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


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The pleasures of studying details.

I have been an amateur calligrapher, and as such I always enjoyed the preparation of the surface of a piece of parchment by gently rubbing with ‘pounce’ (powdered pummice). This may sound a pretty boring chore, but apart from the interesting fine gritty texture of the pounce, it gives one the opportunity to study the surface that you’re going to work on, to spot slight irregularities, differences in colour, rougher and smoother sections—in short, you focus on a little part of the material at a time and get to know it very well.

The same is true of the various chores of editing: in the end, they help you get to know the text in its small details–to see things one wouldn’t otherwise notice. The problems of hyphenation, recently debated on this blog, for example, and whether Stevenson hyphenates dis- and mis- (or just uses a link-line that looks like a hyphen).

This reminded me of an interesting chapter by General Editor Penny Fielding in the recently-published Edinburgh Companion to Robert Louis Stevenson, in which she suggests that (hyphenated or not) RLS was indeed interested in the syntax and semantics of the prefix ‘dis-‘:

  Stevenson was particularly fond of using ‘dis-‘ as a verbal prefix, a technique which conjures up this sense of a world in which things could easily split up, change form, lose shape or disappear altogether. This is a world never quite present before the viewing subject, but always slipping out of focus, or losing pieces of itself. (‘Stevenson’s Poetry’, Companion, p. 108).

The prefix ‘dis-‘

Penny first makes this comment while dicussing the following lines from ‘Skerryvore: the Parallel’:

 Here all is sunny, and when the truant gull
Skims the green level of the lawn, his wing
Dispetals roses…

She then goes on to mention and discuss the following cases:

  • dislustred leaves’ (‘The Woodman’)
  • ‘The unfathomable sea, and time, and tears, / […] Dispart us’ (‘To N.V. de G.S.’)
  • ‘the gaunt ward / Dislimns and disappears’  (‘To W.E. Henley’)
  • ‘My face seemed to dislimn under his gaze’ (St. Ives)
  • ‘But now I feel as if the earth were undermined, and all my friends have lost one thickness of reality since that one passed.  Those are happy who can take it otherwise; with that I found things all beginning to dislimn.’ (Letter, Nov. 1883)
  • ‘Lamps vainly brighten the dispeopled street’ (‘To S.C.’).

Thoughts on ‘dis-‘

Dispetals‘ is particularly elegant in its linguistic iconism: the level intonation of the unfinished sentence ‘his wing…’ corresponding to the level flight of the gull, and then the intonational fall on the second syllable of ‘dispetals’ imitating in some way the fall of the petal. But more than that, ‘dispetals’ is one word that breaks into two parts, one of them the floating ‘petals’. In the essays too we have repeatedly found that RLS experimenting with such iconic uses of language.

Where ‘dis-‘ means ‘remove’ or ‘deprive of’, the fully-lexical element that follows (‘petals’, ‘peopled’) reminds us of what has been lost. Where ‘dis-‘ reverses an action (‘dislustred‘, ‘dislimn‘) then the change from one state to the other is made more present. If one were writing a paper rather than a blog posting, one might want to explore Stevenson’s use of ‘dis-‘ and his aesthetics of juxtaposition and his creation of a text where focus is continually changing—the way, as Penny says, ‘the world is never quite present before the viewing subject’ (p. 108). Here, I’ll just list a few more uses of the prefix found in a search using the Wordsmith program.

Some more examples of ‘dis-‘

1. ‘Dislimn‘ is particularly interesting because it has affinities with another word that has come up repeatedly in our discussions of the essays: ‘obliterate’ and with it a series of other words like ‘deface’, ‘blank’ and ‘nameless’—all to do with the loss of form, readability and meaning. We also find ‘dislimn‘ in ‘Markheim’ (‘The features of the visitor began to undergo a wonderful and lovely change: they brightened and softened with a tender triumph, and, even as they brightened, faded and dislimned‘) and in the final moral of the fable ‘Something in It’ (‘Sanctions and tales dislimn like mist / About the amazed evangelist’).

2. Other interesting ‘dis-‘ words include ‘disengulphed’ in a sonnet beginning ‘As starts the absent dreamer when a train, / Suddenly disengulphed below his feet…’, where ‘disengulphed’, in one word, gives us the alarm of the absent dreamer at both the unexpected appearance and the unsuspected ‘gulph’.

3. A couple of other uses of ‘dispart’: (i) ‘We saw the shifting crowd dispart‘ (‘Duddingstone’)—a line which seems to bear up Penny’s observation of RLS’s mind-style of seeing phenomena in constant transformation; and (ii) ‘what face is this that fancy can see peering through the disparted branches?’ (‘The Manse’).

4. Some cases of ‘dis-‘ words suggest archaic use, but I couldn’t identify, say, a seventeenth-century writer who typically uses them. Examples are ‘discrowned‘; ‘distasted‘ (‘There was a man waiting for us in Prestongrange’s study, whom I distasted at the first look’ – _Catriona_; we also find this word in The Black Arrow and Ballantrae); and the noun, which is ‘chiefly Scots’ for the OED, ‘dispeace’: ‘he feared dishonour and he feared dispeace; and his will was like a sea-gull in the wind’ (‘The Waif Woman’) and ‘it began to be rumoured that there was dispeace between the two Malietoas’ (A Footnote to History).


Written by rdury

02/08/2011 at 2:49 pm

9 Responses

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  1. Isn’t it amazing how you tend to find new examples of things you’ve just been thinking about! I was reading through Letters vol 3 this morning, when I came across the following definitely nonce-use of ‘dis-‘:

    RLS (in San Francisco, early 1880) says that his friends will remain in the dark about his marriage and return to Britain until things are clear to him: “for I do not choose to be caught ‘on the hop’, dreaming and then disarsed from my expectation” (L3: 64-5).

    Reining in my imagination, I eventually realized that ‘disarsed’ must mean ‘unseated (from a horse)’: an event during which, I am sure, the world is not quite present to the experiencing subject.

    Incidentally, the editor of the letters, Ernest Mehew, is a ‘hyphenist’:

    ‘Another idiosyncrasy [of RLS] was to hyphenate a great many words beginning with ‘dis’, as dis-cover, dis-gusting, dis-cussions and dis-cretion; and also a few beginning with ‘mis’, like ‘mis-giving’. To perpetuate such misspellings would merely distract the reader’s attention and I have silently corrected them’ (L1: 19).

    Since all his examples have the second part of the word beginning with a left-facing small-bowl letter, my hypothesis (that we are dealing with a context-dependent linking line) still survives.


    03/08/2011 at 10:21 am

  2. Some lovely readings, here, Richard. Mark Vernon, the philosophy writer, was very taken with ‘dislimn’ when I was speaking at a conference on friendship. He mentions it on his blog here: http://www.markvernon.com/friendshiponline/dotclear/index.php?post/2010/07/07/A-new-word-to-me

    (Stevenson was actually writing to Ferrier’s sister, of course, but its hard to keep track of an oral paper)


    17/08/2011 at 6:11 pm

  3. DIS- and DE- are etymologically related and the latter shares the meanings of ‘reversing’ and ‘depriving’. Here’s an example from _Picturesque Notes_ (“The Calton Hill”):

    The arriving sea mist is first seen as “a faint, floating haze, a cunning decolouriser“.


    07/12/2011 at 6:24 am

  4. Another dis- word: Dance, the miser, moving ‘to and fro in his discomfortable house’ (‘The Lantern-Bearers’)


    19/08/2012 at 2:16 pm

  5. sans discontinuer
    Reading Flaubert’s ‘Un coeur simple’ (1877) I came across the phrase ‘et de l’eau tombait sans discontinuer par le trous de l’écluse’ (‘and the water kept pouring through the holes of the dam’).

    A look at the online Trésor de la langue française shows that the word is old (from mediaeval Latin) but there seem (at least in the citations) an interesting number of uses with negatives in the 19C, including others by Flaubert:
    ‘ La barque suivait le bord des îles. (…) à l’arrière la bauche qui traînait ne discontinuait pas son petit clapotement doux dans l’eau’ (Madame Bovary); ‘la double ligne de maisons ne discontinua plus’ (L’Education sentimentale).

    There are also non-negative uses, closer perhaps to the Stevenson examples: ‘il s’assit, et discontinua son air’ (Balzac, Sarrasine).

    These are only a few examples, but they suggest at least a possibility that the stylistic us of dis- words may also have been a feature of French prose.


    22/01/2013 at 4:51 pm

    • A very good example of the effect of dis- reminding you of the former state at the same time as telling you it is no more comes from Jacques Prévert’s poem (and song sung by Yves Montand) ‘Les Feuilles mortes’: ‘Et la mer efface sur le sable. les pas des amants désunis


      30/08/2016 at 2:32 pm

  6. In a note headed ‘Style’ written in a notebook 1873-74 (Yale GEN MS 664 box 38 folder 852: notebook “RLS/H), Stevenson defines style as

    A disarrangement of their [for ‘the’?] words from their colloquial, to their true order, varying with the least shade of meaning in the phrase.


    10/05/2013 at 2:28 pm

  7. ‘I have disembosomed to you freely’ (L6, 148; Apr 1888, to Baxter)


    30/09/2013 at 1:15 pm

  8. Here’s another, disconsidered:

    Were it known, it was the sort of exploit that disconsidered a young man for good with the more serious classes, but gave him a standing with the riotous. (John Nicholson)

    … and began to inquire into the causes of the change. These I traced to my lowness of spirits, that back to my late recklessness, and that again to the common, old, public, disconsidered sin of self-indulgence.(Catriona)

    Teach, he said, was good enough to board ships and frighten fools with his blacked face and swearing; we could scarce get a better man than Teach for that; and besides, as the man was now disconsidered and as good as deposed, we might reduce his proportion of the plunder. (Ballantrae)


    30/05/2018 at 1:53 pm

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