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Title: Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson
Author: Stevenson, Robert Louis, 1850-1894
Language: English
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The text of the following essays is taken from the Thistle Edition of
Stevenson's _Works_, published by Charles Scribner's Sons, in New
York. I have refrained from selecting any of Stevenson's formal essays
in literary criticism, and have chosen only those that, while ranking
among his masterpieces in style, reveal his personality, character,
opinions, philosophy, and faith. In the _Introduction_, I have
endeavoured to be as brief as possible, merely giving a sketch of his
life, and indicating some of the more notable sides of his literary
achievement; pointing out also the literary school to which these
Essays belong. A lengthy critical Introduction to a book of this kind
would be an impertinence to the general reader, and a nuisance to a
teacher. In the _Notes_, I have aimed at simple explanation and some
extended literary comment. It is hoped that the general recognition of
Stevenson as an English classic may make this volume useful in school
and college courses, while it is not too much like a textbook to repel
the average reader. I am indebted to Professor Catterall of Cornell
and to Professor Cross of Yale, and to my brother the Rev. Dryden W.
Phelps, for some assistance in locating references. W.L.P., YALE
UNIVERSITY, _13 February 1906_.
















Robert Louis Stevenson[1] was born at Edinburgh on the 13 November
1850. His father, Thomas, and his grandfather, Robert, were both
distinguished light-house engineers; and the maternal grandfather,
Balfour, was a Professor of Moral Philosophy, who lived to be ninety
years old. There was, therefore, a combination of _Lux et Veritas_ in
the blood of young Louis Stevenson, which in _Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde_
took the form of a luminous portrayal of a great moral idea.

In the language of Pope, Stevenson's life was a long disease. Even as
a child, his weak lungs caused great anxiety to all the family except
himself; but although Death loves a shining mark, it took over forty
years of continuous practice for the grim archer to send the black
arrow home. It is perhaps fortunate for English literature that his
health was no better; for the boy craved an active life, and would
doubtless have become an engineer. He made a brave attempt to pursue
this calling, but it was soon evident that his constitution made it
impossible. After desultory schooling, and an immense amount of
general reading, he entered the University of Edinburgh, and then
tried the study of law. Although the thought of this profession became
more and more repugnant, and finally intolerable, he passed his final
examinations satisfactorily. This was in 1875.

He had already begun a series of excursions to the south of France and
other places, in search of a climate more favorable to his incipient
malady; and every return to Edinburgh proved more and more
conclusively that he could not live in Scotch mists. He had made the
acquaintance of a number of literary men, and he was consumed with a
burning ambition to become a writer. Like Ibsen's _Master-Builder_,
there was a troll in his blood, which drew him away to the continent
on inland voyages with a canoe and lonely tramps with a donkey; these
gave him material for books full of brilliant pictures, shrewd
observations, and irrepressible humour. He contributed various
articles to magazines, which were immediately recognised by critics
like Leslie Stephen as bearing the unmistakable mark of literary
genius; but they attracted almost no attention from the general
reading public, and their author had only the consciousness of good
work for his reward. In 1880 he was married.

Stevenson's first successful work was _Treasure Island_, which was
published in book form in 1883, and has already become a classic. This
did not, however, bring him either a good income or general fame. His
great reputation dates from the publication of the _Strange Case of
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,_ which appeared in 1886. That work had an
instant and unqualified success, especially in America, and made its
author's name known to the whole English-speaking world. _Kidnapped_
was published the same year, and another masterpiece, _The Master of
Ballantrae_, in 1889.

After various experiments with different climates, including that of
Switzerland, Stevenson sailed for America in August 1887. The winter
of 1887-88 he spent at Saranac Lake, under the care of Dr. Trudeau,
who became one of his best friends. In 1890 he settled at Samoa in the
Pacific. Here he entered upon a career of intense literary activity,
and yet found time to take an active part in the politics of the
island, and to give valuable assistance in internal improvements.

The end came suddenly, exactly as he would have wished it, and
precisely as he had unconsciously predicted in the last radiant,
triumphant sentences of his great essay, _Aes Triplex_. He had been at
work on a novel, _St. Ives_, one of his poorer efforts, and whose
composition grew steadily more and more distasteful, until he found
that he was actually writing against the grain. He threw this aside
impatiently, and with extraordinary energy and enthusiasm began a new
story, _Weir of Hermiston_, which would undoubtedly have been his
masterpiece, had he lived to complete it. In luminosity of style, in
nobleness of conception, in the almost infallible choice of words,
this astonishing fragment easily takes first place in Stevenson's
productions. At the end of a day spent in almost feverish dictation,
the third of December 1894, he suddenly fainted, and died without
regaining consciousness. "Death had 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 passed at a bound on to the other side. The
noise of the mallet and chisel was scarcely quenched, the trumpets
were hardly done blowing, when, trailing with him clouds of glory,
this happy-starred, full-blooded spirit shot into the spiritual land."

He was buried at the summit of a mountain, the body being carried on
the shoulders of faithful Samoans, who might have sung Browning's
noble hymn,

  "Let us begin and carry up this corpse,
    Singing together!
  Leave we the common crofts, the vulgar thorpes
    Each in its tether
  Sleeping safe on the bosom of the plain...
  That's the appropriate country; there, man's thought,
    Rarer, intenser,
  Self-gathered for an outbreak, as it ought,
    Chafes in the censer.
  Leave we the unlettered plain its herd and crop;
    Seek we sepulture
  On a tall mountain...
  Thither our path lies; wind we up the heights:
    Wait ye the warning!
  Our low life was the level's and the night's;
    He's for the morning.
  Step to a tune, square chests, erect each head,
    'Ware the beholders!
  This is our master, famous, calm and dead,
    Borne on our shoulders...

  Here--here's his place, where meteors shoot clouds form,
              Lightnings are loosened,
  Stars come and go! Let joy break with the storm,
              Peace let the dew send!
  Lofty designs must close in like effects
              Loftily lying,
  Leave him--still loftier than the world suspects,
              Living and dying."



Stevenson had a motley personality, which is sufficiently evident in
his portraits. There was in him the Puritan, the man of the world, and
the vagabond. There was something too of the obsolete soldier of
fortune, with the cocked and feathered hat, worn audaciously on one
side. There was also a touch of the elfin, the uncanny--the mysterious
charm that belongs to the borderland between the real and the unreal
world--the element so conspicuous and so indefinable in the art of
Hawthorne. Writers so different as Defoe, Cooper, Poe, and Sir Thomas
Browne, are seen with varying degrees of emphasis in his literary
temperament. He was whimsical as an imaginative child; and everyone
has noticed that he never grew old. His buoyant optimism was based on
a chronic experience of physical pain, for pessimists like
Schopenhauer are usually men in comfortable circumstances, and of
excellent bodily health. His courage and cheerfulness under depressing
circumstances are so splendid to contemplate that some critics believe
that in time his _Letters_ may be regarded as his greatest literary
work, for they are priceless in their unconscious revelation of a
beautiful soul.

Great as Stevenson was as a writer, he was still greater as a Man. So
many admirable books have been written by men whose character will not
bear examination, that it is refreshing to find one Master-Artist
whose daily life was so full of the fruits of the spirit. As his
romances have brought pleasure to thousands of readers, so the
spectacle of his cheerful march through the Valley of the Shadow of
Death is a constant source of comfort and inspiration. One feels
ashamed of cowardice and petty irritation after witnessing the steady
courage of this man. His philosophy of life is totally different from
that of Stoicism; for the Stoic says, "Grin and bear it," and usually
succeeds in doing neither. Stevenson seems to say, "Laugh and forget
it," and he showed us how to do both.

Stevenson had the rather unusual combination of the Artist and the
Moralist, both elements being marked in his writings to a very high
degree. The famous and oft-quoted sonnet by his friend, the late Mr.
Henley, gives a vivid picture:

  "Thin-legged, thin-chested, slight unspeakably,
  Neat-footed and weak-fingered: in his face--
  Lean, large-honed, curved of beak, and touched with race,
  Bold-lipped, rich-tinted, mutable as the sea,
  The brown eyes radiant with vivacity--
  There shown a brilliant and romantic grace,
  A spirit intense and rare, with trace on trace
  Of passion, impudence, and energy.
  Valiant in velvet, light in ragged luck,
  Most vain, most generous, sternly critical,
  Buffoon and poet, lover and sensualist;
  A deal of Ariel, just a streak of Puck,
  Much Antony, of Hamlet most of all,
  And something of the Shorter Catechist."

He was not primarily a moral teacher, like Socrates or Thomas Carlyle;
nor did he feel within him the voice of a prophetic mission. The
virtue of his writings consists in their wholesome ethical quality, in
their solid health. Fresh air is often better for the soul than the
swinging of the priest's censer. At a time when the school of Zola was
at its climax, Stevenson opened the windows and let in the pleasant
breeze. For the morbid and unhealthy period of adolescence, his books
are more healthful than many serious moral works. He purges the mind
of uncleanness, just as he purged contemporary fiction.

As Stevenson's correspondence with his friends like Sidney Colvin and
William Archer reveals the social side of his nature, so his
correspondence with the Unseen Power in which he believed shows that
his character was essentially religious. A man's letters are often a
truer picture of his mind than a photograph; and when these epistles
are directed not to men and women, but to the Supreme Intelligence,
they form a real revelation of their writer's heart. Nothing betrays
the personality of a man more clearly than his prayers, and the
following petition that Stevenson composed for the use of his
household at Vailima, bears the stamp of its author.

  "At Morning. The day returns and brings us the petty round of
  irritating concerns and duties. Help us to play the man, help us to
  perform them with laughter and kind faces, let cheerfulness abound
  with industry. Give us to go blithely on our business all this day,
  bring us to our resting beds weary and content and undishonoured,
  and grant us in the end the gift of sleep."



Stevenson was a poet, a dramatist, an essayist, and a novelist,
besides writing many political, geographical, and biographical
sketches. As a poet, his fame is steadily waning. The tendency at
first was to rank him too high, owing to the undeniable charm of many
of the poems in the _Child's Garden of Verses_. The child's view of
the world, as set forth in these songs, is often originally and
gracefully expressed; but there is little in Stevenson's poetry that
is of permanent value, and it is probable that most of it will be
forgotten. This fact is in a way a tribute to his genius; for his
greatness as a prose writer has simply eclipsed his reputation as a

His plays were failures. They illustrate the familiar truth that a man
may have positive genius as a dramatic writer, and yet fail as a
dramatist. There are laws that govern the stage which must be obeyed;
play-writing is a great art in itself, entirely distinct from literary
composition. Even Browning, the most intensely dramatic poet of the
nineteenth century, was not nearly so successful in his dramas as in
his dramatic lyrics and romances.

His essays attracted at first very little attention; they were too
fine and too subtle to awaken popular enthusiasm. It was the success
of his novels that drew readers back to the essays, just as it was the
vogue of Sudermann's plays that made his earlier novels popular. One
has only to read such essays, however, as those printed in this volume
to realise not only their spirit and charm, but to feel instinctively
that one is reading English Literature. They are exquisite works of
art, written in an almost impeccable style. By many judicious readers,
they are placed above his works of fiction. They certainly constitute
the most original portion of his entire literary output. It is
astonishing that this young Scotchman should have been able to make so
many actually new observations on a game so old as Life. There is a
shrewd insight into the motives of human conduct that makes some of
these graceful sketches belong to the literature of philosophy, using
the word philosophy in its deepest and broadest sense. The essays are
filled with whimsical paradoxes, keen and witty as those of Bernard
Shaw, without having any of the latter's cynicism, iconoclasm, and
sinister attitude toward morality. For the real foundation of even the
lightest of Stevenson's works is invariably ethical.

His fame as a writer of prose romances grows brighter every year. His
supreme achievement was to show that a book might be crammed with the
most wildly exciting incidents, and yet reveal profound and acute
analysis of character, and be written with consummate art. His tales
have all the fertility of invention and breathless suspense of Scott
and Cooper, while in literary style they immeasurably surpass the
finest work of these two great masters.

His best complete story, is, I think, _Treasure Island_. There is a
peculiar brightness about this book which even the most notable of the
later works failed to equal. Nor was it a trifling feat to make a
blind man and a one-legged man so formidable that even the reader is
afraid of them. Those who complain that this is merely a pirate story
forget that in art the subject is of comparatively little importance,
whereas the treatment is everything. To say, as some do, that there is
no difference between _Treasure Island_ and a cheap tale of blood and
thunder, is equivalent to saying that there is no difference between
the Sistine Madonna and a chromo Virgin.



The Personal Essay is a peculiar form of literature, entirely
different from critical essays like those of Matthew Arnold and from
purely reflective essays, like those of Bacon. It is a species of
writing somewhat akin to autobiography or firelight conversation;
where the writer takes the reader entirely into his confidence, and
chats pleasantly with him on topics that may be as widely apart as the
immortality of the soul and the proper colour of a necktie. The first
and supreme master of this manner of writing was Montaigne, who
belongs in the front rank of the world's greatest writers of prose.
Montaigne talks endlessly on the most trivial subjects without ever
becoming trivial. To those who really love reading and have some
sympathy with humanity, Montaigne's _Essays_ are a "perpetual refuge
and delight," and it is interesting to reflect how far in literary
fame this man, who talked about his meals, his horse, and his cat,
outshines thousands of scholarly and talented writers, who discussed
only the most serious themes in politics and religion. The great
English prose writers in the field of the personal essay during the
seventeenth century were Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas Fuller, and Abraham
Cowley, though Walton's _Compleat Angler_ is a kindred work. Browne's
_Religio Medici_, and his delightful _Garden of Cyrus_, old Tom
Fuller's quaint _Good Thoughts in Bad Times_ and Cowley's charming
_Essays_ are admirable examples of this school of composition.
Burton's wonderful _Anatomy of Melancholy_ is a colossal personal
essay. Some of the papers of Steele and Addison in the _Tatler_,
_Guardian,_ and the _Spectator_ are of course notable; but it was not
until the appearance of Charles Lamb that the personal essay reached
its climax in English literature. Over the pages of the _Essays of
Elia_ hovers an immortal charm--the charm of a nature inexhaustible in
its humour and kindly sympathy for humanity. Thackeray was another
great master of the literary easy-chair, and is to some readers more
attractive in this attitude than as a novelist. In America we have had
a few writers who have reached eminence in this form, beginning with
Washington Irving, and including Donald G. Mitchell, whose _Reveries
of a Bachelor_ has been read by thousands of people for over fifty

As a personal essayist Stevenson seems already to belong to the first
rank. He is both eclectic and individual. He brought to his pen the
reminiscences of varied reading, and a wholly original touch of
fantasy. He was literally steeped in the gorgeous Gothic diction of
the seventeenth century, but he realised that such a prose style as
illumines the pages of William Drummond's _Cypress Grove_ and Browne's
_Urn Burial_ was a lost art. He attempted to imitate such writing only
in his youthful exercises, for his own genius was forced to express
itself in an original way. All of his personal essays have that air of
distinction which attracts and holds one's attention as powerfully in
a book as it does in social intercourse. Everything that he has to say
seems immediately worth saying, and worth hearing, for he was one of
those rare men who had an interesting mind. There are some literary
artists who have style and nothing else, just as there are some great
singers who have nothing but a voice. The true test of a book, like
that of an individual, is whether or not it improves upon
acquaintance. Stevenson's essays reflect a personality that becomes
brighter as we draw nearer. This fact makes his essays not merely
entertaining reading, but worthy of serious and prolonged study.

[Note 1: His name was originally Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson. He
later dropped the "Balfour" and changed the spelling of "Lewis" to
"Louis," but the name was always pronounced "Lewis."]


The following information is taken from Col. Prideaux's admirable
_Bibliography_ of Stevenson, London, 1903. I have given the titles and
dates of only the more important publications in book form; and of the
critical works on Stevenson, I have included only a few of those that
seem especially useful to the student and general reader. The detailed
facts about the separate publications of each essay included in the
present volume are fully given in my notes.


1878. An Inland Voyage.
1879. Travels with a Donkey.
1881. Virginibus Puerisque.
1882. Familiar Studies of Men and Books.
1882. New Arabian Nights.
1883. Treasure Island.
1885. Prince Otto.
1885. A Child's Garden of Verses.
1885. More New Arabian Nights. The Dynamiter.
1886. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
1886. Kidnapped.
1887. The Merry Men.
1887. Memories and Portraits.
1888. The Black Arrow.
1889. The Master of Ballantrae. (A few copies privately printed in
1889. The Wrong Box.
1890. Father Damien.
1892. Across the Plains.
1892. The Wrecker.
1893. Island Nights' Entertainments.
1893. Catriona.
1894. The Ebb Tide.
1895. Vailima Letters.
1896. Weir of Hermiston.
1898. St. Ives.
1899. Letters, Two Volumes.

NOTE. The _Edinburgh Edition_ of the _works_, in twenty-eight volumes,
is often referred to by bibliographers; it can now be obtained only at
second-hand bookshops, or at auction sales. The best complete edition
on the market is the _Thistle Edition_, in twenty-six volumes,
including the _Life_ and the _Letters_, published by Charles
Scribner's Sons, New York.


_Life of Robert Louis Stevenson_, by Graham Balfour. 1901. Two
Volumes. _This is the standard Life, and indispensable._

_Robert Louis Stevenson_, by Henry James, in _Partial Portraits,_
1894. _Admirable criticism_.

_Robert Louis Stevenson_, by Walter Raleigh. 1895. _An excellent
appreciation of his character and work._

_Robert Louis Stevenson: Personal Memories_, by Edmund Gosse, in
_Critical Kit-Kats,_ 1896. _Entertaining gossip._

_Stevenson's Shrine, The Record of a Pilgrimage_, by Laura Stubbs.
1903. _Very interesting full-page illustrations._

_(For further critical books and articles, which are numerous, consult




It is a difficult matter[1] to make the most of any given place, and
we have much in our own power. Things looked at patiently from one
side after another generally end by showing a side that is beautiful.
A few months ago some words were said in the _Portfolio_ as to an
"austere regimen in scenery"; and such a discipline was then
recommended as "healthful and strengthening to the taste." That is the
text, so to speak, of the present essay. This discipline in
scenery,[2] it must be understood, is something more than a mere walk
before breakfast to whet the appetite. For when we are put down in
some unsightly neighborhood, and especially if we have come to be more
or less dependent on what we see, we must set ourselves to hunt out
beautiful things with all the ardour and patience of a botanist after
a rare plant. Day by day we perfect ourselves in the art of seeing
nature more favourably. We learn to live with her, as people learn to
live with fretful or violent spouses: to dwell lovingly on what is
good, and shut our eyes against all that is bleak or inharmonious. We
learn, also, to come to each place in the right spirit. The traveller,
as Brantôme quaintly tells us, "_fait des discours en soi pour se
soutenir en chemin_";[3] and into these discourses he weaves something
out of all that he sees and suffers by the way; they take their tone
greatly from the varying character of the scene; a sharp ascent brings
different thoughts from a level road; and the man's fancies grow
lighter as he comes out of the wood into a clearing. Nor does the
scenery any more affect the thoughts than the thoughts affect the
scenery. We see places through our humours as though differently
colored glasses. We are ourselves a term in the equation, a note of
the chord, and make discord or harmony almost at will. There is no
fear for the result, if we can but surrender ourselves sufficiently to
the country that surrounds and follows us, so that we are ever
thinking suitable thoughts or telling ourselves some suitable sort of
story as we go. We become thus, in some sense, a centre of beauty; we
are provocative of beauty,[4] much as a gentle and sincere character
is provocative of sincerity and gentleness in others. And even where
there is no harmony to be elicited by the quickest and most obedient
of spirits, we may still embellish a place with some attraction of
romance. We may learn to go far afield for associations, and handle
them lightly when we have found them. Sometimes an old print comes to
our aid; I have seen many a spot lit up at once with picturesque
imaginations, by a reminiscence of Callot, or Sadeler, or Paul
Brill.[5] Dick Turpin[6] has been my lay figure for many an English
lane. And I suppose the Trossachs would hardly be the Trossachs[7] for
most tourists if a man of admirable romantic instinct had not peopled
it for them with harmonious figures, and brought them thither their
minds rightly prepared for the impression. There is half the battle in
this preparation. For instance: I have rarely been able to visit, in
the proper spirit, the wild and inhospitable places of our own
Highlands. I am happier where it is tame and fertile, and not readily
pleased without trees.[8] I understand that there are some phases of
mental trouble that harmonise well with such surroundings, and that
some persons, by the dispensing power of the imagination, can go back
several centuries in spirit, and put themselves into sympathy with the
hunted, houseless, unsociable way of life that was in its place upon
these savage hills. Now, when I am sad, I like nature to charm me out
of my sadness, like David before Saul;[9] and the thought of these
past ages strikes nothing in me but an unpleasant pity; so that I can
never hit on the right humour for this sort of landscape, and lose
much pleasure in consequence. Still, even here, if I were only let
alone, and time enough were given, I should have all manner of
pleasure, and take many clear and beautiful images away with me when I
left. When we cannot think ourselves into sympathy with the great
features of a country, we learn to ignore them, and put our head among
the grass for flowers, or pore, for long times together, over the
changeful current of a stream. We come down to the sermon in
stones,[10] when we are shut out from any poem in the spread
landscape. We begin to peep and botanise, we take an interest in birds
and insects, we find many things beautiful in miniature. The reader
will recollect the little summer scene in _Wuthering Heights_[11]--the
one warm scene, perhaps, in all that powerful, miserable novel--and
the great feature that is made therein by grasses and flowers and a
little sunshine: this is in the spirit of which I now speak. And,
lastly, we can go indoors; interiors are sometimes as beautiful, often
more picturesque, than the shows of the open air, and they have that
quality of shelter of which I shall presently have more to say.

With all this in mind, I have often been tempted to put forth the
paradox that any place is good enough to live a life in, while it is
only in a few, and those highly favoured, that we can pass a few hours
agreeably. For, if we only stay long enough, we become at home in the
neighbourhood. Reminiscences spring up, like flowers, about
uninteresting corners. We forget to some degree the superior
loveliness of other places, and fall into a tolerant and sympathetic
spirit which is its own reward and justification. Looking back the
other day on some recollections of my own, I was astonished to find
how much I owed to such a residence; six weeks in one unpleasant
country-side had done more, it seemed, to quicken and educate my
sensibilities than many years in places that jumped more nearly with
my inclination.

The country to which I refer was a level and treeless plateau, over
which the winds cut like a whip. For miles on miles it was the same. A
river, indeed, fell into the sea near the town where I resided; but
the valley of the river was shallow and bald, for as far up as ever I
had the heart to follow it. There were roads, certainly, but roads
that had no beauty or interest; for, as there was no timber, and but
little irregularity of surface, you saw your whole walk exposed to you
from the beginning: there was nothing left to fancy, nothing to
expect, nothing to see by the wayside, save here and there an
unhomely-looking homestead, and here and there a solitary, spectacled
stone-breaker;[12] and you were only accompanied, as you went doggedly
forward by the gaunt telegraph-posts and the hum of the resonant wires
in the keen sea-wind. To one who has learned to know their song in
warm pleasant places by the Mediterranean, it seemed to taunt the
country, and make it still bleaker by suggested contrast. Even the
waste places by the side of the road were not, as Hawthorne liked to
put it, "taken back to Nature" by any decent covering of vegetation.
Wherever the land had the chance, it seemed to lie fallow. There is a
certain tawny nudity of the South, bare sunburnt plains, coloured like
a lion, and hills clothed only in the blue transparent air; but this
was of another description--this was the nakedness of the North; the
earth seemed to know that it was naked, and was ashamed and cold.[13]

It seemed to be always blowing on that coast. Indeed, this had passed
into the speech of the inhabitants, and they saluted each other when
they met with "Breezy, breezy," instead of the customary "Fine day" of
farther south. These continual winds were not like the harvest breeze,
that just keeps an equable pressure against your face as you walk, and
serves to set all the trees talking over your head, or bring round you
the smell of the wet surface of the country after a shower. They were
of the bitter, hard, persistent sort, that interferes with sight and
respiration, and makes the eyes sore. Even such winds as these have
their own merit in proper time and place. It is pleasant to see them
brandish great masses of shadow. And what a power they have over the
colour of the world! How they ruffle the solid woodlands in their
passage, and make them shudder and whiten like a single willow! There
is nothing more vertiginous than a wind like this among the woods,
with all its sights and noises; and the effect gets between some
painters and their sober eyesight, so that, even when the rest of
their picture is calm, the foliage is coloured like foliage in a
gale.[14] There was nothing, however, of this sort to be noticed in a
country where there were no trees and hardly any shadows, save the
passive shadows and clouds or those of rigid houses and walls. But the
wind was nevertheless an occasion of pleasure; for nowhere could you
taste more fully the pleasure of a sudden lull, or a place of
opportune shelter. The reader knows what I mean; he must remember how,
when he has sat himself down behind a dyke on a hill-side, he
delighted to hear the wind hiss vainly through the crannies at his
back; how his body tingled all over with warmth, and it began to dawn
upon him, with a sort of slow surprise, that the country was
beautiful, the heather purple, and the faraway hills all marbled with
sun and shadow. Wordsworth, in a beautiful passage[15] of the
"Prelude," has used this as a figure for the feeling struck in us by
the quiet by-streets of London after the uproar of the great
thoroughfares; and the comparison may be turned the other way with as
good effect:

  "Meanwhile the roar continues, till at length,
  Escaped as from an enemy we turn,
  Abruptly into some sequestered nook,
  Still as a shelter'd place when winds blow loud!"

I remember meeting a man once, in a train, who told me of what must
have been quite the most perfect instance of this pleasure of escape.
He had gone up, one sunny, windy morning, to the top of a great
cathedral somewhere abroad; I think it was Cologne Cathedral, the
great unfinished marvel by the Rhine;[16] and after a long while in
dark stairways, he issued at last into the sunshine, on a platform
high above the town. At that elevation it was quite still and warm;
the gale was only in the lower strata of the air, and he had forgotten
it in the quiet interior of the church and during his long ascent; and
so you may judge of his surprise when, resting his arms on the sunlit
balustrade and looking over into the _Place_ far below him, he saw the
good people holding on their hats and leaning hard against the wind as
they walked. There is something, to my fancy, quite perfect in this
little experience of my fellow-traveller's. The ways of men seem
always very trivial to us when we find ourselves alone on a
church-top, with the blue sky and a few tall pinnacles, and see far
below us the steep roofs and foreshortened buttresses, and the silent
activity of the city streets; but how much more must they not have
seemed so to him as he stood, not only above other men's business, but
above other men's climate, in a golden zone like Apollo's![17]

This was the sort of pleasure I found in the country of which I write.
The pleasure was to be out of the wind, and to keep it in memory all
the time, and hug oneself upon the shelter. And it was only by the sea
that any such sheltered places were to be found. Between the black
worm-eaten headlands there are little bights and havens, well screened
from the wind and the commotion of the external sea, where the sand
and weeds look up into the gazer's face from a depth of tranquil
water, and the sea-birds, screaming and flickering from the ruined
crags, alone disturb the silence and the sunshine. One such place has
impressed itself on my memory beyond all others. On a rock by the
water's edge, old fighting men of the Norse breed had planted a double
castle; the two stood wall to wall like semi-detached villas; and yet
feud had run so high between their owners, that one, from out of a
window, shot the other as he stood in his own doorway. There is
something in the juxtaposition of these two enemies full of tragic
irony. It is grim to think of bearded men and bitter women taking
hateful counsel together about the two hall-fires at night,[18] when
the sea boomed against the foundations and the wild winter wind was
loose over the battlements. And in the study we may reconstruct for
ourselves some pale figure of what life then was. Not so when we are
there; when we are there such thoughts come to us only to intensify a
contrary impression, and association is turned against itself.[19] I
remember walking thither three afternoons in succession, my eyes weary
with being set against the wind, and how, dropping suddenly over the
edge of the down, I found myself in a new world of warmth and shelter.
The wind, from which I had escaped, "as from an enemy,"[20] was
seemingly quite local. It carried no clouds with it, and came from
such a quarter that it did not trouble the sea within view. The two
castles, black and ruinous as the rocks about them, were still
distinguishable from these by something more insecure and fantastic in
the outline, something that the last storm had left imminent and the
next would demolish entirely. It would be difficult to render in words
the sense of peace that took possession of me on these three
afternoons. It was helped out, as I have said, by the contrast. The
shore was battered and bemauled by previous tempests; I had the memory
at heart of the insane strife of the pigmies who had erected these two
castles and lived in them in mutual distrust and enmity, and knew I
had only to put my head out of this little cup of shelter to find the
hard wind blowing in my eyes; and yet there were the two great tracts
of motionless blue air and peaceful sea looking on, unconcerned and
apart, at the turmoil of the present moment and the memorials of the
precarious past. There is ever something transitory and fretful in the
impression of a high wind under a cloudless sky; it seems to have no
root in the constitution of things; it must speedily begin to faint
and wither away like a cut flower. And on those days the thought of
the wind and the thought of human life came very near together in my
mind. Our noisy years did indeed seem moments[21] in the being of the
eternal silence: and the wind, in the face of that great field of
stationary blue, was as the wind of a butterfly's wing. The placidity
of the sea was a thing likewise to be remembered. Shelley speaks of
the sea as "hungering for calm,"[22] and in this place one learned to
understand the phrase. Looking down into these green waters from the
broken edge of the rock, or swimming leisurely in the sunshine, it
seemed to me that they were enjoying their own tranquillity; and when
now and again it was disturbed by a wind ripple on the surface, or the
quick black passage of a fish far below, they settled back again (one
could fancy) with relief.

On shore, too, in the little nook of shelter, everything was so
subdued and still that the least particular struck in me a pleasurable
surprise. The desultory crackling of the whin-pods[23] in the
afternoon sun usurped the ear. The hot, sweet breath of the bank, that
had been saturated all day long with sunshine, and now exhaled it into
my face, was like the breath of a fellow-creature. I remember that I
was haunted by two lines of French verse; in some dumb way they seemed
to fit my surroundings and give expression to the contentment that was
in me, and I kept repeating to myself--

  "Mon coeur est un luth suspendu,[24]
  Sitôt qu'on le touche, il résonne."

I can give no reason why these lines came to me at this time; and for
that very cause I repeat them here. For all I know, they may serve to
complete the impression in the mind of the reader, as they were
certainly a part of it for me.

And this happened to me in the place of all others where I liked least
to stay. When I think of it I grow ashamed of my own ingratitude. "Out
of the strong came forth sweetness."[25] There, in the bleak and gusty
North, I received, perhaps, my strongest impression of peace. I saw
the sea to be great and calm; and the earth, in that little corner,
was all alive and friendly to me. So, wherever a man is, he will find
something to please and pacify him: in the town he will meet pleasant
faces of men and women, and see beautiful flowers at a window, or hear
a cage-bird singing at the corner of the gloomiest street; and for the
country, there is no country without some amenity--let him only look
for it in the right spirit, and he will surely find.


This article first appeared in the _Portfolio_, for November 1874, and
was not reprinted until two years after Stevenson's death, in 1896,
when it was included in the _Miscellanies_ (Edinburgh Edition,
_Miscellanies_, Vol. IV, pp. 131-142). The editor of the _Portfolio_
was the well-known art critic, Philip Gilbert Hamerton (1834-1894),
author of the _Intellectual Life_ (1873). Just one year before,
Stevenson had had printed in the _Portfolio_ his first contribution to
any periodical, _Roads_. Although _The Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places_
attracted scarcely any attention on its first appearance, and has
since become practically forgotten, there is perhaps no better essay
among his earlier works with which to begin a study of his
personality, temperament, and style. In its cheerful optimism this
article is particularly characteristic of its author. It should be
remembered that when this essay was first printed, Stevenson was only
twenty-four years old.

[Note 1: _It is a difficult matter_, etc. The appreciation of nature
is a quite modern taste, for although people have always loved the
scenery which reminds them of home, it was not at all fashionable in
England to love nature for its own sake before 1740. Thomas Gray was
the first person in Europe who seems to have exhibited a real love of
mountains (see his _Letters_). A study of the development of the
appreciation of nature before and after Wordsworth (England's greatest
nature poet) is exceedingly interesting. See Myra Reynolds, _The
Treatment of Nature in English Poetry between Pope and Wordsworth_

[Note 2: _This discipline in scenery._ Note what is said on this
subject in Browning's extraordinary poem, _Fra Lippo Lippi_, vs.

  "For, don't you mark? We're made so that we love
  First when we see them painted, things we have passed
  Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see."]

[Note 3: _Brantôme quaintly tells us, "fait des discours en soi pour
se soutenir en chemin."_ Freely translated, "the traveller talks to
himself to keep up his courage on the road." Pierre de Bourdeille,
Abbé de Brantôme, (cir. 1534-1614), travelled all over Europe. His
works were not published till long after his death, in 1665. Several
complete editions of his writings in numerous volumes have appeared in
the nineteenth century, one edited by the famous writer, Prosper

[Note 4: _We are provocative of beauty._ Compare again, _Fra Lippo
Lippi_, vs. 215 et seq.

  "Or say there's beauty with no soul at all--
  (I never saw it--put the case the same--)
  If you get simple beauty and nought else,
  You get about the best thing God invents:
  That's somewhat: and you'll find the soul you have missed,
  Within yourself, when you return him thanks."]

[Note 5: _Callot, or Sadeler, or Paul Brill._ Jacques Callot was an
eminent French artist of the XVII century, born at Nancy in 1592, died
1635. Matthaeus and Paul Brill were two celebrated Dutch painters.
Paul, the younger brother of Matthaeus, was born about 1555, and died
in 1626. His development in landscape-painting was remarkable. Gilles
Sadeler, born at Antwerp 1570, died at Prague 1629, a famous artist,
and nephew of two well-known engravers. He was called the "Phoenix of

[Note 6: _Dick Turpin_. Dick Turpin was born in Essex, England, and
was originally a butcher. Afterwards he became a notorious highwayman,
and was finally executed for horse-stealing, 10 April 1739. He and his
steed Black Bess are well described in W. H. Ainsworth's _Rookwood_,
and in his _Ballads_.]

[Note 7: _The Trossachs_. The word means literally, "bristling
country." A beautifully romantic tract, beginning immediately to the
east of Loch Katrine in Perth, Scotland. Stevenson's statement, "if a
man of admirable romantic instinct had not peopled it for them with
harmonious figures," refers to Walter Scott, and more particularly to
the _Lady of the Lake_ (1810).]

[Note 8: _I am happier where it is tame and fertile, and not readily
pleased without trees_. Notice the kind of country he begins to
describe in the next paragraph. Is there really any contradiction in
his statements?]

[Note 9: _Like David before Saul_. David charmed Saul out of his
sadness, according to the Biblical story, not with nature, but with
music. See I _Samuel_ XVI. 14-23. But in Browning's splendid poem,
_Saul_ (1845), nature and music are combined in David's inspired

"And I first played the tune all our sheep know," etc.]

[Note 10: _The sermon in stones_. See the beginning of the second act
of _As You Like It_, where the exiled Duke says,

  "And this our life exempt from public haunt
  Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
  Sermons in stones and good in everything."

It is not at all certain that Shakspere used the word "sermons" here
in the modern sense; he very likely meant merely discourses,

[Note 11: _Wuthering Heights_. The well-known novel (1847) by Emily
Bronte (1818-1848) sister of the more famous Charlotte Bronte. The
"little summer scene" Stevenson mentions, is in Chapter XXIV.]

[Note 12: _A solitary, spectacled stone-breaker_. To the pedestrian or
cyclist, no difference between Europe and America is more striking
than the comparative excellence of the country roads. The roads in
Europe, even in lonely and remote districts, where one may travel for
hours without seeing a house, are usually in perfect condition, hard,
white and absolutely smooth. The slightest defect or abrasion is
immediately repaired by one of these stone-breakers Stevenson
mentions, a solitary individual, his eyes concealed behind large green
goggles, to protect them from the glare and the flying bits of stone.]

[Note 13: _Ashamed and cold_. An excellent example of what Ruskin
called "the pathetic fallacy."]

[Note 14: _The foliage is coloured like foliage in a gale_. Cf.
Tennyson, _In Memoriam_, LXXII:--

  "With blasts that blow the poplar white."]

[Note 15: _Wordsworth, in a beautiful passage_. The passage Stevenson
quotes is in Book VII of _The Prelude_, called _Residence in London_.]

[Note 16: _Cologne Cathedral, the great unfinished marvel by the
Rhine_. This great cathedral, generally regarded as the most perfect
Gothic church in the world, was begun in 1248, and was not completed
until 1880, seven years after Stevenson wrote this essay.]

[Note 17: _In a golden zone like Apollo's._ The Greek God Apollo,
later identified with Helios, the Sun-god. The twin towers of Cologne
Cathedral are over 500 feet high, so that the experience described
here is quite possible.]

[Note 18: _The two hall-fires at night_. In mediaeval castles, the
hall was the general living-room, used regularly for meals, for
assemblies, and for all social requirements. The modern word
"dining-hall" preserves the old significance of the word. The familiar
expression, "bower and hall," is simply, in plain prose, bedroom and

[Note 19: _Association is turned against itself_. It is seldom that
Stevenson uses an expression that is not instantly transparently
clear. Exactly what does he mean by this phrase?]

[Note 20: "_As from an enemy_." Alluding to the passage Stevenson has
quoted above, from Wordsworth's _Prelude_.]

[Note 21: _Our noisy years did indeed seem moments_. A favorite
reflection of Stevenson's, occurring in nearly all his serious

[Note 22: _Shelley speaks of the sea as "hungering for calm."_ This
passage occurs in the poem _Prometheus Unbound_, Act III, end of Scene

  "Behold the Nereids under the green sea--
  Their wavering limbs borne on the wind like stream,
  Their white arms lifted o'er their streaming hair,
  With garlands pied and starry sea-flower crowns,--
  Hastening to grace their mighty Sister's joy.
  It is the unpastured sea hungering for calm."]

[Note 23: _Whin-pods._ "Whin" is from the Welsh _çwyn_, meaning
"weed." Whin is gorse or furze, and the sound Stevenson alludes to is
frequently heard in Scotland.]

[Note 24: "_Mon coeur est un luth suspendu_." These beautiful words
are from the poet Béranger (1780-1857). It is probable that Stevenson
found them first not in the original, but in reading the tales of Poe,
for the "two lines of French verse" that "haunted" Stevenson are
quoted by Poe at the beginning of one of his most famous pieces, _The
Fall of the House of Usher_, where, however, the third, and not the
first person is used:--

  "_Son_ coeur est un luth suspendu;
  Sitôt qu'on le touche il résonne."]

[Note 25: "_Out of the strong came forth sweetness_." Alluding to the
riddle propounded by Samson. See the book of _Judges_, Chapter XIV.]



BOSWELL: "We grow weary when idle."

JOHNSON: "That is, sir, because others being busy, we want company;
but if we were idle, there would be no growing weary; we should all
entertain one another."[1]

Just now, when every one is bound, under pain of a decree in absence
convicting them of _lèse_-respectability,[2] to enter on some
lucrative profession, and labour therein with something not far short
of enthusiasm, a cry from the opposite party who are content when they
have enough, and like to look on and enjoy in the meanwhile, savours a
little of bravado and gasconade.[3] And yet this should not be.
Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in
doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formularies of the
ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry
itself. It is admitted that the presence of people who refuse to enter
in the great handicap race for sixpenny pieces, is at once an insult
and a disenchantment for those who do. A fine fellow (as we see so
many) takes his determination, votes for the sixpences, and in the
emphatic Americanism, "goes for" them.[4] And while such an one is
ploughing distressfully up the road, it is not hard to understand his
resentment, when he perceives cool persons in the meadows by the
wayside, lying with a handkerchief over their ears and a glass at
their elbow. Alexander is touched in a very delicate place by the
disregard of Diogenes.[5] Where was the glory of having taken Rome[6]
for these tumultuous barbarians, who poured into the Senate house, and
found the Fathers sitting silent and unmoved by their success? It is a
sore thing to have laboured along and scaled the arduous hilltops, and
when all is done, find humanity indifferent to your achievement. Hence
physicists condemn the unphysical; financiers have only a superficial
toleration for those who know little of stocks; literary persons
despise the unlettered; and people of all pursuits combine to
disparage those who have none.

But though this is one difficulty of the subject, it is not the
greatest. You could not be put in prison for speaking against
industry, but you can be sent to Coventry[7] for speaking like a fool.
The greatest difficulty with most subjects is to do them well;
therefore, please to remember this is an apology. It is certain that
much may be judiciously argued in favour of diligence; only there is
something to be said against it, and that is what, on the present
occasion, I have to say. To state one argument is not necessarily to
be deaf to all others, and that a man has written a book of travels in
Montenegro, is no reason why he should never have been to Richmond.[8]

It is surely beyond a doubt that people should be a good deal idle in
youth. For though here and there a Lord Macaulay may escape from
school honours[9] with all his wits about him, most boys pay so dear
for their medals that they never afterwards have a shot in their
locker, "and begin the world bankrupt." And the same holds true during
all the time a lad is educating himself, or suffering others to
educate him. It must have been a very foolish old gentleman who
addressed Johnson at Oxford in these words: "Young man, ply your book
diligently now, and acquire a stock of knowledge; for when years come
upon you, you will find that poring upon books will be but an irksome
task." The old gentleman seems to have been unaware that many other
things besides reading grow irksome, and not a few become impossible,
by the time a man has to use spectacles and cannot walk without a
stick. Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty
bloodless substitute for life. It seems a pity to sit, like the Lady
of Shalott,[10] peering into a mirror, with your back turned on all
the bustle and glamour of reality. And if a man reads very hard, as
the old anecdote reminds us, he will have little time for thoughts.

If you look back on your own education, I am sure it will not be the
full, vivid, instructive hours of truantry that you regret; you would
rather cancel some lack-lustre periods between sleep and waking[11] in
the class. For my own part, I have attended a good many lectures in my
time. I still remember that the spinning of a top is a case of Kinetic
Stability. I still remember that Emphyteusis is not a disease, nor
Stillicide[12] a crime. But though I would not willingly part with
such scraps of science, I do not set the same store by them as by
certain other odds and ends that I came by in the open street while I
was playing truant. This is not the moment to dilate on that mighty
place of education, which was the favourite school of Dickens and of
Balzac,[13] and turns out yearly many inglorious masters in the
Science of the Aspects of Life. Suffice it to say this: if a lad does
not learn in the streets, it is because he has no faculty of learning.
Nor is the truant always in the streets, for if he prefers, he may go
out by the gardened suburbs into the country. He may pitch on some
tuft of lilacs over a burn, and smoke innumerable pipes to the tune of
the water on the stones. A bird will sing in the thicket. And there he
may fall into a vein of kindly thought, and see things in a new
perspective. Why, if this be not education, what is? We may conceive
Mr. Worldly Wiseman[14] accosting such an one, and the conversation
that should thereupon ensue:--

"How, now, young fellow, what dost thou here?"

"Truly, sir, I take mine ease."

"Is not this the hour of the class? and should'st thou not be plying
thy Book with diligence, to the end thou mayest obtain knowledge?"

"Nay, but thus also I follow after Learning, by your leave."

"Learning, quotha! After what fashion, I pray thee? Is it

"No, to be sure."

"Is it metaphysics?"

"Nor that."

"Is it some language?"

"Nay, it is no language."

"Is it a trade?"

"Nor a trade neither."

"Why, then, what is't?"

"Indeed, sir, as a time may soon come for me to go upon Pilgrimage, I
am desirous to note what is commonly done by persons in my case, and
where are the ugliest Sloughs and Thickets on the Road; as also, what
manner of Staff is of the best service. Moreover, I lie here, by this
water, to learn by root-of-heart a lesson which my master teaches me
to call Peace, or Contentment."

Hereupon, Mr. Worldly Wiseman was much commoved with passion, and
shaking his cane with a very threatful countenance, broke forth upon
this wise: "Learning, quotha!" said he; "I would have all such rogues
scourged by the Hangman!"

And so he would go his way, ruffling out his cravat with a crackle of
starch, like a turkey when it spread its feathers.

Now this, of Mr. Wiseman, is the common opinion. A fact is not called
a fact, but a piece of gossip, if it does not fall into one of your
scholastic categories. An inquiry must be in some acknowledged
direction, with a name to go by; or else you are not inquiring at all,
only lounging; and the workhouse is too good for you. It is supposed
that all knowledge is at the bottom of a well, or the far end of a
telescope. Sainte-Beuve,[15] as he grew older, came to regard all
experience as a single great book, in which to study for a few years
ere we go hence; and it seemed all one to him whether you should read
in Chapter xx., which is the differential calculus, or in Chapter
xxxix., which is hearing the band play in the gardens. As a matter of
fact, an intelligent person, looking out of his eyes and hearkening in
his ears, with a smile on his face all the time, will get more true
education than many another in a life of heroic vigils. There is
certainly some chill and arid knowledge to be found upon the summits
of formal and laborious science; but it is all round about you, and
for the trouble of looking, that you will acquire the warm and
palpitating facts of life. While others are filling their memory with
a lumber of words, one-half of which they will forget before the week
be out, your truant may learn some really useful art: to play the
fiddle, to know a good cigar, or to speak with ease and opportunity to
all varieties of men. Many who have "plied their book diligently," and
know all about some one branch or another of accepted lore, come out
of the study with an ancient and owl-like demeanour, and prove dry,
stockish, and dyspeptic in all the better and brighter parts of life.
Many make a large fortune, who remain underbred and pathetically
stupid to the last. And meantime there goes the idler, who began life
along with them--by your leave, a different picture. He has had time
to take care of his health and his spirits; he has been a great deal
in the open air, which is the most salutary of all things for both
body and mind; and if he has never read the great Book in very
recondite places, he has dipped into it and skimmed it over to
excellent purpose. Might not the student afford some Hebrew roots, and
the business man some of his half-crowns, for a share of the idler's
knowledge of life at large, and Art of Living? Nay, and the idler has
another and more important quality than these. I mean his wisdom. He
who has much looked on at the childish satisfaction of other people in
their hobbies, will regard his own with only a very ironical
indulgence. He will not be heard among the dogmatists. He will have a
great and cool allowance for all sorts of people and opinions. If he
finds no out-of-the-way truths, he will identify himself with no very
burning falsehood. His way took him along a by-road, not much
frequented, but very even and pleasant, which is called Commonplace
Lane, and leads to the Belvedere of Commonsense.[16] Thence he shall
command an agreeable, if no very noble prospect; and while others
behold the East and West, the Devil and the Sunrise, he will be
contentedly aware of a sort of morning hour upon all sublunary things,
with an army of shadows running speedily and in many different
directions into the great daylight of Eternity. The shadows and the
generations, the shrill doctors and the plangent wars,[17] go by into
ultimate silence and emptiness; but underneath all this, a man may
see, out of the Belvedere windows, much green and peaceful landscape;
many firelit parlours; good people laughing, drinking, and making love
as they did before the Flood or the French Revolution; and the old
shepherd[18] telling his tale under the hawthorn.

Extreme _busyness_, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a
symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a
catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity. There is a
sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious
of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation.
Bring these fellows into the country, or set them aboard ship, and you
will see how they pine for their desk or their study. They have no
curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations;
they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its
own sake; and unless Necessity lays about them with a stick, they will
even stand still. It is no good speaking to such folk: they _cannot_
be idle, their nature is not generous enough; and they pass those
hours in a sort of coma, which are not dedicated to furious moiling in
the gold-mill. When they do not require to go to the office, when they
are not hungry and have no mind to drink, the whole breathing world is
a blank to them. If they have to wait an hour or so for a train, they
fall into a stupid trance with their eyes open. To see them, you would
suppose there was nothing to look at and no one to speak with; you
would imagine they were paralysed or alienated; and yet very possibly
they are hard workers in their own way, and have good eyesight for a
flaw in a deed or a turn of the market. They have been to school and
college, but all the time they had their eye on the medal; they have
gone about in the world and mixed with clever people, but all the time
they were thinking of their own affairs. As if a man's soul were not
too small to begin with, they have dwarfed and narrowed theirs by a
life of all work and no play; until here they are at forty, with a
listless attention, a mind vacant of all material of amusement, and
not one thought to rub against another, while they wait for the train.
Before he was breeched, he might have clambered on the boxes; when he
was twenty, he would have stared at the girls; but now the pipe is
smoked out, the snuffbox empty, and my gentleman sits bolt upright
upon a bench, with lamentable eyes. This does not appeal to me as
being Success in Life.

But it is not only the person himself who suffers from his busy
habits, but his wife and children, his friends and relations, and down
to the very people he sits with in a railway carriage or an omnibus.
Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be
sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things. And it is not by
any means certain that a man's business is the most important thing he
has to do. To an impartial estimate it will seem clear that many of
the wisest, most virtuous, and most beneficent parts that are to be
played upon the Theatre of Life are filled by gratuitous performers,
and pass, among the world at large, as phases of idleness. For in that
Theatre not only the walking gentlemen, singing chambermaids, and
diligent fiddlers in the orchestra, but those who look on and clap
their hands from the benches, do really play a part and fulfil
important offices towards the general result. You are no doubt very
dependent on the care of your lawyer and stockbroker, of the guards
and signalmen who convey you rapidly from place to place, and the
policemen who walk the streets for your protection; but is there not a
thought of gratitude in your heart for certain other benefactors who
set you smiling when they fall in your way, or season your dinner with
good company? Colonel Newcome helped to lose his friend's money; Fred
Bayham had an ugly trick of borrowing shirts; and yet they were better
people to fall among than Mr. Barnes. And though Falstaff was neither
sober nor very honest, I think I could name one or two long-faced
Barabbases whom the world could better have done without. Hazlitt
mentions that he was more sensible of obligation to Northcote,[19] who
had never done him anything he could call a service, than to his whole
circle of ostentatious friends; for he thought a good companion
emphatically the greatest benefactor. I know there are people in the
world who cannot feel grateful unless the favour has been done them at
the cost of pain and difficulty. But this is a churlish disposition. A
man may send you six sheets of letter-paper covered with the most
entertaining gossip, or you may pass half an hour pleasantly, perhaps
profitably, over an article of his; do you think the service would be
greater, if he had made the manuscript in his heart's blood, like a
compact with the devil? Do you really fancy you should be more
beholden to your correspondent, if he had been damning you all the
while for your importunity? Pleasures are more beneficial than duties
because, like the quality of mercy,[20] they are not strained, and
they are twice blest. There must always be two to a kiss, and there
may be a score in a jest; but wherever there is an element of
sacrifice, the favour is conferred with pain, and, among generous
people, received with confusion. There is no duty we so much underrate
as the duty of being happy. By being happy, we sow anonymous benefits
upon the world, which remain unknown even to ourselves, or when they
are disclosed, surprise nobody so much as the benefactor. The other
day, a ragged, barefoot boy ran down the street after a marble, with
so jolly an air that he set every one he passed into a good humour;
one of these persons, who had been delivered from more than usually
black thoughts, stopped the little fellow and gave him some money with
this remark: "You see what sometimes comes of looking pleased." If he
had looked pleased before, he had now to look both pleased and
mystified. For my part, I justify this encouragement of smiling rather
than tearful children; I do not wish to pay for tears anywhere but
upon the stage; but I am prepared to deal largely in the opposite
commodity. A happy man or woman is a better thing to find than a
five-pound note. He or she is a radiating focus of good-will; and
their entrance into a room is as though another candle had been
lighted. We need not care whether they could prove the forty-seventh
proposition; they do a better thing than that, they practically
demonstrate the great Theorum of the liveableness of Life.
Consequently, if a person cannot be happy without remaining idle, idle
he should remain. It is a revolutionary precept; but thanks to hunger
and the workhouse, one not easily to be abused; and within practical
limits, it is one of the most incontestable truths in the whole Body
of Morality. Look at one of your industrious fellows for a moment, I
beseech you. He sows hurry and reaps indigestion; he puts a vast deal
of activity out to interest, and receives a large measure of nervous
derangement in return. Either he absents himself entirely from all
fellowship, and lives a recluse in a garret, with carpet slippers and
a leaden inkpot; or he comes among people swiftly and bitterly, in a
contraction of his whole nervous system, to discharge some temper
before he returns to work. I do not care how much or how well he
works, this fellow is an evil feature in other people's lives. They
would be happier if he were dead. They could easier do without his
services in the Circumlocution Office, than they can tolerate his
fractious spirits. He poisons life at the well-head. It is better to
be beggared out of hand by a scapegrace nephew, than daily hag-ridden
by a peevish uncle.

And what, in God's name, is all this pother about? For what cause do
they embitter their own and other people's lives? That a man should
publish three or thirty articles a year, that he should finish or not
finish his great allegorical picture, are questions of little interest
to the world. The ranks of life are full; and although a thousand
fall, there are always some to go into the breach. When they told Joan
of Arc[21] she should be at home minding women's work, she answered
there were plenty to spin and wash. And so, even with your own rare
gifts! When nature is "so careless of the single life,"[22] why should
we coddle ourselves into the fancy that our own is of exceptional
importance? Suppose Shakespeare had been knocked on the head some dark
night in Sir Thomas Lucy's[23] preserves, the world would have wagged
on better or worse, the pitcher gone to the well, the scythe to the
corn, and the student to his book; and no one been any the wiser of
the loss. There are not many works extant, if you look the alternative
all over, which are worth the price of a pound of tobacco to a man of
limited means. This is a sobering reflection for the proudest of our
earthly vanities. Even a tobacconist may, upon consideration, find no
great cause for personal vainglory in the phrase; for although tobacco
is an admirable sedative, the qualities necessary for retailing it are
neither rare nor precious in themselves. Alas and alas! you may take
it how you will, but the services of no single individual are
indispensable. Atlas[24] was just a gentleman with a protracted
nightmare! And yet you see merchants who go and labour themselves into
a great fortune and thence into bankruptcy court; scribblers who keep
scribbling at little articles until their temper is a cross to all who
come about them, as though Pharaoh should set the Israelites to make a
pin instead of a pyramid;[25] and fine young men who work themselves
into a decline,[26] and are driven off in a hearse with white plumes
upon it. Would you not suppose these persons had been whispered, by
the Master of the Ceremonies, the promise of some momentous destiny?
and that this lukewarm bullet on which they play their farces was the
bull's-eye and centrepoint of all the universe? And yet it is not so.
The ends for which they give away their priceless youth, for all they
know, may be chimerical or hurtful; the glory and riches they expect
may never come, or may find them indifferent; and they and the world
they inhabit are so inconsiderable that the mind freezes at the


This essay was first printed in the _Cornhill Magazine_, for July
1877, Vol. XXXVI, pp. 80-86. It was next published in the volume,
_Virginibus Puerisque_, in 1881. Although this book contains some of
the most admirable specimens of Stevenson's style, it did not have a
large sale, and it was not until 1887 that another edition Appeared.
The editor of the _Cornhill Magazine_ from 1871 to 1882 was Leslie
Stephen (1832-1904), whose kindness and encouragement to the new
writer were of the utmost importance at this critical time. That so
grave and serious a critic as Leslie Stephen should have taken such
delight in a _jeu d'esprit_ like _Idlers_, is proof, if any were
needed, for the breadth of his literary outlook. Stevenson had been at
work on this article a year before its appearance, which shows that
his _Apology for Idlers_ demanded from him anything but idling. As
Graham Balfour says, in his _Life of Stevenson_, I, 122, "Except
before his own conscience, there was hardly any time when the author
of the _Apology for Idlers_ ever really neglected the tasks of his
true vocation." In July 1876 he wrote to Mrs. Sitwell, "A paper called
'A Defence of Idlers' (which is really a defence of R.L.S.) is in a
good way." A year later, after the publication of the article, he
wrote (in August 1877) to Sidney Colvin, "Stephen has written to me
apropos of 'Idlers,' that something more in that vein would be
agreeable to his views. From Stephen I count that a devil of a lot."
It is noteworthy that this charming essay had been refused by
_Macmillan's Magazine_ before Stephen accepted it for the _Cornhill._
(_Life,_ I, 180).

[Note 1: The conversation between Boswell and Johnson, quoted at the
beginning of the essay, occurred on the 26 October 1769, at the famous
Mitre Tavern. In Stevenson's quotation, the word "all" should be
inserted after the word "were" to correspond with the original text,
and to make sense. Johnson, though constitutionally lazy, was no
defender of Idlers, and there is a sly humour in Stevenson's appealing
to him as authority. Boswell says in his _Life_, under date of 1780,
"He would allow no settled indulgence of idleness upon principle, and
always repelled every attempt to urge excuses for it. A friend one day
suggested, that it was not wholesome to study soon after dinner.
JOHNSON: 'Ah, sir, don't give way to such a fancy. At one time of my
life I had taken it into my head that it was not wholesome to study
between breakfast and dinner.'"]

[Note 2: _Lèse-respectability._ From the French verb _leser_, to hurt,
to injure. The most common employment of this verb is in the phrase
"_lèse-majesté,"_ high treason. Stevenson's mood here is like that of
Lowell, when he said regretfully, speaking of the eighteenth century,
"Responsibility for the universe had not then been invented." (_Essay
on Gray_.)]

[Note 3: _Gasconade_. Boasting. The inhabitants of Gascony
(_Gascogne)_ a province in the south-west of France, are proverbial
not only for their impetuosity and courage, but for their willingness
to brag of the possession of these qualities. Excellent examples of
the typical Gascon in literature are D'Artagnan in Dumas's _Trois
Mousquetaires_ (1844) and Cyrano in Rostand's splendid drama, _Cyrano
de Bergerac_ (1897).]

[Note 4: _In the emphatic Americanism, "goes for" them._ When
Stevenson wrote this (1876-77), he had not yet been in America. Two
years later, in 1879, when he made the journey across the plains, he
had many opportunities to record Americanisms far more emphatic than
the harmless phrase quoted here, which can hardly be called an
Americanism. Murray's _New English Dictionary_ gives excellent English
examples of this particular sense of "go for" in the years 1641, 1790,
1864, and 1882!]

[Note 5: _Alexander is touched in a very delicate place_. Alluding to
the famous interview between the young Alexander and the old Diogenes,
which took place at Corinth about 330 B.C. Alexander asked Diogenes in
what way he could be of service to him, and the philosopher replied
gruffly, "By standing out of my sunshine." As a young man Diogenes had
been given to all excesses of dissipation; but he later went to the
opposite extreme of asceticism, being one of the earliest and most
striking illustrations of "plain living and high thinking." The
debauchery of his youth and the privation and exposure of his old age
did not deeply affect his hardy constitution, for he is said to have
lived to the age of ninety. In the charming play by the Elizabethan,
John Lyly, _A moste excellente Comedie of Alexander, Campaspe, and
Diogenes_ (1584), the conversations between the man who has conquered
the world and the man who has overcome the world are highly

[Note 6: _Where was the glory of having taken Rome_. This refers to
the invasion by the Gauls about the year 389 B. C. A good account is
given in T. Arnold's _History of Rome_ I, pp. 534 et seq.]

[Note 7: _Sent to Coventry_. The origin of this proverb, which means
of course, "to ostracise," probably dates back to 1647, when,
according to Clarendon's _History of the Great Rebellion_, VI, par.
83, Royalist prisoners were sent to the parliamentary stronghold of
Coventry, in Warwickshire.]

[Note 8: _Montenegro ... Richmond_. Montenegro is one of the smallest
principalities in the world, about 3,550 square miles. It is in the
Balkan peninsula, to the east of the lower Adriatic, between
Austro-Hungary and Turkey. When Stevenson was writing this essay,
1876-77, Montenegro was the subject of much discussion, owing to the
part she took in the Russo-Turkish war. The year after this article
was published (1878) Montenegro reached the coast of the Adriatic for
the first time, and now has two tiny seaports. Tennyson celebrated the
hardy virtues of the inhabitants in his sonnet _Montenegro_, written
in 1877.

  "O smallest among peoples! rough rock-throne
  Of Freedom! warriors beating back the swarm
  Of Turkish Islam for five hundred years."

_Richmond_ is on the river Thames, close to the city of London.]

[Note 9: _Lord Macaulay may escape from school honours._ Stevenson
here alludes to the oft-heard statement that the men who succeed in
after life have generally been near the foot of their classes at
school and college. It is impossible to prove either the falsity or
truth of so general a remark, but it is easier to point out men who
have been successful both at school and in life, than to find
sufficient evidence that school and college prizes prevent further
triumphs. Macaulay, who is noted by Stevenson as an exception, was
precocious enough to arouse the fears rather than the hopes of his
friends. When he was four years old, he hurt his finger, and a lady
inquiring politely as to whether the injured member was better, the
infant replied gravely, "Thank you, Madam, the agony is abated."]

[Note 10: _The Lady of Shalott_. See Tennyson's beautiful poem (1833).

  "And moving thro' a mirror clear
  That hangs before her all the year,
  Shadows of the world appear."]

[Note 11: _Some lack-lustre periods between sleep and waking._ Cf.
_King Lear_, Act I, Sc. 2, vs. 15. "Got 'tween asleep and wake."]

[Note 12: _Kinetic Stability ... _Emphyteusis ... Stillicide_ For
Kinetic Stability, see any modern textbook on Physics. _Emphyteusis_
is the legal renting of ground; _Stillicide_, a continual dropping of
water, as from the eaves of a house. These words, _Emphyteusis_ and
_Stillicide_, are terms in Roman Law. Stevenson is of course making
fun of the required studies of Physics and Roman Law, and of their
lack of practical value to him in his chosen career.]

[Note 13: _The favourite school of Dickens and of Balzac_. The great
English novelist Dickens (1812-1870) and his greater French
contemporary Balzac (1799-1850), show in their works that their chief
school was Life.]

[Note 14: _Mr. Worldly Wiseman_. The character in Bunyan's _Pilgrim's
Progress_ (1678), who meets Christian soon after his setting out from
the City of Destruction. _Pilgrim's Progress_ was a favorite book of
Stevenson's; he alludes to it frequently in his essays. See also his
own article _Bagster's Pilgrim's Progress_, first published in the
_Magazine of Art_ in February 1882. This essay is well worth reading,
and the copies of the pictures which he includes are extremely

[Note 15: _Sainte-Beuve._ The French writer Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869)
is usually regarded today as the greatest literary critic who ever
lived. His constant change of convictions enabled him to see life from
all sides.]

[Note 16: _Belvedere of Commonsense_. Belvedere is an Italian word,
which referred originally to a place of observation on the top of a
house, from which one might enjoy an extensive prospect. A portion of
the Vatican in Rome is called the Belvedere, thus lending this name to
the famous statue of Apollo, which stands there. On the continent,
anything like a summer-house is often called a Belvedere. One of the
most interesting localities which bears this name is the Belvedere
just outside of Weimar, in Germany, where Goethe used to act in his
own dramas in the open air theatre.]

[Note 17: _The plangent wars_. Plangent is from the Latin _plango_, to
strike, to beat. Stevenson's use of the word is rather unusual in

[Note 18: _The old shepherd telling his tale_.. See Milton,

  "And every shepherd tells his tale
  Under the hawthorn in the dale."

"Tells his tale" means of course "counts his sheep," not "tells a
story." The old use of the word "tell" for "count" survives to-day in
the word "teller" in a parliamentary assemblage, or in a bank.]

[Note 19: _Colonel Newcome ... Fred Bayham ... Mr. Barnes ... Falstaff
... Barabbases ... Hazlitt ... Northcote._ Colonel Newcome, the great
character in Thackeray's _The Newcomes_ (1854). _Fred Bayham_ and
_Barnes Newcome_ are persons in the same story. One of the best essays
on Falstaff is the one printed in the first series of Mr. Augustine
Birrell's _Obiter Dicta_ (1884). This essay would have pleased
Thackeray. One of the finest epitaphs in literature is that pronounced
over the supposedly dead body of Falstaff by Prince Hal--"I could have
better spared a better man." (_King Henry IV_, Part I, Act V, Sc. 4.)
_Barabbas_ was the robber who was released at the time of the trial of
Christ.... _William Hazlitt_ (1778-1830), the well-known essayist,
published in 1830 the _Conversations_ of _James Northcote_
(1746-1831). Northcote was an artist and writer, who had been an
assistant in the studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Stevenson projected a
_Life of Hazlitt_, but later abandoned the undertaking. (_Life,_ I,

[Note 20: _The quality of mercy_. See Portia's wonderful speech in the
_Merchant of Venice_, Act IV, Scene I.]

[Note 21: _Joan of Arc_. The famous inspired French peasant girl, who
led the armies of her king to victory, and who was burned at Rouen in
1431. She was variously regarded as a harlot and a saint. In
Shakspere's historical plays, she is represented in the basest manner,
from conventional motives of English patriotism. Voltaire's scandalous
work, _La Pucelle_, and Schiller's noble _Jungfrau von Orleans_ make
an instructive contrast. She has been the subject of many dramas and
works of poetry and fiction. Her latest prominent admirer is Mark
Twain, whose historical romance _Joan of Arc_ is one of the most
carefully written, though not one of the most characteristic of his

[Note 22: "_So careless of the single life_." See Tennyson's _In
Memoriam_, LV, where the poet discusses the pessimism caused by
regarding the apparent indifference of nature to the happiness of the

  "Are God and Nature then at strife,
  That Nature lends such evil dreams?
  So careful of the type she seems,
  So careless of the single life."]

[Note 23: _Shakespeare ... Sir Thomas Lucy_. The familiar tradition
that Shakspere as a boy was a poacher on the preserves of his
aristocratic neighbor, Sir Thomas Lucy. See Halliwell-Phillipps's
_Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare_. In 1879, at the first
performance of _As You Like It_ at the Stratford Memorial Theatre, the
deer brought on the stage in Act IV, Scene 2, had been shot that very
morning by H.S. Lucy, Esq., of Charlecote Park, a descendant of the
owner of the herd traditionally attacked by the future dramatist.]

[Note 24: _Atlas_. In mythology, the leader of the Titans, who fought
the Gods, and was condemned by Zeus to carry the weight of the vault
of heaven on his head and hands. In the sixteenth century the name
Atlas was given to a collection of maps by Mercator, probably because
a picture of Atlas had been commonly placed on the title-pages of
geographical works.]

[Note 25: _Pharaoh ... Pyramid_. For _Pharaoh's_ experiences with the
Israelites, see the book of _Exodus_. Pharaoh was merely the name
given by the children of Israel to the rulers of Egypt: cf. Caesar,
Kaiser, etc. ... The Egyptian pyramids were regarded as one of the
seven wonders of ancient times, the great pyramid weighing over six
million tons. The pyramids were used for the tombs of monarchs.]

[Note 26: _Young men who work themselves into a decline._ Compare the
tone of the close of this essay with that of the conclusion of _AEs
Triplex_. Stevenson himself died in the midst of the most arduous work
possible--the making of a literary masterpiece.]



The changes wrought by death are in themselves so sharp and final, and
so terrible and melancholy in their consequences, that the thing
stands alone in man's experience, and has no parallel upon earth. It
outdoes all other accidents because it is the last of them. Sometimes
it leaps suddenly upon its victims, like a Thug;[2] sometimes it lays
a regular siege and creeps upon their citadel during a score of years.
And when the business is done, there is sore havoc made in other
people's lives, and a pin knocked out by which many subsidiary
friendships hung together. There are empty chairs, solitary walks, and
single beds at night. Again in taking away our friends, death does not
take them away utterly, but leaves behind a mocking, tragical, and
soon intolerable residue, which must be hurriedly concealed. Hence a
whole chapter of sights and customs striking to the mind, from the
pyramids of Egypt to the gibbets and dule trees[3] of mediaeval
Europe. The poorest persons have a bit of pageant going towards the
tomb; memorial stones are set up over the least memorable; and, in
order to preserve some show of respect for what remains of our old
loves and friendships, we must accompany it with much grimly ludicrous
ceremonial, and the hired undertaker parades before the door. All
this, and much more of the same sort, accompanied by the eloquence of
poets, has gone a great way to put humanity in error; nay, in many
philosophies the error has been embodied and laid down with every
circumstance of logic; although in real life the bustle and swiftness,
in leaving people little time to think, have not left them time enough
to go dangerously wrong in practice.

As a matter of fact, although few things are spoken of with more
fearful whisperings than this prospect of death, few have less
influence on conduct under healthy circumstances. We have all heard 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. There are
serenades and suppers and much gallantry among the myrtles overhead;
and meanwhile the foundation shudders underfoot, the bowels of the
mountain growl, and at any moment living ruin may leap sky-high into
the moonlight, and tumble man and his merry-making in the dust. In the
eyes of very young people, and very dull old ones, there is something
indescribably reckless and desperate in such a picture. It seems not
credible that respectable married people, with umbrellas, should find
appetite for a bit of supper within quite a long distance of a fiery
mountain; ordinary life begins to smell of high-handed debauch when it
is carried on so close to a catastrophe; and even cheese and salad, it
seems, could hardly be relished in such circumstances without
something like a defiance of the Creator. It should be a place for
nobody but hermits dwelling in prayer and maceration, or mere
born-devils drowning care in a perpetual carouse.

And yet, when one comes to think upon it calmly, the situation of
these South American citizens forms only a very pale figure for the
state of ordinary mankind. This world itself, travelling blindly and
swiftly in overcrowded space, among a million other worlds travelling
blindly and swiftly in contrary directions, may very well come by a
knock that would set it into explosion like a penny squib. And what,
pathologically looked at, is the human body with all its organs, but a
mere bagful of petards? The least of these is as dangerous to the
whole economy as the ship's powder-magazine to the ship; and with
every breath we breathe, and every meal we eat, we are putting one or
more of them in peril. If we clung as devotedly as some philosophers
pretend we do to the abstract idea of life, or were half as frightened
as they make out we are, for the subversive accident that ends it all,
the trumpets might sound[4] by the hour and no one would follow them
into battle--the blue-peter might fly at the truck,[5] but who would
climb into a sea-going ship? Think (if these philosophers were right)
with what a preparation of spirit we should affront the daily peril of
the dinner-table: a deadlier spot than any battlefield in history,
where the far greater proportion of our ancestors have miserably left
their bones! What woman would ever be lured into marriage, so much
more dangerous than the wildest sea? And what would it be to grow old?
For, after a certain distance, every step we take in life we find the
ice growing thinner below our feet, and all around us and behind us we
see our contemporaries going through. By the time a man gets well into
the seventies, his continued existence is a mere miracle; and when he
lays his old bones in bed for the night, there is an overwhelming
probability that he will never see the day. Do the old men mind it, as
a matter of fact? Why, no. They were never merrier; they have their
grog at night, and tell the raciest stories; they hear of the death of
people about their own age, or even younger, not as if it was a grisly
warning, but with a simple childlike pleasure at having outlived
someone else; and when a draught might puff them out like a fluttering
candle, or a bit of a stumble shatter them like so much glass, their
old hearts keep sound and unaffrighted, and they go on, bubbling with
laughter, through years of man's age compared to which the valley at
Balaclava[6] was as safe and peaceful as a village cricket-green on
Sunday. It may fairly be questioned (if we look to the peril only)
whether it was a much more daring feat for Curtius[7] to plunge into
the gulf, than for any old gentleman of ninety to doff his clothes and
clamber into bed.

Indeed, it is a memorable subject for consideration, with what
unconcern and gaiety mankind pricks on along the Valley of the Shadow
of Death. The whole way is one wilderness of snares, and the end of
it, for those who fear the last pinch, is irrevocable ruin. And yet we
go spinning through it all, like a party for the Derby.[8] Perhaps the
reader remembers one of the humorous devices of the deified
Caligula:[9] how he encouraged a vast concourse of holiday-makers on
to his bridge over Baiae[10] bay; and when they were in the height of
their enjoyment, turned loose the Praetorian guards[11] among the
company, and had them tossed into the sea. This is no bad miniature of
the dealings of nature with the transitory race of man. Only, what a
chequered picnic we have of it, even while it lasts! and into what
great waters, not to be crossed by any swimmer, God's pale Praetorian
throws us over in the end!

We live the time that a match flickers; we pop the cork of a
ginger-beer bottle, and the earthquake swallows us on the instant. Is
it not odd, is it not incongruous, is it not, in the highest sense of
human speech, incredible, that we should think so highly of the
ginger-beer, and regard so little the devouring earthquake? The love
of Life and the fear of Death are two famous phrases that grow harder
to understand the more we think about them. It is a well-known fact
that an immense proportion of boat accidents would never happen if
people held the sheet in their hands instead of making it fast; and
yet, unless it be some martinet of a professional mariner or some
landsman with shattered nerves, every one of God's creatures makes it
fast. A strange instance of man's unconcern and brazen boldness in the
face of death!

We confound ourselves with metaphysical phrases, which we import into
daily talk with noble inappropriateness. We have no idea of what death
is, apart from its circumstances and some of its consequences to
others; and although we have some experience of living, there is not a
man on earth who has flown so high into abstraction as to have any
practical guess at the meaning of the Word _life_. All literature,
from Job and Omar Khayyam to Thomas Carlyle or Walt Whitman,[12] is
but an attempt to look upon the human state with such largeness of
view as shall enable us to rise from the consideration of living to
the Definition of Life. And our sages give us about the best
satisfaction in their power when they say that it is a vapour, or a
show, or made out of the same stuff with dreams.[13] Philosophy, in
its more rigid sense, has been at the same work for ages; and after a
myriad bald heads have wagged over the problem, and piles of words
have been heaped one upon another into dry and cloudy volumes without
end, philosophy has the honour of laying before us, with modest pride,
her contribution towards the subject: that life is a Permanent
Possibility of Sensation.[14] Truly a fine result! A man may very well
love beef, or hunting, or a woman; but surely, surely, not a Permanent
Possibility of Sensation. He may be afraid of a precipice, or a
dentist, or a large enemy with a club, or even an undertaker's man;
but not certainly of abstract death. We may trick with the word life
in its dozen senses until we are weary of tricking; we may argue in
terms of all the philosophies on earth, but one fact remains true
throughout--that we do not love life, in the sense that we are greatly
preoccupied about its conservation; that we do not, properly speaking,
love life at all, but living. Into the views of the least careful
there will enter some degree of providence; no man's eyes are fixed
entirely on the passing hour; but although we have some anticipation
of good health, good weather, wine, active employment, love, and
self-approval, the sum of these anticipations does not amount to
anything like a general view of life's possibilities and issues; nor
are those who cherish them most vividly, at all the most scrupulous of
their personal safety. To be deeply interested in the accidents of our
existence, to enjoy keenly the mixed texture of human experience,
rather leads a man to disregard precautions, and risk his neck against
a straw. For surely the love of living is stronger in an Alpine
climber roping over a peril, or a hunter riding merrily at a stiff
fence, than in a creature who lives upon a diet and walks a measured
distance in the interest of his constitution.

There is a great deal of very vile nonsense talked upon both sides of
the matter: tearing divines reducing life to the dimensions of a mere
funeral procession, so short as to be hardly decent; and melancholy
unbelievers yearning for the tomb as if it were a world too far away.
Both sides must feel a little ashamed of their performances now and
again when they draw in their chairs to dinner. Indeed, a good meal
and a bottle of wine is an answer to most standard works upon the
question. When a man's heart warms to his viands, he forgets a great
deal of sophistry, and soars into a rosy zone of contemplation. Death
may be knocking at the door, like the Commander's statue;[15] we have
something else in hand, thank God, and let him knock. Passing bells
are ringing all the world over. All the world over, and every
hour,[16] someone is parting company with all his aches and ecstasies.
For us also the trap is laid. But we are so fond of life that we have
no leisure to entertain the terror of death. It is a honeymoon with us
all through, and none of the longest. Small blame to us if we give our
whole hearts to this glowing bride of ours, to the appetites, to
honour, to the hungry curiosity of the mind, to the pleasure of the
eyes in nature, and the pride of our own nimble bodies.

We all of us appreciate the sensations; but as for caring about the
Permanence of the Possibility, a man's head is generally very bald,
and his senses very dull, before he comes to that. Whether we regard
life as a lane leading to a dead wall--a mere bag's end,[17] as the
French say--or whether we think of it as a vestibule or gymnasium,
where we wait our turn and prepare our faculties for some more noble
destiny; whether we thunder in a pulpit, or pule in little atheistic
poetry-books, about its vanity and brevity; whether we look justly for
years of health and vigour, or are about to mount into a Bath-chair,
as a step towards the hearse; in each and all of these views and
situations there is but one conclusion possible: that a man should
stop his ears against paralysing terror, and run the race that is set
before him with a single mind. No one surely could have recoiled with
more heartache and terror from the thought of death than our respected
lexicographer; and yet we know how little it affected his conduct, how
wisely and boldly he walked, and in what a fresh and lively vein he
spoke of life. Already an old man, he ventured on his Highland tour;
and his heart, bound with triple brass, did not recoil before
twenty-seven individual cups of tea.[18] As courage and intelligence
are the two qualities best worth a good man's cultivation, so it is
the first part of intelligence to recognise our precarious estate in
life, and the first part of courage to be not at all abashed before
the fact. A frank and somewhat headlong carriage, not looking too
anxiously before, not dallying in maudlin regret over the past, stamps
the man who is well armoured for this world.

And not only well armoured for himself, but a good friend and a good
citizen to boot. We do not go to cowards for tender dealing; there is
nothing so cruel as panic; the man who has least fear for his own
carcass, has most time to consider others. That eminent chemist who
took his walks abroad in tin shoes, and subsisted wholly upon tepid
milk, had all his work cut out for him in considerate dealings with
his own digestion. So soon as prudence has begun to grow up in the
brain, like a dismal fungus, it finds its first expression in a
paralysis of generous acts. The victim begins to shrink spiritually;
he develops a fancy for parlours with a regulated temperature, and
takes his morality on the principle of tin shoes and tepid milk. The
care of one important body or soul becomes so engrossing, that all the
noises of the outer world begin to come thin and faint into the
parlour with the regulated temperature; and the tin shoes go equably
forward over blood and rain. To be overwise is to ossify; and the
scruple-monger ends by standing stockstill. Now the man who has his
heart on his sleeve, and a good whirling weathercock of a brain, who
reckons his life as a thing to be dashingly used and cheerfully
hazarded, makes a very different acquaintance of the world, keeps all
his pulses going true and fast, and gathers impetus as he runs, until,
if he be running towards anything better than wildfire, he may shoot
up and become a constellation in the end. Lord look after his health,
Lord have a care of his soul, says he; and he has at the key of the
position, and swashes through incongruity and peril towards his aim.
Death is on all sides of him with pointed batteries, as he is on all
sides of all of us; unfortunate surprises gird him round; mim-mouthed
friends[19] and relations hold up their hands in quite a little
elegiacal synod about his path: and what cares he for all this? Being
a true lover of living, a fellow with something pushing and
spontaneous in his inside, he must, like any other soldier, in any
other stirring, deadly warfare, push on at his best pace until he
touch the goal. "A peerage or Westminster Abbey!"[20] cried Nelson in
his bright, boyish, heroic manner. These are great incentives; not for
any of these, but for the plain satisfaction of living, of being about
their business in some sort or other, do the brave, serviceable men of
every nation tread down the nettle danger,[21] and pass flyingly over
all the stumbling-blocks of prudence. Think of the heroism of Johnson,
think of that superb indifference to mortal limitation that set him
upon his dictionary, and carried him through triumphantly until the
end! Who, if he were wisely considerate of things at large, would ever
embark upon any work much more considerable than a halfpenny post
card? Who would project a serial novel, after Thackeray and Dickens
had each fallen in mid-course?[22] Who would find heart enough to
begin to live, if he dallied with the consideration of death?

And, after all, what sorry and pitiful quibbling all this is! To
forego all the issues of living in a parlour with a regulated
temperature--as if that were not to die a hundred times over, and for
ten years at a stretch! As if it were not to die in one's own
lifetime, and without even the sad immunities of death! As if it were
not to die, and yet be the patient spectators of our own pitiable
change! The Permanent Possibility is preserved, but the sensations
carefully held at arm's length, as if one kept a photographic plate in
a dark chamber. It is better to lose health like a spendthrift than to
waste it like a miser. It is better to live and be done with it, than
to die daily in the sickroom. By all means begin your folio; even if
the doctor does not give you a year, even if he hesitates about a
month, make one brave push and see what can be accomplished in a week.
It is not only in finished undertakings that we ought to honour useful
labour. A spirit goes out of the man who means execution, which
outlives the most untimely ending. All who have meant good work with
their whole hearts, have done good work,[23] although they may die
before they have the time to sign it. Every heart that has beat strong
and cheerfully has left a hopeful impulse behind it in the world, and
bettered the tradition of mankind. And even if death catch people,
like an open pitfall, and in mid-career, laying out vast projects, and
planning monstrous foundations, flushed with hope, and their mouths
full of boastful language, they should be at once tripped up and
silenced: is there not something brave and spirited in such a
termination? and does not life go down with a better grace, foaming in
full body over a precipice, than miserably straggling to an end in
sandy deltas? When the Greeks made their fine saying that those whom
the gods love die young,[24] I cannot help believing 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
tip-toe 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,[25] this happy-starred, full-blooded spirit shoots into the
spiritual land.


This essay, which is commonly (and justly) regarded as Stevenson's
masterpiece of literary composition, was first printed in the
_Cornhill Magazine_ for April 1878, Vol. XXXVII, pp. 432-437. In 1881
it was published in the volume _Virginibus Puerisque_. For the success
of this volume, as well as for its author's relations with the editor
of the _Cornhill_, see our note to _An Apology for Idlers_. It was
this article which was selected for reprinting in separate form by the
American Committee of the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Fund; to
every subscriber of ten dollars or more, was given a copy of this
essay, exquisitely printed at the De Vinne Press, 1898. Copies of this
edition are now eagerly sought by book-collectors; five of them were
taken by the Robert Louis Stevenson Club of Yale College, consisting
of a few undergraduates of the class of 1898, who subscribed fifty
dollars to the fund.

Stevenson's cheerful optimism was constantly shadowed by the thought
of Death, and in _Aes Triplex_ he gives free rein to his fancies on
this universal theme.

[Note 1: The title, _AEs Triplex_, is taken from Horace, _aes triplex
circa pectus_, "breast enclosed by triple brass," "aes" used by Horace
as a "symbol of indomitable courage."--Lewis's Latin Dictionary.]

[Note 2: _Thug_. This word, which sounds to-day so slangy, really
comes from the Hindoos (Hindustani _thaaa_, deceive). It is the name
of a religious order in India, ostensibly devoted to the worship of a
goddess, but really given to murder for the sake of booty. The
Englishmen in India called them _Thugs_, hence the name in its modern
general sense.]

[Note 3: _Pyramids ... dule trees_. For pyramids, see our note 25 of
chapter II above... _Dule trees_. More properly spelled "dool." A dool
was a stake or post used to mark boundaries.]

[Note 4: _The trumpets might sound_. "For if the trumpet give an
uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" I _Cor_.
XIV, 8.]

[Note 5: _The blue-peter might-fly at the truck_. The blue-peter is a
term used in the British navy and widely elsewhere; it is a blue flag
with a white square employed often as a signal for sailing. The word
is corrupted from _Blue Repeater_, a signal flag. _Truck_ is a very
small platform at the top of a mast.]

[Note 6: _Balaclava_. A little port near Sebastopol, in the Crimea.
During the Crimean War, on the 25 October 1854, occurred the cavalry
charge of some six hundred Englishmen, celebrated by Tennyson's
universally known poem, _The Charge of the Light Brigade_. It has
recently been asserted that the number reported as actually killed in
this headlong charge referred to the horses, not to the men.]

[Note 7: _Curtius_. Referring to the story of the Roman youth, Metius
Curtius, who in 362 B.C. leaped into a chasm in the Forum, in order to
save his country. The chasm immediately closed over him, and Rome was
saved. Although the truth of the story has naturally failed to survive
the investigations of historical critics, its moral inspiration has
been effective in many historical instances.]

[Note 8: _Party for the Derby_. Derby Day, which is the occasion of
the most famous annual running race for horses in the world, takes
place in the south of England during the week preceding Whitsunday.
The race was founded by the Earl of Derby in 1780. It is now one of
the greatest holidays in England, and the whole city of London turns
out for the event. It is a great spectacle to see the crowd going from
London and returning. The most faithful description of the event, the
crowds, and the interest excited, may be found in George Moore's
novel, _Esther Waters_ (1894).]

[Note 9: _The deified Caligula_. Caius Caligula was Roman Emperor from
37 to 41 A. D. He was brought up among the soldiers, who gave him the
name Caligula, because he wore the soldier's leather shoe, or
half-boot, (Latin _caliga_). Caligula was deified, but that did not
prevent him from becoming a madman, which seems to be the best way to
account for his wanton cruelty and extraordinary caprices.]

[Note 10: _Baiae_ was a small town on the Campanian Coast, ten miles
from Naples. It was a favorite summer resort of the Roman

[Note 11: The _Praetorian Guard_ was the body-guard of the Roman
emperors. The incident Stevenson speaks of may be found in Tacitus.]

[Note 12: _Job_ ... _Walt Whitman_. The book of _Job_ is usually
regarded as the most poetical work in the Bible, even exceeding
_Psalms_ and _Isaiah_ in its splendid imaginative language and
extraordinary figures of speech. For a literary study of it, the
student is recommended to Professor Moulton's edition. Omar Khayyam
was a Persian poet of mediaeval times, who became known to English
readers through the beautiful paraphrase of some of his stanzas by
Edward Fitzgerald, in 1859. If any one will take the trouble to
compare a literal prose rendering of Omar (as in N.H. Dole's variorum
edition) with the version by Fitzgerald, he will speedily see that the
power and beauty of the poem is due far more to the skill of "Old
Fitz" than to the original. Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was perhaps the
foremost writer of English prose in the nineteenth century. Although a
consummate literary artist, he was even more influential as a moral
tonic. His philosophy and that of Omar represent as wide a contrast as
could easily be found. Walt Whitman, the strange American poet
(1819-1892), whose famous _Leaves_ _of Grass_ (1855) excited an uproar
in America, and gave the author a much more serious reputation in
Europe. Stevenson's interest in him was genuine, but not partisan, and
his essay, _The Gospel According to Walt Whitman (The New Quarterly
Magazine_, Oct. 1878), is perhaps the most judicious appreciation in
the English language of this singular poet. Job, Omar Khayyam, Carlyle
and Whitman, taken together, certainly give a curious collection of
what the Germans call _Weltanschauungen_.]

[Note 13: _A vapour, or a show, or made out of the same stuff with
dreams_. For constant comparisons of life with a vapour or a show, see
Quarles's _Emblems_ (1635), though these conventional figures may be
found thousands of times in general literature. The latter part of the
sentence refers to the _Tempest_, Act IV, Scene I.

              "We are such stuff
  As dreams are made on, and our little life
  Is rounded with a sleep."]

[Note 14: _Permanent Possibility of Sensation_. "Matter then, may be
defined, a Permanent Possibility of Sensation."--John Stuart Mill,
_Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy_, Vol. I. Chap. XI.]

[Note 15: _Like the Commander's Statue_. In the familiar story of Don
Juan, where the audacious rake accepts the Commander's invitation to
supper. For treatments of this theme, see Molière's play _Don Juan_,
or Mozart's opera _Don Giovanni_; see also Bernard Shaw's paradoxical
play, _Man and Superman_.... _We have something else in hand, thank
God, and let him knock_. It is possible that Stevenson's words here
are an unconscious reminiscence of Colley Cibber's letter to the
novelist Richardson. This unabashed old profligate celebrated the
Christmas Day of his eightieth year by writing to the apostle of
domestic virtue in the following strain: "Though Death has been
cooling his heels at my door these three weeks, I have not had time to
see him. The daily conversation of my friends has kept me so agreeably
alive, that I have not passed my time better a great while. If you
have a mind to make one of us, I will order Death to come another

[Note 16: _All the world over, and every hour_. He might truthfully
have said, "every second."]

[Note 17: _A mere bag's end, as the French say. A cul de sac._]

[Note 18: _Our respected lexicographer ... Highland tour ... triple
brass ... twenty-seven individual cups of tea._ Dr. Samuel Johnson's
Dictionary appeared in 1755. For his horror of death, his fondness for
tea, and his Highland tour with Boswell, see the latter's _Life of
Johnson_; consult the late Dr. Hill's admirable index in his edition
of the _Life_.]

[Note 19: _Mim-mouthed friends_. See J. Wright's _English Dialect
Dictionary_. "Mim-mouthed" means "affectedly prim or proper in

[Note 20: "_A peerage or Westminster Abbey!_" Horatio Nelson
(1758-1805), the most famous admiral in England's naval history, who
won the great battle of Trafalgar and lost his life in the moment of
victory. Nelson was as ambitious as he was brave, and his cry that
Stevenson quotes was characteristic.]

[Note 21: _Tread down the nettle danger_. Hotspur's words in _King
Henry IV_, Part I, Act II, Sc. 3. "Out of this nettle, danger, we
pluck this flower, safety."]

[Note 22: _After Thackeray and Dickens had each fallen in mid-course?_
Thackeray and Dickens, dying in 1863 and in 1870 respectively, left
unfinished _Denis Duval_ and _The Mystery of Edwin Drood_. Stevenson
himself left unfinished what would in all probability have been his
unquestioned masterpiece, _Weir of Hermiston_.]

[Note 23: _All who have meant good work with their whole hearts, have
done good work_. See Browning's inspiring poem, _Rabbi Ben Ezra_,

    "Not on the vulgar mass
    Called "work," must sentence pass,
  Things done, which took the eye and had the price;
    O'er which, from level stand,
    The low world laid its hand,
  Found straightway to its mind, could value in a trice:

    But all, the world's coarse thumb
    And finger failed to plumb,
  So passed in making up the main account;
    All instincts immature,
    All purposes unsure,
  That weighed not as his work, yet swelled the man's amount:

    Thoughts hardly to be packed
    Into a narrow act,
  Fancies that broke through language and escaped;
    All I could never be,
    All, men ignored in me,
  This, I was worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped."]

[Note 24: _Whom the Gods love die young._ "Quem di diligunt adolescens
moritur."--Plautus, _Bacchides_, Act IV, Sc. 7.]

[Note 25: _Trailing with him clouds of glory._ This passage, from
Wordsworth's _Ode on the Intimations of Immortality_ (1807), was a
favorite one with Stevenson, and he quotes it several times in various




"Sir, we had a good talk."[1]--JOHNSON.

"As we must account[2] for every idle word, so we must for every idle

There can be no fairer ambition than to excel in talk; to be affable,
gay, ready, clear and welcome; to have a fact, a thought, or an
illustration, pat to every subject; and not only to cheer the flight
of time among our intimates, but bear our part in that great
international congress, always sitting, where public wrongs are first
declared, public errors first corrected, and the course of public
opinion shaped, day by day, a little nearer to the right. No measure
comes before Parliament but it has been long ago prepared by the grand
jury of the talkers; no book is written that has not been largely
composed by their assistance. Literature in many of its branches is no
other than the shadow of good talk; but the imitation falls far short
of the original in life, freedom and effect. There are always two to a
talk, giving and taking, comparing experience and according
conclusions. Talk is fluid, tentative, continually "in further search
and progress;" while written words remain fixed, become idols even to
the writer, found wooden dogmatisms, and preserve flies of obvious
error in the amber[3] of the truth. Last and chief, while literature,
gagged with linsey-woolsey, can only deal with a fraction of the life
of man, talk goes fancy free[4] and may call a spade a spade.[5] It
cannot, even if it would, become merely aesthetic or merely classical
like literature. A jest intervenes, the solemn humbug is dissolved in
laughter, and speech runs forth out of the contemporary groove into
the open fields of nature, cheery and cheering, like schoolboys out of
school. And it is in talk alone that we can learn our period and
ourselves. In short, the first duty of a man is to speak; that is his
chief business in this world; and talk, which is the harmonious speech
of two or more, is by far the most accessible of pleasures. It costs
nothing in money; it is all profit; it completes our education, founds
and fosters our friendships, and can be enjoyed at any age and in
almost any state of health.

The spice of life is battle; the friendliest relations are still a
kind of contest; and if we would not forego all that is valuable in
our lot, we must continually face some other person, eye to eye, and
wrestle a fall whether in love or enmity. It is still by force of
body, or power of character or intellect; that we attain to worthy
pleasures. Men and women contend for each other in the lists of love,
like rival mesmerists; the active and adroit decide their challenges
in the sports of the body; and the sedentary sit down to chess or
conversation. All sluggish and pacific pleasures are, to the same
degree, solitary and selfish; and every durable bond between human
beings is founded in or heightened by some element of competition.
Now, the relation that has the least root in matter is undoubtedly
that airy one of friendship; and hence, I suppose, it is that good
talk most commonly arises among friends. Talk is, indeed, both the
scene and instrument of friendship. It is in talk alone that the
friends can measure strength, and enjoy that amicable
counter-assertion of personality which is the gauge of relations and
the sport of life.

A good talk is not to be had for the asking. Humours must first be
accorded in a kind of overture or prologue; hour, company and
circumstance be suited; and then, at a fit juncture, the subject, the
quarry of two heated minds, spring up like a deer out of the wood. Not
that the talker has any of the hunter's pride, though he has all and
more than all his ardour. The genuine artist follows the stream of
conversation as an angler follows the windings of a brook, not
dallying where he fails to "kill." He trusts implicitly to hazard; and
he is rewarded by continual variety, continual pleasure, and those
changing prospects of the truth that are the best of education. There
is nothing in a subject, so called, that we should regard it as an
idol, or follow it beyond the promptings of desire. Indeed, there are
few subjects; and so far as they are truly talkable, more than the
half of them may be reduced to three: that I am I, that you are you,
and that there are other people dimly understood to be not quite the
same as either. Wherever talk may range, it still runs half the time
on these eternal lines. The theme being set, each plays on himself as
on an instrument; asserts and justifies himself; ransacks his brain
for instances and opinions, and brings them forth new-minted, to his
own surprise and the admiration of his adversary. All natural talk is
a festival of ostentation; and by the laws of the game each accepts
and fans the vanity of the other. It is from that reason that we
venture to lay ourselves so open, that we dare to be so warmly
eloquent, and that we swell in each other's eyes to such a vast
proportion. For talkers, once launched, begin to overflow the limits
of their ordinary selves, tower up to the height of their secret
pretensions, and give themselves out for the heroes, brave, pious,
musical and wise, that in their most shining moments they aspire to
be. So they weave for themselves with words and for a while inhabit a
palace of delights, temple at once and theatre, where they fill the
round of the world's dignities, and feast with the gods, exulting in
Kudos. And when the talk is over, each goes his way, still flushed
with vanity and admiration, still trailing clouds of glory;[6] each
declines from the height of his ideal orgie, not in a moment, but by
slow declension. I remember, in the _entr'acte_ of an afternoon
performance, coming forth into the sunshine, in a beautiful green,
gardened corner of a romantic city; and as I sat and smoked, the music
moving in my blood, I seemed to sit there and evaporate _The Flying
Dutchman_[7] (for it was that I had been hearing) with a wonderful
sense of life, warmth, well-being and pride; and the noises of the
city, voices, bells and marching feet, fell together in my ears like a
symphonious orchestra. In the same way, the excitement of a good talk
lives for a long while after in the blood, the heart still hot within
you, the brain still simmering, and the physical earth swimming around
you with the colours of the sunset.

Natural talk, like ploughing, should turn up a large surface of life,
rather than dig mines into geological strata. Masses of experience,
anecdote, incident, cross-lights, quotation, historical instances, the
whole flotsam and jetsam of two minds forced in and in upon the matter
in hand from every point of the compass, and from every degree of
mental elevation and abasement--these are the material with which talk
is fortified, the food on which the talkers thrive. Such argument as
is proper to the exercise should still be brief and seizing. Talk
should proceed by instances; by the apposite, not the expository. It
should keep close along the lines of humanity, near the bosoms and
businesses of men, at the level where history, fiction and experience
intersect and illuminate each other. I am I, and You are You, with all
my heart; but conceive how these lean propositions change and brighten
when, instead of words, the actual you and I sit cheek by jowl, the
spirit housed in the live body, and the very clothes uttering voices
to corroborate the story in the face. Not less surprising is the
change when we leave off to speak of generalities--the bad, the good,
the miser, and all the characters of Theophrastus[8]--and call up
other men, by anecdote or instance, in their very trick and feature;
or trading on a common knowledge, toss each other famous names, still
glowing with the hues of life. Communication is no longer by words,
but by the instancing of whole biographies, epics, systems of
philosophy, and epochs of history, in bulk. That which is understood
excels that which is spoken in quantity and quality alike; ideas thus
figured and personified, change hands, as we may say, like coin; and
the speakers imply without effort the most obscure and intricate
thoughts. Strangers who have a large common ground of reading will,
for this reason, come the sooner to the grapple of genuine converse.
If they know Othello and Napoleon, Consuelo and Clarissa Harlowe,
Vautrin and Steenie Steenson,[9] they can leave generalities and begin
at once to speak by figures.

Conduct and art are the two subjects that arise most frequently and
that embrace the widest range of facts. A few pleasures bear
discussion for their own sake, but only those which are most social or
most radically human; and even these can only be discussed among their
devotees. A technicality is always welcome to the expert, whether in
athletics, art or law; I have heard the best kind of talk on
technicalities from such rare and happy persons as both know and love
their business. No human being[10] ever spoke of scenery for above two
minutes at a time, which makes me suspect we hear too much of it in
literature. The weather is regarded as the very nadir and scoff of
conversational topics. And yet the weather, the dramatic element in
scenery, is far more tractable in language, and far more human both in
import and suggestion than the stable features of the landscape.
Sailors and shepherds, and the people generally of coast and mountain,
talk well of it; and it is often excitingly presented in literature.
But the tendency of all living talk draws it back and back into the
common focus of humanity. Talk is a creature of the street and
market-place, feeding on gossip; and its last resort is still in a
discussion on morals. That is the heroic form of gossip; heroic in
virtue of its high pretensions; but still gossip, because it turns on
personalities. You can keep no men long, nor Scotchmen[11] at all, off
moral or theological discussion. These are to all the world what law
is to lawyers; they are everybody's technicalities; the medium through
which all consider life, and the dialect in which they express their
judgments. I knew three young men who walked together daily for some
two months in a solemn and beautiful forest and in cloudless summer
weather; daily they talked with unabated zest, and yet scarce wandered
that whole time beyond two subjects--theology and love. And perhaps
neither a court of love[12] nor an assembly of divines would have
granted their premises or welcomed their conclusions.

Conclusions, indeed, are not often reached by talk any more than by
private thinking. That is not the profit. The profit is in the
exercise, and above all in the experience; for when we reason at large
on any subject, we review our state and history in life. From time to
time, however, and specially, I think, in talking art, talk becomes
effective, conquering like war, widening the boundaries of knowledge
like an exploration. A point arises; the question takes a
problematical, a baffling, yet a likely air; the talkers begin to feel
lively presentiments of some conclusion near at hand; towards this
they strive with emulous ardour, each by his own path, and struggling
for first utterance; and then one leaps upon the summit of that matter
with a shout, and almost at the same moment the other is beside him;
and behold they are agreed. Like enough, the progress is illusory, a
mere cat's cradle having been wound and unwound out of words. But the
sense of joint discovery is none the less giddy and inspiring. And in
the life of the talker such triumphs, though imaginary, are neither
few nor far apart; they are attained with speed and pleasure, in the
hour of mirth; and by the nature of the process, they are always
worthily shared.

There is a certain attitude, combative at once and deferential, eager
to fight yet most averse to quarrel, which marks out at once the
talkable man. It is not eloquence, not fairness, not obstinacy, but a
certain proportion of all of these that I love to encounter in my
amicable adversaries. They must not be pontiffs holding doctrine, but
huntsmen questing after elements of truth. Neither must they be boys
to be instructed, but fellow-teachers with whom I may, wrangle and
agree on equal terms. We must reach some solution, some shadow of
consent; for without that, eager talk becomes a torture. But we do not
wish to reach it cheaply, or quickly, or without the tussle and effort
wherein pleasure lies.

The very best talker, with me, is one whom I shall call Spring-Heel'd
Jack.[13] I say so, because I never knew anyone who mingled so largely
the possible ingredients of converse. In the Spanish proverb, the
fourth man necessary to compound a salad, is a madman to mix it: Jack
is that madman. I know not what is more remarkable; the insane
lucidity of his conclusions, the humorous eloquence of his language,
or his power of method, bringing the whole of life into the focus of
the subject treated, mixing the conversational salad like a drunken
god. He doubles like the serpent, changes and flashes like the shaken
kaleidoscope, transmigrates bodily into the views of others, and so,
in the twinkling of an eye and with a heady rapture, turns questions
inside out and flings them empty before you on the ground, like a
triumphant conjuror. It is my common practice when a piece of conduct
puzzles me, to attack it in the presence of Jack with such grossness,
such partiality and such wearing iteration, as at length shall spur
him up in its defence. In a moment he transmigrates, dons the required
character, and with moonstruck philosophy justifies the act in
question. I can fancy nothing to compare with the _vim_ of these
impersonations, the strange scale of language, flying from Shakespeare
to Kant, and from Kant to Major Dyngwell[14]--

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The old appear in conversation in two characters: the critically
silent and the garrulous anecdotic. The last is perhaps what we look
for; it is perhaps the more instructive. An old gentleman, well on in
years, sits handsomely and naturally in the bow-window of his age,
scanning experience with reverted eye; and chirping and smiling,
communicates the accidents and reads the lesson of his long career.
Opinions are strengthened, indeed, but they are also weeded out in the
course of years. What remains steadily present to the eye of the
retired veteran in his hermitage, what still ministers to his content,
what still quickens his old honest heart--these are "the real
long-lived things"[33] that Whitman tells us to prefer. Where youth
agrees with age, not where they differ, wisdom lies; and it is when
the young disciple finds his heart to beat in tune with his
grey-bearded teacher's that a lesson may be learned. I have known one
old gentleman, whom I may name, for he is now gathered to his
stock--Robert Hunter, Sheriff of Dumbarton,[34] and author of an
excellent law-book still re-edited and republished. Whether he was
originally big or little is more than I can guess. When I knew him he
was all fallen away and fallen in; crooked and shrunken; buckled into
a stiff waistcoat for support; troubled by ailments, which kept him
hobbling in and out of the room; one foot gouty; a wig for decency,
not for deception, on his head; close shaved, except under his
chin--and for that he never failed to apologise, for it went sore
against the traditions of his life. You can imagine how he would fare
in a novel by Miss Mather;[35] yet this rag of a Chelsea[36] veteran
lived to his last year in the plenitude of all that is best in man,
brimming with human kindness, and staunch as a Roman soldier under his
manifold infirmities. You could not say that he had lost his memory,
for he would repeat Shakespeare and Webster and Jeremy Taylor and
Burke[37] by the page together; but the parchment was filled up, there
was no room for fresh inscriptions, and he was capable of repeating
the same anecdote on many successive visits. His voice survived in its
full power, and he took a pride in using it. On his last voyage as
Commissioner of Lighthouses, he hailed a ship at sea and made himself
clearly audible without a speaking trumpet, ruffing the while with a
proper vanity in his achievement. He had a habit of eking out his
words with interrogative hems, which was puzzling and a little
wearisome, suited ill with his appearance, and seemed a survival from
some former stage of bodily portliness. Of yore, when he was a great
pedestrian and no enemy to good claret, he may have pointed with these
minute guns his allocutions to the bench. His humour was perfectly
equable, set beyond the reach of fate; gout, rheumatism, stone and
gravel might have combined their forces against that frail tabernacle,
but when I came round on Sunday evening, he would lay aside Jeremy
Taylor's _Life of Christ_ and greet me with the same open brow, the
same kind formality of manner. His opinions and sympathies dated the
man almost to a decade. He had begun life, under his mother's
influence, as an admirer of Junius,[38] but on maturer knowledge had
transferred his admiration to Burke. He cautioned me, with entire
gravity, to be punctilious in writing English; never to forget that I
was a Scotchman, that English was a foreign tongue, and that if I
attempted the colloquial, I should certainly be shamed: the remark was
apposite, I suppose, in the days of David Hume.[39] Scott was too new
for him; he had known the author--known him, too, for a Tory; and to
the genuine classic a contemporary is always something of a trouble.
He had the old, serious love of the play; had even, as he was proud to
tell, played a certain part in the history of Shakespearian revivals,
for he had successfully pressed on Murray, of the old Edinburgh
Theatre, the idea of producing Shakespeare's fairy pieces with great
scenic display.[40] A moderate in religion, he was much struck in the
last years of his life by a conversation with two young lads,
revivalists. "H'm," he would say--"new to me. I have had--h'm--no such
experience." It struck him, not with pain, rather with a solemn
philosophic interest, that he, a Christian as he hoped, and a
Christian of so old a standing, should hear these young fellows
talking of his own subject, his own weapons that he had fought the
battle of life with,--"and--h'm--not understand." In this wise and
grateful attitude he did justice to himself and others, reposed
unshaken in his old beliefs, and recognised their limits without anger
or alarm. His last recorded remark, on the last night of his life, was
after he had been arguing against Calvinism[41] with his minister and
was interrupted by an intolerable pang. "After all," he said, "of all
the 'isms, I know none so bad as rheumatism." My own last sight of him
was some time before, when we dined together at an inn; he had been on
circuit, for he stuck to his duties like a chief part of his
existence; and I remember it as the only occasion on which he ever
soiled his lips with slang--a thing he loathed. We were both Roberts;
and as we took our places at table, he addressed me with a twinkle:
"We are just what you would call two bob."[42] He offered me port, I
remember, as the proper milk of youth; spoke of "twenty-shilling
notes"; and throughout the meal was full of old-world pleasantry and
quaintness, like an ancient boy on a holiday. But what I recall
chiefly was his confession that he had never read _Othello_ to an
end.[43] Shakespeare was his continual study. He loved nothing better
than to display his knowledge and memory by adducing parallel passages
from Shakespeare, passages where the same word was employed, or the
same idea differently treated. But _Othello_ had beaten him. "That
noble gentleman and that noble lady--h'm--too painful for me." The
same night the boardings were covered with posters, "Burlesque of
_Othello_," and the contrast blazed up in my mind like a bonfire. An
unforgettable look it gave me into that kind man's soul. His
acquaintance was indeed a liberal and pious education.[44] All the
humanities were taught in that bare dining-room beside his gouty
footstool. He was a piece of good advice; he was himself the instance
that pointed and adorned his various talk. Nor could a young man have
found elsewhere a place so set apart from envy, fear, discontent, or
any of the passions that debase; a life so honest and composed; a soul
like an ancient violin, so subdued to harmony, responding to a touch
in music--as in that dining-room, with Mr. Hunter chatting at the
eleventh hour, under the shadow of eternity, fearless and gentle.

The second class of old people are not anecdotic; they are rather
hearers than talkers, listening to the young with an amused and
critical attention. To have this sort of intercourse to perfection, I
think we must go to old ladies. Women are better hearers than men, to
begin with; they learn, I fear in anguish, to bear with the tedious
and infantile vanity of the other sex; and we will take more from a
woman than even from the oldest man in the way of biting comment.
Biting comment is the chief part, whether for profit or amusement, in
this business. The old lady that I have in my eye is a very caustic
speaker, her tongue, after years of practice, in absolute command,
whether for silence or attack. If she chance to dislike you, you will
be tempted to curse the malignity of age. But if you chance to please
even slightly, you will be listened to with a particular laughing
grace of sympathy, and from time to time chastised, as if in play,
with a parasol as heavy as a pole-axe. It requires a singular art, as
well as the vantage-ground of age, to deal these stunning corrections
among the coxcombs of the young. The pill is disguised in sugar of
wit; it is administered as a compliment--if you had not pleased, you
would not have been censured; it is a personal affair--a hyphen, _a
trait d'union,_[45] between you and your censor; age's philandering,
for her pleasure and your good. Incontestably the young man feels very
much of a fool; but he must be a perfect Malvolio,[46] sick with
self-love, if he cannot take an open buffet and still smile. The
correction of silence is what kills; when you know you have
transgressed, and your friend says nothing and avoids your eye. If a
man were made of gutta-percha, his heart would quail at such a moment.
But when the word is out, the worst is over; and a fellow with any
good-humour at all may pass through a perfect hail of witty criticism,
every bare place on his soul hit to the quick with a shrewd missile,
and reappear, as if after a dive, tingling with a fine moral reaction,
and ready, with a shrinking readiness, one-third loath, for a
repetition of the discipline.

There are few women, not well sunned and ripened, and perhaps
toughened, who can thus stand apart from a man and say the true thing
with a kind of genial cruelty. Still there are some--and I doubt if
there be any man who can return the compliment.

The class of men represented by Vernon Whitford in _The Egoist_,[47]
says, indeed, the true thing, but he says it stockishly. Vernon is a
noble fellow, and makes, by the way, a noble and instructive contrast
to Daniel Deronda; his conduct is the conduct of a man of honour; but
we agree with him, against our consciences, when he remorsefully
considers "its astonishing dryness." He is the best of men, but the
best of women manage to combine all that and something more. Their
very faults assist them; they are helped even by the falseness of
their position in life. They can retire into the fortified camp of the
proprieties. They can touch a subject and suppress it. The most adroit
employ a somewhat elaborate reserve as a means to be frank, much as
they wear gloves when they shake hands. But a man has the full
responsibility of his freedom, cannot evade a question, can scarce be
silent without rudeness, must answer for his words upon the moment,
and is not seldom left face to face with a damning choice, between the
more or less dishonourable wriggling of Deronda and the downright
woodenness of Vernon Whitford.

But the superiority of women is perpetually menaced; they do not sit
throned on infirmities like the old; they are suitors as well as
sovereigns; their vanity is engaged, their affections are too apt to
follow; and hence much of the talk between the sexes degenerates into
something unworthy of the name. The desire to please, to shine with a
certain softness of lustre and to draw a fascinating picture of
oneself, banishes from conversation all that is sterling and most of
what is humorous. As soon as a strong current of mutual admiration
begins to flow, the human interest triumphs entirely over the
intellectual, and the commerce of words, consciously or not, becomes
secondary to the commercing of eyes. But even where this ridiculous
danger is avoided, and a man and woman converse equally and honestly,
something in their nature or their education falsifies the strain. An
instinct prompts them to agree; and where that is impossible, to agree
to differ. Should they neglect the warning, at the first suspicion of
an argument, they find themselves in different hemispheres. About any
point of business or conduct, any actual affair demanding settlement,
a woman will speak and listen, hear and answer arguments, not only
with natural wisdom, but with candour and logical honesty. But if the
subject of debate be something in the air, an abstraction, an excuse
for talk, a logical Aunt Sally, then may the male debater instantly
abandon hope; he may employ reason, adduce facts, be supple, be
smiling, be angry, all shall avail him nothing; what the woman said
first, that (unless she has forgotten it) she will repeat at the end.
Hence, at the very junctures when a talk between men grows brighter
and quicker and begins to promise to bear fruit, talk between the
sexes is menaced with dissolution. The point of difference, the point
of interest, is evaded by the brilliant woman, under a shower of
irrelevant conversational rockets; it is bridged by the discreet woman
with a rustle of silk, as she passes smoothly forward to the nearest
point of safety. And this sort of prestidigitation, juggling the
dangerous topic out of sight until it can be reintroduced with safety
in an altered shape, is a piece of tactics among the true drawing-room

The drawing-room is, indeed, an artificial place; it is so by our
choice and for our sins. The subjection of women; the ideal imposed
upon them from the cradle; and worn, like a hair-shirt, with so much
constancy; their motherly, superior tenderness to man's vanity and
self-importance; their managing arts--the arts of a civilised slave
among good-natured barbarians--are all painful ingredients and all
help to falsify relations. It is not till we get clear of that amusing
artificial scene that genuine relations are founded, or ideas honestly
compared. In the garden, on the road or the hillside, or _tête-à-tête_
and apart from interruptions, occasions arise when we may learn much
from any single woman; and nowhere more often than in, married life.
Marriage is one long conversation, chequered by disputes. The disputes
are valueless; they but ingrain the difference; the heroic heart of
woman prompting her at once to nail her colours to the mast. But in
the intervals, almost unconsciously and with no desire to shine, the
whole material of life is turned over and over, ideas are struck out
and shared, the two persons more and more adapt their notions one to
suit the other, and in process of time, without sound of trumpet, they
conduct each, other into new worlds of thought.


The two papers on _Talk and Talkers_ first appeared in the _Cornhill
Magazine_, for April and for August, 1882, Vol. XLV, pp. 410-418, Vol.
XLVI, pp. 151-158. The second paper had the title, _Talk and Talkers_.
(_A Sequel_.) For Stevenson's relations with the Editor, see our note
to _An Apology for Idlers_. With the publication of the second part,
Stevenson's connection with the _Cornhill_ ceased, as the magazine in
1883 passed from the hands of Leslie Stephen into those of James Payn.
The two papers next appeared in the volume _Memories and Portraits_
(1887). The first was composed during the winter of 1881-2 at Davos in
the Alps, whither he had gone for his health, the second a few months
later. Writing to Charles Baxter, 22 Feb. 1882, he said, "In an
article which will appear sometime in the Cornhill, 'Talk and
Talkers,' and where I have full-lengthened the conversation of Bob,
Henley, Jenkin, Simpson, Symonds, and Gosse, I have at the end one
single word about yourself. It may amuse you to see it." (_Letters_,
I, 268.) Writing from Bournemouth, England, in February 1885 to Sidney
Colvin, he said, "See how my 'Talk and Talkers' went; every one liked
his own portrait, and shrieked about other people's; so it will be
with yours. If you are the least true to the essential, the sitter
will be pleased; very likely not his friends, and that from various
motives." (_Letters_, I, 413.) In a letter to his mother from Davos,
dated 9 April 1882, he gives the real names opposite each character in
the first paper, and adds, "But pray regard these as secrets."

The art of conversation, like the art of letter-writing, reached its
highest point in the eighteenth century; cheap postage destroyed the
latter, and the hurly-burly of modern life has been almost too strong
for the former. In the French Salons of the eighteenth century, and in
the coffeehouses and drawing-rooms of England, good conversation was
regarded as a most desirable accomplishment, and was practised by many
with extraordinary wit and skill. Swift's satire on _Polite
Conversation_ (1738) as well as the number of times he discusses the
art of conversation in other places, shows how seriously he actually
regarded it. Stevenson, like many persons who are forced away from
active life, loved a good talk. Good writers are perhaps now more
common than good talkers.


[Note 1: _Sir, we had a good talk_. This remark was made by the Doctor
in 1768, the morning after a memorable meeting at the Crown and Anchor
tavern, where he had been engaged in conversation with seven or eight
notable literary men. "When I called upon Dr. Johnson next morning,"
says Boswell, "I found him highly satisfied with his colloquial
prowess the preceding evening. 'Well,' said he, 'we had good talk.'
BOSWELL: 'Yes, sir, you tossed and gored several persons.'"]

[Note 2: _As we must account_. This remark of Franklin's occurs in
_Poor Richard's Almanac_ for 1738.]

[Note 3: _Flies ... in the amber_. Bartlett gives Martial.]

  "The bee enclosed and through the amber shown,
  Seems buried in the juice which was his own."

Bacon, Donne, Herrick, Pope and many other authors speak of flies in

[Note 4: _Fancy free_. See _Midsummer Night's Dream_, Act II, Sc. 2.

  "And the imperial votaress passed on,
  In maiden meditation, fancy-free."

This has been called the most graceful among all the countless
compliments received by Queen Elizabeth. The word "fancy" in the
Shaksperian quotation means simply "love."]

[Note 5: _A spade a spade_. The phrase really comes from Aristophanes,
and is quoted by Plutarch, as Philip's description of the rudeness of
the Macedonians. _Kudos_. Greek word for "pride", used as slang by
school-boys in England.]

[Note 6: _Trailing clouds of glory_. _Trailing with him clouds of
glory._ This passage, from Wordsworth's _Ode on the Intimations of
Immortality_ (1807), was a favorite one with Stevenson, and he quotes
it several times in various essays.]

[Note 7: _The Flying Dutchman_. Wagner's _Der Fliegende Holländer_
(1843), one of his earliest, shortest, and most beautiful operas. Many
German performances are given in the afternoon, and many German
theatres have pretty gardens attached, where, during the long
intervals (_grosse Pause_) between the acts, one may refresh himself
with food, drink, tobacco, and the open air. Germany and German art,
however, did not have anything like the influence on Stevenson exerted
by the French country, language, and literature.]

[Note 8: _Theophrastus_. A Greek philosopher who died 287-B.C. His
most influential work was his _Characters_, which, subsequently
translated into many modern languages, produced a whole school of
literature known as the "Character Books," of which the best are
perhaps Sir Thomas Overbury's _Characters_ (1614), John Earle's
_Microcosmographie_ (1628), and the _Caractères_ (1688) of the great
French writer, La Bruyère.]

[Note 9: _Consuelo, Clarissa Harlowe, Vautrin, Steenie Steenson_.
_Consuelo_ is the title of one of the most notable novels by the
famous French authoress, George Sand, (1804-1876), whose real name was
Aurore Dupin. _Consuelo_ appeared in 1842.... _Clarissa_ (1747-8) was
the masterpiece of the novelist Samuel Richardson (1689-1761). This
great novel, in seven fat volumes, was a warm favorite with Stevenson,
as it has been with most English writers from Dr. Johnson to Macaulay.
Writing to a friend in December 1877, Stevenson said, "Please, if you
have not, and I don't suppose you have, already read it, institute a
search in all Melbourne for one of the rarest and certainly one of the
best of books--_Clarissa Harlowe._ For any man who takes an interest
in the problems of the two sexes, that book is a perfect mine of
documents. And it is written, sir, with the pen of an angel."
(_Letters_, I, 141.) Editions of _Clarissa_ are not so scarce now as
they were thirty years ago; several have appeared within the last few
years.... _Vautrin_ is one of the most remarkable characters in
several novels of Balzac; see especially _Pere Goriot_ (1834) ...
_Steenie Steenson_ in Scott's novel _Redgauntlet_ (1824).]

[Note 10: _No human being, etc_. Stevenson loved action in novels, and
was impatient, as many readers are, when long-drawn descriptions of
scenery were introduced. Furthermore, the love for wild scenery has
become as fashionable as the love for music; the result being a very
general hypocrisy in assumed ecstatic raptures.]

[Note 11: _You can keep no men long, nor Scotchmen at all_. Every
Scotchman is a born theologian. Franklin says in his _Autobiography_,
"I had caught this by reading my father's books of dispute on
Religion. Persons of good sense, I have since observed seldom fall
into it, except lawyers, university men, and generally men of all
sorts who have been bred at Edinburgh." (Chap. I.)]

[Note 12: _A court of love_. A mediaeval institution of chivalry,
where questions of knight-errantry, constancy in love, etc., were
discussed and for the time being, decided.]

[Note 13: _Spring-Heel'd Jack_. This is Stevenson's cousin "Bob,"
Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson (1847-1900), an artist and later
Professor of Fine Arts at University College, Liverpool. He was one of
the best conversationalists in England. Stevenson said of him,

  "My cousin Bob, ... is the man likest and most unlike to me that I
  have ever met.... What was specially his, and genuine, was his
  faculty for turning over a subject in conversation. There was an
  insane lucidity in his conclusions; a singular, humorous eloquence
  in his language, and a power of method, bringing the whole of life
  into the focus of the subject under hand; none of which I have ever
  heard equalled or even approached by any other talker." (Balfour's
  _Life of Stevenson_, I, 103. For further remarks on the cousin, see
  note to page 104 of the _Life_.)]

[Note 14: _From Shakespeare to Kant, from Kant to Major Dyngwell_.
Immanuel Kant, the foremost philosopher of the eighteenth century,
born at Königsberg in 1724, died 1804. His greatest work, the
_Critique of Pure Reason_ (_Kritick der reinen Vernunft_, 1781),
produced about the same revolutionary effect on metaphysics as that
produced by Copernicus in astronomy, or by Darwin in natural
science.... _Major Dyngwell I know not_.]

[Note 15: _Burly_. Burly is Stevenson's friend, the poet William
Ernest Henley, who died in 1903. His sonnet on our author may be found
in the introduction to this book. Leslie Stephen introduced the two
men on 13 Feb. 1875, when Henley was in the hospital, and a very close
and intimate friendship began. Henley's personality was exceedingly
robust, in contrast with his health, and in his writings and talk he
delighted in shocking people. His philosophy of life is seen clearly
in his most characteristic poem:

  "Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
  I thank whatever Gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

  In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
  Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

  Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
  And yet the menace of the years
    Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

  It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,
  I am the master of my fate:
    I am the Captain of my soul."

After the publication of Balfour's _Life of Stevenson_ (1901), Mr.
Henley contributed to the _Pall Mall Magazine_ in December of that
year an article called _R.L.S._, which made a tremendous sensation. It
was regarded by many of Stevenson's friends as a wanton assault on his
private character. Whether justified or not, it certainly damaged
Henley more than the dead author. For further accounts of the
relations between the two men, see index to Balfour's _Life_, under
the title _Henley_.]

[Note 16: _Pistol has been out-Pistol'd_. The burlesque character in
Shakspere's _King Henry IV_ and _V_.]

[Note 17: _Cockshot_. (The Late Fleeming Jenkin.) As the note says,
this was Professor Fleeming Jenkin, who died 12 June 1885. He
exercised a great influence over the younger man. Stevenson paid the
debt of gratitude he owed him by writing the _Memoir of Fleeming
Jenkin_, published first in America by Charles Scribner's Sons, in

[Note 18: _Synthetic gusto; something of a Herbert Spencer_. The
English philosopher, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), whose many volumes
in various fields of science and metaphysics were called by their
author the _Synthetic Philosophy_. His most popular book is _First
Principles_ (1862), which has exercised an enormous influence in the
direction of agnosticism. His _Autobiography_, two big volumes, was
published in 1904, and fell rather flat.]

[Note 19: _Like a thorough "glutton."_ This is still the slang of the
prize-ring. When a man is able to stand a great deal of punching
without losing consciousness or courage, he is called a "glutton for

[Note 20: _Athelred_. Sir Walter Simpson, who was Stevenson's
companion on the _Inland Voyage_. For a good account of him, see
Balfour's _Life of Stevenson_, I, 106.]

[Note 21: "_Dry light_." "The more perfect soul," says Heraclitus, "is
a dry light, which flies out of the body as lightning breaks from a
cloud." Plutarch, _Life of Romulus_.]

[Note 22: _Opalstein_. This was the writer and art critic, John
Addington Symonds (1840-1893). Like Stevenson, he was afflicted with
lung trouble, and spent much of his time at Davos, Switzerland, where
a good part of his literary work was done. "The great feature of the
place for Stevenson was the presence of John Addington Symonds, who,
having come there three years before on his way to Egypt, had taken up
his abode in Davos, and was now building himself a house. To him the
newcomer bore a letter of introduction from Mr. Gosse. On November 5th
(1880) Louis wrote to his mother: 'We got to Davos last evening; and I
feel sure we shall like it greatly. I saw Symonds this morning, and
already like him; it is such sport to have a literary man around....
Symonds is like a Tait to me; eternal interest in the same topics,
eternal cross-causewaying of special knowledge. That makes hours to
fly.' And a little later he wrote: 'Beyond its splendid climate, Davos
has but one advantage--the neighbourhood of J.A. Symonds. I dare say
you know his work, but the man is far more interesting.'" (Balfour's
_Life of Stevenson_, I, 214.) When Symonds first read the essay _Talk
and Talkers_, he pretended to be angry, and said, "Louis Stevenson,
what do you mean by describing me as a moonlight serenader?" (_Life_,
I, 233.)]

[Note 23: _Proxime accessit_. "He comes very near to it."]

[Note 24: _Sirens ... Sphinx Byronic ... Horatian ... Don Giovanni ...
Beethoven_. The Sirens were the famous women of Greek mythology, who
lured mariners to destruction by the overpowering sweetness of their
songs. How Ulysses outwitted them is well-known to all readers of the
_Odyssey_. One of Tennyson's earlier poems, _The Sea-Fairies_, deals
with the same theme, and indeed it has appeared constantly in the
literature of the world.... The _Sphinx_, a familiar subject in
Egyptian art, had a lion's body, the head of some other animal
(sometimes man) and wings. It was a symbolical figure. The most famous
example is of course the gigantic Sphinx near the Pyramids in Egypt,
which has proved to be an inexhaustible theme for speculation and for
poetry.... The theatrically tragic mood of _Byron_ is contrasted with
the easy-going, somewhat cynical epicureanism of Horace.... _Don
Giovanni_ (1787) the greatest opera of the great composer Mozart
(1756-1791), tells the same story told by Molière and so many others.
The French composer, Gounod, said that Mozart's _Don Giovanni_ was the
greatest musical composition that the world has ever seen....
_Beethoven_ (1770-1827) occupies in general estimation about the same
place in the history of music that Shakspere fills in the history of

[Note 25: _Purcel_. This stands for Mr. Edmund Gosse (born 1849), a
poet and critic of some note, who writes pleasantly on many topics.
Many of Stevenson's letters were addressed to him. The two friends
first met in London in 1877, and the impression made by the novelist
on the critic may be seen in Mr. Gosse's book of essays, _Critical
Kitcats_ (1896).]

[Note 26: _I know another person_. This is undoubtedly Stevenson's
friend Charles Baxter. See the quotation from a letter to him in our
introductory note to this essay. Compare what Stevenson elsewhere said
of him: "I cannot characterise a personality so unusual in the little
space that I can here afford. I have never known one of so mingled a
strain.... He is the only man I ever heard of who could give and take
in conversation with the wit and polish of style that we find in
Congreve's comedies." (Balfour's _Life of Stevenson_, I, 105.)]

[Note 27: _Restoration comedy ... Congreve_. Restoration comedy is a
general name applied to the plays acted in England between 1660, the
year of the restoration of Charles II to the throne, and 1700, the
year of the death of Dryden. This comedy is as remarkable for the
brilliant wit of its dialogue as for its gross licentiousness. Perhaps
the wittiest dramatist of the whole group was William Congreve

[Note 28: _Falstaff ... Mercutio ... Sir Toby ... Cordelia ...
Protean_. Sir John Falstaff, who appears in Shakspere's _King Henry
IV_, and again in the _Merry Wives of Windsor_, is generally regarded
as the greatest comic character in literature.... _Mercutio_, the
friend of Romeo; one of the most marvellous of all Shakspere's
gentlemen. He is the Hotspur of comedy, and his taking off by Tybalt
"eclipsed the gaiety of nations."... _Sir Toby Belch_ is the genial
character in _Twelfth Night_, fond of singing and drinking, but no
fool withal. A conversation between Falstaff, Mercutio, and Sir Toby
would have taxed even the resources of a Shakspere, and would have
been intolerably excellent.... _Cordelia_, the daughter of King Lear,
whose sincerity and tenderness combined make her one of the greatest
women in the history of poetry.... _Protean_, something that
constantly assumes different forms. In mythology, Proteus was the son
of Oceanus and Tethys, whose special power was his faculty for
lightning changes.

  "Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea."--Wordsworth.]

[Note 29: This sequel was called forth by an excellent article in _The
Spectator_, for 1 April 1882, and bore the title, _The Restfulness of
Talk_. The opening words of this article were as follows:--"The fine
paper on 'Talk,' by 'R.L.S.,' in the _Cornhill_ for April, a paper
which a century since would, by itself, have made a literary
reputation, does not cover the whole field."]

[Note 30: _Valhalla_. In Scandinavian mythology, this was the heaven
for the brave who fell in battle. Here they had an eternity of
fighting and drinking.]

[Note 31: _Meticulous_. Timid. From the Latin, _meticulosus_.]

[Note 32: _Kindly_. Here used in the old sense of "natural." Compare
the Litany, "the kindly fruits of the earth."]

[Note 33: "_The real long-lived things_." For Whitman, see our Note 12
of Chapter III above.]

[Note 34: _Robert Hunter, Sheriff of Dumbarton_. Hunter recognised the
genius in Stevenson long before the latter became known to the world,
and gave him much friendly encouragement. Dumbarton is a town about 16
miles north-west of Glasgow, in Scotland. It contains a castle famous
in history and in literature.]

[Note 35: _A novel by Miss Mather_. The name should be "Mathers."
Helen Mathers (Mrs. Henry Reeves), born in 1853, has written a long
series of novels, of which _My Lady Greensleeves, The Sin of Hagar_
and _Venus Victrix_ are perhaps as well-known as they deserve to be.]

[Note 36: _Chelsea_. Formerly a suburb, now a part of London, to the
S.W. It is famous for its literary associations. Swift, Thomas
Carlyle, Leigh Hunt, George Eliot, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and many
other distinguished writers lived in Chelsea at various times. It
contains a great hospital, to which Stevenson seems to refer here.]

[Note 37: _Webster, Jeremy Taylor, Burke_. John Webster was one of the
Elizabethan dramatists, who, in felicity of diction, approached more
nearly to Shakspere than most of his contemporaries. His greatest play
was _The Duchess of Malfi_ (acted in 1616). Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667),
often called the "Shakspere of Divines," was one of the greatest
pulpit orators in English history. His most famous work, still a
classic, is _Holy Living and Holy Dying_ (1650-1). Edmund Burke
(1729-1797) the parliamentary orator and author of the _Sublime and
Beautiful_ (1756), whose speeches on America are only too familiar to
American schoolboys.]

[Note 38: _Junius_. No one knows yet who "Junius" was. In the _Public
Advertiser_ from 21 Jan. 1769 to 21 Jan. 1772, appeared letters signed
by this name, which made a sensation. The identity of the author was a
favorite matter for dispute during many years.]

[Note 39: _David Hume_. The great Scotch skeptic and philosopher

[Note 40: _Shakespeare's fairy pieces with great scenic display._ So
far from this being a novelty to-day, it has become rather nauseating,
and there are evidences of a reaction in favour of _hearing_ Shakspere
on the stage rather than _seeing_ him.]

[Note 41: _Calvinism_. If this word does not need a note yet, it
certainly will before long. The founder of the theological system
Calvinism was John Calvin, born in France in 1509. The chief doctrines
are Predestination, the Atonement (by which the blood of Christ
appeased the wrath of God toward those persons only who had been
previously chosen for salvation--on all others the sacrifice was
ineffectual), Original Sin, and the Perseverance of the Saints (once
saved, one could not fall from grace). These doctrines remained intact
in the creed of Presbyterian churches in America until a year or two

[Note 42: _Two bob_. A pun, for "bob" is slang for "shilling."]

[Note 43: _Never read Othello to an end_. In _A Gossip on a Novel of
Dumas's,_ Stevenson confessed that there were four plays of Shakspere
he had never been able to read through, though for a different reason:
they were _Richard III, Henry VI, Titus Andronicus_, and _All's Well
that Ends Well_. It is still an open question as to whether or not
Shakspere wrote _Titus_.]

[Note 44: _A liberal and pious education_. It was Sir Richard Steele
who made the phrase, in _The Tatler_, No. 49: "to love her (Lady
Elizabeth Hastings) was a liberal education."]

[Note 45: _Trait d'union_. The French expression simply means
"hyphen": literally, "mark of connection."]

[Note 46: _Malvolio_. The conceited but not wholly contemptible
character in _Twelfth Night_.]

[Note 47: _The Egoist_. _The Egoist_ (1879) is one of the best-known
novels of Mr. George Meredith, born 1828. It had been published only a
very short time before Stevenson wrote this essay, so he is commenting
on one of the "newest" books. Stevenson's enthusiasm for Meredith knew
no bounds, and he regarded the _Egoist_ and _Richard Feverel_ (1859),
as among the masterpieces of English literature. _Daniel Deronda_, the
last and by no means the best novel of George Eliot (1820-1880), had
appeared in 1876.]



In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process
itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a
book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our
mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable
of sleep or of continuous thought. The words, if the book be eloquent,
should run thence-forward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and
the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured
pictures to the eye. It was for this last pleasure that we read so
closely, and loved our books so dearly, in the bright, troubled period
of boyhood. Eloquence and thought, character and conversation, were
but obstacles to brush aside as we dug blithely after a certain sort
of incident, like a pig for truffles.[1] For my part, I liked a story
to begin with an old wayside inn where, "towards the close of the year
17--," several gentlemen in three-cocked hats were playing bowls. A
friend of mine preferred the Malabar coast[2] in a storm, with a ship
beating to windward, and a scowling fellow of Herculean proportions
striding along the beach; he, to be sure, was a pirate. This was
further afield than my home-keeping fancy loved to travel, and
designed altogether for a larger canvas than the tales that I
affected. Give me a highwayman and I was full to the brim; a
Jacobite[3] would do, but the highwayman was my favourite dish. I can
still hear that merry clatter of the hoofs along the moonlit lane;
night and the coming of day are still related in my mind with the
doings of John Rann or Jerry Abershaw;[4] and the words "postchaise,"
the "great North road,"[5] "ostler," and "nag" still sound in my ears
like poetry. One and all, at least, and each with his particular
fancy, we read story-books in childhood; not for eloquence or
character or thought, but for some quality of the brute incident. That
quality was not mere bloodshed or wonder. Although each of these was
welcome in its place, the charm for the sake of which we read depended
on something different from either. My elders used to read novels
aloud; and I can still remember four different passages which I heard,
before I was ten, with the same keen and lasting pleasure. One I
discovered long afterwards to be the admirable opening of _What will
he Do with It?_[6] It was no wonder I was pleased with that. The other
three still remain unidentified. One is a little vague; it was about a
dark, tall house at night, and people groping on the stairs by the
light that escaped from the open door of a sickroom. In another, a
lover left a ball, and went walking in a cool, dewy park, whence he
could watch the lighted windows and the figures of the dancers as they
moved. This was the most sentimental impression I think I had yet
received, for a child is somewhat deaf to the sentimental. In the
last, a poet, who had been tragically wrangling with his wife, walked
forth on the sea-beach on a tempestuous night and witnessed the
horrors of a wreck.[7] Different as they are, all these early
favourites have a common note--they have all a touch of the romantic.

Drama is the poetry of conduct, romance the poetry of circumstance.
The pleasure that we take in life is of two sorts--the active and the
passive. Now we are conscious of a great command over our destiny;
anon we are lifted up by circumstance, as by a breaking wave, and
dashed we know not how into the future. Now we are pleased by our
conduct, anon merely pleased by our surroundings. It would be hard to
say which of these modes of satisfaction is the more effective, but
the latter is surely the more constant. Conduct is three parts of
life,[8] they say; but I think they put it high. There is a vast deal
in life and letters both which is not immoral, but simply a-moral;
which either does not regard the human will at all, or deals with it
in obvious and healthy relations; where the interest turns, not upon
what a man shall choose to do, but on how he manages to do it; not on
the passionate slips and hesitations of the conscience, but on the
problems of the body and of the practical intelligence, in clean,
open-air adventure, the shock of arms or the diplomacy of life. With
such material as this it is impossible to build a play, for the
serious theatre exists solely on moral grounds, and is a standing
proof of the dissemination of the human conscience. But it is possible
to build, upon this ground, the most joyous of verses, and the most
lively, beautiful and buoyant tales.

One thing in life calls for another; there is a fitness in events and
places. The sight of a pleasant arbour[9] puts it in our minds to sit
there. One place suggests work, another idleness, a third early rising
and long rambles in the dew. The effect of night, of any flowing
water, of lighted cities, of the peep of day, of ships, of the open
ocean, calls up in the mind an army of anonymous desires and
pleasures. Something, we feel, should happen; we know not what, yet we
proceed in quest of it. And many of the happiest hours of life fleet
by us in this vain attendance on the genius of the place and moment.
It is thus that tracts of young fir, and low rocks that reach into
deep soundings, particularly torture and delight me. Something must
have happened in such places, and perhaps ages back, to members of my
race; when I was a child I tried in vain to invent appropriate games
for them, as I still try, just as vainly, to fit them with the proper
story. Some places speak distinctly. Certain dank gardens cry aloud
for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts
are set apart for ship-wreck. Other spots again seem to abide their
destiny, suggestive and impenetrable, "miching mallecho."[10] The inn
at Burford Bridge,[11] with its arbours and green garden and silent,
eddying river--though it is known already as the place where Keats
wrote some of his _Endymion_ and Nelson parted from his Emma--still
seems to wait the coming of the appropriate legend. Within these ivied
walls, behind these old green shutters, some further business
smoulders, waiting for its hour. The old Hawes Inn at the Queen's
Ferry makes a similar call upon my fancy. There it stands, apart from
the town, beside the pier, in a climate of its own, half inland, half
marine--in front, the ferry bubbling with the tide and the guard-ship
swinging to her anchor; behind, the old garden with the trees.
Americans seek it already for the sake of Lovel and Oldbuck, who dined
there at the beginning of the _Antiquary_. But you need not tell
me--that is not all; there is some story, unrecorded or not yet
complete, which must express the meaning of that inn more fully. So it
is with names and faces; so it is with incidents that are idle and
inconclusive in themselves, and yet seem like the beginning of some
quaint romance, which the all-careless author leaves untold. How many
of these romances have we not seen determine at their birth; how many
people have met us with a look of meaning in their eye, and sunk at
once into trivial acquaintances; to how many places have we not drawn
near, with express intimations--"here my destiny awaits me"--and we
have but dined there and passed on! I have lived both at the Hawes and
Burford in a perpetual flutter, on the heels, as it seemed, of some
adventure that should justify the place; but though the feeling had me
to bed at night and called me again at morning in one unbroken round
of pleasure and suspense, nothing befell me in either worth remark.
The man or the hour had not yet come; but some day, I think, a boat
shall put off from the Queen's Ferry, fraught with a dear cargo, and
some frosty night a horseman, on a tragic errand, rattle with his whip
upon the green shutters of the inn at Burford.[12]

Now, this is one of the natural appetites with which any lively
literature has to count. The desire for knowledge, I had almost added
the desire for meat, is not more deeply seated than this demand for
fit and striking incident. The dullest of clowns tells, or tries to
tell, himself a story, as the feeblest of children uses invention in
his play; and even as the imaginative grown person, joining in the
game, at once enriches it with many delightful circumstances, the
great creative writer shows us the realisation and the apotheosis of
the day-dreams of common men. His stories may be nourished with the
realities of life, but their true mark is to satisfy the nameless
longings of the reader, and to obey the ideal laws of the day-dream.
The right kind of thing should fall out in the right kind of place;
the right kind of thing should follow; and not only the characters
talk aptly and think naturally, but all the circumstances in a tale
answer one to another like notes in music. The threads of a story come
from time to time together and make a picture in the web; the
characters fall from time to time into some attitude to each other or
to nature, which stamps the story home like an illustration.
Crusoe[13] recoiling from the footprint, Achilles shouting over
against the Trojans, Ulysses bending the great bow, Christian running
with his fingers in his ears, these are each culminating moments in
the legend, and each has been printed on the mind's eye forever. Other
things we may forget; we may forget the words, although they are
beautiful; we may forget the author's comment, although perhaps it was
ingenious and true; but these epoch-making scenes, which put the last
mark of truth upon a story and fill up, at one blow, our capacity for
sympathetic pleasure, we so adopt into the very bosom of our mind that
neither time nor tide can efface or weaken the impression. This, then,
is the plastic part of literature: to embody character, thought, or
emotion in some act or attitude that shall be remarkably striking to
the mind's eye. This is the highest and hardest thing to do in words;
the thing which, once accomplished, equally delights the schoolboy and
the sage, and makes, in its own right, the quality of epics. Compared
with this, all other purposes in literature, except the purely lyrical
or the purely philosophic, are bastard in nature, facile of execution,
and feeble in result. It is one thing to write about the inn at
Burford, or to describe scenery with the word-painters; it is quite
another to seize on the heart of the suggestion and make a country
famous with a legend. It is one thing to remark and to dissect, with
the most cutting logic, the complications of life, and of the human
spirit; it is quite another to give them body and blood in the story
of Ajax[14] or of Hamlet. The first is literature, but the second is
something besides, for it is likewise art.

English people of the present day[15] are apt, I know not why, to look
somewhat down on incident, and reserve their admiration for the clink
of teaspoons and the accents of the curate. It is thought clever to
write a novel with no story at all, or at least with a very dull one.
Reduced even to the lowest terms, a certain interest can be
communicated by the art of narrative; a sense of human kinship
stirred; and a kind of monotonous fitness, comparable to the words and
air of _Sandy's Mull_, preserved among the infinitesimal occurrences
recorded. Some people work, in this manner, with even a strong touch.
Mr. Trollope's inimitable clergymen naturally arise to the mind in
this connection. But even Mr. Trollope[16] does not confine himself to
chronicling small beer. Mr. Crawley's collision with the Bishop's
wife, Mr. Melnette dallying in the deserted banquet-room, are typical
incidents, epically conceived, fitly embodying a crisis. Or again look
at Thackeray. If Rawdon Crawley's blow were not delivered, _Vanity
Fair_ would cease to be a work of art. That scene is the chief
ganglion of the tale; and the discharge of energy from Rawdon's fist
is the reward and consolation of the reader. The end of _Esmond_ is a
yet wider excursion from the author's customary fields; the scene at
Castlewood is pure Dumas;[17] the great and wily English borrower has
here borrowed from the great, unblushing French thief; as usual, he
has borrowed admirably well, and the breaking of the sword rounds off
the best of all his books with a manly, martial note. But perhaps
nothing can more strongly illustrate the necessity for marking
incident than to compare the living fame of _Robinson Crusoe_ with the
discredit of _Clarissa Harlowe_.[18] _Clarissa_ is a book of a far
more startling import, worked out, on a great canvas, with inimitable
courage and unflagging art. It contains wit, character, passion, plot,
conversations full of spirit and insight, letters sparkling with
unstrained humanity; and if the death of the heroine be somewhat
frigid and artificial, the last days of the hero strike the only note
of what we now call Byronism,[19] between the Elizabethans and Byron
himself. And yet a little story of a ship-wrecked sailor, with not a
tenth part of the style nor a thousandth part of the wisdom, exploring
none of the arcana of humanity and deprived of the perennial interest
of love, goes on from edition to edition, ever young, while _Clarissa_
lies upon the shelves unread. A friend of mine, a Welsh blacksmith,
was twenty-five years old and could neither read nor write, when he
heard a chapter of _Robinson_ read aloud in a farm kitchen. Up to that
moment he had sat content, huddled in his ignorance, but he left that
farm another man. There were day-dreams, it appeared, divine
day-dreams, written and printed and bound, and to be bought for money
and enjoyed at pleasure. Down he sat that day, painfully learned to
read Welsh, and returned to borrow the book. It had been lost, nor
could he find another copy but one that was in English. Down he sat
once more, learned English, and at length, and with entire delight,
read _Robinson_. It is like the story of a love-chase. If he had heard
a letter from _Clarissa_, would he have been fired with the same
chivalrous ardour? I wonder. Yet _Clarissa_ has every quality that can
be shown in prose, one alone excepted--pictorial or picture-making
romance. While _Robinson_ depends, for the most part and with the
overwhelming majority of its readers, on the charm of circumstance.

In the highest achievements of the art of words, the dramatic and the
pictorial, the moral and romantic interest, rise and fall together by
a common and organic law. Situation is animated with passion, passion
clothed upon with situation. Neither exists for itself, but each
inheres indissolubly with the other. This is high art; and not only
the highest art possible in words, but the highest art of all, since
it combines the greatest mass and diversity of the elements of truth
and pleasure. Such are epics, and the few prose tales that have the
epic weight. But as from a school of works, aping the creative,
incident and romance are ruthlessly discarded, so may character and
drama be omitted or subordinated to romance. There is one book, for
example, more generally loved than Shakespeare, that captivates in
childhood, and still delights in age--I mean the _Arabian
Nights_--where you shall look in vain for moral or for intellectual
interest. No human face or voice greets us among that wooden crowd of
kings and genies, sorcerers and beggarmen. Adventure, on the most
naked terms, furnishes forth the entertainment and is found enough.
Dumas approaches perhaps nearest of any modern to these Arabian
authors in the purely material charm of some of his romances. The
early part of _Monte Cristo_, down to the finding of the treasure, is
a piece of perfect story-telling; the man never breathed who shared
these moving incidents without a tremor; and yet Faria is a thing of
packthread and Dantès[20] little more than a name. The sequel is one
long-drawn error, gloomy, bloody, unnatural and dull; but as for these
early chapters, I do not believe there is another volume extant where
you can breathe the same unmingled atmosphere of romance. It is very
thin and light, to be sure, as on a high mountain; but it is brisk and
clear and sunny in proportion. I saw the other day, with envy, an old
and a very clever lady setting forth on a second or third voyage into
_Monte Cristo_. Here are stories which powerfully affect the reader,
which can be reperused at any age, and where the characters are no
more than puppets. The bony fist of the showman visibly propels them;
their springs are an open secret; their faces are of wood, their
bellies filled with bran; and yet we thrillingly partake of their
adventures. And the point may be illustrated still further. The last
interview between Lucy and Richard Feveril[21] is pure drama; more
than that, it is the strongest scene, since Shakespeare, in the
English tongue. Their first meeting by the river, on the other hand,
is pure romance; it has nothing to do with character; it might happen
to any other boy and maiden, and be none the less delightful for the
change. And yet I think he would be a bold man who should choose
between these passages. Thus, in the same book, we may have two
scenes, each capital in its order: in the one, human passion, deep
calling unto deep, shall utter its genuine voice; in the second,
according circumstances, like instruments in tune, shall build up a
trivial but desirable incident, such as we love to prefigure for
ourselves; and in the end, in spite of the critics, we may hesitate to
give the preference to either. The one may ask more genius--I do not
say it does; but at least the other dwells as clearly in the memory.

True romantic art, again, makes a romance of all things. It reaches
into the highest abstraction of the ideal; it does not refuse the most
pedestrian realism. _Robinson Crusoe_ is as realistic as it is
romantic:[22] both qualities are pushed to an extreme, and neither
suffers. Nor does romance depend upon the material importance of the
incidents. To deal with strong and deadly elements, banditti, pirates,
war and murder, is to conjure with great names, and, in the event of
failure, to double the disgrace. The arrival of Haydn[23] and Consuelo
at the Canon's villa is a very trifling incident; yet we may read a
dozen boisterous stories from beginning to end, and not receive so
fresh and stirring an impression of adventure. It was the scene of
Crusoe at the wreck, if I remember rightly, that so bewitched my
blacksmith. Nor is the fact surprising. Every single article the
castaway recovers from the hulk is "a joy for ever"[24] to the man who
reads of them. They are the things that should be found, and the bare
enumeration stirs the blood. I found a glimmer of the same interest
the other day in a new book, _The Sailor's Sweetheart_,[25] by Mr.
Clark Russell. The whole business of the brig _Morning Star_ is very
rightly felt and spiritedly written; but the clothes, the books and
the money satisfy the reader's mind like things to eat. We are dealing
here with the old cut-and-dry legitimate interest of treasure trove.
But even treasure trove can be made dull. There are few people who
have not groaned under the plethora of goods that fell to the lot of
the _Swiss Family Robinson_,[26] that dreary family. They found
article after article, creature after creature, from milk kine to
pieces of ordnance, a whole consignment; but no informing taste had
presided over the selection, there was no smack or relish in the
invoice; and these riches left the fancy cold. The box of goods in
Verne's _Mysterious Island_[27] is another case in point: there was no
gusto and no glamour about that; it might have come from a shop. But
the two hundred and seventy-eight Australian sovereigns on board the
_Morning Star_ fell upon me like a surprise that I had expected; whole
vistas of secondary stories, besides the one in hand, radiated forth
from that discovery, as they radiate from a striking particular in
life; and I was made for the moment as happy as a reader has the right
to be.

To come at all at the nature of this quality of romance, we must bear
in mind the peculiarity of our attitude to any art. No art produces
illusion; in the theatre we never forget that we are in the theatre;
and while we read a story, we sit wavering between two minds, now
merely clapping our hands at the merit of the performance, now
condescending to take an active part in fancy with the characters.
This last is the triumph of romantic story-telling: when the reader
consciously plays at being the hero, the scene is a good scene. Now in
character-studies the pleasure that we take is critical; we watch, we
approve, we smile at incongruities, we are moved to sudden heats of
sympathy with courage, suffering or virtue. But the characters are
still themselves, they are not us; the more clearly they are depicted,
the more widely do they stand away from us, the more imperiously do
they thrust us back into our place as a spectator. I cannot identify
myself with Rawdon Crawley or with Eugène de Rastignac,[28] for I have
scarce a hope or fear in common with them. It is not character but
incident that woos us out of our reserve. Something happens as we
desire to have it happen to ourselves; some situation, that we have
long dallied with in fancy, is realised in the story with enticing and
appropriate details. Then we forget the characters; then we push the
hero aside; then we plunge into the tale in our own person and bathe
in fresh experience; and then, and then only, do we say we have been
reading a romance. It is not only pleasurable things that we imagine
in our day-dreams; there are lights in which we are willing to
contemplate even the idea of our own death; ways in which it seems as
if it would amuse us to be cheated, wounded or calumniated. It is thus
possible to construct a story, even of tragic import, in which every
incident, detail and trick of circumstance shall be welcome to the
reader's thoughts. Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the
child; it is there that he changes the atmosphere and tenor of his
life; and when the game so chimes with his fancy that he can join in
it with all his heart, when it pleases him with every turn, when he
loves to recall it and dwells upon its recollection with entire
delight, fiction is called romance.

Walter Scott is out and away the king of the romantics. _The Lady of
the Lake_ has no indisputable claim to be a poem beyond the inherent
fitness and desirability of the tale. It is just such a story as a man
would make up for himself, walking, in the best health and temper,
through just such scenes as it is laid in. Hence it is that a charm
dwells undefinable among these slovenly verses, as the unseen cuckoo
fills the mountains with his note; hence, even after we have flung the
book aside, the scenery and adventures remain present to the mind, a
new and green possession, not unworthy of that beautiful name, _The
Lady of the Lake_,[29] or that direct, romantic opening,--one of the
most spirited and poetical in literature,--"The stag at eve had drunk
his fill." The same strength and the same weaknesses adorn and
disfigure the novels. In that ill-written, ragged book, _The
Pirate_,[30] the figure of Cleveland--cast up by the sea on the
resounding foreland of Dunrossness--moving, with the blood on his
hands and the Spanish words on his tongue, among the simple
islanders--singing a serenade under the window of his Shetland
mistress--is conceived in the very highest manner of romantic
invention. The words of his song, "Through groves of palm," sung in
such a scene and by such a lover, clench, as in a nutshell, the
emphatic contrast upon which the tale is built. In _Guy
Mannering_,[31] again, every incident is delightful to the
imagination; and the scene when Harry Bertram lands at Ellangowan is a
model instance of romantic method.

"'I remember the tune well,' he says, 'though I cannot guess what
should at present so strongly recall it to my memory.' He took his
flageolet from his pocket and played a simple melody. Apparently the
tune awoke the corresponding associations of a damsel.... She
immediately took up the song--

  "'Are these the links of Forth, she said;
      Or are they the crooks of Dee,
  Or the bonny woods of Warroch Head
      That I so fain would see?'

"'By heaven!' said Bertram, 'it is the very ballad.'"

On this quotation two remarks fall to be made. First, as an instance
of modern feeling for romance, this famous touch of the flageolet and
the old song is selected by Miss Braddon for omission. Miss Braddon's
idea[32] of a story, like Mrs. Todgers's idea of a wooden leg,[33]
were something strange to have expounded. As a matter of personal
experience, Meg's appearance to old Mr. Bertram on the road, the ruins
of Derncleugh, the scene of the flageolet, and the Dominie's
recognition of Harry, are the four strong notes that continue to ring
in the mind after the book is laid aside. The second point is still
more curious. The reader will observe a mark of excision in the
passage as quoted by me. Well, here is how it runs in the original: "a
damsel, who, close behind a fine spring about half-way down the
descent, and which had once supplied the castle with water, was
engaged in bleaching linen." A man who gave in such copy would be
discharged from the staff of a daily paper. Scott has forgotten to
prepare the reader for the presence of the "damsel"; he has forgotten
to mention the spring and its relation to the ruin; and now, face to
face with his omission, instead of trying back and starting fair,
crams all this matter, tail foremost, into a single shambling
sentence. It is not merely bad English, or bad style; it is abominably
bad narrative besides.

Certainly the contrast is remarkable; and it is one that throws a
strong light upon the subject of this paper. For here we have a man of
the finest creative instinct touching with perfect certainty and charm
the romantic junctures of his story; and we find him utterly careless,
almost, it would seem, incapable, in the technical matter of style,
and not only frequently weak, but frequently wrong in points of drama.
In character parts, indeed, and particularly in the Scotch, he was
delicate, strong and truthful; but the trite, obliterated features of
too many of his heroes have already wearied two generations of
readers. At times his characters will speak with something far beyond
propriety with a true heroic note; but on the next page they will be
wading wearily forward with an ungrammatical and undramatic rigmarole
of words. The man who could conceive and write the character of
Elspeth of the Craigburnfoot,[34] as Scott has conceived and written
it, had not only splendid romantic, but splendid tragic gifts. How
comes it, then, that he could so often fob us off with languid,
inarticulate twaddle?

It seems to me that the explanation is to be found in the very quality
of his surprising merits. As his books are play to the reader, so
were, they play to him. He conjured up the romantic with delight, but
he had hardly patience to describe it. He was a great day-dreamer, a
seer of fit and beautiful and humorous visions, but hardly a great
artist; hardly, in the manful sense, an artist at all. He pleased
himself, and so he pleases us. Of the pleasures of his art he tasted
fully; but of its toils and vigils and distresses never man knew less.
A great romantic--an idle child.


This essay first appeared in _Longman's Magazine_ for November 1882,
Vol. I, pp. 69-79. Five years later it was published in the volume
_Memories and Portraits_ (1887), followed by an article called _A
Humble Remonstrance_, which should really be read in connection with
this essay, as it is a continuation of the same line of thought. In
the eternal conflict between Romanticism and Realism, Stevenson was
heart and soul with the former, and fortunately he lived long enough
to see the practical effects of his own precepts and influence. When
he began to write, Realism in fiction seemed to have absolute control;
when he died, a tremendous reaction in favor of the historical romance
had already set in, that reached its climax with the death of the
century. Stevenson's share in this Romantic revival was greater than
that of any other English writer, and as an English review remarked,
if it had not been for him most of the new authors would have been
Howells and James young men.

This paper was written at Davos in the winter of 1881-2, and in
February, writing to Henley, the author said, "I have just finished a
paper, 'A Gossip on Romance,' in which I have tried to do, very
popularly, about one-half of the matter you wanted me to try. In a
way, I have found an answer to the question. But the subject was
hardly fit for so chatty a paper, and it is all loose ends. If ever I
do my book on the Art of Literature, I shall gather them together and
be clear." (_Letters_, I, 269). On Dec. 8, 1884--the same month in
which _A Humble Remonstrance_ was printed, Stevenson wrote an
interesting letter to Henry James, whose views on the art of fiction
were naturally contrary to those of his friend. See _Letters_, I, 402.

[Note 1: _Like a pig for truffles_. See the _Epilogue_ to Browning's
_Pacchiarotto etc_., Stanza XVIII:--"Your product is--truffles, you
hunt with a pig!"]

[Note 2: _The Malabar coast_. A part of India.]

[Note 3: _Jacobite_. After James II was driven from the throne in
1688, his supporters and those of his descendants were called
Jacobites. Jacobus is the Latin for James.]

[Note 4: _John Rann or Jerry Abershaw_. John Rann I cannot find. Louis
Jeremiah (or Jerry) Abershaw was a highway robber, who infested the
roads near London; he was hung in 1795, when scarcely over twenty-one
years old.]

[Note 5: "_Great North road_." The road that runs on the east of
England up to Edinburgh. Stevenson yielded to the charm that these
words had for him, for he began a romance with the title, _The Great
North Road_, which however, he never finished. It was published as a
fragment in _The Illustrated London News_, in 1895.]

[Note 6: _What will he Do with It_? One of Bulwer-Lytton's novels,
published in 1858.]

[Note 7: Since traced by many obliging correspondents to the gallery
of Charles Kingsley.]

[Note 8: _Conduct is three parts of life_. In _Literature and Dogma_
(1873) Matthew Arnold asserted with great emphasis, that conduct was
three-fourths of life.]

[Note 9: _The sight of a pleasant arbour_. Possibly a reminiscence of
the arbour in _Pilgrim's Progress_, where Christian fell asleep, and
lost his roll. "Now about the midway to the top of the hill was a
pleasant arbour."]

[Note 10: "_Miching mallecho." Hamlet's_ description of the meaning of
the Dumb Show in the play-scene, Act III, Sc. 2. "Hidden
treachery"--see any annotated edition of _Hamlet_.]

[Note 11: _Burford Bridge ... Keats ... Endymion ... Nelson ... Emma
... the old Hawes Inn at the Queen's Ferry_. Burford Bridge is close
to Dorking in Surrey, England: in the old inn, Keats wrote a part of
his poem _Endymion_ (published 1818). The room where he composed is
still on exhibition. Two letters by Keats, which are exceedingly
important to the student of his art as a poet, were written from
Burford Bridge in November 1817. See Colvin's edition of Keats's
Letters, pp. 40-46.... "Emma" is Lady Hamilton, whom Admiral Nelson
loved.... Queen's Ferry (properly _Queensferry_) is on the Firth of
Forth, Scotland. See a few lines below in the text, where Stevenson
gives the reference to the opening pages of Scott's novel the
_Antiquary_, which begins in the old inn at this place. See also page
105 of the text, and Stevenson's foot note, where he declares that he
did make use of Queensferry in his novel _Kidnapped_ (1886)(Chapter

[Note 12: Since the above was written I have tried to launch the boat
with my own hands in _Kidnapped_. Some day, perhaps, I may try a
rattle at the shutters.]

[Note 13: _Crusoe ... Achilles ... Ulysses ... Christian_. When
Robinson Crusoe saw the footprint on the sand, and realised he was not
alone.... To a reader of to-day the great hero Achilles seems to be
all bluster and selfish childishness; the true gentleman of the Iliad
is _Hector_.... When Ulysses returned home in the _Odyssey_, he bent
with ease the bow that had proved too much for all the suitors of his
lonely and faithful wife Penelope.... Christian "had not run far from
his own door when his wife and children, perceiving it, began to cry
after him to return; but the man put his fingers in his ears and ran
on crying, 'Life! Life! eternal Life!'"_--Pilgrim's Progress_.]

[Note 14: _]_. The Greek heavy-weight in Homer's _Iliad_.

[Note 15: _English people of the present day_. This was absolutely
true in 1882. But in 1892 a complete revolution in taste had set in,
and many of the most hardened realists were forced to write wild
romances, or lose their grip on the public. At this time, Stevenson
naturally had no idea how powerfully his as yet unwritten romances
were to affect the literary market.]

[Note 16: _Mr. Trollope's ... chronicling small beer ... Rawdon
Crawley's blow_. Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) wrote an immense number
of mildly entertaining novels concerned with the lives and ambitions
of English clergymen and their satellites. His best-known book is
probably _Barchester Towers_ (1857).... _Chronicling small beer_ is
the "lame and impotent conclusion" with which Iago finishes his poem
(_Othello_, Act II, Sc. I).... _Rawdon Crawley's blow_ refers to the
most memorable scene in Thackeray's great novel, _Vanity Fair_
(1847-8), where Rawdon Crawley, the husband of Becky Sharp, strikes
Lord Steyne in the face (Chap. LIII). After writing this powerful
scene, Thackeray was in a state of tremendous excitement, and slapping
his knee, said, "That's Genius!"]

[Note 17: _The end of Esmond ... pure Dumas_. Thackeray's romance
_Henry Esmond_ (1852) is regarded by many critics as the greatest work
of fiction in the English language; Stevenson here calls it "the best
of all his books." The scene Stevenson refers to is where Henry is
finally cured of his love for Beatrix, and theatrically breaks his
sword in the presence of the royal admirer (Book III, Chap. 13).
Alexander Dumas (1803-1370), author of _Monte Cristo_ and _Les Trois
Mousquetaires_. Stevenson playfully calls him "the great, unblushing
French thief"; all he means is that Dumas never hesitated to
appropriate material wherever he found it, and work it into his

[Note 18: _The living fame of Robinson Crusoe with the discredit of
Clarissa Harlowe_. A strong contrast between the romance of incident
and the analytical novel. For remarks on _Clarissa_, see our Note 9 of
Chapter IV above.]

[Note 19: _Byronism_. About the time Lord Byron was publishing _Childe
Harold_ (1812-1818) a tremendous wave of romantic melancholy swept
over all the countries of Europe. Innumerable poems and romances
dealing with mysteriously-sad heroes were written in imitation of
Byron; and young authors wore low, rolling collars, and tried to look
depressed. See Gautier's _Histoire du Romantisme._ Now the death of
Lovelace (in a duel) in Richardson's _Clarissa_, was pitched in
exactly the Byronic key, though at that time Byron had not been
born.... The Elizabethans were of course thoroughly romantic.]

[Note 20: _Faria_..._Dantès_. Characters in Dumas's _Monte Cristo_

[Note 21: _Lucy and Richard Feveril_. Usually spelled "Feverel."
Stevenson strangely enough, was always a bad speller. The reference
here is to one of Stevenson's favorite novels _The Ordeal of Richard
Feverel_ (1859) by George Meredith. Stevenson's idolatrous praise of
this particular scene in the novel is curious, for no greater contrast
in English literary style can be found than that between Meredith's
and his own. For another reference by Stevenson to the older novelist,
see our Note 47 of Chapter IV above.]

[Note 22: _Robinson Crusoe is as realistic as it is romantic_. Therein
lies precisely the charm of this book for boyish minds; the details
are given with such candour that it seems as if they must all be true.
At heart, Defoe was an intense realist, as well as the first English

[Note 23: _The arrival of Haydn_. For a note on George Sand's novel
_Consuelo_ see Note 9 of Chapter IV above.]

[Note 24: _A joy for ever_. The first line of Keats's poem _Endymion_
is "A thing of beauty is a joy forever."]

[Note 25: _The Sailor's Sweetheart_. Mr. W. Clark Russell, born in New
York in 1844, has written many popular tales of the sea. His first
success was _The Wreck of the Grosvenor_ (1876); _The Sailor's
Sweetheart_, more properly, _A Sailor's Sweetheart_, was published in

[Note 26: _Swiss Family Robinson_. A German story, _Der schweizerische
Robinson_ (1812) by J.D. Wyss (1743-1818). This story is not so
popular as it used to be.]

[Note 27: _Verne's Mysterious Island_. Jules Verne, who died at
Amiens, France, in 1904, wrote an immense number of romances, which,
translated into many languages, have delighted young readers all over
the world. _The Mysterious Island_ is a sequel to _Twenty Thousand
Leagues under the Sea_.]

[Note 28: _Eugène de Rastignac_. A character in Balzac's novel, Père

[Note 29: _The Lady of the Lake_. This poem, published in 1810, is as
Stevenson implies, not so much a poem as a rattling good story told in

[Note 30: _The Pirate_. A novel by Scott, published in 1821. It was
the cause of Cooper's writing _The Pilot_. See Cooper's preface to the
latter novel.]

[Note 31: _Guy Mannering_. Also by Scott. Published 1815.]

[Note 32: _Miss Braddon's idea_. Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Maxwell),
born in 1837, published her first novel, _The Trail of the Serpent_,
in 1860. She has written a large number of sensational works of
fiction, very popular with an uncritical class of readers. Perhaps her
best-known book is _Lady Audley's Secret_ (1862). It would be well for
the student to refer to the scenes in _Guy Mannering_ which Stevenson
calls the "_Four strong notes_."]

[Note 33: _Mrs. Todgers's idea of a wooden leg_. Mrs. Todgers is a
character in Dickens's novel, _Martin Chuzzlewit_ (1843-4).]

[Note 34: _Elspeth of the Craigburnfoot_. A character in the
_Antiquary_ (1816).]



The civilisation, the manners, and the morals of dog-kind[1] are to a
great extent subordinated to those of his ancestral master, man. This
animal, in many ways so superior, has accepted a position of
inferiority, shares the domestic life, and humours the caprices of the
tyrant. But the potentate, like the British in India, pays small
regard to the character of his willing client, judges him with
listless glances, and condemns him in a byword. Listless have been the
looks of his admirers, who have exhausted idle terms of praise, and
buried the poor soul below exaggerations. And yet more idle and, if
possible, more unintelligent has been the attitude of his express
detractors; those who are very fond of dogs "but in their proper
place"; who say "poo' fellow, poo' fellow," and are themselves far
poorer; who whet the knife of the vivisectionist or heat his oven;[2]
who are not ashamed to admire "the creature's instinct"; and flying
far beyond folly, have dared to resuscitate the theory of animal
machines. The "dog's instinct" and the "automaton-dog," in this age of
psychology and science, sound like strange anachronisms. An automaton
he certainly is; a machine working independently of his control, the
heart like the mill-wheel, keeping all in motion, and the
consciousness, like a person shut in the mill garret, enjoying the
view out of the window and shaken by the thunder of the stones; an
automaton in one corner of which a living spirit is confined: an
automaton like man. Instinct again he certainly possesses. Inherited
aptitudes are his, inherited frailties. Some things he at once views
and understands, as though he were awakened from a sleep, as though he
came "trailing clouds of glory."[3] But with him, as with man, the
field of instinct is limited; its utterances are obscure and
occasional; and about the far larger part of life both the dog and his
master must conduct their steps by deduction and observation.

The leading distinction[4] between dog and man, after and perhaps
before the different duration of their lives, is that the one can
speak and that the other cannot. The absence of the power of speech
confines the dog in the development of his intellect. It hinders him
from many speculations, for words are the beginning of metaphysic. At
the same blow it saves him from many superstitions, and his silence
has won for him a higher name for virtue than his conduct justifies.
The faults of the dog[5] are many. He is vainer than man, singularly
greedy of notice, singularly intolerant of ridicule, suspicious like
the deaf, jealous to the degree of frenzy, and radically devoid of
truth. The day of an intelligent small dog is passed in the
manufacture and the laborious communication of falsehood; he lies with
his tail, he lies with his eye, he lies with his protesting paw; and
when he rattles his dish or scratches at the door his purpose is other
than appears. But he has some apology to offer for the vice. Many of
the signs which form his dialect have come to bear an arbitrary
meaning, clearly understood both by his master and himself; yet when a
new want arises he must either invent a new vehicle of meaning or
wrest an old one to a different purpose; and this necessity frequently
recurring must tend to lessen his idea of the sanctity of symbols.
Meanwhile the dog is clear in his own conscience, and draws, with a
human nicety, the distinction between formal and essential truth. Of
his punning perversions, his legitimate dexterity with symbols, he is
even vain; but when he has told and been detected in a lie, there is
not a hair upon his body but confesses guilt. To a dog of gentlemanly
feeling theft and falsehood are disgraceful vices. The canine, like
the human, gentleman demands in his misdemeanours Montaigne's "_je ne
sais quoi de genéréux_."[6] He is never more than half ashamed of
having barked or bitten; and for those faults into which he has been
led by the desire to shine before a lady of his race, he retains, even
under physical correction, a share of pride. But to be caught lying,
if he understands it, instantly uncurls his fleece.

Just as among dull observers he preserves a name for truth, the dog
has been credited with modesty. It is amazing how the use of language
blunts the faculties of man---that because vainglory finds no vent in
words, creatures supplied with eyes have been unable to detect a fault
so gross and obvious. If a small spoiled dog were suddenly to be
endowed with speech, he would prate interminably, and still about
himself; when we had friends, we should be forced to lock him in a
garret; and what with his whining jealousies and his foible for
falsehood, in a year's time he would have gone far to weary out our
love. I was about to compare him to Sir Willoughby Patterne,[7] but
the Patternes have a manlier sense of their own merits; and the
parallel, besides, is ready. Hans Christian Andersen,[8] as we behold
him in his startling memoirs, thrilling from top to toe with an
excruciating vanity, and scouting even along the street for shadows of
offence--here was the talking dog.

It is just this rage for consideration that has betrayed the dog into
his satellite position as the friend of man. The cat, an animal of
franker appetites, preserves his independence. But the dog, with one
eye ever on the audience, has been wheedled into slavery, and praised
and patted into the renunciation of his nature. Once he ceased
hunting[9] and became man's plate-licker, the Rubicon was crossed.
Thenceforth he was a gentleman of leisure; and except the few whom we
keep working, the whole race grew more and more self-conscious,
mannered and affected. The number of things that a small dog does
naturally is strangely small. Enjoying better spirits and not crushed
under material cares, he is far more theatrical than average man. His
whole life, if he be a dog of any pretension to gallantry, is spent in
a vain show, and in the hot pursuit of admiration. Take out your puppy
for a walk, and you will find the little ball of fur clumsy, stupid,
bewildered, but natural. Let but a few months pass, and when you
repeat the process you will find nature buried in convention. He will
do nothing plainly; but the simplest processes of our material life
will all be bent into the forms of an elaborate and mysterious
etiquette. Instinct, says the fool, has awakened. But it is not so.
Some dogs--some, at the very least--if they be kept separate from
others, remain quite natural; and these, when at length they meet with
a companion of experience, and have the game explained to them,
distinguish themselves by the severity of their devotion to its rules.
I wish I were allowed to tell a story which would radiantly illuminate
the point; but men, like dogs, have an elaborate and mysterious
etiquette. It is their bond of sympathy that both are the children of

The person, man or dog, who has a conscience is eternally condemned to
some degree of humbug; the sense of the law in their members[10]
fatally precipitates either towards a frozen and affected bearing. And
the converse is true; and in the elaborate and conscious manners of
the dog, moral opinions and the love of the ideal stand confessed. To
follow for ten minutes in the street some swaggering, canine cavalier,
is to receive a lesson in dramatic art and the cultured conduct of the
body; in every act and gesture you see him true to a refined
conception; and the dullest cur, beholding him, pricks up his ear and
proceeds to imitate and parody that charming ease. For to be a
high-mannered and high-minded gentleman, careless, affable, and gay,
is the inborn pretension of the dog. The large dog, so much lazier, so
much more weighed upon with matter, so majestic in repose, so
beautiful in effort, is born with the dramatic means to wholly
represent the part. And it is more pathetic and perhaps more
instructive to consider the small dog in his conscientious and
imperfect efforts to outdo Sir Philip Sidney.[11] For the ideal of the
dog is feudal and religious;[12] the ever-present polytheism, the
whip-bearing Olympus of mankind, rules them on the one hand; on the
other, their singular difference of size and strength among themselves
effectually prevents the appearance of the democratic notion. Or we
might more exactly compare their society to the curious spectacle
presented by a school--ushers, monitors, and big and little
boys--qualified by one circumstance, the introduction of the other
sex. In each, we should observe a somewhat similar tension of manner,
and somewhat similar points of honour. In each the larger animal keeps
a contemptuous good humour; in each the smaller annoys him with
wasp-like impudence, certain of practical immunity; in each we shall
find a double life producing double characters, and an excursive and
noisy heroism combined with a fair amount of practical timidity. I
have known dogs, and I have known school heroes that, set aside the
fur, could hardly have been told apart; and if we desire to understand
the chivalry of old, we must turn to the school playfields or the
dungheap where the dogs are trooping.

Woman, with the dog, has been long enfranchised. Incessant massacre of
female innocents has changed the proportions of the sexes and
perverted their relations. Thus, when we regard the manners of the
dog, we see a romantic and monogamous animal, once perhaps as delicate
as the cat, at war with impossible conditions. Man has much to answer
for; and the part he plays is yet more damnable and parlous[13] than
Corin's in the eyes of Touchstone. But his intervention has at least
created an imperial situation for the rare surviving ladies. In that
society they reign without a rival: conscious queens; and in the only
instance of a canine wife-beater that has ever fallen under my notice,
the criminal was somewhat excused by the circumstances of his story.
He is a little, very alert, well-bred, intelligent Skye, as black as a
hat, with a wet bramble for a nose and two cairn-gorms[14] for eyes.
To the human observer, he is decidedly well-looking; but to the ladies
of his race he seems abhorrent. A thorough elaborate gentleman, of the
plume and sword-knot order, he was born with the nice sense of
gallantry to women. He took at their hands the most outrageous
treatment; I have heard him bleating like a sheep, I have seen him
streaming blood, and his ear tattered like a regimental banner; and
yet he would scorn to make reprisals. Nay more, when a human lady
upraised the contumelious whip against the very dame who had been so
cruelly misusing him, my little great-heart gave but one hoarse cry
and fell upon the tyrant tooth and nail. This is the tale of a soul's
tragedy.[15] After three years of unavailing chivalry, he suddenly, in
one hour, threw off the yoke of obligation; had he been Shakespeare he
would then have written _Troilus and Cressida_[16] to brand the
offending sex; but being only a little dog, he began to bite them. The
surprise of the ladies whom he attacked indicated the monstrosity of
his offence; but he had fairly beaten off his better angel, fairly
committed moral suicide; for almost in the same hour, throwing aside
the last rags of decency, he proceeded to attack the aged also. The
fact is worth remark, showing as it does, that ethical laws are common
both to dogs and men; and that with both a single deliberate violation
of the conscience loosens all. "But while the lamp holds on to burn,"
says the paraphrase, "the greatest sinner may return."[17] I have been
cheered to see symptoms of effectual penitence in my sweet ruffian;
and by the handling that he accepted uncomplainingly the other day
from an indignant fair one, I begin to hope the period of _Sturm und
Drang_[18] is closed.

All these little gentlemen are subtle casuists. The duty to the female
dog is plain; but where competing duties rise, down they will sit and
study them out like Jesuit confessors.[19] I knew another little Skye,
somewhat plain in manner and appearance, but a creature compact of
amiability and solid wisdom. His family going abroad for a winter, he
was received for that period by an uncle in the same city. The winter
over, his own family home again, and his own house (of which he was
very proud) reopened, he found himself in a dilemma between two
conflicting duties of loyalty and gratitude. His old friends were not
to be neglected, but it seemed hardly decent to desert the new. This
was how he solved the problem. Every morning, as soon as the door was
opened, off posted Coolin to his uncle's, visited the children in the
nursery, saluted the whole family, and was back at home in time for
breakfast and his bit of fish. Nor was this done without a sacrifice
on his part, sharply felt; for he had to forego the particular honour
and jewel of his day--his morning's walk with my father. And perhaps,
from this cause, he gradually wearied of and relaxed the practice, and
at length returned entirely to his ancient habits. But the same
decision served him in another and more distressing case of divided
duty, which happened not long after. He was not at all a kitchen dog,
but the cook had nursed him with unusual kindness during the
distemper; and though he did not adore her as he adored my
father--although (born snob) he was critically conscious of her
position as "only a servant"--he still cherished for her a special
gratitude. Well, the cook left, and retired some streets away to
lodgings of her own; and there was Coolin in precisely the same
situation with any young gentleman who has had the inestimable benefit
of a faithful nurse. The canine conscience did not solve the problem
with a pound of tea at Christmas. No longer content to pay a flying
visit, it was the whole forenoon that he dedicated to his solitary
friend. And so, day by day, he continued to comfort her solitude until
(for some reason which I could never understand and cannot approve) he
was kept locked up to break him of the graceful habit. Here, it is not
the similarity, it is the difference, that is worthy of remark; the
clearly marked degrees of gratitude and the proportional duration of
his visits. Anything further removed from instinct it were hard to
fancy; and one is even stirred to a certain impatience with a
character so destitute of spontaneity, so passionless in justice, and
so priggishly obedient to the voice of reason.

There are not many dogs like this good Coolin. and not many people.
But the type is one well marked, both in the human and the canine
family. Gallantry was not his aim, but a solid and somewhat oppressive
respectability. He was a sworn foe to the unusual and the conspicuous,
a praiser of the golden mean, a kind of city uncle modified by
Cheeryble.[20] And as he was precise and conscientious in all the
steps of his own blameless course, he looked for the same precision
and an even greater gravity in the bearing of his deity, my father. It
was no sinecure to be Coolin's idol; he was exacting like a rigid
parent; and at every sign of levity in the man whom he respected, he
announced loudly the death of virtue and the proximate fall of the
pillars of the earth.

I have called him a snob; but all dogs are so, though in varying
degrees. It is hard to follow their snobbery among themselves; for
though I think we can perceive distinctions of rank, we cannot grasp
what is the criterion. Thus in Edinburgh, in a good part of the town,
there were several distinct societies or clubs that met in the morning
to--the phrase is technical--to "rake the backets"[21] in a troop. A
friend of mine, the master of three dogs, was one day surprised to
observe that they had left one club and joined another; but whether it
was a rise or a fall, and the result of an invitation or an expulsion,
was more than he could guess. And this illustrates pointedly our
ignorance of the real life of dogs, their social ambitions and their
social hierarchies. At least, in their dealings with men they are not
only conscious of sex, but of the difference of station. And that in
the most snobbish manner; for the poor man's dog is not offended by
the notice of the rich, and keeps all his ugly feeling for those
poorer or more ragged than his master. And again, for every station
they have an ideal of behaviour, to which the master, under pain of
derogation, will do wisely to conform. How often has not a cold glance
of an eye informed me that my dog was disappointed; and how much more
gladly would he not have taken a beating than to be thus wounded in
the seat of piety!

I knew one disrespectable dog. He was far liker a cat; cared little or
nothing for men, with whom he merely coexisted as we do with cattle,
and was entirely devoted to the art of poaching. A house would not
hold him, and to live in a town was what he refused. He led, I
believe, a life of troubled but genuine pleasure, and perished beyond
all question in a trap. But this was an exception, a marked reversion
to the ancestral type; like the hairy human infant. The true dog of
the nineteenth century, to judge by the remainder of my fairly large
acquaintance, is in love with respectability. A street-dog was once
adopted by a lady. While still an Arab, he had done as Arabs do,
gambolling in the mud, charging into butchers' stalls, a cat-hunter, a
sturdy beggar, a common rogue and vagabond; but with his rise into
society he laid aside these inconsistent pleasures. He stole no more,
he hunted no more cats; and conscious of his collar he ignored his old
companions. Yet the canine upper class was never brought to recognize
the upstart, and from that hour, except for human countenance, he was
alone. Friendless, shorn of his sports and the habits of a lifetime,
he still lived in a glory of happiness, content with his acquired
respectability, and with no care but to support it solemnly. Are we to
condemn or praise this self-made dog! We praise his human brother. And
thus to conquer vicious habits is as rare with dogs as with men. With
the more part, for all their scruple-mongering and moral thought, the
vices that are born with them remain invincible throughout; and they
live all their years, glorying in their virtues, but still the slaves
of their defects. Thus the sage Coolin was a thief to the last; among
a thousand peccadilloes, a whole goose and a whole cold leg of mutton
lay upon his conscience; but Woggs,[22] whose soul's shipwreck in the
matter of gallantry I have recounted above, has only twice been known
to steal, and has often nobly conquered the temptation. The eighth is
his favourite commandment. There is something painfully human in these
unequal virtues and mortal frailties of the best. Still more painful
is the bearing of those "stammering professors"[23] in the house of
sickness and under the terror of death. It is beyond a doubt to me
that, somehow or other, the dog connects together, or confounds, the
uneasiness of sickness and the consciousness of guilt. To the pains of
the body he often adds the tortures of the conscience; and at these
times his haggard protestations form, in regard to the human deathbed,
a dreadful parody or parallel.

I once supposed that I had found an inverse relation between the
double etiquette which dogs obey; and that those who were most
addicted to the showy street life among other dogs were less careful
in the practice of home virtues for the tyrant man. But the female
dog, that mass of carneying[24] affectations, shines equally in either
sphere; rules her rough posse of attendant swains with unwearying tact
and gusto; and with her master and mistress pushes the arts of
insinuation to their crowning point. The attention of man and the
regard of other dogs flatter (it would thus appear) the same
sensibility; but perhaps, if we could read the canine heart, they
would be found to flatter it in very marked degrees. Dogs live with
man as courtiers round a monarch, steeped in the flattery of his
notice and enriched with sinecures. To push their favour in this world
of pickings and caresses is, perhaps, the business of their lives; and
their joys may lie outside. I am in despair at our persistent
ignorance. I read in the lives of our companions the same processes of
reason, the same antique and fatal conflicts of the right against the
wrong, and of unbitted nature with too rigid custom; I see them with
our weaknesses, vain, false, inconstant against appetite, and with our
one stalk of virtue, devoted to the dream of an ideal; and yet, as
they hurry by me on the street with tail in air, or come singly to
solicit my regard, I must own the secret purport of their lives is
still inscrutable to man. Is man the friend, or is he the patron only?
Have they indeed forgotten nature's voice? or are those moments
snatched from courtiership when they touch noses with the tinker's
mongrel, the brief reward and pleasure of their artificial lives?
Doubtless, when man shares with his dog the toils of a profession and
the pleasures of an art, as with the shepherd or the poacher, the
affection warms and strengthens till it fills the soul. But doubtless,
also, the masters are, in many cases, the object of a merely
interested cultus, sitting aloft like Louis Quatorze,[25] giving and
receiving flattery and favour; and the dogs, like the majority of men,
have but forgotten their true existence and become the dupes of their


This article originally appeared in _The English Illustrated Magazine_
for May 1883, Vol. I, pp. 300-305. It was accompanied with
illustrations by Randolph Caldecott. The essay was later included in
the volume _Memories and Portraits_ (1887).

The astonishing fidelity and devotion of the dog to his master have
certainly been in part repaid by men of letters in all times. A
valuable essay might be written on the Dog's Place in Literature; in
the poetry of the East, hundreds of years before Christ, the dog's
faithfulness was more than once celebrated. One of the most marvellous
passages in Homer's _Odyssey_ is the recognition of the ragged Ulysses
by the noble old dog, who dies of joy. In recent years, since the
publication of Dr. John Brown's _Rab and his Friends_ (1858), the dog
has approached an apotheosis. Among innumerable sketches and stories
with canine heroes may be mentioned Bret Harte's extraordinary
portrait of _Boonder_: M. Maeterlinck's essay on dogs: Richard Harding
Davis's _The Bar Sinister_: Jack London's _The Call of the Wild_: and
best of all, Alfred Ollivant's splendid story _Bob, Son of Battle_
(1898) which has every indication of becoming an English classic. It
is a pity that dogs cannot read.

[Note 1: _The morals of dog-kind_. Stevenson discusses this subject
again in his essay _Pulvis et Umbra_ (1888).]

[Note 2: _Who whet the knife of the vivisectionist or heat his oven_.
Stevenson was so sympathetic by nature that once, seeing a man beating
a dog, he interfered, crying, "It's not your dog, it's God's dog." On
the subject of vivisection, however his biographer says: "It must be
laid to the credit of his reason and the firm balance of his judgment
that although vivisection was a subject he could not endure even to
have mentioned, yet, with all his imagination and sensibility, he
never ranged himself among the opponents of this method of inquiry,
provided, of course, it was limited, as in England, with the utmost
rigour possible."--Balfour's _Life_, II, 217. The two most powerful
opponents of vivisection among Stevenson's contemporaries were Ruskin
and Browning. The former resigned the Professorship of Poetry at
Oxford because vivisection was permitted at the University: and the
latter in two poems _Tray_ and _Arcades Ambo_ treated the
vivisectionists with contempt, implying that they were cowards. In
Bernard Shaw's clever novel _Cashel Byron's Profession_, The
prize-fighter maintains that his profession is more honorable than
that of a man who bakes dogs in an oven. This novel, by the way, which
he read in the winter of 1887-88, made an extraordinary impression on
Stevenson; he recognised its author's originality and cleverness
immediately, and was filled with curiosity as to what kind of person
this Shaw might be. "Tell me more of the inimitable author," he cried.
It is a pity that Stevenson did not live to see the vogue of Shaw as a
dramatist, for the latter's early novels produced practically no
impression on the public. See Stevenson's highly entertaining letter
to William Archer, _Letters_, II, 107.]

[Note 3: "_Trailing clouds of glory_." _Trailing with him clouds of
glory._ This passage, from Wordsworth's _Ode on the Intimations of
Immortality_ (1807), was a favorite one with Stevenson, and he quotes
it several times in various essays.]

[Note 4: _The leading distinction_. Those who know dogs will fully
agree with Stevenson here.]

[Note 5: _The faults of the dog_. All lovers of dogs will by no means
agree with Stevenson in his enumeration of canine sins.]

[Note 6: _Montaigne's "je ne sais quoi de généreux_." A bit of
generosity. Montaigne's _Essays_ (1580) had an enormous influence on
Stevenson, as they have had on nearly all literary men for three
hundred years. See his article in this volume, _Books Which Save
Influenced Me_, and the discussion of the "personal essay" in our
general Introduction.]

[Note 7: _Sir Willoughby Patterne_. Again a character in Meredith's
_Egoist_. See our Note 47 of Chapter IV above.]

[Note 8: _Hans Christian Andersen_. A Danish writer of prodigious
popularity: born 1805, died 1875. His books were translated into many
languages. The "memoirs" Stevenson refers to, were called _The Story
of My Life_, in which the author brought the narrative only so far as
1847: it was, however, finished by another hand. He is well known to
juvenile readers by his _Stories for Children_.]

[Note 9: _Once he ceased hunting and became man's plate-licker, the
Rubicon was crossed_. For a reversion to type, where the plate-licker
goes back to hunting, see Mr. London's powerful story, _The Call of
the Wild_. ... The "Rubicon" was a small stream separating Cisalpine
Gaul from Italy. Caesar crossed it in 49 B. C, thus taking a decisive
step in deliberately advancing into Italy. "Plutarch, in his life of
Caesar, makes quite a dramatic scene out of the crossing of the
Rubicon. Caesar does not even mention it."--B. Perrin's ed. of
_Caesar's Civil War_, p. 142.]

[Note 10: _The law in their members. Romans_, VII, 23. "But I see
another law in my members."]

[Note 11: _Sir Philip Sidney_. The stainless Knight of Elizabeth's
Court, born 1554, died 1586. The pages of history afford no better
illustration of the "gentleman and the scholar." Poet, romancer,
critic, courtier, soldier, his beautiful life was crowned by a noble

[Note 12: _The ideal of the dog is feudal and religious_. Maeterlinck
says the dog is the only being who has found and is absolutely sure of
his God.]

[Note 13: _Damnable and parlous than Corin's in the eyes of
Touchstone_. See _As You Like It_, Act III, Sc. 2. "Sin is damnation:
Thou art in a parlous state, shepherd."]

[Note 14: _Cairn-gorms_. Brown or yellow quartz, found in the mountain
of Cairngorm, Scotland, over 4000 feet high. Stevenson's own dog,
"Woggs" or "Bogue," was a black Skye terrier, whom the author seems
here to have in mind. See Note 20 of this Chapter, below, "Woggs."]

[Note 15: _A Soul's Tragedy_. The title of a tragedy by Browning,
published in 1846.]

[Note 16: _Troilus and Cressida_. One of the most bitter and cynical
plays ever written; practically never seen on the English stage, it
was successfully revived at Berlin, in September 1904.]

[Note 17: "_While the lamp holds on to burn ... the greatest sinner
may return_." From a hymn by Isaac Watts (1674-1748), beginning

  "Life is the time to serve the Lord,
  The time to insure the great reward;
  And while the lamp holds out to burn,
  The vilest sinner may return."

Although this stanza has no remarkable merit, many of Watts's hymns
are genuine poetry.]

[Note 18: _Sturm und Drang_. This German expression has been well
translated "Storm and Stress." It was applied to the literature in
Germany (and in Europe) the latter part of the XVIIIth century, which
was characterised by emotional excess of all kinds. A typical book of
the period was Goethe's _Sorrows of Werther_ (_Die Leiden des jungen
Werthers_, 1774). The expression is also often applied to the period
of adolescence in the life of the individual.]

[Note 19: _Jesuit confessors_. The Jesuits, or Society of Jesus, one
of the most famous religious orders of the Roman Catholic Church, was
founded in 1534 by Ignatius of Loyola and a few others.]

[Note 20: _Modified by Cheeryble_. The Cheeryble Brothers are
characters in Dickens's _Nicholas Nickleby_ (1838-9). Dickens said in
his Preface, "Those who take an interest in this tale, will be glad to
learn that the BROTHERS CHEERYBLE live: that their liberal charity,
their singleness of heart, their noble nature ... are no creations of
the Author's brain."]

[Note 21: "_Rake the backets_." The "backet" is a small, square,
wooden trough generally used for ashes and waste.]

[Note 22: _Woggs_ (_and Note: Walter, Watty, Woggy, Woggs, Wog, and
lastly Bogue; under which last name he fell in battle some twelve
months ago. Glory was his aim and he attained it; for his icon, by the
hand of Caldecott, now lies among the treasures of the nation.)
Stevenson's well-beloved black Skye terrier. See Balfour's _Life_, I,
212, 223. Stevenson was so deeply affected by Woggs's death that he
could not bear ever to own another dog. A Latin inscription was placed
on his tombstone.... This Note was added in 1887, when the essay
appeared in _Memories and Portraits_. "Icon" means image (cf.
_iconoclast_); the word has lately become familiar through the
religious use of icons by the Russians in the war with Japan. Randolph
Caldecott (1846-1886) was a well-known artist and prominent
contributor of sketches to illustrated magazines.]

[Note 23: "_Stammering Professors_." A "professor" here means simply a
professing Christian. Stevenson alludes to the fact that dogs howl
fearfully if some one in the house is dying.]

[Note 24: "_Carneying_." This means coaxing, wheedling.]

[Note 25: _Louis Quatorze_. Louis XIV of France, who died in 1715,
after a reign of 72 years, the longest reign of any monarch in
history. His absolutism and complete disregard of the people
unconsciously prepared the way for the French Revolution in 1789.]




All through my boyhood and youth, I was known and pointed out for the
pattern of an idler;[1] and yet I was always busy on my own private
end, which was to learn to write. I kept always two books in my
pocket, one to read, one to write in. As I walked, my mind was busy
fitting what I saw with appropriate words; when I sat by the roadside,
I would either read, or a pencil and a penny version-book would be in
my hand, to note down the features of the scene or commemorate some
halting stanzas. Thus I lived with words. And what I thus wrote was
for no ulterior use, it was written consciously for practice. It was
not so much that I wished to be an author (though I wished that too)
as that I had vowed that I would learn to write. That was a
proficiency that tempted me; and I practised to acquire it, as men
learn to whittle, in a wager with myself. Description was the
principal field of my exercise; for to any one with senses there is
always something worth describing, and town and country are but one
continuous subject. But I worked in other ways also; often accompanied
my walks with dramatic dialogues, in which I played many parts; and
often exercised myself in writing down conversations from memory.

This was all excellent, no doubt; so were the diaries I sometimes
tried to keep, but always and very speedily discarded, finding them a
school of posturing[2] and melancholy self-deception. And yet this was
not the most efficient part of my training. Good though it was, it
only taught me (so far as I have learned them at all) the lower and
less intellectual elements of the art, the choice of the essential
note and the right word: things that to a happier constitution had
perhaps come by nature. And regarded as training, it had one grave
defect; for it set me no standard of achievement. So that there was
perhaps more profit, as there was certainly more effort, in my secret
labours at home. Whenever I read a book or a passage that particularly
pleased me, in which a thing was said or an effect rendered with
propriety, in which there was either some conspicuous force or some
happy distinction in the style, I must sit down at once and set myself
to ape that quality. I was unsuccessful, and I knew it; and tried
again, and was again unsuccessful and always unsuccessful; but at
least in these vain bouts, I got some practice in rhythm, in harmony,
in construction and the co-ordination of parts. I have thus played the
sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne,
to Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne, to Baudelaire and to
Obermann.[3] I remember one of these monkey tricks, which was called
_The Vanity of Morals_: it was to have had a second part, _The Vanity
of Knowledge_; and as I had neither morality nor scholarship, the
names were apt; but the second part was never attempted, and the first
part was written (which is my reason for recalling it, ghostlike, from
its ashes) no less than three times: first in the manner of Hazlitt,
second in the manner of Ruskin,[4] who had cast on me a passing spell,
and third, in a laborious pasticcio of Sir Thomas Browne. So with my
other works: _Cain_, an epic, was (save the mark!) an imitation of
_Sordello: Robin Hood_, a tale in verse, took an eclectic middle
course among the fields of Keats, Chaucer and Morris: in _Monmouth,_ a
tragedy, I reclined on the bosom of Mr. Swinburne; in my innumerable
gouty-footed lyrics, I followed many masters; in the first draft of
_The King's Pardon_, a tragedy, I was on the trail of no lesser man
than John Webster; in the second draft of the same piece, with
staggering versatility, I had shifted my allegiance to Congreve, and
of course conceived my fable in a less serious vein--for it was not
Congreve's verse, it was his exquisite prose, that I admired and
sought to copy. Even at the age of thirteen I had tried to do justice
to the inhabitants of the famous city of Peebles[5] in the style of
the _Book of Snobs_. So I might go on for ever, through all my
abortive novels, and down to my later plays,[6] of which I think more
tenderly, for they were not only conceived at first under the bracing
influence of old Dumas, but have met with, resurrections: one,
strangely bettered by another hand, came on the stage itself and was
played by bodily actors; the other, originally known as _Semiramis: a
Tragedy_, I have observed on bookstalls under the _alias_ of _Prince
Otto_. But enough has been said to show by what arts of impersonation,
and in what purely ventriloquial efforts I first saw my words on

That, like it or not, is the way to learn to write; whether I have
profited or not, that is the way. It was so Keats learned,[7] and
there was never a finer temperament for literature than Keats's; it
was so, if we could trace it out, that all men have learned; and that
is why a revival of letters is always accompanied or heralded by a
cast back to earlier and fresher models. Perhaps I hear someone cry
out: But this is not the way to be original! It is not; nor is there
any way but to be born so. Nor yet, if you are born original, is there
anything in this training that shall clip the wings of your
originality. There can be none more original than Montaigne,[8]
neither could any be more unlike Cicero; yet no craftsman can fail to
see how much the one must have tried in his time to imitate the other.
Burns[9] is the very type of a prime force in letters: he was of all
men the most imitative. Shakespeare himself, the imperial, proceeds
directly from a school. It is only from a school that we can expect to
have good writers; it is almost invariably from a school that great
writers, these lawless exceptions, issue. Nor is there anything here
that should astonish the considerate. Before he can tell what cadences
he truly prefers, the student should have tried all that are possible;
before he can choose and preserve a fitting key of words, he should
long have practised the literary scales;[10] and it is only after
years of such gymnastic that he can sit down at last, legions of words
swarming to his call, dozens of turns of phrase simultaneously bidding
for his choice, and he himself knowing what he wants to do and (within
the narrow limit of a man's ability) able to do it.

And it is the great point of these imitations that there still shines
beyond the student's reach his inimitable model. Let him try as he
please, he is still sure of failure; and it is a very old and a very
true saying that failure is the only highroad to success. I must have
had some disposition to learn; for I clear-sightedly condemned my own
performances. I liked doing them indeed; but when they were done, I
could see they were rubbish. In consequence, I very rarely showed them
even to my friends; and such friends as I chose to be my confidants I
must have chosen well, for they had the friendliness to be quite plain
with me. "Padding," said one. Another wrote: "I cannot understand why
you do lyrics so badly." No more could I! Thrice I put myself in the
way of a more authoritative rebuff, by sending a paper to a magazine.
These were returned; and I was not surprised nor even pained. If they
had not been looked at, as (like all amateurs) I suspected was the
case, there was no good in repeating the experiment; if they had been
looked at--well, then I had not yet learned to write, and I must keep
on learning and living. Lastly, I had a piece of good fortune which is
the occasion of this paper, and by which I was able to see my
literature in print, and to measure experimentally how far I stood
from the favour of the public.


The Speculative Society is a body of some antiquity, and has counted
among its members Scott, Brougham, Jeffrey, Horner, Benjamin Constant,
Robert Emmet, and many a legal and local celebrity besides. By an
accident, variously explained, it has its rooms in the very buildings
of the University of Edinburgh: a hall, Turkey-carpeted, hung with
pictures, looking, when lighted up at night with fire and candle, like
some goodly dining-room; a passage-like library, walled with books in
their wire cages; and a corridor with a fireplace, benches, a table,
many prints of famous members, and a mural tablet to the virtues of a
former secretary. Here a member can warm himself and loaf and read;
here, in defiance of Senatus-consults, he can smoke. The Senatus looks
askance at these privileges; looks even with a somewhat vinegar aspect
on the whole society; which argues a lack of proportion in the learned
mind, for the world, we may be sure, will prize far higher this haunt
of dead lions than all the living dogs of the professorate.

I sat one December morning in the library of the Speculative; a very
humble-minded youth, though it was a virtue I never had much credit
for; yet proud of my privileges as a member of the Spec.; proud of the
pipe I was smoking in the teeth of the Senatus; and in particular,
proud of being in the next room to three very distinguished students,
who were then conversing beside the corridor fire. One of these has
now his name on the back of several volumes, and his voice, I learn,
is influential in the law courts. Of the death of the second, you have
just been reading what I had to say. And the third also has escaped
out of that battle of life in which be fought so hard, it may be so
unwisely. They were all three, as I have said, notable students; but
this was the most conspicuous. Wealthy, handsome, ambitious,
adventurous, diplomatic, a reader of Balzac, and of all men that I
have known, the most like to one of Balzac's characters, he led a
life, and was attended by an ill fortune, that could be properly set
forth only in the _Comédie Humaine_. He had then his eye on
Parliament; and soon after the time of which I write, he made a showy
speech at a political dinner, was cried up to heaven next day in the
_Courant_, and the day after was dashed lower than earth with a charge
of plagiarism in the _Scotsman_. Report would have it (I daresay, very
wrongly) that he was betrayed by one in whom he particularly trusted,
and that the author of the charge had learned its truth from his own
lips. Thus, at least, he was up one day on a pinnacle, admired and
envied by all; and the next, though still but a boy, he was publicly
disgraced. The blow would have broken a less finely tempered spirit;
and even him I suppose it rendered reckless; for he took flight to
London, and there, in a fast club, disposed of the bulk of his
considerable patrimony in the space of one winter. For years
thereafter he lived I know not how; always well dressed, always in
good hotels and good society, always with empty pockets. The charm of
his manner may have stood him in good stead; but though my own manners
are very agreeable, I have never found in them a source of livelihood;
and to explain the miracle of his continued existence, I must fall
back upon the theory of the philosopher, that in his case, as in all
of the same kind, "there was a suffering relative in the background."
From this genteel eclipse he reappeared upon the scene, and presently
sought me out in the character of a generous editor. It is in this
part that I best remember him; tall, slender, with a not ungraceful
stoop; looking quite like a refined gentleman, and quite like an
urbane adventurer; smiling with an engaging ambiguity; cocking at you
one peaked eyebrow with a great appearance of finesse; speaking low
and sweet and thick, with a touch of burr; telling strange tales with
singular deliberation and, to a patient listener, excellent effect.
After all these ups and downs, he seemed still, like the rich student
that he was of yore, to breathe of money; seemed still perfectly sure
of himself and certain of his end. Yet he was then upon the brink of
his last overthrow. He had set himself to found the strangest thing in
our society: one of those periodical sheets from which men suppose
themselves to learn opinions; in which young gentlemen from the
universities are encouraged, at so much a line, to garble facts,
insult foreign nations and calumniate private individuals; and which
are now the source of glory, so that if a man's name be often enough
printed there, he becomes a kind of demigod; and people will pardon
him when he talks back and forth, as they do for Mr. Gladstone; and
crowd him to suffocation on railway platforms, as they did the other
day to General Boulanger; and buy his literary works, as I hope you
have just done for me. Our fathers, when they were upon some great
enterprise, would sacrifice a life; building, it may be, a favourite
slave into the foundations of their palace. It was with his own life
that my companion disarmed the envy of the gods. He fought his paper
single-handed; trusting no one, for he was something of a cynic; up
early and down late, for he was nothing of a sluggard; daily
earwigging influential men, for he was a master of ingratiation. In
that slender and silken fellow there must have been a rare vein of
courage, that he should thus have died at his employment; and
doubtless ambition spoke loudly in his ear, and doubtless love also,
for it seems there was a marriage in his view had he succeeded. But he
died, and his paper died after him; and of all this grace, and tact,
and courage, it must seem to our blind eyes as if there had come
literally nothing.

These three students sat, as I was saying, in the corridor, under the
mural tablet that records the virtues of Machean, the former
secretary. We would often smile at that ineloquent memorial, and
thought it a poor thing to come into the world at all and leave no
more behind one than Machean. And yet of these three, two are gone and
have left less; and this book, perhaps, when it is old and foxy, and
some one picks it up in a corner of a book-shop, and glances through
it, smiling at the old, graceless turns of speech, and perhaps for the
love of _Alma Mater_ (which may be still extant and flourishing) buys
it, not without haggling, for some pence--this book may alone preserve
a memory of James Walter Ferrier and Robert Glasgow Brown.

Their thoughts ran very differently on that December morning; they
were all on fire with ambition; and when they had called me in to
them, and made me a sharer in their design, I too became drunken with
pride and hope. We were to found a University magazine. A pair of
little, active brothers--Livingstone by name, great skippers on the
foot, great rubbers of the hands, who kept a book-shop over against
the University building--had been debauched to play the part of
publishers. We four were to be conjunct editors, and, what was the
main point of the concern, to print our own works; while, by every
rule of arithmetic--that flatterer of credulity--the adventure must
succeed and bring great profit. Well, well: it was a bright vision. I
went home that morning walking upon air. To have been chosen by these
three distinguished students was to me the most unspeakable advance;
it was my first draught of consideration; it reconciled me to myself
and to my fellow-men; and as I steered round the railings at the Tron,
I could not withhold my lips from smiling publicly. Yet, in the bottom
of my heart, I knew that magazine would be a grim fiasco; I knew it
would not be worth reading; I knew, even if it were, that nobody would
read it; and I kept wondering, how I should be able, upon my compact
income of twelve pounds per annum, payable monthly, to meet my share
in the expense. It was a comfortable thought to me that I had a

The magazine appeared, in a yellow cover which was the best part of
it, for at least it was unassuming; it ran four months in undisturbed
obscurity, and died without a gasp. The first number was edited by all
four of us with prodigious bustle; the second fell principally into
the hands of Ferrier and me; the third I edited alone; and it has long
been a solemn question who it was that edited the fourth. It would
perhaps be still more difficult to say who read it. Poor yellow sheet,
that looked so hopefully in the Livingstones' window! Poor, harmless
paper, that might have gone to print a _Shakespeare_ on, and was
instead so clumsily defaced with nonsense! And, shall I say, Poor
Editors? I cannot pity myself, to whom it was all pure gain. It was no
news to me, but only the wholesome confirmation of my judgment, when
the magazine struggled into half-birth, and instantly sickened and
subsided into night. I had sent a copy to the lady with whom my heart
was at that time somewhat engaged, and who did all that in her lay to
break it; and she, with some tact, passed over the gift and my
cherished contributions in silence. I will not say that I was pleased
at this; but I will tell her now, if by any chance she takes up the
work of her former servant, that I thought the better of her taste. I
cleared the decks after this lost engagement; had the necessary
interview with my father, which passed off not amiss; paid over my
share of the expense to the two little, active brothers, who rubbed
their hands as much, but methought skipped rather less than formerly,
having perhaps, these two also, embarked upon the enterprise with some
graceful illusions; and then, reviewing the whole episode, I told
myself that the time was not yet ripe, nor the man ready; and to work
I went again with my penny version-books, having fallen back in one
day from the printed author to the manuscript student.


From this defunct periodical I am going to reprint one of my own
papers. The poor little piece is all tail-foremost. I have done my
best to straighten its array, I have pruned it fearlessly, and it
remains invertebrate and wordy. No self-respecting magazine would
print the thing; and here you behold it in a bound volume, not for any
worth of its own, but for the sake of the man whom it purports dimly
to represent and some of whose sayings it preserves; so that in this
volume of Memories and Portraits, Robert Young, the Swanston gardener,
may stand alongside of John Todd, the Swanston shepherd. Not that John
and Robert drew very close together in their lives; for John was
rough, he smelt of the windy brae; and Robert was gentle, and smacked
of the garden in the hollow. Perhaps it is to my shame that I liked
John the better of the two; he had grit and dash, and that salt of the
Old Adam that pleases men with any savage inheritance of blood; and he
was a wayfarer besides, and took my gipsy fancy. But however that may
be, and however Robert's profile may be blurred in the boyish sketch
that follows, he was a man of a most quaint and beautiful nature,
whom, if it were possible to recast a piece of work so old, I should
like well to draw again with a maturer touch. And as I think of him
and of John, I wonder in what other country two such men would be
found dwelling together, in a hamlet of some twenty cottages, in the
woody fold of a green hill.


This article made its first appearance in the volume _Memories and
Portraits_ (1887). It was divided into three parts. The interest of
this essay is almost wholly autobiographical, telling us, with more or
less seriousness, how its author "learned to write." After Stevenson
became famous, this confession attracted universal attention, and is
now one of the best-known of all his compositions. Many youthful
aspirants for literary fame have been moved by its perusal to adopt a
similar method; but while Stevenson's system, if faithfully followed,
would doubtless correct many faults, it would not of itself enable a
man to write another _Aes Triplex_ or _Treasure Island_. It was
genius, not industry, that placed Stevenson in English literature.

[Note 1: _Pattern of an Idler_. See his essay in this volume, _An
Apology for Idlers_.]

[Note 2: _A school of posturing_. It is a nice psychological question
whether or not it is possible for one to write a diary with absolutely
no thought of its being read by some one else.]

[Note 3: _Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to
Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne, to Beaudelaire, and to Obermann_.
For Hazlitt, see Note 19 of Chapter II above. Charles Lamb
(1775-1834), author of the delightful _Essays of Elia_ (1822-24), the
_tone_ of which book is often echoed in Stevenson's essays.... Sir
Thomas Browne (1605-1682), regarded by many as the greatest prose
writer of the seventeenth century; his best books are _Religio Medici_
(the religion of a physician), 1642, and _Urn Burial_ (1658). The
300th anniversary of his birth was widely celebrated on 19 October
1905.... Daniel Defoe (1661-1731), an enormously prolific writer; his
first important novel, _Robinson Crusoe_ (followed by many others) was
written when he was 58 years old.... Nathaniel Hawthorne, the greatest
literary artist that America has ever produced was born 4 July 1804,
and died in 1864. His best novel (the finest in American Literature)
was _The Scarlet Letter_ (1850).... Montaigne. Stevenson was heavily
indebted to this wonderful genius. See Note 4 of Chapter VI above. ...
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) wrote the brilliant and decadent
_Fleurs du Mai_ (1857-61). He translated Poe into French, and was
partly responsible for Poe's immense vogue in France. Had Baudelaire's
French followers possessed the power of their master, we should be
able to forgive them for writing.... Obermann. _Òbermann_ is the title
of a story by the French writer Etienne Pivert de Sénancour
(1770-1846). The book, which appeared in 1804, is full of vague
melancholy, in the Werther fashion, and is more of a psychological
study than a novel. In recent years, _Amiel's Journal_ and
Sienkiewicz's _Without Dogma_ belong to the same school of literature.
Matthew Arnold was fond of quoting from Sénancour's _Obermann_.]

[Note 4: _Ruskin ... Pasticcio ... Bordello ... Morris ... Swinburne
... John Webster ... Congreve_. These names exhibit the astonishing
variety of Stevenson's youthful attempts, for they represent nearly
every possible style of composition. John Ruskin (1819-1900) exercised
a greater influence thirty years ago than he does to-day Stevenson in
the words "a passing spell," seems to apologise for having been
influenced by him at all.... Pasticcio, an Italian word, meaning
"pie": Swinburne uses it in the sense of "medley," which is about the
same as its significance here. _Sordello_: Stevenson naturally
accompanies this statement with a parenthetical exclamation.
_Sordello_, published in 1840, is the most obscure of all Browning's
poems, and for many years blinded critics to the poet's genius.
Innumerable are the witticisms aimed at this opaque work. See, for
example, W. Sharp's _Life of Browning_ ... William Morris (1834-96),
author of the _Earthly Paradise_ (1868-70): for his position and
influence in XIXth century literature see H.A. Beers, _History of
English Romanticism_, Vol. II.... Algernon Charles Swinburne, born
1837, generally regarded (1906) as England's foremost living poet, is
famous chiefly for the melodies of his verse. His influence seems to
be steadily declining and he is certainly not so much read as
formerly.... For John Webster and Congreve, see Notes 37 and 26 of
Chapter IV above.]

[Note 5: _City of Peebles in the style of the Book of Snobs._
Thackeray's _Book of Snobs_ was published in 1848. Peebles is the
county town of Peebles County in the South of Scotland.]

[Note 6: _My later plays_, etc. Stevenson's four plays were not
successful. They were all written in collaboration with W.E. Henley.
_Deacon Brodie_ was printed in 1880: _Admiral Guinea_ and _Beau
Austin_ in 1884: _Macaire_ in 1885. In 1892, the first three were
published in one volume, under the title _Three Plays_: In 1896 all
four appeared in a volume called _Four Plays_. At the time the essay
_A College Magazine_ was published, only one of these plays had been
acted, _Deacon Brodie_, to which Stevenson refers in our text. This
"came on the stage itself and was played by bodily actors" at Pullan's
_Theatre of Varieties_, Bradford, England, 28 December 1882, and in
March 1883 at Her Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, "when it was styled a
'New Scotch National Drama.'"--Prideaux, _Bibliography_, p. 10. It was
later produced at Prince's Theatre, London, 2 July 1884, and in
Montreal, 26 September 1887. _Beau Austin_ was played at the Haymarket
Theatre, London, 3 Nov. 1890. _Admiral Guinea_ was played at the
_Avenue Theatre_, on the afternoon of 29 Nov. 1897, and, like the
others, was not successful. _The Athenaeum_ for 4 Dec. 1897 contains
an interesting criticism of this drama.... _Semiramis_ was the
original plan of a "tragedy," which Stevenson afterwards rewrote as a
novel, _Prince Otto_, and published in 1885.]

[Note 7: _It was so Keats learned_. This must be swallowed with a
grain of salt. The best criticism of the poetry of Keats is contained
in his own _Letters_, which have been edited by Colvin and by Forman.]

[Note 8: _Montaigne ... Cicero_. Montaigne, as a child, spoke Latin
before he could French: see his _Essays_. Montaigne is always
original, frank, sincere: Cicero (in his orations) is always a

[Note 9: _Burns ... Shakespeare_. Some reflection on, and
investigation of these statements by Stevenson, will be highly
beneficial to the student.]

[Note 10: The literary scales. It is very interesting to note that
Thomas Carlyle had completely mastered the technique of ordinary prose
composition, before he deliberately began to write in his own
picturesque style, which has been called "Carlylese"; note the
enormous difference in style between his _Life of Schiller_ (1825) and
his _Sartor Resartus_ (1833-4). Carlyle would be a shining
illustration of the point Stevenson is trying to make.]

No notes have been added to the second and third parts of this essay,
as these portions are unimportant, and may be omitted by the student;
they are really introductory to something quite different, and are
printed in our edition only to make this essay complete.



The Editor[2] has somewhat insidiously laid a trap for his
correspondents, the question put appearing at first so innocent, truly
cutting so deep. It is not, indeed, until after some reconnaissance
and review that the writer awakes to find himself engaged upon
something in the nature of autobiography, or, perhaps worse, upon a
chapter in the life of that little, beautiful brother whom we once all
had, and whom we have all lost and mourned, the man we ought to have
been, the man we hoped to be. But when word has been passed (even to
an editor), it should, if possible, be kept; and if sometimes I am
wise and say too little, and sometimes weak and say too much, the
blame must lie at the door of the person who entrapped me.

The most influential books,[3] and the truest in their influence, are
works of fiction. They do not pin the reader to a dogma, which he must
afterwards discover to be inexact; they do not teach him a lesson,
which he must afterwards unlearn. They repeat, they rearrange, they
clarify the lessons of life; they disengage us from ourselves, they
constrain us to the acquaintance of others; and they show us the web
of experience, not as we can see it for ourselves, but with a singular
change--that monstrous, consuming _ego_ of ours being, for the nonce,
struck out. To be so, they must be reasonably true to the human
comedy; and any work that is so serves the turn of instruction. But
the course of our education is answered best by those poems and
romances where we breathe a magnanimous atmosphere of thought and meet
generous and pious characters. Shakespeare has served me best. Few
living friends have had upon me an influence so strong for good as
Hamlet or Rosalind. The last character, already well beloved in the
reading, I had the good fortune to see, I must think, in an
impressionable hour, played by Mrs. Scott Siddons.[4] Nothing has ever
more moved, more delighted, more refreshed me; nor has the influence
quite passed away. Kent's brief speech[5] over the dying Lear had a
great effect upon my mind, and was the burthen of my reflections for
long, so profoundly, so touchingly generous did it appear in sense, so
overpowering in expression. Perhaps my dearest and best friend outside
of Shakespeare is D'Artagnan--the elderly D'Artagnan of the _Vicomte
de Bragelonne_.[6] I know not a more human soul, nor, in his way, a
finer; I shall be very sorry for the man who is so much of a pedant in
morals that he cannot learn from the Captain of Musketeers. Lastly, I
must name the _Pilgrim's Progress_,[7] a book that breathes of every
beautiful and valuable emotion.

But of works of art little can be said; their influence is profound
and silent, like the influence of nature; they mould by contact; we
drink them up like water, and are bettered, yet know not how. It is in
books more specifically didactic that we can follow out the effect,
and distinguish and weigh and compare. A book which has been very
influential upon me fell early into my hands, and so may stand first,
though I think its influence was only sensible later on, and perhaps
still keeps growing, for it is a book not easily outlived: the
_Essais_ of Montaigne.[8] That temperate and genial picture of life is
a great gift to place in the hands of persons of to-day; they will
find in these smiling pages a magazine of heroism and wisdom, all of
an antique strain; they will have their "linen decencies"[9] and
excited orthodoxies fluttered, and will (if they have any gift of
reading) perceive that these have not been fluttered without some
excuse and ground of reason; and (again if they have any gift of
reading) they will end by seeing that this old gentleman was in a
dozen ways a finer fellow, and held in a dozen ways a nobler view of
life, than they or their contemporaries.

The next book, in order of time, to influence me, was the New
Testament, and in particular the Gospel according to St. Matthew. I
believe it would startle and move any one if they could make a certain
effort of imagination and read it freshly like a book, not droningly
and dully like a portion of the Bible. Any one would then be able to
see in it those truths which we are all courteously supposed to know
and all modestly refrain from applying. But upon this subject it is
perhaps better to be silent.

I come next to Whitman's _Leaves of Grass_,[10] a book of singular
service, a book which tumbled the world upside down for me, blew into
space a thousand cobwebs of genteel and ethical illusion, and, having
thus shaken my tabernacle of lies, set me back again upon a strong
foundation of all the original and manly virtues. But it is, once
more, only a book for those who have the gift of reading.[11] I will
be very frank--I believe it is so with all good books except, perhaps,
fiction. The average man lives, and must live, so wholly in
convention, that gun-powder charges of the truth are more apt to
discompose than to invigorate his creed. Either he cries out upon
blasphemy and indecency, and crouches the closer round that little
idol of part-truths and part-conveniences which is the contemporary
deity, or he is convinced by what is new, forgets what is old, and
becomes truly blasphemous and indecent himself. New truth is only
useful to supplement the old; rough truth is only wanted to expand,
not to destroy, our civil and often elegant conventions. He who cannot
judge had better stick to fiction and the daily papers. There he will
get little harm, and, in the first at least, some good.

Close upon the back of my discovery of Whitman, I came under the
influence of Herbert Spencer.[12] No more persuasive rabbi exists. How
much of his vast structure will bear the touch of time, how much is
clay and how much brass, it were too curious to inquire. But his
words, if dry, are always manly and honest; there dwells in his pages
a spirit of highly abstract joy, plucked naked like an algebraic
symbol but still joyful; and the reader will find there a _caput
mortuum_[13] of piety, with little indeed of its loveliness, but with
most of its essentials; and these two qualities make him a wholesome,
as his intellectual vigour makes him a bracing, writer. I should be
much of a hound if I lost my gratitude to Herbert Spencer.

_Goethe's Life_, by Lewes,[14] had a great importance for me when it
first fell into my hands--a strange instance of the partiality of
man's good and man's evil. I know no one whom I less admire than
Goethe; he seems a very epitome of the sins of genius, breaking open
the doors of private life, and wantonly wounding friends, in that
crowning offence of _Werther_, and in his own character a mere
pen-and-ink Napoleon, conscious of the rights and duties of superior
talents as a Spanish inquisitor was conscious of the rights and duties
of his office. And yet in his fine devotion to his art, in his honest
and serviceable friendship for Schiller, what lessons are contained!
Biography, usually so false to its office, does here for once perform
for us some of the work of fiction, reminding us, that is, of the
truly mingled tissue of man's nature, and how huge faults and shining
virtues cohabit and persevere in the same character. History serves us
well to this effect, but in the originals, not in the pages of the
popular epitomiser, who is bound, by the very nature of his task, to
make us feel the difference of epochs instead of the essential
identity of man, and even in the originals only to those who can
recognise their own human virtues and defects in strange forms, often
inverted and under strange names, often interchanged. Martial[15] is a
poet of no good repute, and it gives a man new thoughts to read his
works dispassionately, and find in this unseemly jester's serious
passages the image of a kind, wise, and self-respecting gentleman. It
is customary, I suppose, in reading Martial, to leave out these
pleasant verses; I never heard of them, at least, until I found them
for myself; and this partiality is one among a thousand things that
help to build up our distorted and hysterical conception of the great
Roman Empire.

This brings us by a natural transition to a very noble book--the
_Meditations_ of Marcus Aurelius.[16] The dispassionate gravity, the
noble forgetfulness of self, the tenderness of others, that are there
expressed and were practised on so great a scale in the life of its
writer, make this book a book quite by itself. No one can read it and
not be moved. Yet it scarcely or rarely appeals to the feelings--those
very mobile, those not very trusty parts of man. Its address lies
further back: its lesson comes more deeply home; when you have read,
you carry away with you a memory of the man himself; it is as though
you had touched a loyal hand, looked into brave eyes, and made a noble
friend; there is another bond on you thenceforward, binding you to
life and to the love of virtue.

Wordsworth[17] should perhaps come next. Every one has been influenced
by Wordsworth, and it is hard to tell precisely how. A certain
innocence, a rugged austerity of joy, a night of the stars, "the
silence that is in the lonely hills," something of the cold thrill of
dawn, cling to his work and give it a particular address to what is
best in us. I do not know that you learn a lesson; you need not--Mill
did not--agree with any one of his beliefs; and yet the spell is cast.
Such are the best teachers: a dogma learned is only a new error--the
old one was perhaps as good; but a spirit communicated is a perpetual
possession. These best teachers climb beyond teaching to the plane of
art; it is themselves, and what is best in themselves, that they

I should never forgive myself if I forgot _The Egoist_. It is art, if
you like, but it belongs purely to didactic art, and from all the
novels I have read (and I have read thousands) stands in a place by
itself. Here is a Nathan for the modern David;[18] here is a book to
send the blood into men's faces. Satire, the angry picture of human
faults, is not great art; we can all be angry with our neighbour; what
we want is to be shown, not his defects, of which we are too
conscious, but his merits, to which we are too blind. And _The
Egoist_[19] is a satire; so much must be allowed; but it is a satire
of a singular quality, which tells you nothing of that obvious mote,
which is engaged from first to last with that invisible beam. It is
yourself that is hunted down; these are your own faults that are
dragged into the day and numbered, with lingering relish, with cruel
cunning and precision. A young friend of Mr. Meredith's (as I have the
story) came to him in an agony. "This is too bad of you," he cried.
"Willoughby is me!" "No, my dear fellow," said the author; "he is all
of us." I have read _The Egoist_ five or six times myself, and I mean
to read it again; for I am like the young friend of the anecdote--I
think Willoughby an unmanly but a very serviceable exposure of myself.

I suppose, when I am done, I shall find that I have forgotten much
that was most influential, as I see already I have forgotten
Thoreau,[20] and Hazlitt, whose paper "On the Spirit of Obligations"
was a turning-point in my life, and Penn, whose little book of
aphorisms had a brief but strong effect on me, and Mitford's
_Tales[21] of Old Japan_, wherein I learned for the first time the
proper attitude of any rational man to his country's laws--a secret
found, and kept, in the Asiatic islands. That I should commemorate all
is more than I can hope or the Editor could ask. It will be more to
the point, after having said so much upon improving books, to say a
word or two about the improvable reader. The gift of reading, as I
have called it, is not very common, nor very generally understood. It
consists, first of all, in a vast intellectual endowment--a free
grace, I find I must call it--by which a man rises to understand that
he is not punctually right, nor those from whom he differs absolutely
wrong. He may hold dogmas; he may hold them passionately; and he may
know that others hold them but coldly, or hold them differently, or
hold them not at all. Well, if he has the gift of reading, these
others will be full of meat for him. They will see the other side of
propositions and the other side of virtues. He need not change his
dogma for that, but he may change his reading of that dogma, and he
must supplement and correct his deductions from it. A human truth,
which is always very much a lie, hides as much of life as it displays.
It is men who hold another truth, or, as it seems to us, perhaps, a
dangerous lie, who can extend our restricted field of knowledge, and
rouse our drowsy consciences. Something that seems quite new, or that
seems insolently false or very dangerous, is the test of a reader. If
he tries to see what it means, what truth excuses it, he has the gift,
and let him read. If he is merely hurt, or offended, or exclaims upon
his author's folly, he had better take to the daily papers; he will
never be a reader.

And here, with the aptest illustrative force, after I have laid down
my part-truth, I must step in with its opposite. For, after all, we
are vessels of a very limited content. Not all men can read all books;
it is only in a chosen few that any man will find his appointed food;
and the fittest lessons are the most palatable, and make themselves
welcome to the mind. A writer learns this early, and it is his chief
support; he goes on unafraid, laying down the law; and he is sure at
heart that most of what he says is demonstrably false, and much of a
mingled strain, and some hurtful, and very little good for service;
but he is sure besides that when his words fall into the hands of any
genuine reader, they will be weighed and winnowed, and only that which
suits will be assimilated; and when they fall into the hands of one
who cannot intelligently read, they come there quite silent and
inarticulate, falling upon deaf ears, and his secret is kept as if he
had not written.


This article first appeared in the _British Weekly_ for 13 May 1887,
forming Stevenson's contribution to a symposium on this subject by
some of the celebrated writers of the day, including Gladstone,
Ruskin, Hamerton; and others as widely different as Archdeacon Farrar
and Rider Haggard. In the same year (1887) the papers were all
collected and published by the _Weekly_ in a volume, with the title
_Books Which Have Influenced Me_. This essay was later included in the
complete editions of Stevenson's _Works_ (Edinburgh ed., Vol. XI,
Thistle ed., Vol. XXII).

[Note 1: First published in the _British Weekly_, May 13, 1887.]

[Note 2: Of the _British Weekly_.]

[Note 3: _The most influential books ... are works of fiction_. This
statement is undoubtedly true, if we use the word "fiction" in the
sense understood here by Stevenson. It is curious, however, to note
the rise in dignity of "works of fiction," and of "novels"; people
used to read them with apologies, and did not like to be caught at it.
The cheerful audacity of Stevenson's declaration would have seemed
like blasphemy fifty years earlier.]

[Note 4: _Mrs. Scott Siddons_. Not for a moment to be confounded with
the great actress Sarah Siddons, who died in 1831. Mrs. Scott Siddons,
in spite of Stevenson's enthusiasm, was not an actress of remarkable

[Note 5: _Kent's brief speech_. Toward the end of _King Lear_.]

  "Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! he hates him
  That would upon the rack of this tough world
  Stretch him out longer."]

[Note 6: _D'Artagnan ... Vicomte de Bragelonne_. See Stevenson's
essay, _A Gossip on a Novel of Dumas's_ (1887), in _Memories and
Portraits_. See also Note 3 of Chapter II above and Note 43 of Chapter
IV above. _Vicomte de Bragelonne_ is the title of the sequel to
_Twenty Years After_, which is the sequel to the _Musketeers_. Dumas
wrote 257 volumes of romance, plays, travels etc.]

[Note 7: _Pilgrim's Progress_. See Note 13 of Chapter V above.]

[Note 8: _Essais of Montaigne_. See Note 6 of Chapter VI above. The
best translation in English of the _Essais_ is that by the
Elizabethan, John Florio (1550-1625), a contemporary of Montaigne. His
translation appeared in 1603, and may now be obtained complete in the
handy "Temple" classics. There is a copy of Florio's _Montaigne_ with
Ben Jonson's autograph, and also one that has what many believe to be
a genuine autograph of Shakspere.]

[Note 9: "_Linen decencies_." "The ghost of a linen decency yet haunts
us."--Milton, _Areopagitica_.]

[Note 10: _Whitman's Leaves of Grass_. See Stevenson's admirable essay
on _Walt Whitman_ (1878), also Note 12 of Chapter III above.]

[Note 11: _Have the gift of reading_. "Books are written to be read by
those who can understand them. Their possible effect on those who
cannot, is a matter of medical rather than of literary interest."
--Prof. W. Raleigh, _The English Novel_, remarks on _Tom Jones_,
Chap. VI.]

[Note 12: _Herbert_. See Note 18 of Chapter IV above.]

[Note 13: _Caput mortuum_. Dry kernel. Literary, "dead head."]

[Note 14: _Goethe's Life, by Lewes_. The standard Life of Goethe (in
English) is still that by George Henry Lewes (1817-1878), the husband
of George Eliot. His _Life of Goethe_ appeared in 1855; he later made
a simpler, abridged edition, called _The Story of Goethe's Life_.
Goethe, the greatest literary genius since Shakspere, and now
generally ranked among the four supreme writers of the world, Homer,
Dante, Shakspere, Goethe, was born in 1749, and died in 1832.
Stevenson, like most British critics, is rather severe on Goethe's
character. The student should read Eckermann's _Conversations with
Goethe_, a book full of wisdom and perennial delight. For _Werther_,
see Note 18 of Chapter VI above. The friendship between Goethe and
Schiller (1759-1805), "his honest and serviceable friendship," as
Stevenson puts it, is among the most beautiful things to contemplate
in literary history. Before the theatre in Weimar, Germany, where the
two men lived, stands a remarkable statue of the pair: and their
coffins lie side by side in a crypt in the same town.]

[Note 15: _Martial_. Poet, wit and epigrammatist, born in Spain 43 A.
D., died 104. He lived in Rome from 66 to 100, enjoying a high
reputation as a writer.]

[Note 16: _Meditations of Marcus Aurelius_. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus,
often called "the noblest of Pagans" was born 121 A. D., and died 180.
His _Meditations_ have been translated into the chief modern
languages, and though their author was hostile to Christianity, the
ethics of the book are much the same as those of the New Testament.]

[Note 17: _Wordsworth ... Mill_. William Wordsworth (1770-1850),
poet-laureate (1843-1850), is by many regarded as the third poet in
English literature, after Shakspere and Milton, whose places are
unassailable. Other candidates for the third place are Chaucer and
Spenser. "The silence that is in the lonely hills" is loosely quoted
from Wordsworth's _Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle, Upon the
Restoration of Lord Clifford_, published in 1807. The passage reads:

  "The silence that is in the starry sky,
  The sleep that is among the lonely hills."

... In the _Autobiography_ (1873) of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873),
there is a remarkable passage where he testifies to the influence
exerted upon him by Wordsworth.]

[Note 18: _A Nathan for the modern David_. The famous accusation of
the prophet to the king, "Thou art the man." See II _Sam_. 12.]

[Note 19: _The Egoist_. See Note 47 of Chapter IV above. Stevenson
never tired of singing the praises of this novel.]

[Note 20: _Thoreau ... Hazlitt ... Penn ... Mitford's Tales.._. Henry
David Thoreau (1817-1862), the American naturalist and writer, whose
works impressed Stevenson deeply. See the latter's excellent essay on
Thoreau (1880), in _Familiar Studies of Men and Books_.... Hazlitt,
See Note 19 of Chapter II above. His paper, _On the Spirit of
Obligations_, appeared in _The Plain Speaker_, 2 Vols., 1826. _Penn,
whose little book of aphorisms_. This refers to William Penn's famous
book, _Some Fruits of Solitude: in Reflections and Maxims relating to
the Conduct of Human Life_ (1693). Edmund Gosse says, in his
Introduction to a charming little edition of this book in 1900,
"Stevenson had intended to make this book and its author the subject
of one of his critical essays. In February 1880 he was preparing to
begin it... He never found the opportunity... But it has left an
indelible stamp on the tenor of his moral writings. The philosophy of
B. L. S. ... is tinctured through and through with the honest, shrewd,
and genial maxims of Penn." Stevenson himself, in his _Letters_ (Vol.
I, pp. 232, 233), spoke of this little book in the highest terms of

[Note 21: _Mitford's Tales_. Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855), a
novelist and dramatist who enjoyed an immense vogue. "Her inimitable
series of country sketches, drawn from her own experiences at Three
Mile Cross, entitled 'Our Village,' began to appear in 1819 in the
'Lady's Magazine,' a little-known periodical, whose sale was thereby
increased from 250 to 2,000. ... The sketches had an enormous success,
and were collected in five volumes, published respectively in 1824,
1826, 1828, 1830, and 1832. ... The book may be said to have laid the
foundation of a branch of literature hitherto untried. The sketches
resemble Dutch paintings in their fidelity of detail."--_Dic. Nat.



We look for some reward of our endeavors and are disappointed; not
success, not happiness, not even peace of conscience, crowns our
ineffectual efforts to do well. Our frailties are invincible, are
virtues barren; the battle goes sore against us to the going down of
the sun. The canting moralist tells us of right and wrong; and we look
abroad, even on the face of our small earth, and find them change with
every climate,[1] and no country where some action is not honoured for
a virtue and none where it is not branded for a vice; and we look in
our experience, and find no vital congruity in the wisest rules, but
at the best a municipal fitness. It is not strange if we are tempted
to despair of good. We ask too much. Our religions and moralities have
been trimmed to flatter us, till they are all emasculate and
sentimentalised, and only please and weaken. Truth is of a rougher
strain. In the harsh face of life, faith can read a bracing gospel.
The human race is a thing more ancient than the ten commandments; and
the bones and revolutions of the Kosmos, in whose joints we are but
moss and fungus, more ancient still.


Of the Kosmos in the last resort, science reports many doubtful things
and all of them appalling. There seems no substance to this solid
globe on which we stamp: nothing but symbols and ratios. Symbols and
ratios carry us and bring us forth and beat us down; gravity that
swings the incommensurable suns and worlds through space, is but a
figment varying inversely as the squares of distances; and the suns
and worlds themselves, imponderable figures of abstraction, NH3 and
H2O.[2] Consideration dares not dwell upon this view; that way madness
lies;[3] science carries us into zones of speculation, where there is
no habitable city for the mind of man.

But take the Kosmos with a grosser faith, as our senses give it to us.
We behold space sown with rotatory islands; suns and worlds and the
shards and wrecks of systems: some, like the sun, still blazing; some
rotting, like the earth; others, like the moon, stable in desolation.
All of these we take to be made of something we call matter: a thing
which no analysis can help us to conceive; to whose incredible
properties no familiarity can reconcile our minds. This stuff, when
not purified by the lustration of fire, rots uncleanly into something
we call life; seized through all its atoms with a pediculous malady;
swelling in tumours that become independent, sometimes even (by an
abhorrent prodigy) locomotory;[4] one splitting into millions,
millions cohering into one, as the malady proceeds through varying
stages. This vital putrescence of the dust, used as we are to it, yet
strikes us with occasional disgust, and the profusion of worms in a
piece of ancient turf, or the air of a marsh darkened with insects,
will sometimes check our breathing so that we aspire for cleaner
places. But none is clean: the moving sand is infected with lice; the
pure spring, where it bursts out of the mountain, is a mere issue of
worms; even in the hard rock the crystal is forming.

In two main shapes this eruption covers the countenance of the earth:
the animal and the vegetable: one in some degree the inversion of the
other: the second rooted to the spot; the first coming detached out of
its natal mud, and scurrying abroad with the myriad feet of insects or
towering into the heavens on the wings of birds: a thing so
inconceivable that, if it be well considered, the heart stops. To what
passes with the anchored vermin, we have little clue: doubtless they
have their joys and sorrows, their delights and killing agonies: it
appears not how. But of the locomotory, to which we ourselves belong,
we can tell more. These share with us a thousand miracles: the
miracles of sight, of hearing, of the projection of sound, things that
bridge space; the miracles of memory and reason, by which the present
is conceived, and when it is gone, its image kept living in the brains
of man and brute; the miracle of reproduction, with its imperious
desires and staggering consequences. And to put the last touch upon
this mountain mass of the revolting and the inconceivable, all these
prey upon each other, lives tearing other lives in pieces, cramming
them inside themselves, and by that summary process, growing fat: the
vegetarian, the whale, perhaps the tree, not less than the lion of the
desert; for the vegetarian is only the eater of the dumb.

Meanwhile our rotary island loaded with predatory life, and more
drenched with blood, both animal and vegetable, than ever mutinied
ship, scuds through space with unimaginable speed, and turns alternate
cheeks to the reverberation of a blazing world, ninety million miles


What a monstrous spectre is this man, the disease of the agglutinated
dust, lifting alternate feet or lying drugged with slumber; killing,
feeding, growing, bringing forth small copies of himself; grown upon
with hair like grass, fitted with eyes that move and glitter in his
face; a thing to set children screaming;--and yet looked at nearlier,
known as his fellows know him, how surprising are his attributes! Poor
soul, here for so little, cast among so many hardships, filled with
desires so incommensurate and so inconsistent, savagely surrounded,
savagely descended, irremediably condemned to prey upon his fellow
lives: who should have blamed him had he been of a piece with his
destiny and a being merely barbarous? And we look and behold him
instead filled with imperfect virtues: infinitely childish, often
admirably valiant, often touchingly kind; sitting down, amidst his
momentary life, to debate of right and wrong and the attributes of the
deity; rising up to do battle for an egg or die for an idea; singling
out his friends and his mate with cordial affection; bringing forth in
pain, rearing with long-suffering solicitude, his young. To touch the
heart of his mystery,[5] we find in him one thought, strange to the
point of lunacy: the thought of duty;[6] the thought of something
owing to himself, to his neighbour, to his God: an ideal of decency,
to which he would rise if it were possible; a limit of shame, below
which, if it be possible, he will not stoop. The design in most men is
one of conformity; here and there, in picked natures, it transcends
itself and soars on the other side, arming martyrs with independence;
but in all, in their degrees, it is a bosom thought:--Not in man
alone, for we trace it in dogs and cats whom we know fairly well, and
doubtless some similar point of honour sways the elephant, the oyster,
and the louse, of whom we know so little:--But in man, at least, it
sways with so complete an empire that merely selfish things come
second, even with the selfish: that appetites are starved, fears are
conquered, pains supported; that almost the dullest shrinks from the
reproof of a glance, although it were a child's; and all but the most
cowardly stand amid the risks of war; and the more noble, having
strongly conceived an act as due to their ideal, affront and embrace
death. Strange enough if, with their singular origin and perverted
practice, they think they are to be rewarded in some future life:
stranger still, if they are persuaded of the contrary, and think this
blow, which they solicit, will strike them senseless for eternity. I
shall be reminded what a tragedy of misconception and misconduct man
at large presents: of organised injustice, cowardly violence and
treacherous crime; and of the damning imperfections of the best. They
cannot be too darkly drawn. Man is indeed marked for failure in his
efforts to do right. But where the best consistently miscarry, how
tenfold more remarkable that all should continue to strive; and surely
we should find it both touching and inspiriting, that in a field from
which success is banished, our race should not cease to labour.

If the first view of this creature, stalking in his rotatory isle, be
a thing to shake the courage of the stoutest, on this nearer sight, he
startles us with an admiring wonder. It matters not where we look,
under what climate we observe him, in what stage of society, in what
depth of ignorance, burthened with what erroneous morality; by
camp-fires in Assiniboia,[7] the snow powdering his shoulders, the
wind plucking his blanket, as he sits, passing the ceremonial calumet
and uttering his grave opinions like a Roman senator; in ships at sea,
a man inured to hardship and vile pleasures, his brightest hope a
fiddle in a tavern and a bedizened trull who sells herself to rob him,
and he for all that simple, innocent, cheerful, kindly like a child,
constant to toil, brave to drown, for others; in the slums of cities,
moving among indifferent millions to mechanical employments, without
hope of change in the future, with scarce a pleasure in the present,
and yet true to his virtues, honest up to his lights, kind to his
neighbours, tempted perhaps in vain by the bright gin-palace, perhaps
long-suffering with the drunken wife that ruins him; in India (a woman
this time) kneeling with broken cries and streaming tears, as she
drowns her child in the sacred river;[8] in the brothel, the discard
of society, living mainly on strong drink, fed with affronts, a fool,
a thief, the comrade of thieves, and even here keeping the point of
honour and the touch of pity,[9] often repaying the world's scorn with
service, often standing firm upon a scruple, and at a certain cost,
rejecting riches:--everywhere some virtue cherished or affected,
everywhere some decency of thought and carriage, everywhere the ensign
of man's ineffectual goodness:--ah! if I could show you this! if I
could show you these men and women, all the world over, in every stage
of history, under every abuse of error, under every circumstance of
failure, without hope, without help, without thanks, still obscurely
fighting the lost fight of virtue, still clinging, in the brothel or
on the scaffold, to some rag of honour, the poor jewel of their souls!
They may seek to escape, and yet they cannot; it is not alone their
privilege and glory, but their doom; they are condemned to some
nobility; all their lives long, the desire of good is at their heels,
the implacable hunter.

Of all earth's meteors, here at least is the most strange and
consoling: that this ennobled lemur, this hair-crowned bubble of the
dust, this inheritor of a few years and sorrows, should yet deny
himself his rare delights, and add to his frequent pains, and live for
an ideal, however misconceived. Nor can we stop with man. A new
doctrine,[10] received with screams a little while ago by canting
moralists, and still not properly worked into the body of our
thoughts, lights us a step farther into the heart of this rough but
noble universe. For nowadays the pride of man denies in vain his
kinship with the original dust. He stands no longer like a thing
apart. Close at his heels we see the dog, prince of another genius:
and in him too, we see dumbly testified the same cultus[11] of an
unattainable ideal, the same constancy in failure. Does it stop with
the dog? We look at our feet where the ground is blackened with the
swarming ant: a creature so small, so far from us in the hierarchy of
brutes, that we can scarce trace and scarce comprehend his doings; and
here also, in his ordered polities and rigorous justice, we see
confessed the law of duty and the fact of individual sin. Does it
stop, then, with the ant? Rather this desire of well-doing and this
doom of frailty run through all the grades of life: rather is this
earth, from the frosty top of Everest[12] to the next margin of the
internal fire, one stage of ineffectual virtues and one temple of
pious tears and perseverance. The whole creation groaneth[13] and
travaileth together. It is the common and the god-like law of life.
The browsers, the biters, the barkers, the hairy coats of field and
forest, the squirrel in the oak, the thousand-footed creeper in the
dust, as they share with us the gift of life, share with us the love
of an ideal: strive like us--like us are tempted to grow weary of the
struggle--to do well; like us receive at times unmerited refreshment,
visitings of support, returns of courage; and are condemned like us to
be crucified between that double law[14] of the members and the will.
Are they like us, I wonder in the timid hope of some reward, some
sugar with the drug? do they, too, stand aghast at unrewarded virtues,
at the sufferings of those whom, in our partiality, we take to be
just, and the prosperity of such as, in our blindness, we call wicked?
It may be, and yet God knows what they should look for. Even while
they look, even while they repent, the foot of man treads them by
thousands in the dust, the yelping hounds burst upon their trail, the
bullet speeds, the knives are heating in the den of the
vivisectionist;[15] or the dew falls, and the generation of a day is
blotted out. For these are creatures, compared with whom our weakness
is strength, our ignorance wisdom, our brief span eternity.

And as we dwell, we living things, in our isle of terror[16] and under
the imminent hand of death, God forbid it should be man the erected,
the reasoner, the wise in his own eyes--God forbid it should be man
that wearies in well-doing,[17] that despairs of unrewarded effort, or
utters the language of complaint. Let it be enough for faith, that the
whole creation groans in mortal frailty, strives with unconquerable
constancy: Surely not all in vain.[18]


During the year 1888, part of which was spent by Stevenson at Saranac
Lake in the Adirondacks he published one article every month in
_Scribner's Magazine_. _Pulvis et Umbra_ appeared in the April number,
and was later included in the volume _Across the Plains_ (1892). He
wrote this particular essay with intense feeling. Writing to Sidney
Colvin in December 1887, he said, "I get along with my papers for
_Scribner_ not fast, nor so far specially well; only this last, the
fourth one.... I do believe is pulled off after a fashion. It is a
mere sermon: ... but it is true, and I find it touching and
beneficial, to me at least; and I think there is some fine writing in
it, some very apt and pregnant phrases. _Pulvis et Umbra_, I call it;
I might have called it a _Darwinian Sermon_, if I had wanted. Its
sentiments, although parsonic, will not offend even you, I believe."
(_Letters_, II, 100.) Writing to Miss Adelaide Boodle in April 1888,
he said, "I wrote a paper the other day--_Pulvis et Umbra_;--I wrote
it with great feeling and conviction: to me it seemed bracing and
healthful, it is in such a world (so seen by me), that I am very glad
to fight out my battle, and see some fine sunsets, and hear some
excellent jests between whiles round the camp fire. But I find that to
some people this vision of mine is a nightmare, and extinguishes all
ground of faith in God or pleasure in man. Truth I think not so much
of; for I do not know it. And I could wish in my heart that I had not
published this paper, if it troubles folk too much: all have not the
same digestion nor the same sight of things.... Well, I cannot take
back what I have said; but yet I may add this. If my view be
everything but the nonsense that it may be--to me it seems
self-evident and blinding truth--surely of all things it makes this
world holier. There is nothing in it but the moral side--but the great
battle and the breathing times with their refreshments. I see no more
and no less. And if you look again, it is not ugly, and it is filled
with promise." (_Letters_, II, 123.) The words _Pulvis et Umbra_ mean
literally "dust and shadow": the phrase, however, is quoted from
Horace "pulvis et umbra sumus"--_we are dust and ashes_. It forms the
text of one of Stevenson's familiar discourses on Death, like _Aes

[Note 1: _Find them change with every climate_, etc. For some striking
illustrations of this, see Sudermann's drama, _Die Ehre_ (Honour).]

[Note 2: NH3 and H2O. The first is the chemical formula for ammonia:
the second, for water.]

[Note 3: _That way madness lies. King Lear_, III, 4, 21.]

[Note 4: _A pediculous malady ... locomotory_. Stevenson was fond of
strange words. "Pediculous" means covered with lice, lousy.]

[Note 5: _The heart of his mystery. Hamlet_, Act III, Sc. 2, "you
would pluck out the heart of my mystery." Mystery here means "secret,"
as in I. _Cor_. XIII, "Behold, I tell you a mystery."]

[Note 6: _The thought of duty_. Kant said, "Two things fill the mind
with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the
more steadily we reflect on them: _the starry heavens above and the
moral law within_." (Conclusion to the _Practical Reason_--_Kritik der
praktischen Vernunft_, 1788.)]

[Note 7: _Assiniboia ... Calumet_. Assinibioia is a district of
Canada, just west of Manitoba. _Calumet_ is the pipe of peace, used by
North American Indians when solemnizing treaties etc. Its stem is over
two feet long, heavily decorated with feathers etc.]

[Note 8: _Drowns her child in the sacred river_. The sacred river of
India is the Ganges; before British control, children were often
sacrificed there by drowning to appease the angry divinity.]

[Note 9: _The touch of pity_. "No beast so fierce but knows some touch
of pity." _Richard III_, Act I, Sc. 2, vs. 71. _This ennobled lemur_.
A lemur is a nocturnal animal, something like a monkey.]

[Note 10: _A new doctrine_. Evolution. Darwin's _Origin of Species_
was published in 1859. Many ardent Christians believe in its general
principles to-day; but at first it was bitterly attacked by orthodox
and conservative critics. A Princeton professor cried, "Darwinism is

[Note 11: _Cultus_. Stevenson liked this word. _The swarming ant_.
"The ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their meat in the
summer."--_Proverbs_, XXX. 25. For a wonderful description of an ant
battle, see Thoreau's _Walden_.]

[Note 12: _Everest_. Mount Everest in the Himalayas, is the highest
mountain in the world, with an altitude of about 29,000 feet.]

[Note 13: _The whole creation groaneth. Romans_, VIII, 22.]

[Note 14: _That double law of the members_. See Note 10 of Chapter VI

[Note 15: _Den of the vivisectionist_. See Note 2 of Chapter VI

[Note 16: _In our isle of terror_. Cf. Herriet, _The White Island_.

  "In this world, the isle of dreams,
  While we sit by sorrow's streams,
  Tears and terrors are our themes."]

[Note 17: _Man that wearies in well-doing. Galatians_, VI, 9.]

[Note 18: _Surely not all in vain_. At heart, Stevenson belongs not to
the pessimists nor the skeptics, but to the optimists and the
believers. A man may have no formal creed, and yet be a believer.

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