Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Robert Bridges (1844–1930)
IN his illuminating essay ‘The Lantern-Bearers,’ which in a very few pages seems to bear the secret of Robert Louis Stevenson’s life and art, he puts the kernel of it in the sentence: “No man lives in the external truth, among salts and acids; but in the warm, phantasmagoric chamber of his brain, with the painted windows and the storied walls.” If he was the most loved writer of his generation, it was because he freely gave his readers access to this warm phantasmagoric chamber. His “winning personality” is the phrase which his admirers use oftenest to express his charm. One of the most acute of these, Mr. Henry James, has still further defined this charm as the perpetual boy in him. He never outgrew the boy’s delight in “make-believe.” He tells how the cardboard scenery and plays of Skelt, “A Penny Plain, 2d. Colored,” which fascinated him as a boy, had given him “the very spirit of my life’s enjoyment.”  1
  To the mature man “these wonderful characters” looked somewhat pallidly, as he later confesses, but only to reaffirm his faith in the virtue of their romance, “of the footlight glamour, the ready-made, bare-faced, transportive picturesque, a thing not one with cold reality, but how much dearer to the mind.”  2
  Boy and man, all that he needed for delight was “a peg for his fancy.” “I could not learn my alphabet without some suitable mise-en-scène, and had to act a business man in an office before I could sit down to my book.” Burnt-cork mustachios expanded his spirit with “dignity and self-reliance.” To him the burnt cork was not the significant thing, the warm delight of it. It is not the silly talk of the boys on the links, or the ill-smelling lantern buttoned under their great-coats, but “the heaven of a recondite pleasure” which they inhabit, that is worth considering. “To find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing,”—that was Stevenson’s endeavor; “for to miss the joy is to miss all. In the joy of the actors lies the sense of any action.” That is the very spirit of romantic youth; the search for “the incommunicable thrill of things,” which his friend and biographer Sidney Colvin says was the main passion of Stevenson’s life. “To his ardent fancy,” says Colvin, “the world was a theatre, glaring with the lights and bustling with the incidents of romance.”  3
  To any one looking for the reason of Stevenson’s perpetual charm,—even to those who can give a score of arguments for not liking his romances,—this brave spirit of youth is an adequate and satisfying motive. The young find in it a full justification for their own hopes; the middle-aged feel again the very spring and core of the energy which they have been so long disciplining and driving to the yoke of everyday effort that they have forgotten its origin; and the old find their memories alive and glowing again with the romance of youth. In sickness or in health, in comedy or tragedy, Stevenson and the characters he creates are never wholly unconscious of man’s inalienable birthright of happiness. No matter how dire his circumstances, it is a man’s duty to keep looking for it, so that at the end he may say that he has not sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.
  “If I have faltered more or less
In my great task of happiness;
If I have moved among my race
And shown no glorious morning face;
If beams from happy human eyes
Have moved me not; if morning skies,
Books and my food, and summer rain,
Knocked on my sullen heart in vain,—
Lord, thy most pointed pleasure take
And stab my spirit broad awake.”
  This temperament in many men of a different race would surely lead to a life spent in a the pursuit of pleasure,—in one long quest for new sensations,—which in the end is sure to arrive at ennui and disgust. But Stevenson united the blood of the Balours, who were preachers, given to metaphysics and the pursuit of moralities, with the Stevensons, “builders of the great sea lights,” practical men of trained scientific minds and shrewd common-sense. The touch of the moral philosopher was never deeply hidden in his lightest work, which also showed the hand of the artisan in the skill of its construction. “What I want to give, what I try for, is God’s moral,” he once said; and ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ is a potent exhibition of it. How very early in life this temperament began to reveal itself in the craftsman, he shows in one of his essays: “All through my boyhood and youth I was known and pointed out for the pattern of an idler; and yet I was always busy in my own private end, which was to learn to write. I always kept two books in my pocket, one to read and one to write in. As I walked, my mind was busy fitting what I saw with appropriate words…. 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.” And years afterward he wrote to Colvin from Samoa: “I pass all my hours of field-work in continual converse and imaginary correspondence. I scarce pull up a weed but I invent a sentence on the matter to yourself.”  5
  In his youthful reading, “some happy distinction in the style” of a book sent him at once to the imitation of it; and he confesses, “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.” All this gave him what he knew to be “the lower and less intellectual elements of the art,—the choice of the essential note and the right word”; but he also knew that “that, like it or not, is the way to learn to write.” To those who say that this is not the way to be original, he has given the best answer: “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.”  6
  The “love of lovely words” was one of his passions. From Skerryvore to Vailima it led him and charmed him. In ‘Across the Plains’ he says that “None can care for literature in itself who do not take a special pleasure in the sound of names”; and notes the poetical richness and picturesqueness of many in the United States. In his ‘Vailima Letters’ he recurs again and again to the liquid beauty of the Samoan language, and names “Ulufanua”: “Did over you hear a prettier word?” he asks. There was the ear of a poet always evident in his prose as in his verse.  7
  If Stevenson is always spoken of as a man with a style, here is the reason for it. The spirit of the light-house builders, who knew that something more than inspiration was necessary to build a beacon that would stand up against the waves, was strong in him. From his boyhood to his death he was a conscious artificer in words. And if his books are to stand as beacons, here is the foundation of solid rock, here the strength of the tower. But no reader of Stevenson need be told the tower is only a stable support for the light. That is a thing of the spirit; and it glows in his works with a steady flame.  8
  With his eagerness to have a full draught of the joy of living, it was natural that Stevenson should have traveled much in many countries. The pursuit of health, which was for twenty years a pressing necessity in his “great task of happiness,” was not the sole reason for his wanderings. He was always hungry for “the greater world; not the shoddy sham world of cities, clubs, and colleges, but the world where men still live a man’s life…. My imagination, which is not the least damped by the idea of having my head cut off in the bush, recoils aghast from the idea of a life like Gladstone’s; and the shadow of the newspaper chills me to the bone.” He looks back with more satisfaction on the things he learned in the streets while playing truant, than on what he retained of books and college lectures. “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, peering into a mirror, with your back turned on all the bustle and glamour of reality.”  9
  His wanderings, which were his real education, began soon after his college days. Born on November 13th, 1850, in Edinburgh, he had the usual advantages of children of thrifty people in that intellectual city. He went to private schools, and had long vacations in the East Neuk of Fife,—a country full of romance, and associated with the Balfours, his mother’s family. He has given a pleasing glimpse of his vacations there in ‘The Lantern-Bearers,’ where he pictures the play of the boys along the cliffs, fronting on the lonely and picturesque Bass Rock, which even then to his eye of fancy still “flew the colors of King James”: and it held its fascination for him until, long years after, in Samoa, he penned one of the most imaginative chapters in ‘David Balfour’ to celebrate its weird associations. His career at Edinburgh University was not distinguished. But he was always about his business, “which was learning to write”; and helped to found a short-lived college magazine, which furnishes the topic for a charming bit of autobiography in ‘Memories and Portraits.’ Following the traditions of his family, he began to practice the practical elements of a civil engineer by working around the shops that had to do with the light-house business. Soon he declared his distaste for this vocation, telling his father that he wanted to be a writer. As a compromise he was put at the study of law when twenty-one years of age, and kept at it until he became an advocate,—“Writer to the Signet,” as it is phrased in his will. His failing health drove him to the south of France in 1873: and from that time to his death, on December 3d, 1894, he followed his bent for travel; and while seeking health accumulated, in the way he best liked, the materials for his books. Barbizon and the artistic colony there held him for a time; and there he met Mrs. Osbourne, whom he married in 1879. His vagabonding had furnished him the experiences for his first book, ‘An Inland Voyage’ (1878), and later, ‘Travels with a Donkey’; and then came his first American trip in 1879, which in after years produced ‘The Amateur Emigrant,’ ‘Across the Plains,’ and ‘The Silverado Squatters.’ There was a period of invalidism—“the land of counterpane”—at Bournemouth, which at length drove him to seek renewed vigor by a winter in the Adirondacks (1887–8); and then he began in June 1888 his voyages on the Pacific, which culminated in his finding the home he delighted in at Apia, Samoa, in 1890. There health came to him again; and with few intervals he led an outdoor life, superintending the building of his house, and working with his own hands on his plantation. The strange people, their ways and their politics, became an absorbing interest; and his ‘Vailima Letters’ show that his life was full to the utmost. “Do you think I have an empty life?” he wrote Colvin, “or that a man jogging to his club has so much to interest and amuse him!” He laughed at those who pitied his exile, and ascribed the occasional notes of despondency in his letters to physical depression. “I have endured some two-and-forty years without public shame, and had a good time as I did it,” he wrote in a letter which he called “a gloomy ramble,” which came from a twinge of “fine healthy rheumatism.”  10
  These few suggestions of biography are all that need be here noted. His published works and letters are his best biography—which will be rounded out with the collection of unpublished letters and journals which Mr. Sidney Colvin, his literary executor, is engaged upon. Never was a man more frankly autobiographic in his writings; and those who have most carefully read his books need the least to complete the portrait of Stevenson’s personality.  11
  The kind of judgment upon his works that Stevenson always welcomed was that of the craftsman. Whether or not you liked one kind of story better than another, did not seem to him significant. The main question with himself always was, Had he achieved the result artistically that he had in mind? He never forgot the ambition of his boyhood,—“his own private end” of learning to write. And while he is hammering away at a new work, no matter what,—of romance, travels, poem, or history,—he stops from time to time to consider whether he has really done it. When he despairs of ever getting it right, he is led on again by “that glimmer of faith (or hope) which one learns at this trade,—that somehow and some time, by perpetual staring and glowering and rewriting, order will emerge.” The most useless form of criticism that can be applied to Stevenson’s works is of the comparative kind, that shows how far short of certain great names he fell in certain accepted characteristics. It is easy to pile up the strong and effective literary qualities that he does not possess. But he has a right to be judged from his own platform: what did he try to do, and did he do it?  12
  He was once asked why he did not write more pretty tales like ‘Will o’ the Mill,’ why he had abandoned the “honey-dripping” style of his earlier essays and tales? “It’s a thing I have often thought over,” he said,—“the problem of what to do with one’s talents.” His own gift, he averred, lay in “the grim, and terrible.” He added that some writers touch the heart; he clutched at the throat. If his romances are full of grim and terrible scenes, it is because he believed that he could do that kind of writing best. He wanted to make the most of his best talent. Alan Breck’s great fight in the round-house, the duel scene in ‘The Master of Ballantrae,’ the terrible slaughter on shipboard in ‘The Wrecker,’ are convincing proof that he did not misjudge the bent of his genius. He was the leader in the revival of romantic writing, and yet he proclaims that he is essentially a realist. Life is what he was after: “Life is all in all.” If there is grimness and horror in his books, it is because he saw it in life. This is a strange paradox in one who declared that joy in life was the essential thing. Yet if you analyze any one of Stevenson’s terrible episodes, you will find that some character is giving the freest expression to his nature in that scene. Alan Breck gloried in the delight of battle. Wiltshire found barbaric joy in the slaughter of his enemy. A scene in Stevenson may be dire and terrible, but in it some barbaric passion is finding its fullest relief.  13
  In a letter written in 1892 he passes this judgment on his work: “‘Falesá’ and ‘David Balfour’ seem to me to be nearer what I mean than anything I have ever done—nearer what I mean by fiction; the nearest thing before was ‘Kidnapped.’ I am not forgetting the ‘Master of Ballantrae’; but that lacked all pleasurableness, and hence was imperfect in essence.” And in another place—“David himself I refuse to discuss; he is…. Tod Lapraik is a piece of living Scots; if I had never writ anything but that and Thrawn Janet, still I’d have been a writer.”  14
  There you get at his art as he saw it. David and Wiltshire and Alan and Janet are vital. When they acted, it was from the primitive passions; the direct, simple emotions that are not dependent on culture and civilization for existence and for strength. Civilized men still retain them, but they are well covered up with conventionalities. That is why Stevenson loved vagabonds and savages: they showed him the basic passions at work. The old King of Apemama became his brother, and the rebel chiefs of Samoa were his devoted admirers. But he had no affection for them unless he found that among their barbaric emotions they cherished a certain ideal of conduct. The Road of the Loving Heart repaid him for all his worries about the Samoan rebels.  15
  While the vitality of a character was its main fascination for Stevenson, in either real life or fiction, he followed Scott and Dumas in the belief that the best way to reveal character in a romance is by incident:—“It is not character but incident that wooes us out of our reserve. Something happens as we desrre to have it happen to ourselves; some situation, that we have long dallied with in fancy, is realized in the story with enticing or 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.” By this method, things which are not even pleasurable become interesting. “It is thus possible to construct a story, even of tragic import, in which every incident, detail, and trick of circumstances shall be welcome to the reader’s thought.”  16
  How he labored to make every incident fit into his general scheme is shown in many of his letters. To a suggestion that he change a certain ending, he replied that every incident in the story had led up to that. An invalid for half his years, he looked on life and art with the eye of a man of action. The psychology of a character interested him, as it naturally would the descendant of the metaphysical Balfours. But no amount of analysis was sufficient in Stevenson’s view to reveal a character to his readers. Action was the mirror in which it was reflected.  17
  Measured by this, his own highest standard, there can be little question that Stevenson’s highest achievement as a writer of romance remains where he placed it, with ‘Kidnapped’ and ‘David Balfour’ (called in England ‘Catriona’). In these stories the grim, the terrible, and the eccentric, fall into their proper places in the development of the characters. Their reality, their appeal to what is universal and human, is never obscured by the barbaric. And near to them as a work of literary art is the finest product of his South Sea experiences, ‘The Beach of Falesá’—a story which is so original in setting, character, and construction, so exquisite in its workmanship, that it may well be called a masterpiece. The magnificent fragment which he left in ‘Weir of Hermiston’ justifies many of his own predictions that it was to be his best work. His style certainly was never more a flexible instrument in his dexterous hand. There is nothing which he cannot do easily with it. Words and phrases strike you with a new beauty and force. Even when the artificial note of style is too persistent, his vision of the characters remains clear, vivid, and simple. Lord Braxfield had been in his imagination for many years—ever since he saw Raeburn’s portrait of him and wrote about it. In Hermiston the long-conjured vision is materialized: and with him two fascinating women, the elder and the younger Kirstie; a last convincing proof that Stevenson could triumphantly create—what he had so long avoided in his stories—a thoroughly charming woman. ‘Barbara Grant’ had led the way to this success, and had given him confidence.  18
  Like all expert craftsmen, he was fond of trying experiments in his art. He exhibited in them a less strenuous manifestation of his genius than in the great romances by which he wanted his achievement to be judged. ‘Treasure Island’—a boy’s tale of adventure, and one of the most perfect in workmanship—had a grown-up successor in ‘The Wrecker,’ which was avowed to be a tale of incident pure and simple; it was ‘Treasure Island’ made real by his own experience of voyaging among the islands of the Pacific. ‘The Wrong Box’ (devised with Mr. Osbourne) was his idea of a mystery tale, with the stage machinery of a farce often painfully present. His ingenious fancy at play showed its best traits in the fantastic tales of the ‘New Arabian Nights,’ and ‘The Dynamiter’ (in which Mrs. Stevenson took part). ‘Prince Otto’ is a fantasy written under the inspiration of George Meredith; and it contains some of the most graceful and melodious prose that is to be found in Stevenson’s writings. Whatever form of literary play his exuberant fancy led him into, it was always marked with originality of expression. Often it was artificial, but never labored or dull. His vivacity, his untiring interest in new things, led him occasionally into trivial and even disappointing experiments; but he carried them off with that gay air which never quite let the reader forget that he was a precocious boy doing his tricks.  19
  The unfailing delight that he got out of his journey through the world is shown most vividly in his volumes of Essays and Travel, from which we have so freely quoted his own expressions of his likes and dislikes, his aspirations and his ideals. To these, readers will always turn for renewed acquaintance with Stevenson the man. His literary essays are cordial appreciations and interpretations by a fellow-craftsman, who knew the difficulties of doing the best work. His other essays are similar appreciations of characters in real life. His travels also resolve themselves into this. Wherever he went he was looking for men who touched some part of his vigorous ideal of manhood,—the chief factors in which were always “courage and intelligence.” It had many phases; but at the bottom there was a certain loyalty that was the supreme test for vagabond or nobleman. When he found that, much was forgiven. He believed in an “ultimate decency of things; aye, and if I woke in hell, I should still believe it!”  20
  The lyrical expression of this attitude is the inspiration of his poems. To use his own figure of music, his ideal of a prose style was harmony; of a poetic style was melody. In his verse the strain is extremely simple, but it always sings. While he believed that the “grim and terrible” was the best subject for his prose, in his poetry he allowed beauty to lead him. All the gentler emotions that made him so loved by his friends found voice in his verse. Many of them were directly inspired by personal friendships. Loyalty to his country and his friends evokes the sweetest music:—
  “It’s an owercome sooth for age an’ youth,
  And it brooks wi’ nae denial,
That the dearest friends are the auldest friends,
  And the young are just on trial.”
While his deepest feelings are expressed in ‘Underwoods,’ his tenderest are found in ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses.’ Its simplicity, and the delicate truth with which it images a child’s fancies, have made it a classic of childhood. The conscious artist is never evident in it. It seems to be the spontaneous expression of a child’s mind.
  The place that Stevenson will take in literature is surely not to be made evident so long as the glamour of his personality remains over those who were his contemporaries. And with this personality so fully interwoven with his works, it seems hard to believe that the glamour can soon fade away. It is easy to imagine that, like Charles Lamb, he can never become wholly a “figure in literature,” but will remain vividly present to many generations of readers as a gifted child of genius who is to be fervently loved.  22

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