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Fraser's Scottish Annual
The Art of Robert Louis Stevenson


THERE are some works of fiction which one never dreams of reading a second time, though the first perusal may be interesting enough. To others, most of the novels of Scott, Thackeray and Dickens, for instance, we constantly return.

"Age cannot wither them, nor custom stale
Their infinite variety."

Or, rather, perhaps it is not precisely the variety—some quality, at any rate, they have, whose spell is unfailing and inexhaustible. The more we read them the more they bind us to them; the more inevitably do we go back to them. Their people are old friends, the friends of our youth, with whom, though they never cease to live in our memory, it is ever a fresh delight to renew the fulness of a direct and immediate intercourse. Their scenes abide with us like the familiar landscapes of childhood, and are wrought into the permanent stuff of our inward world; our hearts are irresistibly drawn to revisit them ; we are jealous as of a precious possession which is slipping out of our hands, to fix once more their fleeting shapes and colours.

What is the secret of these writers' charm? We call it genius. The word is vague even as the quality at which we throw it out is elusive. This much at least seems to be implied in it, a certain strong vitality and, as it were, permanent youthfulness and freshness of sense, which finds an inexhaustible interest and delight in the spectacle of the world. The ordinary man soon outgrows the catholicity and vividness of his childish interest in things. He becomes blunter as he grows older. He has seen all this before. It is dull, stale, flat and unprofitable to him. That is to say, he has failed to grasp the elements of permanent significance in the shows of things. As soon as the newness of their outward features has worn away, and they have ceased to prick his jaded sense, they become a mere weariness. He has never seized, or never strongly and clearly enough, the immortal part of them, and the perishable appearance, the symbol by which their inward life is half revealed and half concealed, fades by repetition. The old cat, reserving herself for serious business, which is mice, is unmoved by the ball of thread which let loose the overflowing vitality of the kitten. All the more is our need for those who, favoured by the gods, like the ancient Greeks, are always children, who in their firm manhood still retain the disinterested and unworn exuberance of youth, and use the solidity of their maturer vigour to give body and consistency to such glimpses as have come to them of the perennial, myriad-sided marvel and problem of the living world. Those who succeed in doing so with a certain clearness, completeness, harmony and sanity, we call great artists.

The clearness of the artist's vision is the primary requisite. It is plainly only a side of what has. been insisted on as the basis of his endowment—the gift of free and unselfish attention, the capacity of being supremely arrested, interested and absorbed by the infinite entrancing show; to lose himself in that, by loving immersion in it to make his own some parts and aspects of it, in all the living individual distinctness of their characteristic features; to reproduce the very form and pressure of them in his own mind. The man who sees in this way can make others see with him, and will inevitably feel a strong impulse to do so. Some artists whose work falls short of greatness, in the other qualities mentioned, in completeness, harmony and sanity, retain their hold upon us chiefly by the admirable vigour with which they realize this quality of mere intense and vital vision. Conspicuous examples in our own literature are Defoe, Smollett and Swift. But while it is true that this is the indispensable basis; that without it no one can be an artist at all, with it any artist will produce what is at least fascinating; much more than this is needed to make a great artist. The work of a great artist must have a certain completeness; it must not be altogether incommensurable with the infinity of the world; no important and universal aspect of man's concerns must be omitted by him. He must see life not merely vividly in parts, he must see and reproduce it as a whole. Moreover, what is no doubt already implied in this, his presentation of life must be harmonious, sane, invigorating. He must grasp the essence of all, must seize and convincingly body forth for us in the transparent shapes of the ideal world he creates, the inner reason, order and music which underlie the discords and confusions of the actual world. He must see God. That is what gives to the products of his genius their quality of high emotion. That is the hidden spell, too, which has been drawing him all along, the secret spring of his intense interest in things, the only possible explanation of the strong, blind instinct which drives him to contemplate and reproduce them. If the world were not fundamentally God's world, it could not grow artists. A chaos could not blossom into poets for its final flower. The very existence of the artistic nature is a main proof of the soul of goodness in things. None the less arduous is the spiritual struggle which the poet has to wrestle through, in order to gain and communicate as a conscious and assured possession, what is at bottom the pre-supposition of his own activities. None sees so clearly and directly as he the dark side, none feels so keenly the weight of this unintelligible world, or rejects with such instinctive vehemence the inadequacies of all comfortable inherited conventional solutions, the now mouldering bridges built by our fathers to cross their narrower stream, which has greatly broadened at the point where we stand confronted by it. Yet he must face this task and work it out if he is to fulfil his highest functions. The world he gives us must be a world of order and beauty. He must climb up the rugged peaks which lead to the serene ether of art, and bathe all the forms of his shaping imagination in that clear, mildly diffused light.

This is a high standard by which to measure Robert Louis Stevenson. In my opinion he can bear it better on the whole than any recent writer of prose fiction in the English language. In any case a lower measure would be an insult to the intense and unceasing ardour of endeavour which he gave to the work he was born to. For one thing can at any rate be said of him, that no man ever put more conscience into his art. He never wrote a careless line. And when we consider the conditions lie worked under, his life long battle, with frequent succumbings, attended by total prostration, against a terrible disease, which made it death for him to dwell in or even to revisit Scotland, though Scotland was the true home of his spirit, the source of his best inspirations and the theme of his last and greatest work, we can say that whether he attained to enduring poetry or not, his life at least was a poem, an inspiring memory which his native land, and, indeed, the world at large, cannot afford, and will not choose soon to let die. He was the true son of Scottish builders, whose lighthouses will stand for ages to come the strain of the Atlantic waves. He felt himself a weakling compared with them. But for all the charming and rightly considered, the pathetic and heroic lightness sometimes marking his outward ways, the amazing free fling, the buoyancy and youthful dash and almost swagger of the man, the ground work of his character, was just the dour Scotch courage, the stern sense of duty of his ancestors, the inherited abhorrence of all slack, scamped work, the imperious instinct that could not rest content with anything less than the just lines and straight clear edges, and ashlar masonry of Skerryvore,' in his own paper fabrics, some of which, I think, may happen to endure and lighten for as long a date. If Stevenson was not a great artist, he was at least what is the first thing indispensable in a great artist, a thorough man and a thorough workman. He took his task with a rare and noble seriousness, and if he failed in winning the highest favours of the Muse, it was not for lack of strenuous sacrifice.

One is tempted to dwell on the heroic and delightful personality of Stevenson, as it could have been divined in his books, and as it is clearly revealed in his recently published letters. At present, however, we are mainly concerned to attempt some estimate of his work as an artist. The best of this work is undoubtedly the part of it which deals with Scotland. "Kidnapped," "David Balfour," the "Master of Ballantrae," "Weir of Heriniston," and I think one might add most of the Scottish verse in "Underwoods" would be generally admitted to have the best claim to permanence of all he has left us. For me, at least, this small list of books has this in common with the novels of Scott, Thackeray and Dickens, that I am always compelled to go back to them from time to time, and always find it worth while. I cannot say as much for any other works of prose fiction which have appeared in my day.

This may be a matter of individual taste; and, of course, one cannot impose one's literary likes and dislikes on other people by any process of demonstration. The only course which can be adopted in seeking to communicate to others one's own impressions of a writer is to analyze his work with reference to some standard agreed upon as adequate, such as I have attempted to lay down, and to show its quality by means of carefully selected specimens.

The first thing that strikes one in Stevenson's work is the extraordinary vividness with which his scenes and characters are realized. In this primary artistic quality he takes rank, as it seems to me, with the best we have. His plastic power is unique in recent literature. Every one of the tales and some of the poems in our list abounds in pictures which, apart from other elements of enchantment, remain stamped upon the reader's mind by dint of mere clean and vigorous drawing, of coercive and penetrating verisimilitude. Take one of his simplest and earliest books, "Kidnapped." The parting of David Balfour with Mr. Campbell, the minister of Essendean, the house of Shaws, its miserly inmate with his nightcap and cough, its ruined staircase illuminated with flashes of lightning, the inn at Queensferry and the ships in the bay, the fight in the round-house, the stranding of the brig Covenant, the miseries of Earraid, the two Catechists, the shooting of Cohn Campbell, the scene after in the house of Aucharn, the confused hurrying to and fro, flicker of torches, burying of weapons, burning of papers, the haggard pre-occupations of James Stewart, the suspected man, struggling with his Highland sense of hospitable duty, the pitiful outbreak of temper with his son, the tears and agonized gratitude of his wife to the Lowland lad, who will risk himself to save the innocent, the flight in the heather, with all its wealth of sharp- cut, vitally imaged incident, Cluny Macpherson's cave, the bag-pipe contest between Alan Breck and Robin Og in the house of Duncan Maclaren in Balwhidder; in short, every single scene without exception in the book, from the first page to the last, has this same seizing quality of living vision and clear, unfaltering line. It is just the same in "David Balfour," the "Master of Ballantrae," and, indeed, in every work which left that "forth-right craftsman's hand." He thoroughly sees and feels his world, and communicates to us the indubitable atmosphere, the palpable verity of it, the very smell of the sea and the old sailing ships, of the heather and bogs of Rannoch, the crying of the solans on the Bass Rock and the eerie echoes of its caves, the scream of the whaups on the uplands of a border parish.

As one convincing example, out of many, illustrating besides Steven- son's perfect mastery of the Scottish dialect, in the artistic use of which he can scarcely be said to come second to Walter Scott himself, I would refer to Andie Dale's tale of Tod Lapraik, in chapter XV. of "David Balfour." A great deal might be said of Stevenson's Scotch, both Lowland and Highland. The chief thing is that it is always expressive, rhythmic, noble, restrained, not mere philology, but art. It is the cream of the language, the part worth rescuing from oblivion, inherently immortal, universal, intelligible to anyone with the least spark of imagination, and never splashed upon the canvas as by some of his many imitators in mere wantonness of intemperate zeal for local, which ends by being only. parochial colour. The source directly or indirectly of most of the inspiration of the kail-yaird school, he differs vastly from several of its representatives in this, that he never overdoes anything. His perceptions were infinitely too fine to let him wallow in any kind of literary excess, or sink into lumbering splay-footed bathos.

Stevenson's power in delineation appears not only in his scenes, but perhaps even still more in the drawing of his figures. In fact, his place in the evolution of fiction, or, to put it more modestly, the distinctive character of his achievement as a novelist might be indicated by saying that he enriched the broad, primitive, romantic interest of thrilling adventure, and objectively presented scenes and actors, with the careful character-analysis of the psychological novel, avoiding the shallowness of Dumas and the puppets and pedantry of George Eliot. Considering the comparatively small quantity of his work, the number of really living personages he has given us is not short of marvellous. The most insignificant figure does not fail to get its individualizing stroke of definite characterization. Take the lawyers, for instance, in chapter XVII. of "David Balfour." His art is like sculpture in marble, and ranges from the moulding of a Colossus like Adam Weir, the Lord Justice- Clerk, down to Tanagra statuettes like the Countess von Rosen in Prince Otto, or the French prisoner in St. Yves. His Scottish portrait gallery, in particular, comes second, though, it is true, a long way second only to the unapproachable, to Sir Walter Scott's. First, of course, suggest themselves the im-mortal types of the Lowland Scot and of the Highlander, David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart. David most thoroughly reveals himself in his delightful Scotch- English, the very lilt and rhythm of which plunges us "in medias res" into the essential atmosphere of that old Scotland of the decade after the Forty-Five. We get quite inside of David and know him as if we had been at school with him. This is the very "law- land loon," the basis of him a certain stiff whinstone sense and courage, without flexibility or charm, but most effective in the sterner business of life, staunch when a friend's back is at the wall or a principle is at stake; somewhat of a moral pedant and a whig dyed in the grain, but with a saving grace of pawky humour too; more close with his money than is quite graceful on ordinary occasions, and setting wastefulness and ineffective husbandry very low down in his list of deadly sins, but capable of warming up to prodigality both of purse and life where there is good cause. This is the race who have built bridges and made money, and stood up for law and freedom all the world over, and who have split up at home into the finest fragments of sects on infinitesimal points of doctrine. And yet, like the Odysseus of Homer, the Jacob of Genesis, or the douce David Deans of the Heart of Midlothian, he is not a type merely, but an individual with flesh and blood. We should scarcely be surprised to meet him in prop-ia persona in some other world among the departed whom we knew alive. Through David's Lowland eyes, too we see in significant reflection the authentic features of that strange old Highland world of Athol brose and bag-pipes, peat-rock and skiandhus with its wild beauties, savage fidelities and noblenesses, and its political and economical impracticabilities. Above all we see the quintessence of it all the irresistible Alan Breck Stewart, to my mind the most convincing portrait drawn with the most penetrating sympathy and the most delicate, swift- glancing truth of the Highland character in all our literature. It may sound impious to say so, but even Sir Walter's Highlanders, Roderick Dhu, Rob Roy and Fergus Maciver, not to speak of that libellous abortion Conacher in The Fair Maid of Perth, are cold, histrionic, unsympathetic and remote, compared with Alan Breck. There is such a charming life and buoyancy to him. His delicious heathen self-conceit and the purely artistic, child-like joy with which he revels over his bloody work in the round-house, the soaring hyperbole of his war song, and his ecstatic cry, "am I no a bonny fechter?", the dancing lightness which flashes in his eye when he smells a fight, the infinite resource and toughness of this Highland Odysseus, the charm of his well-hung tongue enough to wile the birds off the trees, not to be resisted by female hearts young or old, with its sure and cunning touch right on the quick of the responsive chord, the artistic fervour which overfloods all inveterate prejudices and old feuds in enthusiastic recognition of his rival piper's and blood-enemy's mastery of the instrument, the exquisite topsy-turviness of his ethical theory; all this, combined with the fundamental truth and faithfulness of the man, does indeed warm the blood like sunshine or like wine. To get any parallel to this sympathetic and yet keen-eyed treatment of the Celt one has to go back beyond Sir Walter Scott to a greater than he, to the Owen Glendower and Fluellen of Shakespeare. Observe the skill, too, with which Stevenson sets off these two types against each other, co-operating with their contrasting gifts, not without inevitable collisions, but in the final issue with full accord of mutual respect and affection, and even reciprocal assimilation, to one end; and admire the concentrated art with which he has shadowed forth as it were in a parable through these contrasted types the whole range of characteristic quality which Scotland has contributed to the British Empire and to the world.

It is impossible within the limits to take even a glance at many of the figures in this rich gallery. A host must be passed over. That most fascinating and ruthless of villains, the Master of Ballantrac, the douce Mackellar, decent man (though we shall return to them), the false and kindly politician Prestongrange, the unctuous Highland sentimentalist James More Macgregor, so sweet and natural in the luxuriant bloom of his half-unconscious hollowness, his whole being wrapt round in a delicious melancholy mist of lies; the gallant, kind-hearted, wild and witty Miss Barbara Grant, another Beatrice, with her high-born audacities in speech and act of the end of last century Scottish grande dame, the dear Highland maid Catriona, fragrant of the mountain birks, the coo of the hill-streams in her voice, her soul as clean and bold and impetuous as they, Kirslie Elliot, the Moorland Helen, with her lavish golden hair, the tragic wealth of dammed-up, unexpended passion bursting for outlet in the fierce virginity of her lonely heart; all these and many more, especially the two old Scotch ladies in David Balfour and in St. Yves, and the Lowland peasants like Andie Dale, the Elliots of Cauldstaneslap, and the two drovers in St. Yves, must be reluctantly hurried over. But there is one which it is impossible to pass by without a look, by far the mightiest figure of all—Weir of Hermiston. Distinctively Lowland-Scotch like David Balfour, but on an incomparably larger scale, rugged, elemental, tragic, an uncompromising piece of Nature's own boldest rock- sculpture. Huge as the Bass Rock whose white head, bespattered by the wild fowl, towers unshaken over gurly scas, and on closer view no less repellent to dainty senses in the unsavouriness of its superficial detail, a Cato and Gargantua in one. A man of great powers, massive virtues and coarse pleasures. A great lawyer, inwardly absorbed in austere intellectual pleasures, he unbends in mighty potations and incredible ribald coarseness, wallowing with elephantine gusto in the mud-bath of plebeian Scotch "sculduddery." The very embodiment of the impersonal majesty of punitive law, an impregnable bulwark of the State, a terror to evil-doers, not bearing the sword in vain, he is the hanging judge, driving before him the noxious vermin of society into the dust-heap with a kind of grand pitilessness like an inexorable natural force, and not without a certain callous glee in the clean whirl of his broom. And yet, with an unfathomed inarticulate sea of love and pity, too, in the depths of him. A figure, in short, of antique wholeness and simplicity, the rocky ground of it a sublime, unconscious devotion to duty, a silent mountainous valour and veracity. So racy of the soil, too, as Scotch as the Lammermoors, with John Knox and John Calvin, and the unruffled certitude of hell, as an irrefutable part of the universe, worked into every line. Here again Stevenson, as is his wont, makes a masterly use of the device of contrast. Hermiston's rude vastness, as it looms up before our eyes, is the more intensely felt for being set off by the foil of his wife's fecklessness, her shivering softness of heart and evangelical fervour, of his son's youthful sentimentality, and aristocratic fineness of sense of the high-bred, fastidious, almost monastic refinement and thin-flanked stately grace of Lord Glenalmond. It is one of the calamities of literature that Stevenson's strength sank under the intense spiritual strain of this, his last and greatest effort. He dictated part of it in dumb alphabet on his fingers when he was too weak to spare breath. He was never able to work out in detail the tragic conflict in the breast of the old Scotch Titan, who, like a Roman father, in obedience to duty, condemns his own son to death, and himself dies of that sentence. Few men indeed in our day would have dared to conceive such a situation. Only one man could have executed it, and he did not live to do it. It was a noble and characteristic end for him to die in the throes of this creative wrestle.

What has been said, and a great deal has been left unsaid, is enough to show what manner of spirit Stevenson was of, that he possessed in that supreme degree which is granted only to the few elect, the power of intense, penetrating, individual, first-hand vision both of the eye and of the heart. That and all that goes with it, concentration, a sure and rapid touch, bold, strong lines, not one of which but tells; simple, common material, the refuse that lies unheeded at all doors fused in that fervid imagination and transformed by magic handling into a glowing wonder; the few piercing words that sting like sudden flames and make the whole scene knock at the ribs. Enough has been said, too, to show that in spite of small quantity of production, the range of his mastery both in character and in emotion was great, though not perhaps of the greatest—far behind Scott's, for example. There remains to consider the last and deepest quality of high genius. Is his' work invigor- ating and harmonious? Does the spirit that goes out from him make for a sane and virile view of life, for a stout and hopeful lift of the daily burden, or for morbidness and weariness, for a slack and nerveless luxury of woe, for life, in short, or for death? Well, he would have been no true Scotchman, no spiritual descendant of John Knox, and Walter Scott, and Robert Burns, if he had lent any countenance to meagrims. He has not done so. Read in " Underwoods" the "Blast," the "Counterblast," and the "Con nterbiast Ironical," and you will find there the dour Scotch rendering of Pessimism, which in its mere manly vigour gives itself the lie; the beautiful and splendidly sensible refutation of it in soberseriousness, and the vitriolic brevity of sarcastic contempt for its caterwauling arrogance. In this connection I would refer, too, to the House Beautiful," the "Celestial Surgeon," "Our Lady of the Snows," and "Not Yet My Soul," in " Underwoods," where a still higher and deeper note is struck, and the vigorous stoicism of the Scotch verse is reinforced with sweeter overtones of pious beauty. Yes, Stevenson's was one of the most clear-sighted and valiant against heavy odds of our century. The spiritual vitality and unfailing spring of inward health in him kept him alert and joyous, responsive to all tender and profound and odd impressions, to the grace and mystery, the gloom and the absurdity of this many-coloured spectacle of life, its loveliness, its tears, its laughs. The same spirit breathes from his books. They do not depress, they tone us up. And that not on any cheap terms; not by a shallow optimism, comfortably blind to unpleasant truths, nor by any idyllic rose-water, from which the harsher elements of reality are carefully strained out. On the contrary, the complex facts are squarely faced, the shadows and even the squalor of the verso are given unflinchingly in trenchant strokes, sometimes with realistic poignancy, sometimes with deep elegiac and tragic pathos. Yet the whole never leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Even what is bitter to the taste is sweet to the belly, has a tonic, invigorating quality. The general effect is harmony, not discord. Stevenson is emphatically one of those writers who, looking at things immediately for themselves with their own eyes, not through the coloured glasses of inherited formula, and giving us a convincingly first-hand transcript of reality, do nevertheless somehow as the whole effect of them communicate or reinforce the total impression that life is worth living, and that reason rules. He, too, bears witness in his own way with the Sons of Morning—Merrlich wie am erstch Tag. He is one of these potent idealists, sometimes called by the opposite name, who can grapple with the naked fact as it lies in the mire and extract its gold. Clear and piercing as is his eye for the first aspect of its repellant detail, he can yet see life steadily and see it whole.

I will close with one short verse of Stevenson's which sums up "subspecie aeternitatis," as it were, the high melodious sanity of his testimony on life and death. The aspiration it expresses is worthily fulfilled in that tomb on a mountain top like the immortal grammarian's, in distant Samoa far from the land he loved and glorified, but close to the stars, and within sound of the sea, the tomb in which the fragile form once fretted by that strenuous and soaring spirit has found its appropriate place of rest.

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie;
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me,
"Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill."

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