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

Chapter XXVII

Mr G. Moore, Mr Marriott Watson and Others

FROM our point of view it will therefore be seen that we could not have read Mr George Moore’s wonderfully uncritical and misdirected diatribe against Stevenson in THE DAILY CHRONICLE of 24th April 1897, without amusement, if not without laughter — indeed, we confess we may here quote Shakespeare’s words, we “laughed so consumedly” that, unless for Mr Moore’s high position and his assured self-confidence, we should not trust ourselves to refer to it, not to speak of writing about it. It was a review of THE SECRET ROSE by W. B. Yeats, but it passed after one single touch to belittling abuse of Stevenson — an abuse that was justified the more, in Mr Moore’s idea, because Stevenson was dead. Had he been alive he might have had something to say to it, in the way, at least, of fable and moral. And when towards the close Mr Moore again quotes from Mr Yeats, it is still “harping on my daughter” to undo Stevenson, as though a rat was behind the arras, as in HAMLET. “Stevenson,” says he, “is the leader of these countless writers who perceive nothing but the visible world,” and these are antagonistic to the great literature, of which Mr Yeats’s SECRET ROSE is a survival or a renaissance, a literature whose watchword should be Mr Yeats’s significant phrase, “When one looks into the darkness there is always something there.” No doubt Mr Yeats’s product all along the line ranks with the great literature — unlike Homer, according to Mr Moore, he never nods, though in the light of great literature, poor Stevenson is always at his noddings, and more than that, in the words of Leland’s Hans Breitmann, he has “nodings on.” He is poor, naked, miserable — a mere pretender — and has no share in the makings of great literature. Mr Moore has stripped him to the skin, and leaves him to the mercy of rain and storm, like Lear, though Lear had a solid ground to go on in self-aid, which Stevenson had not; he had daughters, and one of them was Cordelia, after all. This comes of painting all boldly in black and white: Mr Yeats is white, R. L. Stevenson is black, and I am sure neither one nor other, because simply of their self-devotion to their art, could have subscribed heartily to Mr Moore’s black art and white art theory. Mr Yeats is hardly the truest modern Celtic artist I take him for, if he can fully subscribe to all this.

Mr Marriott Watson has a little unadvisedly, in my view, too like ambition, fallen on ‘tother side, and celebrated Stevenson as the master of the horrifying. 11 He even finds the EBB-TIDE, and Huish, the cockney, in it richly illustrative and grand. “There never was a more magnificent cad in literature, and never a more foul-hearted little ruffian. His picture glitters (!) with life, and when he curls up on the island beach with the bullet in his body, amid the flames of the vitriol he had intended for another, the reader’s shudder conveys something also, even (!) of regret.”

And well it may! Individual taste and opinion are but individual taste and opinion, but the EBB-TIDE and the cockney I should be inclined to cite as a specimen of Stevenson’s all too facile make- believe, in which there is too definite a machinery set agoing for horrors for the horrors to be quite genuine. The process is often too forced with Stevenson, and the incidents too much of the manufactured order, for the triumph of that simplicity which is of inspiration and unassailable. Here Stevenson, alas! all too often, PACE Mr Marriott Watson, treads on the skirts of E. A. Poe, and that in his least composed and elevated artistic moments. And though, it is true, that “genius will not follow rules laid down by desultory critics,” yet when it is averred that “this piece of work fulfils Aristotle’s definition of true tragedy, in accomplishing upon the reader a certain purification of the emotions by means of terror and pity,” expectations will be raised in many of the new generation, doomed in the cases of the more sensitive and discerning, at all events, not to be gratified. There is a distinction, very bold and very essential, between melodrama, however carefully worked and staged, and that tragedy to which Aristotle was there referring. Stevenson’s “horrifying,” to my mind, too often touches the trying borders of melodrama, and nowhere more so than in the very forced and unequal EBB-TIDE, which, with its rather doubtful moral and forced incident when it is good, seems merely to borrow from what had gone before, if not a very little even from some of what came after. No service is done to an author like Stevenson by fatefully praising him for precisely the wrong thing.

“Romance attracted Stevenson, at least during the earlier part of his life, as a lodestone attracts the magnet. To romance he brought the highest gifts, and he has left us not only essays of delicate humour” (should this not be “essays FULL OF” OR “characterised by”?) “and sensitive imagination, but stories also which thrill with the realities of life, which are faithful pictures of the times and tempers he dealt with, and which, I firmly believe, will live so” (should it not be “as”?) “long as our noble English language.”

Mr Marriott Watson sees very clearly in some things; but occasionally he misses the point. The problem is here raised how two honest, far-seeing critics could see so very differently on so simple a subject.

Mr Baildon says about the EBB-TIDE:

“I can compare his next book, the EBB-TIDE (in collaboration with Osbourne) to little better than a mud-bath, for we find ourselves, as it were, unrelieved by dredging among the scum and dregs of humanity, the ‘white trash’ of the Pacific. Here we have Stevenson’s masterly but utterly revolting incarnation of the lowest, vilest, vulgarest villainy in the cockney, Huish. Stevenson’s other villains shock us by their cruel and wicked conduct; but there is a kind of fallen satanic glory about them, some shining threads of possible virtue. They might have been good, even great in goodness, but for the malady of not wanting. But Huish is a creature hatched in slime, his soul has no true humanity: it is squat and toad-like, and can only spit venom. . . . He himself felt a sort of revulsive after-sickness for the story, and calls it in one passage of his VAILIMA LETTERS ‘the ever-to-be- execrated EBB-TIDE’ (pp. 178 and 184). . . . He repented of it like a debauch, and, as with some men after a debauch, felt cleared and strengthened instead of wrecked. So, after what in one sense was his lowest plunge, Stevenson rose to the greatest height. That is the tribute to his virtue and strength indeed, but it does not change the character of the EBB-TIDE as ‘the ever-to-be- execrated.’”

Mr Baildon truly says (p. 49):

“The curious point is that Stevenson’s own great fault, that tendency to what has been called the ‘Twopence-coloured’ style, is always at its worst in books over which he collaborated.”

“Verax,” in one of his “Occasional Papers” in the DAILY NEWS on “The Average Reader” has this passage:

“We should not object to a writer who could repeat Barrie in A WINDOW IN THRUMS, nor to one who would paint a scene as Louis Stevenson paints Attwater alone on his South Sea island, the approach of the pirates to the harbour, and their subsequent reception and fate. All these are surely specimens of brilliant writing, and they are brilliant because, in the first place, they give truth. The events described must, in the supposed circumstances, and with the given characters, have happened in the way stated. Only in none of the specimens have we a mere photograph of the outside of what took place. We have great pictures by genius of the — to the prosaic eye — invisible realities, as well as of the outward form of the actions. We behold and are made to feel the solemnity, the wildness, the pathos, the earnestness, the agony, the pity, the moral squalor, the grotesque fun, the delicate and minute beauty, the natural loveliness and loneliness, the quiet desperate bravery, or whatever else any of these wonderful pictures disclose to our view. Had we been lookers-on, we, the average readers, could not have seen these qualities for ourselves. But they are there, and genius enables us to see them. Genius makes truth shine.

“Is it not, therefore, probable that the brilliancy which we average readers do not want, and only laugh at when we get it, is something altogether different? I think I know what it is. It is an attempt to describe with words without thoughts, an effort to make readers see something the writer has never seen himself in his mind’s eye. He has no revelation, no vision, nothing to disclose, and to produce an impression uses words, words, words, makes daub, daub, daub, without any definite purpose, and certainly without any real, or artistic, or definite effect. To describe, one must first of all see, and if we see anything the description of it will, as far as it is in us, come as effortless and natural as the leaves on trees, or as ‘the tender greening of April meadows.’ I, therefore, more than suspect that the brilliancy which the average reader laughs at is not brilliancy. A pot of flaming red paint thrown at a canvas does not make a picture.”

Now there is vision for outward picture or separate incident, which may exist quite apart from what may be called moral, spiritual, or even loftily imaginative conception, at once commanding unity and commanding it. There can be no doubt of Stevenson’s power in the former line — the earliest as the latest of his works are witnesses to it. THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE abounds in picture and incident and dramatic situations and touches; but it lacks true unity, and the reason simply is given by Stevenson himself — that the “ending shames, perhaps degrades, the beginning,” as it is in the EBB-TIDE, with the cockney Huish, “execrable.” “We have great pictures by genius of the — to the prosaic eye — invisible realities, as well as the outward form of the action.” True, but the “invisible realities” form that from which true unity is derived, else their partial presence but makes the whole the more incomplete and lop- sided, if not indeed, top-heavy, from light weight beneath; and it is in the unity derived from this higher pervading, yet not too assertive “invisible reality,” that Stevenson most often fails, and is, in his own words, “execrable”; the ending shaming, if not degrading, the beginning — “and without the true sense of pleasurableness; and therefore really imperfect IN ESSENCE.” Ah, it is to be feared that Stevenson, viewing it in retrospect, was a far truer critic of his own work, than many or most of his all too effusive and admiring critics — from Lord Rosebery to Mr Marriott Watson.

Amid the too extreme deliverances of detractors and especially of erewhile friends, become detractors or panegyrists, who disturb judgment by overzeal, which is often but half-blindness, it is pleasant to come on one who bears the balances in his hand, and will report faithfully as he has seen and felt, neither more nor less than what he holds is true. Mr Andrew Lang wrote an article in the MORNING POST of 16th December 1901, under the title “Literary Quarrels,” in which, as I think, he fulfilled his part in midst of the talk about Mr Henley’s regrettable attack on Stevenson.

“Without defending the character of a friend whom even now I almost daily miss, as that character was displayed in circumstances unknown to me, I think that I ought to speak of him as I found him. Perhaps our sympathy was mainly intellectual. Constantly do those who knew him desire to turn to him, to communicate with him, to share with him the pleasure of some idea, some little discovery about men or things in which he would have taken pleasure, increasing our own by the gaiety of his enjoyment, the brilliance of his appreciation. We may say, as Scott said at the grave of John Ballantyne, that he has taken with him half the sunlight out of our lives. That he was sympathetic and interested in the work of others (which I understand has been denied) I have reason to know. His work and mine lay far apart: mine, I think, we never discussed, I did not expect it to interest him. But in a fragmentary manuscript of his after his death I found the unlooked for and touching evidence of his kindness. Again, he once wrote to me from Samoa about the work of a friend of mine whom he had never met. His remarks were ideally judicious, a model of serviceable criticism. I found him chivalrous as an honest boy; brave, with an indomitable gaiety of courage; on the point of honour, a Sydney or a Bayard (so he seemed to me); that he was open-handed I have reason to believe; he took life ‘with a frolic welcome.’ That he was self-conscious, and saw himself as it were, from without; that he was fond of attitude (like his own brave admirals) he himself knew well, and I doubt not that he would laugh at himself and his habit of ‘playing at’ things after the fashion of childhood. Genius is the survival into maturity of the inspiration of childhood, and Stevenson is not the only genius who has retained from childhood something more than its inspiration. Other examples readily occur to the memory — in one way Byron, in another Tennyson. None of us is perfect: I do not want to erect an immaculate clay-cold image of a man, in marble or in sugar-candy. But I will say that I do not remember ever to have heard Mr Stevenson utter a word against any mortal, friend or foe. Even in a case where he had, or believed himself to have, received some wrong, his comment was merely humorous. Especially when very young, his dislike of respectability and of the BOURGEOIS (a literary tradition) led him to show a kind of contempt for virtues which, though certainly respectable, are no less certainly virtuous. He was then more or less seduced by the Bohemian legend, but he was intolerant of the fudge about the rights and privileges of genius. A man’s first business, he thought, was ‘keep his end up’ by his work. If, what he reckoned his inspired work would not serve, then by something else. Of many virtues he was an ensample and an inspiring force. One foible I admit: the tendency to inopportune benevolence. Mr Graham Balfour says that if he fell into ill terms with a man he would try to do him good by stealth. Though he had seen much of the world and of men, this practice showed an invincible ignorance of mankind. It is improbable, on the doctrine of chances, that he was always in the wrong; and it is probable, as he was human, that he always thought himself in the right. But as the other party to the misunderstanding, being also human, would necessarily think himself in the right, such secret benefits would be, as Sophocles says, ‘the gifts of foeman and unprofitable.’ The secret would leak out, the benefits would be rejected, the misunderstanding would be embittered. This reminds me of an anecdote which is not given in Mr Graham Balfour’s biography. As a little delicate, lonely boy in Edinburgh, Mr Stevenson read a book called MINISTERING CHILDREN. I have a faint recollection of this work concerning a small Lord and Lady Bountiful. Children, we know, like to ‘play at’ the events and characters they have read about, and the boy wanted to play at being a ministering child. He ‘scanned his whole horizon’ for somebody to play with, and thought he had found his playmate. From the window he observed street boys (in Scots ‘keelies’) enjoying themselves. But one child was out of the sports, a little lame fellow, the son of a baker. Here was a chance! After some misgivings Louis hardened his heart, put on his cap, walked out — a refined little figure — approached the object of his sympathy, and said, ‘Will you let me play with you?’ ‘Go to hell!’ said the democratic offspring of the baker. This lesson against doing good by stealth to persons of unknown or hostile disposition was, it seems, thrown away. Such endeavours are apt to be misconstrued.”

11 FORTNIGHTLY REVIEW, October, 1903.

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