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Robert Louis Stevenson: A Record, an Estimate, and a Memorial By Alexander H. Japp Characters: 11880

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Stevenson's earlier determination was so distinctly to the symbolic, the parabolic, allegoric, dreamy and mystical-to treatment of the world as an array of weird or half-fanciful existences, witnessing only to certain dim spiritual facts or abstract moralities, occasionally inverted moralities-"tail foremost moralities" as later he himself named them-that a strong Celtic strain in him had been detected and dwelt on by acute critics long before any attention had been given to his genealogy on both sides of the house. The strong Celtic strain is now amply attested by many researches. Such phantasies as The House of Eld, The Touchstone, The Poor Thing, and The Song of the Morrow, published along with some fables at the end of an edition of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Longman's, I think, in 1896, tell to the initiated as forcibly as anything could tell of the presence of this element, as though moonshine, disguising and transfiguring, was laid over all real things and the secret of the world and life was in its glamour: the shimmering and soft shading rendering all outlines indeterminate, though a great idea is felt to be present in the mind of the author, for which he works. The man who would say there is no feeling for symbol-no phantasy or Celtic glamour in these weird, puzzling, and yet on all sides suggestive tales would thereby be declared inept, inefficient-blind to certain qualities that lie near to grandeur in fanciful literature, or the literature of phantasy, more properly.

This power in weird and playful phantasy is accompanied with the gift of impersonating or embodying mere abstract qualities or tendencies in characters. The little early sketch written in June 1875, titled Good Content, well illustrates this:

"Pleasure goes by piping: Hope unfurls his purple flag; and meek Content follows them on a snow-white ass. Here, the broad sunlight falls on open ways and goodly countries; here, stage by stage, pleasant old towns and hamlets border the road, now with high sign-poles, now with high minster spires; the lanes go burrowing under blossomed banks, green meadows, and deep woods encompass them about; from wood to wood flock the glad birds; the vane turns in the variable wind; and as I journey with Hope and Pleasure, and quite a company of jolly personifications, who but the lady I love is by my side, and walks with her slim hand upon my arm?

"Suddenly, at a corner, something beckons; a phantom finger-post, a will o' the wisp, a foolish challenge writ in big letters on a brand. And twisting his red moustaches, braggadocio Virtue takes the perilous way where dim rain falls ever, and sad winds sigh. And after him, on his white ass, follows simpering Content.

"Ever since I walk behind these two in the rain. Virtue is all a-cold; limp are his curling feather and fierce moustache. Sore besmirched, on his jackass, follows Content."

The record, entitled Sunday Thoughts, which is dated some five days earlier is na?ve and most characteristic, touched with the phantastic moralities and suggestions already indicated in every sentence; and rises to the fine climax in this respect at the close.

"A plague o' these Sundays! How the church bells ring up the sleeping past! I cannot go in to sermon: memories ache too hard; and so I hide out under the blue heavens, beside the small kirk whelmed in leaves. Tittering country girls see me as I go past from where they sit in the pews, and through the open door comes the loud psalm and the fervent solitary voice of the preacher. To and fro I wander among the graves, and now look over one side of the platform and see the sunlit meadow where the grown lambs go bleating and the ewes lie in the shadow under their heaped fleeces; and now over the other, where the rhododendrons flower fair among the chestnut boles, and far overhead the chestnut lifts its thick leaves and spiry blossom into the dark-blue air. Oh, the height and depth and thickness of the chestnut foliage! Oh, to have wings like a dove, and dwell in the tree's green heart!

. . . . . . . .

"A plague o' these Sundays! How the Church bells ring up the sleeping past! Here has a maddening memory broken into my brain. To the door, to the door, with the naked lunatic thought! Once it is forth we may talk of what we dare not entertain; once the intriguing thought has been put to the door I can watch it out of the loophole where, with its fellows, it raves and threatens in dumb show. Years ago when that thought was young, it was dearer to me than all others, and I would speak with it always when I had an hour alone. These rags that so dismally trick forth its madness were once the splendid livery my favour wrought for it on my bed at night. Can you see the device on the badge? I dare not read it there myself, yet have a guess-'bad ware nicht'-is not that the humour of it?

. . . . . . . . .

"A plague o' these Sundays! How the Church bells ring up the sleeping past! If I were a dove and dwelt in the monstrous chestnuts, where the bees murmur all day about the flowers; if I were a sheep and lay on the field there under my comely fleece; if I were one of the quiet dead in the kirkyard-some homespun farmer dead for a long age, some dull hind who followed the plough and handled the sickle for threescore years and ten in the distant past; if I were anything but what I am out here, under the sultry noon, between the deep chestnuts, among the graves, where the fervent voice of the preacher comes to me, thin and solitary, through the open windows; if I were what I was yesterday, and what, before God, I shall be again to-morrow, how should I outface these brazen memories, how live down this unclean resurrection of dead hopes!"

Close associated with this always is the moralising faculty, which is assertive. Take here the cunning sentences on Selfishness and Egotism, very Hawthornian yet quite original:

"An unconscious, easy

, selfish person shocks less, and is more easily loved, than one who is laboriously and egotistically unselfish. There is at least no fuss about the first; but the other parades his sacrifices, and so sells his favours too dear. Selfishness is calm, a force of nature; you might say the trees were selfish. But egotism is a piece of vanity; it must always take you into its confidence; it is uneasy, troublesome, seeking; it can do good, but not handsomely; it is uglier, because less dignified, than selfishness itself."

If Mr Henley had but had this clear in his mind he might well have quoted it in one connection against Stevenson himself in the Pall Mall Magazine article. He could hardly have quoted anything more apparently apt to the purpose.

In the sphere of minor morals there is no more important topic. Unselfishness is too often only the most exasperating form of selfishness. Here is another very characteristic bit:

"You will always do wrong: you must try to get used to that, my son. It is a small matter to make a work about, when all the world is in the same case. I meant when I was a young man to write a great poem; and now I am cobbling little prose articles and in excellent good spirits. I thank you. . . . Our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail, in good spirits."


"It is the mark of good action that it appears inevitable in the retrospect. We should have been cut-throats to do otherwise. And there's an end. We ought to know distinctly that we are damned for what we do wrong; but when we have done right, we have only been gentlemen, after all. There is nothing to make a work about."

The moral to The House of Eld is incisive writ out of true experience-phantasy there becomes solemn, if not, for the nonce, tragic:-

"Old is the tree and the fruit good,

Very old and thick the wood.

Woodman, is your courage stout?

Beware! the root is wrapped about

Your mother's heart, your father's bones;

And, like the mandrake, comes with groans."

The phantastic moralist is supreme, jauntily serious, facetiously earnest, most gravely funny in the whole series of Moral Emblems.

"Reader, your soul upraise to see,

In yon fair cut designed by me,

The pauper by the highwayside

Vainly soliciting from pride.

Mark how the Beau with easy air

Contemns the anxious rustic's prayer

And casting a disdainful eye

Goes gaily gallivanting by.

He from the poor averts his head . . .

He will regret it when he's dead."

Now, the man who would trace out step by step and point by point, clearly and faithfully, the process by which Stevenson worked himself so far free of this his besetting tendency to moralised symbolism or allegory into the freer air of life and real character, would do more to throw light on Stevenson's genius, and the obstacles he had had to contend with in becoming a novelist eager to interpret definite times and character, than has yet been done or even faithfully attempted. This would show at once Stevenson's wonderful growth and the saving grace and elasticity of his temperament and genius. Few men who have by force of native genius gone into allegory or moralised phantasy ever depart out of that fateful and enchanted region. They are as it were at once lost and imprisoned in it and kept there as by a spell-the more they struggle for freedom the more surely is the bewitching charm laid upon them-they are but like the fly in amber. It was so with Ludwig Tieck; it was so with Nathaniel Hawthorne; it was so with our own George MacDonald, whose professedly real pictures of life are all informed of this phantasy, which spoils them for what they profess to be, and yet to the discerning cannot disguise what they really are-the attempts of a mystic poet and phantasy writer and allegoristic moralist to walk in the ways of Anthony Trollope or of Mrs Oliphant, and, like a stranger in a new land always looking back (at least by a side-glance, an averted or half-averted face which keeps him from seeing steadily and seeing whole the real world with which now he is fain to deal), to the country from which he came.

Stevenson did largely free himself, that is his great achievement-had he lived, we verily believe, so marked was his progress, he would have been a great and true realist, a profound interpreter of human life and its tragic laws and wondrous compensations-he would have shown how to make the full retreat from fairyland without penalty of too early an escape from it, as was the case with Thomas the Rymer of Ercildoune, and with one other told of by him, and proved that to have been a dreamer need not absolutely close the door to insight into the real world and to art. This side of the subject, never even glanced at by Mr Henley or Mr Zangwill or their confrères, yet demands, and will well reward the closest and most careful attention and thought that can be given to it.

The parabolic element, with the whimsical humour and turn for paradoxical inversion, comes out fully in such a work as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. There his humour gives body to his fancy, and reality to the half-whimsical forms in which he embodies the results of deep and earnest speculations on human nature and motive. But even when he is professedly concerned with incident and adventure merely, he manages to communicate to his pages some touch of universality, as of unconscious parable or allegory, so that the reader feels now and then as though some thought, or motive, or aspiration, or weakness of his own were being there cunningly unveiled or presented; and not seldom you feel he has also unveiled and presented some of yours, secret and unacknowledged too.

Hence the interest which young and old alike have felt in Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Wrecker-a something which suffices decisively to mark off these books from the mass with which superficially they might be classed.

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