Emerson and Other Essays
John Jay Chapman
Part 3 out of 3
are speech not reduced to poetry. They do not sing, they do not carry.
They have no artificial buoys to float them in our memories.
It follows from this uncompromising nature of Browning that when, by the
grace of inspiration, the accents of his speech do fall into rhythm, his
words will have unimaginable sweetness. The music is so much a part of
the words--so truly spontaneous--that other verse seems tame and
manufactured beside his.
Rhyme is generally so used by Browning as not to subserve the true
function of rhyme. It is forced into a sort of superficial conformity,
but marks no epoch in the verse. The clusters of rhymes are clusters
only to the eye and not to the ear. The necessity of rhyming leads
Browning into inversions,--into expansions of sentences beyond the
natural close of the form,--into every sort of contortion. The rhymes
clog and distress the sentences.
As to grammar, Browning is negligent. Some of his most eloquent and
wonderful passages have no grammar whatever. In Sordello grammar does
not exist; and the want of it, the strain upon the mind caused by an
effort to make coherent sentences out of a fleeting, ever-changing,
iridescent maze of talk, wearies and exasperates the reader. Of course
no one but a school-master desires that poetry shall be capable of being
parsed; but every one has a right to expect that he shall be left
without a sense of grammatical deficiency.
The Invocation in The Ring and the Book is one of the most beautiful
openings that can be imagined.
"O lyric love, half angel and half bird,
And all a wonder and a wild desire--Boldest
of hearts that ever braved the sun,
Took sanctuary within the holier blue,
And sang a kindred soul out to his face--
Yet human at the red-ripe of the heart--
When the first summons from the darkling earth
Reached thee amid thy chambers, blanched their blue,
And bared them of the glory--to drop down,
To toil for man, to suffer or to die--
This is the same voice: can thy soul know change?
Hail then, and hearken from the realms of help!
Never may I commence my song, my due
To God who best taught song by gift of thee,
Except with bent head and beseeching hand--
That still, despite the distance and the dark
What was, again may be; some interchange
Of grace, some splendor once thy very thought,
Some benediction anciently thy smile;--
Never conclude, but raising hand and head
Thither where eyes, that cannot reach, yet yearn
For all hope, all sustainment, all reward,
Their utmost up and on--so blessing back
In those thy realms of help, that heaven thy home,
Some whiteness, which, I judge, thy face makes proud,
Some wanness where, I think, thy foot may fall."
These sublime lines are marred by apparent grammatical obscurity. The
face of beauty is marred when one of the eyes seems sightless. We
re-read the lines to see if we are mistaken. If they were in a foreign
language, we should say we did not fully understand them.
In the dramatic monologues, as, for instance, in The Ring and the Book
and in the innumerable other narratives and contemplations where a
single speaker holds forth, we are especially called upon to forget
grammar. The speaker relates and reflects,--pours out his ideas in the
order in which they occur to him,--pursues two or three trains of
thought at the same time, claims every license which either poetry or
conversation could accord him. The effect of this method is so
startling, that when we are vigorous enough to follow the sense, we
forgive all faults of metre and grammar, and feel that this natural
Niagara of speech is the only way for the turbulent mind of man to get
complete utterance. We forget that it is possible for the same thing to
be done, and yet to be subdued, and stilled, and charmed into music.
Prospero is as natural and as individual as Bishop Blougram. His grammar
is as incomplete, yet we do not note it. He talks to himself, to
Miranda, to Ariel, all at once, weaving all together his passions, his
philosophy, his narrative, and his commands. His reflections are as
profuse and as metaphysical as anything in Browning, and yet all is
clear,--all is so managed that it lends magic. The characteristic and
unfathomable significance of this particular character Prospero comes
out of it.
"_Prospero_. My brother and thy uncle, called Antonio--
I pray thee mark me,--that a brother should
Be so perfidious!--he whom next thyself,
Of all the world I lov'd, and to him put
The manage of my state; as at that time
Through all the seignories it was the first,
And Prospero, the Prime Duke, being so reputed
In dignity and for the liberal arts,
Without a parallel: those being all my study,
The government I cast upon my brother,
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And wrapped in secret studies. Thy false uncle--
Dost thou attend me?"
It is unnecessary to give examples from Browning of defective verse, of
passages which cannot be understood, which cannot be construed, which
cannot be parodied, and which can scarcely be pronounced. They are
mentioned only as throwing light on Browning's cast of mind and methods
of work. His inability to recast and correct his work cost the world a
master. He seems to have been condemned to create at white heat and to
stand before the astonishing draft, which his energy had flung out,
powerless to complete it.
We have a few examples of things which came forth perfect, but many of
even the most beautiful and most original of the shorter poems are
marred by some blotches that hurt us and which one feels might have
been struck out or corrected in half an hour. How many of the poems are
too long! It is not that Browning went on writing after he had completed
his thought,--for the burst of beauty is as likely to come at the end as
at the beginning,--but that his thought had to unwind itself like web
from a spider. He could not command it. He could only unwind and unwind.
Pan and Luna is a sketch, as luminous as a Correggio, but not finished.
Caliban upon Setebos, on the other hand, shows creative genius, beyond
all modern reach, but flounders and drags on too long. In the poems
which he revised, as, for instance, Herve Riel, which exists in two or
more forms, the corrections are verbal, and were evidently done with the
same fierce haste with which the poems were written.
We must not for an instant imagine that Browning was indolent or
indifferent; it is known that he was a taskmaster to himself. But he
_could_ not write other than he did. When the music came and the verse
caught the flame, and his words became sweeter, and his thought clearer,
then he could sweep down like an archangel bringing new strains of
beauty to the earth. But the occasions when he did this are a handful
of passages in a body of writing as large as the Bible.
Just as Browning could not stop, so he found it hard to begin. His way
of beginning is to seize the end of the thread just where he can, and
write down the first sentence.
"She should never have looked at me,
If she meant I should not love her!"
"Water your damned flowerpots, do--"
"No! for I'll save it! Seven years since."
"But give them me, the mouth, the eyes, the brow!"
"Fear Death? to feel the fog in my throat."
Sometimes his verse fell into coils as it came, but he himself, as he
wrote the first line of a poem, never knew in what form of verse the
poem would come forth. Hence the novel figures and strange counterpoint.
Having evolved the first group of lines at haphazard, he will sometimes
repeat the form (a very complex form, perhaps, which, in order to have
any organic effect, would have to be tuned to the ear most nicely), and
repeat it clumsily. Individual taste must be judge of his success in
these experiments. Sometimes the ear is worried by an attempt to trace
the logic of the rhymes which are concealed by the rough jolting of the
metre. Sometimes he makes no attempt to repeat the first verse, but
continues in irregular improvisation.
Browning never really stoops to literature; he makes perfunctory
obeisance to it. The truth is that Browning is expressed by his defects.
He would not be Robert Browning without them. In the technical part of
his art, as well as in his spirit, Browning represents a reaction of a
violent sort. He was too great an artist not to feel that his violations
of form helped him. The blemishes in The Grammarian's Funeral--_hoti's
business, the enclitic de_--were stimulants; they heightened his
effects. They helped him make clear his meaning, that life is greater
than art. These savageries spoke to the hearts of men tired of
smoothness and platitude, and who were relieved by just such a breaking
up of the ice. Men loved Browning not only for what he was, but also for
what he was not.
These blemishes were, under the circumstances, and for a limited
audience, strokes of art. It is not to be pretended that, even from this
point of view, they were always successful, only that they are organic.
The nineteenth century would have to be lived over again to wipe these
passages out of Browning's poetry.
In that century he stands as one of the great men of England. His
doctrines are the mere effulgence of his personality. He himself was the
truth which he taught. His life was the life of one of his own heroes;
and in the close of his life--by a coincidence which is not sad, but
full of meaning--may be seen one of those apparent paradoxes in which he
Through youth and manhood Browning rose like a planet calmly following
the laws of his own being. From time to time he put forth his volumes
which the world did not understand. Neglect caused him to suffer, but
not to change. It was not until his work was all but finished, not till
after the publication of The Ring and the Book, that complete
recognition came to him. It was given him by men and women who had been
in the nursery when he began writing, who had passed their youth with
his minor poems, and who understood him.
In later life Browning's powers declined. The torrent of feeling could
no longer float the raft of doctrine, as it had done so lightly and for
so long. His poems, always difficult, grew dry as well.
But Browning was true to himself. He had all his life loved converse
with men and women, and still enjoyed it. He wrote constantly and to his
uttermost. It was not for him to know that his work was done. He wrote
on manfully to the end, showing, occasionally, his old power, and always
his old spirit. And on his death-bed it was not only his doctrine, but
his life that blazed out in the words:--
"One who never turned his back, but marched breast forward,
Never doubted clouds would break,
Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph.
Held, we fall to rise--are baffled to fight better--
Sleep to wake."
* * * * *
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
In the early eighties, and in an epoch when the ideals of George Eliot
were still controlling, the figure of Stevenson rose with a sort of
radiance as a writer whose sole object was to entertain. Most of the
great novelists were then dead, and the scientific school was in the
ascendant. Fiction was entering upon its death grapple with sociology.
Stevenson came, with his tales of adventure and intrigue, out-of-door
life and old-time romance, and he recalled to every reader his boyhood
and the delights of his earliest reading. We had forgotten that novels
could be amusing.
Hence it is that the great public not only loves Stevenson as a writer,
but regards him with a certain personal gratitude. There was, moreover,
in everything he wrote an engaging humorous touch which made friends for
him everywhere, and excited an interest in his fragile and somewhat
elusive personality supplementary to the appreciation of his books as
literature. Toward the end of his life both he and the public
discovered this, and his railleries or sermons took on the form of
Beneath these matters lay the fact, known to all, that the man was
fighting a losing battle against mortal sickness, and that practically
the whole of his work was done under conditions which made any
productivity seem a miracle. The heroic invalid was seen through all his
books, still sitting before his desk or on his bed, turning out with
unabated courage, with increasing ability, volume after volume of
gayety, of boys' story-book, and of tragic romance.
There is enough in this record to explain the popularity, running at
times into hero-worship and at times into drawing-room fatuity, which
makes Stevenson and his work a fair subject for study. It is not
impossible that a man who met certain needs of the times so fully, and
whom large classes of people sprang forward to welcome, may in some
particulars give a clew to the age.
Any description of Stevenson's books is unnecessary. We have all read
them too recently to need a prompter. The high spirits and elfin humor
which play about and support every work justifies them all.
One of his books, The Child's Garden of Verses, is different in kind
from the rest. It has no prototype, and is by far the most original
thing that he did. The unsophisticated and gay little volume is a work
of the greatest value. Stevenson seems to have remembered the
impressions of his childhood with accuracy, and he has recorded them
without affectation, without sentimentality, without exaggeration. In
depicting children he draws from life. He is at home in the mysteries of
their play and in the inconsequent operations of their minds, in the
golden haze of impressions in which they live. The references to
children in his essays and books show the same understanding and
sympathy. There is more than mere literary charm in what he says here.
In the matter of childhood we must study him with respect. He is an
The slight but serious studies in biography--alas! too few--which
Stevenson published, ought also to be mentioned, because their merit is
apt to be overlooked by the admirers of his more ambitious works. His
understanding of two such opposite types of men as Burns and Thoreau is
notable, and no less notable are the courage, truth, and penetration
with which he dealt with them. His essay on Burns is the most
comprehensible word ever said of Burns. It makes us love Burns less,
but understand him more.
The problems suggested by Stevenson are more important than his work
itself. We have in him that rare combination,--a man whose theories and
whose practice are of a piece. His doctrines are the mere description of
his own state of mind while at work.
The quality which every one will agree in conceding to Stevenson is
lightness of touch. This quality is a result of his extreme lucidity,
not only of thought, but of intention. We know what he means, and we are
sure that we grasp his whole meaning at the first reading. Whether he be
writing a tale of travel or humorous essay, a novel of adventure, a
story of horror, a morality, or a fable; in whatever key he plays,--and
he seems to have taken delight in showing mastery in many,--the reader
feels safe in his hands, and knows that no false note will be struck.
His work makes no demands upon the attention. It is food so thoroughly
peptonized that it is digested as soon as swallowed and leaves us
exhilarated rather than fed.
Writing was to him an art, and almost everything that he has written has
a little the air of being a _tour de force_. Stevenson's books and
essays were generally brilliant imitations of established things, done
somewhat in the spirit of an expert in billiards. In short, Stevenson is
the most extraordinary mimic that has ever appeared in literature.
That is the reason why he has been so much praised for his style. When
we say of a new thing that it "has style," we mean that it is done as we
have seen things done before. Bunyan, De Foe, or Charles Lamb were to
their contemporaries men without style. The English, to this day,
complain of Emerson that he has no style.
If a man writes as he talks, he will be thought to have no style, until
people get used to him, for literature means _what has been written_. As
soon as a writer is established, his manner of writing is adopted by the
literary conscience of the times, and you may follow him and still have
"style." You may to-day imitate George Meredith, and people, without
knowing exactly why they do it, will concede you "style." Style means
When Stevenson, writing from Samoa in the agony of his South Seas (a
book he could not write because he had no paradigm and original to copy
from), says that he longs for a "moment of style," he means that he
wishes there would come floating through his head a memory of some other
man's way of writing to which he could modulate his sentences.
It is no secret that Stevenson in early life spent much time in
imitating the styles of various authors, for he has himself described
the manner in which he went to work to fit himself for his career as a
writer. His boyish ambition led him to employ perfectly phenomenal
diligence in cultivating a perfectly phenomenal talent for imitation.
There was probably no fault in Stevenson's theory as to how a man should
learn to write, and as to the discipline he must undergo. Almost all the
greatest artists have shown, in their early work, traces of their early
masters. These they outgrow. "For as this temple waxes, the inward
service of the mind and soul grows wide withal;" and an author's own
style breaks through the coverings of his education, as a hyacinth
breaks from the bulb. It is noticeable, too, that the early and
imitative work of great men generally belongs to a particular school to
which their maturity bears a logical relation. They do not cruise about
in search of a style or vehicle, trying all and picking up hints here
and there, but they fall incidentally and genuinely under influences
which move them and afterwards qualify their original work.
With Stevenson it was different; for he went in search of a style as
Coelebs in search of a wife. He was an eclectic by nature. He became a
remarkable, if not a unique phenomenon,--for he never grew up. Whether
or not there was some obscure connection between his bodily troubles and
the arrest of his intellectual development, it is certain that Stevenson
remained a boy till the day of his death.
The boy was the creature in the universe whom Stevenson best understood.
Let us remember how a boy feels about art, and why he feels so. The
intellect is developed in the child with such astonishing rapidity that
long before physical maturity its head is filled with ten thousand
things learned from books and not drawn directly from real life.
The form and setting in which the boy learns of matters sticks in the
mind as a part of the matters themselves. He cannot disentangle what is
conventional from what is original, because he has not yet a first-hand
acquaintance with life by which to interpret.
Every schoolboy of talent writes essays in the style of Addison, because
he is taught that this is the correct way of writing. He has no means
of knowing that in writing in this manner he is using his mind in a very
peculiar and artificial way,--a way entirely foreign to Addison himself;
and that he is really striving not so much to say something himself as
to reproduce an effect.
There is one thing which young people do not know, and which they find
out during the process of growing up,--and that is that good things in
art have been done by men whose entire attention was absorbed in an
attempt to tell the truth, and who have been chiefly marked by a deep
To a boy, the great artists of the world are a lot of necromancers,
whose enchantments can perhaps be stolen and used again. To a man, they
are a lot of human beings, and their works are parts of them. Their
works are their hands and their feet, their organs, dimensions, senses,
affections, passions. To a man, it is as absurd to imitate the manner of
Dean Swift in writing as it would be to imitate the manner of Dr.
Johnson in eating. But Stevenson was not a man, he was a boy; or, to
speak more accurately, the attitude of his mind towards his work
remained unaltered from boyhood till death, though his practice and
experiment gave him, as he grew older, a greater mastery over his
materials. It is in this attitude of Stevenson's mind toward his own
work that we must search for the heart of his mystery.
He conceived of himself as "an artist," and of his writings as
performances. As a consequence, there is an undertone of insincerity in
almost everything which he has written. His attention is never wholly
absorbed in his work, but is greatly taken up with the notion of how
each stroke of it is going to appear.
We have all experienced, while reading his books, a certain undefinable
suspicion which interferes with the enjoyment of some people, and
enhances that of others. It is not so much the cream-tarts themselves
that we suspect, as the motive of the giver.
"I am in the habit," said Prince Florizel, "of looking not so much
to the nature of the gift as to the spirit in which it is offered."
"The spirit, sir," returned the young man, with another bow, "is one
This doubt about Stevenson's truth and candor is one of the results of
the artistic doctrines which he professed and practised. He himself
regards his work as a toy; and how can we do otherwise?
It seems to be a law of psychology that the only way in which the truth
can be strongly told is in the course of a search for truth. The moment
a man strives after some "effect," he disqualifies himself from making
that effect; for he draws the interest of his audience to the same
matters that occupy his own mind; namely, upon his experiment and his
efforts. It is only when a man is saying something that he believes is
obviously and eternally true, that he can communicate spiritual things.
Ultimately speaking, the vice of Stevenson's theories about art is that
they call for a self-surrender by the artist of his own mind to the
pleasure of others, for a subordination of himself to the production of
this "effect" in the mind of another. They degrade and belittle him. Let
Stevenson speak for himself; the thought contained in the following
passage is found in a hundred places in his writings and dominated his
"The French have a romantic evasion for one employment, and call its
practitioners the Daughters of Joy. The artist is of the same
family, he is of the Sons of Joy, chose his trade to please himself,
gains his livelihood by pleasing others, and has parted with
something of the sterner dignity of men. The poor Daughter of Joy
carrying her smiles and her finery quite unregarded through the
crowd, makes a figure which it is impossible to recall without a
wounding pity. She is the type of the unsuccessful artist."
These are the doctrines and beliefs which, time out of mind, have
brought the arts into contempt. They are as injurious as they are false,
and they will checkmate the progress of any man or of any people that
believes them. They corrupt and menace not merely the fine arts, but
every other form of human expression in an equal degree. They are as
insulting to the comic actor as they are to Michael Angelo, for the
truth and beauty of low comedy are as dignified, and require of the
artist the same primary passion for life for its own sake, as the truth
and beauty of The Divine Comedy. The doctrines are the outcome of an
Alexandrine age. After art has once learnt to draw its inspiration
directly from life and has produced some masterpieces, then imitations
begin to creep in. That Stevenson's doctrines tend to produce imitative
work is obvious. If the artist is a fisher of men, then we must examine
the works of those who have known how to bait their hooks: in
fiction,--De Foe, Fielding, Walter Scott, Dumas, Balzac.
To a study of these men, Stevenson had, as we have seen, devoted the
most plastic years of his life. The style and even the mannerisms of
each of them, he had trained himself to reproduce. One can almost write
their names across his pages and assign each as a presiding genius over
a share of his work. Not that Stevenson purloined or adopted in a mean
spirit, and out of vanity. His enthusiasm was at the bottom of all he
did. He was well read in the belles lettres of England and the
romanticists of France. These books were his bible. He was steeped in
the stage-land and cloud-land of sentimental literature. From time to
time, he emerged, trailing clouds of glory and showering sparkles from
A close inspection shows his clouds and sparkles to be stage properties;
but Stevenson did not know it. The public not only does not know it, but
does not care whether it be so or not. The doughty old novel readers who
knew their Scott and Ainsworth and Wilkie Collins and Charles Reade,
their Dumas and their Cooper, were the very people whose hearts were
warmed by Stevenson. If you cross-question one of these, he will admit
that Stevenson is after all a revival, an echo, an after-glow of the
romantic movement, and that he brought nothing new. He will scout any
comparison between Stevenson and his old favorites, but he is ready
enough to take Stevenson for what he is worth. The most casual reader
recognizes a whole department of Stevenson's work as competing in a
general way with Walter Scott.
Kidnapped is a romantic fragment whose original is to be found in the
Scotch scenes of the Waverley Novels. An incident near the beginning of
it, the curse of Jennet Clouston upon the House of Shaws, is transferred
from Guy Mannering almost literally. But the curse of Meg Merrilies in
Guy Mannering--which is one of the most surprising and powerful scenes
Scott ever wrote--is an organic part of the story, whereas the
transcript is a thing stuck in for effect, and the curse is put in the
mouth of an old woman whose connection with the plot is apocryphal, and
who never appears again.
Treasure Island is a piece of astounding ingenuity, in which the manner
is taken from Robinson Crusoe, and the plot belongs to the era of the
detective story. The Treasure of Franchard is a French farce or light
comedy of bourgeois life, of a type already a little old-fashioned, but
perfectly authentic. The tone, the _mise-en-scene_, the wit, the
character-drawing, the very language, are all so marvellously reproduced
from the French, that we almost see the footlights while we read it.
The Sieur de Maletroit's Door embodies the same idea as a well-known
French play in verse and in one act. The version of Stevenson is like an
exquisite water-color copy, almost as good as the original.
The Isle of Voices is the production of a man of genius. No one can too
much admire the legerdemain of the magician who could produce this
thing; for it is a story out of the Arabian Nights, told with a
perfection of mannerism, a reproduction of the English in which the
later translators of the Arabian Nights have seen fit to deal, a
simulation of the movement and detail of the Eastern stories which
fairly takes our breath away.
It is "ask and have" with this man. Like Mephistopheles in the
Raths-Keller, he gives us what vintage we call for. Olalla is an
instance in point. Any one familiar with Merimee's stories will smile at
the naivete with which Stevenson has taken the leading idea of Lokis,
and surrounded it with the Spanish sunshine of Carmen. But we have
"fables," moralities, and psychology, Jekyl and Hyde, Markheim, and Will
O' the Mill. We have the pasteboard feudal style, in which people say,
"Ye can go, boy; for I will keep your good friend and my good gossip
company till curfew--aye, and by St. Mary till the Sun get up again." We
must have opera bouffe, as in Prince Otto; melodrama, as in The Pavilion
on the Links; the essay of almost biblical solemnity in the manner of
Sir Thomas Browne, the essay of charming humor in the style of Charles
Lamb, the essay of introspection and egotism in the style of Montaigne.
Let us not for a moment imagine that Stevenson has stolen these things
and is trying to palm them off on us as his own. He has absorbed them.
He does not know their origin. He gives them out again in joy and in
good faith with zest and amusement and in the excitement of a new
If all these many echoing voices do not always ring accurately true, yet
their number is inordinate and remarkable. They will not bear an
immediate comparison with their originals; but we may be sure that the
vintages of Mephistopheles would not have stood a comparison with real
wine. One of the books which established Stevenson's fame was the New
Arabian Nights. The series of tales about Prince Florizel of Bohemia was
a brilliant, original, and altogether delightful departure in light
literature. The stories are a frank and wholesome caricature of the
French detective story. They are legitimate pieces of literature because
they are burlesque, and because the smiling Mephistopheles who lurks
everywhere in the pages of Stevenson is for this time the acknowledged
showman of the piece.
A burlesque is always an imitation shown off by the foil of some
incongruous setting. The setting in this case Stevenson found about him
in the omnibuses, the clubs, and the railways of sordid and complicated
In this early book Stevenson seems to have stumbled upon the true
employment of his powers without realizing the treasure trove, for he
hardly returned to the field of humor, for which his gifts most happily
fitted him. As a writer of burlesque he truly expresses himself. He is
full of genuine fun.
The fantastic is half brother to the burlesque. Each implies some
original as a point of departure, and as a scheme for treatment some
framework upon which the author's wit and fancy shall be lavished.
It is in the region of the fantastic that Stevenson loved to wander,
and it is in this direction that he expended his marvellous ingenuity.
His fairy tales and arabesques must be read as they were written, in the
humor of forty fancies and without any heavy-fisted intention of getting
new ideas about life. It will be said that the defect of Stevenson is
expressed by these very qualities, fancy and ingenuity, because they are
contradictory, and the second destroys the first. Be this as it may,
there are many people whose pleasure is not spoiled by elaboration and
Our ability to follow Stevenson in his fantasias depends very largely
upon how far our imaginations and our sentimental interests are
dissociated from our interest in real life. Commonplace and common-sense
people, whose emotional natures are not strongly at play in the conduct
of their daily lives, have a fund of unexpended mental activity, of a
very low degree of energy, which delights to be occupied with the unreal
and the impossible. More than this, any mind which is daily occupied in
an attempt to grasp some of the true relations governing things as they
are, finds its natural relaxation in the contemplation of things as they
are not,--things as they cannot be. There is probably no one who will
not find himself thoroughly enjoying the fantastic, if he be mentally
fatigued enough. Hence the justification of a whole branch of
After every detraction has been allowed for, there remain certain books
of Stevenson's of an extraordinary and peculiar merit, books which can
hardly be classed as imitations or arabesques,--Kidnapped, Weir of
Hermiston, The Merry Men. These books seem at first blush to have every
element of greatness, except spontaneity. The only trouble is, they are
If, after finishing Kidnapped, or The Merry Men, we take up Guy
Mannering, or The Antiquary, or any of Scott's books which treat of the
peasantry, the first impression we gain is, that we are happy. The
tension is gone; we are in contact with a great, sunny, benign human
being who pours a flood of life out before us and floats us as the sea
floats a chip. He is full of old-fashioned and absurd passages.
Sometimes he proses, and sometimes he runs to seed. He is so careless of
his English that his sentences are not always grammatical; but we get a
total impression of glorious and wholesome life.
It is the man Walter Scott who thus excites us. This heather, these
hills, these peasants, this prodigality and vigor and broad humor,
enlarge and strengthen us. If we return now to Weir of Hermiston, we
seem to be entering the cell of an alchemist. All is intention, all
calculation. The very style of Weir of Hermiston is English ten times
Let us imagine that directness and unconsciousness are the great
qualities of style, and that Stevenson believes this. The greatest
directness and unconsciousness of which Stevenson himself was capable
are to be found in some of his early writings. Across the Plains, for
instance, represents his most straightforward and natural style. But it
happens that certain great writers who lived some time ago, and were
famous examples of "directness," have expressed themselves in the speech
of their own period. Stevenson rejects his own style as not good enough
for him, not direct enough, not unconscious enough; he will have theirs.
And so he goes out in quest of purity and truth, and brings home an
Although we think of Stevenson as a writer of fiction, his extreme
popularity is due in great measure to his innumerable essays and bits
of biography and autobiography, his letters, his journals, and travels
and miscellaneous reminiscences.
It was his own belief that he was a very painstaking and conscientious
artist, and this is true to a great extent. On the day of his death he
was engaged upon the most highly organized and ambitious thing he ever
attempted, and every line of it shows the hand of an engraver on steel.
But it is also true that during the last years of his life he lived
under the pressure of photographers and newspaper syndicates, who came
to him with great sums of money in their hands. He was exploited by the
press of the United States, and this is the severest ordeal which a
writer of English can pass through. There was one year in which he
earned four thousand pounds. His immeasurable generosity kept him
forever under the harrow in money matters, and added another burden to
the weight carried by this dying and indomitable man. It is no wonder
that some of his work is trivial. The wonder is that he should have
produced it at all.
The journalistic work of Stevenson, beginning with his Inland Voyage,
and the letters afterwards published as Across the Plains, is valuable
in the inverse ratio to its embellishment. Sidney Colvin suggested to
him that in the letters Across the Plains the lights were turned down.
But, in truth, the light is daylight. The letters have a freshness that
midnight oil could not have improved, and this fugitive sketch is of
more permanent interest than all the polite essays he ever wrote.
If we compare the earlier with the later work of Stevenson as a magazine
writer, we are struck with the accentuation of his mannerisms. It is not
a single style which grows more intense, but his amazing skill in many
which has increased.
The following is a specimen of Stevenson's natural style, and it would
be hard to find a better:--
"The day faded; the lamps were lit; a party of wild young men, who
got off next evening at North Platte, stood together on the stern
platform singing The Sweet By-and-By with very tuneful voices; the
chums began to put up their beds; and it seemed as if the business
of the day were at an end. But it was not so; for the train stopping
at some station, the cars were instantly thronged with the natives,
wives and fathers, young men and maidens, some of them in little
more than night-gear, some with stable lanterns, and all offering
beds for sale."
The following is from an essay written by Stevenson while under the
influence of the author of Rab and his Friends.
"One such face I now remember; one such blank some half a dozen of
us labor to dissemble. In his youth he was a most beautiful person,
most serene and genial by disposition, full of racy words and quaint
thoughts. Laughter attended on his coming.... From this disaster
like a spent swimmer he came desperately ashore, bankrupt of money
and consideration; creeping to the family he had deserted; with
broken wing never more to rise. But in his face there was the light
of knowledge that was new to it. Of the wounds of his body he was
never healed; died of them gradually, with clear-eyed resignation.
Of his wounded pride we knew only by his silence."
The following is in the sprightly style of the eighteenth century:--
"Cockshot 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 on the minute. 'Let me see,' he will say,
'give me a moment, I should have some theory for that.'"
But for serious matters this manner would never do, and accordingly we
find that, when the subject invites him, Stevenson falls into English as
early as the time of James I.
Let us imagine Bacon dedicating one of his smaller works to his
"There are men and classes of men that stand above the common herd:
the soldier, the sailor, and the shepherd not unfrequently; the
artist rarely; rarelier still the clergyman; the physician almost as
a rule.... I forget as many as I remember and I ask both to pardon
me, these for silence, those for inadequate speech."
After finishing off this dedication to his satisfaction, Stevenson turns
over the page and writes a NOTE in the language of two and one-half
centuries later. He is now the elegant _litterateur_ of the last
generation--one would say James Russell Lowell:--
"The human conscience has fled of late the troublesome domain of
conduct for what I should have supposed to be the less congenial
field of art: there she may now be said to rage, and with special
severity in all that touches dialect, so that in every novel the
letters of the alphabet are tortured, and the reader wearied, to
commemorate shades of mispronunciation."
But in this last extract we are still three degrees away from what can
be done in the line of gentility and delicate effeteness of style. Take
the following, which is the very peach-blow of courtesy:--
"But upon one point there should be no dubiety: if a man be not
frugal he has no business in the arts. If he be not frugal he steers
directly for that last tragic scene of _le vieux saltimbanque_; if
he be not frugal he will find it hard to continue to be honest. Some
day when the butcher is knocking at the door he may be tempted, he
may be obliged to turn out and sell a slovenly piece of work. If the
obligation shall have arisen through no wantonness of his own, he is
even to be commended, for words cannot describe how far more
necessary it is that a man should support his family than that he
should attain to--or preserve--distinction in the arts," etc.
Now the very next essay to this is a sort of intoned voluntary played
upon the more sombre emotions.
"What a monstrous spectre is this man, the disease of the
agglutinated dust, lifting alternate feet or lying drugged in
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."
There is a tincture of Carlyle in this mixture. There are a good many
pages of Gothic type in the later essays, for Stevenson thought it the
proper tone in which to speak of death, duty, immortality, and such
subjects as that. He derived this impression from the works of Sir
Thomas Browne. But the solemnity of Sir Thomas Browne is like a
melodious thunder, deep, sweet, unconscious, ravishing.
"Time sadly overcometh all things and is now dominant and sitteth
upon a sphinx and looketh upon Memphis and old Thebes, while his
sister Oblivion reclineth semi-somnous upon a pyramid, gloriously
triumphing, making puzzles of Titanian erections, and turning old
glories into dreams. History sinketh beneath her cloud. The
traveller as he passeth through these deserts asketh of her 'who
builded them?' And she mumbleth something, but what it is he heareth
The frenzy to produce something like this sadly overcomes Stevenson, in
his later essays. But perhaps it were to reason too curiously to pin
Stevenson down to Browne. All the old masters stalk like spectres
through his pages, and among them are the shades of the moderns, even
men that we have dined with.
According to Stevenson, a certain kind of subject requires a certain
"treatment," and the choice of his tone follows his title. These
"treatments" are always traditional, and even his titles tread closely
on the heels of former titles. He can write the style of Charles Lamb
better than Lamb could do it himself, and his Hazlitt is very nearly as
good. He fences with his left hand as well as with his right, and can
manage two styles at once like Franz Liszt playing the allegretto from
the 7th symphony with an air of Offenbach twined about it.
It is with a pang of disappointment that we now and then come across a
style which we recognize, yet cannot place.
People who take enjoyment in the reminiscences awakened by conjuring of
this kind can nowhere in the world find a master like Stevenson. Those
persons belong to the bookish classes. Their numbers are insignificant,
but they are important because they give countenance to the admiration
of others who love Stevenson with their hearts and souls.
The reason why Stevenson represents a backward movement in literature,
is that literature lives by the pouring into it of new words from
speech, and new thoughts from life, and Stevenson used all his powers to
exclude both from his work. He lived and wrote in the past. That this
Scotchman should appear at the end of what has been a very great period
of English literature, and summarize the whole of it in his two hours'
traffic on the stage, gives him a strange place in the history of that
literature. He is the Improvisatore, and nothing more. It is impossible
to assign him rank in any line of writing. If you shut your eyes to try
and place him, you find that you cannot do it. The effect he produces
while we are reading him vanishes as we lay down the book, and we can
recall nothing but a succession of flavors. It is not to be expected
that posterity will take much interest in him, for his point and meaning
are impressional. He is ephemeral, a shadow, a reflection. He is the
mistletoe of English literature whose roots are not in the soil but in
But enough of the nature and training of Stevenson which fitted him to
play the part he did. The cyclonic force which turned him from a
secondary London novelist into something of importance and enabled him
to give full play to his really unprecedented talents will be recognized
on glancing about us.
We are now passing through the age of the Distribution of Knowledge. The
spread of the English-speaking race since 1850, and the cheapness of
printing, have brought in primers and handbooks by the million. All the
books of the older literatures are being abstracted and sown abroad in
popular editions. The magazines fulfil the same function; every one of
them is a penny cyclopedia. Andrew Lang heads an army of organized
workers who mine in the old literature and coin it into booklets and
The American market rules the supply of light literature in Great
Britain. While Lang culls us tales and legends and lyrics from the Norse
or Provensal, Stevenson will engage to supply us with tales and legends
of his own--something just as good. The two men serve the same public.
Stevenson's reputation in England was that of a comparatively light
weight, but his success here was immediate. We hailed him as a
classic--or something just as good. Everything he did had the very stamp
and trademark of Letters, and he was as strong in one department as
another. We loved this man; and thenceforward he purveyed "literature"
to us at a rate to feed sixty millions of people and keep them clamoring
Does any one believe that the passion of the American people for
learning and for antiquity is a slight and accidental thing? Does any
one believe that the taste for imitation old furniture is a pose? It
creates an eddy in the Maelstrom of Commerce. It is a power like
Niagara, and represents the sincere appreciation of half educated people
for second rate things. There is here nothing to be ashamed of. In fact
there is everything to be proud of in this progress of the arts, this
importation of culture by the carload. The state of mind it shows is a
definite and typical state of mind which each individual passes through,
and which precedes the discovery that real things are better than sham.
When the latest Palace Hotel orders a hundred thousand dollars' worth of
Louis XV. furniture to be made--and most well made--in Buffalo, and when
the American public gives Stevenson an order for Pulvis et Umbra--the
same forces are at work in each case. It is Chicago making culture hum.
And what kind of a man was Stevenson? Whatever may be said about his
imitativeness, his good spirits were real. They are at the bottom of his
success, the strong note in his work. They account for all that is
paradoxical in his effect. He often displays a sentimentalism which has
not the ring of reality. And yet we do not reproach him. He has by
stating his artistic doctrines in their frankest form revealed the
scepticism inherent in them. And yet we know that he was not a sceptic;
on the contrary, we like him, and he was regarded by his friends as
little lower than the angels.
Why is it that we refuse to judge him by his own utterances? The reason
is that all of his writing is playful, and we know it. The instinct at
the bottom of all mimicry is self-concealment. Hence the illusive and
questionable personality of Stevenson. Hence our blind struggle to bind
this Proteus who turns into bright fire and then into running water
under our hands. The truth is that as a literary force, there was no
such man as Stevenson; and after we have racked our brains to find out
the mechanism which has been vanquishing the chess players of Europe,
there emerges out of the Box of Maelzel a pale boy.
But the courage of this boy, the heroism of his life, illumine all his
works with a personal interest. The last ten years of his life present a
long battle with death.
We read of his illnesses, his spirit; we hear how he never gave up, but
continued his works by dictation and in dumb show when he was too weak
to hold the pen, too weak to speak. This courage and the lovable nature
of Stevenson won the world's heart. He was regarded with a peculiar
tenderness such as is usually given only to the young. Honor, and
admiration mingled with affection followed him to his grave. Whatever
his artistic doctrines, he revealed his spiritual nature in his work. It
was this nature which made him thus beloved.
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