The New Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson

New Light on The South Seas

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This post is contributed by Roger G. Swearingen, author of The Prose Works of Robert Louis Stevenson etc., presently working on a biography of Stevenson and an edition (not for EdRLS) of The South Seas.


New Light on The South Seas from unpublished pages and Stevenson’s day-to-day journals

The cruise journals

Stevenson’s day-to-day journals from his first two cruises in the South Seas – aboard the yacht Casco in 1888-1889 and the trading schooner Equator in 1889 – have attracted almost no attention from his biographers or from most literary scholars, even those writing about his work in the South Seas.

The reason is simple. No one, then or now, seems to think (or to have thought) at all highly of The South Seas, a work that Stevenson called “my big book on the South Seas: the big book on the South Seas it ought to be, and shall” (RLS to Marcel Schwob, 19 August 1890, Letter 2238). And his day-to-day journals consist of almost 250 legal-sized pages in Stevenson’s not particularly legible handwriting – a formidable task for anyone merely to read.

I have now had the pleasure of doing just that, thanks to four weeks of undivided research time that I was able to spend recently with these pages at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

The recently-discovered opening chapters

Yale, GEN MSS 808, Table of contents v

Yale, GEN MSS 808, Table of contents v

I have also had the pleasure of making a complete, annotated transcription of the first half‑dozen chapters of The South Seas as Stevenson himself wrote them: forty‑four folio manuscript leaves, 16,000 words, now in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.*

Unseen and unknown for more than a century, these opening pages are titled “Whites in the Pacific” (or “Sailors and Traders”, or “schooners, islands and maroons”, to give two other versions of the title from Stevenson’s outlines). And they offer a panoramic survey of life as it was actually being lived in the South Seas when Stevenson was there. He depicts an environment of whites of many nationalities far from the places of their birth and upbringing and of native peoples who themselves exhibit a great diversity of outlooks and cultures, a world made up of men living in harbour towns and on islands and aboard ships, and of men, women, and children, native and white, living on islands and in island groups separated by vast distances of open, largely empty, imperfectly charted, unlighted and unpredictable seas.

It is a world in which life and commerce go forward according to rules and customs and uncertainties that would baffle or at least surprise most outsiders: a world of vitality, incoherence, danger, risk, and charm – and often of outlandish humour and misbehaviour as well. Beginning the book as he does – anecdotally, and with a focus on “Whites in the Pacific” – Stevenson frames The South Seas as a work of contemporary social history rather than as autobiography, narrative, journalism, or travel.

Colvin’s In the South Seas

This is not at all the same book that generations have known under the title In the South Seas. In the South Seas is a compilation that Stevenson’s friend Sidney Colvin made after Stevenson’s death for publication in the Edinburgh Edition of Stevenson’s works in 1896. Colvin reprinted the chapters on the Marquesas, the Paumotus, and the Gilbert Islands that Stevenson himself had seen published in 1891 in the New York Sun and other newspapers and in the English weekly magazine Black and White. But Colvin did not include the chapters on the pearl islands of Penrhyn and Manihiki. Nor did he include Stevenson’s account of Hawaii, possibly from a wish not to reprint Stevenson’s lengthy comments on leprosy and his account of visiting the leper settlement on the Hawaiian island of Molokai in late May 1889. Nor did he publish Stevenson’s own opening chapters, no doubt because he had no idea that they existed. The result was In the South Seas, a remarkable book as it stands but something completely different from The South Seas as Stevenson outlined and began writing it.

Stevenson reworking of journal entries

“His majesty was very Arabian and monstrous languid,” Stevenson wrote in one passage in his day-to-day journal that is only glanced at in the published version, near the end of the first chapter of his account of Butaritari, in the Gilbert Islands:

and though the courtiers made very merry with us, examining the gold stoppings in our teeth, the sovereign but twice condescended to smile, never to speak. The queen on the other hand will retain a lively impression of our visit; for when one of our party played the part of Commander Goode [in King Solomon's Mines] and snapped his false teeth at her, she became deadly pale and was thenceforth unable to remove her eyes from the performer. A younger lady, after the same experience, retired behind the royal privy, and I could observe her to experiment on the condition of her own teeth; they were fast enough and white enough you may be sure.

Stevenson’s day-to-day journals are occasionally amusing, as in the present instance. But they show, at all times, how much effort Stevenson put into revising his journals for publication. In the first three chapters on the Marquesas, the first landfall of the Casco, Stevenson takes passages from more than twenty different places in his journal, from the third to the fifty-seventh page and ranging in length from a few words to more than a thousand. He adds clarification and context, and above all he adds thematic comments and reflections: long and short passages that make narratives, facts, and conversations in the journals instances of themes rather than mere occurrences. Tari (Charlie) Coffin and his family, so poignantly presented in the third chapter of Stevenson’s account of the Marquesas, “The Maroon”, is first mentioned under the date of July 22nd [1888], on the eleventh page in Stevenson’s journal:

We were aware of an elderly grizzled man, of a younger fellow, slim and tall and grave, and a girl of sixteen, with her baby in her arms. The girl had remarked our presence; and the family had come down the den to make us welcome after the island fashion, so unassuming to us clumsy and niggardly barbarians, so embarrassing.

For the published version, Stevenson then draws upon, re-shapes, and provides context for material from this and three other places in his journal, transforming the account of Tari Coffin into an instance of the profound melancholy that he saw as dominating the outlook of the Marquesans.

An edition in preparation

Extensive and representative selections from Stevenson’s journals, the complete text of his original opening chapters for The South Seas, annotations, photographs and illustrations, outlines, and much else – even a previously unknown chapter on the island of Manihiki – will all appear together in a new, complete reading edition of Stevenson’s “big book” that I now have in preparation. For the first time it will be possible to see and read The South Seas as Stevenson himself envisioned it and as he actually began it. The South Seas is a fascinating and major work that will add significantly – and brilliantly – to the Stevenson canon.

Roger G. Swearingen



* Stevenson, Robert Louis, Drafts of the South Seas, 1889-1891. Yale, GEN MSS 808. Images of the whole MS can be viewed and downloaded in the online Beinecke Digital Collections: folder 2, folder 3 (folder 1 is just the original envelope that held the MS).

For more information, see previous post ‘Major new Stevenson manuscript: In The South Seas‘.

Written by rdury

04/04/2014 at 11:48 pm

Posted in News

RLS plans his volume of poems carefully

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This post is contributed by John F. Russell, author and editor of  The Music of Robert Louis Stevenson.


RLS, professional writer

Screenshot 2014-02-24 15.03.45

Yale Gen MSS 664 box 43 folders 943-945 (Beinecke 6896)

(Richard Dury writes: in the previous post contributed by John F. Russell, I added an editorial aside: “An interesting puzzle for someone wold be to work out what all the numerical calculations mean”. John Russell has taken up the challenge and offers the following convincing solution, which shows how carefully RLS was planning the volume of poems:)

You issue a challenge to work out what all the numerical calculations mean in Beinecke 6896.

This is the first line:

30. 1. Ditty ….. 14 …… 807 ….. 1 …. 53

  • 30 is the position of the item in the entire list of poems destined for Songs of Travel.
  • 1 is the position in the section “Songs.”
  • 14 is the number of lines in the poem (Lewis (Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson) shows the 12 line version of Ditty on p. 178, but says on p. 496 there was a 14 line version). Madrigal (#5 on the list of “Songs”), for another instance, has 24 lines, the number given after the title on this list.
  • 807 is the cumulative number of lines of poetry from the beginning of the list.
  • 1 is the number of pages to be occupied by the poem.
  • 53 is the page on which the poem starts. For instance, Vagabond (#3) starts on page 57 and occupies 2 pages. The next poem, Over the Sea to Skye (#4), occupies 2 pages and starts on p. 59. RLS must have envisioned a small format book. I don’t recall the reference, but I believe he insisted on only one poem per page.


(Richard Dury writes: Chapeau!)

Songs of Travel manuscript puzzle solved

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This post is contributed by John F. Russell, author and editor of  The Music of Robert Louis Stevenson.


List of poems for what became ‘Songs of Travel’

Songs of Travel is a posthumous collection of poems first published in 1895 (in vol. XIV of the Edinburgh Edition), but already planned by Stevenson before his death. Among the draft outlines of the collection is Beinecke ms. 6895.

This ms. is divided into four sections and lists 43 poems, many of which later appeared in Songs of Travel. The section “Songs” contains 13 items and appears below.

Screenshot 2014-02-24 13.58.54

Yale Gen MSS 664 box 43 folders 943-945 (Beinecke 6895)

(Note how RLS, the professional writer, is able to predict this will occupy “21 pp” in the note bottom left.)

The manuscript is transcribed by Roger C. Lewis on pp. 480-481 of his Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson, where he says that title number 10 is illegible. His reluctance to guess the title is understandable, as readers will discover if they interpret the title as something like “Cr… & Sev…”:

Screenshot 2014-02-24 14.31.28

However, a quick look at other RLS manscripts shows that he rarely closes the loop of a capital A, and it often looks like “C” instead.  Knowing that, it is much easier to see that title number 10 in fact reads “Aubade & Serenade.”

Aubade and Serenade

Of course there is no RLS poem with this title. However the preceding numbers 8 and 9 on the list are the familiar “I will make you brooches” and “In the highlands” found towards the beginning of Songs of Travel. So what was “Aubade and Serenade”?

Beinecke ms. 6896 is similar to 6895 but contains a list of 19 items under the heading “Songs”, including all the titles in ms. 6895:

Screenshot 2014-02-24 15.03.45

Yale Gen MSS 664 box 43 folders 943-945 (Beinecke 6896)

(An interesting puzzle for someone would be to work out what all the numerical calculations mean.)

In this longer list, “I will make you brooches” is again no. 8, and no. 9 is again “In the highlands.”  Number 10 is “Let beauty awake.”

Screenshot 2014-02-24 15.00.38

“Let Beauty Awake” is a two stanza poem in which the first is about the morning and the second about the evening. An aubade is a song for the morning while a serenade is for the evening.

So I conclude that item number 10 in both lists is the same and that “Aubade & Serenade” is “Let beauty awake.”

John F. Russell

RLS doodles map in class

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Screenshot 2014-01-30 18.51.44Among the possible spin-offs of the Stevenson Edition is a directory of Stevenson’s notebooks with a guide to their contents. Here, for example, is a page from Notebook R (his notebooks were labelled by Graham Balfour) which is in the National Library of Scotland (MS 9904). This was used in 1867-68 for lecture notes on hydrostatics and electricity (P.G. Tait’s natural philosophy course); on p. 44, there is a list of 11 plays, beginning ‘Edmund Fuller Tragedy in five acts’; p. 40 ff. contains a draft of Act II, sc. iii of one of these (‘The Brothers’, a comedy about ‘a discovered will’); and on p. 17, there is doodled map of an island with a bay and small island within it and a long promontory that has an interesting family resemblance with the map drawn in 1881 for Treasure Island
.                                           Screenshot 2014-01-30 19.21.11

Written by rdury

30/01/2014 at 6:26 pm

2013 in review

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 7,400 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Written by Anthony Mandal

31/12/2013 at 6:25 am

Posted in News

Stevenson’s Montaigne, part 3

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part 1 | part 2

Stevenson’s markings and comments

Entering a ‘Rare Books’ room is a privilege: the Library’s first-class compartment, away from the crowds, there you are, entrusted with precious volumes, acquiring a new-found elegance as you turn over manuscript leaves; maybe someone will take me for a real scholar…

The four volumes of Stevenson’s Montaigne had so many markings that I was unsure how to combine this elegant slowness with noting down all the information in the short time available. In the end, I decided just to note the special markings: not the single vertical marks in the margin but only the double lines, then the underlinings and finally the added comments. Even so, listing them all will not have much meaning, so here I’ll group them into rough categories according to what makes them interesting. Rather than give the French text I have given Cotton’s translation of the passages, using blue for Montaigne’s text (or translation of it) and red for Stevenson’s added comments.

1. Endpaper annotations

Screenshot 2013-12-15 12.21.24

The dispassionate Shakespeare of one character : himself .

Here, on the recto page of the inside front cover of volume 4 is Stevenson’s concise characterization of Montaigne. Above it is ‘p 44′ which seems to refer to the following marked passage on p. 44 in the essay ‘Of Cripples’ (III. 11):

I have never seen greater monster or miracle in the world than myself: one grows familiar with all strange things by time and custom, but the more I frequent and the better I know myself, the more does my own deformity astonish me, the less I understand myself.

The only other flyleaf annotation is at the back of vol. 2, a list of 11 names all but one crossed through. They are written very faintly, but they are possibly all place-names as the only one I was able to decipher was ‘Abbotsford’. This is a mystery which someone else will have to solve.


2. Marginal comments: a personal dialogue with the text

Most of the marginal comments are in vols. 3 and 4, in Montaigne’s Book III, which, as we have already seen, was the part Stevenson seems to have read most intensely.

2.1 Disagreements

Some of the comments show Stevenson’s disagreement:

Vol. 2, p. 205 (Apology for Raymond Sebond): here Montaigne says (probably following here Sebond’s Fideistic arguments, which he is subtly undermining), concerning ancient predictions from the flight of birds ‘That rule and order of the moving of the wing, whence they derived the consequences of future things, must of necessity be guided by some excellent means to so noble an operation: for to attribute this great effect to any natural disposition, without the intelligence, consent, and meditation of him by whom it is produced, is an opinion evidently false.‘ This clearly doesn’t square with the normal skepticism of Montaigne and Stevenson and the latter adds ! an exclamation mark in the margin.

Vol. 2, p. 598 (Of Presumption): against the passage ‘It is very easy to accuse a government of imperfection, for all mortal things are full of it: it is very easy to beget in a people a contempt of ancient observances; never any man undertook it but he did it‘, RLS (probably thinking of how resistant established orders were to change) has added ‘false‘.

Vol. 3,p.  207 (Of Profit and Honesty): the footnote translation of “Dum tela micant etc.’ is introduced by the editor in these words ‘De Jules César, qui, en guerre ouverte contre sa patrie, dont il veut opprimer la liberté, s’écrie dans Lucain, [...]‘—RLS comments on this fiercely Republican interpretation of the editor with: ‘O! O!‘.

2.2 Glosses

On several occasions Stevenson complained about translations that were accurate but dull, and here in Vols. 3 and 4 we have a good number of his own translation glosses on about twenty separate pages. Some of these show his preference for telling translations: for the French translated by Cotton as ‘Rough bodies make themselves felt’, he has ‘knotty surfaces are sensible‘ (Vol. 3, p. 33), where Cotton has ‘crowd‘ he has ‘ruck‘ (vol. 4, p. 35). Where Montaigne talks of childhood games ‘aux noisettes et à la toupie‘ (vol 3, p. 269), Stevenson is clearly pleased to see the long survival of games with which he was familiar and writes ‘huckle bones and tops!

2.3 Other comments

Vol. 2, p. 197 (Raymond Sebond, II, 12):  Montaigne says that nightingales while learning to sing ‘contention [i.e. they compete] with emulation‘. Here RLS has added in the margin ‘I have observed this in blackbirds‘.

Vol. 3, p. 186 (Of Profit and Honesty): In the passage translated by Cotton as ‘for even in the midst of compassion we feel within, I know not what tart-sweet titillation of ill-natured pleasure in seeing others suffer‘, Stevenson glosses ‘au milieu de la compassion‘ as ‘in the very midst of pitying‘;  ‘aigredouce poincte de volupté maligne‘ as  ‘prick of malignant pleasure‘  and then adds an additional note at the foot of the page: ‘ay, & cruelty also, that so unnatural defect‘.


3. Markings: echoes of Stevenson’s ideas

Not all the markings (underlinings and vertical lines in the margin) remind one of Stevenson’s writings: he marks the passages that perhaps strike every reader of Montaigne: the passage where Montaigne talks of his cat playing with him (‘When I play with my cat who knows whether I do not make her more sport than she makes me?‘, Vol. 2, p. 177-8); Montaigne’s frankness about sex and the differences between men and women (in ‘Upon some verses of Virgil’ in Book III) receives a predictable number of markings (a double line for ‘the pleasure of telling [about sex] (a pleasure little inferior to that of doing)‘ is accompanied by ! an exclamation mark in the margin, Vol. 3, p. 304); his openness about other bodily functions (‘Both kings and philosophers go to stool, and ladies too‘, Vol. 4, p. 133—a single line and an ‘x‘ in the margin); and his ability to focus on the moment and ‘just be’ (‘When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep.  Nay, when I walk alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts are some part of the time taken up with external occurrences, I some part of the time call them back again to my walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of that solitude, and to myself‘, Vol. 4, p. 174, ‘Of Experience’).

However, a good number of the markings do remind us of Stevenson’s own thoughts and writings. Here follow a few that struck me.

3.1 Courage

Stevenson’s idea that in an inevitably tragic life one should act courageously clearly has affinities with the stoicism of Montaigne. We saw in a previous post that the acceptance of a kind gradual death at the end of ‘Ordered South’ has affinities in an unmarked essay in Stevenson’s Vol. 1—but it also has an affinity with a double-marked passage in Montaigne’s last essay, ‘Of Experience’, which talks of how death ‘weans thee from the world‘ and how thanks to its frequent reminders accustoms you to the idea of death and ‘thinking thyself to be upon the accustomed terms, thou and thy confidence will at one time or another be unexpectedly wafted over‘ (Vol. 4, p. 144).

The idea that life must be faced with the joy and courage of a soldier in war (L6, 153, and Abrahamson in  Persona and Paradox, 2012) is also echoed in another marked passage from the same essay: ‘Death is more abject, more languishing and troublesome, in bed than in a fight: fevers and catarrhs as painful and mortal as a musket-shot.  Whoever has fortified himself valiantly to bear the accidents of common life need not raise his courage to be a soldier‘ (Vol. 4, p. 152).

3.2 Modesty

I think we can detect a basic modesty in Stevenson’s world-view, and he seems certainly to have been struck by that of Montaigne as we see from the following marked passages.

Vol. 2, p. 473 (Of Presumption): ‘I look upon myself as one of the common sort, saving in this, that I have no better an opinion of myself; guilty of the meanest and most popular defects, but not disowning or excusing them; and I do not value myself upon any other account than because I know my own value.’

Vol. 3, p. 193 (Of Profit and Honesty): ‘keeping my back still turned to ambition; but if not like rowers who so advance backward.’

Vol. 3, p. 392 (On the Inconvenience of Greatness) (with three vertical marks): ‘I would neither dispute with a porter, a miserable unknown, nor make crowds open in adoration as I pass.’

3.3 Instability, constant change

Stevenson frequently expresses the idea of a world in constant change (‘Times and men and circumstances change about your changing character, with a speed of which no earthly hurricane affords an image’, ‘Lay Morals’) and this will explain his double-line marking of the following passage in Montaigne:

Vol. 3, p. 209 (Of Repentance): ‘the world eternally turns round; all things therein are incessantly moving, the earth, the rocks of Caucasus, and the pyramids of Egypt, both by the public motion and their own.  Even constancy itself is no other but a slower and more languishing motion‘ (this is Cotton’s translation cited here for convenience; For ‘un branle‘ which Cotton translates ‘motion‘, Stevenson suggests in the margin: ‘tottering?‘).

3.4 Laws and civil society

Roslyn Joly has recently shown the importance of Stevenson’s legal education in his world-view (‘The Novelist as Lawyer’ in Robert Louis Stevenson in the Pacific, 2009), and we can see this interest behind a series of other markings:

Vol 3, p. 212 (Of Repentance): ‘I hold for vices (but every one according to its proportion), not only those which reason and nature condemn, but those also which the opinion of men, though false and erroneous, have made such, if authorised by law and custom.’ (And here RLS unusually translated the whole sentence: : ‘I hold then this for vices (but each according to its measure) not only which reason and nature have condemned, but which the opinion of men has most erroneously forbidden in their laws and usages.’)

Vol 3, p. 332 (Upon some verses of Virgil): ‘Thou dost not stick to infringe her universal and undoubted laws; but stickest to thy own special and fantastic rules, and by how much more particular, uncertain, and contradictory they are, by so much thou employest thy whole endeavour in them: the laws of thy parish occupy and bind thee: those of God and the world concern thee not.’ (This idea of the importance of ‘les regles de ta parroisse‘ may be linked to a discussion in ‘On Morality’ (an unfinished essay of 1888) of how ‘Crime is a legal, a merely municipal expression’.)

3.5 Style

Naturally Stevenson is attentive to what Montaigne says about literary style:

Vol 2, p. 119 (Of Books): ‘and the ladies are less put to it in dance; where there are various coupees, changes, and quick motions of body, than in some other of a more sedate kind, where they are only to move a natural pace, and to represent their ordinary grace and presence‘ (i.e. a plain style requires more ability than one full of ‘changes, and quick motions’—though we might think the latter characterizes some of Stevenson’s own earliest writings).

The following two marked passages close together remind me of Stevenson’s own intense work of thought in his his essays and how he says in ‘Walt Whitman’ ‘style is the essence of thought’:

Vol 3,p.  321 (Upon some verses of Virgil): ‘When I see these brave forms of expression, so lively, so profound, I do not say that ’tis well said, but well thought.  ‘Tis the sprightliness of the imagination that swells and elevates the words.’

Vol 3, p. 322 (Upon some verses of Virgil): ‘The handling and utterance of fine wits is that which sets off language; not so much by innovating it, as by putting it to more vigorous and various services, and by straining, bending, and adapting it to them. They do not create words, but they enrich their own, and give them weight and signification by the uses they put them to, and teach them unwonted motions, but withal ingeniously and discreetly.’

And Stevenson’s own preference for concision can be seen as motivating the following underlining concerning Cicero’s style:

Vol 2, p. 121-2 (Of Books): ‘whatever there is of life and marrow is smothered and lost in the long preparation‘.


4. Markings: some closer affinities with Stevenson’s works

These categories of markings are only intended to make the matter a little more understandable; clearly this and the previous category are closely connected. Here are some echoes (interesting echoes, not provable influences) of works I am familiar with:

‘Crabbed Age and Youth’—Vol 3, p. 223-4 (Of Repentance): ‘When I reflect upon the deportment of my youth, with that of my old age, I find that I have commonly behaved myself with equal order in both according to what I understand‘; and Vol 4, p. 186, an underlined passage: ‘Old age stands a little in need of a more gentle treatment.  Let us recommend that to God, the protector of health and wisdom, but let it be gay and sociable.’

‘Ordered South’: I have already remarked on a passage that reminded me of this in 3.1

‘An Apology for Idlers’—an underlining in Vol 4, p. 172 (of Experience): ‘We are great  fools.  “He has passed his life in idleness,” say we: “I have done nothing to-day.”  What? have you not lived?

‘Something In It’ (where the missionary feels bound to his vow of abstinence)—Vol 3, p. 201: ‘what fear has once made me willing to do, I am obliged to do it when I am no longer in fear; and though that fear only prevailed with my tongue without forcing my will, yet am I bound to keep my word‘, Stevenson has in the margin written, ‘to prove sound the links of my honour‘.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde—an underlining in Vol 3, p. 274 (Upon some Verses of Virgil): ‘A man must see and study his vice to correct it; they who conceal it from others, commonly conceal it from themselves‘.

‘Lay Morals’ (the first paragraph of Ch. III where he talks of the frailty of man ‘His whole body, for all its savage energies, its leaping and its wing’d desires, may yet be tamed and conquered by a draught of air or a sprinkling of cold dew’ etc.)—Vol 2, p. 214  (Raymond Sebond): ‘this furious monster, with so many heads and arms, is yet man–feeble, calamitous, and miserable man! [...] a contrary blast, the croaking of a flight of ravens, the stumble of a horse, the casual passage of an eagle, a dream, a voice, a sign, a morning mist, are any one of them sufficient to beat down and overturn him. Dart but a sunbeam in his face, he is melted and vanished. Blow but a little dust in his eyes, as our poet says of the bees, and all our ensigns and legions, with the great Pompey himself at the head of them, are routed and crushed to pieces.’

The poem ‘Home, no more home to me, whither shall I wander?’ and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (‘a stranger in my own house’)—Vol 3, p. 248 (Of Three Commerces): ‘That man, in my opinion, is very miserable, who has not at home where to be by himself, where to entertain himself alone, or to conceal himself from others.’ We don’t know why Stevenson marked this passage, but it is possible that he felt that he did not possess such a space—Montaigne, however, is not complaining at all but talking about his own rule of living, which he had previously formulated in more positive terms: ‘we must reserve a backshop, wholly our own and entirely free, wherein to settle our true liberty, our principal solitude and retreat’ (‘Of Solitude’, I.38).


5. This edition used for quotations from Montaigne

Where there is a marking of a passage that is quoted in a letter or one of his works, then there is a good chance that this was the edition used. There are, however, only two or three possible cases, since Stevenson only quotes twice (I think) from Montaigne in French:

Vol 2, p. 13 (Of Drunkenness), an underlined passage: ‘and there are some vices that have something, if a man may say so, of generous in them‘ (‘il y a des vices, qui ont je ne sçay quoy de genereux‘), quoted in ‘The Character of Dogs’ (1883), “The canine, like the human gentleman demands in his misdemeanours Montaigne’s ‘je ne sais quoi de généreux’”. Here Montaigne’s spelling has been modernized, but that could have been done by Stevenson or the magazine editor.

Vol. 4 (‘Of Physiognomy’): Stevenson quotes a passage from the first half of this essay in his latter of October 1873 to Fanny Sitwell (L1, 339):

As Montaigne says, talking of something quite different: ‘Pour se laisser tomber à plomb, et de si haut, il faut que ce soit entre les bras d’une affection solide, vigoureuse et fortunée’ It argues a whole faith in the sympathy at the other end of the wire; and an awful want to say these things.

I did not note this down as a passage doubly-marked. It is possibly singly marked, but this will have to wait for another reader to open the volume.

The third case has already been discussed on Part two of this posting, under ‘Book III’: in ‘Crabbed Age and Youth’ (1877) Stevenson writes that while Calvin and Knox are reforming the church, Montaigne is ‘predicting that they will find as much to quarrel about in the Bible as they had found already in the Church’—a possible allusion to ‘Of Experience’ (III.13): ‘they but fool themselves, who think to lessen and stop our disputes by recalling us to the express words of the Bible‘, against which Stevenson has written in the margin Calvin?


Montaigne and Stevenson

Stevenson seems to have found in Montaigne a fellow-spirit, someone who distrusted dogma yet had a moral view of life, a modest and a tolerant person, a skeptic, someone who saw all things in constant change yet kept a calm, detached and ironic view of things. Both writers were constantly interested in exploring how to live life well.

Stevenson’s Montaigne, part 2

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part 1 | part 3


Columbia University


Columbia University


La Città Ideale

Columbia University, situated on the upper west side of Manhattan, north of Central Park, has a campus of lawns and wide pedestrian avenues that has the feel of a garden suburb, while the calm spaces around the monumental buildings are reminiscent of Piero della Francesca’s ‘Città Ideale’. One of these buildings (below) is the Butler Library, beaux-arts neoclassical in style, where I was headed in order to look at Stevenson’s copy of Montaigne.butler libraryUp on the top floor, in Rare Books and Manuscripts, I went through registration pleasantly enough thanks to a young lady with public relations skills, received a locker key on a large, slender iron ring (like that of an old-fashioned gaoler), stowed my things, entered the corridor-like reading room with a couple of dozen tables, handed in my request and was “all set”, waiting for the books to arrive.

Stevenson’s Montaigne: First impressions

The edition consists of four volumes in good condition (stoutly bound, well-printed, on good paper) that have been much marked by Stevenson: his typical vertical lines in the margin, occasionally double (very occasionally triple), some underlining, and a few comments written in the margin or (for translations) between the lines. I immediately realized there were too many markings to log them all, so decided to note only double lines, underlinings and comments.

I started on volume 1 (containing Montaigne’s Book I) and immediately finished it: there are just two markings: a double line marking of a passage of ‘To the Reader’ and one single marginal mark on the first page of the first essay.

Volume 2, containing about half of Montaigne’s Book II (including the very long ‘Apology for Raimond Sebond’), shows many signs of having been read: there are markings on 12 of the 18 essays.

Strangely, the second half of Montaigne’s Book II in the following volume has markings for only 2 of the 19 chapters. But this volume 3 contains the beginning of Montaigne’s Book III, every essay of which is marked, both here and in its continuation in volume 4 (which has the last four essays and then other matter).

From the evidence here, it looks as if Stevenson skipped his volume 1, carefully read volume 2, and then concentrated on Montaigne’s Book III. This squares with what he says about often reading Montaigne without any attempt to read him from cover to cover: in ‘A Gossip on a Novel by Dumas’ (1887), he confesses

I have never read the whole of Montaigne, but I do not like to be long without reading some of him, and my delight in what I do read never lessens.

He remains one of six ‘continual literary intimates’, his Essays among ‘the books that we re-read the oftenest’:

One or  two of Scott’s novels, Shakespeare, Molière, Montaigne, The Egoist,  and the Vicomte de Bragelonne, form the inner circle of my  intimates.

His ‘Ideal House’ (1883) has a ‘little room for winter evenings’ containing ‘three shelves full of eternal books that never weary starting’; the list that follows is longer, but starts ‘Shakespeare, Moliere, Montaigne…’.

Selective reading of Montaigne

Unmarked essays were not necessarily unread by Stevenson: he may have read them in the Cotton translation (which—I kick myself—was there in the Columbia Rare Books—overlooked by me); he could also have read them in another unrecorded edition, or read them without marking them. This said, marked essays certainly were read by him and found of interest.

Book I

The lack of markings in Book I is not totally surprising: Montaigne is here still groping for his method; the essays contain many classical exempla with an emphasis on stoicism (this evolution of Montaigne’s ideas—from the stoicism of the early essays to a position in the later essays that it is ‘in living happily, not [...] dying happily that is the source of human contentment’—is one of the threads of Saul Frampton’s recent study When I am Playing with My Cat…).

It is a little surprising, however, to find no markings at all, given the affinity pointed out by Cinzia Giglioni (in European Stevenson, ed. Ambrosini and Dury, 2009) between Stevenson’s own ideas and interests and essays in Montaigne’s Book I with titles like: ‘Of Idleness’, ‘That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die’, ‘Of the Force of the Imagination’, ‘Of Pedantry’, ‘Of the Education of Children’, ‘Of Friendship’, ‘Of Cannibals’ (containing the epigram ‘Chacun appelle barbarie ce qui n’est pas de son usage’, which must surely have inspired Stevenson), and others.

The Stoic acceptance of death at the end of ‘Ordered South’ (1874) does indeed seem very close to one of these essays:

Montaigne, from ‘To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die’ (I.19):
nature, leading us by the hand, an easy and, as it were, an insensible pace, step by step conducts us to that miserable state [death], and by that means makes it familiar to us, so that we are insensible of the stroke
Stevenson, from ‘Ordered South’ (1874):
in this dulness of the senses there is a gentle preparation for the final insensibility of death. And to him the idea of mortality comes in a shape less violent and harsh than is its wont, less as an abrupt catastrophe than as a thing of infinitesimal gradation, and the last step on a long decline of way


Perhaps if I had looked Stevenson’s copy of  Cotton I might have found that passage marked… [But see Neil Brown's comment to this post.]

The same essay by Montaigne contains a call to live life without regard to death, a theme of ‘Æs Triplex’ (1878). Here the possible influence is less direct. Montaigne’s humble image of planting cabbages is perhaps transformed to the more noble writing of a folio, and it may have inspired the striking reference to everyday objects elsewhere in the essay: umbrellas, salad, cheese and ginger-beer bottles.

Montaigne, from ‘To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die’ (I.19):
I would always have a man to be doing, and, as much as in him lies, to extend and spin out the offices of life; and then let death take me planting my cabbages, indifferent to him, and still less of my garden’s not being finished
Stevenson, from ‘Æs Triplex’:
It is better to live and be done with it, than to die daily in the sick-room. By all means begin your folio, even if the doctor does not give you a year

That he had certainly read and knew Book I is shown by the quotation here in ‘John Knox’ (1875) to ‘the “two or three children” whom Montaigne mentions having lost at nurse’ , which is a reference to Montaigne’s Book I essay (with a long title) ‘That the relish for good and evil depends in great measure upon the opinion we have of them’.


Book II

In Samoa Stevenson reports that he is reading the second book of Montaigne and ‘This morning I have read a splendid piece of Montaigne’ (L7, 179; Oct 1891). We know that this was a book already familiar to him:

  • ‘The English Admirals’ (written late 1877) incorporates a long quotation from Montaigne’s ‘Of Glory’ (Book II.16) in Cotton’s translation.
  • In a letter of 1885 he alludes to a passage in ‘An Apology for Raimond Sebond’ (Book II.12): ‘as Montaigne says it [literature] is a pot with two handles, and I own I am wedded to the technical handle’ (L5, 91-2), a passage marked by by two vertical lines in vol 2 of this edition.

Book III

The markings on every one of the essays in Montaigne’s Book III after sparse markings in the second half of Book II shows that he read this Book through from start to finish. It is probable that this was what wanted to read (divided as it is between volumes 3 and 4 in his edition) when he wrote to his parents from Bournemouth in December 1884 to ‘bring [...] my Montaigne, or, at least, the two last volumes’ (L5, 45). To be more exact, this was the section he wanted to re-read:

  • In the letter of October 1873 in which he tells Fanny Sitwell he has been reading Montaigne as he dined alone, he quotes in French from ‘De la Physiognomie’ (Book III.12) (L1, 339).
  • In ‘Crabbed Age and Youth’ (written July–August 1877) he writes: ‘While Calvin is putting everybody exactly right in his Institutes, and hot-headed Knox is thundering in the pulpit, Montaigne is already  looking at the other side in his library in Perigord, and  predicting that they will find as much to quarrel about in the Bible as they had found already in the Church’. This seems to be an allusion to a passage in ‘De l’expérience’ (Book III.13): ‘they but fool themselves, who think to lessen and stop our disputes by recalling us to the express words of the Bible: forasmuch as our mind does not find the field less spacious wherein to controvert the sense of another than to deliver his own; and as if there were less animosity and tartness in commentary than in invention’ (Cotton’s translation). Against this passage in this French edition, Stevenson has written ‘Calvin?’
  • He quotes from ‘De l’expérience’ again in ‘A Night Among the Pines’ in Travels with a Donkey (written December 1878–January 1879), using Cotton’s translation: ‘We are disturbed in our slumber only, like the luxurious Montaigne, ‘that we may the better and more sensibly relish it.’  We have a moment to look upon the stars.’

This concentration is unsurprising: Book III contains Montaigne’s profoundest insights, in its affirmation of the value of experience, the unity of man and animals and nature, the need for toleration and sympathy, the relative nature of cultural norms. So, in his reading of Book III, Stevenson was concentrating on the most original and revolutionary aspects of Montaigne’s philosophy.

Part 3 of the posting

But this is getting over-long. A concise summary of markings will be the subject of a (I hope shorter) third posting.


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