as one chooses. Now a traveller is a creature not always looking at sights. He remembers (how often!) the happy land of his birth; he has, too, his moments of humble enthusiasm about fire and food, about shade and drink; and if he gives to these feelings anything like the prominence which really belonged to them at the time of his travelling, he will not seem a very good teacher. Once having determined to write the sheer truth concerning the things which chiefly have interested him, he must, and he will, sing a sadly long strain about Self; he will talk for whole pages together about his bivouac fire, and ruin the Ruins of Baalbec with eight or ten cold lines.
But it seems to me that this egotism of a traveller, however incessant, however shameless and obtrusive, must still convey some true ideas of the country through which he has passed. His very selfishness, his habit of referring the whole external world to his own sensations, compels him, as it were, in his writings, to observe the laws of perspective. He tells you of objects, not as he knows them to be, but as they seemed to him. The people and the things that most concern him personally, however mean and insignificant, take large proportions in his picture, because they stand so near to him. He shows you his Dragoman and the gaunt features of his Arabs, his tent, his kneeling camels, his baggage strewed upon the sand; but the proper wonders of the land—the cities, the mighty ruins and monuments of bygone ages—he throws back faintly in the distance. It is thus that he felt, and thus he strives to repeat, the scenes of the Elder World. You may listen to him forever without learning much in the way of statistics; but, perhaps, if you bear with him long enough, you may find yourself slowly and faintly impressed with the realities of Eastern Travel.
My scheme of refusing to dwell upon matters which failed to interest my own feelings has been departed from in one instance—namely, in my detail of the late Lady Hester Stanhope's conversation on supernatural topics. The truth is that I have been much questioned on this subject, and I thought that my best plan would be to write down at once all that I could ever have to say concerning the personage whose career has excited so much curiosity amongst Englishwomen. The result is that my account of the lady goes to a length which is not justified either by the importance of the subject or by the extent to which it interested the narrator.
You will see that I constantly speak of "my People," "my Party," "my Arabs," and so on, using terms which might possibly seem to imply that I moved about with a pompous retinue. This, of course, was not the case. I travelled with the simplicity proper to my station, as one of the industrious class, who was not flying from his country because of ennui, but was strengthening his will and tempering the metal of his nature for that life of toil and conflict in which he is now engaged. But an Englishman journeying in the East must necessarily have with him Dragomen capable of interpreting the Oriental languages; the absence of wheeled carriages obliges him to use several beasts of burden for his baggage, as well as for himself and his attendants; the owners of the horses or camels, with their slaves or servants, fall in as part of his train, and altogether the cavalcade becomes rather numerous, without, however, occasioning any proportionate increase of expense. When a traveller speaks of all these followers in mass, he calls them his "people," or his "troop," or his "party," without intending to make you believe that he is therefore a Sovereign Prince.
You will see that I sometimes follow the custom of the Scots in describing my fellow-countrymen by the names of their paternal homes.
Of course all these explanations are meant for casual readers. To you, without one syllable of excuse or deprecation, and in all the confidence of a friendship that never yet was clouded, I give the long-promised volume, and add but this one "Good-bye!" for I dare not stand greeting you here.