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Robert Louis Stevenson by Walter Raleigh

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Robert Louis Stevenson by Walter Raleigh. 1906 edition.
Scanned and proofed by David Price, email ccx074@coventry.ac.uk

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

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

'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

'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;

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 life

'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 says:

'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 creed:

'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 toil:

'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:

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 almost leads to punning. In ACROSS THE PLAINS
Stevenson narrates how a bet was transacted at a railway-station,
and subsequently, he supposes, 'LIQUIDATED at the bar.' This is
perhaps an instance of the excess of a virtue, but it is an excess
to be found plentifully in the works of Milton.

His loving regard for words bears good fruit in his later and more
stirring works. He has a quick ear and appreciation for live
phrases on the lips of tramps, beach-combers, or Americans. In THE
BEACH OF FALESA the sea-captain who introduces the new trader to
the South Pacific island where the scene of the story is laid,
gives a brief description of the fate of the last dealer in copra.
It may serve as a single illustration of volumes of racy, humorous,
and imaginative slang;

' "Do you catch a bit of white there to the east'ard?" the captain
continued. "That's your house. . . . When old Adams saw it, he
took and shook me by the hand. 'I've dropped into a soft thing
here,' says he. 'So you have,' says I. . . . Poor Johnny! I never
saw him again but the once . . . and the next time we came round
there he was dead and buried. I took and put up a bit of stick to
him: 'John Adams, OBIT eighteen and sixty-eight. Go thou and do
likewise.' I missed that man. I never could see much harm in

' "What did he die of ?" I inquired.

' "Some kind of sickness," says the captain. "It appears it took
him sudden. Seems he got up in the night, and filled up on Pain-
Killer and Kennedy's Discovery. No go - he was booked beyond
Kennedy. Then he had tried to open a case of gin. No go again:
not strong enough. . . . Poor John!" '

There is a world of abrupt, homely talk like this to be found in
the speech of Captain Nares and of Jim Pinkerton in THE WRECKER;
and a wealth of Scottish dialect, similar in effect, in KIDNAPPED,
CATRIONA, and many other stories. It was a delicate ear and a
sense trained by practice that picked up these vivid turns of
speech, some of them perhaps heard only once, and a mind given to
dwell on words, that remembered them for years, and brought them
out when occasion arose.

But the praise of Stevenson's style cannot be exhausted in a
description of his use of individual words or his memory of
individual phrases. His mastery of syntax, the orderly and
emphatic arrangement of words in sentences, a branch of art so
seldom mastered, was even greater. And here he could owe no great
debt to his romantic predecessors in prose. Dumas, it is true, is
a master of narrative, but he wrote in French, and a style will
hardly bear expatriation. Scott's sentences are, many of them,
shambling, knock-kneed giants. Stevenson harked further back for
his models, and fed his style on the most vigorous of the prose
writers of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the
golden age of English prose. 'What English those fellows wrote!'
says Fitzgerald in one of his letters; 'I cannot read the modern
mechanique after them.' And he quotes a passage from Harrington's

'This free-born Nation lives not upon the dole or Bounty of One
Man, but distributing her Annual Magistracies and Honours with her
own hand, is herself King People.'

It was from writers of Harrington's time and later that Stevenson
learned something of his craft. Bunyan and Defoe should be
particularly mentioned, and that later excellent worthy, Captain
Charles Johnson, who compiled the ever-memorable LIVES OF PIRATES
AND HIGHWAYMEN. Mr. George Meredith is the chief of those very few
modern writers whose influence may be detected in his style.

However it was made, and whencesoever the material or suggestion
borrowed, he came by a very admirable instrument for the telling of
stories. Those touches of archaism that are so frequent with him,
the slightly unusual phrasing, or unexpected inversion of the order
of words, show a mind alert in its expression, and give the sting
of novelty even to the commonplaces of narrative or conversation.
A nimble literary tact will work its will on the phrases of current
small-talk, remoulding them nearer to the heart's desire,
transforming them to its own stamp. This was what Stevenson did,
and the very conversations that pass between his characters have an
air of distinction that is all his own. His books are full of
brilliant talk - talk real and convincing enough in its purport and
setting, but purged of the languors and fatuities of actual
commonplace conversation. It is an enjoyment like that to be
obtained from a brilliant exhibition of fencing, clean and
dexterous, to assist at the talking bouts of David Balfour and Miss
Grant, Captain Nares and Mr. Dodd, Alexander Mackellar and the
Master of Ballantrae, Prince Otto and Sir John Crabtree, or those
wholly admirable pieces of special pleading to be found in A
do not talk like this in actual life- ' 'tis true, 'tis pity; and
pity 'tis, 'tis true.' They do not; in actual life conversation is
generally so smeared and blurred with stupidities, so invaded and
dominated by the spirit of dulness, so liable to swoon into
meaninglessness, that to turn to Stevenson's books is like an
escape into mountain air from the stagnant vapours of a morass.
The exact reproduction of conversation as it occurs in life can
only be undertaken by one whose natural dulness feels itself
incommoded by wit and fancy as by a grit in the eye. Conversation
is often no more than a nervous habit of body, like twiddling the
thumbs, and to record each particular remark is as much as to
describe each particular twiddle. Or in its more intellectual
uses, when speech is employed, for instance, to conceal our
thoughts, how often is it a world too wide for the shrunken nudity
of the thought it is meant to veil, and thrown over it, formless,
flabby, and black - like a tarpaulin! It is pleasant to see
thought and feeling dressed for once in the trim, bright raiment
Stevenson devises for them.

There is an indescribable air of distinction, which is, and is not,
one and the same thing with style, breathing from all his works.
Even when he is least inspired, his bearing and gait could never be
mistaken for another man's. All that he writes is removed by the
width of the spheres from the possibility of commonplace, and he
avoids most of the snares and pitfalls of genius with noble and
unconscious skill.

If he ever fell into one of these - which may perhaps be doubted -
it was through too implicit a confidence in the powers of style.
His open letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde in vindication of Father
Damien is perhaps his only literary mistake. It is a matchless
piece of scorn and invective, not inferior in skill to anything he
ever wrote. But that it was well done is no proof that it should
have been done at all. 'I remember Uzzah and am afraid,' said the
wise Erasmus, when he was urged to undertake the defence of Holy
Church; 'it is not every one who is permitted to support the Ark of
the Covenant.' And the only disquietude suggested by Stevenson's
letter is a doubt whether he really has a claim to be Father
Damien's defender, whether Father Damien had need of the assistance
of a literary freelance. The Saint who was bitten in the hand by a
serpent shook it off into the fire and stood unharmed. As it was
in the Mediterranean so it was also in the Pacific, and there is
something officious in the intrusion of a spectator, something
irrelevant in the plentiful pronouns of the first person singular
to be found sprinkled over Stevenson's letter. The curse spoken in
Eden, 'Upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all
the days of thy life,' surely covered by anticipation the case of
the Rev. Dr. Hyde.

II. ROMANCE. - The faculty of romance, the greatest of the gifts
showered on Stevenson's cradle by the fairies, will suffer no
course of development; the most that can be done with it is to
preserve it on from childhood unblemished and undiminished. It is
of a piece with Stevenson's romantic ability that his own childhood
never ended; he could pass back into that airy world without an
effort. In his stories his imagination worked on the old lines,
but it became conscious of its working. And the highest note of
these stories is not drama, nor character, but romance. In one of
his essays he defines the highest achievement of romance to be the
embodiment of 'character, thought, or emotion in some act or
attitude that shall be remarkably striking to the mind's eye.' His
essay on Victor Hugo shows how keenly conscious he was that
narrative romance can catch and embody emotions and effects that
are for ever out of the reach of the drama proper, and of the essay
or homily, just as they are out of the reach of sculpture and
painting. Now, it is precisely in these effects that the chief
excellence of romance resides; it was the discovery of a world of
these effects, insusceptible of treatment by the drama, neglected
entirely by the character-novel, which constituted the Romantic
revival of the end of last century. 'The artistic result of a
romance,' says Stevenson, 'what is left upon the memory by any
powerful and artistic novel, is something so complicated and
refined that it is difficult to put a name upon it, and yet
something as simple as nature. . . . The fact is, that art is
working far ahead of language as well as of science, realizing for
us, by all manner of suggestions and exaggerations, effects for
which as yet we have no direct name, for the reason that these
effects do not enter very largely into the necessities of life.
Hence alone is that suspicion of vagueness that often hangs about
the purpose of a romance; it is clear enough to us in thought, but
we are not used to consider anything clear until we are able to
formulate it in words, and analytical language has not been
sufficiently shaped to that end.' He goes on to point out that
there is an epical value about every great romance, an underlying
idea, not presentable always in abstract or critical terms, in the
stories of such masters of pure romance as Victor Hugo and
Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The progress of romance in the present century has consisted
chiefly in the discovery of new exercises of imagination and new
subtle effects in story. Fielding, as Stevenson says, did not
understand that the nature of a landscape or the spirit of the
times could count for anything in a story; all his actions consist
of a few simple personal elements. With Scott vague influences
that qualify a man's personality begin to make a large claim; 'the
individual characters begin to occupy a comparatively small
proportion of that canvas on which armies manoeuvre and great hills
pile themselves upon each other's shoulders.' And the achievements
of the great masters since Scott - Hugo, Dumas, Hawthorne, to name
only those in Stevenson's direct line of ancestry - have added new
realms to the domain of romance.

What are the indescribable effects that romance, casting far beyond
problems of character and conduct, seeks to realise? What is the
nature of the great informing, underlying idea that animates a
questions can only be answered by de-forming the impression given
by each of these works to present it in the chop-logic language of
philosophy. But an approach to an answer may be made by

In his AMERICAN NOTEBOOKS Nathaniel Hawthorne used to jot down
subjects for stories as they struck him. His successive entries
are like the souls of stories awaiting embodiment, which many of
them never received; they bring us very near to the workings of the
mind of a great master. Here are some of them:

'A sketch to be given of a modern reformer, a type of the extreme
doctrines on the subject of slaves, cold water, and the like. He
goes about the streets haranguing most eloquently, and is on the
point of making many converts, when his labours are suddenly
interrupted by the appearance of the keeper of a madhouse whence he
has escaped. Much may be made of this idea.'

'The scene of a story or sketch to be laid within the light of a
street lantern; the time when the lamp is near going out; and the
catastrophe to be simultaneous with the last flickering gleam.'

'A person to be writing a tale and to find it shapes itself against
his intentions; that the characters act otherwise than he thought,
and a catastrophe comes which he strives in vain to avert. It
might shadow forth his own fate - he having made himself one of the

'Two persons to be expecting some occurrence and watching for the
two principal actors in it, and to find that the occurrence is even
then passing, and that they themselves are the two actors.'

'A satire on ambition and fame from a statue of snow.'

Hawthorne used this idea in one of his sketches.

'A moral philosopher to buy a slave, or otherwise get possession of
a human being, and to use him for the sake of experiment by trying
the operation of a certain vice on him.'

M. Bourget, the French romancer, has made use of this idea in his
novel called LE DISCIPLE. Only it is not a slave, but a young girl
whom he pretends to love, that is the subject of the moral
philosopher's experiment; and a noisy war has been waged round the
book in France. Hawthorne would plainly have seized the romantic
essence of the idea and would have avoided the boneyard of 'problem

'A story the principal personage of which shall seem always on the
point of entering on the scene, but shall never appear.'

This is the device that gives fascination to the figures of
Richelieu in MARION DELORME, and of Captain Flint in TREASURE

'The majesty of death to be exemplified in a beggar, who, after
being seen humble and cringing in the streets of a city for many
years, at length by some means or other gets admittance into a rich
man's mansion, and there dies - assuming state, and striking awe
into the breasts of those who had looked down upon him.'

These are all excellent instances of the sort of idea that gives
life to a romance - of acts or attitudes that stamp themselves upon
the mind's eye. Some of them appeal chiefly to the mind's eye,
others are of value chiefly as symbols. But, for the most part,
the romantic kernel of a story is neither pure picture nor pure
allegory, it can neither be painted nor moralised. It makes its
most irresistible appeal neither to the eye that searches for form
and colour, nor to the reason that seeks for abstract truth, but to
the blood, to all that dim instinct of danger, mystery, and
sympathy in things that is man's oldest inheritance - to the
superstitions of the heart. Romance vindicates the supernatural
against science and rescues it from the palsied tutelage of

Stevenson's work is a gallery of romantic effects that haunt the
memory. Some of these are directly pictorial: the fight in the
round-house on board the brig COVENANT; the duel between the two
brothers of Ballantrae in the island of light thrown up by the
candles from that abyss of windless night; the flight of the
Princess Seraphina through the dark mazes of the wood, - all these,
although they carry with them subtleties beyond the painter's art,
yet have something of picture in them. But others make entrance to
the corridors of the mind by blind and secret ways, and there
awaken the echoes of primaeval fear. The cry of the parrot -
'Pieces of eight' - the tapping of the stick of the blind pirate
Pew as he draws near the inn-parlour, and the similar effects of
inexplicable terror wrought by the introduction of the blind
catechist in KIDNAPPED, and of the disguise of a blind leper in THE
BLACK ARROW, are beyond the reach of any but the literary form of
romantic art. The last appearance of Pew, in the play of ADMIRAL
GUINEA, written in collaboration with Mr. W. E. Henley, is perhaps
the masterpiece of all the scenes of terror. The blind ruffian's
scream of panic fear, when he puts his groping hand into the
burning flame of the candle in the room where he believed that he
was unseen, and so realises that his every movement is being
silently watched, is indeed 'the horrors come alive.'

The animating principle or idea of Stevenson's longer stories is
never to be found in their plot, which is generally built
carelessly and disjointedly enough around the central romantic
situation or conception. The main situation in THE WRECKER is a
splendid product of romantic aspiration, but the structure of the
story is incoherent and ineffective, so that some of the best
passages in the book - the scenes in Paris, for instance - have no
business there at all. The story in KIDNAPPED and CATRIONA wanders
on in a single thread, like the pageant of a dream, and the reader
feels and sympathises with the author's obvious difficulty in
leading it back to the scene of the trial and execution of James
Stewart. THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE is stamped with a magnificent
unity of conception, but the story illuminates that conception by a
series of scattered episodes.

That lurid embodiment of fascinating evil, part vampire, part
Mephistopheles, whose grand manner and heroic abilities might have
made him a great and good man but for 'the malady of not wanting,'
is the light and meaning of the whole book. Innocent and
benevolent lives are thrown in his way that he may mock or distort
or shatter them. Stevenson never came nearer than in this
character to the sublime of power.

But an informing principle of unity is more readily to be
apprehended in the shorter stories, and it is a unity not so much
of plot as of impression and atmosphere. His islands, whether
situated in the Pacific or off the coast of Scotland, have each of
them a climate of its own, and the character of the place seems to
impose itself on the incidents that occur, dictating subordination
or contrast. The events that happen within the limits of one of
these magic isles could in every case be cut off from the rest of
the story and framed as a separate work of art. The long
starvation of David Balfour on the island of Earraid, the sharks of
crime and monsters of blasphemy that break the peace of the shining
tropical lagoons in TREASURE ISLAND and THE EBB TIDE, the captivity
on the Bass Rock in CATRIONA, the supernatural terrors that hover
and mutter over the island of THE MERRY MEN - these imaginations
are plainly generated by the scenery against which they are thrown;
each is in some sort the genius of the place it inhabits.

In his search for the treasures of romance, Stevenson adventured
freely enough into the realm of the supernatural.

When he is handling the superstitions of the Scottish people, he
allows his humorous enjoyment of their extravagance to peep out
from behind the solemn dialect in which they are dressed. The
brief tale of THRAWN JANET, and Black Andy's story of Tod Lapraik
in CATRIONA, are grotesque imaginations of the school of TAM O'
SHANTER rather than of the school of Shakespeare, who deals in no
comedy ghosts. They are turnip-lanterns swayed by a laughing
urchin, proud of the fears he can awaken. Even THE STRANGE CASE OF
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE and the story of THE BOTTLE IMP are
manufactured bogeys, that work on the nerves and not on the heart,
whatever may be said by those who insist on seeing allegory in what
is only dream-fantasy. The supernatural must be rooted deeper than
these in life and experience if it is to reach an imposing stature:
the true ghost is the shadow of a man. And Stevenson shows a sense
of this in two of his very finest stories, the exquisite idyll of
WILL O' THE MILL and the grim history of MARKHEIM. Each of these
stories is the work of a poet, by no means of a goblin-fancier.
The personification of Death is as old as poetry; it is wrought
with moving gentleness in that last scene in the arbour of Will's
inn. The wafted scent of the heliotropes, which had never been
planted in the garden since Marjory's death, the light in the room
that had been hers, prelude the arrival at the gate of the
stranger's carriage, with the black pine tops standing above it
like plumes. And Will o' the Mill makes the acquaintance of his
physician and friend, and goes at last upon his travels. In the
other story, Markheim meets with his own double in the house of the
dealer in curiosities, whom he has murdered. It is not such a
double as Rossetti prayed for to the god of Sleep:

'Ah! might I, by thy good grace,
Groping in the windy stair
(Darkness and the breath of space
Like loud waters everywhere),
Meeting mine own image there
Face to face,
Send it from that place to her!'

but a clear-eyed critic of the murderer, not unfriendly, who lays
bare before him his motives and history. At the close of that
wonderful conversation, one of the most brilliant of its author's
achievements, Markheim gives himself into the hands of the police.
These two stories, when compared with the others, serve to show how
Stevenson's imagination quickened and strengthened when it played
full upon life. For his best romantic effects, like all great
romance, are illuminative of life, and no mere idle games.

III. MORALITY. - His genius, like the genius of Nathaniel
Hawthorne, was doubly rich in the spirit of romance and in a wise
and beautiful morality. But the irresponsible caprices of his
narrative fancy prevented his tales from being the appropriate
vehicles of his morality. He has left no work - unless the two
short stories mentioned above be regarded as exceptions - in which
romance and morality are welded into a single perfect whole,
nothing that can be put beside THE SCARLET LETTER or THE MARBLE
FAUN for deep insight and magic fancy joined in one. Hence his
essays, containing as they do the gist of his reflective wisdom,
are ranked by some critics above his stories.

A novel cannot, of course, be moral as an action is moral; there is
no question in art of police regulations or conformity to
established codes, but rather of insight both deep and wide.
Polygamy and monogamy, suttee, thuggism, and cannibalism, are all
acceptable to the romancer, whose business is with the heart of a
man in all times and places. He is not bound to display allegiance
to particular moral laws of the kind that can be broken; he is
bound to show his consciousness of that wider moral order which can
no more be broken by crime than the law of gravitation can be
broken by the fall of china - the morality without which life would
be impossible; the relations, namely, of human beings to each
other, the feelings, habits, and thoughts that are the web of
society. For the appreciation of morality in this wider sense high
gifts of imagination are necessary. Shakespeare could never have
drawn Macbeth, and thereby made apparent the awfulness of murder,
without some sympathy for the murderer - the sympathy of
intelligence. These gifts of imagination and sympathy belong to
Stevenson in a very high degree; in all his romances there are
gleams from time to time of wise and subtle reflection upon life,
from the eternal side of things, which shine the more luminously
that they spring from the events and situations with no suspicion
of homily. In THE BLACK ARROW, Dick Shelton begs from the Duke of
Gloucester the life of the old shipmaster Arblaster, whose ship he
had taken and accidentally wrecked earlier in the story. The Duke
of Gloucester, who, in his own words, 'loves not mercy nor mercy-
mongers,' yields the favour reluctantly. Then Dick turns to

' "Come," said Dick, "a life is a life, old shrew, and it is more
than ships or liquor. Say you forgive me, for if your life is
worth nothing to you, it hath cost me the beginnings of my fortune.
Come, I have paid for it dearly, be not so churlish."

' "An I had my ship," said Arblaster, "I would 'a' been forth and
safe on the high seas - I and my man Tom. But ye took my ship,
gossip, and I'm a beggar; and for my man Tom, a knave fellow in
russet shot him down, 'Murrain,' quoth he, and spake never again.
'Murrain' was the last of his words, and the poor spirit of him
passed. 'A will never sail no more, will my Tom."

'Dick was seized with unavailing penitence and pity; he sought to
take the skipper's hand, but Arblaster avoided his touch.

' "Nay," said he, "let be. Y' have played the devil with me, and
let that content you."

'The words died in Richard's throat. He saw, through tears, the
poor old man, bemused with liquor and sorrow, go shambling away,
with bowed head, across the snow, and the unnoticed dog whimpering
at his heels; and for the first time began to understand the
desperate game that we play in life, and how a thing once done is
not to be changed or remedied by any penitence.'

A similar wisdom that goes to the heart of things is found on the
lips of the spiritual visitant in Markheim.

' "Murder is to me no special category," replied the other. "All
sins are murder, even as all life is war. I behold your race, like
starving mariners on a raft, plucking crusts out of the hands of
famine, and feeding on each other's lives. I follow sins beyond
the moment of their acting; I find in all that the last consequence
is death; and to my eyes the pretty maid, who thwarts her mother
with such taking graces on a question of a ball, drips no less
visibly with human gore than such a murderer as yourself." '

The wide outlook on humanity that expresses itself in passages like
these is combined in Stevenson with a vivid interest in, and quick
appreciation of, character. The variety of the characters that he
has essayed to draw is enormous, and his successes, for the
purposes of his stories, are many. Yet with all this, the number
of lifelike portraits, true to a hair, that are to be found in his
works is very small indeed. In the golden glow of romance,
character is always subject to be idealised; it is the effect of
character seen at particular angles and in special lights, natural
or artificial, that Stevenson paints; he does not attempt to
analyse the complexity of its elements, but boldly projects into it
certain principles, and works from those. It has often been said
of Scott that he could not draw a lady who was young and beautiful;
the glamour of chivalry blinded him, he lowered his eyes and
described his emotions and aspirations. Something of the same
disability afflicted Stevenson in the presence of a ruffian. He
loved heroic vice only less than he loved heroic virtue, and was
always ready to idealise his villains, to make of them men who,
like the Master of Ballantrae, 'lived for an idea.' Even the low
and lesser villainy of Israel Hands, in the great scene where he
climbs the mast to murder the hero of TREASURE ISLAND, breathes out
its soul in a creed:

' "For thirty years," he said, "I've sailed the seas, and seen good
and bad, better and worse, provisions running out, knives going,
and what not. Well, now I tell you, I never seen good come o'
goodness yet. Him as strikes first is my fancy; dead men don't
bite; them's my views - Amen, so be it." '

John Silver, that memorable pirate, with a face like a ham and an
eye like a fragment of glass stuck into it, leads a career of
wholehearted crime that can only be described as sparkling. His
unalloyed maleficence is adorned with a thousand graces of manner.
Into the dark and fetid marsh that is an evil heart, where low
forms of sentiency are hardly distinguishable from the all-
pervading mud, Stevenson never peered, unless it were in the study
of Huish in THE EBB TIDE.

Of his women, let women speak. They are traditionally accredited
with an intuition of one another's hearts, although why, if woman
was created for man, as the Scriptures assure us, the impression
that she makes on him should not count for as much as the
impression she makes on some other woman, is a question that cries
for solution. Perhaps the answer is that disinterested curiosity,
which is one means of approach to the knowledge of character,
although only one, is a rare attitude for man to assume towards the
other sex. Stevenson's curiosity was late in awaking; the heroine
of THE BLACK ARROW is dressed in boy's clothes throughout the
course of the story, and the novelist thus saved the trouble of
describing the demeanour of a girl. Mrs. Henry, in THE MASTER OF
BALLANTRAE, is a charming veiled figure, drawn in the shadow; Miss
Barbara Grant and Catriona in the continuation of KIDNAPPED are
real enough to have made many suitors for their respective hands
among male readers of the book; - but that is nothing, reply the
critics of the other party: a walking doll will find suitors. The
question must stand over until some definite principles of
criticism have been discovered to guide us among these perilous

One character must never be passed over in an estimate of
Stevenson's work. The hero of his longest work is not David
Balfour, in whom the pawky Lowland lad, proud and precise, but 'a
very pretty gentleman,' is transfigured at times by traits that he
catches, as narrator of the story, from its author himself. But
Alan Breek Stewart is a greater creation, and a fine instance of
that wider morality that can seize by sympathy the soul of a wild
Highland clansman. 'Impetuous, insolent, unquenchable,' a condoner
of murder (for 'them that havenae dipped their hands in any little
difficulty should be very mindful of the case of them that have'),
a confirmed gambler, as quarrel-some as a turkey-cock, and as vain
and sensitive as a child, Alan Breek is one of the most lovable
characters in all literature; and his penetration - a great part of
which he learned, to take his own account of it, by driving cattle
'through a throng lowland country with the black soldiers at his
tail' - blossoms into the most delightful reflections upon men and

The highest ambitions of a novelist are not easily attainable. To
combine incident, character, and romance in a uniform whole, to
alternate telling dramatic situation with effects of poetry and
suggestion, to breathe into the entire conception a profound
wisdom, construct it with absolute unity, and express it in perfect
style, - this thing has never yet been done. A great part of
Stevenson's subtle wisdom of life finds its readiest outlet in his
essays. In these, whatever their occasion, he shows himself the
clearest-eyed critic of human life, never the dupe of the phrases
and pretences, the theories and conventions, that distort the
vision of most writers and thinkers. He has an unerring instinct
for realities, and brushes aside all else with rapid grace. In his
lately published AMATEUR EMIGRANT he describes one of his fellow-
passengers to America:

'In truth it was not whisky that had ruined him; he was ruined long
before for all good human purposes but conversation. His eyes were
sealed by a cheap school-book materialism. He could see nothing in
the world but money and steam engines. He did not know what you
meant by the word happiness. He had forgotten the simple emotions
of childhood, and perhaps never encountered the delights of youth.
He believed in production, that useful figment of economy, as if it
had been real, like laughter; and production, without prejudice to
liquor, was his god and guide.'

This sense of the realities of the world, - laughter, happiness,
the simple emotions of childhood, and others, - makes Stevenson an
admirable critic of those social pretences that ape the native
qualities of the heart. The criticism on organised philanthropy
contained in the essay on BEGGARS is not exhaustive, it is
expressed paradoxically, but is it untrue?

'We should wipe two words from our vocabulary: gratitude and
charity. In real life, help is given out of friendship, or it is
not valued; it is received from the hand of friendship, or it is
resented. We are all too proud to take a naked gift; we must seem
to pay it, if in nothing else, then with the delights of our
society. Here, then, is the pitiful fix of the rich man; here is
that needle's eye in which he stuck already in the days of Christ,
and still sticks to-day, firmer, if possible, than ever; that he
has the money, and lacks the love which should make his money
acceptable. Here and now, just as of old in Palestine, he has the
rich to dinner, it is with the rich that he takes his pleasure: and
when his turn comes to be charitable, he looks in vain for a
recipient. His friends are not poor, they do not want; the poor
are not his friends, they will not take. To whom is he to give?
Where to find - note this phrase - the Deserving Poor? Charity is
(what they call) centralised; offices are hired; societies founded,
with secretaries paid or unpaid: the hunt of the Deserving Poor
goes merrily forward. I think it will take a more than merely
human secretary to disinter that character. What! a class that is
to be in want from no fault of its own, and yet greedily eager to
receive from strangers; and to be quite respectable, and at the
same time quite devoid of self-respect; and play the most delicate
part of friendship, and yet never be seen; and wear the form of
man, and yet fly in the face of all the laws of human nature: - and
all this, in the hope of getting a belly-god burgess through a
needle's eye! Oh, let him stick, by all means; and let his polity
tumble in the dust; and let his epitaph and all his literature (of
which my own works begin to form no inconsiderable part) be
abolished even from the history of man! For a fool of this
monstrosity of dulness there can be no salvation; and the fool who
looked for the elixir of life was an angel of reason to the fool
who looks for the Deserving Poor.'

An equal sense of the realities of life and death gives the force
of a natural law to the pathos of OLD MORTALITY, that essay in
which Stevenson pays passionate tribute to the memory of his early
friend, who 'had gone to ruin with a kingly abandon, like one who
condescended; but once ruined, with the lights all out, he fought
as for a kingdom.' The whole description, down to the marvellous
quotation from Bunyan that closes it, is one of the sovereign
passages of modern literature; the pathos of it is pure and
elemental, like the rush of a cleansing wind, or the onset of the
legions commanded by

'The mighty Mahmud, Allah-breathing Lord,
That all the misbelieving and black Horde
Of Fears and Sorrows that infest the Soul
Scatters before him with his whirlwind Sword.'

Lastly, to bring to an end this imperfect review of the works of a
writer who has left none greater behind him, Stevenson excels at
what is perhaps the most delicate of literary tasks and the utmost
test, where it is successfully encountered, of nobility, - the
practice, namely, of self-revelation and self-delineation. To talk
much about oneself with detail, composure, and ease, with no shadow
of hypocrisy and no whiff or taint of indecent familiarity, no
puling and no posing, - the shores of the sea of literature are
strewn with the wrecks and forlorn properties of those who have
adventured on this dangerous attempt. But a criticism of Stevenson
is happy in this, that from the writer it can pass with perfect
trust and perfect fluency to the man. He shares with Goldsmith and
Montaigne, his own favourite, the happy privilege of making lovers
among his readers. 'To be the most beloved of English writers -
what a title that is for a man!' says Thackeray of Goldsmith. In
such matters, a dispute for pre-eminence in the captivation of
hearts would be unseemly; it is enough to say that Stevenson too
has his lovers among those who have accompanied him on his INLAND
VOYAGE, or through the fastnesses of the Cevennes in the wake of
Modestine. He is loved by those that never saw his face; and one
who has sealed that dizzy height of ambition may well be content,
without the impertinent assurance that, when the Japanese have
taken London and revised the contents of the British Museum, the
yellow scribes whom they shall set to produce a new edition of the
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