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

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Another transcriber of Tahitian tales

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This post is contributed by Letitia Henville, presently preparing a PhD (Univ. Toronto) on late nineteenth century ballad translations.

 Ballad Puzzles (Part Two)

In my first post, I described the strange piece of manuscript I found in the Beinecke Rare Books Library at Yale University, and its relationship to Stevenson’s Tahitian ballad “Song of Rahéro.” The second puzzle piece that I found during that trip was held not in the library but in the Yale University Art Gallery, which, during my stay in New Haven, happened to be hosting a special exhibition of works called John La Farge’s Second Paradise: Voyages in the South Seas, 1890–1891. La Farge, an American painter and writer who spent a year travelling in the South Pacific, had met Stevenson in Samoa in October 1890; La Farge described this meeting in a letter to the New York Times published shortly after Stevenson’s death.

La Farge’s Sketchbook #8, “Tahiti – 1891, 32v, 33r

La Farge’s Sketchbook #8, “Tahiti – 1891,” 32v, 33r

La Farge’s Sketchbook #8, “Tahiti – 1891,” includes transcriptions of indigenous Tahitian legends. Stevenson claimed that “as many as five different persons have helped me with details” of the story that became his “Song of Rahéro”. It is probable that these five persons were (i) Ori a Ori, the dedicatee of the poem; (ii) the Teva matriarch Ari’i Taimai, and three of her adult children: (iii) Queen Joanne Marau Ta’aroa Tepau Salmon (who Stevenson called Queen Marau), ex-wife of the French Governor King Pomare V; (iv) Tati Salmon, who Stevenson identifies as the “hereditary high chief of the Tevas” in his notes to the poem; and (v) Moetia, for whom Stevenson wrote “To an Island Princess,” later published in Songs of Travel.

Marau and Tati were fluent in English, French and Tahitian, which meant they could communicate fairly easily with Stevenson—who professed in In the South Seas that he only could “smatter” in Polynesian languages. Following in Stevenson’s footsteps, La Farge met with these same people and wrote down the stories that they told him.

La Farge’s sketchbook transcriptions—published almost verbatim in his posthumous Reminiscences of the South Seas (1912)—provide examples of the kind of source material Stevenson integrated in his Tahitian ballad. Like Stevenson, who claimed he had “not consciously changed a single feature” of “Rahéro,” La Farge repeatedly stated in Reminiscences that he had not edited the words of his sources: “This is the story exactly as Queen Marau told it”; “I leave it as I first wrote it down”; “[The above contains] words that I do not quite understand”; and so on.

Of course, these Teva storytellers would have been self-editing their stories, telling them as them could be received and understood by La Farge—in English, with some indeterminable degree of consideration for the conventions of English-language story-telling. Still, the apparent lack of editorial intervention on the part of La Farge’s text gives us access to what appear to be quotations from a woman who may have been one of Stevenson’s sources. So while Stevenson’s drafts of “Song of Rahéro” may still be missing, La Farge’s sketchbook transcriptions provide a glimpse into the kind of stories that Stevenson may have been told, by these same people, in 1888.

Part of the exhibition is available as an online exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery site, John La Farge’s South Seas Sketchbooks 1890-1891.

RLS, poet and anthropologist

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This post is contributed by Letitia Henville, presently preparing a PhD (Univ. Toronto) on late nineteenth century ballad translations.

Ballad puzzles (part 1)

In December 2010, I visited the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library at Yale University, hoping to find Stevenson’s manuscript translation of an indigenous Tahitian legend, “Song of Rahéro.” This poem was written while Stevenson was in Tautira, Tahiti, between 28 October and 25 December 1888. I’d hoped that “Song of Rahéro” was hiding, un- or mis-catalogued, somewhere in the vast Edwin J. Beinecke Collection of Robert Louis Stevenson at Yale; given that my PhD dissertation focuses on late nineteenth century ballad translations, the manuscript of “Song of Rahéro” seemed like an important missing piece. I’d already located his manuscript for “The Feast of Famine: Marquesan Manners” (from early October 1888) in the Morgan Library in New York—but the Beinecke had more manuscript material from Stevenson’s time in Tahiti, including partially-translated poems like “Let Us Come and Join the Clan of the Tevas” and “Song of Tepari.”

I never found the missing manuscript, and if anyone reading this happens to know where it is, I’d love to hear from you. What I did find in New Haven, though, were two puzzle pieces that have helped me to better understand the context in which Stevenson made his translation. This first of two posts describes the first puzzle piece: a page of manuscript with almost no words on it.

‘Song of Rahéro’

In his notes to “Song of Rahéro”—the first of five poems published in the collection Ballads (1890)—Stevenson wrote:

“This tale, of which I have not consciously changed a single feature, I received from tradition. It is highly popular through all the country of the eight Tevas, the clan to which Rahéro belonged; and particularly in Taiárapu, the windward peninsula of Tahiti, where he lived. I have heard from end to end two versions; and as many as five different persons have helped me with details. There seems no reason why the tale should not be true.”

I now believe that Stevenson meant to “not consciously change” even the meter of the poem—that is, that he attempted to reproduce Tahitian rhythms in his English-language text.

While some of the poems that Stevenson wrote before his South Pacific travels feature strong ballad rhythms—the anapestic trimeter lines of “Ticonderoga” (“This is the tale of the man”); the alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines of “The Counterblast Ironical” (“A clear account writ fair an’ broad, / An’ a plain apologie”), both of them rhymed ABAB—the meter of “Song of Rahéro” is unusual. It has long hexameter lines (six-foot, six-beat), and these in addition consistently lack a strong central caesura; in a private letter to a friend, Edmund Gosse said, of “Rahéro” and the collection: “the versification is atrocious.” That Stevenson could write strong ballad rhythms but chose not to for “Rahéro” seemed, to me, significant.

Stevenson’s annotations to “Song of Rahéro” suggest that this rhythmical inconsistency was consciously constructed. A number of the notes to “Song of Rahéro” provide suggestions for pronunciation:

Yottowas,” so spelt for convenience of pronunciation […] Námunu […] [is] pronounced […] dactyllically.

In other notes, Stevenson switches to the imperative:

Omare,” pronounce as a dactyl. […] Paea—pronounce to rhyme with the Indian ayah

Such comments show an interest in the sounds and word-stress of Tahitian words by a careful observer who would undoubtedly also be interested in Tahitian metrical patterns.

A page of strange scansion

Then, while sitting in the Beinecke Reading Room, I turned over the leaf of the manuscript of “Song of Tepari”, and was both surprised and confused by the page that lay before me—a page of scansion of no recognizable meter:

Reverse of “Song of Tefari [sic],” McKay 6888, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Reverse of “Song of Tefari [sic],” McKay 6888, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

A quick check showed that the scansion on this page does not correspond to the English-language versions of the Tahitian songs on the reverse. The columns of numbers on the right, which appear to count numbers of syllables (one column reads “10,” “12,” “12,” “7,” “12,” “12,” “8”) and numbers of metrical feet (the other column reads “4 feet,” “6,” “6,” “6,” “6”), indicate long lines, frequently of six feet. I asked myself: could this be the key to unlocking the meter of Stevenson’s strange hexameters in “Rahéro”?

The answer, in brief, is no: these lines of scansion can’t be directly mapped on to Stevenson’s “Rahéro”. But rather than a metrical analysis of his own poem, I believe these lines to be Stevenson’s attempt to transcribe the rhythm of a choir of Tahitian singers.

In his letters, Stevenson mentions listening to choirs of himene singers; anthropological evidence and late Victorian accounts of Tahitian choirs both suggest that himene choirs practiced their songs multiple times. So, rather than hastily jotting down rhythms, struggling to keep up with the song, Stevenson would have had time to revise his scansion as he listened to the chorus’s repetitions; the corrections, revisions, and attempts at finding patterns in the rhythm evident on this page may have been based on listening to the same passage multiple times. Certainly Stevenson was an able musician: John Russell’s “Music of Robert Louis Stevenson” makes this fact abundantly clear. Even with his sensitive, musically-inclined ear, however, Stevenson seemed to have struggled to detect any underlying pattern in the singing. And so, I’d suggest, the lack of consistent rhythm in “Rahéro” may be one of the ways in which Stevenson attempted to accurately convey the “song,” without “consciously chang[ing] a single feature”.

My article on this page of scansion, and its implications in an interpretation of “Song of Rahéro,” was published in the July 2012 issue of Literature Compass. Its title is “‘The Walter Scott of Tahiti’: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Ballad Translation.”

Written by rdury

17/06/2013 at 2:11 pm

RLS in the Spectator

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The following post is contributed by Lesley Graham, editor of Uncollected Essays 2

Spectator archive

The full Spectator archive has just become available online. http://archive.spectator.co.uk/. I did a quick search for “Robert Louis Stevenson” and came up a number of interesting items, including  the following.

22 December 1894, p. 875

On Monday, a Reuter’s telegram from Auckland announced the death of Mr Robert Louis Stevenson

[…] We have dealt elsewhere with Mr. Stevenson’s contribution to literature, and will only say here that, in spite of the extraordinary charm and vividness of his romances, and of his power of humour, his work as an essayist far more nearly approaches the ideal standard than his achievement in the field of fiction. […]


22 December 1894, pp. 881-82


[clearly written before the announcement of Stevenson’s death]

WHAT is it that makes Mr. Stevenson’s literary work never wholly satisfying ? What is the something in which his books fail to content, even when they most excite, the emotions ? His romances are full of charm and of fascination. Nothing could be more vivid or more taking. The art is perfect, and dullness is banished from his page. And yet as one reads there grows the sense of some latent imperfection, some intangible fault of commission or omission which perplexes and astonishes. What can it be? Whence comes this sense that in the last resort we are cheated of the full glory of letters? [First paragraph of a longer article]


20 MAY 1911, p. 761


STEVENSON coined the word ” opinionettes’ when he was twenty-one, and applied it to the obstinate little conclusions which the Edinburgh University students brought with them to college. [We quote the word from a small volume lately brought out by Messrs. Chatto and Winans (Lay Morals [and other papers], by R. L. Stevenson, 6s.) which with other matter reprints some of his earliest essays.) [First paragraph of a longer article, discussing the 1871 Edinburgh University Magazine essays and ‘Lay Morals’]


9 August 1934, p. 202

Gramophone Notes

SCHUMANN’S music, like the writing of Robert Louis Stevenson, suffers today from that kind of neglect which does not often permit us to make any effort to study it, even though, when by some chance we do, we seldom fail to find enjoyment in it. Stevenson’s neglect (except in schools, where the little innocents, unaffected by literary fashion, are still offered up to his cult) is probably the more general, because there is no literary substitute for a new set of gramophone records to provide the necessary incentive. So Stevenson remains unread, while a new recording of the Third Symphony —an excellent one, by Piero Coppola and L’Orchestre de la Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire (H.M.V. DB 4926-8, 18s.)—makes us turn our attention once more to Schumann….


26 January 1974, Page 5


Sir: Inevitable misprints apart, exactitude is almost everything. Mr Benny Green in his review on January 5 of Professor Daiches’s Robert Louis Stevenson and His World, refers to Stevenson’s use of the word ‘horologist’ in Markheim, where what Stevenson said was — “and now, and by his act, that piece of life had been arrested, as the horologist, with interjected finger, arrests the beating of the clock.”

This sentence, I suggest, is an instance of a skill which — whatever differing views there may be about its worth — Stevenson developed to a high degree and over a wide range. I can only call it an onomatopoeia not of sound alone, but of sight, action and process as well.

The quoted sentence, especially in its context, suggests the regular rhythm of a pendulum and escapement brought abruptly to a stop. (Was ‘horologist’ quite so antique a word in even Crane’s time?) “. . in my precipitous city” (dedication to Hermiston) and “wilderness of tumbled boulders” (Fontainebleau) picture in sharp or rounded vowels the scenes which they describe. The “brutal instant of extinction” (Hermiston) tells the jerking fall of a hanged man. “The sea bombards their founded towers” marks out the surges which still, as then, wash against the Bill Rock and Skerryvole. “The rain erases and the rust consumes” the inscriptions and fittings of a family tomb.

One cannot deny that there is much in the criticism of Stevenson’s use of antique words, but it is not the whole  story.

W. H. McCulloch

2 Trinity Grove, Edinburgh

Written by rdury

11/06/2013 at 4:54 pm