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Essays in the Art of Writing By Robert Louis Stevenson Characters: 8426

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:03

From this defunct periodical I am going to reprint one of my own papers. The poor little piece is all tail-foremost. I have done my best to straighten its array, I have pruned it fearlessly, and it remains invertebrate and wordy. No self-respecting magazine would print the thing; and here you behold it in a bound volume, not for any worth of its own, but for the sake of the man whom it purports dimly to represent and some of whose sayings it preserves; so that in this volume of Memories and Portraits, Robert Young, the Swanston gardener, may stand alongside of John Todd, the Swanston shepherd. Not that John and Robert drew very close together in their lives; for John was rough, he smelt of the windy brae; and Robert was gentle, and smacked of the garden in the hollow. Perhaps it is to my shame that I liked John the better of the two; he had grit and dash, and that salt of the Old Adam that pleases men with any savage inheritance of blood; and he was a wayfarer besides, and took my gipsy fancy. But however that may be, and however Robert's profile may be blurred in the boyish sketch that follows, he was a man of a most quaint and beautiful nature, whom, if it were possible to recast a piece of work so old, I should like well to draw again with a maturer touch. And as I think of him and of John, I wonder in what other country two such men would be found dwelling together, in a hamlet of some twenty cottages, in the woody fold of a green hill.


This article made its first appearance in the volume Memories and Portraits (1887). It was divided into three parts. The interest of this essay is almost wholly autobiographical, telling us, with more or less seriousness, how its author "learned to write." After Stevenson became famous, this confession attracted universal attention, and is now one of the best-known of all his compositions. Many youthful aspirants for literary fame have been moved by its perusal to adopt a similar method; but while Stevenson's system, if faithfully followed, would doubtless correct many faults, it would not of itself enable a man to write another Aes Triplex or Treasure Island. It was genius, not industry, that placed Stevenson in English literature.

[Note 1: Pattern of an Idler. See his essay in this volume, An

Apology for Idlers.]

[Note 2: A school of posturing. It is a nice psychological question whether or not it is possible for one to write a diary with absolutely no thought of its being read by some one else.]

[Note 3: Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne, to Beaudelaire, and to Obermann. For Hazlitt, see Note 19 of Chapter II above. Charles Lamb (1775-1834), author of the delightful Essays of Elia (1822-24), the tone of which book is often echoed in Stevenson's essays…. Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), regarded by many as the greatest prose writer of the seventeenth century; his best books are Religio Medici (the religion of a physician), 1642, and Urn Burial (1658). The 300th anniversary of his birth was widely celebrated on 19 October 1905…. Daniel Defoe (1661-1731), an enormously prolific writer; his first important novel, Robinson Crusoe (followed by many others) was written when he was 58 years old…. Nathaniel Hawthorne, the greatest literary artist that America has ever produced was born 4 July 1804, and died in 1864. His best novel (the finest in American Literature) was The Scarlet Letter (1850)…. Montaigne. Stevenson was heavily indebted to this wonderful genius. See Note 4 of Chapter VI above. … Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) wrote the brilliant and decadent Fleurs du Mai (1857-61). He translated Poe into French, and was partly responsible for Poe's immense vogue in France. Had Baudelaire's French followers possessed the power of their master, we should be able to forgive them for writing…. Obermann. òbermann is the title of a story by the French writer Etienne Pivert de Sénancour (1770-1846). The book, which appeared in 1804, is full of vague melancholy, in the Werther fashion, and is more of a psychological study than a novel. In recent years, Amiel's Journal and Sienkiewicz's Without Dogma belong to the same school of lit

erature. Matthew Arnold was fond of quoting from Sénancour's Obermann.]

[Note 4: Ruskin … Pasticcio … Bordello … Morris … Swinburne … John Webster … Congreve. These names exhibit the astonishing variety of Stevenson's youthful attempts, for they represent nearly every possible style of composition. John Ruskin (1819-1900) exercised a greater influence thirty years ago than he does to-day Stevenson in the words "a passing spell," seems to apologise for having been influenced by him at all…. Pasticcio, an Italian word, meaning "pie": Swinburne uses it in the sense of "medley," which is about the same as its significance here. Sordello: Stevenson naturally accompanies this statement with a parenthetical exclamation. Sordello, published in 1840, is the most obscure of all Browning's poems, and for many years blinded critics to the poet's genius. Innumerable are the witticisms aimed at this opaque work. See, for example, W. Sharp's Life of Browning … William Morris (1834-96), author of the Earthly Paradise (1868-70): for his position and influence in XIXth century literature see H.A. Beers, History of English Romanticism, Vol. II…. Algernon Charles Swinburne, born 1837, generally regarded (1906) as England's foremost living poet, is famous chiefly for the melodies of his verse. His influence seems to be steadily declining and he is certainly not so much read as formerly…. For John Webster and Congreve, see Notes 37 and 26 of Chapter IV above.]

[Note 5: City of Peebles in the style of the Book of Snobs. Thackeray's Book of Snobs was published in 1848. Peebles is the county town of Peebles County in the South of Scotland.]

[Note 6: My later plays, etc. Stevenson's four plays were not successful. They were all written in collaboration with W.E. Henley. Deacon Brodie was printed in 1880: Admiral Guinea and Beau Austin in 1884: Macaire in 1885. In 1892, the first three were published in one volume, under the title Three Plays: In 1896 all four appeared in a volume called Four Plays. At the time the essay A College Magazine was published, only one of these plays had been acted, Deacon Brodie, to which Stevenson refers in our text. This "came on the stage itself and was played by bodily actors" at Pullan's Theatre of Varieties, Bradford, England, 28 December 1882, and in March 1883 at Her Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, "when it was styled a 'New Scotch National Drama.'"-Prideaux, Bibliography, p. 10. It was later produced at Prince's Theatre, London, 2 July 1884, and in Montreal, 26 September 1887. Beau Austin was played at the Haymarket Theatre, London, 3 Nov. 1890. Admiral Guinea was played at the Avenue Theatre, on the afternoon of 29 Nov. 1897, and, like the others, was not successful. The Athenaeum for 4 Dec. 1897 contains an interesting criticism of this drama…. Semiramis was the original plan of a "tragedy," which Stevenson afterwards rewrote as a novel, Prince Otto, and published in 1885.]

[Note 7: It was so Keats learned. This must be swallowed with a grain of salt. The best criticism of the poetry of Keats is contained in his own Letters, which have been edited by Colvin and by Forman.]

[Note 8: Montaigne … Cicero. Montaigne, as a child, spoke Latin before he could French: see his Essays. Montaigne is always original, frank, sincere: Cicero (in his orations) is always a Poseur.]

[Note 9: Burns … Shakespeare. Some reflection on, and investigation of these statements by Stevenson, will be highly beneficial to the student.]

[Note 10: The literary scales. It is very interesting to note that Thomas Carlyle had completely mastered the technique of ordinary prose composition, before he deliberately began to write in his own picturesque style, which has been called "Carlylese"; note the enormous difference in style between his Life of Schiller (1825) and his Sartor Resartus (1833-4). Carlyle would be a shining illustration of the point Stevenson is trying to make.]

No notes have been added to the second and third parts of this essay, as these portions are unimportant, and may be omitted by the student; they are really introductory to something quite different, and are printed in our edition only to make this essay complete.

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