Robert Louis Stevenson, A Record, An Estimate, A Memorial, by A.H. Japp

Chapter XIX

Edmund Clarence Stedman’s Estimate

It should be clearly remembered that Stevenson died at a little over forty — the age at which severity and simplicity and breadth in art but begin to be attained. If Scott had died at the age when Stevenson was taken from us, the world would have lacked the WAVERLEY NOVELS; if a like fate had overtaken Dickens, we should not have had A TALE OF TWO CITIES; and under a similar stroke, Goldsmith could not have written RETALIATION, or tasted the bitter- sweet first night of SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER. At the age of forty- four Mr Thomas Hardy had probably not dreamt of TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES. But what a man has already done at forty years is likely, I am afraid, to be a gauge as well as a promise of what he will do in the future; and from Stevenson we were entitled to expect perfect form and continued variety of subject, rather than a measurable dynamic gain.

This is the point of view which my friend and correspondent of years ago, Mr Edmund Clarence Stedman, of New York, set out by emphasising in his address, as President of the meeting under the auspices of the Uncut Leaves Society in New York, in the beginning of 1895, on the death of Stevenson, and to honour the memory of the great romancer, as reported in the NEW YORK TRIBUNE:

“We are brought together by tidings, almost from the Antipodes, of the death of a beloved writer in his early prime. The work of a romancer and poet, of a man of insight and feeling, which may be said to have begun but fifteen years ago, has ended, through fortune’s sternest cynicism, just as it seemed entering upon even more splendid achievement. A star surely rising, as we thought, has suddenly gone out. A radiant invention shines no more; the voice is hushed of a creative mind, expressing its fine imagining in this, our peerless English tongue. His expression was so original and fresh from Nature’s treasure-house, so prodigal and various, its too brief flow so consummate through an inborn gift made perfect by unsparing toil, that mastery of the art by which Robert Louis Stevenson conveyed those imaginings to us so picturesque, yet wisely ordered, his own romantic life — and now, at last, so pathetic a loss which renews

“‘The Virgilian cry,

The sense of tears in mortal things,’

that this assemblage has gathered at the first summons, in tribute to a beautiful genius, and to avow that with the putting out of that bright intelligence the reading world experiences a more than wonted grief.

“Judged by the sum of his interrupted work, Stevenson had his limitations. But the work was adjusted to the scale of a possibly long career. As it was, the good fairies brought all gifts, save that of health, to his cradle, and the gift-spoiler wrapped them in a shroud. Thinking of what his art seemed leading to — for things that would be the crowning efforts of other men seemed prentice- work in his case — it was not safe to bound his limitations. And now it is as if Sir Walter, for example, had died at forty-four, with the WAVERLEY NOVELS just begun! In originality, in the conception of action and situation, which, however phantastic, are seemingly within reason, once we breathe the air of his Fancyland; in the union of bracing and heroic character and adventure; in all that belongs to tale-writing pure and simple, his gift was exhaustless. No other such charmer, in this wise, has appeared in his generation. We thought the stories, the fairy tales, had all been told, but ‘Once upon a time’ meant for him our own time, and the grave and gay magic of Prince Florizel in dingy London or sunny France. All this is but one of his provinces, however distinctive. Besides, how he buttressed his romance with apparent truth! Since Defoe, none had a better right to say: ‘There was one thing I determined to do when I began this long story, and that was to tell out everything as it befell.’

“I remember delighting in two fascinating stories of Paris in the time of Francois Villon, anonymously reprinted by a New York paper from a London magazine. They had all the quality, all the distinction, of which I speak. Shortly afterward I met Mr Stevenson, then in his twenty-ninth year, at a London club, where we chanced to be the only loungers in an upper room. To my surprise he opened a conversation — you know there could be nothing more unexpected than that in London — and thereby I guessed that he was as much, if not as far, away from home as I was. He asked many questions concerning ‘the States’; in fact, this was but a few months before he took his steerage passage for our shores. I was drawn to the young Scotsman at once. He seemed more like a New- Englander of Holmes’s Brahmin caste, who might have come from Harvard or Yale. But as he grew animated I thought, as others have thought, and as one would suspect from his name, that he must have Scandinavian blood in his veins — that he was of the heroic, restless, strong and tender Viking strain, and certainly from that day his works and wanderings have not belied the surmise. He told me that he was the author of that charming book of gipsying in the Cevennes which just then had gained for him some attentions from the literary set. But if I had known that he had written those two stories of sixteenth-century Paris — as I learned afterwards when they reappeared in the NEW ARABIAN NIGHTS— I would not have bidden him good-bye as to an ‘unfledged comrade,’ but would have wished indeed to ‘grapple him to my soul with hooks of steel.’

“Another point is made clear as crystal by his life itself. He had the instinct, and he had the courage, to make it the servant, and not the master, of the faculty within him. I say he had the courage, but so potent was his birth-spell that doubtless he could not otherwise. Nothing commonplace sufficed him. A regulation stay-at-home life would have been fatal to his art. The ancient mandate, ‘Follow thy Genius,’ was well obeyed. Unshackled freedom of person and habit was a prerequisite; as an imaginary artist he felt — nature keeps her poets and story-tellers children to the last — he felt, if he ever reasoned it out, that he must gang his own gait, whether it seemed promising, or the reverse, to kith, kin, or alien. So his wanderings were not only in the most natural but in the wisest consonance with his creative dreams. Wherever he went, he found something essential for his use, breathed upon it, and returned it fourfold in beauty and worth. The longing of the Norseman for the tropic, of the pine for the palm, took him to the South Seas. There, too, strange secrets were at once revealed to him, and every island became an ‘Isle of Voices.’ Yes, an additional proof of Stevenson’s artistic mission lay in his careless, careful, liberty of life; in that he was an artist no less than in his work. He trusted to the impulse which possessed him — that which so many of us have conscientiously disobeyed and too late have found ourselves in reputable bondage to circumstances.

“But those whom you are waiting to hear will speak more fully of all this — some of them with the interest of their personal remembrance — with the strength of their affection for the man beloved by young and old. In the strange and sudden intimacy with an author’s record which death makes sure, we realise how notable the list of Stevenson’s works produced since 1878; more than a score of books — not fiction alone, but also essays, criticism, biography, drama, even history, and, as I need not remind you, that spontaneous poetry which comes only from a true poet. None can have failed to observe that, having recreated the story of adventure, he seemed in his later fiction to interfuse a subtler purpose — the search for character, the analysis of mind and soul. Just here his summons came. Between the sunrise of one day and the sunset of the next he exchanged the forest study for the mountain grave. There, as he had sung his own wish, he lies ‘under the wide and starry sky.’ If there was something of his own romance, so exquisitely capricious, in the life of Robert Louis Stevenson, so, also, the poetic conditions are satisfied in his death, and in the choice of his burial-place upon the top of Pala. As for the splendour of that maturity upon which we counted, now never to be fulfilled on sea or land, I say — as once before, when the great New-England romancer passed in the stillness of the night:

“‘What though his work unfinished lies? Half bent

The rainbow’s arch fades out in upper air,

The shining cataract half-way down the height

Breaks into mist; the haunting strain, that fell

On listeners unaware,

Ends incomplete, but through the starry night

The ear still waits for what it did not tell.’”

Dr Edward Eggleston finely sounded the personal note, and told of having met Stevenson at a hotel in New York. Stevenson was ill when the landlord came to Dr Eggleston and asked him if he should like to meet him. Continuing, he said:

“He was flat on his back when I entered, but I think I never saw anybody grow well in so short a time. It was a soul rather than a body that lay there, ablaze with spiritual fire, good will shining through everywhere. He did not pay me any compliment about my work, and I didn’t pay him any about his. We did not burn any of the incense before each other which authors so often think it necessary to do, but we were friends instantly. I am not given to speedy intimacies, but I could not help my heart going out to him. It was a wonderfully invested soul, no hedges or fences across his fields, no concealment. He was a romanticist; I was — well, I don’t know exactly what. But he let me into the springs of his romanticism then and there.

“‘You go in your boat every day?’ he asked. ‘You sail? Oh! to write a novel a man must take his life in his hands. He must not live in the town.’ And so he spoke, in his broad way, of course, according to the enthusiasm of the moment.

“I can’t sound any note of pathos here to-night. Some lives are so brave and sweet and joyous and well-rounded, with such a completeness about them that death does not leave imperfection. He never had the air of sitting up with his own reputation. He let his books toss in the waves of criticism and make their ports if they deserve to. He had no claptrap, no great cause, none of the disease of pruriency which came into fashion with Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant. He simply told his story, with no condescension, taking the readers into his heart and his confidence.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30