Tuesday, October 9, 2007


The Art of Writing by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Art of Writing by Robert Louis Stevenson
THERE is nothing more disenchanting to man than to be shown
the springs and mechanism of any art. All our arts and
occupations lie wholly on the surface; it is on the surface
that we perceive their beauty, fitness, and significance; and
to pry below is to be appalled by their emptiness and shocked
by the coarseness of the strings and pulleys. In a similar
way, psychology itself, when pushed to any nicety, discovers
an abhorrent baldness, but rather from the fault of our
analysis than from any poverty native to the mind. And
perhaps in aesthetics the reason is the same: those
disclosures which seem fatal to the dignity of art seem so
perhaps only in the proportion of our ignorance; and those
conscious and unconscious artifices which it seems unworthy
of the serious artist to employ were yet, if we had the power
to trace them to their springs, indications of a delicacy of
the sense finer than we conceive, and hints of ancient
harmonies in nature. This ignorance at least is largely
irremediable. We shall never learn the affinities of beauty,
for they lie too deep in nature and too far back in the
mysterious history of man. The amateur, in consequence, will
always grudgingly receive details of method, which can be
stated but never can wholly be explained; nay, on the
principle laid down in HUDIBRAS, that
'Still the less they understand,
The more they admire the sleight-of-hand,'
many are conscious at each new disclosure of a diminution in
the ardour of their pleasure. I must therefore warn that
well-known character, the general reader, that I am here
embarked upon a most distasteful business: taking down the
picture from the wall and looking on the back; and, like the
inquiring child, pulling the musical cart to pieces.
1. CHOICE OF WORDS. - The art of literature stands apart
from among its sisters, because the material in which the
literary artist works is the dialect of life; hence, on the
one hand, a strange freshness and immediacy of address to the
public mind, which is ready prepared to understand it; but
hence, on the other, a singular limitation. The sister arts
enjoy the use of a plastic and ductile material, like the
modeller's clay; literature alone is condemned to work in
mosaic with finite and quite rigid words. You have seen
these blocks, dear to the nursery: this one a pillar, that a
pediment, a third a window or a vase. It is with blocks of
just such arbitrary size and figure that the literary
architect is condemned to design the palace of his art. Nor
is this all; for since these blocks, or words, are the
acknowledged currency of our daily affairs, there are here
possible none of those suppressions by which other arts
obtain relief, continuity, and vigour: no hieroglyphic
touch, no smoothed impasto, no inscrutable shadow, as in
painting; no blank wall, as in architecture; but every word,
phrase, sentence, and paragraph must move in a logical
progression, and convey a definite conventional import.
Now the first merit which attracts in the pages of a good
writer, or the talk of a brilliant conversationalist, is the
apt choice and contrast of the words employed. It is,
indeed, a strange art to take these blocks, rudely conceived
for the purpose of the market or the bar, and by tact of
application touch them to the finest meanings and
distinctions, restore to them their primal energy, wittily
shift them to another issue, or make of them a drum to rouse
the passions. But though this form of merit is without doubt
the most sensible and seizing, it is far from being equally
present in all writers. The effect of words in Shakespeare,
their singular justice, significance, and poetic charm, is
different, indeed, from the effect of words in Addison or
Fielding. Or, to take an example nearer home, the words in
Carlyle seem electrified into an energy of lineament, like
the faces of men furiously moved; whilst the words in
Macaulay, apt enough to convey his meaning, harmonious enough
in sound, yet glide from the memory like undistinguished
elements in a general effect. But the first class of writers
have no monopoly of literary merit. There is a sense in
which Addison is superior to Carlyle; a sense in which Cicero
is better than Tacitus, in which Voltaire excels Montaigne:
it certainly lies not in the choice of words; it lies not in
the interest or value of the matter; it lies not in force of
intellect, of poetry, or of humour. The three first are but
infants to the three second; and yet each, in a particular
point of literary art, excels his superior in the whole.
What is that point?
2. THE WEB. - Literature, although it stands apart by reason
of the great destiny and general use of its medium in the
affairs of men, is yet an art like other arts. Of these we
may distinguish two great classes: those arts, like
sculpture, painting, acting, which are representative, or, as
used to be said very clumsily, imitative; and those, like
architecture, music, and the dance, which are selfsufficient,
and merely presentative. Each class, in right of
this distinction, obeys principles apart; yet both may claim
a common ground of existence, and it may be said with
sufficient justice that the motive and end of any art
whatever is to make a pattern; a pattern, it may be, of
colours, of sounds, of changing attitudes, geometrical
figures, or imitative lines; but still a pattern. That is
the plane on which these sisters meet; it is by this that
they are arts; and if it be well they should at times forget
their childish origin, addressing their intelligence to
virile tasks, and performing unconsciously that necessary
function of their life, to make a pattern, it is still
imperative that the pattern shall be made.
Music and literature, the two temporal arts, contrive their
pattern of sounds in time; or, in other words, of sounds and
pauses. Communication may be made in broken words, the
business of life be carried on with substantives alone; but
that is not what we call literature; and the true business of
the literary artist is to plait or weave his meaning,
involving it around itself; so that each sentence, by
successive phrases, shall first come into a kind of knot, and
then, after a moment of suspended meaning, solve and clear
itself. In every properly constructed sentence there should
be observed this knot or hitch; so that (however delicately)
we are led to foresee, to expect, and then to welcome the
successive phrases. The pleasure may be heightened by an
element of surprise, as, very grossly, in the common figure
of the antithesis, or, with much greater subtlety, where an
antithesis is first suggested and then deftly evaded. Each
phrase, besides, is to be comely in itself; and between the
implication and the evolution of the sentence there should be
a satisfying equipoise of sound; for nothing more often
disappoints the ear than a sentence solemnly and sonorously
prepared, and hastily and weakly finished. Nor should the
balance be too striking and exact, for the one rule is to be
infinitely various; to interest, to disappoint, to surprise,
and yet still to gratify; to be ever changing, as it were,
the stitch, and yet still to give the effect of an ingenious
The conjurer juggles with two oranges, and our pleasure in
beholding him springs from this, that neither is for an
instant overlooked or sacrificed. So with the writer. His
pattern, which is to please the supersensual ear, is yet
addressed, throughout and first of all, to the demands of
logic. Whatever be the obscurities, whatever the intricacies
of the argument, the neatness of the fabric must not suffer,
or the artist has been proved unequal to his design. And, on
the other hand, no form of words must be selected, no knot
must be tied among the phrases, unless knot and word be
precisely what is wanted to forward and illuminate the
argument; for to fail in this is to swindle in the game. The
genius of prose rejects the CHEVILLE no less emphatically
than the laws of verse; and the CHEVILLE, I should perhaps
explain to some of my readers, is any meaningless or very
watered phrase employed to strike a balance in the sound.
Pattern and argument live in each other; and it is by the
brevity, clearness, charm, or emphasis of the second, that we
judge the strength and fitness of the first.
Style is synthetic; and the artist, seeking, so to speak, a
peg to plait about, takes up at once two or more elements or
two or more views of the subject in hand; combines,
implicates, and contrasts them; and while, in one sense, he
was merely seeking an occasion for the necessary knot, he
will be found, in the other, to have greatly enriched the
meaning, or to have transacted the work of two sentences in
the space of one. In the change from the successive shallow
statements of the old chronicler to the dense and luminous
flow of highly synthetic narrative, there is implied a vast
amount of both philosophy and wit. The philosophy we clearly
see, recognising in the synthetic writer a far more deep and
stimulating view of life, and a far keener sense of the
generation and affinity of events. The wit we might imagine
to be lost; but it is not so, for it is just that wit, these
perpetual nice contrivances, these difficulties overcome,
this double purpose attained, these two oranges kept
simultaneously dancing in the air, that, consciously or not,
afford the reader his delight. Nay, and this wit, so little
recognised, is the necessary organ of that philosophy which
we so much admire. That style is therefore the most perfect,
not, as fools say, which is the most natural, for the most
natural is the disjointed babble of the chronicler; but which
attains the highest degree of elegant and pregnant
implication unobtrusively; or if obtrusively, then with the
greatest gain to sense and vigour. Even the derangement of
the phrases from their (so-called) natural order is luminous
for the mind; and it is by the means of such designed
reversal that the elements of a judgment may be most
pertinently marshalled, or the stages of a complicated action
most perspicuously bound into one.
The web, then, or the pattern: a web at once sensuous and
logical, an elegant and pregnant texture: that is style,
that is the foundation of the art of literature. Books
indeed continue to be read, for the interest of the fact or
fable, in which this quality is poorly represented, but still
it will be there. And, on the other hand, how many do we
continue to peruse and reperuse with pleasure whose only
merit is the elegance of texture? I am tempted to mention
Cicero; and since Mr. Anthony Trollope is dead, I will. It
is a poor diet for the mind, a very colourless and toothless
'criticism of life'; but we enjoy the pleasure of a most
intricate and dexterous pattern, every stitch a model at once
of elegance and of good sense; and the two oranges, even if
one of them be rotten, kept dancing with inimitable grace.
Up to this moment I have had my eye mainly upon prose; for
though in verse also the implication of the logical texture
is a crowning beauty, yet in verse it may be dispensed with.
You would think that here was a death-blow to all I have been
saying; and far from that, it is but a new illustration of
the principle involved. For if the versifier is not bound to
weave a pattern of his own, it is because another pattern has
been formally imposed upon him by the laws of verse. For
that is the essence of a prosody. Verse may be rhythmical;
it may be merely alliterative; it may, like the French,
depend wholly on the (quasi) regular recurrence of the rhyme;
or, like the Hebrew, it may consist in the strangely fanciful
device of repeating the same idea. It does not matter on
what principle the law is based, so it be a law. It may be
pure convention; it may have no inherent beauty; all that we
have a right to ask of any prosody is, that it shall lay down
a pattern for the writer, and that what it lays down shall be
neither too easy nor too hard. Hence it comes that it is
much easier for men of equal facility to write fairly
pleasing verse than reasonably interesting prose; for in
prose the pattern itself has to be invented, and the
difficulties first created before they can be solved. Hence,
again, there follows the peculiar greatness of the true
versifier: such as Shakespeare, Milton, and Victor Hugo,
whom I place beside them as versifier merely, not as poet.
These not only knit and knot the logical texture of the style
with all the dexterity and strength of prose; they not only
fill up the pattern of the verse with infinite variety and
sober wit; but they give us, besides, a rare and special
pleasure, by the art, comparable to that of counterpoint,
with which they follow at the same time, and now contrast,
and now combine, the double pattern of the texture and the
verse. Here the sounding line concludes; a little further
on, the well-knit sentence; and yet a little further, and
both will reach their solution on the same ringing syllable.
The best that can be offered by the best writer of prose is
to show us the development of the idea and the stylistic
pattern proceed hand in hand, sometimes by an obvious and
triumphant effort, sometimes with a great air of ease and
nature. The writer of verse, by virtue of conquering another
difficulty, delights us with a new series of triumphs. He
follows three purposes where his rival followed only two; and
the change is of precisely the same nature as that from
melody to harmony. Or if you prefer to return to the
juggler, behold him now, to the vastly increased enthusiasm
of the spectators, juggling with three oranges instead of
two. Thus it is: added difficulty, added beauty; and the
pattern, with every fresh element, becoming more interesting
in itself.
Yet it must not be thought that verse is simply an addition;
something is lost as well as something gained; and there
remains plainly traceable, in comparing the best prose with
the best verse, a certain broad distinction of method in the
web. Tight as the versifier may draw the knot of logic, yet
for the ear he still leaves the tissue of the sentence
floating somewhat loose. In prose, the sentence turns upon a
pivot, nicely balanced, and fits into itself with an
obtrusive neatness like a puzzle. The ear remarks and is
singly gratified by this return and balance; while in verse
it is all diverted to the measure. To find comparable
passages is hard; for either the versifier is hugely the
superior of the rival, or, if he be not, and still persist in
his more delicate enterprise, he fails to be as widely his
inferior. But let us select them from the pages of the same
writer, one who was ambidexter; let us take, for instance,
Rumour's Prologue to the Second Part of HENRY IV., a fine
flourish of eloquence in Shakespeare's second manner, and set
it side by side with Falstaff's praise of sherris, act iv.
scene iii.; or let us compare the beautiful prose spoken
throughout by Rosalind and Orlando; compare, for example, the
first speech of all, Orlando's speech to Adam, with what
passage it shall please you to select - the Seven Ages from
the same play, or even such a stave of nobility as Othello's
farewell to war; and still you will be able to perceive, if
you have an ear for that class of music, a certain superior
degree of organisation in the prose; a compacter fitting of
the parts; a balance in the swing and the return as of a
throbbing pendulum. We must not, in things temporal, take
from those who have little, the little that they have; the
merits of prose are inferior, but they are not the same; it
is a little kingdom, but an independent.
3. RHYTHM OF THE PHRASE. - Some way back, I used a word
which still awaits an application. Each phrase, I said, was
to be comely; but what is a comely phrase? In all ideal and
material points, literature, being a representative art, must
look for analogies to painting and the like; but in what is
technical and executive, being a temporal art, it must seek
for them in music. Each phrase of each sentence, like an air
or a recitative in music, should be so artfully compounded
out of long and short, out of accented and unaccented, as to
gratify the sensual ear. And of this the ear is the sole
judge. It is impossible to lay down laws. Even in our
accentual and rhythmic language no analysis can find the
secret of the beauty of a verse; how much less, then, of
those phrases, such as prose is built of, which obey no law
but to be lawless and yet to please? The little that we know
of verse (and for my part I owe it all to my friend Professor
Fleeming Jenkin) is, however, particularly interesting in the
present connection. We have been accustomed to describe the
heroic line as five iambic feet, and to be filled with pain
and confusion whenever, as by the conscientious schoolboy, we
have heard our own description put in practice.
'All night | the dread | less an | gel un | pursued,' (2)
goes the schoolboy; but though we close our ears, we cling to
our definition, in spite of its proved and naked
insufficiency. Mr. Jenkin was not so easily pleased, and
readily discovered that the heroic line consists of four
groups, or, if you prefer the phrase, contains four pauses:
'All night | the dreadless | angel | unpursued.'
Four groups, each practically uttered as one word: the
first, in this case, an iamb; the second, an amphibrachys;
the third, a trochee; and the fourth, an amphimacer; and yet
our schoolboy, with no other liberty but that of inflicting
pain, had triumphantly scanned it as five iambs. Perceive,
now, this fresh richness of intricacy in the web; this fourth
orange, hitherto unremarked, but still kept flying with the
others. What had seemed to be one thing it now appears is
two; and, like some puzzle in arithmetic, the verse is made
at the same time to read in fives and to read in fours.
But again, four is not necessary. We do not, indeed, find
verses in six groups, because there is not room for six in
the ten syllables; and we do not find verses of two, because
one of the main distinctions of verse from prose resides in
the comparative shortness of the group; but it is even common
to find verses of three. Five is the one forbidden number;
because five is the number of the feet; and if five were
chosen, the two patterns would coincide, and that opposition
which is the life of verse would instantly be lost. We have
here a clue to the effect of polysyllables, above all in
Latin, where they are so common and make so brave an
architecture in the verse; for the polysyllable is a group of
Nature's making. If but some Roman would return from Hades
(Martial, for choice), and tell me by what conduct of the
voice these thundering verses should be uttered - 'AUT
LACEDOE-MONIUM TARENTUM,' for a case in point - I feel as if
I should enter at last into the full enjoyment of the best of
human verses.
But, again, the five feet are all iambic, or supposed to be;
by the mere count of syllables the four groups cannot be all
iambic; as a question of elegance, I doubt if any one of them
requires to be so; and I am certain that for choice no two of
them should scan the same. The singular beauty of the verse
analysed above is due, so far as analysis can carry us, part,
indeed, to the clever repetition of L, D, and N, but part to
this variety of scansion in the groups. The groups which,
like the bar in music, break up the verse for utterance, fall
uniambically; and in declaiming a so-called iambic verse, it
may so happen that we never utter one iambic foot. And yet
to this neglect of the original beat there is a limit.
'Athens, the eye of Greece, mother of arts,' (3)
is, with all its eccentricities, a good heroic line; for
though it scarcely can be said to indicate the beat of the
iamb, it certainly suggests no other measure to the ear. But
'Mother Athens, eye of Greece,'
or merely 'Mother Athens,' and the game is up, for the
trochaic beat has been suggested. The eccentric scansion of
the groups is an adornment; but as soon as the original beat
has been forgotten, they cease implicitly to be eccentric.
Variety is what is sought; but if we destroy the original
mould, one of the terms of this variety is lost, and we fall
back on sameness. Thus, both as to the arithmetical measure
of the verse, and the degree of regularity in scansion, we
see the laws of prosody to have one common purpose: to keep
alive the opposition of two schemes simultaneously followed;
to keep them notably apart, though still coincident; and to
balance them with such judicial nicety before the reader,
that neither shall be unperceived and neither signally
The rule of rhythm in prose is not so intricate. Here, too,
we write in groups, or phrases, as I prefer to call them, for
the prose phrase is greatly longer and is much more
nonchalantly uttered than the group in verse; so that not
only is there a greater interval of continuous sound between
the pauses, but, for that very reason, word is linked more
readily to word by a more summary enunciation. Still, the
phrase is the strict analogue of the group, and successive
phrases, like successive groups, must differ openly in length
and rhythm. The rule of scansion in verse is to suggest no
measure but the one in hand; in prose, to suggest no measure
at all. Prose must be rhythmical, and it may be as much so
as you will; but it must not be metrical. It may be
anything, but it must not be verse. A single heroic line may
very well pass and not disturb the somewhat larger stride of
the prose style; but one following another will produce an
instant impression of poverty, flatness, and disenchantment.
The same lines delivered with the measured utterance of verse
would perhaps seem rich in variety. By the more summary
enunciation proper to prose, as to a more distant vision,
these niceties of difference are lost. A whole verse is
uttered as one phrase; and the ear is soon wearied by a
succession of groups identical in length. The prose writer,
in fact, since he is allowed to be so much less harmonious,
is condemned to a perpetually fresh variety of movement on a
larger scale, and must never disappoint the ear by the trot
of an accepted metre. And this obligation is the third
orange with which he has to juggle, the third quality which
the prose writer must work into his pattern of words. It may
be thought perhaps that this is a quality of ease rather than
a fresh difficulty; but such is the inherently rhythmical
strain of the English language, that the bad writer - and
must I take for example that admired friend of my boyhood,
Captain Reid? - the inexperienced writer, as Dickens in his
earlier attempts to be impressive, and the jaded writer, as
any one may see for himself, all tend to fall at once into
the production of bad blank verse. And here it may be
pertinently asked, Why bad? And I suppose it might be enough
to answer that no man ever made good verse by accident, and
that no verse can ever sound otherwise than trivial when
uttered with the delivery of prose. But we can go beyond
such answers. The weak side of verse is the regularity of
the beat, which in itself is decidedly less impressive than
the movement of the nobler prose; and it is just into this
weak side, and this alone, that our careless writer falls. A
peculiar density and mass, consequent on the nearness of the
pauses, is one of the chief good qualities of verse; but this
our accidental versifier, still following after the swift
gait and large gestures of prose, does not so much as aspire
to imitate. Lastly, since he remains unconscious that he is
making verse at all, it can never occur to him to extract
those effects of counterpoint and opposition which I have
referred to as the final grace and justification of verse,
and, I may add, of blank verse in particular.
4. CONTENTS OF THE PHRASE. - Here is a great deal of talk
about rhythm - and naturally; for in our canorous language
rhythm is always at the door. But it must not be forgotten
that in some languages this element is almost, if not quite,
extinct, and that in our own it is probably decaying. The
even speech of many educated Americans sounds the note of
danger. I should see it go with something as bitter as
despair, but I should not be desperate. As in verse no
element, not even rhythm, is necessary, so, in prose also,
other sorts of beauty will arise and take the place and play
the part of those that we outlive. The beauty of the
expected beat in verse, the beauty in prose of its larger and
more lawless melody, patent as they are to English hearing,
are already silent in the ears of our next neighbours; for in
France the oratorical accent and the pattern of the web have
almost or altogether succeeded to their places; and the
French prose writer would be astounded at the labours of his
brother across the Channel, and how a good quarter of his
toil, above all INVITA MINERVA, is to avoid writing verse.
So wonderfully far apart have races wandered in spirit, and
so hard it is to understand the literature next door!
Yet French prose is distinctly better than English; and
French verse, above all while Hugo lives, it will not do to
place upon one side. What is more to our purpose, a phrase
or a verse in French is easily distinguishable as comely or
uncomely. There is then another element of comeliness
hitherto overlooked in this analysis: the contents of the
phrase. Each phrase in literature is built of sounds, as
each phrase in music consists of notes. One sound suggests,
echoes, demands, and harmonises with another; and the art of
rightly using these concordances is the final art in
literature. It used to be a piece of good advice to all
young writers to avoid alliteration; and the advice was
sound, in so far as it prevented daubing. None the less for
that, was it abominable nonsense, and the mere raving of
those blindest of the blind who will not see. The beauty of
the contents of a phrase, or of a sentence, depends
implicitly upon alliteration and upon assonance. The vowel
demands to be repeated; the consonant demands to be repeated;
and both cry aloud to be perpetually varied. You may follow
the adventures of a letter through any passage that has
particularly pleased you; find it, perhaps, denied a while,
to tantalise the ear; find it fired again at you in a whole
broadside; or find it pass into congenerous sounds, one
liquid or labial melting away into another. And you will
find another and much stranger circumstance. Literature is
written by and for two senses: a sort of internal ear, quick
to perceive 'unheard melodies'; and the eye, which directs
the pen and deciphers the printed phrase. Well, even as
there are rhymes for the eye, so you will find that there are
assonances and alliterations; that where an author is running
the open A, deceived by the eye and our strange English
spelling, he will often show a tenderness for the flat A; and
that where he is running a particular consonant, he will not
improbably rejoice to write it down even when it is mute or
bears a different value.
Here, then, we have a fresh pattern - a pattern, to speak
grossly, of letters - which makes the fourth preoccupation of
the prose writer, and the fifth of the versifier. At times
it is very delicate and hard to perceive, and then perhaps
most excellent and winning (I say perhaps); but at times
again the elements of this literal melody stand more boldly
forward and usurp the ear. It becomes, therefore, somewhat a
matter of conscience to select examples; and as I cannot very
well ask the reader to help me, I shall do the next best by
giving him the reason or the history of each selection. The
two first, one in prose, one in verse, I chose without
previous analysis, simply as engaging passages that had long
re-echoed in my ear.
'I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue,
unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees
her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal
garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.' (4)
Down to 'virtue,' the current S and R are both announced and
repeated unobtrusively, and by way of a grace-note that
almost inseparable group PVF is given entire. (5) The next
phrase is a period of repose, almost ugly in itself, both S
and R still audible, and B given as the last fulfilment of
PVF. In the next four phrases, from 'that never' down to
'run for,' the mask is thrown off, and, but for a slight
repetition of the F and V, the whole matter turns, almost too
obtrusively, on S and R; first S coming to the front, and
then R. In the concluding phrase all these favourite
letters, and even the flat A, a timid preference for which is
just perceptible, are discarded at a blow and in a bundle;
and to make the break more obvious, every word ends with a
dental, and all but one with T, for which we have been
cautiously prepared since the beginning. The singular
dignity of the first clause, and this hammer-stroke of the
last, go far to make the charm of this exquisite sentence.
But it is fair to own that S and R are used a little
'In Xanady did Kubla Khan (KANDL)
A stately pleasure dome decree, (KDLSR)
Where Alph the sacred river ran, (KANDLSR)
Through caverns measureless to man, (KANLSR)
Down to a sunless sea.' (6) (NDLS)
Here I have put the analysis of the main group alongside the
lines; and the more it is looked at, the more interesting it
will seem. But there are further niceties. In lines two and
four, the current S is most delicately varied with Z. In
line three, the current flat A is twice varied with the open
A, already suggested in line two, and both times ('where' and
'sacred') in conjunction with the current R. In the same
line F and V (a harmony in themselves, even when shorn of
their comrade P) are admirably contrasted. And in line four
there is a marked subsidiary M, which again was announced in
line two. I stop from weariness, for more might yet be said.
My next example was recently quoted from Shakespeare as an
example of the poet's colour sense. Now, I do not think
literature has anything to do with colour, or poets anyway
the better of such a sense; and I instantly attacked this
passage, since 'purple' was the word that had so pleased the
writer of the article, to see if there might not be some
literary reason for its use. It will be seen that I
succeeded amply; and I am bound to say I think the passage
exceptional in Shakespeare - exceptional, indeed, in
literature; but it was not I who chose it.
'The BaRge she sat iN, like a BURNished throNe
BURNT oN the water: the POOP was BeateN gold,
PURPle the sails and so PUR* Fumed that * per
The wiNds were love-sick with them.' (7)
It may be asked why I have put the F of 'perfumed' in
capitals; and I reply, because this change from P to F is the
completion of that from B to P, already so adroitly carried
out. Indeed, the whole passage is a monument of curious
ingenuity; and it seems scarce worth while to indicate the
subsidiary S, L, and W. In the same article, a second
passage from Shakespeare was quoted, once again as an example
of his colour sense:
'A mole cinque-spotted like the crimson drops
I' the bottom of a cowslip.' (8)
It is very curious, very artificial, and not worth while to
analyse at length: I leave it to the reader. But before I
turn my back on Shakespeare, I should like to quote a
passage, for my own pleasure, and for a very model of every
technical art:
But in the wind and tempest of her frown,
W. P. V. (9) F. (st) (ow)
Distinction with a loud and powerful fan,
W.P. F. (st) (ow) L.
Puffing at all, winnows the light away;
W. P. F. L.
And what hath mass and matter by itself
W. F. L. M. A.
Lies rich in virtue and unmingled.' (10)
V. L. M.
From these delicate and choice writers I turned with some
curiosity to a player of the big drum - Macaulay. I had in
hand the two-volume edition, and I opened at the beginning of
the second volume. Here was what I read:
'The violence of revolutions is generally proportioned to the
degree of the maladministration which has produced them. It
is therefore not strange that the government of Scotland,
having been during many years greatly more corrupt than the
government of England, should have fallen with a far heavier
ruin. The movement against the last king of the house of
Stuart was in England conservative, in Scotland destructive.
The English complained not of the law, but of the violation
of the law.'
This was plain-sailing enough; it was our old friend PVF,
floated by the liquids in a body; but as I read on, and
turned the page, and still found PVF with his attendant
liquids, I confess my mind misgave me utterly. This could be
no trick of Macaulay's; it must be the nature of the English
tongue. In a kind of despair, I turned half-way through the
volume; and coming upon his lordship dealing with General
Cannon, and fresh from Claverhouse and Killiecrankie, here,
with elucidative spelling, was my reward:
'Meanwhile the disorders of Kannon's Kamp went on inKreasing.
He Kalled a Kouncil of war to Konsider what Kourse it would
be advisable to taKe. But as soon as the Kouncil had met, a
preliminary Kuestion was raised. The army was almost
eKsKlusively a Highland army. The recent vKktory had been
won eKsKlusively by Highland warriors. Great chieFs who had
brought siKs or SeVen hundred Fighting men into the Field did
not think it Fair that they should be outVoted by gentlemen
From Ireland, and From the Low Kountries, who bore indeed
King James's Kommission, and were Kalled Kolonels and
Kaptains, but who were Kolonels without regiments and
Kaptains without Kompanies.'
A moment of FV in all this world of K's! It was not the
English language, then, that was an instrument of one string,
but Macaulay that was an incomparable dauber.
It was probably from this barbaric love of repeating the same
sound, rather than from any design of clearness, that he
acquired his irritating habit of repeating words; I say the
one rather than the other, because such a trick of the ear is
deeper-seated and more original in man than any logical
consideration. Few writers, indeed, are probably conscious
of the length to which they push this melody of letters.
One, writing very diligently, and only concerned about the
meaning of his words and the rhythm of his phrases, was
struck into amazement by the eager triumph with which he
cancelled one expression to substitute another. Neither
changed the sense; both being mono-syllables, neither could
affect the scansion; and it was only by looking back on what
he had already written that the mystery was solved: the
second word contained an open A, and for nearly half a page
he had been riding that vowel to the death.
In practice, I should add, the ear is not always so exacting;
and ordinary writers, in ordinary moments, content themselves
with avoiding what is harsh, and here and there, upon a rare
occasion, buttressing a phrase, or linking two together, with
a patch of assonance or a momentary jingle of alliteration.
To understand how constant is this preoccupation of good
writers, even where its results are least obtrusive, it is
only necessary to turn to the bad. There, indeed, you will
find cacophony supreme, the rattle of incongruous consonants
only relieved by the jaw-breaking hiatus, and whole phrases
not to be articulated by the powers of man.
CONCLUSION. - We may now briefly enumerate the elements of
style. We have, peculiar to the prose writer, the task of
keeping his phrases large, rhythmical, and pleasing to the
ear, without ever allowing them to fall into the strictly
metrical: peculiar to the versifier, the task of combining
and contrasting his double, treble, and quadruple pattern,
feet and groups, logic and metre - harmonious in diversity:
common to both, the task of artfully combining the prime
elements of language into phrases that shall be musical in
the mouth; the task of weaving their argument into a texture
of committed phrases and of rounded periods - but this
particularly binding in the case of prose: and, again common
to both, the task of choosing apt, explicit, and
communicative words. We begin to see now what an intricate
affair is any perfect passage; how many faculties, whether of
taste or pure reason, must be held upon the stretch to make
it; and why, when it is made, it should afford us so complete
a pleasure. From the arrangement of according letters, which
is altogether arabesque and sensual, up to the architecture
of the elegant and pregnant sentence, which is a vigorous act
of the pure intellect, there is scarce a faculty in man but
has been exercised. We need not wonder, then, if perfect
sentences are rare, and perfect pages rarer.
THE profession of letters has been lately debated in the
public prints; and it has been debated, to put the matter
mildly, from a point of view that was calculated to surprise
high-minded men, and bring a general contempt on books and
reading. Some time ago, in particular, a lively, pleasant,
popular writer (12) devoted an essay, lively and pleasant
like himself, to a very encouraging view of the profession.
We may be glad that his experience is so cheering, and we may
hope that all others, who deserve it, shall be as handsomely
rewarded; but I do not think we need be at all glad to have
this question, so important to the public and ourselves,
debated solely on the ground of money. The salary in any
business under heaven is not the only, nor indeed the first,
question. That you should continue to exist is a matter for
your own consideration; but that your business should be
first honest, and second useful, are points in which honour
and morality are concerned. If the writer to whom I refer
succeeds in persuading a number of young persons to adopt
this way of life with an eye set singly on the livelihood, we
must expect them in their works to follow profit only, and we
must expect in consequence, if he will pardon me the
epithets, a slovenly, base, untrue, and empty literature. Of
that writer himself I am not speaking: he is diligent,
clean, and pleasing; we all owe him periods of entertainment,
and he has achieved an amiable popularity which he has
adequately deserved. But the truth is, he does not, or did
not when he first embraced it, regard his profession from
this purely mercenary side. He went into it, I shall venture
to say, if not with any noble design, at least in the ardour
of a first love; and he enjoyed its practice long before he
paused to calculate the wage. The other day an author was
complimented on a piece of work, good in itself and
exceptionally good for him, and replied, in terms unworthy of
a commercial traveller that as the book was not briskly
selling he did not give a copper farthing for its merit. It
must not be supposed that the person to whom this answer was
addressed received it as a profession of faith; he knew, on
the other hand, that it was only a whiff of irritation; just
as we know, when a respectable writer talks of literature as
a way of life, like shoemaking, but not so useful, that he is
only debating one aspect of a question, and is still clearly
conscious of a dozen others more important in themselves and
more central to the matter in hand. But while those who
treat literature in this penny-wise and virtue-foolish spirit
are themselves truly in possession of a better light, it does
not follow that the treatment is decent or improving, whether
for themselves or others. To treat all subjects in the
highest, the most honourable, and the pluckiest spirit,
consistent with the fact, is the first duty of a writer. If
he be well paid, as I am glad to hear he is, this duty
becomes the more urgent, the neglect of it the more
disgraceful. And perhaps there is no subject on which a man
should speak so gravely as that industry, whatever it may be,
which is the occupation or delight of his life; which is his
tool to earn or serve with; and which, if it be unworthy,
stamps himself as a mere incubus of dumb and greedy bowels on
the shoulders of labouring humanity. On that subject alone
even to force the note might lean to virtue's side. It is to
be hoped that a numerous and enterprising generation of
writers will follow and surpass the present one; but it would
be better if the stream were stayed, and the roll of our old,
honest English books were closed, than that esurient bookmakers
should continue and debase a brave tradition, and
lower, in their own eyes, a famous race. Better that our
serene temples were deserted than filled with trafficking and
juggling priests.
There are two just reasons for the choice of any way of life:
the first is inbred taste in the chooser; the second some
high utility in the industry selected. Literature, like any
other art, is singularly interesting to the artist; and, in a
degree peculiar to itself among the arts, it is useful to
mankind. These are the sufficient justifications for any
young man or woman who adopts it as the business of his life.
I shall not say much about the wages. A writer can live by
his writing. If not so luxuriously as by other trades, then
less luxuriously. The nature of the work he does all day
will more affect his happiness than the quality of his dinner
at night. Whatever be your calling, and however much it
brings you in the year, you could still, you know, get more
by cheating. We all suffer ourselves to be too much
concerned about a little poverty; but such considerations
should not move us in the choice of that which is to be the
business and justification of so great a portion of our
lives; and like the missionary, the patriot, or the
philosopher, we should all choose that poor and brave career
in which we can do the most and best for mankind. Now
Nature, faithfully followed, proves herself a careful mother.
A lad, for some liking to the jingle of words, betakes
himself to letters for his life; by-and-by, when he learns
more gravity, he finds that he has chosen better than he
knew; that if he earns little, he is earning it amply; that
if he receives a small wage, he is in a position to do
considerable services; that it is in his power, in some small
measure, to protect the oppressed and to defend the truth.
So kindly is the world arranged, such great profit may arise
from a small degree of human reliance on oneself, and such,
in particular, is the happy star of this trade of writing,
that it should combine pleasure and profit to both parties,
and be at once agreeable, like fiddling, and useful, like
good preaching.
This is to speak of literature at its highest; and with the
four great elders who are still spared to our respect and
admiration, with Carlyle, Ruskin, Browning, and Tennyson
before us, it would be cowardly to consider it at first in
any lesser aspect. But while we cannot follow these
athletes, while we may none of us, perhaps, be very vigorous,
very original, or very wise, I still contend that, in the
humblest sort of literary work, we have it in our power
either to do great harm or great good. We may seek merely to
please; we may seek, having no higher gift, merely to gratify
the idle nine days' curiosity of our contemporaries; or we
may essay, however feebly, to instruct. In each of these we
shall have to deal with that remarkable art of words which,
because it is the dialect of life, comes home so easily and
powerfully to the minds of men; and since that is so, we
contribute, in each of these branches, to build up the sum of
sentiments and appreciations which goes by the name of Public
Opinion or Public Feeling. The total of a nation's reading,
in these days of daily papers, greatly modifies the total of
the nation's speech; and the speech and reading, taken
together, form the efficient educational medium of youth. A
good man or woman may keep a youth some little while in
clearer air; but the contemporary atmosphere is all-powerful
in the end on the average of mediocre characters. The
copious Corinthian baseness of the American reporter or the
Parisian CHRONIQUEAR, both so lightly readable, must exercise
an incalculable influence for ill; they touch upon all
subjects, and on all with the same ungenerous hand; they
begin the consideration of all, in young and unprepared
minds, in an unworthy spirit; on all, they supply some
pungency for dull people to quote. The mere body of this
ugly matter overwhelms the rare utterances of good men; the
sneering, the selfish, and the cowardly are scattered in
broad sheets on every table, while the antidote, in small
volumes, lies unread upon the shelf. I have spoken of the
American and the French, not because they are so much baser,
but so much more readable, than the English; their evil is
done more effectively, in America for the masses, in French
for the few that care to read; but with us as with them, the
duties of literature are daily neglected, truth daily
perverted and suppressed, and grave subjects daily degraded
in the treatment. The journalist is not reckoned an
important officer; yet judge of the good he might do, the
harm he does; judge of it by one instance only: that when we
find two journals on the reverse sides of politics each, on
the same day, openly garbling a piece of news for the
interest of its own party, we smile at the discovery (no
discovery now!) as over a good joke and pardonable stratagem.
Lying so open is scarce lying, it is true; but one of the
things that we profess to teach our young is a respect for
truth; and I cannot think this piece of education will be
crowned with any great success, so long as some of us
practise and the rest openly approve of public falsehood.
There are two duties incumbent upon any man who enters on the
business of writing: truth to the fact and a good spirit in
the treatment. In every department of literature, though so
low as hardly to deserve the name, truth to the fact is of
importance to the education and comfort of mankind, and so
hard to preserve, that the faithful trying to do so will lend
some dignity to the man who tries it. Our judgments are
based upon two things: first, upon the original preferences
of our soul; but, second, upon the mass of testimony to the
nature of God, man, and the universe which reaches us, in
divers manners, from without. For the most part these divers
manners are reducible to one, all that we learn of past times
and much that we learn of our own reaching us through the
medium of books or papers, and even he who cannot read
learning from the same source at second-hand and by the
report of him who can. Thus the sum of the contemporary
knowledge or ignorance of good and evil is, in large measure,
the handiwork of those who write. Those who write have to
see that each man's knowledge is, as near as they can make
it, answerable to the facts of life; that he shall not
suppose himself an angel or a monster; nor take this world
for a hell; nor be suffered to imagine that all rights are
concentred in his own caste or country, or all veracities in
his own parochial creed. Each man should learn what is
within him, that he may strive to mend; he must be taught
what is without him, that he may be kind to others. It can
never be wrong to tell him the truth; for, in his disputable
state, weaving as he goes his theory of life, steering
himself, cheering or reproving others, all facts are of the
first importance to his conduct; and even if a fact shall
discourage or corrupt him, it is still best that he should
know it; for it is in this world as it is, and not in a world
made easy by educational suppressions, that he must win his
way to shame or glory. In one word, it must always be foul
to tell what is false; and it can never be safe to suppress
what is true. The very fact that you omit may be the fact
which somebody was wanting, for one man's meat is another
man's poison, and I have known a person who was cheered by
the perusal of CANDIDE. Every fact is a part of that great
puzzle we must set together; and none that comes directly in
a writer's path but has some nice relations, unperceivable by
him, to the totality and bearing of the subject under hand.
Yet there are certain classes of fact eternally more
necessary than others, and it is with these that literature
must first bestir itself. They are not hard to distinguish,
nature once more easily leading us; for the necessary,
because the efficacious, facts are those which are most
interesting to the natural mind of man. Those which are
coloured, picturesque, human, and rooted in morality, and
those, on the other hand, which are clear, indisputable, and
a part of science, are alone vital in importance, seizing by
their interest, or useful to communicate. So far as the
writer merely narrates, he should principally tell of these.
He should tell of the kind and wholesome and beautiful
elements of our life; he should tell unsparingly of the evil
and sorrow of the present, to move us with instances: he
should tell of wise and good people in the past, to excite us
by example; and of these he should tell soberly and
truthfully, not glossing faults, that we may neither grow
discouraged with ourselves nor exacting to our neighbours.
So the body of contemporary literature, ephemeral and feeble
in itself, touches in the minds of men the springs of thought
and kindness, and supports them (for those who will go at all
are easily supported) on their way to what is true and right.
And if, in any degree, it does so now, how much more might it
do so if the writers chose! There is not a life in all the
records of the past but, properly studied, might lend a hint
and a help to some contemporary. There is not a juncture in
to-day's affairs but some useful word may yet be said of it.
Even the reporter has an office, and, with clear eyes and
honest language, may unveil injustices and point the way to
progress. And for a last word: in all narration there is
only one way to be clever, and that is to be exact. To be
vivid is a secondary quality which must presuppose the first;
for vividly to convey a wrong impression is only to make
failure conspicuous.
But a fact may be viewed on many sides; it may be chronicled
with rage, tears, laughter, indifference, or admiration, and
by each of these the story will be transformed to something
else. The newspapers that told of the return of our
representatives from Berlin, even if they had not differed as
to the facts, would have sufficiently differed by their
spirits; so that the one description would have been a second
ovation, and the other a prolonged insult. The subject makes
but a trifling part of any piece of literature, and the view
of the writer is itself a fact more important because less
disputable than the others. Now this spirit in which a
subject is regarded, important in all kinds of literary work,
becomes all-important in works of fiction, meditation, or
rhapsody; for there it not only colours but itself chooses
the facts; not only modifies but shapes the work. And hence,
over the far larger proportion of the field of literature,
the health or disease of the writer's mind or momentary
humour forms not only the leading feature of his work, but
is, at bottom, the only thing he can communicate to others.
In all works of art, widely speaking, it is first of all the
author's attitude that is narrated, though in the attitude
there be implied a whole experience and a theory of life. An
author who has begged the question and reposes in some narrow
faith cannot, if he would, express the whole or even many of
the sides of this various existence; for, his own life being
maim, some of them are not admitted in his theory, and were
only dimly and unwillingly recognised in his experience.
Hence the smallness, the triteness, and the inhumanity in
works of merely sectarian religion; and hence we find equal
although unsimilar limitation in works inspired by the spirit
of the flesh or the despicable taste for high society. So
that the first duty of any man who is to write is
intellectual. Designedly or not, he has so far set himself
up for a leader of the minds of men; and he must see that his
own mind is kept supple, charitable, and bright. Everything
but prejudice should find a voice through him; he should see
the good in all things; where he has even a fear that he does
not wholly understand, there he should be wholly silent; and
he should recognise from the first that he has only one tool
in his workshop, and that tool is sympathy. (13)
The second duty, far harder to define, is moral. There are a
thousand different humours in the mind, and about each of
them, when it is uppermost, some literature tends to be
deposited. Is this to be allowed? Not certainly in every
case, and yet perhaps in more than rigourists would fancy.
It were to be desired that all literary work, and chiefly
works of art, issued from sound, human, healthy, and potent
impulses, whether grave or laughing, humorous, romantic, or
Yet it cannot be denied that some valuable books are
partially insane; some, mostly religious, partially inhuman;
and very many tainted with morbidity and impotence. We do
not loathe a masterpiece although we gird against its
blemishes. We are not, above all, to look for faults, but
merits. There is no book perfect, even in design; but there
are many that will delight, improve, or encourage the reader.
On the one hand, the Hebrew psalms are the only religious
poetry on earth; yet they contain sallies that savour rankly
of the man of blood. On the other hand, Alfred de Musset had
a poisoned and a contorted nature; I am only quoting that
generous and frivolous giant, old Dumas, when I accuse him of
a bad heart; yet, when the impulse under which he wrote was
purely creative, he could give us works like CARMOSINE or
FANTASIO, in which the last note of the romantic comedy seems
to have been found again to touch and please us. When
Flaubert wrote MADAME BOVARY, I believe he thought chiefly of
a somewhat morbid realism; and behold! the book turned in his
hands into a masterpiece of appalling morality. But the
truth is, when books are conceived under a great stress, with
a soul of ninefold power, nine times heated and electrified
by effort, the conditions of our being are seized with such
an ample grasp, that, even should the main design be trivial
or base, some truth and beauty cannot fail to be expressed.
Out of the strong comes forth sweetness; but an ill thing
poorly done is an ill thing top and bottom. And so this can
be no encouragement to knock-kneed, feeble-wristed scribes,
who must take their business conscientiously or be ashamed to
practise it.
Man is imperfect; yet, in his literature, he must express
himself and his own views and preferences; for to do anything
else is to do a far more perilous thing than to risk being
immoral: it is to be sure of being untrue. To ape a
sentiment, even a good one, is to travesty a sentiment; that
will not be helpful. To conceal a sentiment, if you are sure
you hold it, is to take a liberty with truth. There is
probably no point of view possible to a sane man but contains
some truth and, in the true connection, might be profitable
to the race. I am not afraid of the truth, if any one could
tell it me, but I am afraid of parts of it impertinently
uttered. There is a time to dance and a time to mourn; to be
harsh as well as to be sentimental; to be ascetic as well as
to glorify the appetites; and if a man were to combine all
these extremes into his work, each in its place and
proportion, that work would be the world's masterpiece of
morality as well as of art. Partiality is immorality; for
any book is wrong that gives a misleading picture of the
world and life. The trouble is that the weakling must be
partial; the work of one proving dank and depressing; of
another, cheap and vulgar; of a third, epileptically sensual;
of a fourth, sourly ascetic. In literature as in conduct,
you can never hope to do exactly right. All you can do is to
make as sure as possible; and for that there is but one rule.
Nothing should be done in a hurry that can be done slowly.
It is no use to write a book and put it by for nine or even
ninety years; for in the writing you will have partly
convinced yourself; the delay must precede any beginning; and
if you meditate a work of art, you should first long roll the
subject under the tongue to make sure you like the flavour,
before you brew a volume that shall taste of it from end to
end; or if you propose to enter on the field of controversy,
you should first have thought upon the question under all
conditions, in health as well as in sickness, in sorrow as
well as in joy. It is this nearness of examination necessary
for any true and kind writing, that makes the practice of the
art a prolonged and noble education for the writer.
There is plenty to do, plenty to say, or to say over again,
in the meantime. Any literary work which conveys faithful
facts or pleasing impressions is a service to the public. It
is even a service to be thankfully proud of having rendered.
The slightest novels are a blessing to those in distress, not
chloroform itself a greater. Our fine old sea-captain's life
was justified when Carlyle soothed his mind with THE KING'S
OWN or NEWTON FORSTER. To please is to serve; and so far
from its being difficult to instruct while you amuse, it is
difficult to do the one thoroughly without the other. Some
part of the writer or his life will crop out in even a vapid
book; and to read a novel that was conceived with any force
is to multiply experience and to exercise the sympathies.
Every article, every piece of verse, every essay, every
ENTRE-FILET, is destined to pass, however swiftly, through
the minds of some portion of the public, and to colour,
however transiently, their thoughts. When any subject falls
to be discussed, some scribbler on a paper has the invaluable
opportunity of beginning its discussion in a dignified and
human spirit; and if there were enough who did so in our
public press, neither the public nor the Parliament would
find it in their minds to drop to meaner thoughts. The
writer has the chance to stumble, by the way, on something
pleasing, something interesting, something encouraging, were
it only to a single reader. He will be unfortunate, indeed,
if he suit no one. He has the chance, besides, to stumble on
something that a dull person shall be able to comprehend; and
for a dull person to have read anything and, for that once,
comprehended it, makes a marking epoch in his education.
Here, then, is work worth doing and worth trying to do well.
And so, if I were minded to welcome any great accession to
our trade, it should not be from any reason of a higher wage,
but because it was a trade which was useful in a very great
and in a very high degree; which every honest tradesman could
make more serviceable to mankind in his single strength;
which was difficult to do well and possible to do better
every year; which called for scrupulous thought on the part
of all who practised it, and hence became a perpetual
education to their nobler natures; and which, pay it as you
please, in the large majority of the best cases will still be
underpaid. For surely, at this time of day in the nineteenth
century, there is nothing that an honest man should fear more
timorously than getting and spending more than he deserves.
THE Editor (15) has somewhat insidiously laid a trap for his
correspondents, the question put appearing at first so
innocent, truly cutting so deep. It is not, indeed, until
after some reconnaissance and review that the writer awakes
to find himself engaged upon something in the nature of
autobiography, or, perhaps worse, upon a chapter in the life
of that little, beautiful brother whom we once all had, and
whom we have all lost and mourned, the man we ought to have
been, the man we hoped to be. But when word has been passed
(even to an editor), it should, if possible, be kept; and if
sometimes I am wise and say too little, and sometimes weak
and say too much, the blame must lie at the door of the
person who entrapped me.
The most influential books, and the truest in their
influence, are works of fiction. They do not pin the reader
to a dogma, which he must afterwards discover to be inexact;
they do not teach him a lesson, which he must afterwards
unlearn. They repeat, they rearrange, they clarify the
lessons of life; they disengage us from ourselves, they
constrain us to the acquaintance of others; and they show us
the web of experience, not as we can see it for ourselves,
but with a singular change - that monstrous, consuming EGO of
ours being, for the nonce, struck out. To be so, they must
be reasonably true to the human comedy; and any work that is
so serves the turn of instruction. But the course of our
education is answered best by those poems and romances where
we breathe a magnanimous atmosphere of thought and meet
generous and pious characters. Shakespeare has served me
best. Few living friends have had upon me an influence so
strong for good as Hamlet or Rosalind. The last character,
already well beloved in the reading, I had the good fortune
to see, I must think, in an impressionable hour, played by
Mrs. Scott Siddons. Nothing has ever more moved, more
delighted, more refreshed me; nor has the influence quite
passed away. Kent's brief speech over the dying Lear had a
great effect upon my mind, and was the burthen of my
reflections for long, so profoundly, so touchingly generous
did it appear in sense, so overpowering in expression.
Perhaps my dearest and best friend outside of Shakespeare is
D'Artagnan - the elderly D'Artagnan of the VICOMTE DE
BRAGELONNE. I know not a more human soul, nor, in his way, a
finer; I shall be very sorry for the man who is so much of a
pedant in morals that he cannot learn from the Captain of
Musketeers. Lastly, I must name the PILGRIM'S PROGRESS, a
book that breathes of every beautiful and valuable emotion.
But of works of art little can be said; their influence is
profound and silent, like the influence of nature; they mould
by contact; we drink them up like water, and are bettered,
yet know not how. It is in books more specifically didactic
that we can follow out the effect, and distinguish and weigh
and compare. A book which has been very influential upon me
fell early into my hands, and so may stand first, though I
think its influence was only sensible later on, and perhaps
still keeps growing, for it is a book not easily outlived:
the ESSAIS of Montaigne. That temperate and genial picture
of life is a great gift to place in the hands of persons of
to-day; they will find in these smiling pages a magazine of
heroism and wisdom, all of an antique strain; they will have
their 'linen decencies' and excited orthodoxies fluttered,
and will (if they have any gift of reading) perceive that
these have not been fluttered without some excuse and ground
of reason; and (again if they have any gift of reading) they
will end by seeing that this old gentleman was in a dozen
ways a finer fellow, and held in a dozen ways a nobler view
of life, than they or their contemporaries.
The next book, in order of time, to influence me, was the New
Testament, and in particular the Gospel according to St.
Matthew. I believe it would startle and move any one if they
could make a certain effort of imagination and read it
freshly like a book, not droningly and dully like a portion
of the Bible. Any one would then be able to see in it those
truths which we are all courteously supposed to know and all
modestly refrain from applying. But upon this subject it is
perhaps better to be silent.
I come next to Whitman's LEAVES OF GRASS, a book of singular
service, a book which tumbled the world upside down for me,
blew into space a thousand cobwebs of genteel and ethical
illusion, and, having thus shaken my tabernacle of lies, set
me back again upon a strong foundation of all the original
and manly virtues. But it is, once more, only a book for
those who have the gift of reading. I will be very frank - I
believe it is so with all good books except, perhaps,
fiction. The average man lives, and must live, so wholly in
convention, that gunpowder charges of the truth are more apt
to discompose than to invigorate his creed. Either he cries
out upon blasphemy and indecency, and crouches the closer
round that little idol of part-truths and part-conveniences
which is the contemporary deity, or he is convinced by what
is new, forgets what is old, and becomes truly blasphemous
and indecent himself. New truth is only useful to supplement
the old; rough truth is only wanted to expand, not to
destroy, our civil and often elegant conventions. He who
cannot judge had better stick to fiction and the daily
papers. There he will get little harm, and, in the first at
least, some good.
Close upon the back of my discovery of Whitman, I came under
the influence of Herbert Spencer. No more persuasive rabbi
exists, and few better. How much of his vast structure will
bear the touch of time, how much is clay and how much brass,
it were too curious to inquire. But his words, if dry, are
always manly and honest; there dwells in his pages a spirit
of highly abstract joy, plucked naked like an algebraic
symbol but still joyful; and the reader will find there a
CAPUT MORTUUM of piety, with little indeed of its loveliness,
but with most of its essentials; and these two qualities make
him a wholesome, as his intellectual vigour makes him a
bracing, writer. I should be much of a hound if I lost my
gratitude to Herbert Spencer.
GOETHE'S LIFE, by Lewes, had a great importance for me when
it first fell into my hands - a strange instance of the
partiality of man's good and man's evil. I know no one whom
I less admire than Goethe; he seems a very epitome of the
sins of genius, breaking open the doors of private life, and
wantonly wounding friends, in that crowning offence of
WERTHER, and in his own character a mere pen-and-ink
Napoleon, conscious of the rights and duties of superior
talents as a Spanish inquisitor was conscious of the rights
and duties of his office. And yet in his fine devotion to
his art, in his honest and serviceable friendship for
Schiller, what lessons are contained! Biography, usually so
false to its office, does here for once perform for us some
of the work of fiction, reminding us, that is, of the truly
mingled tissue of man's nature, and how huge faults and
shining virtues cohabit and persevere in the same character.
History serves us well to this effect, but in the originals,
not in the pages of the popular epitomiser, who is bound, by
the very nature of his task, to make us feel the difference
of epochs instead of the essential identity of man, and even
in the originals only to those who can recognise their own
human virtues and defects in strange forms, often inverted
and under strange names, often interchanged. Martial is a
poet of no good repute, and it gives a man new thoughts to
read his works dispassionately, and find in this unseemly
jester's serious passages the image of a kind, wise, and
self-respecting gentleman. It is customary, I suppose, in
reading Martial, to leave out these pleasant verses; I never
heard of them, at least, until I found them for myself; and
this partiality is one among a thousand things that help to
build up our distorted and hysterical conception of the great
Roman Empire.
This brings us by a natural transition to a very noble book -
the MEDITATIONS of Marcus Aurelius. The dispassionate
gravity, the noble forgetfulness of self, the tenderness of
others, that are there expressed and were practised on so
great a scale in the life of its writer, make this book a
book quite by itself. No one can read it and not be moved.
Yet it scarcely or rarely appeals to the feelings - those
very mobile, those not very trusty parts of man. Its address
lies further back: its lesson comes more deeply home; when
you have read, you carry away with you a memory of the man
himself; it is as though you had touched a loyal hand, looked
into brave eyes, and made a noble friend; there is another
bond on you thenceforward, binding you to life and to the
love of virtue.
Wordsworth should perhaps come next. Every one has been
influenced by Wordsworth, and it is hard to tell precisely
how. A certain innocence, a rugged austerity of joy, a sight
of the stars, 'the silence that is in the lonely hills,'
something of the cold thrill of dawn, cling to his work and
give it a particular address to what is best in us. I do not
know that you learn a lesson; you need not - Mill did not -
agree with any one of his beliefs; and yet the spell is cast.
Such are the best teachers; a dogma learned is only a new
error - the old one was perhaps as good; but a spirit
communicated is a perpetual possession. These best teachers
climb beyond teaching to the plane of art; it is themselves,
and what is best in themselves, that they communicate.
I should never forgive myself if I forgot THE EGOIST. It is
art, if you like, but it belongs purely to didactic art, and
from all the novels I have read (and I have read thousands)
stands in a place by itself. Here is a Nathan for the modern
David; here is a book to send the blood into men's faces.
Satire, the angry picture of human faults, is not great art;
we can all be angry with our neighbour; what we want is to be
shown, not his defects, of which we are too conscious, but
his merits, to which we are too blind. And THE EGOIST is a
satire; so much must be allowed; but it is a satire of a
singular quality, which tells you nothing of that obvious
mote, which is engaged from first to last with that invisible
beam. It is yourself that is hunted down; these are your own
faults that are dragged into the day and numbered, with
lingering relish, with cruel cunning and precision. A young
friend of Mr. Meredith's (as I have the story) came to him in
an agony. 'This is too bad of you,' he cried. 'Willoughby
is me!' 'No, my dear fellow,' said the author; 'he is all of
I have read THE EGOIST five or six times myself, and I mean
to read it again; for I am like the young friend of the
anecdote - I think Willoughby an unmanly but a very
serviceable exposure of myself.
I suppose, when I am done, I shall find that I have forgotten
much that was most influential, as I see already I have
forgotten Thoreau, and Hazlitt, whose paper 'On the Spirit of
Obligations' was a turning-point in my life, and Penn, whose
little book of aphorisms had a brief but strong effect on me,
and Mitford's TALES OF OLD JAPAN, wherein I learned for the
first time the proper attitude of any rational man to his
country's laws - a secret found, and kept, in the Asiatic
islands. That I should commemorate all is more than I can
hope or the Editor could ask. It will be more to the point,
after having said so much upon improving books, to say a word
or two about the improvable reader. The gift of reading, as
I have called it, is not very common, nor very generally
understood. It consists, first of all, in a vast
intellectual endowment - a free grace, I find I must call it
- by which a man rises to understand that he is not
punctually right, nor those from whom he differs absolutely
wrong. He may hold dogmas; he may hold them passionately;
and he may know that others hold them but coldly, or hold
them differently, or hold them not at all. Well, if he has
the gift of reading, these others will be full of meat for
him. They will see the other side of propositions and the
other side of virtues. He need not change his dogma for
that, but he may change his reading of that dogma, and he
must supplement and correct his deductions from it. A human
truth, which is always very much a lie, hides as much of life
as it displays. It is men who hold another truth, or, as it
seems to us, perhaps, a dangerous lie, who can extend our
restricted field of knowledge, and rouse our drowsy
consciences. Something that seems quite new, or that seems
insolently false or very dangerous, is the test of a reader.
If he tries to see what it means, what truth excuses it, he
has the gift, and let him read. If he is merely hurt, or
offended, or exclaims upon his author's folly, he had better
take to the daily papers; he will never be a reader.
And here, with the aptest illustrative force, after I have
laid down my part-truth, I must step in with its opposite.
For, after all, we are vessels of a very limited content.
Not all men can read all books; it is only in a chosen few
that any man will find his appointed food; and the fittest
lessons are the most palatable, and make themselves welcome
to the mind. A writer learns this early, and it is his chief
support; he goes on unafraid, laying down the law; and he is
sure at heart that most of what he says is demonstrably
false, and much of a mingled strain, and some hurtful, and
very little good for service; but he is sure besides that
when his words fall into the hands of any genuine reader,
they will be weighed and winnowed, and only that which suits
will be assimilated; and when they fall into the hands of one
who cannot intelligently read, they come there quite silent
and inarticulate, falling upon deaf ears, and his secret is
kept as if he had not written.
STYLE is the invariable mark of any master; and for the
student who does not aspire so high as to be numbered with
the giants, it is still the one quality in which he may
improve himself at will. Passion, wisdom, creative force,
the power of mystery or colour, are allotted in the hour of
birth, and can be neither learned nor simulated. But the
just and dexterous use of what qualities we have, the
proportion of one part to another and to the whole, the
elision of the useless, the accentuation of the important,
and the preservation of a uniform character from end to end -
these, which taken together constitute technical perfection,
are to some degree within the reach of industry and
intellectual courage. What to put in and what to leave out;
whether some particular fact be organically necessary or
purely ornamental; whether, if it be purely ornamental, it
may not weaken or obscure the general design; and finally,
whether, if we decide to use it, we should do so grossly and
notably, or in some conventional disguise: are questions of
plastic style continually rearising. And the sphinx that
patrols the highways of executive art has no more
unanswerable riddle to propound.
In literature (from which I must draw my instances) the great
change of the past century has been effected by the admission
of detail. It was inaugurated by the romantic Scott; and at
length, by the semi-romantic Balzac and his more or less
wholly unromantic followers, bound like a duty on the
novelist. For some time it signified and expressed a more
ample contemplation of the conditions of man's life; but it
has recently (at least in France) fallen into a merely
technical and decorative stage, which it is, perhaps, still
too harsh to call survival. With a movement of alarm, the
wiser or more timid begin to fall a little back from these
extremities; they begin to aspire after a more naked,
narrative articulation; after the succinct, the dignified,
and the poetic; and as a means to this, after a general
lightening of this baggage of detail. After Scott we beheld
the starveling story - once, in the hands of Voltaire, as
abstract as a parable - begin to be pampered upon facts.
The introduction of these details developed a particular
ability of hand; and that ability, childishly indulged, has
led to the works that now amaze us on a railway journey. A
man of the unquestionable force of M. Zola spends himself on
technical successes. To afford a popular flavour and attract
the mob, he adds a steady current of what I may be allowed to
call the rancid. That is exciting to the moralist; but what
more particularly interests the artist is this tendency of
the extreme of detail, when followed as a principle, to
degenerate into mere FEUX-DE-JOIE of literary tricking. The
other day even M. Daudet was to be heard babbling of audible
colours and visible sounds.
This odd suicide of one branch of the realists may serve to
remind us of the fact which underlies a very dusty conflict
of the critics. All representative art, which can be said to
live, is both realistic and ideal; and the realism about
which we quarrel is a matter purely of externals. It is no
especial cultus of nature and veracity, but a mere whim of
veering fashion, that has made us turn our back upon the
larger, more various, and more romantic art of yore. A
photographic exactitude in dialogue is now the exclusive
fashion; but even in the ablest hands it tells us no more - I
think it even tells us less - than Moliere, wielding his
artificial medium, has told to us and to all time of Alceste
or Orgon, Dorine or Chrysale. The historical novel is
forgotten. Yet truth to the conditions of man's nature and
the conditions of man's life, the truth of literary art, is
free of the ages. It may be told us in a carpet comedy, in a
novel of adventure, or a fairy tale. The scene may be
pitched in London, on the sea-coast of Bohemia, or away on
the mountains of Beulah. And by an odd and luminous
accident, if there is any page of literature calculated to
awake the envy of M. Zola, it must be that TROILUS AND
CRESSIDA which Shakespeare, in a spasm of unmanly anger with
the world, grafted on the heroic story of the siege of Troy.
This question of realism, let it then be clearly understood,
regards not in the least degree the fundamental truth, but
only the technical method, of a work of art. Be as ideal or
as abstract as you please, you will be none the less
veracious; but if you be weak, you run the risk of being
tedious and inexpressive; and if you be very strong and
honest, you may chance upon a masterpiece.
A work of art is first cloudily conceived in the mind; during
the period of gestation it stands more clearly forward from
these swaddling mists, puts on expressive lineaments, and
becomes at length that most faultless, but also, alas! that
incommunicable product of the human mind, a perfected design.
On the approach to execution all is changed. The artist must
now step down, don his working clothes, and become the
artisan. He now resolutely commits his airy conception, his
delicate Ariel, to the touch of matter; he must decide,
almost in a breath, the scale, the style, the spirit, and the
particularity of execution of his whole design.
The engendering idea of some works is stylistic; a technical
preoccupation stands them instead of some robuster principle
of life. And with these the execution is but play; for the
stylistic problem is resolved beforehand, and all large
originality of treatment wilfully foregone. Such are the
verses, intricately designed, which we have learnt to admire,
with a certain smiling admiration, at the hands of Mr. Lang
and Mr. Dobson; such, too, are those canvases where dexterity
or even breadth of plastic style takes the place of pictorial
nobility of design. So, it may be remarked, it was easier to
begin to write ESMOND than VANITY FAIR, since, in the first,
the style was dictated by the nature of the plan; and
Thackeray, a man probably of some indolence of mind, enjoyed
and got good profit of this economy of effort. But the case
is exceptional. Usually in all works of art that have been
conceived from within outwards, and generously nourished from
the author's mind, the moment in which he begins to execute
is one of extreme perplexity and strain. Artists of
indifferent energy and an imperfect devotion to their own
ideal make this ungrateful effort once for all; and, having
formed a style, adhere to it through life. But those of a
higher order cannot rest content with a process which, as
they continue to employ it, must infallibly degenerate
towards the academic and the cut-and-dried. Every fresh work
in which they embark is the signal for a fresh engagement of
the whole forces of their mind; and the changing views which
accompany the growth of their experience are marked by still
more sweeping alterations in the manner of their art. So
that criticism loves to dwell upon and distinguish the
varying periods of a Raphael, a Shakespeare, or a Beethoven.
It is, then, first of all, at this initial and decisive
moment when execution is begun, and thenceforth only in a
less degree, that the ideal and the real do indeed, like good
and evil angels, contend for the direction of the work.
Marble, paint, and language, the pen, the needle, and the
brush, all have their grossnesses, their ineffable
impotences, their hours, if I may so express myself, of
insubordination. It is the work and it is a great part of
the delight of any artist to contend with these unruly tools,
and now by brute energy, now by witty expedient, to drive and
coax them to effect his will. Given these means, so
laughably inadequate, and given the interest, the intensity,
and the multiplicity of the actual sensation whose effect he
is to render with their aid, the artist has one main and
necessary resource which he must, in every case and upon any
theory, employ. He must, that is, suppress much and omit
more. He must omit what is tedious or irrelevant, and
suppress what is tedious and necessary. But such facts as,
in regard to the main design, subserve a variety of purposes,
he will perforce and eagerly retain. And it is the mark of
the very highest order of creative art to be woven
exclusively of such. There, any fact that is registered is
contrived a double or a treble debt to pay, and is at once an
ornament in its place, and a pillar in the main design.
Nothing would find room in such a picture that did not serve,
at once, to complete the composition, to accentuate the
scheme of colour, to distinguish the planes of distance, and
to strike the note of the selected sentiment; nothing would
be allowed in such a story that did not, at the same time,
expedite the progress of the fable, build up the characters,
and strike home the moral or the philosophical design. But
this is unattainable. As a rule, so far from building the
fabric of our works exclusively with these, we are thrown
into a rapture if we think we can muster a dozen or a score
of them, to be the plums of our confection. And hence, in
order that the canvas may be filled or the story proceed from
point to point, other details must be admitted. They must be
admitted, alas! upon a doubtful title; many without marriage
robes. Thus any work of art, as it proceeds towards
completion, too often - I had almost written always - loses
in force and poignancy of main design. Our little air is
swamped and dwarfed among hardly relevant orchestration; our
little passionate story drowns in a deep sea of descriptive
eloquence or slipshod talk.
But again, we are rather more tempted to admit those
particulars which we know we can describe; and hence those
most of all which, having been described very often, have
grown to be conventionally treated in the practice of our
art. These we choose, as the mason chooses the acanthus to
adorn his capital, because they come naturally to the
accustomed hand. The old stock incidents and accessories,
tricks of work-manship and schemes of composition (all being
admirably good, or they would long have been forgotten) haunt
and tempt our fancy, offer us ready-made but not perfectly
appropriate solutions for any problem that arises, and wean
us from the study of nature and the uncompromising practice
of art. To struggle, to face nature, to find fresh
solutions, and give expression to facts which have not yet
been adequately or not yet elegantly expressed, is to run a
little upon the danger of extreme self-love. Difficulty sets
a high price upon achievement; and the artist may easily fall
into the error of the French naturalists, and consider any
fact as welcome to admission if it be the ground of brilliant
handiwork; or, again, into the error of the modern landscapepainter,
who is apt to think that difficulty overcome and
science well displayed can take the place of what is, after
all, the one excuse and breath of art - charm. A little
further, and he will regard charm in the light of an unworthy
sacrifice to prettiness, and the omission of a tedious
passage as an infidelity to art.
We have now the matter of this difference before us. The
idealist, his eye singly fixed upon the greater outlines,
loves rather to fill up the interval with detail of the
conventional order, briefly touched, soberly suppressed in
tone, courting neglect. But the realist, with a fine
intemperance, will not suffer the presence of anything so
dead as a convention; he shall have all fiery, all hotpressed
from nature, all charactered and notable, seizing the
eye. The style that befits either of these extremes, once
chosen, brings with it its necessary disabilities and
dangers. The immediate danger of the realist is to sacrifice
the beauty and significance of the whole to local dexterity,
or, in the insane pursuit of completion, to immolate his
readers under facts; but he comes in the last resort, and as
his energy declines, to discard all design, abjure all
choice, and, with scientific thoroughness, steadily to
communicate matter which is not worth learning. The danger
of the idealist is, of course, to become merely null and lose
all grip of fact, particularity, or passion.
We talk of bad and good. Everything, indeed, is good which
is conceived with honesty and executed with communicative
ardour. But though on neither side is dogmatism fitting, and
though in every case the artist must decide for himself, and
decide afresh and yet afresh for each succeeding work and new
creation; yet one thing may be generally said, that we of the
last quarter of the nineteenth century, breathing as we do
the intellectual atmosphere of our age, are more apt to err
upon the side of realism than to sin in quest of the ideal.
Upon that theory it may be well to watch and correct our own
decisions, always holding back the hand from the least
appearance of irrelevant dexterity, and resolutely fixed to
begin no work that is not philosophical, passionate,
dignified, happily mirthful, or, at the last and least,
romantic in design.
IT was far indeed from being my first book, for I am not a
novelist alone. But I am well aware that my paymaster, the
Great Public, regards what else I have written with
indifference, if not aversion; if it call upon me at all, it
calls on me in the familiar and indelible character; and when
I am asked to talk of my first book, no question in the world
but what is meant is my first novel.
Sooner or later, somehow, anyhow, I was bound to write a
novel. It seems vain to ask why. Men are born with various
manias: from my earliest childhood, it was mine to make a
plaything of imaginary series of events; and as soon as I was
able to write, I became a good friend to the paper-makers.
Reams upon reams must have gone to the making of 'Rathillet,'
'The Pentland Rising,' (18) 'The King's Pardon' (otherwise
'Park Whitehead'), 'Edward Daven,' 'A Country Dance,' and 'A
Vendetta in the West'; and it is consolatory to remember that
these reams are now all ashes, and have been received again
into the soil. I have named but a few of my ill-fated
efforts, only such indeed as came to a fair bulk ere they
were desisted from; and even so they cover a long vista of
years. 'Rathillet' was attempted before fifteen, 'The
Vendetta' at twenty-nine, and the succession of defeats
lasted unbroken till I was thirty-one. By that time, I had
written little books and little essays and short stories; and
had got patted on the back and paid for them - though not
enough to live upon. I had quite a reputation, I was the
successful man; I passed my days in toil, the futility of
which would sometimes make my cheek to burn - that I should
spend a man's energy upon this business, and yet could not
earn a livelihood: and still there shone ahead of me an
unattained ideal: although I had attempted the thing with
vigour not less than ten or twelve times, I had not yet
written a novel. All - all my pretty ones - had gone for a
little, and then stopped inexorably like a schoolboy's watch.
I might be compared to a cricketer of many years' standing
who should never have made a run. Anybody can write a short
story - a bad one, I mean - who has industry and paper and
time enough; but not every one may hope to write even a bad
novel. It is the length that kills.
The accepted novelist may take his novel up and put it down,
spend days upon it in vain, and write not any more than he
makes haste to blot. Not so the beginner. Human nature has
certain rights; instinct - the instinct of self-preservation
- forbids that any man (cheered and supported by the
consciousness of no previous victory) should endure the
miseries of unsuccessful literary toil beyond a period to be
measured in weeks. There must be something for hope to feed
upon. The beginner must have a slant of wind, a lucky vein
must be running, he must be in one of those hours when the
words come and the phrases balance of themselves - EVEN TO
BEGIN. And having begun, what a dread looking forward is
that until the book shall be accomplished! For so long a
time, the slant is to continue unchanged, the vein to keep
running, for so long a time you must keep at command the same
quality of style: for so long a time your puppets are to be
always vital, always consistent, always vigorous! I remember
I used to look, in those days, upon every three-volume novel
with a sort of veneration, as a feat - not possibly of
literature - but at least of physical and moral endurance and
the courage of Ajax.
In the fated year I came to live with my father and mother at
Kinnaird, above Pitlochry. Then I walked on the red moors
and by the side of the golden burn; the rude, pure air of our
mountains inspirited, if it did not inspire us, and my wife
and I projected a joint volume of logic stories, for which
she wrote 'The Shadow on the Bed,' and I turned out 'Thrawn
Janet,' and a first draft of 'The Merry Men.' I love my
native air, but it does not love me; and the end of this
delightful period was a cold, a fly-blister, and a migration
by Strathairdle and Glenshee to the Castleton of Braemar.
There it blew a good deal and rained in a proportion; my
native air was more unkind than man's ingratitude, and I must
consent to pass a good deal of my time between four walls in
a house lugubriously known as the Late Miss McGregor's
Cottage. And now admire the finger of predestination. There
was a schoolboy in the Late Miss McGregor's Cottage, home
from the holidays, and much in want of 'something craggy to
break his mind upon.' He had no thought of literature; it
was the art of Raphael that received his fleeting suffrages;
and with the aid of pen and ink and a shilling box of water
colours, he had soon turned one of the rooms into a picture
gallery. My more immediate duty towards the gallery was to
be showman; but I would sometimes unbend a little, join the
artist (so to speak) at the easel, and pass the afternoon
with him in a generous emulation, making coloured drawings.
On one of these occasions, I made the map of an island; it
was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the
shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained
harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the
unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance
'Treasure Island.' I am told there are people who do not
care for maps, and find it hard to believe. The names, the
shapes of the woodlands, the courses of the roads and rivers,
the prehistoric footsteps of man still distinctly traceable
up hill and down dale, the mills and the ruins, the ponds and
the ferries, perhaps the STANDING STONE or the DRUIDIC CIRCLE
on the heath; here is an inexhaustible fund of interest for
any man with eyes to see or twopence-worth of imagination to
understand with! No child but must remember laying his head
in the grass, staring into the infinitesimal forest and
seeing it grow populous with fairy armies.
Somewhat in this way, as I paused upon my map of 'Treasure
Island,' the future character of the book began to appear
there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces
and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected
quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting
treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection.
The next thing I knew I had some papers before me and was
writing out a list of chapters. How often have I done so,
and the thing gone no further! But there seemed elements of
success about this enterprise. It was to be a story for
boys; no need of psychology or fine writing; and I had a boy
at hand to be a touchstone. Women were excluded. I was
unable to handle a brig (which the HISPANIOLA should have
been), but I thought I could make shift to sail her as a
schooner without public shame. And then I had an idea for
John Silver from which I promised myself funds of
entertainment; to take an admired friend of mine (whom the
reader very likely knows and admires as much as I do), to
deprive him of all his finer qualities and higher graces of
temperament, to leave him with nothing but his strength, his
courage, his quickness, and his magnificent geniality, and to
try to express these in terms of the culture of a raw
tarpaulin. Such psychical surgery is, I think, a common way
of 'making character'; perhaps it is, indeed, the only way.
We can put in the quaint figure that spoke a hundred words
with us yesterday by the wayside; but do we know him? Our
friend, with his infinite variety and flexibility, we know -
but can we put him in? Upon the first, we must engraft
secondary and imaginary qualities, possibly all wrong; from
the second, knife in hand, we must cut away and deduct the
needless arborescence of his nature, but the trunk and the
few branches that remain we may at least be fairly sure of.
On a chill September morning, by the cheek of a brisk fire,
and the rain drumming on the window, I began THE SEA COOK,
for that was the original title. I have begun (and finished)
a number of other books, but I cannot remember to have sat
down to one of them with more complacency. It is not to be
wondered at, for stolen waters are proverbially sweet. I am
now upon a painful chapter. No doubt the parrot once
belonged to Robinson Crusoe. No doubt the skeleton is
conveyed from Poe. I think little of these, they are trifles
and details; and no man can hope to have a monopoly of
skeletons or make a corner in talking birds. The stockade, I
am told, is from MASTERMAN READY. It may be, I care not a
jot. These useful writers had fulfilled the poet's saying:
departing, they had left behind them Footprints on the sands
of time, Footprints which perhaps another - and I was the
other! It is my debt to Washington Irving that exercises my
conscience, and justly so, for I believe plagiarism was
rarely carried farther. I chanced to pick up the TALES OF A
TRAVELLER some years ago with a view to an anthology of prose
narrative, and the book flew up and struck me: Billy Bones,
his chest, the company in the parlour, the whole inner
spirit, and a good deal of the material detail of my first
chapters - all were there, all were the property of
Washington Irving. But I had no guess of it then as I sat
writing by the fireside, in what seemed the spring-tides of a
somewhat pedestrian inspiration; nor yet day by day, after
lunch, as I read aloud my morning's work to the family. It
seemed to me original as sin; it seemed to belong to me like
my right eye. I had counted on one boy, I found I had two in
my audience. My father caught fire at once with all the
romance and childishness of his original nature. His own
stories, that every night of his life he put himself to sleep
with, dealt perpetually with ships, roadside inns, robbers,
old sailors, and commercial travellers before the era of
steam. He never finished one of these romances; the lucky
man did not require to! But in TREASURE ISLAND he recognised
something kindred to his own imagination; it was HIS kind of
picturesque; and he not only heard with delight the daily
chapter, but set himself acting to collaborate. When the
time came for Billy Bones's chest to be ransacked, he must
have passed the better part of a day preparing, on the back
of a legal envelope, an inventory of its contents, which I
exactly followed; and the name of 'Flint's old ship' - the
WALRUS - was given at his particular request. And now who
should come dropping in, EX MACHINA, but Dr. Japp, like the
disguised prince who is to bring down the curtain upon peace
and happiness in the last act; for he carried in his pocket,
not a horn or a talisman, but a publisher - had, in fact,
been charged by my old friend, Mr. Henderson, to unearth new
writers for YOUNG FOLKS. Even the ruthlessness of a united
family recoiled before the extreme measure of inflicting on
our guest the mutilated members of THE SEA COOK; at the same
time, we would by no means stop our readings; and accordingly
the tale was begun again at the beginning, and solemnly redelivered
for the benefit of Dr. Japp. From that moment on,
I have thought highly of his critical faculty; for when he
left us, he carried away the manuscript in his portmanteau.
Here, then, was everything to keep me up, sympathy, help, and
now a positive engagement. I had chosen besides a very easy
style. Compare it with the almost contemporary 'Merry Men',
one reader may prefer the one style, one the other - 'tis an
affair of character, perhaps of mood; but no expert can fail
to see that the one is much more difficult, and the other
much easier to maintain. It seems as though a full-grown
experienced man of letters might engage to turn out TREASURE
ISLAND at so many pages a day, and keep his pipe alight. But
alas! this was not my case. Fifteen days I stuck to it, and
turned out fifteen chapters; and then, in the early
paragraphs of the sixteenth, ignominiously lost hold. My
mouth was empty; there was not one word of TREASURE ISLAND in
my bosom; and here were the proofs of the beginning already
waiting me at the 'Hand and Spear'! Then I corrected them,
living for the most part alone, walking on the heath at
Weybridge in dewy autumn mornings, a good deal pleased with
what I had done, and more appalled than I can depict to you
in words at what remained for me to do. I was thirty-one; I
was the head of a family; I had lost my health; I had never
yet paid my way, never yet made 200 pounds a year; my father
had quite recently bought back and cancelled a book that was
judged a failure: was this to be another and last fiasco? I
was indeed very close on despair; but I shut my mouth hard,
and during the journey to Davos, where I was to pass the
winter, had the resolution to think of other things and bury
myself in the novels of M. de Boisgobey. Arrived at my
destination, down I sat one morning to the unfinished tale;
and behold! it flowed from me like small talk; and in a
second tide of delighted industry, and again at a rate of a
chapter a day, I finished TREASURE ISLAND. It had to be
transcribed almost exactly; my wife was ill; the schoolboy
remained alone of the faithful; and John Addington Symonds
(to whom I timidly mentioned what I was engaged on) looked on
me askance. He was at that time very eager I should write on
the characters of Theophrastus: so far out may be the
judgments of the wisest men. But Symonds (to be sure) was
scarce the confidant to go to for sympathy on a boy's story.
He was large-minded; 'a full man,' if there was one; but the
very name of my enterprise would suggest to him only
capitulations of sincerity and solecisms of style. Well! he
was not far wrong.
TREASURE ISLAND - it was Mr. Henderson who deleted the first
title, THE SEA COOK - appeared duly in the story paper, where
it figured in the ignoble midst, without woodcuts, and
attracted not the least attention. I did not care. I liked
the tale myself, for much the same reason as my father liked
the beginning: it was my kind of picturesque. I was not a
little proud of John Silver, also; and to this day rather
admire that smooth and formidable adventurer. What was
infinitely more exhilarating, I had passed a landmark; I had
finished a tale, and written 'The End' upon my manuscript, as
I had not done since 'The Pentland Rising,' when I was a boy
of sixteen not yet at college. In truth it was so by a set
of lucky accidents; had not Dr. Japp come on his visit, had
not the tale flowed from me with singular case, it must have
been laid aside like its predecessors, and found a circuitous
and unlamented way to the fire. Purists may suggest it would
have been better so. I am not of that mind. The tale seems
to have given much pleasure, and it brought (or, was the
means of bringing) fire and food and wine to a deserving
family in which I took an interest. I need scarcely say I
mean my own.
But the adventures of TREASURE ISLAND are not yet quite at an
end. I had written it up to the map. The map was the chief
part of my plot. For instance, I had called an islet
'Skeleton Island,' not knowing what I meant, seeking only for
the immediate picturesque, and it was to justify this name
that I broke into the gallery of Mr. Poe and stole Flint's
pointer. And in the same way, it was because I had made two
harbours that the HISPANIOLA was sent on her wanderings with
Israel Hands. The time came when it was decided to
republish, and I sent in my manuscript, and the map along
with it, to Messrs. Cassell. The proofs came, they were
corrected, but I heard nothing of the map. I wrote and
asked; was told it had never been received, and sat aghast.
It is one thing to draw a map at random, set a scale in one
corner of it at a venture, and write up a story to the
measurements. It is quite another to have to examine a whole
book, make an inventory of all the allusions contained in it,
and with a pair of compasses, painfully design a map to suit
the data. I did it; and the map was drawn again in my
father's office, with embellishments of blowing whales and
sailing ships, and my father himself brought into service a
knack he had of various writing, and elaborately FORGED the
signature of Captain Flint, and the sailing directions of
Billy Bones. But somehow it was never TREASURE ISLAND to me.
I have said the map was the most of the plot. I might almost
say it was the whole. A few reminiscences of Poe, Defoe, and
Washington Irving, a copy of Johnson's BUCCANEERS, the name
of the Dead Man's Chest from Kingsley's AT LAST, some
recollections of canoeing on the high seas, and the map
itself, with its infinite, eloquent suggestion, made up the
whole of my materials. It is, perhaps, not often that a map
figures so largely in a tale, yet it is always important.
The author must know his countryside, whether real or
imaginary, like his hand; the distances, the points of the
compass, the place of the sun's rising, the behaviour of the
moon, should all be beyond cavil. And how troublesome the
moon is! I have come to grief over the moon in PRINCE OTTO,
and so soon as that was pointed out to me, adopted a
precaution which I recommend to other men - I never write now
without an almanack. With an almanack, and the map of the
country, and the plan of every house, either actually plotted
on paper or already and immediately apprehended in the mind,
a man may hope to avoid some of the grossest possible
blunders. With the map before him, he will scarce allow the
sun to set in the east, as it does in THE ANTIQUARY. With
the almanack at hand, he will scarce allow two horsemen,
journeying on the most urgent affair, to employ six days,
from three of the Monday morning till late in the Saturday
night, upon a journey of, say, ninety or a hundred miles, and
before the week is out, and still on the same nags, to cover
fifty in one day, as may be read at length in the inimitable
novel of ROB ROY. And it is certainly well, though far from
necessary, to avoid such 'croppers.' But it is my contention
- my superstition, if you like - that who is faithful to his
map, and consults it, and draws from it his inspiration,
daily and hourly, gains positive support, and not mere
negative immunity from accident. The tale has a root there;
it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the
words. Better if the country be real, and he has walked
every foot of it and knows every milestone. But even with
imaginary places, he will do well in the beginning to provide
a map; as he studies it, relations will appear that he had
not thought upon; he will discover obvious, though
unsuspected, short-cuts and footprints for his messengers;
and even when a map is not all the plot, as it was in
TREASURE ISLAND, it will be found to be a mine of suggestion.
I WAS walking one night in the verandah of a small house in
which I lived, outside the hamlet of Saranac. It was winter;
the night was very dark; the air extraordinary clear and
cold, and sweet with the purity of forests. From a good way
below, the river was to be heard contending with ice and
boulders: a few lights appeared, scattered unevenly among
the darkness, but so far away as not to lessen the sense of
isolation. For the making of a story here were fine
conditions. I was besides moved with the spirit of
emulation, for I had just finished my third or fourth perusal
of THE PHANTOM SHIP. 'Come,' said I to my engine, 'let us
make a tale, a story of many years and countries, of the sea
and the land, savagery and civilisation; a story that shall
have the same large features, and may be treated in the same
summary elliptic method as the book you have been reading and
admiring.' I was here brought up with a reflection
exceedingly just in itself, but which, as the sequel shows, I
failed to profit by. I saw that Marryat, not less than
Homer, Milton, and Virgil, profited by the choice of a
familiar and legendary subject; so that he prepared his
readers on the very title-page; and this set me cudgelling my
brains, if by any chance I could hit upon some similar belief
to be the centre-piece of my own meditated fiction. In the
course of this vain search there cropped up in my memory a
singular case of a buried and resuscitated fakir, which I had
been often told by an uncle of mine, then lately dead,
Inspector-General John Balfour.
On such a fine frosty night, with no wind and the thermometer
below zero, the brain works with much vivacity; and the next
moment I had seen the circumstance transplanted from India
and the tropics to the Adirondack wilderness and the
stringent cold of the Canadian border. Here then, almost
before I had begun my story, I had two countries, two of the
ends of the earth involved: and thus though the notion of
the resuscitated man failed entirely on the score of general
acceptation, or even (as I have since found) acceptability,
it fitted at once with my design of a tale of many lands; and
this decided me to consider further of its possibilities.
The man who should thus be buried was the first question: a
good man, whose return to life would be hailed by the reader
and the other characters with gladness? This trenched upon
the Christian picture, and was dismissed. If the idea, then,
was to be of any use at all for me, I had to create a kind of
evil genius to his friends and family, take him through many
disappearances, and make this final restoration from the pit
of death, in the icy American wilderness, the last and the
grimmest of the series. I need not tell my brothers of the
craft that I was now in the most interesting moment of an
author's life; the hours that followed that night upon the
balcony, and the following nights and days, whether walking
abroad or lying wakeful in my bed, were hours of
unadulterated joy. My mother, who was then living with me
alone, perhaps had less enjoyment; for, in the absence of my
wife, who is my usual helper in these times of parturition, I
must spur her up at all seasons to hear me relate and try to
clarify my unformed fancies.
And while I was groping for the fable and the character
required, behold I found them lying ready and nine years old
in my memory. Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease
porridge in the pot, nine years old. Was there ever a more
complete justification of the rule of Horace? Here, thinking
of quite other things, I had stumbled on the solution, or
perhaps I should rather say (in stagewright phrase) the
Curtain or final Tableau of a story conceived long before on
the moors between Pitlochry and Strathardle, conceived in
Highland rain, in the blend of the smell of heather and bogplants,
and with a mind full of the Athole correspondence and
the memories of the dumlicide Justice. So long ago, so far
away it was, that I had first evoked the faces and the mutual
tragic situation of the men of Durrisdeer.
My story was now world-wide enough: Scotland, India, and
America being all obligatory scenes. But of these India was
strange to me except in books; I had never known any living
Indian save a Parsee, a member of my club in London, equally
civilised, and (to all seeing) equally accidental with
myself. It was plain, thus far, that I should have to get
into India and out of it again upon a foot of fairy
lightness; and I believe this first suggested to me the idea
of the Chevalier Burke for a narrator. It was at first
intended that he should be Scottish, and I was then filled
with fears that he might prove only the degraded shadow of my
own Alan Breck. Presently, however, it began to occur to me
it would be like my Master to curry favour with the Prince's
Irishmen; and that an Irish refugee would have a particular
reason to find himself in India with his countryman, the
unfortunate Lally. Irish, therefore, I decided he should be,
and then, all of a sudden, I was aware of a tall shadow
across my path, the shadow of Barry Lyndon. No man (in Lord
Foppington's phrase) of a nice morality could go very deep
with my Master: in the original idea of this story conceived
in Scotland, this companion had been besides intended to be
worse than the bad elder son with whom (as it was then meant)
he was to visit Scotland; if I took an Irishman, and a very
bad Irishman, in the midst of the eighteenth century, how was
I to evade Barry Lyndon? The wretch besieged me, offering
his services; he gave me excellent references; he proved that
he was highly fitted for the work I had to do; he, or my own
evil heart, suggested it was easy to disguise his ancient
livery wit a little lace and a few frogs and buttons, so that
Thackeray himself should hardly recognise him. And then of a
sudden there came to me memories of a young Irishman, with
whom I was once intimate, and had spent long nights walking
and talking with, upon a very desolate coast in a bleak
autumn: I recalled him as a youth of an extraordinary moral
simplicity - almost vacancy; plastic to any influence, the
creature of his admirations: and putting such a youth in
fancy into the career of a soldier of fortune, it occurred to
me that he would serve my turn as well as Mr. Lyndon, and in
place of entering into competition with the Master, would
afford a slight though a distinct relief. I know not if I
have done him well, though his moral dissertations always
highly entertained me: but I own I have been surprised to
find that he reminded some critics of Barry Lyndon after all.
. . .
ALTHOUGH an old, consistent exile, the editor of the
following pages revisits now and again the city of which he
exults to be a native; and there are few things more strange,
more painful, or more salutary, than such revisitations.
Outside, in foreign spots, he comes by surprise and awakens
more attention than he had expected; in his own city, the
relation is reversed, and he stands amazed to be so little
recollected. Elsewhere he is refreshed to see attractive
faces, to remark possible friends; there he scouts the long
streets, with a pang at heart, for the faces and friends that
are no more. Elsewhere he is delighted with the presence of
what is new, there tormented by the absence of what is old.
Elsewhere he is content to be his present self; there he is
smitten with an equal regret for what he once was and for
what he once hoped to be.
He was feeling all this dimly, as he drove from the station,
on his last visit; he was feeling it still as he alighted at
the door of his friend Mr. Johnstone Thomson, W.S., with whom
he was to stay. A hearty welcome, a face not altogether
changed, a few words that sounded of old days, a laugh
provoked and shared, a glimpse in passing of the snowy cloth
and bright decanters and the Piranesis on the dining-room
wall, brought him to his bed-room with a somewhat lightened
cheer, and when he and Mr. Thomson sat down a few minutes
later, cheek by jowl, and pledged the past in a preliminary
bumper, he was already almost consoled, he had already almost
forgiven himself his two unpardonable errors, that he should
ever have left his native city, or ever returned to it.
'I have something quite in your way,' said Mr. Thomson. 'I
wished to do honour to your arrival; because, my dear fellow,
it is my own youth that comes back along with you; in a very
tattered and withered state, to be sure, but - well! - all
that's left of it.'
'A great deal better than nothing,' said the editor. 'But
what is this which is quite in my way?'
'I was coming to that,' said Mr. Thomson: 'Fate has put it in
my power to honour your arrival with something really
original by way of dessert. A mystery.'
'A mystery?' I repeated.
'Yes,' said his friend, 'a mystery. It may prove to be
nothing, and it may prove to be a great deal. But in the
meanwhile it is truly mysterious, no eye having looked on it
for near a hundred years; it is highly genteel, for it treats
of a titled family; and it ought to be melodramatic, for
(according to the superscription) it is concerned with
'I think I rarely heard a more obscure or a more promising
annunciation,' the other remarked. 'But what is It?'
'You remember my predecessor's, old Peter M'Brair's
'I remember him acutely; he could not look at me without a
pang of reprobation, and he could not feel the pang without
betraying it. He was to me a man of a great historical
interest, but the interest was not returned.'
'Ah well, we go beyond him,' said Mr. Thomson. 'I daresay
old Peter knew as little about this as I do. You see, I
succeeded to a prodigious accumulation of old law-papers and
old tin boxes, some of them of Peter's hoarding, some of his
father's, John, first of the dynasty, a great man in his day.
Among other collections were all the papers of the
'The Durrisdeers!' cried I. 'My dear fellow, these may be of
the greatest interest. One of them was out in the '45; one
had some strange passages with the devil - you will find a
note of it in Law's MEMORIALS, I think; and there was an
unexplained tragedy, I know not what, much later, about a
hundred years ago - '
'More than a hundred years ago,' said Mr. Thomson. 'In
'How do you know that? I mean some death.'
'Yes, the lamentable deaths of my lord Durrisdeer and his
brother, the Master of Ballantrae (attainted in the
troubles),' said Mr. Thomson with something the tone of a man
quoting. 'Is that it?'
'To say truth,' said I, 'I have only seen some dim reference
to the things in memoirs; and heard some traditions dimmer
still, through my uncle (whom I think you knew). My uncle
lived when he was a boy in the neighbourhood of St. Bride's;
he has often told me of the avenue closed up and grown over
with grass, the great gates never opened, the last lord and
his old maid sister who lived in the back parts of the house,
a quiet, plain, poor, hum-drum couple it would seem - but
pathetic too, as the last of that stirring and brave house -
and, to the country folk, faintly terrible from some deformed
'Yes,' said Mr. Thomson. Henry Graeme Durie, the last lord,
died in 1820; his sister, the Honourable Miss Katherine
Durie, in '27; so much I know; and by what I have been going
over the last few days, they were what you say, decent, quiet
people and not rich. To say truth, it was a letter of my
lord's that put me on the search for the packet we are going
to open this evening. Some papers could not be found; and he
wrote to Jack M'Brair suggesting they might be among those
sealed up by a Mr. Mackellar. M'Brair answered, that the
papers in question were all in Mackellar's own hand, all (as
the writer understood) of a purely narrative character; and
besides, said he, "I am bound not to open them before the
year 1889." You may fancy if these words struck me: I
instituted a hunt through all the M'Brair repositories; and
at last hit upon that packet which (if you have had enough
wine) I propose to show you at once.'
In the smoking-room, to which my host now led me, was a
packet, fastened with many seals and enclosed in a single
sheet of strong paper thus endorsed:-
Papers relating to the lives and lamentable deaths of the
late Lord Durisdeer, and his elder brother James, commonly
called Master of Ballantrae, attainted in the troubles:
entrusted into the hands of John M'Brair in the Lawnmarket of
Edinburgh, W.S.; this 20th day of September Anno Domini 1789;
by him to be kept secret until the revolution of one hundred
years complete, or until the 20th day of September 1889: the
same compiled and written by me,
As Mr. Thomson is a married man, I will not say what hour had
struck when we laid down the last of the following pages; but
I will give a few words of what ensued.
'Here,' said Mr. Thomson, 'is a novel ready to your hand:
all you have to do is to work up the scenery, develop the
characters, and improve the style.'
'My dear fellow,' said I, 'they are just the three things
that I would rather die than set my hand to. It shall be
published as it stands.'
'But it's so bald,' objected Mr. Thomson.
'I believe there is nothing so noble as baldness,' replied I,
'and I am sure there is nothing so interesting. I would have
all literature bald, and all authors (if you like) but one.'
'Well, well,' said Mr. Thomson, 'we shall see.'
(1) First published in the Contemporary Review, April 1885
(2) Milton.
(3) Milton.
(4) Milton.
(5) As PVF will continue to haunt us through our English
examples, take, by way of comparison, this Latin verse, of
which it forms a chief adornment, and do not hold me
answerable for the all too Roman freedom of the sense: 'Hanc
volo, quae facilis, quae palliolata vagatur.'
(6) Coleridge.
(7) Antony and Cleopatra.
(8) Cymbeline.
(9) The V is in 'of.'
(10) Troilus and Cressida.
(11) First published in the FORTNIGHTLY REVIEW, April 1881.
(12) Mr. James Payn.
(13) A footnote, at least, is due to the admirable example
set before all young writers in the width of literary
sympathy displayed by Mr. Swinburne. He runs forth to
welcome merit, whether in Dickens or Trollope, whether in
Villon, Milton, or Pope. This is, in criticism, the attitude
we should all seek to preserve; not only in that, but in
every branch of literary work.
(14) First published in the BRITISH WEEKLY, May 13, 1887.
(16) First published in the MAGAZINE OF ART in 1883.
(17) First published in the IDLER, August 1894.
(18) NE PAS CONFONDRE. Not the slim green pamphlet with the
imprint of Andrew Elliot, for which (as I see with amazement
from the book-lists) the gentlemen of England are willing to
pay fancy prices; but its predecessor, a bulky historical
romance without a spark of merit, and now deleted from the
(19) 1889.

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