Obstacles to writing
Does anyone ever sit down and dash off pages and pages of writing? Certainly not me. Apart from natural reluctance to start (which incidentally stimulates some positive actions, such as finally tidying up my desk), there are the frustrating succession of interruptions on any normal day. One learns to sympathize with the protagonist of Simon Gray’s Otherwise Engaged who tries again and again to listen to a recording of Wagner’s Parsifal (pick-up delicately placed on the lead-in groove: a pleasure of delightful mindful anticipation unknown to a digital generation), only to have a succession of people ringing at the door of his flat after the first chord or two.
Another obstacle is running into an uncertain area of knowledge—not unlike taking the wrong turning on a motorway that leads you to a space apparently not represented on maps, or like driving gingerly along a dirt track only to find the wheels stuck in mud or snow.
So it was that I was revising my Appendix of ‘Essays Planned or Lost’ (for the volume of Uncollected Essays and Reviews 1868-79) and just had to drop everything for a week to work out ‘ “Covenanters” Notes’.
A mixed bunch of notes
The item in question is this:
The title on the cover (for some reason in quotation marks) is ‘Notes on Covenanters and Cavalier etc.’; in the MacKay catalogue it is ‘Covenanters. Notes’ and in the Yale finding aid ‘ “Covenanters” notes’. It’s a mounted and bound series of 25 leaves of laid paper (it’s not clear if from a notebook or separate leaves), with (obviously added) pagination 1-24 in pencil and preceded by another unpaginated leaf with the title ‘Covenanters’:
The trouble starts with p. 1 (i.e. the leaf paginated ‘1’), where the first note is: ‘The Position of the English Clergy to Elizabeth should be sedulously compared with that of Knox to Mary. See Hallam . Const. Hist I. IV. p 173.’ This refers to the late 16C, a period well before the ‘Solemn League and Covenant’ of 1643 and the persecution of the Covenanters from 1679 to 1688 (‘The Killing Times’).
On the second half of p. 1 begins a series of notes from Robert Wodrow, Analecta: or, Materials for a History of Remarkable Providences; Most Relating to Scotch Ministers and Christians: odd notes made by Wodrow in the early years of the eighteenth century: observations, remembered stories or anecdotes told by others—none of them specifically about Covenanter history, but all of them revealing aspects of typically Scottish religious attitudes. Stevenson’s notes are in volume order: they were clearly made as he read through the volume. The handwriting is the rather large, angular script of the early 1870s:
This takes us to p. 6, where another set of notes starts (pp. 6-16): on Covenanters in the period 1688-89 from Alexander Shield’s notebooks as transcribed by Wodrow at the end of his volume of Analecta. These are all in a similar hand to the first set of notes, though with some sections in a sloped variant.
Then on p. 17, without any heading, there is a new set of notes on the French Camisard leader Jean Cavalier (pp. 17-22). These are in a distinctly different hand: the smaller writing with less angular descenders that is typical from the late 1870s onwards:
The works from which these notes are taken are: Eugène Bonnemère, Histoire des Camisards (1869; Stevenson’s copy is now at Buffalo), Napoléon Peyrat, Histoire des Pasteurs du Désert (1842; now at Yale), Anon., Histoire des Camisards (1744) (vol. 2 of which is now at RLSM, St. Helena, CA), Maximilien Misson (translated by John Lacey), A Cry from the Desart (Stevenson cites the 2nd ed., 1717, untraced among the sources for Stevenson’s library). A further source is cited in the initial pencil notes on Cavalier’s life, physical characteristics and character, Bxxxxxx:
Unfortunately no works listed in the Stevenson Library Database fit this shape. Any ideas about what this name could be?
Swearingen dates work on the study of ‘Colonel Jean Cavalier’ to June 1881 (p. 59); could these notes be from then, or are they from an earlier period?
To end it all (p. 23) is an outline of the first two chapters of ‘Lay Morals’, which since the latter was written in March 1879 must date from just before.
A final leaf (p.24) has some pencil jottings: something crossed out, the word ‘God’ or ‘Good’ and two lines of verse linking romance and Colinton: ‘Dwelt in the country of romance / In that green garden round the Manse’
Knox, Scottish religious attitudes c. 1702, Covenanters 1688-90, Jean Cavalier, ‘Lay Morals’ and this bit of verse—quite a mixture.
Sorting it out
Even getting that idea of the mixture of notes took time to work out; then I had to try and make some sense of it. So here I was, having taken a wrong turn off the motorway, with signs pointing in various directions, none of which made much sense to me. OK, stop the car and study the map.
First of all, the mixed nature of the notes suggests these are sheets from a notebook that was used at several periods. It is just possible that the creator of the bound volume put together heterogeneous notes that just happened to be on the same paper—but then would the same paper be around in both the early and late 1870s, let alone perhaps the early 1880s for the Cavalier notes?
1. ‘Covenanters’ (Sept–Oct 1873), pp. 1-16
At first I thought the note on Knox, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth must be related either to an essay on John Knox (one already written in July 1873; a biographical study planned in early 1874; or the published essay on John Knox and women which occupied Stevenson for a year from early 1874), or to one of the studies in the planned volume of studies on the Reformation (under consideration for a year from autumn 1874). Then I read on. The second note is:
Cf. Isobel Alison’s examination (C[l]oud of Witnesses p. 115 at
top) with Queen Mary’s Speech (Burton IV. p. 12 near foot) and
I think somewhere in Knox. This repetition is surely as instructive
and strange as it is deeply sad. The crowned Queen pestered by
high-minded and intolerant spiritual questioners, paralleled
a century afterwards by the “pour lass” before the Privy Council.
In other words, the reference to Isobel Alison, a Covenanter martyr, is accompanied by parallels in time and space, between one century and another, and between England and Scotland. This intent of providing a deep historical context gives us the clue to the following notes (pp. 1–6) on Scottish religious attitudes in the early 18th century from Robert Wodrow’s Analecta, followed by notes (pp. 6–16) specifically on Covenanters, in the period 1688-89, from the same volume.
We know that Stevenson was making notes from this volume in October 1873, as he tells Frances Sitwell in a letter: ‘I kept on at Wodrow’s Analecta (a Covenanting book) and made my notes as best I could’ (Letters 1, 327; 2 Oct 1873). These must be the notes we’re looking at here. As a clincher, we know that he was reading Hallam’s Constitutional History of England (cited in the first note) the month before: ‘I have been out reading Hallam in the garden’ (Letters 1, 319; 16 Sept 1873).
In September, Stevenson had written to Frances Sitwell about his planned study on the Covenanters:
I do not think I should be in a hurry to commit myself about the Covenanters; the whole subject turns round about me and so branches out to this side and that that I grow bewildered; and one cannot write discreetly about any one little corner of an historical period, until one has an organic view of the whole. I have however, given life and health, great hopes in my Covenanters […]. (Letters 1, 311; 22 Sept 1873)
His reference to ‘the Covenanters’ shows that Mrs Sitwell already knew about the project and that it had most likely been discussed with her and Sidney Colvin shortly before, in July and August, when Stevenson had first met them at Cockfield Rectory in Suffolk. But what is interesting for us here is the reference to the complexity of the project because ‘one cannot write discreetly [? discretely] about any one little corner of an historical period, until one has an organic view of the whole’. Looking again at these notes, they seem to fit with this aim at ‘an organic view of the whole’ for a study of Covenanters, a study which would perforce be focussed on the second half of the 17th century, but which we can see for Stevenson involves religious attitudes in Scotland (and also England) from the later 16th to the early 18th centuries.
A few months later, when Stevenson planned a volume of studies on ‘Four Great Scotchmen’, he said that he wanted to cover ‘their lives, their work, the social media in which they lived and worked, with, if I can so make it, the strong current of the race making itself felt underneath and throughout—this is my idea’ (Letters 1, 474-5; 6 Feb 1874, to Fanny Sitwell). The planned approach to describe these lives in the context of social milieu and race, suggests an influence of the Hippolyte Taine, who saw historical processes as the product of ‘race, milieu et moment’. Notice that Stevenson uses the same keyword ‘race’, and surely not in its later deformed biological sense and obsessed by purity, but in Taine’s sense of the internal mainsprings of a civilization involving heredity, climate, geography and psychology, the things which hold a population together.
Returning to our ‘Covenanters. Notes’, also of interest is the parallel between the browbeating of the two Queens and the similar treatment of the ‘pour lass’ Isobel Alison. This shows a similar empathetic ability to link people of diverse historical and cultural periods that strikes us in the writings that became In the South Seas.
All these notes on pages 1 to 16 therefore seem to be for the study of Covenanters that Stevenson was pursuing in September and October 1873.
2. ‘Jean Cavalier’ (late 1880-early 1882; early 1879?)
In November 1873, Stevenson had decided to include the French Calvinists in his study of the Covenanters, and says he hopes to find books in Paris ‘on the French Calvinists which are necessary for my little Covenanting game’ (Letters 1, 357). Could our Cavalier notes be connected with these proposed acquisitions in Paris? Not in the sense of dating from the same period: the handwriting is clearly from a later period.
The Cavalier notes are placed here before the outline of ‘Lay Morals’—could they too date from early 1879? One thing we can say is that they are not connected with Travels with a Donkey. Although this contains a section ‘The Country of the Camisards’ and was being written in this period (December 1878 to early January 1879 and Stevenson was correcting proofs and perhaps adding new material in late March and early April 1879), Jean Cavalier receives only passing mention in this work.
Stevenson borrowed books on the Camisards from the Advocates Library in January and March 1879, but they are not books cited in these notes (so, with Camisard books borrowed in March when proofs were being read, it looks as if he was indeed adding new material at this late stage).
The first definite reference by Stevenson to a study of Jean Cavalier dates from a letter of September 1880, when he asks the historian John Hill Burton for help in finding sources relating to ‘the career of Cavalier after he joined the English service—I mean John Cavalier, the ex-Camisard’ (Letters 3, 98). Then in a notebook used at Davos in the winter of 1880-1881 he made a list of planned ‘Studies’, including ‘Colonel John Cavalier’ (Notebook 53, f. 2v; Beinecke GEN MSS 664 box 38, folder 850). In the same winter of 1880-81, he wrote a draft of the opening paragraph of the study (Notebook C, ff. 3 and 3v; Beinecke GEN MSS GM 664 box 34 folder 820).
Several months later, in June 1881, he asks Edmund Gosse about the same period in Cavalier’s life, adding ‘I have splendid materials for Cavalier till he comes to my own country’ (Letters 3, 186-7). In September 1880 and again in September 1881 he borrowed more books on the Camisards, returning them after keeping them over the winter in Davos. These show a revived interest in Camisard history, but are not directly related to these notes as the borrowed books are not quoted there, which is not surprising because (as we have seen) at least three of these were in his own library.
All this seems to point to the winter of 1880-81 as the most probable time for our Chevalier notes.
But with the books used for these notes on Jean Cavalier possibly in Stevenson’s library from when he passed through Paris on his way to Mentone in early November 1873, or on his way back in April 1874, could they have been made in early 1879? Well, from the handwriting they could, as this is similar to the handwriting of the ‘Lay Morals’ outline and of ‘Lay Morals’ itself. However, it is also very similar to handwriting of the early 1880s:
The position of the Chevalier notes before the ‘Lay Morals Outline’ from early 1879 in this series of rebound notebook leaves cannot be taken as any strong indication of dating. With more indications of serious work on ‘Jean Cavalier’ between September 1880 and the winter of 1881-82, and the handwriting of the notes being close to that of this period, the best fit for dating of our Notes is the same period (with a residual possibility that they were made in early 1879).
3. ‘Lay Morals’ (early 1879)
We know that ‘Lay Morals’ was written (or mostly written) in March 1879 (Letters 2, 303; 8 March 1879), so this outline probably dates from just before, let’s say early 1879.
Back to work
It is unusual that the same notebook was used in the autumn of 1873, early 1879 and the winter of 1880-81, but but it is possible and seems to be the case of the notebook from which these rebound leaves derive. The dating of the three main sections seems pretty clear and I now understand the projects they were associated with—I think I can get back to work on my list of ‘Essays Planned or Lost’ again.
But first, let me relax and sit down with a drink to listen to this recording of Parsifal…
When transcribing Stevenson’s manuscripts certain letters can be deceptive. One of these is ‘x’.
In an early period, Stevenson formed his ‘x’ like a multiplication sign:
Indeed, in the case of example 3 (‘Reminiscences of Colinton Manse’), the 2-stroke-x helps confirm a dating to c. 1870.
In mid-1872 Stevenson worked for a time in an Edinburgh law firm, Messrs. Skene and Peacock. During that time he wrote a journal of a few pages, recently sold at auction; I suspect that if examined, this would contain the s-c ‘x’ (like the letter used in algebra): in a law firm he would have to write a ‘clerkly hand’ (i.e. a form of roundhand) and in this hand the ‘x’ is formed in this way.
Whether this is true or not, from 1873 onwards, we only find the s-c form for ‘x’, as in the following examples (the first is the old-form, included for comparison):
‘x’ vs ‘n’
This post is contributed by John F. Russell, author and editor of The Music of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Affairs of Weather
Five penciled notes around the text of one fair copy of Stevenson’s Spring Song supply a complete history of the poem when decoded. An investigation of these inscriptions not only reveals an exact place and date for its composition at odds with earlier conclusions, but also discloses the inspiration for its creation and the appropriate music for its lyrics. In addition, the manuscript itself corrects a common misreading and provides evidence to identify the copyist.
The air was full of sun and birds,
The fresh air sparkled clearly.
Remembrance wakened in my heart
And I knew I loved her dearly.
The fallows and the leafless trees
And all my spirit tingled
My earliest thought of love, and Spring’s
First puff of perfume mingled.
In my still heart, the thoughts awoke;
Came bone by bone together.
Say, birds and sun and spring, is Love
A mere affair of weather?
Of the three known manuscripts of ‘Spring Song’, one at the Beinecke Library has a penciled title,
another has a clearly marked title,
and one at the Writer’s Museum has no title at all (LSH 137/91), but appears as the canceled second part of a cycle of at least three poems under the heading Fröhlicher Landmann, named after Schumann’s piano piece. The first work in the cycle was Come, Here is Adieu to the City, and a third was represented only by a Roman numeral without any following text.
The texts of all three manuscripts of Spring Song are identical except for minor changes in punctuation, and all are copied by the same person in what McKay calls an “unknown hand” in entry 6910 of The Stevenson Library of E.J. Beinecke (1961).
Although the texts are the same, some editors’ transcriptions are not. The first two lines of the last stanza are printed as “In my still heart the thoughts awoke, came lone by lone together” in Poems Hitherto Unpublished (1916), New Poems (1922) and The Complete Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson (1923). The editions of Janet Adam Smith (1950, 1971) and Roger C. Lewis (2003) print “bone by bone” instead. The correct reading is apparent from a comparison with the word “love” in each of the three manuscripts:
Since the copyist consistently joins the letters “lo” at the bottom and equally consistently joins the letters “bo” at the top, the correct transcription is, “In my still heart, the thoughts awoke; Came bone by bone together.”
This macabre image may be easier to assimilate if we suppose that Stevenson drew it from Ezekiel 37:1-14:
The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones …This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life … there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone.
In the introduction to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Handwriting (1940) Gertrude Hills explains why caution should be used when identifying Stevenson documents:
The author reproduces a manuscript of “Robin and Ben” from Moral Tales (1881-2) and verifies that it is in Stevenson’s hand. When it is compared with the ms. of Come Here is Adieu to the City the overall appearance suggests that they had the same copyist.
It would take a handwriting expert to decide, but the comparison seems to support the conclusion that the three manuscripts of Spring Song as well as that of Come Here is Adieu to the City are in Stevenson’s handwriting.
The editors of Poems Hitherto Unpublished claim without evidence that Spring Song was written in 1871. In the Collected Poems (2003), Roger C. Lewis indicates no date, but says the poem was written in Edinburgh. RLS never returned to that city after 1886, and so Lewis implies the poem was written before 1887.
In entry 6910 for Spring Song in The Stevenson Library of E.J Beinecke, McKay remarks,
Stevenson has written the following notes in pencil at the bottom and in the left margin: Bon / Road behind C…’s gymnase / first conceived out hunting, however.
Lewis quotes the same remark in his comments on the poem. What stands out in these marginalia is that for no apparent reason two words are in French: Stevenson judges this poem “bon” and mentions a “gymnase.”
There is no reference to a “gymnase” in Edinburgh during the period 1870-1886, and neither McKay nor Lewis attempted to interpret the apparently illegible word preceding it. RLS himself was unsure about that initial letter, first writing a small c and then capitalizing it.
However, a little scrutiny identifies the word as “Cone’s” and the full phrase as “Road behind Cone’s Gymnase.” There is no evidence of such a building in Edinburgh, but the presence of the two foreign words suggests France, where of course there are many gymnase. A search of Paris reveals the Théâtre du Gymnase at 38 Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle. Perhaps writing the word “bon” reminded Stevenson of the street name Bonne-Nouvelle and then the theater, encouraging him to make the note.
Stevenson was fluent in French, and if he remembered a French theater run by someone named “Cone,” it is likely that he approximated the French pronunciation of that name in his English note.
The October 16, 1880 issue of the Academy, a British publication for which RLS wrote criticism and which he was known to read in Paris, reveals the correct spelling in an announcement of the new manager of the Gymnase:
The French pronunciation of Koning became the English Cone and this explains why RLS was confused about writing the first letter. Spring Song was therefore written on the road behind Victor Koning’s Théâtre du Gymnase at 38 Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle in Paris.
According to J.R. Hammond’s A Robert Louis Stevenson Chronology (1997), after 1880 (when Koning took over the Gymnase) RLS was in Paris only twice, in April 16-May18, 1881 and August 11-23, 1886.
For Stevenson Paris in the springtime of 1881 was not much to sing about. Fanny and Lou had been married hardly a year and they were both recovering from illnesses. Virginibus Puerisque, in which the first three essays are about love and marriage, was published April 15th of that year and contained a statement about lovers that hardly proved true for the newlyweds.
They are half inclined to fancy it is because of them and their love that the sky is blue and the sun shines. And certainly the weather is usually fine while people are courting.
During that sojourn in Paris he wrote at least 11 letters. Five of them complained about money troubles, five complained about his and Fanny’s health, two complained about the cold weather, and one described Paris as “a temple of stenches.”
It seems unlikely then that Paris in the spring of 1881 was full of sun and birds, the fresh air sparkled clearly, and Lou’s earliest thought of love and spring’s first puff of perfume mingled.
The second and last time Fanny and Louis were in Paris was in August of 1886. They stayed at 12 rue Vernier with the painter Will H. Low, whom he had not seen for ten years. They first became acquainted at Grez, where Lou also met Fanny for the first time, probably in August of 1876. Remembrance must certainly have wakened in his heart at this reunion.
In A Chronicle of Friendships (1908, p. 331), Low records the events of Stevenson’s stay with him, and notes that he took Lou on trips in an open carriage
… through the beautiful city in the pleasant sunshine, which was clement to him during all the stay in Paris … Every sight of the streets pleased him, above all, the trim Parisiennes … or, more often, bareheaded working girls tripping along on their way to their shops … [Stevenson said,] “The Lord was on His mettle when He made the French woman.”
Both McKay and Roger C. Lewis pointed out another note in pencil on the left side of the ms. and transcribed it as, “first conceived out hunting, however.”
Although the word “conceived” is difficult to make out, there is no argument about the correctness of the transcription, only with the sense. In Samoa in the 1890’s Stevenson had a gun cabinet at Vailima, but in August of 1886 it is not probable that he lurked about the Paris Théâtre with a rifle in his arms, flushing grouse. If little time elapsed between his conceiving of Spring Song and writing it down on the road behind the Gymnase, it implies that he did his hunting in Paris. What was he after?
On one excursion with Stevenson, Low says their first goal that day was the bookshop of Calmann-Levy at 3 rue Auber to find a copy of New Arabian Nights as a gift for Rodin, who was doing a bust of Henley. From there they went across the Seine to J. Hetzel’s bookshop at 18 rue Jacob in search of a translation of Treasure Island for Low’s wife Berthe.
Although Low does not recount any more of the journey, he may have had one more goal in mind. His former teacher and friend the sculptor Adrien Gaudez (1845-1902) was restoring the sculptures on the Porte Saint-Denis at the junction of boulevards Bonne-Nouvelle and St. Denis. A glance at a map of Low and Stevenson’s itinerary suggests that their final destination could have been the site of Gaudez’s restorations.
Not only was Gaudez Low’s teacher, but he was also a friend of Stevenson, who reported in Booth-Mehew letter 450 what a good time he, Low, cousin Bob and Gaudez were having in Paris in October of 1876 when he was 25. It would seem natural that Low would want to surprise Stevenson with a visit to his other old friend since the Gymnase was only an eight minute walk from where Gaudez was working.
On the road behind the Gymnase there were probably birds and sun, but Low makes no mention of rifles or wild game, and so the only logical explanation for the penciled note is that Spring Song was written behind Victor Koning’s Théâtre du Gymnase and conceived while Stevenson and Low were out hunting, not birds, but old friends and books.
Those familiar with early 19th century keyboard music immediately associate the title Spring Song with Mendelssohn’s piano piece from Songs Without Words (book 2, op. 30, no. 6). Stevenson must have because he made an arrangement of it, probably for flageolet, which he called by its German name Frühlingslied. It would hardly have been a surprise if the lyrics of Spring Song fit Mendelssohn’s music, but they don’t, and forcing them to would require more humoring of the notes than Stevenson ever permitted himself.
Although the editors of Poems Hitherto Unpublished were misled about the time and place for the poem’s origin, they provide an essential clue for identifying the inspiration of Spring Song in their remarks about it and three other poems, The Summer Sun Shone Round Me, You Looked So Tempting in the Pew, and Love’s Vicissitudes.
We naturally group together any notes concerning these four poems, so manifestly are they the result of the Heine influence. The metre of the first and third was used by the German poet time and time again. “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” suggests itself immediately. Nor is it alone in form that the effect of Heine on Stevenson is apparent.
Stevenson refers to Heine many times in his letters, and Stevenson’s Library Db quotes him as saying, “Heine’s vocabulary I know very well, and can therefore read him with ease.” Spring Song does share many similarities with Im wunderschönen Monat Mai including the season, the mention of birds and the sentiment of awakening love.
Establishing the date of Spring Song as August 1886 is important because RLS began learning piano in April of the same year, and by December of 1887 he had developed a passion for writing lyrics to music. He had written songs previously, but apparently only by imitating someone else’s text and probably without reference to music.
In R.L.S. and his Sine Qua Non (1918), Adelaide Boodle described her relationship with Stevenson as his writing student and musical associate at Skerryvore in 1886,
It was sheer delight when, under friendly guidance, he was able laboriously to pick out some simple air (nearly always a Schumann for choice)
At that time Stevenson had been using various books to learn the piano, including Litolff’s series of simplified arrangements of famous works, one of which includes Mendelssohn’s Spring Song. Altogether he made six manuscript copies of melodies from Schumann piano works and two, Ländliches Lied and Träumerei, are from a volume published by Litolff devoted entirely to Schumann. Litolff also published Schumann-Album, which contains 40 Schumann songs in translation including Im wunderschönen Monat Mai.
Though it is only a subjective judgement, perhaps the most important indication that RLS constructed his poem around Schumann’s setting of Heine is the music’s unusual ending on an unresolved 7 chord (C#7), which Berlioz said Schumann was the first to do.
This is meaningless to those untrained in music but is easily understood from its use in connection with Happy Birthday. After singing the usual lyrics, people often add the tag, “And many more” to the notes of an unresolved 7 chord. Another example is the “And that ain‘t all” motif that is often tacked on to popular piano pieces, sometimes with a tremolo on the chords. This device makes any piece of music seem as if it hasn’t ended, which is appropriate to the meaning of those lyrics. In the same way, Schumann’s song seems to be unfinished and ends as if with an unanswered question, just as Stevenson’s poem does.
Additional more objective evidence that this is the correct music comes once again from Stevenson’s penciled notes.
To the left of the phrase “Road behind Cone’s gymnase” Stevenson has written and crossed out “Cyclus.”
This remark raises once more the question of language. Why did Stevenson use the Latin “cyclus” instead of the English “cycle” or the German “Zyclus”? Heine’s poem appears in his collection called Buch der Lieder under the group title “Lyrisches Intermezzo [Lyric Interlude]” without any use of a word resembling or meaning “cycle.” However Im wunderschönen Monat Mai is the first work in Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love, 1840) and the title page immediately explains Stevenson’s use of the Latin word.
Schumann’s music accommodates Heine’s two stanza poem by repeating almost exactly the same music twice. However Stevenson’s poem has three stanzas and so requires three repetitions. Although this distorts Schumann’s original form, the third repetition of this hauntingly beautiful music is nevertheless welcome and the entire song with Stevenson’s lyrics can be heard by clicking here.
That Stevenson should choose as his model a song from Schumann’s Dichterliebe, Poet’s Love, is apt, for would it be so surprising, while riding in an open carriage on a beautiful summer day in Paris and admiring the pretty, bare-headed parisiennes, if not just love, but poetry as well could be a mere affair of weather?
Stockfish is dried, unsalted cod.
2. A list of essay titles — with stockfish
Among the Graham Balfour papers in the National Library of Scotland is his transcription of Stevenson’s outline (from late 1876 or early 1877) for a book of essays to be called ‘Life at Twenty Five’. Twelve numbered chapters are followed by a shorter unnumbered list, which may be for a second part of the same volume:
At first glance, these seem to be simple pleasures that any young bohemian might enjoy. The deleted ‘Religion’ might be have been a provocative idea about which he had second thoughts, but what on earth can that ‘Stockfish’ be? It is so bizarre that I thought it could be a mistake on Balfour’s part.
3. Notes — with stockfish
Then the other day, among the material made available by the Harry Ransom Center, I saw the following at the top of a page of notes, in a rebound series of leaves from a dismembered notebook, from the same 1876-77 period:
Stockfish. take posterity on our backs. Act straight for | today, and remember that your theory for posterity will be | wrong. Better a straw fire of popularity than t other thing.
Stockfish again. Something tells me Balfour didn’t make a mistake.
But there was more to come. You see that pencil line at the bottom left of the image above? It goes right down to the bottom of the page (by-passing a series of quotations and translations from Montaigne) and loops around the following:
One of these vices, which have “je ne sais quoi de | genereux. || stockfish. [with uncrossed -t]
[Added 15 Nov 2015: A reader has commented that the pencil example looks like’shellfish’, but looked at carefully the vertical line following the initial-s (which I take to be an uncrossed ‘t’) is clearly followed by ‘oc’; what looks like double-l, could indeed be that but in the context it must be ‘k’, which usually looks like ‘R’ and sometimes has a more-or-less vertical second part and looks like double-l, as in the word written a few lines above this fragment:
This, believe it not, is ‘kinds’. In the ink example, this second part of the ‘k’ has been merged with the vertical line of the ‘f’. ]
The phrase ‘je ne sais quoi de généreux’ is another quotation from Montaigne: Book II. 2 (De Yvrongnerie, / On Drunkenness), in Cotton’s translation (with a bit more context), ‘Now, among the rest, drunkenness seems to me to be a gross and brutish vice. The soul has greater part in the rest, and there are some vices that have something, if a man may so say, of generous in them; there are vices wherein there is a mixture of knowledge, diligence, valor, prudence, dexterity and address; this one is totally corporeal and earthly.’ It is a quote he remembered and reused in ‘The Character of Dogs’ (1883): ‘The canine, like the human, gentleman demands in his misdemeanours Montaigne’s “je ne sais quoi de genereux.” ’
And this too is apparently connected with stockfish.
So at the top of the page we have ethical advice that could easily go in the ‘Life at Twenty Five’ volume. The meaning is not clear, but it could be something like, ‘you should not be conditioned by the idea of posterity: take posterity with you on your back like Æneas carrying his father out of burning Troy ; it’s better to enjoy brief popularity now than to have it after your death when you can’t enjoy it at all.’ (Æneas seems a better fit than Horace’s ‘black care’ which sits behind the rider (Odes III. 1).)
And at the bottom of the page, we have some more ethical advice, here not about the choice of conduct but about judging it: some vices are low and beastly, but others have ‘generous’ aspects (perhaps involving nobility and self respect).
And both of these have something to do with stockfish…
What has ethical advice got to do with stockfish? (By the way, don’t start thinking that I’m going to find the answer to that question.) Perhaps we can get some clues from other uses of the word.
4. Stevenson and stockfish
Stevenson rarely uses the word. In ‘The Wreath of Immortelles’ (1870) he says the talk of fishmongers runs ‘usually on stock-fish and haddocks’. Fair enough. And in Weir of Hermiston (1894), the older Kirstie gives her opinion of Gib the weaver: “He’s maybe no more stockfish than his neeghbours! He rade wi’ the rest o’ them and had a good stomach to the work, by a’ that I hear!” (ch. V ‘Winter on the Moors’, 1. ‘At Hermiston’). Here, ‘stockfish’ clearly means ‘a stiff, unemotional person’ , by analogy with dried cod (and maybe Kirstie means to say ‘stockish’ and says ‘stockfish’ by applying a kind of folk etymology).
Not much help here.
5. Connotations of stockfish
Across the centuries, the metaphorical connotations of ‘stockfish’ are all negative. Falstaff uses it to berate Prince Hall :
you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bulls-pizzle, you stockfish (1 Henry IV II. 5. 249)
In particular it is used as noun or adjective for a stiff, unimaginative person:
the stockfish-souled reader (B. S. Naylor, Time and Truth Reconciling the Moral and Religious World to Shakespeare (London, 1854), ch. 12, 168.
a sort of stock-fish though earnest expression’ (The Examiner 557 (30 Aug 1818), 555)
mute as a stock-fish (Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge (1841) ch. 46)
dead as a stock-fish (George Meredith, Richard Feverel (1859) III. 5)
Faces seen in street and countryside came thronging up before him—red, stock-fish faces; hard, dull faces; prim, dry faces […] How could he know what men who had such faces thought and did?’ (John Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga Part III. 3 ‘Irene’)
6. So, what does it mean here?
Assuming that Stevenson is using ‘stockfish’ in this tradition, we can imagine he might be adopting it for a common target of his social criticism in the 1870s: conventional, respectable, ‘stuffed shirts’, people lacking in imagination, flexibility and tolerance.
In the list apparently of essays on simple pleasures (Tobacco, Walking Tours, Wine…), ‘Stockfish’ must be an odd thought for an essay, perhaps one summarizing his thoughts on respectable society.
In the page of notes in the Harry Ransom Center, the annotation ‘stockfish’ seems to be attached to conduct contrasted with the that of respectable society. All I can suggest is that these notes made him think of negative conduct and judgments to be dealt with in the ‘Stockfish’ section or chapter.
Hmm, not very satisfying as explanations. But can anyone think of anything better?
The launch (on 30 June 2015) of a new online resource of manuscript images by the Harry H. Ransom Center (HRC) in the University of Texas at Austin, provides an outstanding resource for scholars and is a welcome policy of access to out-of-copyright materials. Even the HRC, a centre of expertise in this area, has to say ‘manuscripts … believed to be in the public domain’—so complicated and unknowable are the laws of copyright. Hence this new policy of is all the more welcome to those of us who know somewhat less about it all.
The “Robert Louis Stevenson Collection” contains images and information of all the HRC’s 48 Stevenson and Stevenson-related MSS. By clicking the link Browse all items in the collection, you will see them all listed and with links to images.
Immediately we see another benefit of the new resource: it makes the wealth of resources of the HRC more visible, less easy to miss. If we choose to browse the 12 Works by RLS, we see it contains for the most part interesting MSS of works already published that will be of great interest to our Edition, and previously classed as ‘untraced’. I personally did not know of the location here of any of these MSS before opening the page yesterday and seeing fascinating list of titles and thumbnail images. Nor are any of them listed as located here in Roger Swearingen’s The Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson (1980).
The 13 Letters from RLS are all in the Yale Letters, identified as ‘MS Texas’ (unless they have recently changed hands), so all merit to Ernest Mehew for finding this part of the Collection. Having these items so conveniently available will be of a help if we have to use handwriting to date another MS.
The 23 Miscellaneous items contain many things of interest, including music, an early list of favourite books, University lecture cards, receipts for payments and letters about RLS.
It is amazing that much of this remained both ‘known’ as in some way available and ‘unknown’ because not found by anyone interested in it. And it is not the case that these items were only recently acquired.
The MS of one of Stevenson’s most witty essays ‘The Ideal House’, sold in 1914, and of ‘Virginibus Puerisque’ and ‘On Falling in Love’, sold in 1918 to raise funds for the British Red Cross, were considered ‘untraced’—until yesterday. Yet they were part of the collection of eccentic bibliophile T. Edward Hanley (1893-1969), whose collection was acquired by the University of Texas in 1958 and 1964, and therefore have presumably have been catalogued there for over fifty years. The MS of ‘A Winter’s Walk in Carrick and Galloway’, which no-one has even located in a sale catalogue, was in the John Henry Wrenn collection, purchased by Library as long ago as 1918, so has been here for almost a century.
‘Talk and Talkers’ MS (again, not located in any sale catalogue so far) was transferred to the Ransom Center in 1960 from the University of Texas Rare Book Library. The leaf frm the Notebook draft of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, sold in 1914, was received in the Manuscripts department, again internally transferred, in 1974.
Hats off then to the Harry Ransom Center and the REVEAL team for providing not only an unparalleled resource but also a network of references that has allowed its items to be discovered.
Dunoon, April 1870
Stevenson was in Dunoon, on the outer Firth of Clyde, from 26 April to 3 May 1870 to follow harbour works. In a letter dated 29 April 1870 from the Argyll Hotel, he wrote to his mother,
I have had my fortune told: I am to be very happy and get to be much on the sea: two predictions which my queasy stomach will hardly consider as agreeable with each other.
(Bonham’s Sale 17520, Los Angeles, 19 October 2009, now in the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, St. Helena)
In the same period, probably while still in Dunoon, he began but then abandoned an essay in which he described the fortune-telling in more detail:
All that I could gather may be thus summed up shortly: that I was to visit America, that I was to be very happy, and that I was to be much upon the sea, predictions, which in consideration of an uneasy stomach, I can scarcely think agreeable with one another. […] She suddenly looked at me with an eager glance, and dropped my hand saying, in what were either tones of misery or a very good affectation of them, ‘Black eyes!’ A moment after she was noisily at work again. It is as well to mention that I have not black eyes. (‘A Retrospect’, Yale, GEN MSS 664 28, 668 (B 6173), pp. 5-6)
Bournemouth, August 1887
Stevenson came across this abandoned essay while he was packing up in Bournemouth before going to the USA in August 1887, and he added a note at the bottom of the page:
written at Dunoon 1870 (?). And very strange | it is : the old pythoness was right : I have been happy, I did | go to America (am even going again—unless—) and I have | been twice and once upon the deep. Moreover I have (and had) black | eyes. R.L.S 1887.
twice and once: several times, often (‘I have been merry twice and once ere now’, 2 Henry IV, V. 3. 39)
In April 1870, Stevenson wrote ‘I have not black eyes’, but in August 1887 he wrote ‘I have (and had) black eyes’. How can we explain this?
Maybe his eye-colour darkened between 1870 and 1887 (and he forgot it had once been lighter). But is this likely? Can eye colour change in this way? The blue eyes of babies darken in most cases in the the first year of life and eyes grow paler in old age. But apart from this,
fluctuations in eye color do occur, but they are relatively minor. As a general rule, eye color may be thought of as a highly stable physical characteristic.
(Morgan Worthy, Eye Color: A Key to Human and Animal Behavior (San Jose : ToExcel, 1999), 81)
For me, a better explanation is that Stevenson had very dark brown eyes, and in 1870, inclined to take the prophecy as false, he classified them as ‘not black’; but in 1887, inclined to see the prophecy as true, he classified them as ‘black’.
And is this not a good example of how we place things in categories because we want to see the world in a particular way? In a way deceiving ourselves.
The story so far
Those who follow this blog will know of our search for possible unnoticed articles by Stevenson in London magazine—ending up with a closer analysis of a list of 1878 payments for work on London, after which I concluded that I would need to look more closely at the four numbers of 13 July to 3 August 1878. R.-L. Abrahamson and myself had already looked through these numbers, but found nothing that we thought was even possibly by Stevenson, apart from ‘A Story-teller’ and a note on George Eliot (for 13 July), and notes from ‘a correspondent in Paris’ (for 20 July). We suspected that a poem on 13 July (from comments in a letter by Henley) might be by Stevenson, but we were interested in prose. To tell the truth, I was prepared to let it rest there: if whatever was in the 27 July and 3 August numbers had not been distinctive enough to be visible to us before, and there was no guarantee that another trip to London would be accompanied by sudden enlightenment.
A (deceptive) letter from Lang changes the picture
Then I was looking through Marysa Demoor’s useful edition of letters from Andrew Lang to Stevenson and my eye was caught by an undated letter from 1877 in which he says, ‘I’ve sent for the new book on Villon’, which probably refers to Longnon’s innovative biographical study, which must have been published in February 1877, as the Academy gives a report of the publication in its ‘Paris Letter’ in the issue of 3 March (95–6). Andrew Lang seems to be indirectly praising Stevenson in this letter when he writes,
‘I wish your C. B. would get a political fellow as good in his way as the author of Balzac’s correspondence and George Eliot’ (Demoor, 42–3).
By ‘C. B.’ he meant the editor of London, Robert Glasgow Brown, who Lang thought was ‘Caldwell Brown’ (Demoor, 6n); by ‘Balzac’s Correspondence’ he is referring to the review article with that title in the second issue of London on 10 February 1877, p. 44. This is an article that R.-L. Abrahamson and myself identified as probably by Stevenson on our first look into London at the old Colindale Newspaper Library back in January 2013. It hasn’t previously been reported here—well, we’ve got to keep something for the album. When I saw Lang’s letter I thought: could he be indirectly praising Stevenson for the article on ‘Balzac’s Correspondence’—and for another on George Eliot too? That decided it: I had to go back to London to investigate this possibility for February 1877, and combine it with a closer look at the issues of the magazine for July and early August 1878.
So it was that on a pleasant morning in June I crossed the British Library forecourt with RLA (who this time had to look at microfilms of Chatto records of Virginibus Puerisque—this will be the first of our essay volumes to appear, in the first half of next year). I went straight to the Newsroom, picked up the five hefty volumes of London and immediately turned to February 1877 and located the article on George Eliot in the issue of February 10, p. 43. Immediate disappointment: Stevenson could not begin an essay in this way:
The cultus of George Eliot is one of the great social facts of the age. Its adherents include nearly the whole of the reading public. For purposes of generalisation they may be classed under three headings—Conformist, Disciples, and Sceptics.
The article then continues with a humorous paragraph on the reception of Eliot by each of these three classes of reader and a final paragraph collecting some epigrams about her and her novels. Such a preliminary announcement of categories followed by a paragraph apiece is, as far as I remember, not to be found in any of Stevenson’s writings. In addition, the article contains no Stevensonsonian language-play (new meaning created by use, unexpected epithets, calques from French), no intelligently concise formulations, no typical use of semicolons etc. It is true that in the fourth paragraph contains the following:
With very, very few exceptions, he [the Sceptic] knows that all of them [‘the gay young fellows it has pleased her to put forward as men’] have a comb concealed among their back-hair.
This reminds us immediately of Stevenson’s ‘Virginibus Puerisque’, published in August 1876:
Even women, who understand men so well for practical purposes, do not know them well enough for the purposes of art. Take even the very best of their male creations, take Tito Melema [in George Eliot’s Romola], for instance, and you will find he has an equivocal air, and every now and again remembers he has a comb at the back of his head.
But the later passage in London must be Henley (who probably wrote the article) cheekily ‘borrowing’ from his friend’s recent essay. With no more internal evidence than this, we cannot take the article as by Stevenson. Lang letter: red herring.
July—August 1878 again
OK—now for the 1878 volume. Henley, talking about the 13 July number says in a letter to Stevenson:
Don’t tax me with ‘Ce Que Se Dit’. I only brushed it up. In doing so, I’ve made it presentable, but I’ve broken the author’s heart. (Atkinson, 52)
This sounds like Henley not apologising for having changed a poem by Stevenson (the person who might ‘tax’ him about it). Here it is: on the strict Q.T., ‘confidential (quiet)’ (first Advanced Google Books Search hits: 1877; 1877 song by Lydia Thompson; called ‘a crude expression’ in George Moore’s A Mummer’s Wife (1884));
rather! ‘yes! I should think so!’ (OED (1904) calls this ‘vulgar’, the online OED identifies this as ‘Brit. colloq.‘; first OED citation 1836);
ripping! ‘great, excellent, stunning’ (first OED citation 1776).
My guess is that this may have been about Fanny Osbourne with the last line a piece of American slang, that Henley changed to British slang (to make it presentable)—absolutely no proof, except that ‘You feel you’re tripping’ doesn’t fit well into the previous two lines and seems inserted to rhyme with ‘ripping’. Well, it’s perhaps not worth losing any sleep about, whatever the story is behind it.
6 July number
This was a week with ‘an article also’ opposite the payment for the ‘Arabian’ episode but a payment that corresponded only to that episode. I looked again, but could find nothing
27 July number
Subtracting the estimated payment for the ‘Arabian’ episode from the total payment, left me looking for a contribution of about half a column. The ‘Whispering Gallery’ section has three items of news from Paris, one in particular about the Jurors of the Exposition (and Stevenson was nominal secretary to one of them, Fleeming Jenkins). It starts ‘The Exposition has developed inventions undreamt of by the carnal mind of the casual observer. For instance, amongst the Jurors hospitality reigns’ (where ‘carnal mind’ could have a Stevensonian epithet). It goes on to mention that dishes with new names have been invented and gives a menu with items like ‘Potage. Emaillé de Printanier’ and ‘Truits. Patinée à Génèvoise’. This could be the Stevenson contribution—nothing earth-shaking, as you can see.
3 August number
Here, again, I was looking for something of half a column or less. And, again in the ‘Whispering Gallery’ section there is a contribution ‘from a letter’ that sounds as if it might be from Stevenson, containing a nonsense rhyme: Here, the French word béquille ‘crutch’ and béquiller ‘walk with crutches’ has clearly touched the poet’s funny nerve (maybe because a homophone béquiller (from bec ‘beak’) is a slang word for ‘eat’) and he creates a calque in English ‘to beckle’ which he repeats and varies in a crazy progression that threatens to extend to infinity.
There is a good chance this is by Stevenson: it is from a letter (the origin of other contributions from Stevenson in this period), it involves play with French, which we often find him doing, the creation through use of a new meaning of ‘fulfilled’ at the end of the third stanza reminds one of Stevenson’s typical word-play, and Stevenson writes similar verse in other letters to Henley in this period (e.g. L2, 259).
With that, I had more-or-less accounted for the four annotations of ‘an article also’ on the 1878 list of payments. That list, of course, only goes up to 10 August and it is possible that Stevenson continued contributing short pieces and poems after that. But this I generously leave to another researcher.