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       The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson - Swanston Edition, Vol. 3, p.1
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The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson - Swanston Edition, Vol. 3

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  _Of this SWANSTON EDITION in Twenty-five Volumes of the Works of ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON Two Thousand and Sixty Copies have been printed, of which only Two Thousand Copies are for sale._

  _This is No._ ..........


























  These studies are collected from the monthly press. One appeared in the_New Quarterly_, one in _Macmillan's_, and the rest in the _CornhillMagazine_. To the _Cornhill_ I owe a double debt of thanks; first, thatI was received there in the very best society, and under the eye of thevery best of editors; and second, that the proprietors have allowed meto republish so considerable an amount of copy.

  These nine worthies have been brought together from many different agesand countries. Not the most erudite of men could be perfectly preparedto deal with so many and such various sides of human life and manners.To pass a true judgment upon Knox and Burns implies a grasp upon thevery deepest strain of thought in Scotland,--a country far moreessentially different from England than many parts of America; for, in asense, the first of these men re-created Scotland, and the second is itsmost essentially national production. To treat fitly of Hugo and Villonwould involve yet wider knowledge, not only of a country foreign to theauthor by race, history, and religion, but of the growth and libertiesof art. Of the two Americans, Whitman and Thoreau, each is the type ofsomething not so much realised as widely sought after among the lategenerations of their countrymen; and to see them clearly in a nicerelation to the society that brought them forth, an author would requirea large habit of life among modern Americans. As for Yoshida, I havealready disclaimed responsibility; it was but my hand that held the pen.

  In truth, these are but the readings of a literary vagrant. One bookled to another, one study to another. The first was published withtrepidation. Since no bones were broken, the second was launched withgreater confidence. So, by insensible degrees, a young man of ourgeneration acquires, in his own eyes, a kind of roving judicialcommission through the ages: and, having once escaped the perils of theFreemans and the Furnivalls, sets himself up to right the wrongs ofuniversal history and criticism. Now it is one thing to write withenjoyment on a subject while the story is hot in your mind from recentreading, coloured with recent prejudice; and it is quite anotherbusiness to put these writings coldly forth again in a bound volume. Weare most of us attached to our opinions; that is one of the "naturalaffections" of which we hear so much in youth; but few of us arealtogether free from paralysing doubts and scruples. For my part, I havea small idea of the degree of accuracy possible to man, and I feel surethese studies teem with error. One and all were written with genuineinterest in the subject; many, however, have been conceived and finishedwith imperfect knowledge; and all have lain, from beginning to end,under the disadvantages inherent in this style of writing.

  Of these disadvantages a word must here be said. The writer of shortstudies, having to condense in a few pages the events of a wholelifetime, and the effect on his own mind of many various volumes, isbound, above all things, to make that condensation logical and striking.For the only justification of his writing at all is that he shallpresent a brief, reasoned, and memorable view. By the necessity of thecase, all the more neutral circumstances are omitted from his narrative;and that of itself, by the negative exaggeration of which I have spokenin the text, lends to the matter in hand a certain false and speciousglitter. By the necessity of the case, again, he is forced to view hissubject throughout in a particular illumination, like a studio artifice.Like Hales with Pepys, he must nearly break his sitter's neck to get theproper shadows on the portrait. It is from one side only that he hastime to represent his subject. The side selected will either be the onemost striking to himself, or the one most obscured by controversy; andin both cases that will be the one most liable to strained andsophisticated reading. In a biography, this and that is displayed; thehero is seen at home, playing the flute; the different tendencies of hiswork come one after another into notice; and thus something like a truegeneral impression of the subject may at last be struck. But in theshort study, the writer, having seized his "point of view," must keephis eye steadily to that. He seeks, perhaps, rather to differentiatethan truly to characterise. The proportions of the sitter must besacrificed to the proportions of the portrait; the lights areheightened, the shadows overcharged; the chosen expression, continuallyforced, may degenerate at length into a grimace; and we have at bestsomething of a caricature, at worst a calumny. Hence, if they bereadable at all and hang together by their own ends, the peculiarconvincing force of these brief representations. They take so little awhile to read, and yet in that little while the subject is so repeatedlyintroduced in the same light and with the same expression, that, bysheer force of repetition, that view is imposed upon the reader. The twoEnglish masters of the style, Macaulay and Carlyle, largely exemplifyits dangers. Carlyle, indeed, had so much more depth and knowledge ofthe heart, his portraits of mankind are felt and rendered with so muchmore poetic comprehension, and he, like his favourite Ram Dass, had afire in his belly so much more hotly burning than the patent readinglamp by which Macaulay studied, that it seems at first sight hardly fairto bracket them together. But the "point of view" was imposed by Carlyleon the men he judged of in his writings with an austerity not only cruelbut almost stupid. They are too often broken outright on the Procrusteanbed; they are probably always disfigured. The rhetorical artifice ofMacaulay is easily spied; it will take longer to appreciate the moralbias of Carlyle. So with all writers who insist on forcing somesignificance from all that comes before them; and the writer of shortstudies is bound, by the necessity of the case, to write entirely inthat spirit. What he cannot vivify he should omit.

  Had it been possible to rewrite some of these papers I hop
e I shouldhave had the courage to attempt it. But it is not possible. Shortstudies are, or should be, things woven like a carpet, from which it isimpossible to detach a strand. What is perverted has its place there forever, as a part of the technical means by which what is right has beenpresented. It is only possible to write another study, and then, with anew "point of view," would follow new perversions and perhaps a freshcaricature. Hence, it will be, at least, honest to offer a few grains ofsalt to be taken with the text; and as some words of apology, addition,correction, or amplification fall to be said on almost every study inthe volume, it will be most simple to run them over in their order. Butthis must not be taken as a propitiatory offering to the gods ofshipwreck; I trust my cargo unreservedly to the chances of the sea; anddo not, by criticising myself, seek to disarm the wrath of other andless partial critics.

  HUGO'S ROMANCES. This is an instance of the "point of view." The fiveromances studied with a different purpose might have given differentresults, even with a critic so warmly interested in their favour. Thegreat contemporary master of workmanship, and indeed of all literaryarts and technicalities, had not unnaturally dazzled a beginner. But itis best to dwell on merits, for it is these that are most oftenoverlooked.

  BURNS. I have left the introductory sentences on Principal Shairp,partly to explain my own paper, which was merely supplemental to hisamiable but imperfect book, partly because that book appears to me trulymisleading both as to the character and the genius of Burns. This seemsungracious, but Mr. Shairp has himself to blame; so good a Wordsworthianwas out of character upon that stage.

  This half-apology apart, nothing more falls to be said except upon aremark called forth by my study in the columns of a literary Review. Theexact terms in which that sheet disposed of Burns I cannot now recall;but they were to this effect--that Burns was a bad man, the impurevehicle of fine verses; and that this was the view to which allcriticism tended. Now I knew, for my own part, that it was with theprofoundest pity, but with a growing esteem, that I studied the man'sdesperate efforts to do right; and the more I reflected, the stranger itappeared to me that any thinking being should feel otherwise. Thecomplete letters shed, indeed, a light on the depths to which Burns hadsunk in his character of Don Juan, but they enhance in the sameproportion the hopeless nobility of his marrying Jean. That I ought tohave stated this more noisily I now see; but that any one should fail tosee it for himself is to me a thing both incomprehensible and worthy ofopen scorn. If Burns, on the facts dealt with in this study, is to becalled a bad man, I question very much whether I or the writer in theReview have ever encountered what it would be fair to call a good one.All have some fault. The fault of each grinds down the hearts of thoseabout him, and--let us not blink the truth--hurries both him and theminto the grave. And when we find a man persevering indeed, in his fault,as all of us do, and openly overtaken, as not all of us are, by itsconsequences, to gloss the matter over, with too polite biographers, isto do the work of the wrecker disfiguring beacons on a perilousseaboard; but to call him bad, with a self-righteous chuckle, is to betalking in one's sleep with Heedless and Too-bold in the arbour.

  Yet it is undeniable that much anger and distress is raised in manyquarters by the least attempt to state plainly what every one wellknows, of Burns's profligacy, and of the fatal consequences of hismarriage. And for this there are perhaps two subsidiary reasons. For,first, there is, in our drunken land, a certain privilege extended todrunkenness. In Scotland, in particular, it is almost respectable, aboveall when compared with any "irregularity between the sexes." Theselfishness of the one, so much more gross in essence, is so much lessimmediately conspicuous in its results, that our demiurgeous Mrs. Grundysmiles apologetically on its victims. It is often said--I have heard itwith these ears--that drunkenness "may lead to vice." Now I did notthink it at all proved that Burns was what is called a drunkard; and Iwas obliged to dwell very plainly on the irregularity and the toofrequent vanity and meanness of his relations to women. Hence, in theeyes of many, my study was a step towards the demonstration of Burns'sradical badness.

  But, second, there is a certain class, professors of that low moralityso greatly more distressing than the better sort of vice, to whom youmust never represent an act that was virtuous in itself as attended byany other consequences than a large family and fortune. To hint thatBurns's marriage had an evil influence is, with this class, to deny themoral law. Yet such is the fact. It was bravely done; but he hadpresumed too far on his strength. One after another the lights of hislife went out, and he fell from circle to circle to the dishonouredsickbed of the end. And surely, for any one that has a thing to call asoul, he shines out tenfold more nobly in the failure of that franticeffort to do right, than if he had turned on his heel with WorldlyWiseman, married a congenial spouse, and lived orderly and diedreputably an old man. It is his chief title that he refrained from "thewrong that amendeth wrong." But the common, trashy mind of ourgeneration is still aghast, like the Jews of old, at any word of anunsuccessful virtue. Job has been written and read; the tower of Siloamfell nineteen hundred years ago; yet we have still to desire a littleChristianity, or, failing that, a little even of that rude, old Norsenobility of soul, which saw virtue and vice alike go unrewarded, and wasyet not shaken in its faith.

  WALT WHITMAN. This is a case of a second difficulty which liescontinually before the writer of critical studies: that he has tomeditate between the author whom he loves and the public who arecertainly indifferent and frequently averse. Many articles had beenwritten on this notable man. One after another had leaned, in my eyes,either to praise or blame unduly. In the last case, they helped toblindfold our fastidious public to an inspiring writer; in the other, byan excess of unadulterated praise, they moved the more candid to revolt.I was here on the horns of a dilemma; and between these horns I squeezedmyself, with perhaps some loss to the substance of the paper. Seeing somuch in Whitman that was merely ridiculous, as well as so much more thatwas unsurpassed in force and fitness,--seeing the true prophet doubled,as I thought, in places with the Bull in a China Shop,--it appeared bestto steer a middle course, and to laugh with the scorners when I thoughtthey had any excuse, while I made haste to rejoice with the rejoicersover what is imperishably good, lovely, human, or divine, in hisextraordinary poems. That was perhaps the right road; yet I cannot helpfeeling that in this attempt to trim my sails between an author whom Ilove and honour and a public too averse to recognise his merit, I havebeen led into a tone unbecoming from one of my stature to one ofWhitman's. But the good and the great man will go on his way not vexedwith my little shafts of merriment. He, first of any one, willunderstand how, in the attempt to explain him credibly to Mrs. Grundy, Ihave been led into certain airs of the man of the world, which aremerely ridiculous in me, and were not intentionally discourteous tohimself. But there is a worse side to the question; for in my eagernessto be all things to all men, I am afraid I may have sinned againstproportion. It will be enough to say here that Whitman's faults are fewand unimportant when they are set beside his surprising merits. I hadwritten another paper full of gratitude for the help that had been givenme in my life, full of enthusiasm for the intrinsic merit of the poems,and conceived in the noisiest extreme of youthful eloquence. The presentstudy was a rifacimento. From it, with the design already mentioned, andin a fit of horror at my old excess, the big words and emphatic passageswere ruthlessly excised. But this sort of prudence is frequently itsown punishment; along with the exaggeration, some of the truth issacrificed; and the result is cold, constrained, and grudging. In short,I might almost everywhere have spoken more strongly than I did.

  THOREAU. Here is an admirable instance of the "point of view" forcedthroughout, and of too earnest reflection on imperfect facts. Upon methis pure, narrow, sunnily-ascetic Thoreau had exercised a great charm.I have scarce written ten sentences since I was introduced to him, buthis influence might be somewhere detected by a close observer. Still itwas as a writer that I had made his acquaintance; I took him on his ownexp
licit terms; and when I learned details of his life, they were, bythe nature of the case and my own _parti pris_, read even with a certainviolence in terms of his writings. There could scarce be a perversionmore justifiable than that; yet it was still a perversion. The study,indeed, raised so much ire in the breast of Dr. Japp (H. A. Page),Thoreau's sincere and learned disciple, that had either of us been men,I please myself with thinking, of less temper and justice, thedifference might have made us enemies instead of making us friends. Tohim, who knew the man from the inside, many of my statements soundedlike inversions made on purpose; and yet when we came to talk of themtogether, and he had understood how I was looking at the man through thebooks, while he had long since learned to read the books through theman, I believe he understood the spirit in which I had been led astray.

  On two most important points, Dr. Japp added to my knowledge, and withthe same blow fairly demolished that part of my criticism. First, ifThoreau were content to dwell by Walden Pond, it was not merely withdesigns of self-improvement, but to serve mankind in the highest sense.Hither came the fleeing slave; thence was he despatched along the roadto freedom. That shanty in the woods was a station in the greatUnderground Railroad; that adroit and philosophic solitary was anardent worker, soul and body, in that so much more than honourablemovement, which, if atonement were possible for nations, should havegone far to wipe away the guilt of slavery. But in history sin alwaysmeets with condign punishment; the generation passes, the offenceremains, and the innocent must suffer. No underground railroad couldatone for slavery, even as no bills in Parliament can redeem the ancientwrongs of Ireland. But here at least is a new light shed on the Waldenepisode.

  Second, it appears, and the point is capital, that Thoreau was oncefairly and manfully in love, and, with perhaps too much aping of theangel, relinquished the woman to his brother. Even though the brotherwere like to die of it, we have not yet heard the last opinion of thewoman. But be that as it may, we have here the explanation of the"rarefied and freezing air" in which I complained that he had taughthimself to breathe. Reading the man through the books, I took hisprofessions in good faith. He made a dupe of me, even as he was seekingto make a dupe of himself, wresting philosophy to the needs of his ownsorrow. But in the light of this new fact, those pages, seemingly socold, are seen to be alive with feeling. What appeared to be a lack ofinterest in the philosopher turns out to have been a touchinginsincerity of the man to his own heart; and that fine-spun airy theoryof friendship, so devoid, as I complained, of any quality of flesh andblood, a mere anodyne to lull his pains. The most temperate of livingcritics once marked a passage of my own with a cross and the words,"This seems nonsense." It not only seemed; it was so. It was a privatebravado of my own, which I had so often repeated to keep up my spiritsthat I had grown at last wholly to believe it, and had ended by settingit down as a contribution to the theory of life. So with the more icyparts of this philosophy of Thoreau's. He was affecting the Spartanismhe had not; and the old sentimental wound still bled afresh, while hedeceived himself with reasons.

  Thoreau's theory, in short, was one thing and himself another: of thefirst, the reader will find what I believe to be a pretty faithfulstatement and a fairly just criticism in the study; of the second hewill find but a contorted shadow. So much of the man as fitted nicelywith his doctrines, in the photographer's phrase, came out. But thatlarge part which lay outside and beyond, for which he had found orsought no formula, on which perhaps his philosophy even looked askance,is wanting in my study, as it was wanting in the guide I followed. Insome ways a less serious writer, in all ways a nobler man, the trueThoreau still remains to be depicted.

  VILLON. I am tempted to regret that I ever wrote on this subject, notmerely because the paper strikes me as too picturesque by half, butbecause I regarded Villon as a bad fellow. Others still think well ofhim, and can find beautiful and human traits where I saw nothing butartistic evil; and by the principle of the art, those should havewritten of the man, and not I. Where you see no good, silence is thebest. Though this penitence comes too late, it may be well, at least, togive it expression.

  The spirit of Villon is still living in the literature of France. FatPeg is oddly of a piece with the work of Zola, the Goncourts, and theinfinitely greater Flaubert; and, while similar in ugliness, stillsurpasses them in a native power. The old author, breaking with an_eclat de voix_ out of his tongue-tied century, has not yet been touchedon his own ground, and still gives us the most vivid and shockingimpression of reality. Even if that were not worth doing at all, itwould be worth doing as well as he has done it; for the pleasure we takein the author's skill repays us, or at least reconciles us to thebaseness of his attitude. Fat Peg (_La Grosse Margot_) is typical ofmuch; it is a piece of experience that has nowhere else been renderedinto literature; and a kind of gratitude for the author's plainnessmingles, as we read, with the nausea proper to the business. I shallquote here a verse of an old student's song; worth laying side by sidewith Villon's startling ballade. This singer, also, had an unworthymistress, but he did not choose to share the wages of dishonour; and itis thus, with both wit and pathos, that he laments her fall:--

  Nunc plango florem AEtatis tenerae Nitidiorem Veneris sidere: Tunc columbinam Mentis dulcedinem, Nunc serpentinam Amaritudinem. Verbo rogantes Removes ostio, Munera dantes Foves cubiculo, Illos abire praecipis A quibus nihil accipis, Caecos claudosque recipis, Viros illustres decipis Cum melle venenosa.[1]

  But our illustrious writer of ballades it was unnecessary to deceive; itwas the flight of beauty alone, not that of honesty or honour, that helamented in his song; and the nameless mediaeval vagabond has the best ofthe comparison.

  There is now a Villon Society in England; and Mr. John Payne hastranslated him entirely into English, a task of unusual difficulty. Iregret to find that Mr. Payne and I are not always at one as to theauthor's meaning; in such cases I am bound to suppose that he is in theright, although the weakness of the flesh withholds me from anythingbeyond a formal submission. He is now upon a larger venture, promisingus at last that complete Arabian Nights to which we have all so longlooked forward.

  CHARLES OF ORLEANS. Perhaps I have done scanty justice to the charm ofthe old Duke's verses, and certainly he is too much treated as a fool.The period is not sufficiently remembered. What that period was, to whata blank of imbecility the human mind had fallen, can only be known tothose who have waded in the chronicles. Excepting Comines and La Salleand Villon, I have read no author who did not appal me by his torpor;and even the trial of Joan of Arc, conducted as it was by chosen clerks,bears witness to a dreary sterile folly,--a twilight of the mind peopledwith childish phantoms. In relation to his contemporaries, Charles seemsquite a lively character.

  It remains for me to acknowledge the kindness of Mr. Henry Pyne, who,immediately on the appearance of the study, sent me his edition of theDebate between the Heralds: a courtesy from the expert to the amateuronly too uncommon in these days.

  KNOX. Knox, the second in order of interest among the reformers, liesdead and buried in the works of the learned and unreadable M'Crie. Itremains for some one to break the tomb and bring him forth, alive againand breathing, in a human book. With the best intentions in the world, Ihave only added two more flagstones, ponderous like their predecessors,to the mass of obstruction that buries the reformer from the world; Ihave touched him in my turn with that "mace of death," which Carlyle hasattributed to Dryasdust; and my two dull papers are, in the matter ofdulness, worthy additions to the labours of M'Crie. Yet I believe theyare worth reprinting in the interest of the next biographer of Knox. Itrust his book may be a masterpiece; and I indulge the hope that my twostudies may lend him a hint or perhaps spare him a delay in itscomposition.

  Of the PEPYS I can say nothing; for it has been too recently through myhands; and I still retain some of the heat of composition. Yet it mayserve as a text for the last remark I have to offer. To Pepys I think Ihave been amply just
; to the others, to Burns, Thoreau, Whitman, Charlesof Orleans, even Villon, I have found myself in the retrospect ever toogrudging of praise, ever too disrespectful in manner. It is not easy tosee why I should have been most liberal to the man of least pretensions.Perhaps some cowardice withheld me from the proper warmth of tone;perhaps it is easier to be just to those nearer us in rank and mind.Such at least is the fact, which other critics may explain. For thesewere all men whom, for one reason or another, I loved; or when I did notlove the men, my love was the greater to their books. I had read themand lived with them; for months they were continually in my thoughts; Iseemed to rejoice in their joys and to sorrow with them in their griefs;and behold, when I came to write of them, my tongue was sometimes hardlycourteous and seldom wholly just.

  R. L. S.


  [1] "Gaudeamus: Carmina vagorum selecta." Leipsic: Truebner, 1879.


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