Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. A. Raleigh
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894)
[Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson, who dropped his third name for the purposes of authorship, was born in Edinburgh, November 1850, the son of Thomas Stevenson, Secretary to the Commissioners of the Northern Lights. He was educated at private schools and at the University of Edinburgh, whence he passed to the Scottish Bar. But his health was bad, and his literary calling imperative, so that his career was one of ubiquitous travel and indefatigable authorship. His experiences of Scotland and America, of the Quartier Latin in Paris, and the artist society of Barbizon, of Bournemouth, and of the South Pacific Islands, have all left their brilliant record in his essays, books of travel, and romances. His later years were spent in Samoa, where he established himself permanently, and commenced grand seigneur, interesting himself in the natives of the island, and intervening occasionally, with lyric effect, in the mess of international mercantile politics. He died suddenly, at the height of his power and fame, in December 1894.]  1
IF the critics of this century were ready to agree with Sir Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson, and their contemporaries, in the opinion that verse is “an ornament and no cause to poetry,” and that a poet may consequently write in prose, it would be easy to find in the word “poetry” a comprehensive description of all Stevenson’s work. Alike in his essays and romances, in his critical judgments and his records of fact, what he touches is transfigured by the light of his imagination, and expressed in periods as carefully modelled as the periods of blank verse. He has not one set of themes for his verse and another for his prose, his poems are often echoes of what he has rendered elsewhere by the instrument of his dearer choice and study. But it would be unfair to so great an artist in prose to confuse the issue even for a moment. For it was a true instinct that led Stevenson through the arduous course of training that he gave himself in the schools of Sir Thomas Browne and Montaigne, Bunyan and Defoe, on the way to his own style. The subjects that appealed to him, the handling that was his natural gift, alike are ill-suited to the severity of verse. He is a traveller and no architect; the Latins, in calling prose sermo pedestris, described by anticipation the chief merits of the happiest master of vagabond discourse in all the nineteenth century. And hence those critics are ill-advised who separate his essays and his romances to give preference to the former. The fireside talker, who said wise and gay things concerning love and marriage, art and death, to a select and delighted company at the inn, came thither for a night’s lodging with no intention of residence. Romance, or what is happening round the next turn of the road, and beyond the next bend of the river, was the lodestar of his life. Now and again he would describe the scenes he passed through, sometimes he would beguile the way with reflections and aphorisms gathered by the roadside or caught out of the air; but for the most part the accidents of travel served him by suggesting the unknown history of the past and the untried possibilities of the future. Experience, which was a law of limitation to Fielding, was to Stevenson an incessantly renewed provocation to dreaming. A short story like The Pavilion on the Links serves to show how his fancy worked on the suggestions caught from the sand-dunes and the sea, with perhaps a stray figure passing in the dusk. What is best in his romances and essays they catch from each other; the romances are convincing by virtue of their sheer hold on the ultimate conditions of human life, the essays deal in no abstract fashion with high themes of policy and philosophy, but flash their light upon common objects at an angle that reveals the glitter in the quartz.  2
  The constant quantity in all Stevenson’s writing is himself. A complete life of him might be compiled from his works; the skeleton itinerary of his wanderings, with names and dates, might easily be clothed with the living tissue of sensations and impressions that is furnished by his books. Yet he is the least obtrusive of egotists, and his heroic endeavours to escape from himself in the creation of character achieve some veritable successes. Alan Breck Stewart is perhaps the finest Highlander in English literature—he is at any rate second to none. David Balfour, Captain Nares, Jim Pinkerton, and some half-dozen others, are breathing human beings, created by sympathy and never really deformed by the humours of the comic spirit. The rival heroines of Stevenson’s longest work may safely challenge comparison with any of Scott’s goddesses. Indeed it is not in his firmer grasp of character that Scott’s superiority as a romancer is made manifest, but rather in his frank unquestioning acceptance of the fundamental facts of life, its loves and hates, its joys and sorrows. Axioms are as necessary in romance as in mathematics, and Stevenson might perhaps have raised his structure of romance higher had he been less addicted to digging at the foundations. His attitude towards the business and desire of grown men had always something of the child’s open-eyed wonder; he was to the last a stranger on the earth. His view of human things is as clear as it is fresh, but he stands aloof from them, and his sympathies are not to be tamed by the affections. He knew this touch of chilliness in himself, as he knew most things that can be discovered by introspection, and he shunned the introduction of women in his earlier stories. Although he learned from Scott how to make pirates seem execrably wicked without the minute reproduction of ruffianly talk, he would not have dared to follow Scott to the blunt extremity of terror by letting his heroines fall into the hands of a drunken pirate crew. Such a crisis could never bear the curious consideration which Stevenson, in the very vein of Hamlet, would have given it. The broad gust and generous prejudices of his great forerunners are no part of his faculty; he is unwilling to owe the greatness of his effects to the strength of a universal passion rather than to his own exquisite and subtle treatment of it.  3
  Hence it is that style, which is the intrusion of the artist’s individuality upon lifeless matter and impersonal truth, is the beginning and end of his writing. Commonplace morality and conventional expression are impossible to him, his questing avidity could never be harnessed in the shafts of everyday purpose. In an age of journalism, of barren repetition and fruitless expatiation, it is high praise to give even to a great prose-writer to say of him that he never proses. This praise is due to Stevenson; his chisel, which rang in the workshops of many masters, was always wielded under the direction of a marvellously quick eye, by a hand that gathered strength and confidence every year. He has left no slovenly work, none that has not an inimitable distinction, and the charm of expression that belongs only to a rare spirit. If the question be raised of his eventual place in the great hierarchy of English writers, it is enough to say that the tribunal that shall try his claims is not yet in session; when the time comes he will be summoned to the bar, not with the array of contemporaries whose names a foolish public linked to his, but with the chief prose-writers of the century, few of whom can face the trial with less to extenuate and less to conceal.  4

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