Robert Louis Stevenson.

Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson online

. (page 6 of 13)
Online LibraryRobert Louis StevensonEssays of Robert Louis Stevenson → online text (page 6 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


kaleidoscope, transmigrates bodily into the views of others, and so,
in the twinkling of an eye and with a heady rapture, turns questions
inside out and flings them empty before you on the ground, like a
triumphant conjuror. It is my common practice when a piece of conduct
puzzles me, to attack it in the presence of Jack with such grossness,
such partiality and such wearing iteration, as at length shall spur
him up in its defence. In a moment he transmigrates, dons the required
character, and with moonstruck philosophy justifies the act in
question. I can fancy nothing to compare with the _vim_ of these
impersonations, the strange scale of language, flying from Shakespeare
to Kant, and from Kant to Major Dyngwell[14] -

"As fast as a musician scatters sounds
Out of an instrument - "

the sudden, sweeping generalisations, the absurd irrelevant
particularities, the wit, wisdom, folly, humour, eloquence and bathos,
each startling in its kind, and yet all luminous in the admired
disorder of their combination. A talker of a different calibre, though
belonging to the same school, is Burly.[15] Burly is a man of great
presence; he commands a larger atmosphere, gives the impression of a
grosser mass of character than most men. It has been said of him that
his presence could be felt in a room you entered blindfold; and the
same, I think, has been said of other powerful constitutions condemned
to much physical inaction. There is something boisterous and piratic
in Burly's manner of talk which suits well enough with this
impression. He will roar you down, he will bury his face in his hands,
he will undergo passions of revolt and agony; and meanwhile his
attitude of mind is really both conciliatory and receptive; and after
Pistol has been out-Pistol'd,[16] and the welkin rung for hours, you
begin to perceive a certain subsidence in these spring torrents,
points of agreement issue, and you end arm-in-arm, and in a glow of
mutual admiration. The outcry only serves to make your final union the
more unexpected and precious. Throughout there has been perfect
sincerity, perfect intelligence, a desire to hear although not always
to listen, and an unaffected eagerness to meet concessions. You have,
with Burly, none of the dangers that attend debate with Spring-Heel'd
Jack; who may at any moment turn his powers of transmigration on
yourself, create for you a view you never held, and then furiously
fall on you for holding it. These, at least, are my two favourites,
and both are loud, copious intolerant talkers. This argues that I
myself am in the same category; for if we love talking at all, we love
a bright, fierce adversary, who will hold his ground, foot by foot, in
much our own manner, sell his attention dearly, and give us our full
measure of the dust and exertion of battle. Both these men can be beat
from a position, but it takes six hours to do it; a high and hard
adventure, worth attempting. With both you can pass days in an
enchanted country of the mind, with people, scenery and manners of its
own; live a life apart, more arduous, active and glowing than any real
existence; and come forth again when the talk is over, as out of a
theatre or a dream, to find the east wind still blowing and the
chimney-pots of the old battered city still around you. Jack has the
far finer mind, Burly the far more honest; Jack gives us the animated
poetry, Burly the romantic prose, of similar themes; the one glances
high like a meteor and makes a light in darkness; the other, with many
changing hues of fire, burns at the sea-level, like a conflagration;
but both have the same humour and artistic interests, the same
unquenched ardour in pursuit, the same gusts of talk and thunderclaps
of contradiction.

Cockshot[17] is a different article, but vastly entertaining, and has
been meat and drink to me for many a long evening. His manner is dry,
brisk and pertinacious, and the choice of words not much. The point
about him is his extraordinary readiness and spirit. You can propound
nothing but he has either a theory about it ready-made, or will have
one instantly on the stocks, and proceed to lay its timbers and launch
it in your presence. "Let me see," he will say. "Give me a moment. I
_should_ have some theory for that." A blither spectacle than the
vigour with which he sets about the task, it were hard to fancy. He is
possessed by a demoniac energy, welding the elements for his life, and
bending ideas, as an athlete bends a horseshoe, with a visible and
lively effort. He has, in theorising, a compass, an art; what I would
call the synthetic gusto; something of a Herbert Spencer,[18] who
should see the fun of the thing. You are not bound, and no more is he,
to place your faith in these brand-new opinions. But some of them are
right enough, durable even for life; and the poorest serve for a
cock-shy - as when idle people, after picnics, float a bottle on a pond
and have an hour's diversion ere it sinks. Whichever they are, serious
opinions or humours of the moment, he still defends his ventures with
indefatigable wit and spirit, hitting savagely himself, but taking
punishment like a man. He knows and never forgets that people talk,
first of all, for the sake of talking; conducts himself in the ring,
to use the old slang, like a thorough "glutton,"[19] and honestly
enjoys a telling facer from his adversary. Cockshot is bottled
effervescency, the sworn foe of sleep. Three-in-the-morning Cockshot,
says a victim. His talk is like the driest of all imaginable dry
champagnes. Sleight of hand and inimitable quickness are the qualities
by which he lives. Athelred,[20] on the other hand, presents you with
the spectacle of a sincere and somewhat slow nature thinking aloud. He
is the most unready man I ever knew to shine in conversation. You may
see him sometimes wrestle with a refractory jest for a minute or two
together, and perhaps fail to throw it in the end. And there is
something singularly engaging, often instructive, in the simplicity
with which he thus exposes the process as well as the result, the
works as well as the dial of the clock. Withal he has his hours of
inspiration. Apt words come to him as if by accident, and, coming from
deeper down, they smack the more personally, they have the more of
fine old crusted humanity, rich in sediment and humour. There are
sayings of his in which he has stamped himself into the very grain of
the language; you would think he must have worn the words next his
skin and slept with them. Yet it is not as a sayer of particular good
things that Athelred is most to be regarded, rather as the stalwart
woodman of thought. I have pulled on a light cord often enough, while
he has been wielding the broad-axe; and between us, on this unequal
division, many a specious fallacy has fallen. I have known him to
battle the same question night after night for years, keeping it in
the reign of talk, constantly applying it and re-applying it to life
with humorous or grave intention, and all the while, never hurrying,
nor flagging, nor taking an unfair advantage of the facts. Jack at a
given moment, when arising, as it were, from the tripod, can be more
radiantly just to those from whom he differs; but then the tenor of
his thoughts is even calumnious; while Athelred, slower to forge
excuses, is yet slower to condemn, and sits over the welter of the
world, vacillating but still judicial, and still faithfully contending
with his doubts.

Both the last talkers deal much in points of conduct and religion
studied in the "dry light"[21] of prose. Indirectly and as if against
his will the same elements from time to time appear in the troubled
and poetic talk of Opalstein.[22] His various and exotic knowledge,
complete although unready sympathies, and fine, full, discriminative
flow of language, fit him out to be the best of talkers; so perhaps he
is with some, not _quite_ with me - _proxime accessit_,[23] I should
say. He sings the praises of the earth and the arts, flowers and
jewels, wine and music, in a moonlight, serenading manner, as to the
light guitar; even wisdom comes from his tongue like singing; no one
is, indeed, more tuneful in the upper notes. But even while he sings
the song of the Sirens, he still hearkens to the barking of the
Sphinx. Jarring Byronic notes interrupt the flow of his Horatian
humours. His mirth has something of the tragedy of the world for its
perpetual background; and he feasts like Don Giovanni to a double
orchestra, one lightly sounding for the dance, one pealing
Beethoven[24] in the distance. He is not truly reconciled either with
life or with himself; and this instant war in his members sometimes
divides the man's attention. He does not always, perhaps not often,
frankly surrender himself in conversation. He brings into the talk
other thoughts than those which he expresses; you are conscious that
he keeps an eye on something else, that he does not shake off the
world, nor quite forget himself. Hence arise occasional
disappointments; even an occasional unfairness for his companions, who
find themselves one day giving too much, and the next, when they are
wary out of season, giving perhaps too little. Purcel[25] is in
another class from any I have mentioned. He is no debater, but appears
in conversation, as occasion rises, in two distinct characters, one of
which I admire and fear, and the other love. In the first, he is
radiantly civil and rather silent, sits on a high, courtly hilltop,
and from that vantage-ground drops you his remarks like favours. He
seems not to share in our sublunary contentions; he wears no sign of
interest; when on a sudden there falls in a crystal of wit, so
polished that the dull do not perceive it, but so right that the
sensitive are silenced. True talk should have more body and blood,
should be louder, vainer and more declaratory of the man; the true
talker should not hold so steady an advantage over whom he speaks
with; and that is one reason out of a score why I prefer my Purcel in
his second character, when he unbends into a strain of graceful
gossip, singing like the fireside kettle. In these moods he has an
elegant homeliness that rings of the true Queen Anne. I know another
person[26] who attains, in his moments, to the insolence of a
Restoration comedy, speaking, I declare, as Congreve[27] wrote; but
that is a sport of nature, and scarce falls under the rubric, for
there is none, alas! to give him answer.

One last remark occurs: It is the mark of genuine conversation that
the sayings can scarce be quoted with their full effect beyond the
circle of common friends. To have their proper weight they should
appear in a biography, and with the portrait of the speaker. Good talk
is dramatic; it is like an impromptu piece of acting where each should
represent himself to the greatest advantage; and that is the best kind
of talk where each speaker is most fully and candidly himself, and
where, if you were to shift the speeches round from one to another,
there would be the greatest loss in significance and perspicuity. It
is for this reason that talk depends so wholly on our company. We
should like to introduce Falstaff and Mercutio, or Falstaff and Sir
Toby; but Falstaff in talk with Cordelia seems even painful. Most of
us, by the Protean[28] quality of man, can talk to some degree with
all; but the true talk, that strikes out all the slumbering best of
us, comes only with the peculiar brethren of our spirits, is founded
as deep as love in the constitution of our being, and is a thing to
relish with all our energy, while, yet we have it, and to be grateful
for forever.


II[29]

In the last paper there was perhaps too much about mere debate; and
there was nothing said at all about that kind of talk which is merely
luminous and restful, a higher power of silence, the quiet of the
evening shared by ruminating friends. There is something, aside from
personal preference, to be alleged in support of this omission. Those
who are no chimney-cornerers, who rejoice in the social thunderstorm,
have a ground in reason for their choice. They get little rest indeed;
but restfulness is a quality for cattle; the virtues are all active,
life is alert, and it is in repose that men prepare themselves for
evil. On the other hand, they are bruised into a knowledge of
themselves and others; they have in a high degree the fencer's
pleasure in dexterity displayed and proved; what they get they get
upon life's terms, paying for it as they go; and once the talk is
launched, they are assured of honest dealing from an adversary eager
like themselves. The aboriginal man within us, the cave-dweller, still
lusty as when he fought tooth and nail for roots and berries, scents
this kind of equal battle from afar; it is like his old primaeval days
upon the crags, a return to the sincerity of savage life from the
comfortable fictions of the civilised. And if it be delightful to the
Old Man, it is none the less profitable to his younger brother, the
conscientious gentleman. I feel never quite sure of your urbane and
smiling coteries; I fear they indulge a man's vanities in silence,
suffer him to encroach, encourage him on to be an ass, and send him
forth again, not merely contemned for the moment, but radically more
contemptible than when he entered. But if I have a flushed, blustering
fellow for my opposite, bent on carrying a point, my vanity is sure to
have its ears rubbed, once at least, in the course of the debate. He
will not spare me when we differ; he will not fear to demonstrate my
folly to my face.

For many natures there is not much charm in the still, chambered
society, the circle of bland countenances, the digestive silence, the
admired remark, the flutter of affectionate approval. They demand more
atmosphere and exercise; "a gale upon their spirits," as our pious
ancestors would phrase it; to have their wits well breathed in an
uproarious Valhalla.[30] And I suspect that the choice, given their
character and faults, is one to be defended. The purely wise are
silenced by facts; they talk in a clear atmosphere, problems lying
around them like a view in nature; if they can be shown to be somewhat
in the wrong, they digest the reproof like a thrashing, and make
better intellectual blood. They stand corrected by a whisper; a word
or a glance reminds them of the great eternal law. But it is not so
with all. Others in conversation seek rather contact with their
fellow-men than increase of knowledge or clarity of thought. The
drama, not the philosophy, of life is the sphere of their intellectual
activity. Even when they pursue truth, they desire as much as possible
of what we may call human scenery along the road they follow. They
dwell in the heart of life; the blood sounding in their ears, their
eyes laying hold of what delights them with a brutal avidity that
makes them blind to all besides, their interest riveted on people,
living, loving, talking, tangible people. To a man of this
description, the sphere of argument seems very pale and ghostly. By a
strong expression, a perturbed countenance, floods of tears, an insult
which his conscience obliges him to swallow, he is brought round to
knowledge which no syllogism would have conveyed to him. His own
experience is so vivid, he is so superlatively conscious of himself,
that if, day after day, he is allowed to hector and hear nothing but
approving echoes, he will lose his hold on the soberness of things and
take himself in earnest for a god. Talk might be to such an one the
very way of moral ruin; the school where he might learn to be at once
intolerable and ridiculous.

This character is perhaps commoner than philosophers suppose. And for
persons of that stamp to learn much by conversation, they must speak
with their superiors, not in intellect, for that is a superiority that
must be proved, but in station. If they cannot find a friend to bully
them for their good, they must find either an old man, a woman, or
some one so far below them in the artificial order of society, that
courtesy may be particularly exercised.

The best teachers are the aged. To the old our mouths are always
partly closed; we must swallow our obvious retorts and listen. They
sit above our heads, on life's raised dais, and appeal at once to our
respect and pity. A flavour of the old school, a touch of something
different in their manner - which is freer and rounder, if they come of
what is called a good family, and often more timid and precise if they
are of the middle class - serves, in these days, to accentuate the
difference of age and add a distinction to gray hairs. But their
superiority is founded more deeply than by outward marks or gestures.
They are before us in the march of man; they have more or less solved
the irking problem; they have battled through the equinox of life; in
good and evil they have held their course; and now, without open
shame, they near the crown and harbour. It may be we have been struck
with one of fortune's darts; we can scarce be civil, so cruelly is our
spirit tossed. Yet long before we were so much as thought upon, the
like calamity befell the old man or woman that now, with pleasant
humour, rallies us upon our inattention, sitting composed in the holy
evening of man's life, in the clear shining after rain. We grow
ashamed of our distresses new and hot and coarse, like villainous
roadside brandy; we see life in aerial perspective, under the heavens
of faith; and out of the worst, in the mere presence of contented
elders, look forward and take patience. Fear shrinks before them "like
a thing reproved," not the flitting and ineffectual fear of death, but
the instant, dwelling terror of the responsibilities and revenges of
life. Their speech, indeed, is timid; they report lions in the path;
they counsel a meticulous[31] footing; but their serene, marred faces
are more eloquent and tell another story. Where they have gone, we
will go also, not very greatly fearing; what they have endured
unbroken, we also, God helping us, will make a shift to bear.

Not only is the presence of the aged in itself remedial, but their
minds are stored with antidotes, wisdom's simples, plain
considerations overlooked by youth. They have matter to communicate,
be they never so stupid. Their talk is not merely literature, it is
great literature; classic in virtue of the speaker's detachment,
studded, like a book of travel, with things we should not otherwise
have learnt. In virtue, I have said, of the speaker's detachment - and
this is why, of two old men, the one who is not your father speaks to
you with the more sensible authority; for in the paternal relation the
oldest have lively interests and remain still young. Thus I have known
two young men great friends; each swore by the other's father; the
father of each swore by the other lad; and yet each pair of parent and
child were perpetually by the ears. This is typical: it reads like the
germ of some kindly[32] comedy.

The old appear in conversation in two characters: the critically
silent and the garrulous anecdotic. The last is perhaps what we look
for; it is perhaps the more instructive. An old gentleman, well on in
years, sits handsomely and naturally in the bow-window of his age,
scanning experience with reverted eye; and chirping and smiling,
communicates the accidents and reads the lesson of his long career.
Opinions are strengthened, indeed, but they are also weeded out in the
course of years. What remains steadily present to the eye of the
retired veteran in his hermitage, what still ministers to his content,
what still quickens his old honest heart - these are "the real
long-lived things"[33] that Whitman tells us to prefer. Where youth
agrees with age, not where they differ, wisdom lies; and it is when
the young disciple finds his heart to beat in tune with his
grey-bearded teacher's that a lesson may be learned. I have known one
old gentleman, whom I may name, for he is now gathered to his
stock - Robert Hunter, Sheriff of Dumbarton,[34] and author of an
excellent law-book still re-edited and republished. Whether he was
originally big or little is more than I can guess. When I knew him he
was all fallen away and fallen in; crooked and shrunken; buckled into
a stiff waistcoat for support; troubled by ailments, which kept him
hobbling in and out of the room; one foot gouty; a wig for decency,
not for deception, on his head; close shaved, except under his
chin - and for that he never failed to apologise, for it went sore
against the traditions of his life. You can imagine how he would fare
in a novel by Miss Mather;[35] yet this rag of a Chelsea[36] veteran
lived to his last year in the plenitude of all that is best in man,
brimming with human kindness, and staunch as a Roman soldier under his
manifold infirmities. You could not say that he had lost his memory,
for he would repeat Shakespeare and Webster and Jeremy Taylor and
Burke[37] by the page together; but the parchment was filled up, there
was no room for fresh inscriptions, and he was capable of repeating
the same anecdote on many successive visits. His voice survived in its
full power, and he took a pride in using it. On his last voyage as
Commissioner of Lighthouses, he hailed a ship at sea and made himself
clearly audible without a speaking trumpet, ruffing the while with a
proper vanity in his achievement. He had a habit of eking out his
words with interrogative hems, which was puzzling and a little
wearisome, suited ill with his appearance, and seemed a survival from
some former stage of bodily portliness. Of yore, when he was a great
pedestrian and no enemy to good claret, he may have pointed with these
minute guns his allocutions to the bench. His humour was perfectly
equable, set beyond the reach of fate; gout, rheumatism, stone and
gravel might have combined their forces against that frail tabernacle,
but when I came round on Sunday evening, he would lay aside Jeremy
Taylor's _Life of Christ_ and greet me with the same open brow, the
same kind formality of manner. His opinions and sympathies dated the
man almost to a decade. He had begun life, under his mother's
influence, as an admirer of Junius,[38] but on maturer knowledge had
transferred his admiration to Burke. He cautioned me, with entire
gravity, to be punctilious in writing English; never to forget that I
was a Scotchman, that English was a foreign tongue, and that if I
attempted the colloquial, I should certainly be shamed: the remark was
apposite, I suppose, in the days of David Hume.[39] Scott was too new
for him; he had known the author - known him, too, for a Tory; and to
the genuine classic a contemporary is always something of a trouble.
He had the old, serious love of the play; had even, as he was proud to
tell, played a certain part in the history of Shakespearian revivals,
for he had successfully pressed on Murray, of the old Edinburgh
Theatre, the idea of producing Shakespeare's fairy pieces with great
scenic display.[40] A moderate in religion, he was much struck in the
last years of his life by a conversation with two young lads,
revivalists. "H'm," he would say - "new to me. I have had - h'm - no such
experience." It struck him, not with pain, rather with a solemn
philosophic interest, that he, a Christian as he hoped, and a
Christian of so old a standing, should hear these young fellows
talking of his own subject, his own weapons that he had fought the
battle of life with, - "and - h'm - not understand." In this wise and
grateful attitude he did justice to himself and others, reposed
unshaken in his old beliefs, and recognised their limits without anger
or alarm. His last recorded remark, on the last night of his life, was
after he had been arguing against Calvinism[41] with his minister and
was interrupted by an intolerable pang. "After all," he said, "of all
the 'isms, I know none so bad as rheumatism." My own last sight of him
was some time before, when we dined together at an inn; he had been on
circuit, for he stuck to his duties like a chief part of his
existence; and I remember it as the only occasion on which he ever
soiled his lips with slang - a thing he loathed. We were both Roberts;
and as we took our places at table, he addressed me with a twinkle:
"We are just what you would call two bob."[42] He offered me port, I
remember, as the proper milk of youth; spoke of "twenty-shilling
notes"; and throughout the meal was full of old-world pleasantry and
quaintness, like an ancient boy on a holiday. But what I recall
chiefly was his confession that he had never read _Othello_ to an
end.[43] Shakespeare was his continual study. He loved nothing better


1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13

Online LibraryRobert Louis StevensonEssays of Robert Louis Stevenson → online text (page 6 of 13)