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Transcribed from the 1906 Edward Arnold edition by David Price, email
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When a popular writer dies, the question it has become the fashion with a
nervous generation to ask is the question, 'Will he live?' There was no
idler question, none more hopelessly impossible and unprofitable to
answer. It is one of the many vanities of criticism to promise
immortality to the authors that it praises, to patronise a writer with
the assurance that our great-grandchildren, whose time and tastes are
thus frivolously mortgaged, will read his works with delight. But 'there
is no antidote against the opium of time, which temporally considereth
all things: our fathers find their graves in our short memories, and
sadly tell us how we may be buried in our survivors.' Let us make sure
that our sons will care for Homer before we pledge a more distant
generation to a newer cult.

Nevertheless, without handling the prickly question of literary
immortality, it is easy to recognise that the literary reputation of
Robert Louis Stevenson is made of good stuff. His fame has spread, as
lasting fame is wont to do, from the few to the many. Fifteen years ago
his essays and fanciful books of travel were treasured by a small and
discerning company of admirers; long before he chanced to fell the
British public with _Treasure Island_ and _Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde_ he
had shown himself a delicate marksman. And although large editions are
nothing, standard editions, richly furnished and complete, are worthy of
remark. Stevenson is one of the very few authors in our literary history
who have been honoured during their lifetime by the appearance of such an
edition; the best of his public, it would seem, do not only wish to read
his works, but to possess them, and all of them, at the cost of many
pounds, in library form. It would be easy to mention more voluminous and
more popular authors than Stevenson whose publishers could not find five
subscribers for an adventure like this. He has made a brave beginning in
that race against Time which all must lose.

It is not in the least necessary, after all, to fortify ourselves with
the presumed consent of our poor descendants, who may have a world of
other business to attend to, in order to establish Stevenson in the
position of a great writer. Let us leave that foolish trick to the
politicians, who never claim that they are right - merely that they will
win at the next elections. Literary criticism has standards other than
the suffrage; it is possible enough to say something of the literary
quality of a work that appeared yesterday. Stevenson himself was
singularly free from the vanity of fame; 'the best artist,' he says
truly, 'is not the man who fixes his eye on posterity, but the one who
loves the practice of his art.' He loved, if ever man did, the practice
of his art; and those who find meat and drink in the delight of watching
and appreciating the skilful practice of the literary art, will abandon
themselves to the enjoyment of his masterstrokes without teasing their
unborn and possibly illiterate posterity to answer solemn questions. Will
a book live? Will a cricket match live? Perhaps not, and yet both be
fine achievements.

It is not easy to estimate the loss to letters by his early death. In
the dedication of _Prince Otto_ he says, 'Well, we will not give in that
we are finally beaten. . . . I still mean to get my health again; I still
purpose, by hook or crook, this book or the next, to launch a
masterpiece.' It would be a churlish or a very dainty critic who should
deny that he has launched masterpieces, but whether he ever launched his
masterpiece is an open question. Of the story that he was writing just
before his death he is reported to have said that 'the goodness of it
frightened him.' A goodness that frightened him will surely not be
visible, like Banquo's ghost, to only one pair of eyes. His greatest was
perhaps yet to come. Had Dryden died at his age, we should have had none
of the great satires; had Scott died at his age, we should have had no
Waverley Novels. Dying at the height of his power, and in the full tide
of thought and activity, he seems almost to have fulfilled the aspiration
and unconscious prophecy of one of the early essays:

'Does not life go down with a better grace foaming in full body over a
precipice, than miserably straggling to an end in sandy deltas?

'When the Greeks made their fine saying that those whom the gods love
die young, I cannot help believing that they had this sort of death
also in their eye. For surely, at whatever age it overtake the man,
this is to die young. Death has not been suffered to take so much as
an illusion from his heart. In the hot-fit of life, a-tiptoe on the
highest point of being, he passes at a bound on to the other side. The
noise of the mallet and chisel is scarcely quenched, the trumpets are
hardly done blowing, when, trailing with him clouds of glory, this
happy starred, full-blooded spirit shoots into the spiritual land.'

But we on this side are the poorer - by how much we can never know. What
strengthens the conviction that he might yet have surpassed himself and
dwarfed his own best work is, certainly no immaturity, for the flavour of
wisdom and old experience hangs about his earliest writings, but a vague
sense awakened by that brilliant series of books, so diverse in theme, so
slight often in structure and occasions so gaily executed, that here was
a finished literary craftsman, who had served his period of
apprenticeship and was playing with his tools. The pleasure of wielding
the graven tool, the itch of craftsmanship, was strong upon him, and many
of the works he has left are the overflow of a laughing energy,
arabesques carved on the rock in the artist's painless hours.

All art, it is true, is play of a sort; the 'sport-impulse' (to translate
a German phrase) is deep at the root of the artist's power; Sophocles,
Shakespeare, Moliere, and Goethe, in a very profound sense, make game of
life. But to make game of life was to each of these the very loftiest
and most imperative employ to be found for him on this planet; to hold
the mirror up to Nature so that for the first time she may see herself;
to 'be a candle-holder and look on' at the pageantry which, but for the
candle-holder, would huddle along in the undistinguishable blackness,
filled them with the pride of place. Stevenson had the sport-impulse at
the depths of his nature, but he also had, perhaps he had inherited, an
instinct for work in more blockish material, for lighthouse-building and
iron-founding. In a 'Letter to a Young Artist,' contributed to a
magazine years ago, he compares the artist in paint or in words to the
keeper of a booth at the world's fair, dependent for his bread on his
success in amusing others. In his volume of poems he almost apologises
for his excellence in literature:

'Say not of me, that weakly I declined
The labours of my sires, and fled the sea,
The towers we founded, and the lamps we lit,
To play at home with paper like a child;
But rather say: _In the afternoon of time_
_A strenuous family dusted from its hands_
_The sand of granite_, _and beholding far_
_Along the sounding coasts its pyramids_
_And tall memorials catch the dying sun_,
_Smiled well-content_, _and to this childish task_
_Around the fire addressed its evening hours_.'

Some of his works are, no doubt, best described as paper-games. In _The
Wrong Box_, for instance, there is something very like the card-game
commonly called 'Old Maid'; the odd card is a superfluous corpse, and
each dismayed recipient in turn assumes a disguise and a pseudonym and
bravely passes on that uncomfortable inheritance. It is an admirable
farce, hardly touched with grimness, unshaken by the breath of reality,
full of fantastic character; the strange funeral procession is attended
by shouts of glee at each of its stages, and finally melts into space.

But, when all is said, it is not with work of this kind that Olympus is
stormed; art must be brought closer into relation with life, these airy
and delightful freaks of fancy must be subdued to a serious scheme if
they are to serve as credentials for a seat among the immortals. The
decorative painter, whose pencil runs so freely in limning these half-
human processions of outlined fauns and wood-nymphs, is asked at last to
paint an easel picture.

Stevenson is best where he shows most restraint, and his peculiarly rich
fancy, which ran riot at the suggestion of every passing whim, gave him,
what many a modern writer sadly lacks, plenty to restrain, an exuberant
field for self-denial. Here was an opportunity for art and labour; the
luxuriance of the virgin forests of the West may be clipped and pruned
for a lifetime with no fear of reducing them to the trim similitude of a
Dutch garden. His bountiful and generous nature could profit by a spell
of training that would emaciate a poorer stock. From the first, his
delight in earth and the earth-born was keen and multiform; his zest in

'put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laugh'd and leap'd with him;'

and his fancy, light and quick as a child's, made of the world around him
an enchanted pleasance. The realism, as it is called, that deals only
with the banalities and squalors of life, and weaves into the mesh of its
story no character but would make you yawn if you passed ten minutes with
him in a railway-carriage, might well take a lesson from this man, if it
had the brains. Picture to yourself (it is not hard) an average suburb
of London. The long rows of identical bilious brick houses, with the
inevitable lace curtains, a symbol merely of the will and power to wash;
the awful nondescript object, generally under glass, in the front
window - the shrine of the unknown god of art; the sombre invariable
citizen, whose garb gives no suggestion of his occupation or his tastes - a
person, it would seem, only by courtesy; the piano-organ the music of the
day, and the hideous voice of the vendor of half-penny papers the music
of the night; could anything be less promising than such a row of houses
for the theatre of romance? Set a realist to walk down one of these
streets: he will inquire about milk-bills and servants' wages, latch-keys
and Sunday avocations, and come back with a tale of small meannesses and
petty respectabilities, written in the approved modern fashion. Yet
Stevenson, it seems likely, could not pass along such a line of brick
bandboxes without having his pulses set a-throbbing by the imaginative
possibilities of the place. Of his own Lieutenant Brackenbury Rich he

'The succession of faces in the lamplight stirred the lieutenant's
imagination; and it seemed to him as if he could walk for ever in that
stimulating city atmosphere and surrounded by the mystery of four
million private lives. He glanced at the houses and marvelled what
was passing behind those warmly lighted windows; he looked into face
after face, and saw them each intent upon some unknown interest,
criminal or kindly.'

It was that same evening that Prince Florizel's friend, under the name of
Mr. Morris, was giving a party in one of the houses of West Kensington.
In one at least of the houses of that brick wilderness human spirits were
being tested as on an anvil, and most of them tossed aside. So also, in,
_The Rajah's Diamond_, it was a quiet suburban garden that witnessed the
sudden apparition of Mr. Harry Hartley and his treasures precipitated
over the wall; it was in the same garden that the Rev. Simon Rolles
suddenly, to his own surprise, became a thief. A monotony of bad
building is no doubt a bad thing, but it cannot paralyse the activities
or frustrate the agonies of the mind of man.

To a man with Stevenson's live and searching imagination, every work of
human hands became vocal with possible associations. Buildings
positively chattered to him; the little inn at Queensferry, which even
for Scott had meant only mutton and currant jelly, with cranberries 'vera
weel preserved,' gave him the cardinal incident of _Kidnapped_. How
should the world ever seem dull or sordid to one whom a railway-station
would take into its confidence, to whom the very flagstones of the
pavement told their story, in whose mind 'the effect of night, of any
flowing water, of lighted cities, of the peep of day, of ships, of the
open ocean,' called up 'an army of anonymous desires and pleasures'? To
have the 'golden-tongued Romance with serene lute' for a mistress and
familiar is to be fortified against the assaults of tedium.

His attitude towards the surprising and momentous gifts of life was one
prolonged passion of praise and joy. There is none of his books that
reads like the meditations of an invalid. He has the readiest sympathy
for all exhibitions of impulsive energy; his heart goes out to a sailor,
and leaps into ecstasy over a generous adventurer or buccaneer. Of one
of his earlier books he says: 'From the negative point of view I flatter
myself this volume has a certain stamp. Although it runs to considerably
upwards of two hundred pages, it contains not a single reference to the
imbecility of God's universe, nor so much as a single hint that I could
have made a better one myself.' And this was an omission that he never
remedied in his later works. Indeed, his zest in life, whether lived in
the back gardens of a town or on the high seas, was so great that it
seems probable the writer would have been lost had the man been dowered
with better health.

'Whereas my birth and spirit rather took
The way that takes the town,
Thou didst betray me to a ling'ring book,
And wrap me in a gown,'

says George Herbert, who, in his earlier ambitions, would fain have
ruffled it with the best at the court of King James. But from Stevenson,
although not only the town, but oceans and continents, beckoned him to
deeds, no such wail escaped. His indomitable cheerfulness was never
embarked in the cock-boat of his own prosperity. A high and simple
courage shines through all his writings. It is supposed to be a normal
human feeling for those who are hale to sympathize with others who are in
pain. Stevenson reversed the position, and there is no braver spectacle
in literature than to see him not asking others to lower their voices in
his sick-room, but raising his own voice that he may make them feel at
ease and avoid imposing his misfortunes on their notice. 'Once when I
was groaning aloud with physical pain,' he says in the essay on _Child's
Play_, 'a young gentleman came into the room and nonchalantly inquired if
I had seen his bow and arrow. He made no account of my groans, which he
accepted, as he had to accept so much else, as a piece of the
inexplicable conduct of his elders; and, like a wise young gentleman, he
would waste no wonder on the subject.' Was there ever a passage like
this? The sympathy of the writer is wholly with the child, and the
child's absolute indifference to his own sufferings. It might have been
safely predicted that this man, should he ever attain to pathos, would be
free from the facile, maudlin pathos of the hired sentimentalist.

And so also with what Dr. Johnson has called 'metaphysical distresses.'
It is striking enough to observe how differently the quiet monasteries of
the Carthusian and Trappist brotherhoods affected Matthew Arnold and
Robert Louis Stevenson. In his well-known elegiac stanzas Matthew Arnold
likens his own state to that of the monks:

'Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head,
Like these on earth I wait forlorn.
Their faith, my tears, the world deride -
I come to shed them at their side.'

To Stevenson, on the other hand, our Lady of the Snows is a mistaken
divinity, and the place a monument of chilly error, - for once in a way he
takes it on himself to be a preacher, his temperament gives voice in a

'And ye, O brethren, what if God,
When from Heaven's top He spies abroad,
And sees on this tormented stage
The noble war of mankind rage,
What if His vivifying eye,
O monks, should pass your corner by?
For still the Lord is Lord of might;
In deeds, in deeds, He takes delight;
The plough, the spear, the laden barks,
The field, the founded city, marks;
He marks the smiler of the streets,
The singer upon garden seats;
He sees the climber in the rocks;
To Him, the shepherd folds his flocks;
For those He loves that underprop
With daily virtues Heaven's top,
And bear the falling sky with ease,
Unfrowning Caryatides.
Those He approves that ply the trade,
That rock the child, that wed the maid,
That with weak virtues, weaker hands,
Sow gladness on the peopled lands,
And still with laughter, song, and shout
Spin the great wheel of earth about.

But ye? - O ye who linger still
Here in your fortress on the hill,
With placid face, with tranquil breath,
The unsought volunteers of death,
Our cheerful General on high
With careless looks may pass you by!'

And the fact of death, which has damped and darkened the writings of so
many minor poets, does not cast a pallor on his conviction. Life is of
value only because it can be spent, or given; and the love of God coveted
the position, and assumed mortality. If a man treasure and hug his life,
one thing only is certain, that he will be robbed some day, and cut the
pitiable and futile figure of one who has been saving candle-ends in a
house that is on fire. Better than this to have a foolish spendthrift
blaze and the loving cup going round. Stevenson speaks almost with a
personal envy of the conduct of the four marines of the _Wager_. There
was no room for them in the boat, and they were left on a desert island
to a certain death. 'They were soldiers, they said, and knew well enough
it was their business to die; and as their comrades pulled away, they
stood upon the beach, gave three cheers, and cried, "God bless the King!"
Now, one or two of those who were in the boat escaped, against all
likelihood, to tell the story. That was a great thing for us' - even when
life is extorted it may be given nobly, with ceremony and courtesy. So
strong was Stevenson's admiration for heroic graces like these that in
the requiem that appears in his poems he speaks of an ordinary death as
of a hearty exploit, and draws his figures from lives of adventure and

'Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
_Here he lies where he longed to be_,
_Home is the sailor_, _home from the sea_,
_And the hunter home from the hill_.'

This man should surely have been honoured with the pomp and colour and
music of a soldier's funeral.

The most remarkable feature of the work he has left is its singular
combination of style and romance. It has so happened, and the accident
has gained almost the strength of a tradition, that the most assiduous
followers of romance have been careless stylists. They have trusted to
the efficacy of their situation and incident, and have too often cared
little about the manner of its presentation. By an odd piece of irony
style has been left to the cultivation of those who have little or
nothing to tell. Sir Walter Scott himself, with all his splendid
romantic and tragic gifts, often, in Stevenson's perfectly just phrase,
'fobs us off with languid and inarticulate twaddle.' He wrote carelessly
and genially, and then breakfasted, and began the business of the day.
But Stevenson, who had romance tingling in every vein of his body, set
himself laboriously and patiently to train his other faculty, the faculty
of style.

I. STYLE. - Let no one say that 'reading and writing comes by nature,'
unless he is prepared to be classed with the foolish burgess who said it
first. A poet is born, not made, - so is every man, - but he is born raw.
Stevenson's life was a grave devotion to the education of himself in the
art of writing,

'The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne,
Thassay so hard, so sharp the conquering.'

Those who deny the necessity, or decry the utility, of such an education,
are generally deficient in a sense of what makes good literature - they
are 'word-deaf,' as others are colour-blind. All writing is a kind of
word-weaving; a skilful writer will make a splendid tissue out of the
diverse fibres of words. But to care for words, to select them
judiciously and lovingly, is not in the least essential to all writing,
all speaking; for the sad fact is this, that most of us do our thinking,
our writing, and our speaking in phrases, not in words. The work of a
feeble writer is always a patchwork of phrases, some of them borrowed
from the imperial texture of Shakespeare and Milton, others picked up
from the rags in the street. We make our very kettle-holders of pieces
of a king's carpet. How many overworn quotations from Shakespeare
suddenly leap into meaning and brightness when they are seen in their
context! 'The cry is still, "They come!"' - 'More honoured in the breach
than the observance,' - the sight of these phrases in the splendour of
their dramatic context in _Macbeth_ and _Hamlet_ casts shame upon their
daily degraded employments. But the man of affairs has neither the time
to fashion his speech, nor the knowledge to choose his words, so he
borrows his sentences ready-made, and applies them in rough haste to
purposes that they do not exactly fit. Such a man inevitably repeats,
like the cuckoo, monotonous catchwords, and lays his eggs of thought in
the material that has been woven into consistency by others. It is a
matter of natural taste, developed and strengthened by continual
practice, to avoid being the unwitting slave of phrases.

The artist in words, on the other hand, although he is a lover of fine
phrases, in his word-weaving experiments uses no shoddy, but cultivates
his senses of touch and sight until he can combine the raw fibres in
novel and bewitching patterns. To this end he must have two things: a
fine sense, in the first place, of the sound, value, meaning, and
associations of individual words, and next, a sense of harmony,
proportion, and effect in their combination. It is amazing what nobility
a mere truism is often found to possess when it is clad with a garment
thus woven.

Stevenson had both these sensitive capabilities in a very high decree.
His careful choice of epithet and name have even been criticised as
lending to some of his narrative-writing an excessive air of
deliberation. His daintiness of diction is best seen in his earlier
work; thereafter his writing became more vigorous and direct, fitter for
its later uses, but never unillumined by felicities that cause a thrill
of pleasure to the reader. Of the value of words he had the acutest
appreciation. _Virginibus Puerisque_, his first book of essays, is
crowded with happy hits and subtle implications conveyed in a single
word. 'We have all heard,' he says in one of these, 'of cities in South
America built upon the side of fiery mountains, and how, even in this
tremendous neighbourhood, the inhabitants are not a jot more impressed by
the solemnity of mortal conditions than if they were delving gardens in
the greenest corner of England.' You can feel the ground shake and see
the volcano tower above you at that word '_tremendous_ neighbourhood.'
Something of the same double reference to the original and acquired
meanings of a word is to be found in such a phrase as 'sedate
electrician,' for one who in a back office wields all the lights of a
city; or in that description of one drawing near to death, who is spoken
of as groping already with his hands 'on the face of the _impassable_.'

The likeness of this last word to a very different word, '_impassive_,'
is made to do good literary service in suggesting the sphinx-like image
of death. Sometimes, as here, this subtle sense of double meanings

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Online LibraryWalter Alexander RaleighRobert Louis Stevenson → online text (page 1 of 3)