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 It was the happy fortune of Robert Louis Stevenson to have created beyond any man of his craft in our day a body of readers inspired with the feelings that we for the most part place at the service only of those for whom our affection is personal. There was no one who knew the man, one may safely assert, who was not also devoted to the writer—conforming in this respect to a general law (if law it be) that shows us many exceptions; but, naturally and not inconveniently, it had to remain far from true that all devotees of the writer were able to approach the man. The case was nevertheless that the man somehow approached them, and that to read him—certainly to read him with the full sense of his charm—came to mean for many persons much the same as to “meet” him. It was as if he wrote himself outright and altogether, rose straight to the surface of his prose, and still more of his happiest verse; so that these things gave out, besides whatever else, his look and motions and voice, showed his life and manners, all that there was of him, his “tremendous secrets” not excepted. We grew in short to possess him entire, and the example is the more curious and beautiful as he neither made a business of “confession” nor cultivated most those forms through which the ego shines. His great successes were supposititious histories of persons quite different from himself, and the objective, as we have learned to call it, was the ideal to which he oftenest sacrificed.  
The effect of it all none the less was such that his Correspondence has only seemed to administer delightfully a further push to a door already half open and through which we enter with an extraordinary failure of any sense of intrusion. We feel indeed that we are living with him, but what is that but what we were doing before? Through his Correspondence certainly the ego does, magnificently, shine—which is much the best thing that in any correspondence it can ever do. But even the “Vailima Letters,” published by Mr. Sidney Colvin in 1895, had already both established that and allayed our diffidence. “It came over me the other day suddenly that this diary of mine to you would make good pickings after I am dead, and a man could make some kind of book out of it without much trouble. So, for God’s sake, don’t lose them.”
Being on these terms with our author, and feeling as if we had always been, we profit by freedoms that seem but the consecration of intimacy. Not only have we no sense of intrusion, but we are so prepared to penetrate further that when we come to limits we quite feel as if the story were mutilated and the copy not complete. There it is precisely that we seize the secret of our tie. Of course it was personal, for how did it operate in any connection whatever but to make us live with him? We had lived with him in “Treasure Island,” in “Kidnapped” and in “Catriona,” just as we do, by the light of these posthumous volumes, in the South Seas and at Vailima; and our present confidence comes from the fact of a particularly charming continuity. It is not that his novels were “subjective,” but that his life was romantic, and in the very same degree in which his own conception, his own presentation, of that element touches and thrills. If we want to know even more it is because we are always and everywhere in the story.
To this absorbing extension of the story then the two volumes of Letters[1] now published by Mr. Sidney Colvin beautifully contribute. The shelf of our library that contains our best letter-writers is considerably furnished, but not overcrowded, and its glory is not too great to keep Stevenson from finding there a place with the very first. He will not figure among the writers—those apt in this line to enjoy precedence—to whom only small things happen and who beguile us by making the most of them; he belongs to the class who have both matter and manner, substance and spirit, whom life carries swiftly before it and who signal and communicate, not to say gesticulate, as they go. He lived to the topmost pulse, and the last thing that could happen was that he should find himself on any occasion with nothing to report. Of all that he may have uttered on certain occasions we are inevitably not here possessed—a fact that, as I have hinted above, affects us, perversely, as an inexcusable gap in the story; but he never fails of the thing that we most love letters for, the full expression of the moment and the mood, the actual good or bad or middling, the thing in his head, his heart or his house. Mr. Colvin has given us an admirable “Introduction”—a characterisation of his friend so founded at once on knowledge and on judgment that the whole sense of the man strikes us as extracted in it. He has elucidated each group or period with notes that leave nothing to be desired; and nothing remains that I can think of to thank him for unless the intimation that we may yet look for another volume—which, however much more free it might make us of the author’s mystery, we should accept, I repeat, with the same absence of scruple. Nothing more belongs to our day than this question of the inviolable, of the rights of privacy and the justice of our claim to aid from editors and other retailers in getting behind certain eminent or defiant appearances; and the general knot so presented is indeed a hard one to untie. Yet we may take it for a matter regarding which such publications as Mr. Colvin’s have much to suggest.
There is no absolute privacy—save of course when the exposed subject may have wished or endeavoured positively to constitute it; and things too sacred are often only things that are not perhaps at all otherwise superlative. One may hold both that people—that artists perhaps in particular—are well advised to cover their tracks, and yet that our having gone behind, or merely stayed before, in a particular case, may be a minor question compared with our having picked up a value. Personal records of the type before us can at any rate obviously be but the reverse of a deterrent to the urged inquirer. They are too happy an instance—they positively make for the risked indiscretion. Stevenson never covered his tracks, and the tracks prove perhaps to be what most attaches us. We follow them here, from year to year and from stage to stage, with the same charmed sense with which he has made us follow some hunted hero in the heather. Life and fate and an early catastrophe were ever at his heels, and when he at last falls fighting, sinks down in the very act of valour, the “happy ending,” as he calls it for some of his correspondents, is, though precipitated and not conventional, essentially given us.
His descent and his origin all contribute to the picture, which it seems to me could scarce—since we speak of “endings”—have had a better beginning had he himself prearranged it. Without prearrangements indeed it was such a cluster of terms as could never be wasted on him, one of those innumerable matters of “effect,” Scotch and other, that helped to fill his romantic consciousness. Edinburgh, in the first place, the “romantic town,” was as much his “own” as it ever was the great precursor’s whom, in “Weir of Hermiston” as well as elsewhere, he presses so hard; and this even in spite of continual absence—in virtue of a constant imaginative reference and an intense intellectual possession. The immediate background formed by the profession of his family—the charge of the public lights on northern coasts—was a setting that he could not have seen his way to better; while no less happy a condition was met by his being all lonely in his father’s house—the more that the father, admirably commemorated by the son and after his fashion as strongly marked, was antique and strenuous, and that the son, a genius to be and of frail constitution, was (in the words of the charming anecdote of an Edinburgh lady retailed in one of these volumes), if not exactly what could be called bonny, “pale, penetrating and interesting.” The poet in him had from the first to be pacified—temporarily, that is, and from hand to mouth, as is the manner for poets; so that with friction and tension playing their part, with the filial relation quite classically troubled, with breaks of tradition and lapses from faith, with restless excursions and sombre returns, with the love of life at large mixed in his heart with every sort of local piety and passion and the unjustified artist fermenting on top of all in the recusant engineer, he was as well started as possible toward the character he was to keep.
All this obviously, however, was the sort of thing that the story the most generally approved would have had at heart to represent as the mere wild oats of a slightly uncanny cleverness—as the life handsomely reconciled in time to the common course and crowned, after a fling or two of amusement, with young wedded love and civic responsibility. The actual story, alas, was to transcend the conventional one, for it happened to be a case of a hero of too long a wind and too well turned out for his part. Everything was right for the discipline of Alan Fairford but that the youth was after all a ph?nix. As soon as it became a case of justifying himself for straying—as in the enchanting “Inland Voyage” and the “Travels with a Donkey”—how was he to escape doing so with supreme felicity? The fascination in him from the first is the mixture, and the extraordinary charm of his letters is that they are always showing this. It is the proportions moreover that are so admirable—the quantity of each different thing that he fitted to each other one and to the whole. The free life would have been all his dream if so large a part of it had not been that love of letters, of expression and form, which is but another name for the life of service. Almost the last word about him, by the same law, would be that he had at any rate consummately written, were it not that he seems still better characterised by his having at any rate supremely lived.
Perpetually and exquisitely amusing as he was, his ambiguities and compatibilities yielded, for all the wear and tear of them, endless “fun” even to himself; and no one knew so well with what linked diversities he was saddled or, to put it the other way, how many horses he had to drive at once. It took his own delightful talk to show how more than absurd it might be, and, if convenient, how very obscurely so, that such an incurable rover should have been complicated both with such an incurable scribbler and such an incurable invalid, and that a man should find himself such an anomaly as a drenched yachtsman haunted with “style,” a shameless Bohemian haunted with duty, and a victim at once of the personal hunger and instinct for adventure and of the critical, constructive, sedentary view of it. He had everything all round—adventure most of all; to feel which we have only to turn from the beautiful flush of it in his text to the scarce less beautiful vision of the great hilltop in Pacific seas to which he was borne after death by islanders and chiefs. Fate, as if to distinguish him as handsomely as possible, seemed to be ever treating him to some chance for an act or a course that had almost nothing in its favour but its inordinate difficulty. If the difficulty was in these cases not all the beauty for him it at least never prevented his finding in it—or our finding, at any rate, as observers—so much beauty as comes from a great risk accepted either for an idea or for simple joy. The joy of risks, the more personal the better, was never far from him, any more than the excitement of ideas. The most important step in his life was a signal instance of this, as we may discern in the light of “The Amateur Emigrant” and “Across the Plains,” the report of the conditions in which he fared from England to California to be married. Here as always the great note is the heroic mixture—the thing he saw, morally as well as imaginatively; action and performance at any cost, and the cost made immense by want of health and want of money, illness and anxiety of the extremest kind, and by unsparing sensibilities and perceptions. He had been launched in the world for a fighter with the organism say of a “composer,” though also it must be added with a beautiful saving sanity.
It is doubtless after his settlement in Samoa that his letters have most to give, but there are things they throw off from the first that strike the note above all characteristic, show his imagination always at play, for drollery or philosophy, with his circumstances. The difficulty in writing of him under the personal impression is to suggest enough how directly his being the genius that he was kept counting in it. In 1879 he writes from Monterey to Mr. Edmund Gosse, in reference to certain grave symptoms of illness: “I may be wrong, but . . . I believe I must go. . . . But death is no bad friend; a few aches and gasps, and we are done; like the truant child, I am beginning to grow weary and timid in this big, jostling city, and could run to my nurse, even although she should have to whip me before putting me to bed.” This charming renunciation expresses itself at the very time his talent was growing finer; he was so fond of the sense of youth and the idea of play that he saw whatever happened to him in images and figures, in the terms almost of the sports of childhood. “Are you coming over again to see me some day soon? I keep returning, and now hand over fist, from the realms of Hades. I saw that gentleman between the eyes, and fear him less after each visit. Only Charon and his rough boatmanship I somewhat fear.”
The fear remained with him, sometimes greater, sometimes less, during the first years after his marriage, those spent abroad and in England in health resorts, and it marks constantly, as one may say, one end of the range of his humour—the humour always busy at the other end with the impatience of timidities and precautions and the vision and invention of essentially open-air situations. It was the possibility of the open-air situation that at last appealed to him as the cast worth staking all for—on which, as usual in his admirable rashnesses, he was extraordinarily justified. “No man but myself knew all my bitterness in those days. Remember that, the next time you think I regret my exile. . . . Remember the pallid brute that lived in Skerryvore like a weevil in a biscuit.”
He found after an extraordinarily adventurous quest the treasure island, the climatic paradise that met, that enhanced his possibilities; and with this discovery was ushered in his completely full and rich period, the time in which—as the wondrous whimsicality and spontaneity of his correspondence testify—his genius and his character most overflowed. He had done as well for himself in his appropriation of Samoa as if he had done it for the hero of a novel, only with the complications and braveries actual and palpable. “I have no more hope in anything”—and this in the midst of magnificent production—“than a dead frog; I go into everything with a composed despair, and don’t mind—just as I always go to sea with the conviction I am to be drowned, and like it before all other pleasures.” He could go to sea as often as he liked and not be spared such hours as one of these pages vividly evokes—those of the joy of fictive composition in an otherwise prostrating storm, amid the crash of the elements and with his grasp of his subject but too needfully sacrificed, it might have appeared, to his clutch of seat and ink-stand. “If only I could secure a violent death, what a fine success! I wish to die in my boots; no more Land of Counterpane for me. To be drowned, to be shot, to be thrown from a horse—aye, to be hanged rather than pass again through that slow dissolution.”
He speaks in one of the “Vailima Letters,” Mr. Colvin’s publication of 1895, to which it is an office of these volumes promptly to make us return, of one of his fictions as a “long tough yarn with some pictures of the manners of to-day in the greater world—not the shoddy sham world of cities, clubs and colleges, but the world where men still live a man’s life.” That is distinct, and in the same letter he throws off a summary of all that in his final phase satisfied and bribed him which is as significant as it is racy. His correspondent, as was inevitable now and then for his friends at home, appears to have indulged in one of those harmless pointings of the moral—as to the distant dangers he would court—by which we all were more or less moved to relieve ourselves of the depressed consciousness that he could do beautifully without us and that our collective tameness was far (which indeed was distinctly the case) from forming his proper element. There is no romantic life for which something amiable has not to be sweepingly sacrificed, and of us in our inevitable category the sweep practically was clean.
Your letter had the most wonderful “I told you so” I ever heard in the course of my life. Why, you madman, I wouldn’t change my present installation for any post, dignity, honour, or advantage conceivable to me. It fills the bill; I have the loveliest time. And as for wars and rumours of wars, you surely know enough of me to be aware that I like that also a thousand times better than decrepit peace in Middlesex. I do not quite like politics. I am too aristocratic, I fear, for that. God knows I don’t care who I chum with; perhaps like sailors best; but to go round and sue and sneak to keep a crowd together—never.
His categories satisfied him; he had got hold of “the world where men still live a man’s life”—which was not, as we have just seen, that of “cities, clubs and colleges.” He was supremely suited in short at last—at the cost, it was to be said, of simplifications of view that, intellectually, he failed quite exactly (it was one of his few limitations) to measure; but in a way that ministered to his rare capacity for growth and placed in supreme relief his affinity with the universal romantic. It was not that anything could ever be for him plain sailing, but that he had been able at forty to turn his life into the fairytale of achieving, in a climate that he somewhere describes as “an expurgated heaven,” such a happy physical consciousness as he had never known. This enlarged in every way his career, opening the door still wider to that real puss-in-the-corner game of opposites by which we have critically the interest of seeing him perpetually agitated. Let me repeat that these new volumes, from the date of his definite expatriation, direct us for the details of the picture constantly to the “Vailima Letters;” with as constant an effect of our thanking our fortune—to say nothing of his own—that he should have had in these years a correspondent and a confidant who so beautifully drew him out. If he possessed in Mr. Sidney Colvin his literary chargé d’affaires at home, the ideal friend and alter ego on whom he could unlimitedly rest, this is a proof the more—with the general rarity of such cases—of what it was in his nature to make people wish to do for him. To Mr. Colvin he is more familiar than to any one, more whimsical and natural and frequently more inimitable—of all of which a just notion can be given only by abundant citation. And yet citation itself is embarrassed, with nothing to guide it but his perpetual spirits, perpetual acuteness and felicity, restlessness of fancy and of judgment. These things make him jump from pole to pole and fairly hum, at times, among the objects and subjects that filled his air, like a charged bee among flowers.
He is never more delightful than when he is most egotistic, most consciously charmed with something he has done.
And the papers are some of them up to dick, and no mistake. I agree with you, the lights seem a little turned down.
When we learn that the articles alluded to are those collected in “Across the Plains” we quite assent to this impression made by them after a troubled interval, and envy the author who, in a far Pacific isle, could see “The Lantern Bearers,” “A Letter to a Young Gentleman” and “Pulvis et Umbra” float back to him as a guarantee of his faculty and between covers constituting the book that is to live. Stevenson’s masculine wisdom moreover, his remarkable final sanity, is always—and it was not what made least in him for happy intercourse—close to his comedy and next door to his slang.
And however low the lights are, the stuff is true, and I believe the more effective; after all, what I wish to fight is the best fought by a rather cheerless presentation of the truth. The world must return some day to the word “duty,” and be done with the word “reward.” There are no rewards, and plenty duties. And the sooner a man sees that and acts upon it, like a gentleman or a fine old barbarian, the better for himself.
It would perhaps be difficult to quote a single paragraph giving more than that of the whole of him. But there is abundance of him in this too:
How do journalists fetch up their drivel? . . . It has taken me two months to write 45,500 words; and, be damned to my wicked prowess, I am proud of the exploit! . . . A respectable little five-bob volume, to bloom unread in shop windows. After that I’ll have a spank at fiction. And rest? I shall rest in the grave, or when I come to Italy. If only the public will continue to support me! I lost my chance not dying; there seems blooming little fear of it now. I worked close on five hours this morning; the day before, close on nine; and unless I finish myself off with this letter I’ll have another hour and a half, or aiblins twa, before dinner. Poor man, how you must envy me as you hear of these orgies of work, and you scarce able for a letter. But Lord! Colvin, how lucky the situations are not reversed, for I have no situation, nor am fit for any. Life is a steigh brae. Here, have at Knappe, and no more clavers!
If he talked profusely—and this is perfect talk—if he loved to talk above all of his work in hand, it was because, though perpetually frail, he was never inert, and did a thing, if he did it at all, with passion. He was not fit, he says, for a situation, but a situation overtook him inexorably at Vailima, and doubtless at last indeed swallowed him up. His position, with differences, comparing in some respects smaller things to greater, and with fewer differences after all than likenesses, his position resembles that of Scott at Abbotsford, just as, sound, sensible and strong on each side in spite of the immense gift of dramatic and poetic vision, the earlier and the later man had something of a common nature. Life became bigger for each than the answering effort could meet, and in their death they were not divided. Stevenson’s late emancipation was a fairytale only because he himself was in his manner a magician. He liked to handle many matters and to shrink from none; nothing can exceed the impression we get of the things that in these years he dealt with from day to day and as they came up, and the things that, as well, almost without order or relief, he planned and invented, took up and talked of and dropped, took up and talked of and carried through. Had I space to treat myself to a clue for selection from the whole record there is nothing I should better like it to be than a tracking of his “literary opinions” and literary projects, the scattered swarm of his views, sympathies, antipathies, obiter dicta, as an artist—his flurries and fancies, imaginations, evocations, quick infatuations, as a teller of possible tales. Here is a whole little circle of discussion, yet such a circle that to engage one’s self at all is to be too much engulfed.
His overflow on such matters is meanwhile amusing enough as mere spirits and sport—interesting as it would yet be to catch as we might, at different moments, the congruity between the manner of his feeling a fable in the germ and that of his afterwards handling it. There are passages again and again that light strikingly what I should call his general conscious method in this relation, were I not more tempted to call it his conscious—for that is what it seems to come to—negation of method. A whole delightful letter—to Mr. Colvin, February 1, 1892—is a vivid type. (This letter, I may mention, is independently notable for the drollery of its allusion to a sense of scandal—of all things in the world—excited in some editorial breast by “The Beach of Falesà;” which leads him to the highly pertinent remark that “this is a poison bad world for the romancer, this Anglo-Saxon world; I usually get out of it by not having any women in it at all.” Then he remembers he had “The Treasure of Franchard” refused as unfit for a family magazine and feels—as well he may—“despair weigh upon his wrists.” The despair haunts him and comes out on another occasion. “Five more chapters of David. . . . All love affair; seems pretty good to me. Will it do for the young person? I don’t know: since the Beach, I know nothing except that men are fools and hypocrites, and I know less of them than I was fond enough to fancy.”) Always a part of his physiognomy is the play, so particularly salient, of his moral fluctuations, the way his spirits are upset by his melancholy and his grand conclusions by his rueful doubts.
He communicates to his confidant with the eagerness of a boy confabulating in holidays over a Christmas charade; but I remember no instance of his expressing a subject, as one may say, as a subject—hinting at what novelists mainly know, one would imagine, as the determinant thing in it, the idea out of which it springs. The form, the envelope, is there with him, headforemost, as the idea; titles, names, that is, chapters, sequences, orders, while we are still asking ourselves how it was that he primarily put to his own mind what it was all to be about. He simply felt this, evidently, and it is always the one dumb sound, the stopped pipe or only unexpressed thing, in all his contagious candour. He finds none the less in the letter to which I refer one of the problems of the wonderful projected “Sophia Scarlet” “exactly a Balzac one, and I wish I had his fist—for I have already a better method—the kinetic—whereas he continually allowed himself to be led into the static.” There we have him—Stevenson, not Balzac—at his most overflowing, and after all radiantly capable of conceiving at another moment that his “better method” would have been none at all for Balzac’s vision of a subject, least of all of the subject, the whole of life. Balzac’s method was adapted to his notion of presentation—which we may accept, it strikes me, under the protection of what he presents. Were it not, in fine, as I may repeat, to embark in a bigger boat than would here turn round I might note further that Stevenson has elsewhere—was disposed in general to have—too short a way with this master. There is an interesting passage in which he charges him with having never known what to leave out, a passage which has its bearing on condition of being read with due remembrance of the class of performance to which “Le Colonel Chabert,” for instance, “Le Curé de Tours,” “L’Interdiction,” “La Messe de l’Athée” (to name but a few brief masterpieces in a long list) appertain.
These, however, are comparatively small questions; the impression, for the reader of the later letters, is simply one of singular beauty—of deepening talent, of happier and richer expression, and in especial of an ironic desperate gallantry that burns away, with a finer and finer fire, in a strange alien air and is only the more touching to us from his own resolute consumption of the smoke. He had incurred great charges, he sailed a ship loaded to the brim, so that the strain under which he lived and wrought was immense; but the very grimness of it all is sunny, slangy, funny, familiar; there is as little of the florid in his flashes of melancholy as of the really grey under stress of his wisdom. This wisdom had sometimes on matters of art, I think, its lapses, but on matters of life it was really winged and inspired. He has a soundness as to questions of the vital connection, a soundness all liberal and easy and born of the manly experience, that it is a luxury to touch. There are no compunctions nor real impatiences, for he had in a singular degree got what he wanted, the life absolutely discockneyfied, the situation as romantically “swagger” as if it had been an imagination made real; but his practical anxieties necessarily spin themselves finer, and it is just this production of the thing imagined that has more and more to meet them. It all hung, the situation, by that beautiful golden thread, the swinging of which in the wind, as he spins it in alternate doubt and elation, we watch with much of the suspense and pity with which we sit at the serious drama. It is serious in the extreme; yet the forcing of production, in the case of a faculty so beautiful and delicate, affects us almost as the straining of a nerve or the distortion of a feature.
I sometimes sit and yearn for anything in the nature of an income that would come in—mine has all got to be gone and fished for with the immortal mind of man. What I want is the income that really comes in of itself, while all you have to do is just to blossom and exist and sit on chairs. . . . I should probably amuse myself with works that would make your hair curl, if you had any left.
To read over some of his happiest things, to renew one’s sense of the extraordinarily fine temper of his imagination, is to say to one’s self “What a horse to have to ride every week to market!” We must all go to market, but the most fortunate of us surely are those who may drive thither, and on days not too frequent, nor by a road too rough, a ruder and homelier animal. He touches in more than one place—and with notable beauty and real authority in that little mine of felicities the “Letter to a Young Gentleman”—on the conscience for “frugality” which should be the artist’s finest point of honour: so that one of his complications here was undoubtedly the sense that on this score his position had inevitably become somewhat false. The literary romantic is by no means necessarily expensive, but of the many ways in which the practical, the active, has to be paid for this departure from frugality would be, it is easy to conceive, not the least. And we perceive his recognising this as he recognised everything—if not in time, then out of it; accepting inconsistency, as he always did, with the gaiety of a man of courage—not being, that is, however intelligent, priggish for logic and the grocer’s book any more than for anything else. Only everything made for keeping it up, and it was a great deal to keep up; though when he throws off “The Ebb-Tide” and rises to “Catriona,” and then again to “Weir of Hermiston,” as if he could rise to almost anything, we breathe anew and look longingly forward. The latest of these letters contain such admirable things, testify so to the reach of his intelligence and in short vibrate so with genius and charm, that we feel him at moments not only unexhausted but replenished, and capable perhaps, for all we know to the contrary, of new experiments and deeper notes. The intelligence and attention are so fine that he misses nothing from unawareness; not a gossamer thread of the “thought of the time” that, wafted to him on the other side of the globe, may not be caught in a branch and played with; he puts such a soul into nature and such human meanings, for comedy and tragedy, into what surrounds him, however shabby or short, that he really lives in society by living in his own perceptions and generosities or, as we say nowadays, his own atmosphere. In this atmosphere—which seems to have had the gift of abounding the more it was breathed by others—these pages somehow prompt us to see almost every object on his tropic isle bathed and refreshed.
So far at any rate from growing thin for want of London he can transmit to London or to its neighbourhood communications such as it would scarce know otherwise where to seek. A letter to his cousin, R. A. M. Stevenson, of September 1894, touches so on all things and, as he would himself have said, so adorns them, brimming over with its happy extravagance of thought, that, far again from our feeling Vailima, in the light of it, to be out of the world, it strikes us that the world has moved for the time to Vailima. There is world enough everywhere, he quite unconsciously shows, for the individual, the right one, to be what we call a man of it. He has, like every one not convenienced with the pleasant back-door of stupidity, to make his account with seeing and facing more things, seeing and facing everything, with the unrest of new impressions and ideas, the loss of the fond complacencies of youth.
But as I go on in life, day by day, I become more of a bewildered child; I cannot get used to this world, to procreation, to heredity, to sight, to hearing; the commonest things are a burthen. The prim obliterated polite face of life, and the broad, bawdy and orgiastic—or m?nadic—foundations, form a spectacle to which no habit reconciles me; and “I could wish my days to be bound each to each” by the same open-mouthed wonder. They are anyway, and whether I wish it or not. . . . I remember very well your attitude to life—this conventional surface of it. You have none of that curiosity for the social stage directions, the trivial ficelles of the business; it is simian; but that is how the wild youth of man is captured.
The whole letter is enchanting.
But no doubt there is something great in the half success that has attended the effort of turning into an emotional region Bald Conduct without any appeal, or almost none, to the figurative, mysterious and constitutive facts of life. Not that conduct is not constitutive, but dear! it’s dreary! On the whole, conduct is better dealt with on the cast-iron “gentleman” and duty formula, with as little fervour and poetry as possible; stoical and short.
The last letter of all, it will have been abundantly noted, has, with one of those characteristically thrown-out references to himself that were always half a whim, half a truth and all a picture, a remarkable premonition. It is addressed to Mr. Edmond Gosse.
It is all very well to talk of renunciation, and of course it has to be done. But for my part, give me a roaring toothache! I do like to be deceived and to dream, but I have very little use for either watching or meditation. I was not born for age. . . . I am a childless, rather bitter, very clear-eyed, blighted youth. I have, in fact, lost the path that makes it easy and natural for you to descend the hill. I am going at it straight. And where I have to go down it is a precipice. . . . You can never write another dedication that can give the same pleasure to the vanished Tusitala.
Two days later he met his end in the happiest form, by the straight swift bolt of the gods. It was, as all his readers know, with an admirable unfinished thing in hand, scarce a quarter written—a composition as to which his hopes were, presumably with much justice and as they were by no means always, of the highest. Nothing is more interesting than the rich way in which, in “Weir of Hermiston” and “Catriona,” the predominant imaginative Scot reasserts himself after gaps and lapses, distractions and deflections superficially extreme. There are surely few backward jumps of this energy more joyous and à pieds joints, or of a kind more interesting to a critic. The imaginative vision is hungry and tender just in proportion as the actual is otherwise beset; so that we must sigh always in vain for the quality that this purified flame, as we call it, would have been able to give the metal. And how many things for the critic the case suggests—how many possible reflections cluster about it and seem to take light from it! It was “romance” indeed, “Weir of Hermiston,” we feel, as we see it only grow in assurance and ease when the reach to it over all the spaces becomes more positively artificial. The case is literary to intensity, and, given the nature of the talent, only thereby the more beautiful: he embroiders in silk and silver—in defiance of climate and nature, of every near aspect, and with such another antique needle as was nowhere, least of all in those latitudes, to be bought—in the intervals of wondrous international and insular politics and of fifty material cares and complications. His special stock of association, most personal style and most unteachable trick fly away again to him like so many strayed birds to nest, each with the flutter in its beak of some scrap of document or legend, some fragment of picture or story, to be retouched, revarnished and reframed.
These things he does with a gusto, moreover, for which it must be granted that his literary treatment of the islands and the island life had ever vainly waited. Curious enough that his years of the tropics and his fraternity with the natives never drew from him any such “rendered” view as might have been looked for in advance. For the absent and vanished Scotland he has the image—within the limits (too narrow ones we may perhaps judge) admitted by his particular poetic; but the law of these things in him was, as of many others, amusingly, conscientiously perverse. The Pacific, in which he materially delighted, made him “descriptively” serious and even rather dry; with his own country, on the other hand, materially impossible, he was ready to tread an endless measure. He easily sends us back again here to our vision of his mixture. There was only one thing on earth that he loved as much as literature—which was the total absence of it; and to the present, the immediate, whatever it was, he always made the latter offering. Samoa was susceptible of no “style”—none of that, above all, with which he was most conscious of an affinity—save the demonstration of its rightness for life; and this left the field abundantly clear for the Border, the Great North Road and the eighteenth century. I have been reading over “Catriona” and “Weir” with the purest pleasure with which we can follow a man of genius—that of seeing him abound in his own sense. In “Weir” especially, like an improvising pianist, he superabounds and revels, and his own sense, by a happy stroke, appeared likely never more fully and brightly to justify him; to have become even in some degree a new sense, with new chords and possibilities. It is the “old game,” but it is the old game that he exquisitely understands. The figure of Hermiston is creative work of the highest order, those of the two Kirsties, especially that of the elder, scarce less so; and we ache for the loss of a thing which could give out such touches as the quick joy, at finding herself in falsehood, of the enamoured girl whose brooding elder brother has told her that as soon as she has a lover she will begin to lie (“?‘Will I have gotten my jo now?’ she thought with secret rapture”); or a passage so richly charged with imagination as that in which the young lover recalls her as he has first seen and desired her, seated at grey of evening on an old tomb in the moorland and unconsciously making him think, by her scrap of song, both of his mother, who sang it and whom he has lost, and
of their common ancestors now dead, of their rude wars composed, their weapons buried with them, and of these strange changelings, their descendants, who lingered a little in their places and would soon be gone also, and perhaps sung of by others at the gloaming hour. By one of the unconscious arts of tenderness the two women were enshrined together in his memory. Tears, in that hour of sensibility, came into his eyes indifferently at the thought of either; and the girl, from being something merely bright and shapely, was caught up into the zone of things serious as life and death and his dead mother. So that, in all ways and on either side, Fate played his game artfully with this poor pair of children. The generations were prepared, the pangs were made ready, before the curtain rose on the dark drama.
It is not a tribute that Stevenson would at all have appreciated, but I may not forbear noting how closely such a page recalls many another in the tenderest manner of Pierre Loti. There would not, compared, be a pin to choose between them. How, we at all events ask ourselves as we consider “Weir,” could he have kept it up?—while the reason for which he didn’t reads itself back into his text as a kind of beautiful rash divination in him that he mightn’t have to. Among prose fragments it stands quite alone, with the particular grace and sanctity of mutilation worn by the marble morsels of masterwork in another art. This and the other things of his best he left; but these things, lovely as, on rereading many of them at the suggestion of his Correspondence, they are, are not the whole, nor more than the half, of his abiding charm. The finest papers in “Across the Plains,” in “Memories and Portraits,” in “Virginibus Puerisque,” stout of substance and supremely silver of speech, have both a nobleness and a nearness that place them, for perfection and roundness, above his fictions, and that also may well remind a vulgarised generation of what, even under its nose, English prose can be. But it is bound up with his name, for our wonder and reflection, that he is something other than the author of this or that particular beautiful thing, or of all such things together. It has been his fortune (whether or no the greatest that can befall a man of letters) to have had to consent to become, by a process not purely mystic and not wholly untraceable—what shall we call it?—a Figure. Tracing is needless now, for the personality has acted and the incarnation is full. There he is—he has passed ineffaceably into happy legend. This case of the figure is of the rarest and the honour surely of the greatest. In all our literature we can count them, sometimes with the work and sometimes without. The work has often been great and yet the figure nil. Johnson was one, and Goldsmith and Byron; and the two former moreover not in any degree, like Stevenson, in virtue of the element of grace. Was it this element that fixed the claim even for Byron? It seems doubtful; and the list at all events as we approach our own day shortens and stops. Stevenson has it at present—may we not say?—pretty well to himself, and it is not one of the scrolls in which he least will live.

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