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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By William Gifford Palgrave (1826–1888)

A STRANGE personality, inviting a strange life, a career of curious and indeed of highly romantic interest, yet of imperfect fruitfulness—such is the summary of Palgrave’s individuality, and of his sixty-two busy years of work and wandering. An assortment of mysteries, intangible and confused, hung about him while he lived. His death did not answer many significant and open personal questions. Scholar, poet, soldier, missionary-priest, traveler, lecturer, learned Orientalist and linguist, Arabian explorer, doctor, spy, secret agent, diplomatist,—Palgrave was all these; and in them all the real Palgrave appeared, to friend or to foe, chiefly in fragmentary and uncertain aspects.

The second son of Sir Francis Palgrave, the English historical writer and antiquarian, William Gifford Palgrave was born in Westminster, January 24th, 1826. He distinguished himself in belles-lettres as a Charterhouse schoolboy, and graduated from Trinity College, Oxford, when only twenty, after an exceptionally short University residence. The East had already much attracted him. Rejecting high opportunities of distinction opening to him in England through his father’s powerful influences, he entered the Indian service as a lieutenant in the Eighth Bombay Regiment. His superior education, his firmness of mind, and his temperamental adaptation for Eastern military life, insured his advance in the service; but here again Palgrave’s tendency to turn from anything like committing himself in a given direction, and working out his material welfare in commonplace method, seem to have affected his future. His head was already full of Oriental literature; and it is said that not a little merely through his study of such a work as ‘Antar,’ he felt he must meet the less familiar life and less accessible peoples of the East on another than military footing,—one far more intimate. He had, too, at this time strong religious convictions and aspirations. He entered the Roman Catholic Church, became a Jesuit in Madras, and was ordained a priest.

For the next fifteen years Palgrave was an extremely hard-worked Jesuit missioner in Southern India. In June 1853 he went to Rome. There he met with distinguished attention, though in an unobtrusive—in fact, almost a clandestine—way. It may be said that he was early a complete master of half-a-dozen European tongues, in addition to as many of the languages or dialects of the East. He learned a language with something like preternatural quickness; though he forgot one quite as suddenly, as soon as not needed in his affairs. In the autumn of the year that had found him in Rome, he was sent to Syria, and conducted most successfully some valuable missionary undertakings at Zahleh. He was a born proselytist. Syria and the Syrians, Arabia and the Arabians, became an open book to him. With the persecution of the Maronite Christians from the Druses, the Maronites were anxious that he should be their actual leader in the war. This, however, he declined to do, although he bestirred himself actively, quite as far as any priest could becomingly go, in the task of the practical military instruction of the dismayed Maronites. The massacre of June 1861 nearly cost him his life; in fact, he just escaped. His Syrian mission now interrupted, he became an Occidental again. He revisited Europe; lectured in Great Britain on the Syrian massacres, and was requested by Napoleon III. of France to furnish authoritative data as to them. This he did with much success, meeting with a most cordial personal interest on the Emperor’s part.

So perfectly could Palgrave assume the Oriental,—especially the Arab, Syrian, or Levantine,—so complete had become his knowledge of the races of the East and of shades of Eastern character and religion, that in 1862, after his return to Syria, he undertook one of the most dangerous and adventurous tests of his genius for acting in character. Mohammedanism he had by heart. He was able to be a Mussulman among Mussulmans. He knew every shade of Islamic orthodoxy and Islamic heterodoxy; and he could quote the higgling commentators on the Koran as literally as he could cite the Most Perspicuous Book itself. The French government felt special interest at this time in learning definite particulars of the attitude toward France of Central Arabia proper, with its group of little known central tribes, and isolated towns and peoples; and France also wished to ascertain how far the finer Arabian blood stock could be procured for bettering the breed of French horses. At the same time Palgrave himself was desirous of determining whether Central Arabia offered a real and safe field for Catholic mission work. The district he was asked to traverse and to study on these errands included that portion of Arabia most out of touch with all European sounding; and more of a difficulty than that, it was one savagely fanatical in its Mohammedan orthodoxy. It was a territory in which no European traveler would be tolerated. To visit it invited death. Palgrave accordingly began and completed his tour in disguise. He penetrated to Hofhuf, Raïd, and to other centers of Mohammedan and Wahabee religiosity, as a traveling Syrian physician. He nearly came to grief two or three times; but by his assurance and his perfect familiarity with his surroundings, he escaped more than some troublesome and passing suspicions. He even gained the actual favor of the most exclusive authorities of the Peninsula; and pursuing his explorations, drew his various conclusions with complete success, and returned with his head on his shoulders, to write one of the most fascinating records of Arabian wanderings ever penned—his ‘Narrative of a Year’s Journey through Central and Eastern Arabia’ (1865).

No sooner was one task of travel ended than Palgrave was ready for a new one. An Abyssinian journey occupied the summer of 1865, when he was commissioned to obtain the release of Mr. Cameron, the consul, and of other English captives, from the clutches of King Theodore. He remained in Egypt, under government instructions, till 1866; and then after a short visit to England he became the British consular representative at Soukhoum Kalé. Many years of government service, travel, and exploration followed, including wanderings (frequently in disguise) through Asia Minor, the Euphrates country, Anatolia, and Persia. He continued his consular duties by accepting posts in Manila and Bangkok, and also studied Farther India assiduously while residing in it. Finally the current of his interests and official appointments set westerly; and after consular services in the West Indies and Uruguay, he died at Montevideo in September 1888. During the latter portion of his life he became sufficiently interested in Shintoism to lapse from his Christian belief; but before his death he repudiated what had been but an imperfect apostasy, and received the last sacraments of the church of his youth and middle age. His remains were brought with affectionate care from the Uruguay city where he passed away. He is buried in Fulham.

So far as Palgrave’s mind and work, and especially his exquisite knowledge of Eastern life and peoples, have a literary representation, we find it in the ‘Narrative’ of his risky expedition through Central Arabia; and not less clearly in one bit of fiction of astonishing brilliancy, sincerity, and vividness. This last is ‘Hermann Agha.’ It is to all intents a love story, withal a short and sad one. The material in this tale, wholly Oriental, and modern-Oriental as well, is slight. There is little between its covers, when we compare the slender book with the elaborate romances of less authoritative but more pretentious tale-tellers in Orientalism. But it is a transcript from the passionate heart and the fatalistic soul of the East. The directness and emotional intensity of the story hold the reader under an irresistible spell from beginning to end. It has been said, on one or another authority, that in ‘Hermann Agha’ Palgrave ventured (disguised to the last) to embody a considerable autobiographic element, and reminiscences that were quite personal to himself. This can scarcely be clear to the uninitiated reader of ‘Hermann Agha’; but hardly a character or passage in the tale reads like the creation of a novelist’s mere fancy, however sensitive or robust.