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

Chapter XXIX

Love of Vagabonds

WHAT is very remarkable in Stevenson is that a man who was so much the dreamer of dreams — the mystic moralist, the constant questioner and speculator on human destiny and human perversity, and the riddles that arise on the search for the threads of motive and incentives to human action — moreover, a man, who constantly suffered from one of the most trying and weakening forms of ill- health — should have been so full-blooded, as it were, so keen for contact with all forms of human life and character, what is called the rougher and coarser being by no means excluded. Not only this: he was himself a rover — seeking daily adventure and contact with men and women of alien habit and taste and liking. His patience is supported by his humour. He was a bit of a vagabond in the good sense of the word, and always going round in search of “honest men,” like Diogenes, and with no tub to retire into or the desire for it. He thus on this side touches the Chaucers and their kindred, as well as the Spensers and Dantes and their often illusive CONFRERES. His voyage as a steerage passenger across the Atlantic is only one out of a whole chapter of such episodes, and is more significant and characteristic even than the TRAVELS WITH A DONKEY IN THE CEVENNES or the INLAND VOYAGE. These might be ranked with the “Sentimental Journeys” that have sometimes been the fashion — that was truly of a prosaic and risky order. The appeal thus made to an element deep in the English nature will do much to keep his memory green in the hearts that could not rise to appreciation of his style and literary gifts at all. He loves the roadways and the by-ways, and those to be met with there — like him in this, though unlike him in most else. The love of the roadsides and the greenwood — and the queer miscellany of life there unfolded and ever changing — a kind of gipsy-like longing for the tent and familiar contact with nature and rude human-nature in the open dates from beyond Chaucer, and remains and will have gratification - the longing for novelty and all the accidents, as it were, of pilgrimage and rude social travel. You see it bubble up, like a true and new nature-spring, through all the surface coatings of culture and artificiality, in Stevenson. He anew, without pretence, enlivens it — makes it first a part of himself, and then a part of literature once more. Listen to him, as he sincerely sings this passion for the pilgrimage — or the modern phase of it — innocent vagabond roving:

“Give to me the life I love,

Let the lave go by me;

Give the jolly heaven above,

And the by-way nigh me:

Bed in the bush, with stars to see;

Bread I dip in the river —

Here’s the life for a man like me,

Here’s the life for ever. . . .

“Let the blow fall soon or late;

Let what will be o’er me;

Give the face of earth around

And the road before me.

Health I ask not, hope nor love,

Nor a friend to know me:

All I ask the heaven above,

And the road below me.”

True; this is put in the mouth of another, but Stevenson could not have so voiced it, had he not been the born rover that he was, with longing for the roadside, the high hills, and forests and newcomers and varied miscellaneous company. Here he does more directly speak in his own person and quite to the same effect:

“I will make you brooches and toys for your delight

Of bird song at morning, and star shine at night,

I will make a palace fit for you and me,

Of green days in forests and blue days at sea.

“I will make my kitchen, and you shall keep your room,

Where white flows the river, and bright blows the broom,

And you shall wash your linen and keep your body white,

In rainfall at morning and dew-fall at night.

“And this shall be for music when no one else is near,

The fine song for singing, the rare song to hear!

That only I remember, that only you admire,

Of the broad road that stretches, and the roadside fire.”

Here Stevenson, though original in his vein and way, but follows a great and gracious company in which Fielding and Sterne and so many others stand as pleasant proctors. Scott and Dickens have each in their way essayed it, and made much of it beyond what mere sentiment would have reached. PICKWICK itself — and we must always regard Dickens as having himself gone already over every bit of road, described every nook and corner, and tried every resource — is a vagrant fellow, in a group of erratic and most quaint wanderers or pilgrims. This is but a return phase of it; Vincent Crummles and Mrs Crummles and the “Infant Phenomenon,” yet another. The whole interest lies in the roadways, and the little inns, and the odd and unexpected RENCONTRES with oddly-assorted fellows there experienced: glimpses of grim or grimy, or forbidding, or happy, smiling smirking vagrants, and out-at-elbows fellow-passengers and guests, with jests and quips and cranks, and hanky-panky even. On high roads and in inns, and alehouses, with travelling players, rogues and tramps, Dickens was quite at home; and what is yet more, he made us all quite at home with them: and he did it as Chaucer did it by thorough good spirits and “hail-fellow-well-met.” And, with all his faults, he has this merit as well as some others, that he went willingly on pilgrimage always, and took others, promoting always love of comrades, fun, and humorous by-play. The latest great romancer, too, took his side: like Dickens, he was here full brother of Dan Chaucer, and followed him. How characteristic it is when he tells Mr Trigg that he preferred Samoa to Honolulu because it was more savage, and therefore yielded more FUN.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stevenson/robert_louis/s848zj/chapter29.html

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