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Title: Robert Louis Stevenson
Author: G. K. Chesterton
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Title: Robert Louis Stevenson
Author: G. K. Chesterton

NEW YORK
DODD, MEAD & COMPANY
1928




CONTENTS

   I "THE MYTH OF STEVENSON"
  II IN THE COUNTRY OF SKELT
 III YOUTH AND EDINBURGH
  IV THE REACTION TO ROMANCE
   V THE SCOTTISH STORIES
  VI THE STYLE OF STEVENSON
 VII EXPERIMENT AND RANGE
VIII THE LIMITS OF A CRAFT
  IX THE PHILOSOPHY OF GESTURE
   X THE MORAL OF STEVENSON




CHAPTER I # "THE MYTH OF STEVENSON"


In this brief study of Stevenson I propose to follow a somewhat unusual
course; or to sketch what may be considered a rather eccentric outline.
It can only be justified in practice; and I have a healthy fear that my
practice will not justify it. Nevertheless, I have not adopted it
without considerable thought, and even doubt, about the best way of
dealing with a real and practical problem. So before it collapses
completely in practice, I will give myself the triumph and the joy of
justifying it in principle.

The difficulty arises thus. In the great days of Stevenson critics had
begun to be ashamed of being critics, and of giving to their ancient
function the name of criticism. It was the fashion to publish a book
that was a bundle of reviews and to call it "Appreciations." But the
world advances; and if that sort of book is published now, it might well
bear the general title of "Depreciations." Stevenson has suffered more
than most from this new fashion of minimising and finding fault; and
some energetic and successful writers have thrown themselves into the
business almost with the eagerness of stockbrokers, bent on making a
slump instead of a boom in Stevenson Stock. It may be questioned whether
we need welcome the bear any more than the bull in the china-shop of
elegant English letters. Others seem to make quite a hobby of proving a
particular writer to be overrated. They write long and laborious
articles, full of biographical detail and bitter commentary, in order to
show that the subject is unworthy of attention; and write pages upon
Stevenson to prove that he is not worth writing about. Neither their
motives nor their methods are very clear or satisfactory. If it be true
that all swans are geese to the discriminating eye of the scientific
ornithologist, it hardly suffices to explain so long or so fatiguing a
wild-goose chase.

But it is true that, in a sense more general than that of these rather
irritable individuals, such a reaction does exist. And it is a reaction
against Stevenson, or at least against Stevensonians. Perhaps it would
be most correct to call it a reaction against Stevensoniana. And let me
say at this early stage that I heartily agree that there has been far
too much Stevensoniana. In one sense, indeed, everything about anybody
so interesting as Stevenson is interesting. In one sense, everything
about everybody is interesting. But not everybody can interest everybody
else: and it is well to know an author is loved, but not to publish all
the love-letters. Sometimes we only had to endure that most awful and
appalling tragedy: a truth told once too often. Sometimes we heard
Stevensonian sentiments repeated in violation of all Stevensonian rules.
For of all things he hated dilution: and loved to take language neat,
like a liqueur. In short, it was overdone; it was too noisy and yet all
on one note; above all, it was too incessant and too prolonged. As I
say, there were a variety of causes, which it would be unnecessary and
sometimes unamiable to discuss. There was perhaps something in it of the
very virtue of Stevenson; he was tolerant of many societies and
interested in many men; and there was nothing to ward off the direst
results of the men being interested in him. Especially after he was
dead, one person after another turned up and wrote a book about meeting
Stevenson on a steamboat or in a restaurant; and it is not surprising
that such book-makers began to look as vulgar as bookies. There was
perhaps something in it of the old joke of Johnson: that the Scots are
in a conspiracy to praise each other. It was often because the Scots are
secret sentimentalists and cannot always keep the secret. Their interest
in a story so brilliant and in some ways so pathetic was perfectly
natural and human; but for all that, their interest was overdone. It was
sometimes, I regret to say, because the interest might fairly be called
a vested interest. Anyhow, any number of things happened to combine to
vulgarise the thing; but vulgarising a thing does not really make it
vulgar.

Now Stevenson's life was really what we call picturesque; partly because
he saw everything in pictures; and partly because a chapter of accidents
did really attach him to very picturesque places. He was born on the
high terraces of the noblest of northern cities: in the family mansion
in Edinburgh in 1850; he was the son of a house of highly respected
architects of lighthouses; and nothing could be more really romantic
than such a legend of men laboriously lifting the star-crowned towers of
the sea. He failed to follow the family tradition, however, for various
reasons; he was blighted with ill-health and a taste for art; the latter
sent him to pick up picturesque tricks and poses in the art colony of
Barbizon; the former very soon sent him southward into warmer and warmer
climates; and it so happens as he himself remarked, that the countries
to which we are sent when health deserts us have a magical and rather
mocking beauty. At one time he had paid a sort of vagabond visit to
America, crossing the ugly plains that lead to the abrupt beauty of
California, that promised land. He described it in the studies called
_Across the Plain:_ a work vaguely unsatisfying both to writer and
reader. I think it records the subconscious blank and sense of
bewilderment felt by every true European on first seeing the very light
and landscape of America. The shock of negation was in his case truly
unnatural. He almost wrote a dull book. But there is another reason for
noting this exception here.

This book makes no pretence of being even an outline of the life of
Stevenson. In his particular case I deliberately omit such an outline,
because I find that it has cut across and confused the very sharp and
lucid outline of his art. But indeed in any case it would be very
difficult to tell the tale with truth without telling it in detail, and
in rather bewildering detail. The first thing that strikes us, on a
rapid survey of his life and letters, is his innumerable changes of
domicile, especially in his early days. If his friends followed the
example he professes to set, in the matter of Mr. Michael Finsbury, and
refused to learn more than one address for one friend, he must have left
his correspondence very far behind indeed. His wanderings in Western
Europe would appear on the map as much wilder as well as wider than the
"probable course of David Balfour's wanderings" in Western Scotland. If
we started out to tell his story thus, we should have to note how he
went first to Mentone and then back again to Edinburgh and then to
Fontainebleau and then to the Highlands and then to Fontainebleau again
and then to Davos in the mountains, and so on; a zigzag pilgrimage
impossible to compress except in a larger biography. But all or most of
it is covered by one generalisation. This navigation chart was really a
hospital chart. Its jagged mountains represented temperatures; or at
least climates. The whole story of Stevenson is conditioned by a certain
complexity, which a tenderness for the English language will restrain us
from calling a complex. It was a sort of paradox, by which he was at
once more and less protected than other men; like somebody travelling
the wildest roads of the world in a covered waggon. He went where he did
partly because he was an adventurer and partly because he was an
invalid. By that sort of limping agility, he may be said to have seen at
once too little and too much. He was perhaps a natural traveller; but he
was not a normal traveller. Nobody ever did treat him as quite normal;
which is the truth hidden in the falsehood of those who sneer at his
childishness as that of a spoilt child. He was courageous; and yet he
had to be shielded against two things at once, his weakness and his
courage. But his picture of himself as a vagabond with blue fingers on
the winter road is avowedly an ideal picture; it was exactly that sort
of freedom that he could never have. He could only be carried from sight
to sight; or even from adventure to adventure. Indeed there is here a
curious aptness in the quaint simplicity of his childish rhyme that ran,
"My bed is like a little boat." Through all his varied experiences his
bed was a boat and his boat was a bed. Panoramas of tropic palm and
Californian orange-grove passed over that moving couch like the long
nightmare of the nursery walls. But his real courage was not so much
turned outwards to the drama of the boat as inwards to the drama of the
bed. Nobody knew better than he did that nothing is more terrible than a
bed; since it is always waiting to be a deathbed.

Broadly speaking, therefore, his biography would consist of journeys
hither and thither, with a donkey in the Cevennes, with a baronet on the
French canals; on a sledge in Switzerland or in a bathchair at
Bournemouth. But they were all, in one way or another, related to the
problem of his health as well as to the cheerfulness of his curiosity.
Now of all human things the search for health is the most unhealthy. And
it is truly a great glory to Stevenson that he, almost alone among men,
could go on pursuing his bodily health without once losing his mental
health. As soon as he came to any place, he lost no time in finding a
new and better reason for having come there. It might be a child or a
sonnet, a flirtation or the plan of a story; but he made that the real
reason; and not the unhealthy reason of health. Nevertheless, there
generally had been, somewhere in the background, some suggestion of the
reason of health; as there was in that last great journey to his final
home in the South Seas.

The one real break, I suspect, in this curious double process of
protection and risk, was his break-away to America, which arose partly
at least in connection with the matter of his marriage. It seemed to his
friends and family, not so much like the conduct of an invalid who had
done a bolt from the hospital, as the conduct of a lunatic unaccountably
loose from the asylum. In truth, the voyage struck them as less mad than
the marriage. As this is not a biographical study, I need not go deeply
into the delicate disputes about that business; but it was admittedly at
least unconventional. All that matters to the argument here is that,
while there was much in it that was even noble, it was not normal. It
was not love as it should come to youth: it is no disrespect to either
to say that in both, psychologically speaking, there was an element of
patching up as well as of binding together. Stevenson had met, first in
Paris and later in America, an American lady married to a seemingly
somewhat unsatisfactory American gentleman, against whom she took
proceedings for divorce. Stevenson at the same time precipitately
crossed the seas and in some sense pursued her to California; I suppose
with some vague idea of being in at the death; and indeed he was very
nearly in at his own. The escapade brought on him one of the worst and
sharpest of his attacks of illness; the lady, being on the spot,
naturally threw herself into nursing him; and as soon as he could stand
on two rickety legs they were married. It caused consternation to his
family, who were however really reconciled afterwards, it would seem, by
the personal magnetism of his foreign and almost exotic bride. Certainly
in her society his literary work went with a renewed swing and even
regularity; and the rest of his story is practically the story of his
important works; varied by his, if possible, still more important
friendships. There was illness, in which, it should be said, it was
often a case of two invalids nursing each other. Then came the decision
to fall back on the secure climate of the Pacific Islands; which led to
his taking up his last station at Vailima on the island of Samoa: in a
coloured archipelago which our cheerful forefathers might have described
as the Cannibal Islands, but which Stevenson was more disposed to
describe as the Islands of the Blest. There he lived as happily as can
an exile who loves his country and his friends, free at least of all the
daily dangers of his lung trouble; and there he died very suddenly, at
the age of forty-four, the beloved patriarch of a little white and brown
community, to whom he was known as Tusitala or the Teller of Tales.

That is the main outline of the actual biography of Robert Louis
Stevenson; and from the time when he clambered as a boy among the crags
and castellations of the Painted Hill, looking across the islets of the
Forth, to the time when tall brown barbarians, crowned with red flowers,
bore him on their spears to the peak of their sacred mountain, the
spirit of this artist had been permitted to inhabit, and as it were to
haunt, the beautiful places of the earth. To the last he had tasted that
beauty with a burning sensibility; and it is no joke, in his case, to
say that he would have enjoyed coming to his own funeral. Of course,
even this generalisation is too much of a simplification. He was not, as
we shall later have occasion to note, unacquainted with sombre nor,
alas, with sordid surroundings. Oscar Wilde said with some truth that
Stevenson might have produced yet richer and more purple romances if he
had always lived in Gower Street; and he was certainly one of the very
few who have managed to feel fierce and adventurous at Bournemouth. But
broadly speaking, it is true that the outline of his life was romantic;
and was therefore perhaps too easily turned into a romance. He himself
deliberately turned it into a romance; but not all those romancing were
such good romancers as he. So the romance tended to turn into mere
repetition and gossip; and the romantic figure faded into journalism as
the figure of Robin Hood faded into endless penny dreadfuls or schoolboy
serials; as the figure of Micawber was multiplied and cheapened into
Ally Sloper. Then came the reaction; a reaction which I should call
rather excusable than justifiable. But that reaction is the problem in
any Popular treatment of him to-day.

Now if I were to follow here the natural course of such a volume as
this, I should have to begin by telling slowly and systematically the
tale that I have just told rapidly and briefly. I should have to give a
chapter to his childhood, to his favourite aunt and his yet more beloved
nurse, and to all the things much more clearly recorded in _A Child's
Garden of Verses._ I should have to give a chapter to his youth, his
differences with his father, his struggles with his malady, his greater
struggles about his marriage; working up slowly through the whole length
of the book to the familiar picture of so many magazines and memoirs;
the slender semi-tropical Tusitala with his long brown hair and long
olive face and long strange slits of eyes, sitting clad in white or
crowned with garlands and telling tales to all the tribes of men. Now
the misfortune of all this would be that it would amount to saying,
through a slow series of chapters, that there is nothing more to be said
about Stevenson except what has been said a thousand times. It would be
to suggest that Stevenson's serious fame does still really depend on
this string of picturesque accidents; and that there is really nothing
to be told of him, except that he wore long hair in the Savile Club or
light clothes in the Samoan mountains. His life really was romantic; but
to repeat that romance is like reprinting the _Scarlet Pimpernel_ or
offering the world an entirely new portrait of Rudolph Valentino. It is
against this repetition that the reaction has set in; perhaps wrongly
but certainly strongly. And to spin it out through the whole of this
book would be to give the impression (which I should mildly resent) that
this book is only the thousandth unnecessary volume of Stevensoniana.
However I told his story in detail, though it were with all the sympathy
I feel, I could not avoid that suggestion of a sort of jaded journalism.
Stevenson's picturesque attitude and career are rather in his way at
this moment; not for me, because I like the picturesque, but for this
new pose which may be called the pose of the prosaic. To these
unfortunate realists, to say that there were all these romantic things
about him is only another way of saying that there was nothing in him.
And there was a very great deal in him. I am driven to adopt some other
method of bringing it out.

When I come to describing it, I find it is perhaps even more difficult
to describe it than to do it. But something of this sort is what I
propose to do. Loudon Dodd, in whom there is much of Louis Stevenson,
says very truly in _The Wrecker,_ that for the artist the external
result is always a fizzle: his eyes are turned inward: "he lives for a
state of mind." I mean to attempt the conjectural description of certain
states of mind, with the books that were the "external expression" of
them. If for the artist his art is a fizzle, his life is often far more
of a fizzle: it is even far more of a fiction. It is the one of his
works in which he tells least of the truth. Stevenson's was more real
than most, because more romantic than most. But I prefer the romances,
which were still more real. I mean that I think the wanderings of
Balfour more Stevensonian than the wanderings of Stevenson: that the
duel of Jekyll and Hyde is more illuminating than the quarrel of
Stevenson and Henley: and that the true private life is to be sought not
in Samoa but in Treasure Island; for where the treasure is, there is the
heart also.

In short, I propose to review his books with illustrations from his
life; rather than to write his life with illustrations from his books.
And I do it deliberately, not because his life was not as interesting as
any book; but because the habit of talking too much about his life has
already actually led to thinking far too little of his literature. His
ideas are being underrated, precisely because they are not being studied
separately and seriously as ideas. His art is being underrated,
precisely because he is not accorded even the fair advantages of Art for
Art's Sake. There is indeed a queer irony about the fate of the men of
that age, who delighted in that axiom. They claimed judgement as
artists, not men; and they are really remembered as men much more than
they are remembered as artists. More men know the Whistlerian anecdotes
than the Whistlerian etchings; and poor Wilde will live in history as
immoral rather than unmoral. But there is a real reason for studying
intrinsic intellectual values in the case of Stevenson; and it need not
be said that exactly where the modern maxim would be useful, it is never
used. The new criticism of Stevenson is still a criticism of Stevenson
rather than of Stevenson's work; it is always a personal criticism, and
often, I think, rather a spiteful criticism. It is simply nonsense, for
instance, for a distinguished living novelist to suggest that
Stevenson's correspondence is a thin stream of selfish soliloquy devoid
of feeling for anybody but himself. It teems with lively expressions of
longing for particular people and places; it breaks out everywhere with
delight into that broad Scots idiom which, as Stevenson truly said
elsewhere, gives a special freedom to all the terms of affection.
Stevenson might be lying, of course, though I know not why a busy author
should lie at such length for nothing. But I cannot see how any man
could say any more to suggest his dependence on the society of friends.
These are positive facts of personality that can never be proved or
disproved. I never knew Stevenson; but I knew very many of his favourite
friends and correspondents. I knew Henry James and William Archer; I
have still the honour of knowing Sir James Barrie and Sir Edmund Gosse.
And anybody who knows them, even most slightly and superficially, must
know they are not the men to be in confidential correspondence for years
with a silly, greedy and exacting egoist without seeing through him; or
to be bombarded with boring autobiographies without being bored. But it
seems rather a pity that such critics should still be called upon to
hunt up Stevenson's letter-bag, when they might well think it time to
form some conclusions about Stevenson's place in letters. Anyhow, I
propose on the present occasion to be so perverse as to interest myself
in literature when dealing with a literary man; and to be especially
interested not only in the literature left by the man but in the
philosophy inhering in the literature. And I am especially interested in
a certain story, which was indeed the story of his life, but not exactly
the story in his biography. It was an internal and spiritual story; and
the stages of it are to be found rather in his stories than in his
external acts. It is told much better in the difference between
_Treasure Island_ and _The Story of a Lie,_ or in the difference between
_A Child's Garden of Verses_ and _Markheim_ or _Olalla,_ than in any
detailed account of his wrangles with his father or the fragmentary
love-affairs of his youth. For it seems to me that there is a moral to
the art of Stevenson (if the shades of Wilde and Whistler will endure
the challenge), and that it is one with a real bearing on the future of
European culture and the hope that is to guide our children. Whether I
shall be able to draw out this moral and make it sufficiently large and
clear, I know as little as the reader does.

Nevertheless, at this stage of the attempt I will say one thing. I have,
in a sense, a sort of theory about Stevenson; a view of him which, right
or wrong, concerns his life and work as a whole. But it is perhaps less
exclusively personal than much of the interest that has been naturally
taken in his personality. It is certainly the very contrary of the
attacks which have commonly, and especially recently, been made on that
personality. Thus the critics are fond of suggesting that he was nothing
if not self-conscious; that the whole of his significance came from
self-consciousness. I believe that the one really great and important
work which he did for the world was done quite unconsciously. Many have
blamed him for posing; some have blamed him for preaching. The matter
which mainly interests me is not merely his pose, if it was a pose, but
the large landscape or background against which he was posing; which he
himself only partly realised, but which goes to make up a rather
important historical picture. And though it is true that he sometimes
preached, and preached very well, I am by no means certain that the
thing which he preached was the same as the thing which he taught. Or,
to put it another way, the thing which he could teach was not quite so
large as the thing which we can learn. Or again, many of them declare
that he was only a nine days' wonder, a passing figure that happened to
catch the eye and even affect the fashion; and that with that fashion he
will be forgotten. I believe that the lesson of his life will only be
seen after time has revealed the full meaning of all our present
tendencies; I believe it will be seen from afar off like a vast plan or
maze traced out on a hillside; perhaps traced by one who did not even
see the plan while he was making the tracks. I believe that his travels
and doublings and returns reveal an idea, and even a doctrine. Yet it
was perhaps a doctrine in which he did not believe, or at any rate did
not believe that he believed. In other words, I think his significance
will stand out more strongly in relation to larger problems which are
beginning to press once more upon the mind of man; but of which many men
are still largely unaware in our time, and were almost entirely unaware
in his. But any contribution to the solution of those problems will be
remembered; and he made a very great contribution, probably greater than
he knew. Lastly, these same critics do not hesitate, in many cases, to
accuse him flatly of being insincere. I should say that nobody, so
openly fond of play-acting as he was, could possibly be insincere. But
it is more to my purpose now to say that his relation to the huge
half-truth that he carried was in its very simplicity a mark of
truthfulness. For he had the splendid and ringing sincerity to testify,
in a voice like a trumpet, to a truth that he did not understand.



CHAPTER II # IN THE COUNTRY OF SKELT


Every now and then the eye is riveted, in reading current criticism, by
some statement so astonishingly untrue, or even contrary to the fact,
that it seems as if a man walking down the street were suddenly standing
on his head. It is all the more noticeable when the critic really has a
strong head to stand on. One of the ablest of the younger critics, whose
studies in other subjects I have warmly admired, wrote in our invaluable
_London Mercury_ a study of Stevenson; or what purported to be a study
of Stevenson. And the chief thing he said, indeed almost the only thing
he said, was that the thought of Stevenson instantly throws us back to
the greater example of Edgar Allan Poe; that both were pallid and
graceful figures "making wax flowers," as somebody said; and of course
the earlier and greater had the advantage of the later and the less. In
fact, the critic treated Stevenson as the shadow of Poe; which may not
unfairly be called the shadow of a shade. He almost hinted that, for
those who had read Poe, it was hardly worth while to read Stevenson. And
indeed I could almost suspect he had taken his own advice; and never
read a line of Stevenson in his life.

If a man were to say that Maeterlinck derives so directly from Dickens
that it is difficult to draw the line between them, I should be
momentarily at a loss to catch his meaning. If he were to say that Walt
Whitman was so close a copyist of Pope that it is hardly worth while to
read the copy, I should not at once seize the clue. But I should think
these comparisons rather more close, if anything, than the comparison
between Stevenson and Poe. Dickens did not confine himself to comic
subjects so much as Poe did to tragic ones; and an Essay on Optimism
might couple the names of Pope and Whitman. It might also include the
name of Stevenson; but it would hardly beam and sparkle with the name of
Poe. The contrast, however, is much deeper than labels or the
commonplaces of controversy. It is much deeper than formal divisions
between what is funny and what is serious. It is concerned with
something which it is now fashionable in drawing-rooms to call
psychological; but which those who would as soon talk Latin as Greek
still prefer to call spiritual. It is not necessarily what the
newspapers would call moral; but that is only because it is more moral
than most modern morality.

When Stevenson was known as Stennis, by Parisian art students struggling
with his name, it was the hour of Art for Art's Sake. Painting was to be
impersonal, though painters (like Whistler) were sometimes perhaps a
little personal. But they all insisted that every picture is as
impersonal as a pattern. They ought to have insisted that every pattern
is as personal as a picture. Whether or no we see faces in the carpet,
we ought to see a mind in the carpet; and in fact there is a mind in
every scheme of ornament. There is as emphatically a morality expressed
in Babylonian architecture or Baroque architecture as if it were
plastered all over with Biblical texts. Now in the same manner there is
at the back of every artist's mind something like a pattern or a type of
architecture. The original quality in any man of imagination is imagery.
It is a thing like the landscapes of his dreams; the sort of world he
would wish to make or in which he would wish to wander; the strange
flora and fauna of his own secret planet; the _sort_ of thing that he
likes to think about. This general atmosphere, and pattern or structure
of growth, governs all his creations however varied; and because he can
in this sense create a world, he is in this sense a creator; the image
of God. Now everybody knows what was in this sense the atmosphere and
architecture of Poe. Dark wine, dying lamps, drugging odours, a sense of
being stifled in curtains of black velvet, a substance which is at once
utterly black and unfathomably soft, all carried with them a sense of
indefinite and infinite decay. The word infinite is not itself used
indefinitely. The point of Poe is that we feel that _everything_ is
decaying, including ourselves; faces are already growing featureless
like those of lepers; roof-trees are rotting from root to roof; one
great grey fungus as vast as a forest is sucking up life rather than
giving it forth; mirrored in stagnant pools like lakes of poison which
yet fade without line or frontier into the swamp. The stars are not
clean in his sight; but are rather more worlds made for worms. And this
corruption is increased, by an intense imaginative genius, with the
addition of a satin surface of luxury and even a terrible sort of
comfort. "Purple cushions that the lamplight gloated o'er" is in the
spirit of his brother Baudelaire who wrote of _divans profonds commes
les tombeaux._ This dark luxury has something almost liquid about it.
Its laxity seems to be betraying more vividly how all these things are
being sucked away from us, down a slow whirlpool more like a moving
swamp. That is the atmosphere of Edgar Allan Poe; a sort of rich
rottenness of decomposition, with something thick and narcotic in the
very air. It is idle to describe what so darkly and magnificently
describes itself. But perhaps the shortest and best way of describing
that artistic talent is to say that Stevenson's is exactly the opposite.

The first fact about the imagery of Stevenson is that all his images
stand out in very sharp outline; and are, as it were, all edges. It is
something in him that afterwards attracted him to the abrupt and angular
black and white of woodcuts. It is to be seen from the first, in the way
in which his eighteenth-century figures stand up against the skyline,
with their cutlasses and cocked hats. The very words carry the sound and
the significance. It is as if they were cut out with cutlasses; as was
that unforgettable chip or wedge that was hacked by the blade of Billy
Bones out of the wooden sign of the "Admiral Benbow." That sharp
indentation of the wooden square remains as a sort of symbolic shape
expressing Stevenson's type of literary attack; and if all the colours
should fade from me and the scene of all that romance grow dark, I think
that black wooden sign with a piece bitten out of it would be the last
shape that I should see. It is no mere pun to say that it is the best of
his woodcuts. Normally, anyhow, the scene is the very reverse of dark,
and certainly the very reverse of indefinite. Just as all the form can
best be described as clean-cut, so all the colour is conspicuously clear
and bright. That is why such figures are so often seen standing against
the sea. Everybody who has been at the seaside has noted how sharp and
highly coloured, like painted caricatures, appear even the most ordinary
figures as they pass in profile to and fro against the blue dado of the
sea. There is something also of that hard light that falls full and pale
upon ships and open shores; and even more, it need not be said, of a
certain salt and acrid clearness in the air. But it is notably the case
in the outlines of these maritime figures. They are all edges and they
stand by the sea, that is the edge of the world.

This is but a rough experimental method; but it will be found useful to
make the experiment, of calling up all the Stevensonian scenes that
recur most readily to the memory; and noting this bright hard quality in
shape and hue. It will make it seem all the stranger that any
ornithologist could have confused the raven of Poe with the parrot of
Long John Silver. The parrot was scarce more reputable; but he was a
bird from the lands of bright plumage and blue skies, where the other
bird was a mere shadow making darkness more dark. It is even worth
noting that when the more modern pirates of _The Wrecker_ carried away
with them a caged bird, it had to be a canary. It is specially observed
when Stevenson is dealing with things which many of his contemporaries
made merely shadowy or unfathomably mysterious; such as the Highland
hills and all the lost kingdoms of the Gael. His Highland tales have
everything Scotch except Scotch mist. At that time, and even before,
writers of the school of Fiona Macleod were already treating such
peoples entirely as the Children of the Mist. But there is very little
mist on the mountains of Stevenson. There is no Celtic twilight about
his Celts. Alan Breck Stewart had no yearning for any delicate vapour to
veil his bright silver buttons or his bright blue French coat. There was
hardly a cloud in the sky upon that day of doom, when Glenure dropped
dead in the sunshine; and he did not have red hair for nothing.
Stevenson is even moved to mention that the servant behind him was laden
with lemons; because lemons are bright yellow. This sort of making of a
picture may not be conscious, but it is none the less characteristic. Of
course I do not mean literally that all the scenes in any novel could
have the same scheme of colour, or occur at the same time of day. There
are exceptions to the rule; but even these will generally be found to be
exceptions that prove the rule. A time of _A Lodging for the Night_ is
not unnaturally at night; but even in that nightmare of winter in
mediaeval Paris the mind's eye is really filled rather with the
whiteness of snow than the blackness of darkness. It is against the snow
that we see the flaming mediaeval figures; and especially that memorable
figure who (like Campbell of Glenure) had no right to have red hair when
he was dead. The hair is like a scarlet splash of blood crying for
vengeance; but I doubt whether the doomed gentleman in Poe's poetry
would have been allowed to have red hair even when he was alive. In the
same way, it would be easy to answer in detail, by finding some
description of night in the works of Stevenson; but it would never be
the night that broods eternally on the works of Poe. It might be said,
for instance, that there are few more vivid or typical scenes in the
Stevensonian tales than that of the duel at midnight in _The Master of
Ballantrae._ But there again the exception proves the rule; the
description insists not on the darkness of night but on the hardness of
winter, the "windless stricture of the frost"; the candles that stand as
straight as the swords; the candle-flames that seem almost as cold as
the stars. I have spoken of the double meaning of a woodcut; this was
surely, in the same double sense, a steel engraving. A steely cold
stiffens and steadies that tingling play of steel; and that not only
materially but morally. The House of Durrisdeer does not fall after the
fashion of The House of Ussher. There is in that murderous scene I know
not what that is clean and salt and sane; and, in spite of all, the
white frost gives to the candles a sort of cold purification as of
Candlemas. But the point is, at the moment, that when we say this deed
was done at night, we do not mean that it was done in the dark. There is
a sense of exactitude and emphatic detail that belongs entirely to the
day. Here indeed the two authors so strangely compared might almost have
conspired in advance against the critic who compared them: as when Poe's
ideal detective prefers to think in the dark, and therefore puts up the
shutters even during the day. Dupin brings the outer darkness into the
parlour, while Durie carries the candle-light into the forest.

These images are not fancies or accidents: their spirit runs through the
whole scene. The same incident, for instance, shows all the author's
love of sharp edges and cutting or piercing action. It is supremely
typical that he made Mrs. Durie thrust the sword up to the hilt into the
frozen ground. It is true that afterwards (perhaps under the sad eye of
Mr. Archer and the sensitive realists) he consented to withdraw this as
"an exaggeration to stagger Hugo." But it is much more significant that
it did not originally stagger Stevenson. It was the very vital gesture
of all his works that that sharp blade should cleave that stiff clay. It
was true in many other senses, touching mortal clay and the sword of the
spirit. But I am speaking now of the gesture of the craftsman, like that
of a man cutting wood. This man had an appetite for cutting it clean. He
never committed a murder without making a clean job of it.

Whence did that spirit come; and how did the story of it begin? That is
the right and real way of beginning the story of Stevenson. If I say
that it began with cutting figures out of cardboard, it might sound like
a parody of the pedantic fancies about juvenile psychology and early
education. But perhaps it will be better even to run the horrid risk of
being mistaken for a modern educationist, rather than to repeat the too
familiar phrases by which the admirer of Stevenson has got himself
described as a sentimentalist. Too much has been talked in this
connection about the Soul of the Child or the Peter Pan of Samoa; not
because it is untrue, but because it is a mistake to tell a truth too
often, so that it loses its freshness; especially when it is the truth
about how to remain fresh. Many are perhaps rather tired of hearing
about it; though they would never be tired of having it. I have
therefore deliberately approached the matter by another road; and even
by a road running backwards. Instead of talking first about Cummy and
the nursery anecdotes of Master Louis (at the risk of making a really
graceful figure grow ridiculous by mere repetition, in the eyes of
multitudes of greatly inferior people) I have tried to take the stock
and normal of his work first, and then note that it really does date in
a special sense from his childhood; and that it is not sentimental and
not senseless and not irrelevant to say so.

If therefore we ask, "Where does the story of Stevenson really start;
where does his special style or spirit begin and where do they come
from; how did he get, or begin to get, the thing that made him different
from the man next-door?" I have no doubt about the answer. He got them
from the mysterious Mr. Skelt of the Juvenile Drama, otherwise the toy
theatre, which of all toys has most of the effect of magic on the mind.
Or rather, of course, he got it from the way in which his own individual
temper and talent grasped the nature of the game. He has written it all
in an excellent essay and at least in one very real sentence of
autobiography. "What is the world, what is man and life but what my
Skelt has made them?" The psychological interest is rather more special
than is conveyed by the common generalisation about the imagination of
infancy. It is not merely a question of children's toys; it is a
question of a particular kind of toy, as of a particular kind of talent.
It was not quite the same thing, for instance, to buy toy theatres in
Edinburgh as it would have been to go to real theatres in London. In
that little pasteboard play there might be something of the pantomime;
but there was nothing of the dissolving view. The positive outline of
everything, so well sketched in his own essay, the hard favour of the
heroine, the clumps of vegetation, the clouds rolled up stiff as
bolsters--these things meant something to the soul of Stevenson by their
very swollen solidity or angular swagger. And it is hardly an
exaggeration to say that he spent his life in teaching the world what he
had learnt from them. What he learnt from them was very much more than
anybody else had ever learnt from them; and that is his teaching and his
qualification to teach. But to the last he presented his morality in a
series of Moral Emblems which had something in common with those
definite outlines and defiant attitudes; and there was never any name
for it but his own name of Skeltery.

It was because he loved to see on those lines, and to think in those
terms, that all his instinctive images are clear and not cloudy; that he
liked a gay patch-work of colour combined with a zigzag energy of
action, as quick as the crooked lightning. He loved things to stand out;
we might say he loved them to stick out; as does the hilt of a sabre or
the feather in a cap. He loved the pattern of crossed swords; he almost
loved the pattern of the gallows because it is a clear shape like the
cross. And the point is that this pattern still runs through or
underneath all his more mature or complex writing; and is never lost
even at the moments when he is really tragic or, what is worse,
realistic. Even when he mourns as a man, he still rejoices as a child.
The men in divers' helmets like monsters, in the sordid misery of _The
Ebb-Tide,_ are still like masks of pantomime goblins against the glowing
azure. And James Durie is quite as clear, we might say quite as bright,
in his black coat as Alan Breck in his blue one.

Taking such a toy as a type or symbol, we may well say that Stevenson
lived inside his toy theatre. It is certain that he lived in an
exceptional sense inside his own home; and often, I imagine, inside his
own bedroom. It is here that there appears, thus early in his life, that
other element that was destined to darken it, often with something like
the shadow of death. I know not how far that shadow could sometimes be
traced upon the nursery wall. But it is certain that he was at least
relatively a delicate or sickly child; and was therefore more thrown
back upon that inner imaginative life than if he had been more robust in
boyhood. The world inside that home was largely a world of his own; yes,
even a world of his own imagining, a thing not so much of firelight as
of pictures in the fire. The world outside his home was very different,
even for those who shared his home life; and that is a contrast that I
shall have occasion to emphasise, when we come to the crisis of his
youth. It is enough to note here the paradox that he was to some extent
protected by family life even from the heavier traditions of his family.
As it did not build lighthouses in the garden pond, so it did not always
bring the Kirk into the nursery. He has described how his stern
Calvinistic grandfather tolerated in the nursery the wild Arabian fables
that he might well have denounced in the pulpit. As even that Edinburgh
house defended him from the winter winds of Edinburgh, so it protected
him in some degree from the full icy blasts of Puritanism which blew so
high in public life. It may have been that he was a sick child; it may
have been that he was a spoilt child; but this fact that he was largely
left alone with his daydreams, dwelling in that house within a house
which is typified by the toy theatre, is a thing to be remembered; for
it means much at a later stage.

In this matter of what has been called the Child in R. L. S., I have
admitted that there has been far too much talking; but there has been
far too little thinking. The thing is a reality; and it does remain as a
very considerable problem for the reason, as yet quite unsolved by the
modern world, even when most is said about it. We have a mass of
testimony from men of every description, from Treherne to Hazlitt, or
from Wordsworth to Thackeray, to the psychological fact that the child
experiences joys which glow like jewels even in retrospect. None of the
normal naturalistic explanations explain that natural fact; and some
have suggested that it is indeed a supernatural fact. In the ordinary
sense of mental growth, there is no more reason for the child being
better than the man than for the tadpole being better than the frog. And
the attempts to explain it by physical growth are even weaker. There is
a good example of the weakness in one of the essays of Stevenson, who
found himself, of course, at the particular modern moment to catch the
first fashion and excitement of Darwinism. Speaking of the old Calvinist
minister who confessed the gorgeous spell of the _Arabian Nights,_ he
suggests that in the brain of the theologian there is still the
gambolling ape; the ancestor of man; "probably arboreal." It marks the
security of such science, I may remark, that anthropologists are now
saying that he was probably not arboreal. But anyhow, it is a little
difficult to see why a man should love the complexity of labyrinthine
cities, or wish to ride with the jewelled cohorts of the high princes of
Arabia, merely because his relative had once been a hairy beast
clambering like a bear on the top of a branching pole. It reminds one of
the glorious apology which Stevenson made for having expected that a
wealthy man would know a Governor of Christ's Hospital: "A man with a
cold in his head does not necessarily know a rat-catcher; and the
connection, as it appears to my humbled and awakened sense, is equally
close."

The connection between the expanding energy of the young monkey and the
secret daydreams of the young child is equally close. As a matter of
fact, the time when the boy is most full of the energy of a monkey is
emphatically not the time when the child is most full of the imaginative
pleasures of a poet. These always come at a less vigorous period; they
very often come to a less vigorous person. They especially and notably
did so in the case of Stevenson; and it is absurd to explain the
intensity of an infant who is an invalid by the bodily exuberance of a
lad at the time when he is often rather a lout. Stevenson, with all the
advantage of his disadvantages, may have lived through the period when
everybody has a touch of loutishness. But that uncomfortable period of
youth was not the period when the coloured pictures in his mind were
most clear; they were much clearer later in the age of self-control and
earlier in the age of innocence. The main point to be seized here is
that they were coloured pictures of a particular kind. The colours
faded, but in a certain sense the forms remained fixed; that is, that
though they were slowly discoloured by the light of common day, yet when
the lantern was again lit from within, the same magic-lantern slides
glowed upon the blank screen. They were still pictures of pirates and
red gold and bright blue sea, as they were in his childhood. And this
fact is very important in the story of his mind; as we shall see when
his mind reverted to them. For the time was to come when he was truly,
like Jim Hawkins, to be rescued by a leering criminal with crutch and
cutlass from destiny worse than death and men worse than Long John
Silver--from the last phase of the enlightened nineteenth century and
the leading thinkers of the age.



CHAPTER III # YOUTH AND EDINBURGH


It is the suggestion of this chapter that when Stevenson first stepped
out of his early Edinburgh home, he slipped upon the step. It may have
been nothing worse, to begin with, than the ordinary butter-slide of the
buffoonery of youth; such buffoonery as makes up the typical Edinburgh
tale called _The Misadventures of John Nicholson._ But that tale alone
would suggest that there was something a little greasy or even grimy
about the butter. It is an odd story for Stevenson to have written; and
no Stevensonian has any particular desire to dwell on those few of his
works that might almost have been written by somebody else. But it has a
biographical importance that has hardly been properly estimated, even in
connection with this rather overworked biography. It is a curiously
unlovely and uncomfortable comedy, not even uncomfortable enough to be a
tragedy. The hero is not only not heroic, but he is hardly more amusing
than attractive; and the fun that is made of him is not only not genial,
but is not particularly funny. It is strange that such misadventures
should come from the mind that gave us the radiant harlequinade of _The
Wrong Box._ But I mention it here because it is full of a certain
atmosphere, into which Stevenson was plunged too abruptly, as I believe,
when he passed from boyhood into youth. It is true to call it the
atmosphere, or one of the atmospheres of Edinburgh; yet it is the very
reverse of so much that we rightly associate with the arid dignity of
the Modern Athens. There is something very specially sordid and squalid
in the glimpses of low life given in the dissipations of John Nicholson;
and something of the same kind comes to us like a gust of gas from the
medical students of _The Body Snatcher._ When I say that this first step
of Stevenson led him rather abruptly astray, I do not mean that he did
anything half so bad as multitudes of polite persons have done in the
most polished centres of civilisation. But I do mean that his city was
not, in that particular aspect, very polite or polished or even
particularly civilised. And I notice it because it has been noticed too
little; and some other things have been noticed too much.

It is an obvious truth that Stevenson was born of a Puritan tradition,
in a Presbyterian country, where still rolled the echoes, at least, of
the theological thunders of Knox; and where the Sabbath was sometimes
more like a day of death than a day of rest. It is easy, only too easy,
to apply this by representing Stevenson's father as a stern old
Covenanter who frowned down the gay talents of his son; and such a
simplification stands out boldly in black and white. But like many other
black and white statements, it is not true; it is not even fair. Old Mr.
Stevenson was a Presbyterian and presumably a Puritan, but he was not a
Pharisee; and he certainly did not need to be a Pharisee in order to
condemn some parts of the conduct of his son. It is probably true that
almost any other son might have offended equally; but it is also true
that almost any other father would have been equally offended. The son
would have been the last to pretend that the faults were all on one
side; the only thing that can concern posterity in the matter is certain
social conditions which gave to those faults a particular savour, which
counted for something even when the faults themselves have been long
left behind. And while people have written rather too much about the
shadow of the Kirk and the restrictions of a Puritan society, there is
something that has not been seen about what may be called the underside
of such a Puritan city. There is something strangely ugly and ungracious
not merely about the virtues but about the vices, and especially the
pleasures, of such a place. It can be felt, as I say, in Stevenson's own
stories and in many other stories about Edinburgh. Blasts of raw whisky
come to us on that raw wind: there is sometimes something shrill, like
the skirl of the pipes, about Scottish laughter; occasionally something
very nearly insane about Scottish intoxication. I will not connect it,
as did a friend of mine, with the hypothesis that the heathen Scots
originally worshipped demons; but it is probably connected with the same
rather savage intensity which gave them their theological thoroughness.
Anyhow, it is true that in such a world even temptation itself has
something terrifying as well as tempting; and yet something at the same
time undignified and flat. It was this that cut across the natural
poetic adventure or ambition of a young poet; and gave to the early part
of his story a quality of frustration, if not of aberration.

What was the matter with Stevenson, I fancy, in so far as there was ever
anything much the matter with him, was that there was too sharp a
contrast between the shelter and delicate fancies of his childhood and
the sort of world which met him like the wind on the front door-step. It
was not merely the contrast between poetry and Puritanism; it was also
the contrast between poetry and prose; and prose that was almost
repulsively prosaic. He did not believe enough in Puritanism to cling to
it; but he did believe very much in a potential poetry of life, and he
was bewildered by its apparently impossible position in the world of
real living. And his national religion, even if he had believed in his
religion as ardently as he believed in his nation, would never have met
that particular point at issue.

Puritanism had no idea of purity. We might almost say that there is
every other virtue in Puritanism except purity; often including
continence, which is quite a different thing from purity. But it has not
many images of positive innocence; of the things that are at once white
and solid, like the white chalk or white wood which children love. This
does not detract at all from the noble Puritan qualities: the republican
simplicity, the fighting spirit, the thrift, the logic, the renunciation
of luxuries, the resistance to tyrants, the energy and enterprise which
have helped to give the Scot his adventurous advantage all over the
world. But it is none the less true that there has been in his creed, at
best, negative rather than positive purity: the difference between the
blank white window and the ivory tower. I know that a Victorian
prejudice still regards this interpretation of history by theology as a
piece of most distressing bad taste. I also know that this taboo on the
main topic of mankind is becoming an intolerable nuisance; and
preventing anybody, from the Papist to the atheist, from saying what he
really thinks about the most real themes in the world. And I will take
the liberty of stating, in spite of the taboo, that it is really
relevant here to remember this Puritan defect. It is as much a fact that
the Kirk of Stevenson's country had no cult of the Holy Child, no feast
of the Holy Innocents, no tradition of the Little Brothers of St.
Francis, nothing that could in any way _carry on_ the childish
enthusiasm for simple things, and link it up with a lifelong rule of
life--this is as much a fact as that the Quakers are not a good military
school or the good Moslem a good wine-taster. Hence it followed that
when Stevenson left his home, he shut the door on a house lined with
fairy gold, but he came out on a frightful contrast; on temptations at
once attractive and repulsive, and terrors that were still depressing
even when they were disregarded. The boy in such surroundings is torn by
something worse than the dilemma of Tannhäuser. He wonders why he is
attracted by repellent things.

I will here make what is a mere guess in the dark; and in a very dark
matter of the mind. But I suspect that it was originally out of this
chasm of ugly division that there rose that two-headed monster, the
mystery of Jekyll and Hyde. There is indeed one peculiarity about that
grim grotesque which I have never seen noted anywhere; though I dare say
it may have been noted more than once. It will be realised that I am
not, alas, so close a student of Stevensoniana as many who seem to think
much less of Stevenson. But it seems to me that the story of Jekyll and
Hyde, which is presumably presented as happening in London, is all the
time very unmistakably happening in Edinburgh. More than one of the
characters seem to be pure Scots. Mr. Utterson, the lawyer, is a most
unmistakably Scottish lawyer, strictly occupied with Scots Law. No
modern English lawyer ever read a book of dry divinity in the evening
merely because it was Sunday. Mr. Hyde indeed possesses the cosmopolitan
charm that unites all nations; but there is something decidedly
Caledonian about Dr. Jekyll; and especially something that calls up that
quality in Edinburgh that led an unkind observer (probably from Glasgow)
to describe it as "an east-windy, west-endy place." The particular tone
about his respectability, and the horror of mixing his reputation with
mortal frailty, belongs to the upper middle classes in solid Puritan
communities. But what is especially to the point of the present
argument, there is a sense in which that Puritanism is expressed even
more in Mr. Hyde than in Dr. Jekyll. The sense of the sudden stink of
evil, the immediate invitation to step into stark filth, the abruptness
of the alternative between that prim and proper pavement and that black
and reeking gutter--all this, though doubtless involved in the logic of
the tale, is far too frankly and familiarly offered not to have had some
basis in observation and reality. It is not thus that the ordinary young
pagan, of warmer climes, conceives the alternative of Christ and
Aphrodite. His imagination and half his mind are involved in defending
the beauty and dignity of the joy of gods and men. It is not so that
Stevenson himself came to talk of such things, when he had felt the
shadow of old Athens fall on the pagan side of Paris. I allow for all
the necessary horror of the conception of Hyde. But this dingy quality
does not belong only to the demon antics of Hyde. It is implied,
somehow, in every word about the furtive and embarrassed vices of
Jekyll. It is the tragedy of a Puritan town; every bit as much as that
black legend which Stevenson loved, in which the walking-stick of Major
Weir went walking down the street all by itself. I hope to say something
in a moment about the very deep and indeed very just and wise morality
that is really involved in that ugly tale. I am only remarking here that
the atmosphere and setting of it are those of some tale of stiff
hypocrisy in a rigid sect or provincial village; it might be a tale of
the Middle West savagely dissected in the Spoon River Anthology. But the
point about it is that the human beauty which makes sin most dangerous
hardly appears by a hint; this Belial is never graceful or humane; and
in this there seems to me to be something suggestive of the inverted
order and ugly contrast with which licence presents itself in a world
that has frowned on liberty. It is the utterance of somebody who, in the
words of Kipling, knew the worst too young; not necessarily in his own
act or by his own fault, but by the nature of a system which saw no
difference between the worst and the moderately bad. But whatever form
the shock of evil might take, I think it jerked him out of the right
development of his romantic nature; and was responsible for much that
seemed random or belated in his life.

I do not mean to imply that the morality of the story itself has
anything of weakness or morbidity; my opinion is very much the other
way. Though the fable may seem mad, the moral is very sane; indeed, the
moral is strictly orthodox. The trouble is that most of those who
mention it do not know the moral, possibly because they have never read
the fable. From time to time those anonymous authorities in the
newspapers, who dismiss Stevenson with such languid grace, will say that
there is something quite cheap and obvious about the idea that one man
is really two men and can be divided into the evil and the good.
Unfortunately for them, that does not happen to be the idea. The real
stab of the story is not in the discovery that the one man is two men;
but in the discovery that the two men are one man. After all the diverse
wandering and warring of those two incompatible beings, there was still
one man born and only one man buried. Jekyll and Hyde have become a
proverb and a joke; only it is a proverb read backwards and a joke that
nobody really sees. But it might have occurred to the languid critics,
as a part of the joke, that the tale is a tragedy; and that this is only
another way of saying that the experiment was a failure. The point of
the story is not that a man _can_ cut himself off from his conscience,
but that he cannot. The surgical operation is fatal in the story. It is
an amputation of which both the parts die. Jekyll, even in dying,
declares the conclusion of the matter; that the load of man's moral
struggle is bound upon him and cannot be thus escaped. The reason is
that there can never be equality between the evil and the good. Jekyll
and Hyde are not twin brothers. They are rather, as one of them truly
remarks, like father and son. After all, Jekyll created Hyde; Hyde would
never have created Jekyll; he only destroyed Jekyll. The notion is not
so hackneyed as the critics find it, after Stevenson has found it for
them thirty years ago. But Jekyll's claim is not that it is the first of
such experiments in duality; but rather that it must be the last.

Nor do I necessarily admit the technical clumsiness which some have
alleged against the tale, merely because I believe that many of its
emotions were first experienced in the crude pain of youth. Some have
gone into particular detail in order to pick it to pieces; and Mr. E. F.
Benson has made the (to me) strange remark that the structure of the
story breaks down when Jekyll discovers that his chemical combination
was partly accidental and is therefore unrecoverable. The critic says
scornfully that it would have done just as well if Jekyll had taken a
blue pill. It seems to me odd that any one who seems to know so much
about the devil as the author of _Colin_ should fail to recognise the
cloven hoof in the cloven spirit called up by the Jekyll experiment.
That moment in which Jekyll finds his own formula fail him, through an
accident he had never foreseen, is simply the supreme moment in every
story of a man buying power from hell; the moment when he finds the flaw
in the deed. Such a moment comes to Macbeth and Faustus and a hundred
others; and the whole point of it is that nothing is really secure,
least of all a Satanist security. The moral is that the devil is a liar,
and more especially a traitor; that he is more dangerous to his friends
than his foes; and, with all deference to Mr. Benson, it is not a
shallow or unimportant moral. But although the story ultimately emerged
as a gargoyle very carefully graven by a mature master-craftsman, and
was moreover a gargoyle of the greatest spiritual edification, eminently
suited to be stuck on to the most sacred edifice, my point for the
moment is that the stone of which it was made was originally found, I
think, by Stevenson as a boy, kicking about the street, not to mention
the gutter. In other words, he did not need to leave the respectable
metropolis of the north to find the weaknesses of Jekyll and the crimes
of Hyde.

I deal with these things in general terms, not merely out of delicacy,
but partly out of something that I might almost call impatience or
contempt. For the quarrels between the Victorian whitewashers and the
Post-Victorian mudslingers seem to me deficient in the ordinary decent
comprehension of the difficulties of human nature. Both the scandalised
and the scandalmonger seem to me to look very silly beside the sensible
person in the Bible, who confined himself to saying that there are
things that no man knows, such as the way of a bird in the air and the
way of a man in his youth. That Stevenson was in the mature and sane
sense a good man is certain, without any Victorian apologetics; that he
never did anything that he thought wrong is improbable, even without any
elaborate cloacan researches; and the whole thing is further falsified
by the fact that, outside a certain religious tradition, very few either
of the whitewashers or the mudslingers really believe in the morality
involved. The former seek to save nothing better than respectability;
the latter even when they slander can hardly condemn. Stevenson was not
a Catholic: he did not pretend to have remained a Puritan; but he was a
highly honourable, responsible and chivalrous Pagan, in a world of
Pagans who were most of them considerably less conspicuous for chivalry
and honour. I for one, if I may say so, am ready to defend my own
standards or to judge other men by theirs. But the Victorian pretence
that every well-dressed hero of romance with over five hundred a year is
born immune from the temptations which the mightiest saints have rolled
themselves in brambles to control--that does not concern me and I shall
not discuss it again.

But what does concern me, at this particular stage of the story, is not
the question of what Stevenson thought right or wrong when he had become
consciously and consistently a Pagan, but the particular way in which
right and wrong appeared to him at this crude and groping age when he
was still by tradition a Puritan. And I do think there was something
tail-foremost, to use one of his own favourite words, in the way in
which evil crept into his existence, as it does into everybody else's.
He saw the tail of the devil before he saw his horns. Puritanism gave
him the key rather to the cellars than the halls of Babylon; and
something thus subterranean, suffocating and debased rolls like a smoke
over the story of Jekyll and Hyde. But I only mention these matters as
part of a general unfolding of his mind and moral nature, which seems to
me to have had a great deal to do with the latter development of his
destiny. The normal, or at least the ideal, development of a man's
destiny is from the coloured chamber of childhood to an even more
romantic garden of the faith and tryst of youth. It is from the child's
garden of verses to the man's garden of vows. I do not think that time
of transition went right with Stevenson; I think that something thwarted
or misled him; I think it was then that the east wind of Edinburgh
Puritanism blew him out of his course, so that he returned only long
after to anything like a secure loyalty and a right human relation. In a
word, I think that in his childhood he had the best luck in the world,
and in his youth the worst luck in the world; and that this explains
most of his story.

Anyhow, he found no foothold on those steep streets of his beautiful and
precipitous city; and as he looked forth over the litter of little
islands in the large and shining estuary, he may have had some
foreshadowing of that almost vagabond destiny which ended in the ends of
the earth. There seemed in one sense no social reason why it should not
end in Edinburgh as it had begun in Edinburgh. There seemed nothing
against a normal successful career for one so brilliant, so graceful and
essentially so humane; his story might have been as comfortable as a
Victorian three-volume novel. He might have had the luck to marry an
Edinburgh lady as delightful and satisfactory as Barbara Grant. He might
have presided over the revels of a new bunch of Stevensons, coming home
from Leith Walk laden with the gay portfolios of Skelt. They also might
have bought Penny Pickwicks or gone about girt with lanterns; and his
own view of these things might have altered, though not necessarily
weakened, with the responsibility of one who sees them reproduced in
others. But among these early Edinburgh pranks, which he has left on
record, was one which is something of a symbol. He speaks somewhere of a
special sort of apples which he gathered by the seashore, which were
such as might well be gathered from the salted and crooked trees that
grow by the sea. I do not know what it was; or what form it took; or
whether it ever took any definable form at all. But somehow or other, in
thought or word or deed, in that bleak place he ate the apple of
knowledge; and it was a crab apple.

I think it was partly the pains of youth that afterwards made so vivid
to him the pleasures of childhood. The break in his life was of course
partly due to the break in his health. But it was also due, I think, to
something ragged and unseemly in the edge of life he laid hold of when
he touched the hem of her garment; to something unsatisfactory in all
that side of existence as it appears accidentally to the child of
Puritan conventions. The effect on him was that, during those years, he
grew up too much out of touch with his domestic and civic, if not his
national traditions; knowing at once too much and too little. He was
never denationalised; for he was a Scotsman; and a Scotsman never is,
even when he is in theory internationalised. But he did begin to become
internationalised, in the sense that he gained a sort of indiscriminate
intimacy with the culture of the world, especially the rather cynical
sort of culture which was then current. The local and domestic
conventions, which were in many ways wrong, lost their power to control
him even when they were right. And in all that retrospect nothing
remained so real as the unreal romances of the first days. In the
Puritan creeds there was nothing that he could believe, even as much as
he had believed in make-believe. There was nothing to call him back half
so clearly as the call of that childish rhyme of which he afterwards
wrote, in the touching dedication that has the burden, "How far is it to
Babylon?" Unfortunately it is not very far to Babylon. That cosmopolitan
market of the arts, which is in his story perhaps best represented by
Paris, called to him more and more to live the life of the complete
artist, which in those days had something like a touch of the complete
anarchist. He passed into it, ultimately in person and already in
spirit; there was nothing to call him back but the thin and tiny cry of
a tin trumpet; that sounded once and was mute.

I say there was nothing to call him back; and very little to restrain
him; and to any one who really understands the psychology and philosophy
of that time of transition, it is really rather a wonder that he was so
restrained. All his after adventures will be misunderstood if we do not
realise that he left behind him a dead religion. Men are misled by the
fact that he often used the old national creed as a subject; which
really means rather that it had become an object. It was a subject that
had ceased to be subjective; he worked upon it and not with it. He and
the inheritors of his admirable tradition, like Barrie and Buchan,
treated that national secret genially and even tenderly; but their very
tenderness was the first soft signal that the thing was dead. At least
they would never have so fondled the tiger-cat of Calvinism until, for
them, its teeth were drawn. Indeed this was the irony and the pathos of
the position of Scottish Calvinism: to be rammed down people's throats
for three hundred years as an unanswerable argument and then to be
inherited at the last as an almost indefensible affection; to be
expounded to boys with a scowl and remembered by men with a smile; to
crush down all human sentiments and to linger at last in the sentimental
comedy of Thrums. All that long agony of lucidity and masterful logic
ended at last suddenly with a laugh; and the laugh was Robert Louis
Stevenson. With him the break had come; and it follows that something in
himself was broken. The whaups were crying round the graves of the
martyrs, and his heart remembered, but not his mind; great Knox blew
thrice upon the trumpet, and what thrilled him were no words but a
noise; Old Mortality seemed still to be tinkering on his eternal round
to preserve the memorials of the Covenant, but a bell had already tolled
to announce that even Old Mortality was mortal. When Stevenson stepped
into the wider world of the Continent, with its more graceful logic and
even its more graceful vice, he went as one emptied of all the ethics
and metaphysics of his home, and open to all the views and vices of a
rationalistic civilisation. All the deeper lessons of his early life
must have seemed to him to be dead within him; nor did he himself know
what thing within him was yet alive.



CHAPTER IV # THE REACTION TO ROMANCE


When a man walks down the street with a very long feather stuck in his
hat and streaming behind him, or carrying a gold-hilted rapier cocked at
a gallant angle, there are some among the typists and clerks of Clapham
Junction shrewd enough to perceive that there is something faintly
ostentatious about him. And when a man walks down Piccadilly or the
parade at Bournemouth with long hair streaming behind him and surmounted
by an embroidered smoking-cap, there are not wanting critics so acute as
to deduce (with all the detailed shrewdness of Sherlock Holmes) that
such a man is not entirely averse from being looked at. Many long and
laborious studies of Stevenson have been published lately, to fortify
and establish this remarkable result; and I need not devote myself to
proving it further. Let us record with all due solemnity that Robert
Louis Stevenson has been convicted by the court of being very vain, if
"dressing up" in the manner of a child, and not resenting the consequent
conspicuous position, be the marks of vanity. But there is one aspect of
this truth which seems to me to have been strangely and even
astonishingly overlooked. Everybody talks as if Stevenson had been not
only conspicuous but quite unique in this sort of vanity. Everybody
seems to assume that among the artists of his time he was entirely alone
in his affectation. Contrasting in this respect with the humdrum
respectability of Oscar Wilde, notable as the very reverse of the
evangelical meekness of Jimmy Whistler, standing out as he does against
the stodgy chapel-going piety of Max Beerbohm, having none of the cheery
commonplaces of Aubrey Beardsley or the prosaic self-effacement of
Richard Le Gallienne, he naturally aroused attention by the slightest
deviation into oddity or dandyism; things notoriously so unpopular among
the decadents of the 'nineties. Among other things, everybody seems to
have forgotten that Stevenson lived for some time among the Parisian art
students; who have never been remarkable for the bourgeois regularity of
their coats and hats. Yet he actually mentions the offensive smoking-cap
himself as originating in the Bohemian masquerade of the Quartier Latin.
There he was not so much being eccentric as being conventional; for the
convention was unconventionality. A mob of men in that place and at that
age, would have played the same sort of tricks and worn the same kind of
clothes; nor was Stevenson, as I have said, the only one of them who
carried these attitudes and antics through life. Any one of them might
have worn a smoking-cap; none of them would have objected to any variety
of fool's cap, though they hardly wished it identified with a dunce's
cap. Many of them, still alive, would cheerfully admit that the cap
fits. But poor Stevenson is to be remembered as a fool, because all the
fools are forgotten except Stevenson.

It was not that sort of oddity that was really odd. The costume for
which he is now conspicuous was really part of a carnival. The attitude
in which he stands, to the astonishment and grief of the critics, was
really the fashion of a crowd. But what was really individual and
interesting about him was the way in which he did actually react against
the surroundings; the point at which he refused to run with the crowd or
follow the fashion. No insanity in that cheerful lunatic asylum is so
interesting to the psychologist as the shock of Stevenson going sane. No
romantic ruffianism in which he may or may not have indulged is so
curious as the real spirit of his revolt into respectability.

_Treasure Island,_ if hardly a historical novel, was essentially a
historical event. The rise or revolt of R. L. S. must be taken in
relation to history, to the history of the whole European mind and mood.
It was, first and last, a reaction against pessimism. There was thrown
across all that earth and sky the gigantic shadow of Schopenhauer. At
least it seemed gigantic then, though some of us may already have
suspected that the shadow was larger than the man. Anyhow, in that
period we might almost say that pessimism was another name for culture.
Cheerfulness was associated with the Philistine, like the broad grin
with the bumpkin. Pessimism could be read between the lines of the
lightest triolet or most elegant essay. Any one who really remembers
that time will admit that the world was much more hopeful after the
worst of its wars than it was not long before. Mr. H. G. Wells, whose
genius had just been discovered by Henley, was very much older than he
is now. He was prophesying that the outline of history would end, not in
communism, but in cannibalism. He was prophesying the end of the world:
a crack of doom not even cheerful enough to be a day of judgement. Oscar
Wilde, who perhaps filled up more room, both in mind and body, than
anybody else on that stage at that moment, expressed his philosophy in
that bitter parable in which Christ seeks to comfort a man weeping and
is answered, "Lord, I was dead and you raised me to life; what else can
I do but weep?"

This was the spirit that was behind all that levity; a levity that was
like fireworks in more ways than one. We talk of some Whistlerian satire
as a squib; but squibs can only shine in the dark. It is all the
difference between the colours of fireworks that have their back to the
vault of night and the colours of church windows that have their backs
to the sun. For these people all the light of life was in the
foreground; there was nothing in the background but an abyss. They were
rather nihilists than atheists; for there is a difference between
worshipping Nothing and not worshipping anything. Now the interest of
the next stage of Stevenson is that he stood up suddenly amid all these
things and shook himself with a sort of impatient sanity; a shrug of
scepticism about scepticism. His real distinction is that he had the
sense to see that there is nothing to be done with Nothing. He saw that
in that staggering universe it was absolutely necessary to stand somehow
on something; and instead of falling about anyhow with all the other
lunatics, he did seek for a ledge on which he could really stand. He did
definitely and even dramatically refuse to go mad; or, what is very much
worse, to remain futile. But the whole turning-point of the tale is now
missed; partly by the too concentrated idolatry of the sentimentalists,
and partly by the too concentrated spite of the iconoclasts. They miss
the _historic_ relation of the man to his time and school. It was one of
the crowd of artists who showed mutinous signs of deserting art for
life. It was even one of the decadents who refused to decay.

Now what really remains interesting in this story of Stevenson, in spite
of all the vain repetitions, is the authority to which he appealed. It
was rather an odd one; and many would have said that his sanity was
madder than madness. He did not appeal to any ideal of the sort usually
pursued by idealists; he did not try to construct an optimist philosophy
like Spinoza or Emerson; he did not preach a good time coming like
William Morris or Wells; he did not appeal to Imperialism or Socialism
or Scotland: he appealed to Skelt.

Familiarity had dulled the divine paradox that we should learn morality
from little children. He advanced the more disturbing paradox that we
should learn morality from little boys. The young child who should lead
us was the common (or garden) little boy: the boy of the catapult and
the toy pistol--and the toy theatre. Stevenson seemed to say to the
semi-suicides drooping round him at the café tables; drinking absinthe
and discussing atheism: "Hang it all, the hero of a penny-dreadful play
was a better man than you are! A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured was
an art more worthy of living men than the art that you are all
professing. Painting pasteboard figures of pirates and admirals was
better worth doing than all this, it was fun; it was fighting; it was a
life and a lark; and if I can't do anything else, dang me but I will try
to do that again!" So was presented to the world this entertaining
spectacle; of the art student surrounded by easels on which other
artists were debating the fine shades of Corot and Renoir, while he
himself was gravely painting mariners a bright prussian blue of a
shilling paint-box and shedding their blood in streams of unmistakable
crimson lake. That is the primary paradox about Stevenson's early
manhood; or, if you will, the real joke about Stevenson. Of all that
intellectualism in Bohemia the result was the return to Skelt. Of all
that wallowing in Balzac the remarkable outcome was _Treasure Island._
But it is no exaggeration to say that it had still more to do with toys
than treasures. Stevenson was not really looking forward or outward to a
world of larger things, but backward and inward into a world of smaller
ones: in the peepshow of Skelt, which was still the true window of the
world.

Thus, Skelt and his puppets seemed made for a repartee to the favourite
phrases of the pessimists. All that world was haunted as with melody by
the hedonist despair of Fitzgerald's Omar: one of the great historical
documents of this history. No image could make them bow their heads with
more hopelessness and helplessness of despair than that famous one:

"We are none other than a moving row
Of magic shadow-shapes that come and go
Around the sun-illumined lantern held
At midnight by the Master of the show."

And no image could make the infant Stevenson kick his little legs with
keener joy. His answer, in effect, to the philosophy of the magic
shadow-shapes, was that the shadow-shapes really were magic. At any
rate, they really did seem to the children to be magic: and it was not
false but true psychology to call the thing a magic lantern. He was
capable of feeling passionate delight in being such a Lantern-Bearer. He
was capable even of feeling passionate delight in being such a shadow.
And any one who has seen a shadow pantomime as a child, as I have, and
who has retained any living link with his own childhood, will realise
that Omar was as unlucky in his commentary on the lantern-show as the
delightful curate in _Voces Populi_ who talked about Valentine and
Orson. He was teaching optimism as an illustration to pessimism. Later
we may make a guess at the nature of this glamour about such tricks or
toys; the point for the moment is that they were associated with gloom
in philosophy, while they were associated with pleasure in psychology.
The same applies to more common examples of the fancies of the fatalist.
When the sage said that men are "only puppets," it must have seemed to
the young Louis almost like the blasphemy of saying they were "only
pirates." It might well seem to any child like saying that they were
only fairies. There was something weak about bewailing drearily the fate
of the puppets of destiny, to an audience that was eagerly awaiting the
joyful apocalypse of a puppet-show. The Stevensonian reaction might be
roughly represented by the suggestion--if we are as futile as puppets,
is there anything particular to prevent our being as entertaining, as
Punch? And there is, as I say, a real spiritual mystery behind this
mystical ecstasy of mimicry. If living dolls were so dull and dead, why
in the world were dead dolls so very much alive? And if being a puppet
is so depressing, how is it that the puppet of a puppet can be so
enthralling?

It is to be noted that this sort of romanticism, as compared with
realism, is _not_ more superficial, but on the contrary more
fundamental. It is an appeal from what is experienced to what is felt.
When people are avowedly talking about happiness and unhappiness, as the
pessimists were, it is futile to say that shadows and sham pasteboard
figures _ought_ not to make people happy. It was futile to tell the
young Stevenson that the toy-theatre shop was a dingy booth stocked with
dusty rolls of paper, covered with ill-drawn and ungainly figures; and
to insist that these were the only facts. He naturally answered: "My
facts were my feelings; and what do you make of those facts? Either
there is something in Skelt; which you do not admit. Or else there is
something in Life; which you also do not admit." Hence arose that answer
to the realists which is best expressed in the essay called _The
Lantern-Bearers._ The realists, who overlook so many details, have never
quite noticed where lay the falsity of their method; it lay in the fact
that so long as it was materialistic, it could not really be realistic.
For it could not be psychological. If toys and trifles can make people
happy, that happiness is not a trifle and certainly cannot be a trick.

This is the point that has been missed in all the talk about posing.
Those who repeat for the hundredth time that he posed have not got as
far as the obvious question, "Posed as what?" All the other poets and
artists posed; but they posed as the members of the Suicide Club. He
posed as Prince Florizel with a sword, challenging the President of the
Suicide Club. He was, if you will, the foolish masker I have imagined,
tricked out with a feather and a sword or dagger; but not tricked out
more extravagantly than those who appeared as fantastic figures at their
own funeral. If he had a feather, it was not a white feather; if he had
a dagger, it was not a poisoned dagger or the pessimist dagger that is
turned inwards; in short, if he had a posture it was a posture of
defence and even of defiance. And it was, after all, the fashionable
posture of his time which he set himself to defy. And it is here that it
is really relevant to remember that he was not altogether posturing when
he said he was defying death. Death was much nearer to him than it was
to the pessimists; and he knew it whenever he coughed and found blood on
his handkerchief. He was not pretending to defy it half so much as they
were pretending to seek it. It is no very unreasonable claim for him
that he made a better use of his bad health than Oscar Wilde made of his
good health; and nothing affected in the externals of either can alter
the contrast. The dagger may have been theatrical; but the blood was
real. As Cyrano said of his friend, "Le sang, c'est le sien." And it
really was the absence of courage in the current culture that awoke his
protest or pose. In any case, the intellectual fine shades were morally
more than a little shady. But he hated chiefly the loss of what soldiers
call morale rather than what parsons call morality. All that world
cowered under the shadow of death. All alike were travelling under the
flag of the skull and crossbones. But he alone could call it the Jolly
Roger.

What is really not appreciated about Stevenson is the abruptness of this
breakaway. We talk of looking back with gratitude to innovators or the
introducers of new ideas; but in fact nothing is more difficult to do,
since for us they are now necessarily old ideas. There is only one
moment, at most, of triumph for the original thinker; while his thought
is an originality and before it becomes merely an origin. News spreads
quickly; that is, it grows stale quickly; and though we may call a work
wonderful, we cannot easily put ourselves in the position of those for
whom it was a cause of wonder, in the sense of surprise. Between the
first fashion of talking too much in praise of Stevenson, and the newer
fashion of talking nonsense in disparagement of Stevenson, we have
become quite familiar with the association of certain ideas; of extreme
stylistic polish applied to rough schoolboy adventure, of the Penny
Plain figure tinted as carefully as a miniature. But these ideas were
not always associated in the way in which Stevenson associated them. We
may tear the combination to pieces, but it was he who wove it together;
and--as many would have thought--of very incongruous threads. It really
did seem preposterous to many that a serious literary artist of the age
of Pater should devote himself to rewriting Penny Dreadfuls. It was just
as if George Meredith had chosen to put all his fine feminine psychology
into writing the sort of twopenny novelettes that were read by
housemaids, and called "Pansy's Elopement" or "Winnie's Wedding Bells."
It was as if Henry James had been heard to say or, so to speak, to
suggest, that there was, after all, and in a way quite annoyingly
overlooked, _something_--something that really should have been better
evaluated and re-expressed, as it were, in all that really
unquestionable productiveness of _Ally Sloper's Half-Holiday._ It was as
if Paderewski had insisted on only going round with a barrel-organ; or
Whistler had confined himself solely to painting public-house signs. A
distinguished dramatist, who is old enough to remember in his youth the
first successes of Stevenson's manhood, told me how absurd it seemed at
the time that any one should take seriously such gutter literature of
the _gamin._ A book written only for boys generally meant a book written
only for errand-boys. It seemed a strange association of ideas that it
should be written carefully as a book for men, and even for literary
men. It does not seem so strange now; because Stevenson has done it
quite a long time ago. But it is important to realise that not everybody
thought it natural to expend the style of _Pulvis et Umbra_ on the
equivalent of "Dick Deadshot Among the Pirates." It was the very last
sort of enthusiasm that would have easily carried any of his cultivated
contemporaries off their feet. The typical literary man, with the
outlook and philosophy of that generation, would have been about as
likely to pass his life in throwing paper darts or chalking caricatures
of his publisher on a blackboard.

Thus, there is one of those phrases quoted too much, as against so many
quoted too little, that he and his artistic friends bore with them bulky
yellow volumes "quite impudently French." But, by the tests of that
artistic world, _Treasure Island_ is quite impudently English. By the
conventions of that world, there was nothing unconventional about
studying Balzac or being Bohemian. It was much more unconventional to
study Captain Marryat and to write about the good captain who flew the
Union Jack over the stockade, in defiance of the bad buccaneers. From
the standpoint of Art in those days, even that flag was a much too Moral
Emblem. It is only when we understand what there was that seemed quaint
and even undignified in his adventurous antic, that we can clearly
understand the unconscious truths that lay behind it. For, as against
the black flag of pessimism, his flag really was a Moral Emblem. There
was a morality in his reaction into adventure; his appeal to the spirit
of the highway--though it were sometimes the spirit of the highwayman.

In other words, he appealed to his own childhood. A tale is told of it:
that when some one chaffed him about a toy sword he replied solemnly,
"The hilt is of gold and the scabbard of silver and the child is well
content." It was to that moment that he suddenly returned. Groping for
something that would satisfy, he found nothing so solid as that fancy.
That had not been Nothing; that had not been pessimistic; that was not a
life over which Lazarus could do nothing but weep. That was as positive
as the paints in the paint-box and the difference between vermilion and
chrome yellow. Its pleasures had been as solid as the taste of sweets;
and it was nonsense to say that there had been nothing in them worth
living for. Play at least is always serious. So long as we can say, "Let
us pretend," we must be sincere. Therefore he appealed across the void
or valley of his somewhat sterile youth to that garden of childhood,
which he had once known and which was his nearest notion of paradise.
There were no shrines in the faith or in the city of his fathers; there
were no channels of consecration or confession; there was no imagery
save in the faceless images left behind by the image-breakers. A man in
his mood of reaction towards happiness, might almost as well have prayed
to the Black Man who figured as the Scottish provincial devil as to the
God behind the black cloud that sent out such stiff horrific rays in the
Calvinist family Bible. But in all that waste of Scottish moorland, the
sun still glowed on that square of garden like a patch of gold. The
lessons were lost, but the toys were eternal; the men had been harsh,
but the child had been well content; if there were nothing better, he
would return.

In the elementary philosophy of the thing, of course, what moved
Stevenson was what moved Wordsworth; the unanswerable fact of that first
vividness in the vision of life. But he had it in his own quaint way;
and it was hardly the vision of meadow, grove and stream. It was rather
the vision of coffin, gallows and gory sabre that were apparelled in
celestial light, the glory and the freshness of a dream. But he was
appealing to a sort of sanguinary innocence against a sort of silent and
secretive perversion. Here, as everywhere in this rude outline, I am
taking a thing like _Treasure Island,_ in a spirit of simplification and
symbol. I do not mean, of course, that he wrote _Treasure Island_
sitting in a café on the boulevards; any more than I mean that he wrote
_Jekyll and Hyde_ in a cellar or a garret in the lands of the Cowgate.
Both these books were developed by stages of the greatest literary care,
in later life; and pursued with the characteristic consistency of his
art through all the equally characteristic mutability of his domicile.
When I say that a certain book came out of a certain experience, I mean
that he drew on that experience to write it, or that it was the ultimate
result of the reaction which that experience produced in his mind. And I
mean in this case that what shaped and sharpened Stevenson's memory of
the mere nonsense of Skeltery was his growing sense of the need of some
escape from the suffocating cynicism of the mass of men and artists in
his time. He wished to go back to that nonsense; for it seemed, by
comparison, quite sensible.

_Treasure Island_ was written as a boy's book; perhaps it is not always
read as a boy's book. I sometimes fancy that a real boy could read it
better if he could read it backwards. The end, which is full of
skeletons and ancient crime, is in the fullest sense, beautiful; it is
even idealistic. For it is the realisation of an ideal, that which is
promised in its provocative and beckoning map; a vision not only of
white skeletons but also green palm trees and sapphire seas. But the
beginning of the book, considered as a boy's book, can hardly be called
idealistic; and is found in practice to be rather too realistic. I may
make an egotistical confession here, which I think is not unique and not
without its universal inference about the spirit of youth. When I read
the book as a child, I was not horrified by what are called the horrors.
Something did indeed shock me, just a little more than a child should be
shocked; for of course he would have no fun if he were never shocked at
all. But what shook me was not the dead man's chest or the live man's
crimes or the information that "Drink and the devil have done for the
rest"; all that seemed to me quite cheery and comforting. What did seem
to me ugly was exactly what might happen in any inn-parlour, if there
were no pirates in the world. It was that business about apoplexy; or
some sort of alcoholic poisoning. It was the sailor having a mysterious
thing called a stroke; so much more terrifying than any sabre-stroke. I
was ready to wade in seas of gore; for all that gore was crimson lake;
and indeed I always imagined it as a lake of crimson. Exactly what I was
not ready for were those few drops of blood drawn from the arm of the
insensible sailor, when he was bled by the surgeon. That blood is not
crimson lake. Thus we have the paradox that I was horrified by the act
of healing; while all the rowdy business of hitting and hurting did not
hurt me at all. I was disgusted with an act of mercy, because it took
the form of medicine. I will not pause to draw the many morals of this
paradox; especially in relation to a common fallacy of pacifism. I will
content myself with saying, whether I make my meaning clear or no, that
a child is not wicked enough to disapprove of war.

But whatever be the case with most boys, there was certainly one boy who
enjoyed _Treasure Island;_ and his name was Robert Louis Stevenson. He
really had very much of the feeling of one who had got away to great
waters and outlandish lands; perhaps even more vividly than he had it
later, when he made that voyage not metaphorically but materially, and
found his own Treasure Island in the South Seas. But just as in the
second case he was fleeing to clear skies from unhealthy climates, so he
was in reviving the adventure story escaping from an exceedingly
unhealthy climate. The microbe of morbidity maybe have been within him,
as well as the germ of phthisis; but in the cities he had left behind
pessimism was raging like a pestilence. Multitudes of pale-faced poets,
formless and forgotten, sat crowded at those café tables like ghosts in
Hades, worshipping "la sorcière glauque," like that one of them whose
mortality has been immortalised by Max. It is too often forgotten that
if Stevenson had really been only a pale young man making wax flowers,
he would have found plenty of pale young men to make them with him; and
the flowers and flower-makers would long have withered together. But he
alone escaped, as from a city of the dead; he cut the painter as Jim
Hawkins stole the boat, and went on his own voyage, following the sun.
Drink and the devil have done for the rest, especially the devil; but
then they were drinking absinthe and not with a "Yo ho ho"; consuming it
without the most feeble attempt at any "Yo ho ho"--a defect which was,
of course the most serious and important part of the affair. For "Yo ho
ho" was precisely what Stevenson, with his exact choice of words,
particularly desired to say just then. It was for the present his most
articulate message to mankind.



CHAPTER V # THE SCOTTISH STORIES


Proverbs are generally true, when they are the proverbs of the people;
so long as they are not proverbs about another people. It was unwise to
search Sussex to discover if Kentish men had tails, or England to learn
if French husbands had horns. And obviously there is much that is
misleading in the traditional type of the practical Puritanical
Scotsman, with his dry thrift and bleak respectability. A figure of such
severe decorum is not very vividly evoked either by the title of Rab the
Ranter or the Wizard of the North. And few of our own generation are yet
convinced of it, even by the scientific severity that has given us
_Peter Pan_ or the sober responsibility that stiffens the narrative of
_The New Arabian Nights._ The readers of the latter work will be much
interested to realise that a Scotsman is incapable of seeing a joke,
since he seems so eminently capable of making one; and the reader of the
former will be disposed to suggest that the national jesting is not too
sober but rather too extravagant. _Peter Pan_ carries on by lineal
tradition the cult of the child, beginning with _Treasure Island;_ but
if there be anything to criticise in Sir James Barrie's beautiful
fantasia, it is that wilder things happen to Wendy in a London nursery
than ever happened to Jim in a tropical island. The only object to
living in a nursery where the dog is the nurse, or the father lives in
the dog-kennel, is that there seems no necessity to go to the
Never-Never Land to look for the things that never happen. Whatever else
we say of the Scottish genius, it is certainly not merely dry or
prosaic; and indeed the real mixture of the Scottish genius is as full
of contradictions as that pattern of crosses in the Scottish plaid. And
even here there is subtlety as well as cross-purposes; and the tartan
may be an old tribal form of camouflage.

There is an aspect of a Scottish hill or moor, which for the moment will
look grey and at the least change of light look purple; which is in
itself an image of Scotland. A passing from the most dispassionate to
the most passionate tint, which yet seems to be no more than a new
shade, might well represent the mixture of restraint and violence that
runs through the national history and the national character. Stevenson
stands for one of those moments in the national history when the grey
turned to purple; and yet in his purple there is still a great deal of
grey. There is a great deal of restraint, artistic even more than moral;
there is a certain coolness in the commentary even on picturesque
objects; there is even a certain absence of the common conception of
passion. There are shades even in purple; there are differences between
the purple orchid and the purple heather; and his often seems to be like
white heather, for luck. In other words, his idea of happiness is still
of the breezy and boyish sort; and though he described the happiness of
lovers very happily in _Catriona_ and began to foreshadow their
unhappiness in _Weir of Hermiston,_ he attacked the theme relatively
late in life; and it counted for little in that original idea of a
return to simplicity, which had come upon him like a wind from a
playground. Imagine how annoyed Jim Hawkins would have been, if a lot of
girls had been allowed to muck up the business of going after treasure!
So brilliant is this resurrection of boyhood, that we almost believe for
the moment that Stevenson must have been as young and callous as Jim.
Only I suspect, as I say, that in some ways he had even made himself a
little callous in those matters. There his adventures had been
misadventures. He did not recall for mere pleasure the memory of youth,
as he did the memory of boyhood.

The two novels about David Balfour are very notable examples of what I
have mentioned generally as the Stevensonian note; the brisk and bright
treatment, the short speeches, the sharp gestures and the pointed
profile of energy, as of a man following his nose very rapidly along the
open road. The great scenes in _Kidnapped,_ the defence of the Round
House or the confrontation of Uncle Ebenezer and Alan Breck, are full of
those snapping phrases that seem to pick things off like pistol shots. A
whole essay on the style of Stevenson, such as I shall attempt forlornly
and ineffectually on another page, might be written by a real critic on
the phrase, "His sword flashed like quicksilver into the huddle of our
fleeing enemies." The fact that the name of a certain metal happens to
combine the word "silver" with the word "quick" is simply a rather
recondite accident; but the art of Stevenson consisted in taking
advantage of such accidents. To those who say that such tricks are easy
to play or such words easy to find, the only answer is, "Go and find
them." An author cannot create words, unless he be the happy author of
_Jaberwocky_ or _The Land Where the Jumblies Live;_ but the nearest he
can come to creating them is finding them in such a fashion and for such
a use. The characters in the story are excellent, though perhaps there
are really only two of them. There are more in the sequel called
_Catriona;_ and the study of the Lord Advocate Prestongrange is a highly
interesting attempt to do a very difficult thing; to describe a
politician who has not altogether ceased to be a man. The dialogue is
spirited and full of fine Scottish humours, but all these things are
almost as secondary in _Kidnapped_ and _Catriona_ as they are in
_Treasure Island_ itself. The thing is still simply an adventure story,
and especially a boy's adventure story; such as is fitted to describe
the adventures of a boy. And there are moments when it is the same boy;
and his name is neither Hawkins nor Balfour, but Stevenson.

But though the thing is to be criticised (and admired) strictly as an
adventure story, there are side-lights of interest about it considered
as a historical novel. It carries on a rather curiously balanced
critical attitude, partly inherited from the attitude of Sir Walter
Scott; the paradox of being intellectually on the side of the Whigs and
morally on the side of the Jacobites. There is enough moral material, in
the story of the long legal murder of James of the Glens, to raise a
whole clan of Jacobites and roll them red-hot down the pass of
Killiecrankie. But there still stands over against it the large legal
assumption that in some sort of way all these things will be for the
best, which is the inheritance of the providential view of the
Presbyterian settlement. Similarly, it is obvious in the earlier story
that David Balfour does not really differ very much from Alan Breck, in
his view of the oppression of the Highland crofters and their pathetic
loyalty to the past. In the ethical balance of the Appin Murder, if he
does not palliate tyrannicide, he certainly says nothing calculated to
palliate tyranny. It is obvious that he is moved and impressed with the
spectacle of a whole peasantry loyal to their ideal and defying a more
civilised but a much more cynical pressure. But, curiously enough, when
Stevenson saw exactly the same story acted before his eyes in the
tragedy of the peasants of Ireland, he was carried away by some
newspaper nonsense about the wickedness of the Land League (prodded
perhaps by the rather absurd Jingoism of Henley) and, with all his
native courage and much less than his native sense, wanted to plant
himself on an eviction farm belonging to a family named Curtin, whom he
seemed to regard as the sole victims of the social situation. It did not
seem to occur to him that he was merely assisting the Master of Lovat to
bully David Balfour. He seemed really to suppose that, in those social
conditions, the Irish peasants could look for justice to imperial
governments which abolished all local rights and carried away every
Irish patriot to be tried before a packed jury of foreigners and foes.
"Justice, David! The same justice, by all the world, that Glenure found
by the roadside."

But this curious and sometimes inconsistent mingling of the grey
Whiggery with the purple Jacobite romance, in the traditional sentiment
of such Scots as Stevenson, is connected with much deeper things
touching the hold that their history had upon them. It is necessary to
state at this stage that there is really and seriously an influence of
Scottish Puritanism upon Stevenson; though I think it rather a
philosophy partially accepted by his intellect than the special ideal
that was the secret of his heart. But every philosopher is affected by
philosophy; even if, as in the immortal instance in Boswell,
cheerfulness is always breaking out. And there was a part of Stevenson's
mind that was not cheerful; which I think, in some manifestations, was
not even healthy. And yet the tribute of truth is due to that special
Scottish element; that even when we say it was not healthy, we can
hardly venture to say it was not strong. It was the shadow of that
ancient heathen fatalism, which in the seventeenth century had taken the
hardly less heathen form of Calvinism; and which had sounded in so many
Scottish tragedies with a note of doom. We appreciate it sharply when we
turn from his two Scottish comedies of adventure to his third Scottish
romance, which is a tragedy of character. It is true, as may be noted
later, that even into this concentrated drama of sin and sorrow there
enters a curious and rather incongruous element of the adventure story;
like a fragment of the former adventures of David or Jim. But leaving
that aside for the moment, we must do justice to the dignity which is
given to the story itself by its more sombre scenery and its sterner
creed. Stevenson showed his perfect instinct when he called it _A
Winter's Tale._ It is his one story in black and white, and I cannot
recall one word that is a patch of colour.

In touching on the rather neglected point of the nastier side of Puritan
sociology, the raw and barbarous flavour about its evil and excess, I
may have seemed to underrate the higher though harsher aspects of
Scottish Puritanism. I do not mean to do so; and certainly nobody can
afford to do so in attempting an adequate study of Stevenson. He
remained to the day of his death in some ways particularly loyal to the
Presbyterian tradition; I might say to the Presbyterian prejudices; and
at least in one or two cases to the Presbyterian antipathies. But I
think it was mostly rather a case of the modern religion of patriotism,
as against the larger patriotism of religion. Like many other men of
frank, tart and humorous prejudices (which are the sort of prejudices
that need never prejudice us against a man) he was apt to see in some
foreign things the evils to which he had grown accustomed in native
things; and to start again the great international dispute of the pot
and the kettle. It is amusing, for instance, to find the young Scotsman
in _Olalla_ gravely disapproving of the grim Spanish crucifix, with its
tortured and grimacing art; and presumably leaving that land of
religious gloom, to go back and enjoy the charm and gaiety of Thrawn
Janet. If there was ever grim and grimacing art, one would think it was
in that twisted figure; and even Stevenson admitted that Olalla got more
comfort from the crucifix than Janet from the minister; or, I will add,
the minister from the ministry. Indeed, stories of this kind are told by
Stevenson with a deliberate darkening of the Scottish landscape and
exultation in the ferocity of the Scottish creed. But it would be quite
a mistake to miss in this a certain genuine national pride running
through all the abnormal artistry; and a sense that the strength of the
tribal tragedy testifies in a manner to the strength of the tribe.

It might be maintained that the best effect of the Scotsman's religious
training was teaching him to do without his religion. It enabled him to
survive as a certain sort of freethinker; one who, unlike his more
familiar fellows, is not so intoxicated with freedom as to forget to
think. It might be said that among the Scots, so far from a sentimental
religiosity taking the place of dogmatic religion (as is generally the
case among the English), something like the very opposite had occurred.
When the religion was dead, the theology remained: at any rate, the
taste for theology remained. It remained because, whatever else it is,
theology is at least a form of thought. Stevenson certainly retained
this turn of mind long after his beliefs, like those of most of his
generation, had been simplified to vanishing point. He was, as Henley
said, something of the Shorter Catechist; even when his own Catechism
had become shorter still. All this, however, was indubitably a strength
to him and his nation; and a real reason for gratitude to their old
religious tradition. Those dry Deists and hard-headed Utilitarians who
stalked the streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh in the eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries were very obviously the products of the national
religious spirit. The Scottish atheists were unmistakable children of
the Kirk. And though they often seemed absurdly detached and
dehumanised, the world is now rather suffering for want of such dull
lucidity. To put it shortly, by being theological they had at least
learnt to be logical; and in dropping the Greek prefix as a superfluous
trifle they will have the sympathy of many moderns much less logical
than themselves. The influence of all this sort of clarity on Stevenson
is very clear. It did not happen to be his mission to figure as the
metaphysical Scotsman; or draw out his deductions along the lines of
logic. But he did always by instinct draw lines that were as hard and
clear as those of a mathematical diagram. He himself has made a very
luminous and valuable comparison between a geometrical theorem and a
work of art. I have had cause to remark again and again, in the course
of this sketch, on a certain almost arid decision in the strokes of
Stevenson's style. I believe it was due in no small degree to that
inheritance of definition, that goes with an inheritance of dogma. What
he wrote was not written, as he said scornfully of some literary
performance, in sand with a salt-spoon; it was at least in the tradition
of scriptures cut with steel into stone. This was among the many good
things that he got from the spiritual atmosphere of his ancestry. But he
got other things as well; though they are less easy to describe and far
less easy to command.

From time to time I have insensibly and inevitably fallen into a tone of
defending Stevenson, as if he needed defence. And indeed I do think that
he needs some defence; though not upon the points in which it is now
considered necessary to defend him. I do feel a certain impatience with
the petty depreciation of our own time, which seems much more frivolous
and far less generous than the boom of a best-seller. I do feel a
certain contempt for those who call every phrase affected that happens
to be effective; or who charge a man with talking for effect, as if
there were anything else to talk for. But I should think it very unfair
to revile the revilers of Stevenson, without taking the risk of saying
where I think he is, if not to be reviled, at least to be rebuked. There
was, I think, a weaker strain in Stevenson; but it is the very opposite
of the weakness now generally alleged by critics; indeed it is the very
opposite of what they would probably regard as weak. The excuse for it,
in so far as it existed to be excused, was in the very direction of that
sharp turn which he took in early life, when he turned his back upon the
decadents. I have already said, and it can hardly be said too often,
that the story of Stevenson was a reaction against an age of pessimism.
Now the real objection to being a reactionary is that a reactionary, as
such, hardly ever avoids reacting into evil and exaggeration. The
opposite of the heresy of pessimism was the twin heresy of optimism.
Stevenson was not at all attracted to a placid and pacific optimism. But
he did begin to be too much attracted to a sort of insolent and
oppressive optimism. The reaction from the idea that what is good is
always unsuccessful is the idea that what is good is always victorious.
And from that many slide into the worse delusion; that what is
victorious is always good.

In the days when Stevenson's ancestors the Covenanters were fighting
with the Cavaliers, a fine old Cavalier of the Episcopalian persuasion
made a rather interesting remark; that the change he really hated was
represented by saying "The Lord" instead of "Our Lord." The latter
implied affection, the former only fear; indeed he described the former
succinctly as the talk of devils. And this is so far true that the very
eloquent language in which the name of "The Lord" has figured has
generally been the language of might and majesty and even terror. And
there really was implied in it in varying degrees the idea of glorifying
God for His greatness rather than His goodness. And again there occurred
the natural inversion of ideas. Since the Puritan was content to cry
with the Moslem: "God is great," so the descendant of the Puritan is
always a little inclined to cry with the Nietzschean: "Greatness is
God." In some of the really evil extremes, this sentiment shaded darkly
into a sort of diabolism. In Stevenson it was very faintly present; but
it is occasionally felt; and by me (I must confess) felt as a fault. It
is faintly felt, for instance, in the next great Scottish romance, _The
Master of Ballantrae;_ it is felt more definitely, I think, in the last
Scottish romance of _Weir of Hermiston._ In the first case, Stevenson
said in his correspondence, in a tone that was humorous and healthy
enough, that The Master was all he knew of The Devil. I do not in the
least object to The Master being The Devil. But I do object to a subtle
subconscious something, which every now and then seems almost to suggest
that he is The Lord. I mean The Lord in the vague sense of a certain
authority in aristocracy, or even in mere mastery. Perhaps I even dimly
feel that there is the distant thunder of The Lord in the very title of
The Master.

This thing, however we define it and in whatever degree we admit it, had
advanced in several degrees when he wrote the later story. Perhaps it
was partly the influence of Henley; who, with all his many generous
virtues, certainly had this weakness to the point of hysteria. I mean
the loss of the natural reaction of a man against a tyrant. It sometimes
takes the form of that least masculine of all vices, the admiration for
brutality. It has been much debated whether bullies are always cowards;
I am content to remark that the admirers of bullies are always, by the
very nature of things, trying to be cowards. If they do not always
succeed, it is because they have unconscious virtues restraining that
obscene worship: and this was true even of Henley; and far truer of
Stevenson. Stevenson had always a training in real courage; for he
fought when he was weak. But it cannot be denied that, by a combination
of causes, his own revolt against spineless pessimism, the reactionary
violence of Henley, but chiefly I think the vague Scottish tradition of
a God of mere power and terror, he grew too familiar in his later works
with the sort of swaggering cult of fear. I feel it in the character of
Weir of Hermiston, or rather in the attitude of everybody else,
including the author, towards that character. I do not mind the judge
exulting over the game of insulting and hanging somebody; for I know the
judge can be baser than the man he hangs. But I do mind the author
exulting over it, when I know he is not base at all. The same fine shade
of unpleasantness can be found in the last pages of _The Ebb-Tide._ My
point might be put crudely by saying that I do not object to the author
creating such a loathsome person as Mr. Attwater; but I do rather object
to his creating him and not loathing him. It would be truer to put the
point in another form; that there would be no objection if he loathed
and admired Attwater exactly as he loathed and admired Huish. In a sense
he obviously did admire Huish; as it was the very passion of his life to
admire courage. But he did not expect anybody to look up to Huish; and
there are moments when he seems to think it natural that people should
look up to Attwater. This secret idolatry of what a feminine sentiment
calls "strength," this was the only lesion in Stevenson's perfect
sanity, the only running sore in the normal health of his soul; and even
that had come from too violent an effort to be healthy. So he might,
poor fellow, have started a haemorrhage by moving too vigorously on his
pillow.

For I am not blaming him for having any such evil, in the sense of
having any excess of it. I blame him, being what he was, for having even
a touch of it. But I think it is unfortunately certain that he did have
a touch of it. There is something almost cruel in thus tracing the
innocent springs of cruelty. But, as has been said so often and so
foolishly and so truly, Robert Louis Stevenson was a child. It is the
moral of these chapters about his nation, his city and his home, that he
was also something more than a child. He was a lost child. There was
nothing to guide him in the mad movements and reactions of modernity;
neither his nation nor his religion nor his irreligion were equal to the
task. He had no chart for that gallant voyage; he was hardly to blame if
he thought he had to choose between the savage rock of the pride of
Scylla and the suicidal whirlpool of the despair of Charybdis. Only,
like Ulysses, for all his adventurousness, he was always trying to get
home. To vary the metaphor, his face was for ever turning like the
sunflower towards the sun, even if it were behind a cloud; and perhaps
after all there is nothing truer than the too familiar phrase from the
diary of the doctor or the nurse; that he was a sick child, who passed
his life in trying to get well.



CHAPTER VI # THE STYLE OF STEVENSON


Before writing this chapter I ought to explain that I am quite incapable
of writing it; at least as many serious literary authorities think it
ought to be written. I am one of those humble characters for whom the
main matter of style is concerned with making a statement; and
generally, in the case of Stevenson, with telling a story. Style takes
its own most living and therefore most fitting form from within; as the
narrative quickens and leaps, or the statement becomes warm or weighty,
by being either authoritative or argumentative. The sentence takes its
shape from motion; as it takes its motion from motive. And the motive
(for us outcasts) is what the man has to say. But there is a technical
treatment of style for which I have a profound respect, but it is a
respect for the unknown, not to say the unintelligible. I will not say
it is Greek to me, for I know the Greek alphabet and I do not know the
alphabet of these grammars of cadence and sequence; I can still even
read the Greek Testament, but the gospel of pure and abstract English
brings me no news. I salute it, from afar as I do musical harmony or the
higher mathematics; but I shall not introduce into this book a chapter
on any of these three topics. When I speak of the style of Stevenson I
mean the manner in which he could express himself in plain English, even
if it were in some ways peculiar English; and I have nothing but the
most elementary English with which to criticise it. I cannot use the
terms of any science of language, or even any science of literature.

Mr. Max Beerbohm, whose fine and classic criticism is full of those
shining depths that many mistake for shallowness, has remarked truly
enough on the rather wearisome repetitions in the newspapers, which did
great harm to the Stevensonian fame at the time of the Stevensonian
fashion. He noticed especially that a certain phrase used by Stevenson
about his early experiments in writing, that he has "played the sedulous
ape" to Hazlitt or to Lamb, must be permanently kept in type in the
journalistic offices, so frequently do the journalists quote it. There
are about a thousand things in Stevenson much more worth quoting, and
much more really enlightening about his education in letters. Every
young writer, however original, does begin by imitating other people,
consciously or unconsciously, and nearly every old writer would be quite
as willing to admit it. The real irony in the incident seems never to
have been noticed. The real reason why this confession of plagiarism,
out of a hundred such confessions, is always quoted, is because the
confession itself has the stamp not of plagiarism but of personal
originality. In the very act of claiming to have copied other styles,
Stevenson writes most unmistakably in his own style. I think I could
have guessed amid a hundred authors who had used the expression "played
the sedulous ape." I do not think that Hazlitt would have added that
word "sedulous." Some might say he was the better because the simpler
without it; some would say that the word is in the strict sense too
_recherché;_ some might say it can be recognised because it is strained
or affected. All that is matter for argument; but it is rather a joke
when so individual a trick is made a proof of being merely imitative.
Anyhow, that sort of trick, the rather curious combination of two such
words, is the thing I mean by the style of Stevenson.

In the case of Stevenson, criticism has always tended to be
hypercriticism. It is as if the critic were strung up to be as strict
with the artist as the artist was with himself. But they are not very
consistent or considerate in the matter. They blame him for being
fastidious; and so become more fastidious themselves. They condemn him
for wasting time in trying to find the right word; and then waste more
time in not very successful attempts to prove it is the wrong word. I
remember that Mr. George Moore (who at least led the attack when
Stevenson was alive and at the height of his popularity) professed in a
somewhat mysterious manner to have exposed or exploded the whole trick
of Stevenson, by dwelling at length on the word "interjected": in the
passage which describes a man stopping a clock with interjected finger.
There seemed to be some notion that because the word is unusual in that
use, it showed that there was nothing but artificial verbalism in the
whole tragedy of _Jekyll and Hyde_ or the fun of _The Wrong Box._ I
think it is time that this sort of fastidiousness about fastidiousness
should be corrected with a little common sense. The obvious question to
ask Mr. Moore, if he objects to the word "interjected," is, "What word
would you use?" He would immediately discover that any other word would
be much weaker and even much less exact. To say "interposed finger"
would suggest by its very sound a much clumsier and less precise action;
"interjected" suggests by its very sound a sort of jerk of neatness; a
mechanical neatness correcting mechanism. In other words, it suggests
what it was meant to suggest. Stevenson used the word because it was the
right word. Nobody else used it, because nobody else thought of it. And
that is the whole story of Stevensonian style.

Literature is but language; it is only a rare and amazing miracle by
which a man really says what he means. It is inevitable that most
conversation should be convention; as when we cover a myriad beautiful
contrasts or comedies of opposites by calling any number of different
people "nice." Some writers, including Stevenson, desired (in the old
and proper sense) to be more nice in their discrimination of niceness.
Now whether we like such fastidious felicities or no, whether we are
individually soothed or irritated by a style like that of Stevenson,
whether we have any personal or impersonal reason for impatience with
the style or the man, we ought really to have enough critical
impartiality and justice to see what is the literary test. The test is
whether the words are well or ill chosen, not for the purpose of fitting
our own taste in words, but for the purpose of satisfying everybody's
sense of the realities of things. Now it is nonsense for anybody who
pretends to like literature not to see the excellence of Stevenson's
expression in this way. He does pick the words that make the picture
that he particularly wants to make. They do fix a particular thing, and
not some general thing of the same sort; yet the thing is often one very
difficult to distinguish from other things of the same sort. That is the
craft of letters; and the craftsman made a vast multitude of such images
in all sorts of materials. In this matter we may say of Stevenson very
much what he said of Burns. He remarked that Burns surprised the polite
world, with its aesthetes and antiquarians, by never writing poems on
waterfalls, ruined castles or other recognised places of interest; the
very fact, of course, which showed Burns to be a poet and not a tourist.
It is always the prosaic person who demands poetic subjects. They are
the only subjects about which he can possibly be poetic. But Burns, as
Stevenson said, had a natural gift of lively and flexible comment that
could play as easily upon one thing as another; a kirk or a tavern or a
group going to market or a pair of dogs in the street. This gift must be
judged by its aptness, its vividness and its range; and anybody who
suggests that Stevenson's talent was only one piece of thin silver
polished perpetually in its napkin does not, in the most exact and
emphatic sense, know what he is talking about. Stevenson had exactly the
talent he attributes to Burns of touching nothing that he did not
animate. And so far from hiding one talent in one napkin, it would be
truer to say that he became ruler over ten cities; set in the ends of
the earth. Indeed the last phrase alone suggests an example or a text.

I will take the case of one of his books; I deliberately refrain from
taking one of his best books. I will take _The Wrecker,_ a book which
many would call a failure and which nobody would call a faultless
artistic success, least of all the artist. The picture breaks out of the
frame; indeed it is rather a panorama than a picture. The story sprawls
over three continents; and the climax has too much the air of being only
the last of a long string of disconnected passages. It has the look of a
scrap-book; indeed it is very exactly a sketch-book. It is merely the
sketch-book of Loudon Dodd, the wandering art student never allowed to
be fully an artist; just as his story is never allowed to be fully a
work of art. He sketches people with the pen as he does with the pencil,
in four or five incongruous societies, in the commercial school of
Muskegon or the art school of Paris, in the east wind of Edinburgh or
the black squall of the South Seas; just as he sketched the four
fugitive murderers gesticulating and lying in the Californian saloon.
The point is (on the strict principles of _l'art pour l'art,_ so dear to
Mr. Dodd) that he sketched devilish well. We can take the portraits of
twenty social types in turn, taken from six social worlds utterly shut
out from each other, and find in every case that the strokes are at once
few and final; that is, that the word is well chosen out of a hundred
words and that one word does the work of twenty. The story starts: "The
beginning of this yarn is my poor father's character"; and the character
is compact in one paragraph. When Jim Pinkerton first strides into the
story and is described as a young man "with cordial, agitated manners,"
we walk through the rest of the narrative with a living man; and listen
not merely to words, but to a voice. No other two adjectives could have
done the trick. When the shabby and shady lawyer, with his cockney
culture and underbred refinement, is first introduced as handling a big
piece of business beyond his _metier,_ he bears himself "with a sort of
shrinking assumption." The reader, especially if he is not a writer, may
imagine that such words matter little; but if he supposes that it might
just as well have been "flinching pride" or "quailing arrogance" he
knows nothing about writing and perhaps not much about reading. The
whole point is in that hitting of the right nail on the head; and rather
more so when the nail is such a very battered little tintack as Mr.
Henry D. Bellairs of San Francisco. When Loudon Dodd merely has to meet
a naval officer and record that he got next to nothing out of him, that
very negation has a touch of chilly life like a fish. "I judged he was
suffering torments of alarm lest I should prove an undesirable
acquaintance; diagnosed him for a shy, dull, vain, unamiable animal,
without adequate defence--a sort of dis-housed snail." The visit to an
English village, under the shadow of an English country house, is
equally aptly appreciated; from the green framework of the little town,
"a domino of tiled houses and walled gardens," to the reminiscences of
the ex-butler about the exiled younger son; "near four generations of
Carthews were touched upon without eliciting one point of interest; and
we had killed Mr. Henry in the hunting field with a vast elaboration of
painful circumstance and buried him in the midst of a whole sorrowing
county, before I could so much as manage to bring upon the stage my
intimate friend, Mr. Norris. . . . He was the only person of the whole
featureless series who seemed to have accomplished anything worth
mentioning; and his achievements, poor dog, seemed to have been confined
to going to the devil and leaving some regrets. . . . He had no pride
about him, I was told; he would sit down with any man; and it was
somewhat woundingly implied that I was indebted to this peculiarity for
my own acquaintance with the hero." But I must not be led away by the
large temptation of quoting examples of the cool and collected and
sustained irony, with which Loudon Dodd tells his whole story. I am only
giving random examples of his rapid sketches of very different sorts of
societies and personalities; and the point is that he can describe them
rapidly and yet describe them rightly. In other words the author does
possess a quite exceptional power of putting what he really means into
the words that really convey it. And to show that this was a matter of
genius in the man, and not (as some of his critics would imply) a matter
of laborious technical treatment applied to two or three prize
specimens, I have taken all these examples from one of the less known
works, one of the least admired and perhaps of the least admirable.
Whole tracts of it run almost as casually as his private correspondence;
and his private correspondence is full of the same lively and animated
neatness. In this one neglected volume of _The Wrecker_ there are
thousands of such things; and everything to show that he could have
written twenty more volumes, equally full of these felicities. A man who
does this is not only an artist doing what most men cannot do, but he is
certainly doing what most novelists do not do. Even very good novelists
have not this particular knack of putting a whole human figure together
with a few unforgettable words. By the end of a novel by Mr. Arnold
Bennett or Mr. E. F. Benson I have the sense that Lord Raingo or Lord
Chesham is a real man, very rightly understood; but I never have at the
beginning that feeling of magic; that a man has been brought to life by
three words of an incantation.

This was the genius of Stevenson; and it is simply silly to complain of
it because it was Stevensonian. I do not blame either of the other two
novelists for not being somebody else. But I do venture to blame them a
little for grumbling because Stevenson was himself. I do not quite see
why he should be covered with cold depreciation merely because he could
put into a line what other men put into a page; why he should be
regarded as superficial because he saw more in a man's walk or profile
than the moderns can dig out of his complexes and his subconsciousness;
why he should be called artificial because he sought (and found) the
right word for a real object; why he should be thought shallow because
he went straight for what was significant, without wading towards it
through wordy seas of insignificance; or why he should be treated as a
liar because he was not ashamed to be a story-teller.

Of course there are many other vivid marks of Stevenson's style, besides
this particular element of picked and pointed phrase, or rather
especially the combination of picked and pointed phrases. I might make
much more than I have made out of something in his rapidly stepping
sentences, especially in narrative, which corresponds to his philosophy
of the militant attitude and the active virtues. That word angular,
which I have been driven to use too often, belongs to the sharpness of
his verbal gestures as much as to the cutlasses and choppers of his
paste-board pirates. Those early theatrical figures, from the
sketch-book of Skelt, were all of them in their nature like snapshots of
people in swift action. Three-Fingered Jack could not have remained
permanently with the cudgel or the sabre swung about his head nor Robin
Hood with the arrow drawn to his ear; and the descriptions of
Stevenson's characters are seldom static but rather dynamic
descriptions; and deal rather with how a man did or said something than
with what he was like. The sharp and shrewd Scottish style of Ephraim
Mackellar or David Balfour seems by its very sound exactly fitted to
describe a man snapping his fingers or rapping with his stick. Doubtless
so careful an artist as Stevenson varied his style to suit the subject
and the speaker; we should not look for these dry or abrupt brevities in
the dilettante deliberations of Loudon Dodd; but I know very few of the
writer's works in which there are not, at the crisis, phrases as short
and sharp as the knife that Captain Wicks rammed through his own hand.
Something should also have been said, of course, of the passages in
which Stevenson deliberately plays on a somewhat different musical
instrument; as when he exercised upon Pan's Pipes in respectful
imitation of Meredith upon a penny whistle. Something should have been
said of the style of his poems; which are perhaps more successful in
their phraseology than their poetry. But these again teem with these
taut and trenchant separate phrases; the description of the interlacing
branches like crossed swords in battle; the men upholding the falling
skies like unfrowning caryatids; the loud stairs of honour and the
bright eyes of danger. But I have already explained that I profess no
scientific thoroughness about these problems of execution; and can only
speak of the style of Stevenson as it specially affects my own taste and
fancy. And the thing that strikes me most is still this sense of
somebody being pinked with a rapier in a particular button; of a sort of
fastidiousness that has still something of the fighting spirit, that
aims at a mark and makes a point, and is certainly not merely an idle
trifling with words for the sake of their external elegance or intrinsic
melody. As a part of the present criticism, such a statement is only
another way of saying, in the old phrase, that the style is the man; and
that the man was certainly a man and not only a man of letters. I find
everywhere, even in his mere diction and syntax, that theme that is the
whole philosophy of fairy-tales, of the old romances and even of the
absurd libretto of the little theatre--the conception that man is born
with hope and courage indeed, but born outside that which he was meant
to attain; that there is a quest, a test, a trial by combat or
pilgrimage of discovery; or, in other words, that whatever else man is
he is not sufficient to himself, either through peace or through
despair. The very movement of the sentence is the movement of a man
going somewhere and generally fighting something; and that is where
optimism and pessimism are alike opposed to that ultimate or potential
peace, which the violent take by storm.



CHAPTER VII # EXPERIMENT AND RANGE


In any generalisation about Stevenson, it is of course easy to forget
that his work was very varied, in the sense of being very versatile. In
one sense, he tried very different styles; and was always very careful
only to try one style at a time. The unity of each accentuates the
diversity of all. The very fact that he was careful to keep each several
study in its own tone or tint, makes the range of his work look more
like a patchwork than it really is. It is always a sharp contrast
between complete and homogeneous things; when these things are broken up
into subdivisions, the whole falls back into a more mixed but a more
general pattern. In one sense this is merely a platitude. It would
hardly be difficult to point out that the style of _Prince Otto_ is very
different from the style of _The Wrong Box._ It is different with the
whole difference between a man working in wax or cardboard or ivory or
ebony. _Prince Otto_ is a sort of china shepherdess group, practising
arcadian courtliness in an eighteenth-century park; the other is a sort
of Aunt Sally pelted with comic misfortunes as if with cocoanuts. Nobody
is likely to confuse these forms of art; nobody sets up a china
shepherdess to be pelted with cocoanuts; few are so chivalrous as to
approach their Aunt Sally with the deferential bows of a courtier. But
when we get past this obvious contrast, which nobody could possibly
miss, we find that (in a queer manner) there is versatility without
variety. What makes those two stories stand out in our memory is a
certain spirit with which they are told; yes, and even a certain style
as well as spirit. It is not exactly the stories themselves; still less
is it any real immersion of the author in the subjects of the stories
themselves. We feel, even as we read, that Stevenson would be the last
man really to wish to be imprisoned for life in a petty German court or
poised for ever amid such very fragile china. We know it, just as we
know that Stevenson does not really intend to turn his attention to the
leather-business, or even (though here we may fancy the temptation
stronger) to become a rowdy solicitor with shady clients, in the manner
of the priceless Mr. Michael Finsbury. We remember the treatment more
than the subject; because the treatment is really much more alive than
the subject. Long after the ghosts in that ornamental garden have faded,
and we have completely forgotten Who was Who at the court of Prince
Otto, we hear and remember in the depths of that valley, "the solid
plunge of the cataract." And long after the details of the Tontine
System have become blurred and all the far less interesting details of
our own daily life along with them, when all lesser things have
diminished and life itself is fading from my eyes--I shall still see
before me the Form called up by that inspired paragraph: "His costume
was of a mercantile brilliancy best described as stylish; nor could
anything be said against him, except that he was a little too like a
wedding guest to be quite a gentleman."

Even through these wide divergences of subject, therefore, there runs
something which is not only the genius but decidedly the method of
Stevenson. In one sense he is careful to vary the style; in another
sense the style is never varied. We might say, so to speak, that it is
the style within the style that is never varied. But subject to this
general understanding, it is only just to him to insist on the wide
range that he managed to cover in his short and very much hampered
literary life. He once reproached himself with not having enlarged his
life by building lighthouses as well as writing books. But the firm of
Stevenson and Son might have been mildly convulsed if there had risen on
every side lighthouses in seven styles of architecture; a Gothic
lighthouse, an ancient Egyptian lighthouse, and a lighthouse like a
Chinese pagoda. And that is what he did with the towers of imagination
and the light of reason.

There are indeed, as I have hinted, one or two places where it may be
maintained that Stevenson let his style stray; and wandered into other
tracks, sometimes older tracks, away from the immediate track of travel.
Personally, I have this feeling about the wanderings of the Master of
Ballantrae and the Chevalier Burke. They are a sort of adventure story
in the wrong place; and though Mr. James Durie was certainly an
adventurer in the bad sense, it is impossible to make him one in the
good. It is impossible to turn a villain into a hero for the purposes of
pure romance; Jim Hawkins could not have gone on his adventures
permanently arm-in-arm with Long John Silver. The episode of Blackbeard
is a sort of fizzling anticlimax, spluttering like the blue matches in
that fool's hat. Such a shoddy person had no claim to be so much as
mentioned in that spiritual tragedy of the terrible twin spirits; the
brothers of Durrisdeer. It is almost as if pirates were really a private
mania with the author; and he could not keep them out of the tale if he
tried; though pirates have really no more business in this tale than
pirates in _The Wrong Box._ But it is curious to note how completely
they are discoloured by the white death-ray that shines on that winter's
tale. Their blood and gold were not really red; their seas were not even
really blue. This was no occasion for Two-pence Coloured. The very style
of Mackeller's narrative might be shrewdly summed up indeed under the
title of A Penny Plain. But this is not only because that worthy steward
was addicted to plainness and not averse to pennies. It is also because
he is addicted to home and habit and averse to adventure; and the notion
of the Master dragging him across half the world has something about it
ungainly and grotesque and unworthy of the intensity of their
intellectual and spiritual relations. The truth is that the Master of
Ballantrae is not only a family demon but also a family ghost; and ought
not to haunt any house except his own. Ghosts do not travel like
tourists; even for the pleasure of visiting their relatives in the
colonies. The story of the Duries is emphatically domestic; like those
very domestic stories of home life in which Oedipus butchered his father
or Orestes trampled on the body of his mother. These incidents were
regrettable, and even painful; but they were all kept in the family.
Something tells us that most of them happened behind high barred doors
or in terrible unrecorded interviews. They did not wash their bloody
linen in public; least of all did they wash it in all the seven seas of
the British Empire. But the appearance of the Master first in India and
then in America has almost the suggestion of the Prince of Wales on an
imperial tour. Now those scenes in _The Master of Ballantrae_ which do
take place in the dark house of his fathers, or in the dim and wintry
plantations without, do have an indefinable grandeur and even hugeness
of outline that recalls Greek tragedies. Nay, they have even that hint
of long wanderings and remote places, which is lost when the wanderings
and the places are too elaborately followed out. At that unforgotten
moment when the stranger first stands up, long and black and slender on
the point of rock, and makes a motion with his cane that is like a
spoken word of mockery, we do feel that he might have come from the ends
of the earth, that he might have strolled from the empire of the Mogul
or fallen from the moon. But the irony of the story is in that hateful
love, or that pure love of hatred, that is the link between him and his;
and makes him as domestic as the roof-tree even when he is as
destructive as the battering-ram. It is curious, and perhaps
over-curious, to find this rare fault in the work which is in its
principal parts so faultless. It may seem still more pedantic to pick
another very small hole in it; but it seems to me that Stevenson missed
one great chance, in a way he rarely did, when he made even Mackellar
such a prig as to write for the last line of the epitaph a phrase like,
"With his fraternal enemy." Surely the words would have stood out with a
much more sinister and significant finality, if he had merely written,
"And sleeps in the same grave with his brother."

But this mixture of two types of tale in one is the very reverse of
characteristic. I know not where else in his works it can be found;
unless perhaps we might take exception to the slight element of
political irritation that makes itself felt, of all places in the world,
in the amiable nightmare of _The Dynamiter._ It is really impossible to
use a story in which everything is ridiculous to prove that certain
particular Fenians or anarchist agitators are ridiculous. Nor indeed is
it tenable that men who risk their lives to commit such crimes are quite
so ridiculous as that. But broadly speaking, the characteristic of this
writer's conscientious artistry is that he is very careful to keep the
different forms of art in water-tight compartments. It was, of course, a
sentiment about technique and material which was very fashionable in the
age of Whistler and the world where Stevenson had studied art. And the
artist would as soon have stuck a lump of marble into the middle of a
bas-relief in terracotta, or applied a coat of paint to a tracery he was
making out of ivory, as put a piece of tragedy into the middle of a
tea-table comedy or a burst of righteous indignation into a farce. In
all this part of Stevenson's mind, especially as revealed in his
letters, most of the critics have missed the very lasting effect of the
chatter of craftsmanship, and all the jargon of tricks of the trade,
which he heard among the French art students. He had reversed almost the
whole philosophy of everything that they wanted to do; but he still
retained the dialect in which they talked about how it was done. But he
talked it much better than they did; and he had his own knack of using
the right word even for the search for the right word. It is typical
that he said that a story must have one general tendency; and that in
the whole book there must not be a single word "that looks the other
way." There is not a single word that looks the other way in the whole
of _Prince Otto_ or in the whole of _The Wrong Box._

But now and then he did something more than this. He created a form of
art. He invented a _genre_ which does not really exist outside his work.
It may seem a paradox to say that his most original work was a parody.
But certainly the notion of _The New Arabian Nights_ is quite as unique
in the world as the old _Arabian Nights;_ and it does not owe its real
ingenuity to the model which it mocks. Stevenson here wove a singular
sort of texture, or mixed a singular sort of atmosphere, which is not
like anything else; a medium in which many incongruous things may find a
comic congruity. It is partly like the atmosphere of a dream; in which
so many incongruous things cause no surprise. It is partly the real
atmosphere of London at night; it is partly the unreal atmosphere of
Baghdad. The broad and placid presence of Prince Florizel of Bohemia,
that mysterious semi-reigning sovereign, is treated with a sort of vast
and vague diplomatic reserve; which is like the confused nightmare of an
old cosmopolitan courtier. The Prince himself seems to have palaces in
every country; and yet the humorous reader suspects, with half his mind,
that the man is really only a pompous tobacconist, whom Stevenson
happened to find in Rupert Street and chose to make the hero of a
standing joke. This double mentality, like that of the true dreamer, is
suggested with extraordinary skill without loading with a single
question the inimitable lightness of the narrative. The humour of
Florizel's colossal condescension constitutes not only a new character,
but a new sort of character. He stands in a new relation to reality and
unreality; he is a sort of solid impossibility. Since that time many
writers have written such fanciful extravagances about the lights of
London; for Stevenson suffered much more than Tennyson from that of
which the latter complained when "all had got the seed." But few of them
have really struck those ironical semitones or made the same thing so
completely a cockney conspiracy and an Arabian fairy-tale. We have heard
much of making the life of the modern town romantic; and many of the
attempts in modern poetry seem only to make it more ugly than it really
is. We have at the present moment a considerable cult of the fantastic;
with the result that the fantastic has become rather a fixed type. It is
picked out in crying colours of chrome yellow or magenta; with the
result that it is perhaps too obviously a puppet. But Prince Florizel of
Bohemia is not a puppet. He is a presence; a person who seems to fill
the room and yet to be such stuff as dreams are made of; not simply a
thing made of stuffing. The rigid and unreal dolls may fall into dust
when the mood changes; but we do not easily imagine anybody kicking the
stuffing out of Florizel. I will not say that the _New Arabian Nights_
is the greatest of Stevenson's works; though a considerable case might
be made for the challenge. But I will say that it is probably the most
unique; there was nothing like it before, and, I think, nothing equal to
it since.

But it is worth while to remark that even here, where the atmosphere
might be expected to be more hazy, the generalisation stands about edges
and the exact extravagance of Skelt. However delicate is the air of
mockery or mystery, there is very little change in the staccato style.
The quarrel with the Suicide Club is "put to the touch of swords" and
the phrase tingles like the twin blades of Durrisdeer. Nothing could be
more angular than Mr. Malthus, the horrible paralysed man who plays on
the brink of the precipice of suicide; he is as hard as a huge beetle.
There is all the jerk of the old energetic puppets when he jumps from
his seat, losing his disease for an instant at the sight of death. There
is more movement in that one paralytic than in crowds of softly moving
society figures, in milder or more meditative fiction. The very clatter
of his broken bones down the stone steps of Trafalgar Square, of which
we hear but an echo, has that almost metallic quality. Jack Vandeleur's
"brutalities of gesture," his pantomime of opening and shutting the
hand, are surely somewhat piratical; he had been Dictator of Paraguay;
but I think he had sailed there on the _Hispaniola._ In short we have
here once more the continuity of a style within a style. And the inner
thread within the silk is as thin and hard as wire.

Again, it illustrates this variety of experiment that Stevenson also
wrote a detective story; or as he characteristically called it (in a
sort of pedantic plain English) a police novel. He wrote it in
collaboration with Mr. Lloyd Osbourne; and I have considered another
aspect of it already, in the local colour of _The Wrecker._ But _The
Wrecker_ is ultimately a police novel; and the best sort of police
novel, in which the police are never called in. Stevenson explained his
reasons for leading up to the problem with studies of social life; and
certainly it says much for the liveliness of that life that we do not
grow so impatient as to offer the obvious comment. Otherwise we should
certainly make one reasonable criticism. The writer may be pardoned if
he is a long time getting to the solution, but not when he is such a
long time getting to the mystery. It must be confessed that we have to
wait for the question to be asked, as well as for it to be answered.
Personally I am very glad to wait in the waiting-room of Pinkerton and
Dodd. But anyhow when the question is asked, it is with great animation;
and the excitement of beginning to piece together a puzzle, which is the
essence of a detective story, has seldom been more lively and lifelike
than in the cross questions and crooked answers of Captain Nares and his
super-cargo. Here, however, the detective story merely illustrates the
fact of his having almost as many irons in the fire as Jim Pinkerton. It
illustrates the general fact that he tried a great many different
styles; and yet his style was not different.

If there were experiments in which his touch was less happy they were,
strangely enough perhaps, those connected with the simple or semi-savage
world in which he found so much happiness. _The Island Nights'
Entertainments_ are not quite so entertaining as the Arabian Nights'
Entertainments, whether New or Old. The explanation may be found,
perhaps, in that casual phrase with which he swept the South Seas and
swept away a good many imperial or international illusions, probably
without knowing it; when he said of all those regions, "It is a large
ocean but a narrow world." He did not really find new types, at least
among the white men; he rather found new countries full of old and
battered types, white men who no longer looked very conspicuously white.
One exception must be allowed; the story of _The Ebb-Tide_ has a very
great deal of kick in it; even though we hardly have the full
satisfaction of seeing all the characters kicked. Anyhow, it is quite
certain that whatever was the cause of the relative ineffectiveness of
some of the work done at Vailima, it was not due to his having written
himself out or experienced any weakening of power. For the very last
days of all were spent in producing what was, or would have been, his
most powerful piece of work. I have said something elsewhere, in
connection with the Scottish romances, of his last great story, which is
unfortunately a great fragment. Actually (I am tempted to say
fortunately) that story named after Weir of Hermiston is not mainly
about Weir of Hermiston. At least it is not about the first and most
famous person of that name; and the best chapters of the book now in
existence are concerned with the most sensitive and passionate shades of
the Scottish temperament; richer shades of passion than he had ever yet
attempted to touch. If ever the grey moor turned purple, it did at the
moment when the girl lifted her voice to sing the song of the Elliots.
He never forgets his abrupt gesture; and it was never so arresting as
when her psalm-book page was rent across.

When Stevenson drew the long bow for the last time, like Robin Hood, he
had two strings to his bow; and they both broke; but one was much
stronger than the other. In other words he had two stories in his head,
both of which broke off short; and perhaps it is not surprising that the
weaker was rather neglected in favour of the stronger. The story of _St.
Ives_ contains excellent things, as does everything that he ever wrote,
down to the most casual private letter. But it may be called
disappointing, with rather more exactitude than is usual in the use of
that word. _St. Ives_ can hardly avoid being a sort of historical novel;
and yet it is a rather unhistorical novel. By which I do not mean that
there may be mistakes about dates or details; which matter nothing in
fiction and are made too much fuss of even in history. I mean it is
unhistorical in showing a strange lack of historical imagination and the
sense of historical opportunity. It is the story of a soldier of
Napoleon imprisoned on Edinburgh Rock and escaping from it. But indeed
we might fancy it was Stevenson and not St. Ives who was imprisoned on
Edinburgh Rock. And Stevenson does not escape from it. Such a subject
demanded a sort of international interpreter; but it is in truth the
most strangely insular of all his books. St. Ives is not a Frenchman; he
is the less and not the more French because he is given all the foppery
and swagger which spinsters in Edinburgh in 1813 doubtless did associate
with a Frenchman. He is no more a French soldier than Bonaparte was
Boney. He has neither the French realism nor the French idealism. He
does not look at England as a Frenchman of the revolutionary wars would
have looked at it. This story is simply France seen from Britain; it is
not, as it should be, Britain seen from France. Unless St. Ives were a
very bitter Royalist (which he evidently was not, but a moderate
Bonapartist) he would quite certainly have conceived himself as carrying
not mere military glory but the light of reason and philosophy and
social justice to the aristocratic and autocratic states. He would have
been impatient with the illogical resistance to rational things; not
merely annoyed at not being shaved or provided with a looking-glass. But
St. Ives is not a French soldier. He is a man in a French uniform; but
so was Alan Breck Stewart. And that blessed and beloved name may perhaps
recall to us that vanity and a love of fine coats can occasionally be
found, even in the British Isles.

But perhaps in this very insularity there is something like a return to
earlier things, and a rounding off of his life. In that sense the story
of Stevenson, like the story of St. Ives, began on the crag and castle
of Edinburgh; and it may be right that it should in a fashion end there,
and not really get any further. The most really Stevensonian scenes, in
their spirit and spitfire animation, are those which occur first in the
prison. It seems almost as if St. Ives was more free before he escaped.
The business of the duel with sticks turned into spears, by the addition
of scissor-blades, has all the hilarity of his old dance of death. That
alone serves as an excellent symbol of that magnifying of the sharp and
the metallic; and the way in which steel was always a sort of magnet to
his mind. Perhaps he was the first quiet householder to whom it ever
occurred to see even scissors as swords.

But the book offers a yet better example of this return to an almost
narrowly national romance, like the flight of a homing bird. It occurs
almost in the first few lines of the book; yet it might stand in a
fashion for a title to all his books. It occurs in connection with the
highly characteristic passage, typical of his love of gay pictorial
colouring, in which he instantly lights up the prison hill with flames;
saying that the yellow convict coats and the red uniforms made up
together "a lively picture of hell." And with reference to this he
remarks, as if in passing, that the ancient Pictish or Celtic name of
that castle of Edinburgh was "The painted hill," or, as I have seen it
somewhere in another version, "The painted rock." That might stand as a
symbol of many things here less sufficiently suggested; of a Scotsman
dressed, or almost disguised, as an artist; of a style that could be at
once abrupt and austere, and yet was always vivid with colour; but above
all of that combination of colour with a solemn and childish caricature
which we have seen in the background of his boyhood; for the landscape
of Skelt consisted entirely of painted rocks. Stevenson had a passion of
compression. With all his output, he had a strange ambition to be a man
of few words. It seems to me that he was always seeking in words for a
combination that should be also a compression; for two words that should
instantly give birth to the third thing that he really wanted to say. It
may be questioned, of him as of any other artist, whether he ever really
succeeded in saying it. But we might amuse ourselves with the fancy that
such a system of brilliant abbreviations might be more and more rapidly,
like signals, uttered and understood; that some day a symbol of two
words might stand for a thesis as a cryptic Chinese character stands for
a word; and that all men could easily write and read such compact
hieroglyphics. If that were so, it were hardly an exaggeration to say
that the great mission given by God to Robert Louis Stevenson was to say
the words "painted rock" and perish.

Anyhow, it was in the midst of these new experiments that he did perish;
fulfilling the very terms of his challenge in _Aes Triplex;_ of the
happy man whom death finds flushed with hope and planning vast
foundations. And indeed his death may well come also at the end of this
chapter of experiment, as the last of his experiments. I was a lad when
the news came to England; and I remember that some of his friends
doubted at first, because the telegram said that he died making a salad;
and they "had never heard of his doing such a thing." And I remember
fancying, with a secret arrogance, that I knew one thing about him
better than they did, though I never saw him with these mortal eyes; for
it seemed to me that if there were something that Stevenson had never
been known to do before, it would be the very thing that he would do. So
indeed he died mixing new salads of many sorts; and the image is not
inappropriate or irreverent; but only touched with a certain lightness
and resilience as of a coiled spring that belonged to him from first to
last; and is that quality which Dr. Sarolea has truly called the French
spirit of Stevenson. He died swiftly as if struck with an arrow and even
over his grave something of a higher frivolity hovers upon wings like a
bird; "Glad did I live and gladly die," has a lilt that no repetition
can make quite unreal, light as the lifted spires of Spyglass Hill and
translucent as the dancing waves; types of a tenuous but tenacious
levity and the legend that has made his graveyard a mountain-peak and
his epitaph a song.



CHAPTER VIII # THE LIMITS OF A CRAFT


The truest adverse criticism of Stevenson was written by Stevenson. It
was also very Stevensonian; for it took the form of saying, about his
own fictitious characters, that his temptation was always "to cut the
flesh off the bones." Even here we may note his peculiar cutting or
hacking accent; it sounds like some horrid crime of Barbecue or Billy
Bones. Indeed that word is sufficiently symbolic of Stevenson. His name
might have been Bones, like the seafaring man at the "Admiral Benbow";
nor was this only because his eternal boyhood was as full of skeletons
as the school life of Traddles. It was also because of a certain bony
structure in his whole taste and turn of mind; something that was
angular though slender like his own slim and brittle frame and long
Quixotic face. Nevertheless the words were uttered as a condemnation;
and they were a just condemnation.

The real defect of Stevenson as a writer, so far from being a sort of
silken trifling and superficial or superfluous embroidery, was that he
simplified so much that he lost some of the comfortable complexity of
real life. He treated everything with an economy of detail and a
suppression of irrelevance which had at last something about it stark
and unnatural. He is to be commended among authors for sticking to the
point; but real people do not stick quite so stubbornly to the point as
that. We can here best realise his real error, as well as his real
originality, by comparing him with the great Victorian novelists in
whose vast shadow he grew up. I shall have occasion to note afterwards
that his collision was not with these in the matter of morals or
philosophy; for on that side he was looking forward and not back. But
there is a strong contrast, and a striking new departure, in the passage
from the very best of Thackeray or Trollope to the first sketches, I had
almost said scratches, of Stevenson. Those sketches were in a few lines,
and only of the necessary lines; it was the whole point that one
necessary line was a loss and not a gain. Compared with this, the very
best of the old Victorian novels were full of padding. But there was
something to be said for the Victorian padding; as there was for the
Victorian upholstery. Comfort is not always a contemptible thing, when
its other name is hospitality; and Dickens and Thackeray and Trollope
had a huge hospitality for their own characters. They were heartily and
unaffectedly glad to see them; and especially glad to see them again.
Hence their taste for sequels and continuous family histories; and all
the positively last appearances of Mr. Pendennis or Mrs. Proudie. And
this repetition, this rambling, even this padding, did in a curious
confused fashion confirm the reality of the characters. As the padded
Victorian furniture did really make people feel at home, so the padded
Victorian novels made the reader feel at home with the characters. Now
the reader never does feel quite at home with Stevenson's characters. He
cannot get rid of an impression that he knows too little about them;
though he knows that he knows all that is important about them. His
tragedy is that he knows only what is important. Alan Breck Stewart is
not only a very lively but a very loveable character. And yet there is
too little of him to love; though he might well draw his claymore upon
us, if we made so dangerous an allusion. We are not quite at ease with
him, as we are at ease with Pickwick or Pendennis. We know the vital
things about him; and they are very vital. But we do not know
_thousands_ of things about him; as we do about a man with whom we have
lived through a long Early Victorian novel. Stevenson has in fact done
exactly what he accused himself of doing; it is he who wields the
claymore and he has cut the flesh off the bones.

An illustration of the difference, of course, could be found in the
presentation of the externals of a character. The dark vivacity of the
face of Alan Breck, the eyes with their "dancing madness, at once
engaging and alarming," springs up before us as clearly as a coloured
photograph in the first few words of description; and the same few words
have already set strutting the whole brisk little figure in the blue
coat and silver buttons and the swagger of the big sword. But the whole
operation is so rapid and complete as to have something about it almost
unconvincing, like a conjuring trick. It is like seeing something by a
single flash of lightning; there is in that illumination a sort of
illusion. For in the heart of anything that partakes of magic there is
also something of mockery. It is not so that we "get to know" the
personal appearance of somebody in Thackeray or Trollope. It is by a
multitude of apparently accidental or even unnecessary allusions that we
gradually gain the impression that Warrington was dark and moody with a
blue shaven chin. The appearance of Lord Steyne is scattered all over
_Vanity Fair_ in scraps; his red whiskers in one chapter, his bandy legs
in another, his bald head in a third. But this is so like the way in
which we really do talk about real people, that in comparison there is
something almost unreal about Stevenson's rapid realism. Perhaps the
story-teller ought to remember more often that he is a man telling a
story. Perhaps he even forgets that it is supposed to sound like a true
story. And after all a man does not say to his wife at dinner, in real
life, "A stranger came to my office this morning; he was of an elegant,
strenuous figure, with a fine falcon profile, the eyebrows and the
corners of the mouth touched with temper; and a general appearance
which, though not without distinction, was thrown up in a somewhat
theatrical fashion by his dashing cutaway coat and white spats and the
magenta coloured orchid in his buttonhole." Such a soliloquy seldom
resounds in the suburban home; and if the stranger's appearance comes to
count for anything, it comes out bit by bit; as in saying, "I wasn't
altogether surprised when he threw the inkstand; for I saw by his
eyebrows he had a beast of a temper," or, "The office-boy was taken out
incapacitated with laughter at the first sight of the spats." In the
same way, nobody does actually say, as Mackellar does in the
Stevensonian romance, "I was now near enough to see him, a very handsome
figure and countenance, swarthy, lean, long, with a quick, alert, black
look, as of one who was a fighter and accustomed to command; upon one
cheek he had a mole, not unbecoming; a large diamond sparkled on his
hand; his clothes, although of the one hue, were of a French and foppish
design; his ruffles, which he wore longer than common, of exquisite
lace." Men do not really describe things like that; would that they
described anything so well! These facts about the Master of Ballantrae
would have come out in a more fragmentary fashion in the real record of
a real Mackellar. The diamond would have been mentioned in connection
with a rumour of thieves; the lace in connection with the laundry. And
that is more or less how the older Victorian novelists did often
describe or mention these things; and I think it really does give an
impression of reality. Compared with it, the very completeness of
Stevenson seems incomplete. But it is also true that the older
Victorians could not have achieved this familiar realism except by being
a little more formless than Stevenson and lacking his beautiful and
piercing sense of the clarity of form. Though he may seem to describe
his subject in detail, he describes it to be done with it; and he does
not return to the subject. He never says anything needlessly; above all
he never says anything twice. Few will venture to say that Thackeray
never says anything twice; or that he was incapable in some cases of
saying twenty times. Yet in some ways this repetition, though sometimes
boring, is somehow convincing; I might almost say comforting. It comes
from that comfortable sense of social ease, which was a mark of the
England of that brief period of mercantile success; or at least of that
part of England which consisted of the merchants who had succeeded. And
it exhibited, along with its other virtues and vices, that rather coarse
benevolence that was at once a virtue and a vice. "The British
merchant's son shan't want, sir," said old Mr. Osborne; and neither
should the spiritual child of Mr. William Makepeace Thackeray. Words
shall be poured out on him like wine; pages shall be open for him like
parks, in which he may wander. He shall be allowed to hang about as long
as he likes and the poorest relations of the story shall be asked again
and again to dinner. In short, the reader shall "get to know him" and
discuss all sorts of little details about him at leisure; they shall not
all be disposed of once and for all in one closely packed paragraph. We
return to the word hospitality; and the chatter of a hundred friends and
relations at an English Christmas party. In comparison the verbal
economy of the Scottish romancer suggests something of the old joke
against the Scot. He is so very thrifty that his characters are almost
thin.

The loftiest things of this world have their weakness or defect; and
with that word "thin" we come to the limit of the glory of Skelt and
discover that even the maker of toy theatres is human. Just as Stevenson
gained in that school of boyish bravado his admirable sense of symbolic
attitude and action, his deep joy in gay colour and gallant carriage,
his fine feeling for life as a story and honour as a fight; his response
to the challenge of the open door or the drag of the road over the
hill--as he gained all these great virtues and values under the symbol
of A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured, so he betrayed also even in his
best work something of the technical limitation of such an instrument.
And it cannot be more clearly stated than by saying that these flat
figures could only be seen from one side. They are aspects or attitudes
of men rather than men; though the aspects and attitudes are of great
importance considered as symbols, like the flat haloes of saints or the
flat blazonry of shields. In that sense only they are not deep enough;
and lack another measurement. They are deep enough in the sense in which
any beautiful picture is deep; in the sense that anything beautiful
always means more than it says; possibly means more than it means to
mean. In that sense there can be depth enough even in the shallow
scenery of Skelt, when the child's eye plunges into it. But there is not
depth in the sense of a great familiarity with the other side of the
scenery or the implied life behind the scenes. When all is said and
done, the splendid and inspiring figure of Three-Fingered Jack is a
figure and not a statue. You cannot walk round him; and if he has no
more than three fingers, he has much less than three dimensions. But the
important paradox is that in this the imperfection of the work is
actually due to the perfection of the art. It is exactly because Balfour
or Ballantrae only do what they are meant to do, and do it so swiftly
and well, that we have a vague feeling that we do not know them as we
know more loitering, more rambling or more sprawling characters. This
is, if you will, a weakness in the author's work; but it is even more
emphatically a weakness in the critics who call him weak. For they
accuse him of the very opposite of his real fault; of a sort of
self-indulgent delicacy or a luxury of mere words. The evil arises from
his very passion of economy and severity; from the fact that he pruned
too much, so as almost to kill the plant; from the fact that he went too
straight to the point, so that the movement was too quick to be clear,
let alone familiar; above all, from the fact that such hardness of
technique had about it something almost inhuman. He does sometimes
simplify the puppet so much as to show the wire. But even in that
relation between wire and wood there is a queer sort of realism.

Stevenson was a man who believed in craftsmanship; that is, in creation.
He had not the smallest natural sympathy with all those hazy pagan and
pantheistic notions often covered by the name of inspiration. He might
not have expressed it in the phrase that man is an image of the Creator;
but he did very definitely regard man as a maker of images. There is,
and has long been, pouring upon the world, mostly in an immediate sense
from the Germans and the Slavs, probably in an ultimate sense from the
dark philosophies of Asia, a sort of doctrine of mystical helplessness
that takes a hundred forms; and that recognises everything in the world
except will. It denies the will of God and it does not believe even in
the will of man. It does not believe in one of the most glorious
manifestations of the will of man, which is the act of creative choice
essential to art. The tendency has been admirably treated in the work of
M. Henri Massis in his book on the Defence of the West; and another
French writer of the same school, M. Maritain, has remarked on the
important part which the word _artifex,_ as the title of an artist,
played in mediaeval philosophy as well as mediaeval craftsmanship. As we
shall see later, it is the paradox of Stevenson that he would have cared
nothing for such mediaeval metaphysics; and yet he carried out in
practice precisely what these writers are now maintaining in principle.
He was, if ever there was one, an _artifex;_ not a mere mouthpiece of
elemental powers or destinies, but a man making something by the force
of will and in the light of reason. It was a sort of craftsmanship
characteristic of mediaeval work in literature as well as sculpture. It
was strikingly present in those mediaeval poets whom Stevenson himself
admired; and perhaps admired more than he understood. It is supremely
typical of the close and finely carved ballades of Villon. Indeed the
name of Stevenson will always, I suppose, be picturesquely associated
with the name of Villon; if only because of the fine macabre nocturne of
_A Lodging for the Night._ And yet if there was one thing in the world
about which Stevenson was entirely wrong, it was about François Villon.
He was even, on that subject, guilty of a very unusual lapse of logic
and error of fact. In his essay on Villon, while showing all the
enthusiasm of a fine critic for a fine poet, he insists with almost
rabid emphasis that the mind of the man was rotten with mere bestial
cynicism and base materialism. "His eyes were sealed with their own
filth"; and he could see nothing noble or beautiful in heaven or earth.
And to this he adds the rather curious remark that even in that France
of the fifteenth century Villon might have learnt something better;
since a few years before Joan of Arc had lived one of the noblest lives
in history. It seems rather hard on poor Villon to attribute to him a
contented ignorance of all such people as Joan of Arc; since he actually
goes out of his way to mention her in the most famous of his ballades;
"The good lady of Lorraine whom the English burnt at Rouen." But the
criticism is far more false according to the spirit than according to
the letter. It is founded on a sort of modern fashionable fallacy,
compounded of sentimentalism and optimism, to the effect that a man who
is rather bitter about this world cannot have any ideals; whereas the
bitterness does sometimes come from the intensity of his ideals. Anyhow,
there is no doubt, to anybody who can read poetry without prejudice,
that Villon had ideals and high ideals; only they happened to be highly
Catholic ideals. The devotional poem that he wrote for his old mother,
which describes her gazing at the glowing mediaeval window, itself glows
with sincerity. And he wrote at least one line that would be sufficient
to destroy the accusation; one of those lines that are too simple to be
adequately translated, "Offrit à la mort sa très claire jeunesse"; which
is something like, "Offered his clear and shining youth to death." He
wrote it of Jesus Christ; but what better thing could be written of Joan
of Arc?

I have paused upon this parenthesis; because it foreshadows the general
view to which all these rather rambling criticisms ultimately tend; that
Stevenson stood for the truth and did not quite understand the truth he
stood for. If he had understood it, he would have known that the virile
craftsmanship which he was only too eager to admire in Villon, was
really connected with certain virtues, which were none the less the
virtues of a craftsman because they happened to be the virtues of a
thief. Nobody pretends that Villon was a saint; but the socially
disreputable externals of his sin do not (for those of his faith) make
him a specially or supremely hopeless sinner. If he was a thief, nobody
can prove that he was not a penitent thief; and the moral system to
which he was attached had raised such a man to its altars under the
somewhat paradoxical title of The Good Thief. He was probably the last
man to expect in his own person to be that night in paradise; but he was
not any further off from heaven merely because he was likely to be
hanged high on a gallows. Here we have once more, I fancy, a touch of
Calvinism with its finger of fear. There is also that grim and stony
optimism attributed to the Old Testament, with its divine favouritism
for the fortunate. But though the surface of this rather superficial
criticism was alien to that free will which is the creed of
craftsmanship, the personal creative spirit underneath the criticism was
still that of the genuine Christian craftsman. When Stevenson set about
to describe Villon and his gang of ragamuffins, under the snow and
gargoyles of mediaeval Paris, he carved his grotesque as carefully as a
gargoyle and balanced his story as beautifully as a French ballade. He
did not take opium and absinthe and then sit down to wait for nameless
cosmic energies to pour into his soul from nowhere. His spirit was a
spirit utterly different from the mystical scepticism common in his
time. He was responsible; he was deliberate; he was thrifty; he
thoroughly deserved the dignified title of a working man.

The point here is that even his chief fault as an artist was typically
the fault of a craftsman. He worked too narrowly, perhaps, producing
only a thing perfect of its kind out of certain materials, by a certain
method and under the limitations of a certain style. The same sort of
criticism that feels a French ballade to be too fixed and artificial a
form, the same sort of criticism that feels a fourteenth-century Virgin
to be too stiff or affected in its posture, does doubtless feel a story
of Stevenson to be too meagre in its materials or too strict in its
stylistic unity. As I have explained above, I do not mean to suggest
that such criticism is entirely unjust or unreasonable. Stevenson's work
has its faults, like other good work; and its chief deficiency does
appear in a certain defect of thinness, which is produced by this
instinct for hard simplification. But nobody could adequately write a
history of nineteenth-century literature without noting this important
departure in the direction of a closer and more vigilant verbal choice,
as compared either with the cheerful laxity that went before it or the
more gloomy laxity that has come since. Whatever else Stevenson stands
for, he certainly stands for the idea that literature is not mere
sensation or mere self-expression or mere record; but is sensation
appealing to certain senses, self-expression in a certain material and
record in a certain style. And in this he was certainly asserting the
rights of the soul of man, as against various formless forces which some
regarded as the soul of nature; the _anima mundi_ of the pantheists. In
this way Stevenson represented the same deep, ancient, hieratic and
traditional truth that was taught to that generation by William Morris;
and neither of them had the least idea what it was.



CHAPTER IX # THE PHILOSOPHY OF GESTURE


Something has been said, from time to time, in these pages about the
justice or injustice of the alleged reaction against Stevenson. Little
or nothing will be said about its final success or failure, and that for
at least two reasons. First, that such guesses about the fashions of the
future are generally quite wide of the mark, because they are founded on
a very obvious fallacy. They always imply that public taste will
continue to progress in its present direction; which is, in truth, the
only thing we know that it will not do. A thing that wanders away in
great winding curves may end anywhere; but to turn each curve into a
straight line striking out into the void will be wrong in any case. This
is obvious even in the tolerably short history of the modern novel.
Victorians had a sort of parlour game of comparing Dickens and
Thackeray; but they would have been amazed to hear modern young people
declaring that Thackeray is much more sentimental than Dickens. They
would have been astounded by the revival of Trollope, accompanied by the
comparative neglect of Thackeray. For to the more earnest Victorians of
that world, Trollope was another name for triviality. They would have
felt as we should feel if we were told that Charles Garvice would
outlive John Galsworthy. For a great genius may appear in almost any
disguise; even in the disguise of a successful novelist. The second
reason for which I wave away from me the prophet's mantle, and decline
to decide the question of the future, is that I do not think it very
much matters. There are fine writers of the past as well as the present,
who are read only by few; and I do not admit that the many know all
about them, merely because they never knew them. I do not see why we
should so blindly distrust popularity and so blindly trust posterity.
But some of the conditions of survival may perhaps be generally
considered.

The fame of Stevenson in the future will stand or fall with the strength
or weakness of a particular argument. It was perhaps most compactly
expressed by a critic who accused him of "externality." What he called
the fault of externality I should be inclined to ascribe to the fallacy
of internalism. Perhaps it will be recognised better if I call it the
fallacy of "psychology." It is the notion that a serious novelist should
confine himself to the inside of the human skull. Now Stevenson's
fiction is full of pantomime; in the strict sense of animated action or
gesture. And it really seems as if the critics, by a sort of pun or
perversion of meaning, associated it with a children's pantomime; though
Stevenson would have been the last to object even to that. Anyhow, this
idea that intellectual fiction should concern the solitary and
uncommunicative intellect is a very obvious fallacy indeed. It is sound
enough to say that we can see below the surface; but not that we cannot
see what is on the surface. Least of all is it sensible to say that we
cannot believe in it because it has come to the surface; though it were
as enormous as a spouting whale. Indeed the tone rather recalls that of
some sceptics who implied that sailors ought not to think they saw the
Great Sea Serpent, because it was a quarter of a mile long when they saw
it. So we may well urge that psychological things are not less
psychological because they come to the surface in pantomime. The
argument amounts to saying that a really delicate piece of clockwork
only exists when the clock stops. And indeed I suppose these critics
would consider the action of a clock, in whirling its hands about, a
very offensive piece of foreign gesticulation. It is like saying that a
locomotive steam-engine is only a steam-engine when it is standing
still; or that a building blowing up with a loud bang offers a final
proof that it was not a powder-magazine.

Indeed in this respect the psychological critics are rather backward
even in psychology. It generally distresses such people more to be
behind the times than to be against the truth; and in this case it seems
possible that they are both. The objection to their fallacy of
internalism is that it is nonsense to think only of thoughts and not of
words or deeds, since words are only spoken thoughts and deeds are only
acted words. They are in fact the most dominant words and the most
triumphant thoughts; the thoughts that emerge. But, according to "the
latest modern psychology" (that infallible and immutable authority), it
is even more of a mistake to treat the surface so superficially. Acts
are not only the swiftest thoughts; they are even too swift to be called
thoughts. They come from something more fundamental than common or
conscious thinking. It is exactly our subconsciousness that appears in
acts more than in words, or even thoughts. It is precisely our
subconsciousness that bites its nails or twirls its moustaches, that
kicks its heels or grinds its teeth. According to some, it is even our
subconsciousness (that jolly companion) that occasionally cuts our
mother's throat or picks our father's pocket. I do not take the latest
modern psychology quite so seriously; but what element of truth there is
in it is all against the tone of the latest Stevensonian, or
Anti-Stevensonian, criticism. The test of fine fiction, by this or any
other standard, is not whether it follows out threads of thought in
silence; not whether it is subjective rather than objective or avoids
any violent issue in events. It is simply whether it is right; whether
the psychology is right and whether the act represents it rightly. In
psychology, as in any other science, one cannot be more than right. And
the most embittered critic will find it very difficult to show that
Stevenson was very often wrong. What the embittered critic can show, and
what will make him still more embittered, is that Stevenson expressed
everything by some dramatic act. And, according to such critics,
anything that is dramatic is melodramatic. The boyish brooding and
smarting sentimental self-importance of David Balfour during his one
quarrel with Alan Breck Stewart are described so delicately and exactly
as to be worthy of George Meredith, who was so excellent with boys; they
might easily be the broodings of Evan Harrington or Harry Richmond. Only
in Stevenson's story they end (alas!) in the crossing of blades and Alan
tossing away his sword; and that, of course, is dreadfully melodramatic.
One cannot be psychological inside a sword-belt; and cerebral processes
must not take place under a three-cornered hat. The interlude of Henry
Durie's crippled and almost half-witted happiness, when the shadow of
his brother is withdrawn for a season and his child is growing in the
sun, is as pathetic and as true as any lucid interval (if such there be)
in the suburban depression of the school of Gissing. Only when the
fool's paradise is lost, by a random word about the possible perversion
of the child, it is not to be denied that Henry Durie falls to the earth
like a stone. And the thoughtful critic explains that such a man cannot
have had any really internal feelings; because his internal feelings
were strong enough to knock him down. The dark, drudging and almost
automatic altruism of poor Herrick, amid all his tangle of treasons in
_The Ebb-Tide,_ is as sad and true as the most miserable modern could
wish it to be. But then Herrick jumps into the sea with a great splash;
though he ought to endear himself to the modern critic by not actually
doing anything after all, even for the fruitful cult of suicide. The
girl Kirstie's "gabble" of recollection and daydream and imaginary
lovers' quarrels, as she goes home from church, is quite as true to the
actual inner workings of the young sentimental mind as any feminine fine
shade in Henry James. But then the critic cannot be expected to forgive
her for giving two or three little skips as she walks along the road. No
lady in Henry James ever skipped. It is because in each of these cases
some outward motion makes memorable the inward mood that these critics
feel that it cannot really be so very inward. It is to be noted that
they do not commit themselves to a positive negation; they do not affirm
that the characters in question would _not_ feel as they are described
as feeling; they do not even say that they would not act as they are
described as acting; that David would not fight or Durie fall or Kirstie
leap upon the road. They simply have a refined and delicate feeling that
psychological fiction ought to deal only, or mostly, with unspoken words
or uncompleted thoughts. That is a very interesting point of view; and
it is just as well to have it clearly stated and understood. If
Stevenson had only served as an excuse for expounding this interesting
critical thesis, they might so far thank him and even constrain
themselves to be reasonably polite to him. Anyhow, that seems to be
their principle; and I have paused long enough upon it to show that I do
not wish to ignore it. Only I would respectfully submit that their
quarrel is not with Stevenson; certainly their quarrel is not merely
with Stevenson. It is with Homer and the bending of the bow; it is with
Hamlet and the leap into the grave; it is with Francesca dropping the
book or Quixote driving at the windmill; it is with Henry putting on his
crown or Anthony putting off his helmet; it is with Roland in
Roncesvaux, blowing the horn and breaking the sword and holding up his
glove to God. It is in all those epic energies which gave to the last
story and its sequel the noble title of Songs of Action--_Chansons de
Geste._

Among the many unreasonable objections to the Stevensonian romance, I
admit that there is a reasonable objection that may be advanced here. It
may be said that he was guilty of externality in this sense; that he
sometimes began with externals, in so far as he saw in some scene or
other setting the suggestion or rather the provocation of romance.
"Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder," he very truly observed;
and he was often moved to commit the murder in a vicarious literary
manner. He wished sometimes, he said, to fit every such place with its
appropriate legend. Superficially there is sense in this objection; but
in a deeper and more sympathetic sense I do not admit that it
contradicts what I have said of the deep spring of gesture or the
deliberation of craftsmanship. It merely means that there was from the
first, in any such work of art, the unity of mood that there always
ought to be. It means that he had decided what sort of novel he would
write, before he had decided what novel he would write; and this is
right and inevitable. The dank garden cannot cry aloud immediately, in
so many words, "In this place the sinister tutor with one eye larger
than the other buried the old sailor's cutlass with which he had killed
the horribly but secretly wicked admiral who was really his brother." No
dank garden ever expressed itself with such accuracy when crying aloud
to anybody; but it is none the less true that the exact shade of gloom
and the exact outline of disorder may have suggested, not merely a
vulgar murder, but a murder having certain special qualities of the
unnatural or the strange. This does not prove that they were not _deep_
feelings which thus rose up at the sight of the strange landscape and
groped to find their appropriate images of doom. It only proves that the
origin of the story was of the same sort as the origin of a poem. We can
call Stevenson a prose poet, if we like; but we cannot call him a
superficial writer, unless all poets are superficial.

I shall have occasion to remark elsewhere that there is one strictly
technical sense in which Stevenson's treatment can be called a thin or a
flat treatment. It is a sense in which we might say that a certain style
in decorative ironwork is light and slender, in which we might say that
Whistler's way of laying on monochrome washes was merely flat. It has
its defects, even considered as a technical treatment; there is an
artistic aversion to filigree; and many have maintained that Whistler's
washes were too washy. But it is essential that this criticism should
not be confused with the suggestion I have just answered; the suggestion
that the spiritual significance of the pattern or the picture is shallow
and not deep. That is another matter and has nothing whatever to do with
the question of our favourite form; and though Stevenson's favourite
form was sometimes picturesque to excess, there was nothing
platitudinous or merely sentimental about the moral of the picture. On
the contrary, he was very much drawn towards difficult and perplexing
moral themes and liked to put puzzles to himself in the possible
relations of human souls. Only, as we have seen, he liked to make the
human soul come to a conclusion in some fashion and announce its
conclusion in some way. Hence all the abrupt signals and bodily
departures which the sensitive so much lament; hence the coin hurled
through the windowpane at Durrisdeer; the banjo flung into the fire on
Midway Island; the knife sticking in the mast or the diamond tossed into
the river. In short, Stevenson's stories were often problem stories, in
the style of what were called problem plays. But by one crime he
disqualified himself for the company of the really realistic and earnest
authors of problem plays or problem novels. He had a weakness for
solving the problem.

There is in this merit the other side of a fault; and a fault of which
he has often been accused. He was called self-conscious; and in his work
he was perhaps a little too self-conscious, as compared with some
writers whose fundamental and even almost forgotten impulses were
allowed to flow forth more freely, and perhaps more naturally. But these
things are a matter of degree and balance; and some may hold that it is
the opposite type that has now become unbalanced. Walking the world
to-day, I am not sure that I do not prefer the self-conscious to the
subconscious. Stevenson felt a responsibility in art which was like his
vivid and almost morbid sense of responsibility in conduct. His problems
of conduct were indeed sometimes a little anarchical; and his ethical
decision in them perhaps a little amateurish. Like Ibsen and Bernard
Shaw and many men of his time, he had not quite discovered the pressing
practical necessity of having a general rule, in the absence of which
the world becomes a welter of exceptions. But he was intensely
interested in the right moral solution whatever it might be; even if it
seemed to involve the inversion of a moral rule. And this sense of
social responsibility was thoroughly sincere: even when the special
pleading had to be, perhaps, a little too individual to be social. It
was natural for a novelist, perhaps, to feel most fiercely and keenly
the particular personal case. Anyhow, I think he generally did so; as
did Loudon Dodd in _The Wrecker,_ when he balanced opium and Jim. He was
certainly vastly intrigued by that sort of problem. Henley called him a
Catechist; but he should have said Casuist. He professed to have a
defective sympathy with Catholicism; and he was still probably
provincial enough to have had a horror of Jesuitry; but as a matter of
fact he was more casuistical than any Jesuit. He was much less clear
about the original universal dogmas of a catechism, whether it were the
Shorter Catechism or the Penny Catechism. But he was much more closely
concerned about the special occasion when the general sense of those
doctrines seemed challenged by a special necessity. We may say,
therefore, that, in life and in literature, he was essentially a
conscientious person. And a conscientious person is presumably a
conscious person; and sometimes perhaps a self-conscious person. He
committed a great many crimes vicariously in his books; and delivered
batches of corpses to his publishers in the style required of all
writers of sensational romance. But his deaths had the delicacy and fine
distinction of murder; and nothing of the vulgar communism of massacre.
In the one episode in his stories that might be called a massacre, the
butchery of the old crew of _The Flying Scud_ by Wicks and his men, the
whole horror of the incident is in its intense individualism. It is in
the fact that the men have to be slain one by one; in the fact that the
massacre is not a massacre but a series of murders. He went so far, in
his correspondence, as to say cheerfully of Henry Durie's bloody trap
for his brother that it is "a perfectly cold-blooded murder of which I
expect and intend the reader to approve." But even here it will be noted
that he intended something, and said so; seeming almost as cold-blooded
as the murderer. But at least he did not commit murders without knowing
it, in the manner of our more subconscious criminals and maniacs in
modern fiction. He was not in sympathy with those more recent heroes who
seem to seduce and betray and even stab in a sort of prolonged fit of
absence of mind. There had not been established, for him or for his
characters, that convenient back-stairs of unconscious mind or automatic
motion, by which something that is not ourselves (and makes for
unrighteousness) may escape from the cellar into the street. It was
perhaps a defect; but in the whole of his life and work there is a
complete absence of absence of mind.

And with this matter of responsibility, and the reliance on the will in
moral matters, we come to that larger question to be considered in the
last chapter. It will be in a sense a summary of what has already been
said; and yet it will be necessary to say it somewhat more plainly, and
in relation to large matters about which many modern people are rather
too confused or too timid to talk plain. For the moment it need only be
said that the importance of Stevenson largely consists in his relation
with the tendency of his age. That tendency was towards a certain
mysticism of materialism, of which the most dogmatic expression is what
is called monism; but which can be more lightly expressed in a hundred
forms, as that all life is one, or that everything is heredity and
environment, or that the impersonal is higher than the personal, or that
men live by the herd instinct or the soul of the hive. Our fathers
called the general atmosphere fatalism; but it has now any number of
more idealistic names. Stevenson felt all this, without exactly defining
it; he felt it in the realism of nineteenth-century literature, in the
pessimism of contemporary poetry, in the timidity of hygienic
precaution, in the smugness of middle-class uniformity. And while he was
entirely of that time and society, while he read all the realists, knew
all the artists, doubted with the doubters and even denied with the
deniers, he had that within him which could not but break out in a sort
of passionate protest for more personal and poetical things. He flung
out his arms with a wide and blind gesture, as one who would find wings
at the moment when the world sank beneath him.



CHAPTER X # THE MORAL OF STEVENSON


Even those unfortunates for whom the tale of _Treasure Island,_ and the
tradition continued in the pirates of _Peter Pan,_ form an episode that
is ended, may still be asked to consider it as an episode; to consider
it, or perhaps to reconsider it. Even those who hardly feel it as a
piece of literature will be forced at least to accept it as a piece of
history. I am not one of these dismal and disinherited persons, as the
reader has perhaps by this time darkly suspected; but I am quite content
for the moment to put aside the question of whether their lack of
appreciation is due to the advance of literary experiment or the decline
of literary taste. I ask them for the moment to consider it not as a
literary masterpiece, but merely as a curiosity of literature. I ask
them to pause upon the episode of the Stevensonian Buccaneers, much as
they might pause upon the episode of the real Buccaneers; upon some
quaint old volume about the real lives of Blackbeard and Henry Morgan.
Just as there would always be some historical interest in considering
how the pirate sack of Panama was related to the great affairs of the
Spanish Empire or the English Navy, so there is always some
philosophical interest in considering how Stevenson's romanticism was
related to realism and rationalism and all the great movements of the
nineteenth-century. In short, I am content for the moment if all that
wonderful library of books is lumped together under the name of one of
the least of them; and considered as a Footnote to History.

What was the historical meaning then of that strange splash of crimson
lake on the drab age of Gissing and Howells; like a burlesque bloodstain
in a detective story? To begin with, I foresee that in having stated the
matter thus historically, I have laid myself open to some criticisms of
the strictly historical sort. It may be said that the dates and details
of Stevenson's life and time do not correspond with such a comparison;
that he came too early in the Victorian progress to be really a type of
the 'nineties; and that his real rivals or models were the Victorian
Philistines. I do not admit this as a truth, even where I might admit
part of it as a fact. An anachronism is often simply an ellipsis; and an
ellipsis is often simply a necessity. The thing that a living
intelligence like that of Stevenson feels is not the stale and static
conventions of his world, but the way the world is going. We talk
familiarly of time and tide; and, in a case like this, it is idle to
remember a time without realising that it was a tide. The author of _The
Ebb-Tide_ knew well enough what tide was at that moment ebbing. It was
the tide of what many regarded as Victorian virtue and all the happiness
described in the three-volume novel. Stevenson knew very well that this
stuffy sort of stuff was not the strong menace or promise of the coming
time. He sometimes pokes fun at the Philistines; but he thrusts with
furious energy at the Aesthetes. Compare for instance the way in which
he speaks of Walter Besant with the way in which he speaks of Henry
James, when he has to differ from them both, in that admirable letter
about "art competing with life." He dismisses the successful novelist as
representing something that had already failed; but he takes seriously
the serious novelist, and is obviously afraid that in the long run his
more subtle methods may succeed. Those more subtle methods, of the
impressionists and realists and the rest, were obviously for him the
real danger because they were the rising tide. In short, it may be
complained that I have represented Stevenson as reacting against
decadence before it existed. And I answer that this is the only real way
in which a fighting man ever does successfully attack a movement; when
he attacks later, he attacks too late.

Or again, it may be said that I exaggerate the novelty of work like that
of _Treasure Island;_ and that it was but a natural continuation of the
historical novel of Scott or the nautical novel of Marryat. Here again I
think the critic will not only miss a fine distinction, but a very sharp
point. The old novels were novels; they were not boys' stories, but
simply stories. The comedy of the Oldbucks and Osbaldistones is as much
a solid comedy of character as that of Mr. Bennett or Miss Bates. It is
only Scott's incurable and almost unconscious sense of romance that
sends the comedy characters to the dangerous cliff or to the Clachan of
Aberfoyle. There was no deliberate and defiant return to juvenile art
out of season, such as that which is flaunted in Stevenson's letters as
well as in Stevenson's story. The point can be best illustrated once
more by the memory of Skelt's Juvenile Drama. It is one thing to say
that a painter like Maclise or an actor like Macready may have had a
style that would strike us as stagey and pompous. Maclise and Macready
did not themselves think that they were stagey and pompous. It would be
quite another thing to revive the actual figures of the old toy theatre,
almost (in a sense) _because_ they were stagey and pompous. Stevenson
obviously resurrected all this romance, not because it was the fashion
of his time, like the historical painting of Maclise, but because it was
_against_ the growing fashion of his time; and had to be fought for as a
new fashion because it was really an old fashion. He glorified an
antiquated Skeltery, when he knew it was antiquated. He concentrated on
a certain type of book for boys, when he knew it had long been abandoned
to boys. He is often called self-conscious; and in this sense he was
very self-conscious. He was as self-consciously copying an old piratical
penny dreadful as the Pre-Raphaelites were self-consciously copying an
old mediaeval religious picture. As they were carefully inlaying it with
jewels of childlike colour, he was carefully resetting the lost jewel of
his own childhood. But he knew he was not merely fashionable, just as he
knew that he was not really five years old.

What then exactly did he mean? What, so to speak, did _it_ mean; even if
in a sense he did not mean it; or at least, did not mean to mean it?
First of all it was, I think, a sort of dash for liberty; and especially
a dash for happiness. It was a defence of the possibility of happiness;
and a kind of answer to the question, "Can a man be happy?" But it was
an answer of a curious kind, defiantly delivered in rather curious
circumstances. It was the escape of a prisoner as he was led in chains
from the prison of Puritanism to the prison of Pessimism. Few have
understood that passage in the history of the manufacturing civilisation
of northwest Europe and America. Few have realised that the gloomier
sort of modern materialism often came upon a class that was only just
escaping from an equally gloomy sort of spirituality. They had hardly
come out of the shadow of Calvin when they came into the shadow of
Schopenhauer. From the world of the worm that dieth not, they passed
into a world of men dying like worms; and in the case of some of the
decadents, almost exulting in being devoured by worms like Herod.
Puritanism and pessimism, in short, were prisons that stood near
together; and none have ever counted how many left one only for the
other; or under what a covered way they passed. Stevenson's escapade was
an escape; a sort of runaway romantic evasion for the purpose of
escaping both. And as a fugitive has often fled and hidden in his
mother's house, this outlaw took refuge in his old home; barricaded
himself in the nursery and almost tried to creep into the dolls'-house.
And he did it upon a kind of instinct, that here had dwelt definite
pleasures which the Puritan could not forbid nor the pessimist deny. But
it was a strange story. He had his answer to the question, "Can a man be
happy?"; and it was, "Yes, before he grows to be a man."

It is only the obvious things that are never seen; and a thing is often
counted stale merely because men have been staring at it so long without
seeing it. There is nothing harder to bring within a small and clear
compass than generalisations about history, or even about humanity. But
there is one especially evident and yet elusive in this matter of
happiness. When men pause in the pursuit of happiness, seriously to
picture happiness, they have always made what may be called a
"primitive" picture. Men rush towards complexity; but they yearn towards
simplicity. They try to be kings; but they dream of being shepherds.
This is equally true whether they look back to a Golden Age or look
forward to the most modern Utopia. The Golden Age is always imagined as
an age free from the curse of gold. The perfect civilisation of the
future is always something which many would call the higher savagery;
and is conceived in the spirit that spoke of "Civilisation, its Cause
and Cure." Whether it is Arcadia of the past or Utopia of the future, it
is always something simpler than the present. From the Greek or Roman
poet yearning for the peace of pastoral life to the last sociologist
explaining the ideal social life, this sense of a return and a
resolution into elemental things is apparent. The pipe of the shepherd
is always something rather plainer than the lyre of the poet; and the
ideal social life is some more or less subtle form of the simple life.
Of this tendency there is yet a third and perhaps a truer expression. It
may be remarked that these daydreams of happiness concern rather the
dawn than the day. The reactionary wishes to return to what he would
call "the morning of the world." But the revolutionist is quite equally
prone to talk about waiting for the daybreak, about songs before
sunrise, and about the dawn of a happier day. He does not seem to think
so much about the noon of that day. And one mode in which this morning
spirit is expressed is the return to the child.

Stevenson might have been asking his question a hundred years before, at
the time of the first humanitarian revolt against the Puritans; when the
same city of Geneva, that had seen Calvin found the religion of
pessimism, saw Rousseau found the religion of optimism. If he had been
in that first liberal or naturalistic movement, he would probably have
felt that the best expression of the romantic movement was in the
fulfilment of romantic love. Paul and Virginia, instead of Poll and
Robinson Crusoe (not to mention Long John Silver), would have been the
happy inhabitants of the desert island. In that honeymoon of humanity,
it would have seemed quite enough that Edwin and Angelina united at last
(by a dignified civil marriage by the Registrar of the Republic) would
populate the world with pure and happy republicans. But that
eighteenth-century Arcadia had clouded over long before Stevenson's
time; and indeed he was prone to be a little too cloudy even about those
of its principles which are really clear. And while the more Bohemian
artists of the later time continued to claim all the liberties and more
than the laxities of such a theory, they had left off pretending that it
led to such felicity in practice. Indeed there has been a curious irony
in this respect about the modern artists, especially the literary
artists. Half the outcry against them arose, rightly or wrongly, because
they insisted that their books must be repulsive in order to be
realistic or sordid in order to be true. They insisted on a free hand in
describing sex; and seemed to assume, in their own apologia, that to
describe sex is to describe sin--and sorrow. They insisted that anything
pretty must be a pretence; and never saw how sharply they were
reflecting on the end of that very dance of pretty nymphs and cupids,
which had brought them the licence that they liked best. In short, they
seemed to make two claims; first to be free to find the perfect
happiness of passion; and second, to be free to describe how exceedingly
unhappy it is. In life one might do anything to follow love, because it
was so very beautiful; and in art one must do anything to describe love,
because it was so abominably ugly. Their own anarchical doctrines were
really contradicted by their own anarchical descriptions. The house of
love, in which it was necessary to take out such hospital licences for
amputation and vivisection, could hardly be (as the poet said) the house
of fulfilment of craving. It was certainly not the house that Rousseau
and the old romantic liberals had craved. Anyhow, it was not possible
for a man of Stevenson's generation to look for this light and lucid
happiness in sex, or in that sense even in sentiment. It was not
possible for a romantic who, perhaps born out of his due time, was
living not in the age of Rousseau but in the age of Zola. Thus we find
in Stevenson something like an actual avoidance of those themes of
passion, that were throbbing in the new fiction all around him; an
avoidance even of that normal romantic love, which is not touched at all
in _Kidnapped_ and touched gracefully but still lightly even in
_Catriona._ It was not only that girls interfere with adventures. It was
not only that he could not be one of those for whom a girl is the only
adventure. It was also because a man living under the harsh challenge of
the new realism could no longer pretend that it was an adventure which
always ended well. He wished to escape into a world of more secure
pleasure and perhaps of less potential pain. And this is connected with
very profound truths of psychology, which have not yet been properly
explored. But most men know that there is a difference between the
intense momentary emotion called up by memory of the loves of youth, and
the yet more instantaneous but more perfect pleasure of the memory of
childhood. The former is always narrow and individual, piercing the
heart like a rapier; but the latter is like a flash of lightning, for
one split second revealing a whole varied landscape; it is not the
memory of a particular pleasure any more than of a particular pain, but
of a whole that shone with wonder. The first is only a lover remembering
love; the second is like a dead man remembering life.

I once heard in a railway-train a farmer's family of the Puritan sort
discussing with a Nonconformist minister the action of a boy, at the
front in the Great War, who had occupied himself in hospital with
carving a wooden cross and sent it home to his family. His family was
pained but apologetic. Their remarks had a continual chorus of, "He
didn't mean anything by it." This extraordinary state of mind intrigued
me so much that I listened to the rest of the conversation; at intervals
of which the minister repeated firmly that we didn't want that sort of
thing; what we wanted was a living Christ. And it never seemed to occur
to this reverend gentleman that he was at that moment at war with every
living as well as every Christian thing; with the creative instinct,
with the desire for form, with the love of family, with the impulse to
send signals and messages, with humour, with pathos, with the virility
of martyrdom and the vividness of exile. It was in truth the carver of
the cross who was bearing witness to a living Christ and the partisan of
a living Christ who was repeating a dead form. It was none the less so,
because it was not a fixed shape in wood, but only a fixed shape in
words. This curious incident has always remained in my memory, however,
if only for its fresh and superficial humour. The image of the
unconscious youth who didn't mean anything by it, who merely whittled a
stick until it came by sheer ill-luck into the form of a cross, will
always be a source of fruitful entertainment to the mind. The idea of
the young man hacking wood about right and left in a reckless manner,
and seeing theological symbols spring up on every side in spite of his
most earnest efforts, has something in it of the fairy-tale. And the
idea that if he had only known what was coming, nothing would have
induced him to touch anything so improper and shocking, is a matter of
deep indwelling joy.

And yet, strangely enough, I must in a manner apologise to the poor
minister and admit that something like that fantastic suggestion may
really occur. After all, there is in the world a great crowd of
unconscious cross-builders or unintentional crosses. There is, running
through the very framework of our houses and our furniture, a sort of
pattern of crosses. There are a great many honest carpenters and joiners
who make wooden crosses and don't mean anything by it. But the figure
means something for all that; precisely because it is a fundamental
figure, based on basic principles of balance and conflict and support.
All our chairs and tables are full of crosses, of cross-bars and
cross-beams; and it is probable that most of us use the furniture
without feeling the significance; do not think of a table as the
condition of a communion table and can sit on a chair without
immediately speaking _ex cathedra._ And in the same fashion, the more we
study active and artistic history, the more often we shall see men
making thrones when they meant only to make chairs or building churches
when they meant only to build houses. And in the retrospect of religious
history, it seems to me that most excursions and even aberrations have
only served to scrawl on a larger scale the truth of certain ancient
doctrines near and necessary to man; and illustrate orthodoxy if only
with awful examples. Milton was himself an example; for he told more
truth than he intended, when he said that new Presbyter was but old
Priest writ large. It was indeed the human need of a priest written
large; and it was written very large indeed.

Now the men of Stevenson's generation, and especially the men who were
as intelligent as he was, were perhaps more unconscious of the real case
for these old ideas than any men who have lived before or since. Nothing
was further from their thoughts than the suggestion that their artistic
fancies could refer back to those antiquated and sombre dogmas about the
Fall or the obscuration of the divine light by sin. Wordsworth, though
he is sometimes called pantheistic, saw in the vivid pleasures of
childhood what he called intimations of immortality. Stevenson admitted
that he often found it difficult to get any intimations of immortality.
And yet, if he could bear no witness to the Resurrection, he was
continually bearing witness to the Fall. We say lightly enough of a good
man that he is a Christian without knowing it. But Stevenson was a
Christian theologian without knowing it. Nothing, as I say, would have
surprised him or his generation more than to discover it; and it may be
that some even of a younger generation are so traditional as to have
missed the gradual unfolding of the truth. He would have been the first
to say that such dogmas were dead and that we cannot put back the clock
to the fifth century. Yet he did not explain why he was so often trying
to put back his own clock to his fifth year. For the truth is that there
really is no sense or meaning, in this continuous tribute of the poets
to the poetry of early childhood, unless it be, as Treherne says, that
the world of sin comes between us and something more beautiful or, as
Wordsworth says, that we came first from God who is our home. I will not
pause to distinguish here between the true doctrine of the Fall and the
doctrine of depravity which the Calvinists had probably taught to
Stevenson, which would alone be enough to explain his not knowing how
orthodox he was. Nor will I here expound the distinction between
original and acted sin, apart from the ideal of infant baptism; or the
already bewildered modern sceptic would probably think I was mad. He
must accept my benevolent assurance that it is rather he that is mad; or
rather, through no fault of his own, mentally defective. The point is
that there really is no explanation of this intense imaginative
concentration on babies except a mystical explanation. The whole point
of Stevenson's story is that of a man haunted by a tune, always seeking
for the broken notes of a lost melody; which he himself called the note
of the time-devouring nightingale. "But only children hear it right."
Why?

Moreover, as I have already noted, this principle of the beatific vision
of innocence was even more proved in the breach than in the observance.
The rationalists and realists who were praising the adult pursuit of
happiness, or ought to have been praising such a pursuit of happiness,
were (and still are) mainly occupied with describing unhappiness. They
only prove that free life and free love are really worse than any
ascetic had ever represented them. The naturalistic philosophies did not
only contradict Christianity. The naturalistic philosophies also
contradicted the naturalistic novels. Their own exercise of their own
right of expression was quite enough to show that the mere combination
of the maturity of reason with the pleasures of passion does not in fact
produce a Utopia. We need not debate here whether the Zolaists were
justified in so laboriously describing horrors. If mere liberty had
really led to happiness, they would have been describing happiness. It
would not have been necessary for a grown man with a library of modern
literature to hide himself in a twopenny toy theatre in order to be
happy.

This very simple truth is probably too simple to be seen; because, like
many such things, it is too large to be seen. But certainly it is still
there to be seen, if any of the moderns could enlarge their minds enough
to see it. The type of realism has changed since the days of Zola, just
as the type of romance has changed since the days of Stevenson. But it
has not answered this unanswerable distinction between the cheerful
songs of innocence and the melancholy songs of experience. Of the recent
literature of the rising generation, there is much that is frivolous,
but uncommonly little that is joyous. Just now we are incessantly asked
to rejoice in the sight of youth enjoying itself; which I for one am
very ready to do; but all the readier if I can be quite certain that it
is enjoying itself. And it is a curious fact that in its characteristic
contemporary literature there is an almost complete absence of joy. And
I think it would be true to say, in a general fashion, that it is not
childish enough to be cheerful. In this connection I may be allowed once
more to be at once anecdotal and allegorical. When I first saw the title
of _The Green Hat_ I pictured it as the top-hat of an old gentleman who
had a fancy for that colour. I imagined him a strutting symbolic figure
of springtime, with hair like the hawthorn and a hat like the new
leaves; my mind lost itself amid tree-tops and all the antics of the
April wind; I imagined him chasing his hat to elfland and the end of the
world, or climbing trees to find the blue bird nesting in the green
headgear. The mere idea of a green hat gave me a glimpse into that
elusive element of which the blue bird was made the emblem. When I
opened the book and found that the green hat was only a lady's hat, and
that the book was full of sentiments about sex, I was as blankly
disappointed as a boy who has been given a dictionary instead of a book.
My feelings towards the intrusive females were those of Jim Hawkins;
much what he would have felt if a fashionable lady had dissuaded Squire
Trelawney from going to sea. It is true that the people in the book
professed to be enjoying themselves, in what appeared to be their own
fashion; but they could not help me to enjoy myself, as I should have
done with the only true, real and original story of the green hat. I
recognised that there was wit in the work, but no fun in it; there was
no stir of that deep gale of spring; but rather an accepted air of
autumn; of things dancing as dead leaves dance; like the Falling Leaves
in the joyful revelation of Mr. Aldous Huxley. I know all about the
defence of this gloomy realism on the ground that it is real. I have
known it ever since the time of Stevenson writing on Zola. But I am not
talking about whether this literature is reasonable or justifiable; I am
talking about whether it does in fact call up, or even try to call up,
the passion of positive joy.

That is why this episode is worth noting and recalling if only as an
episode; and all the more so, if it is in sharp contrast with the
episodes that follow as well as the episodes that went before. I have
admitted that some part of Stevenson's deliberate choice of childishness
was a reaction from ill-chosen surroundings and courses of conduct in
the periods of passion and of youth. But the younger writers, who boast
of choosing for themselves, seem just as unsuccessful in making passion
identical with pleasure; and just as unsuccessful in preserving the
youthful spirit of youth. I have admitted that when he made his dash for
liberty and happiness, it may have appeared that there was no other
alternative but that of Puritanism or pessimism. But the new writers who
are not threatened with Puritanism seem to be just as much moved to
pessimism. There seems no explanation of the two tempers; except that
the apostle of childhood was at least seeking pleasure where it could be
found, while the apostles of youth are seeking it where it cannot be
found. What awaits us after all these episodes I will not pretend to
prophesy; I will only profess to hope that it may be the rebuilding of
the great and neglected Christian philosophy, to which all contributions
will be thankfully received, especially those of atheists and
anarchists. And that is really the chief importance, both of the man who
can show human nature happy in the nursery and the man who can only show
it unhappy in the night-club. Both of them may be, and generally are, of
the sort that would smile scornfully at the thought of calling up the
old pious fables about heaven and hell. But in fact Stevenson was
describing the kingdom of heaven and calling it Skelt; while Zola was
describing all the kingdoms of hell and calling it real life. Neither of
them get outside the iron ring of the real truth of the matter; that the
one thing, however babyish, really is a picture of contentment, while in
the other the only decent element is discontent.

It may be that the world will forget Stevenson, a century or so after it
has forgotten all the present distinguished detractors of Stevenson. It
may be quite the other way, as the poet said; it may be the world will
remember Stevenson; will remember him with a start, so to speak, when
everybody else has forgotten that there ever was any story in a novel.
The dissolution hinted at by Sir Edmund Gosse, whereby fiction which was
always a rather vague form shall become utterly formless, may have by
that time dropped out of the novel all its original notion of a
narrative. Mr. H. G. Wells, if he lives to delight the world so long,
will be able to deliver the goods in the form of great masses of
admirable analyses of economics and social conditions, without the
embarrassment of having to remember at every two hundred pages or so
that he has somewhere left a hero in a motor-car or a heroine in a
lodging-house. Miss Dorothy Richardson may pour out those vivid
inventories of the furniture and family crockery, which her subconscious
self notes with the accuracy of an inventory clerk, without being
pestered to tell us who owned these objects, or what was the object of
owning them. The psychologists may present us with a series of subtle
and fascinating states of mind, without our being morbidly curious to
enquire whose mind. They in turn may yield to some other school; such as
those bright and breezy Americans who call themselves Behaviourists.
They declare with some warmth that there is really nothing in their
minds and that they only think with their muscles; which, in the case of
some thinking, we might well believe. At present the Behaviourists are
on their best behaviour. But there seems no reason why this new sort of
muscular Christianity should not eventually invade the novel, just as
psychoanalysis did; and we shall all be able to rejoice in a new type of
fiction, in which a bright thought flashes through Edwin's biceps or a
vivid memory rises unbidden in the deltoid of Angelina. For it is the
habit of modern psychological science to make quite sure of its fiction
a long time before it is sure of its facts. But the trouble about such
fiction will be that it is very much of a novelty, but not much of a
novel. The passion for making patterns of loops and spirals, like a
chart of currents at sea, has so far dissolved the outline of
individuality that we lose all sense of what a man is, let alone what a
man wants. Nameless universal forces streaming through the
subconsciousness, run very truly like that dark and sacred river that
wound its way through caverns measureless to man. When this process of
shapelessness is complete, it is always possible that men may come upon
a shape with something of a sharp surprise; like a geologist finding in
featureless rocks the fossil of some wild creature, looking as if
petrified in the last wild leap or on the wing. Or it is as if an
antiquary, passing through halls and temples of some iconoclastic city,
covered with dizzy patterns of merely mathematical beauty, were to come
upon the heaving limb or lifted shoulder of some broken statue of the
Greeks. In that condition it may be that the novel will again be novel.
And in that condition, in that reaction, certainly no novel will serve
its purpose so forcibly, or make its point so plainly, as a novel by
Stevenson. The story, the first of childish and the oldest of human
pleasures, will nowhere reveal its structure and its end so swiftly and
simply as in the tales of Tusitala. The world's great age will in that
degree begin anew; the childhood of the earth be rediscovered; for the
story-teller will once more have spread his carpet in the dust; and it
will really be a magic carpet.

But whether or no the world returns thus to Stevenson, whether or no it
returns thus to stories, it will certainly return to something; and to
something of this kind. The only thing which we can safely prophesy is
the one thing which is always called impossible. Again and again we are
told, by all sorts of priggish and progressive persons, that mankind
cannot go back. The answer is that if mankind cannot go back, it cannot
go anywhere. Every important change in history has been founded on
something historic: and if the world had not again and again tried to
renew its youth, it would have been dead long ago. As the poet makes his
songs out of memories of first love, or the writer of fairy-tales has to
play at being a child as the child plays at being a man, so every
republican has looked back to the remote republics of antiquity and even
the Communist talks about a primitive community of goods. The sharp
return to simplicity, as the expression of the fiery thirst for
happiness--that is the one recurring fact of all history; and that is
the importance of Stevenson's place in literary history. Nor is there
the smallest reason to suppose that the literary history of the future
will in this respect be any different from the literary history of the
past. On the contrary, the two or three examples of extreme change, with
which the most recent days have challenged us, have very curiously
confirmed this old truth in a new way. Of that it is indeed true to say
that the more it changes, the more it is the same thing; and a jolly
good thing too.

Fashions change; but this return to the nursery is not a fashion and it
does not change. If we turn to the very latest, and we might say
loudest, of literary innovators, we still find that in so far as they
are saying anything, they are saying that. Let us suppose that the
Stevensonian way of doing it is altogether dated and out of date; let us
leave Stevenson behind in the dead past, along with such lumber as
Cervantes and Balzac and Charles Dickens. If we shoot forward into the
most fashionable fads and fancies, if we rush to the newest salons or
listen to the most advanced lectures, we do not escape the challenge of
our childhood. There is already a group, we might say a family group, of
poets who consider themselves, and are generally considered, the last
word in experiment and even extravagance; and who are not without real
qualities of deep atmosphere and suggestion. Yet all that is really deep
in the best of their work comes out of those depths of garden
perspective and large rooms as seen by little children, white with the
windows of the morning. The best poetry of Miss Sitwell is after all a
sort of parody of _A Child's Garden of Verses,_ decked with slightly
altered adjectives that would mildly surprise the child. But the poet is
as certainly groping after her own lost shadow as the child who "rose
and found the shining dew on every buttercup"; and is even more ready to
idealise the moving cloud of the crinoline than he who was content to
say, "Whenever Aunty moves around, her dresses make a curious sound." In
Miss Sitwell's version they would make a still more curious sound, the
nature of which I have not the courage to conjecture. The shining dew
might become the shrieking dew, or on a more moderate estimate the
sniggering dew; but it would still be a long-lost child who stood
bewildered in those grey meadows before the dawn. Many have complained,
and perhaps justly, of the almost American modernity of the artistic
ambition of these artists. They announce their message through a
megaphone; they shout it through pantomime masks; they hustle and push
and pick quarrels; but there is something in them, for all their efforts
to advertise--or to hide it. And that something is the new form of the
reaction of Stevenson; exactly as Stevenson was the new form of the
reaction of Rousseau. Many have speculated on what they are really
after; but what they are really after is still the same: those lost
children who are themselves; lost in the deep gardens at dusk.

That is why the real story of Stevenson must end where it began; because
it was to that end that he himself perpetually wandered and strove. I
said at the beginning that the key to his career was put early into his
hands; it was well symbolised by the paint-brush dipped in purple or
prussian blue, with which he started to colour the stiff caricatures
upon the cardboard of Skelt. But that paint-brush has been in other
hands besides his; I remarked elsewhere that, dipped in somewhat paler
hues, it has brightened the lives of many of those vague Victorian aunts
whose cloudy crinolines float through the gardens of the new "Early
Victorian" poetry. Neither perhaps know that, even in lingering on such
things, they do but illustrate a more ancient parable and the mystery of
a child set in the midst. Here, however, we may take the matter more
lightly and leave it to tell its own story; but at least it is amusing
to reflect that the old story of the unconsciously comic tombstone, the
epitaph that was the butt of a hundred jests, is not really so far wrong
after all; that there is a sort of truth concealed in that remarkable
inscription, and that (leaving on one side a somewhat needless allusion
to the Earl of Cork) we may repeat the epitaph with truth and even
profundity: "He also painted in watercolours. For of such is the kingdom
of heaven."



THE END



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