Sufi, Christian or Buddhist? Richard Francis Burton’s “Parameters of Belief”

John Wallen


Richard Burton has been interpreted and misinterpreted by literary critics as eminent as Edward Said and Louisa Pratt as well as by others such as Rana Kabbani and Reina Lewis. Biographers like Fawn Brody, Edward Rice, Mary Lovell and Jon Godsall have also had their say. Burton has been variously described as imperialist, sexist, gay, obssessed with pornography, racist, plagiarist, sexual libertine, scatologist, expert sociologist, profoundly deceitful and impotent. In spite of this negative press, interest in Burton is always high as his life and times are relevant to many scholars interested in the 19th century origins of modern thought and postcolonial ideas. In this paper presentation I will attempt to get beyond the confused and contradictory portrayals of Burton over the last 50 or so years by looking in some detail at Burton’s two long poems: Stone Talk and The Kasidah. In these works, published 15 years apart, Burton writes under pseudonyms and, as I will argue, is able to express many of his deepest beliefs, especially in The Kasidah where he is playing the part of Hadji Abu Al Yezid, a Sufi like-wise man who possesses some startling similarities to Burton himself. What emerges from this close examination of the texts is a sensitive relativist who, while adhering to the scientific method in all his practical dealings, is yet able to consider the possibility that everything we see around us and all our experience of the world might be, finally, nothing more than Maya and illusion.



Burton, Victorian poetry, Eastern philosophy, Travel literature, Victorian literature, 19th century philosophy, Buddhism, Hinduism, Postcolonial literature, Elegies, Sufism, Belief systems, Religion

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