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

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

5 Responses

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  1. In Booth letter 2142, 8 March 1889, to Anne Jenkin from Honolulu, Stevenson writes, “O, what a thing it is to be fools! Imagine the four part Tahitian music, and nobody to take it down. I got one part down on a flageolet after a day’s toil, but I had wearied out my helper and he would never come back to teach me the others.”

    J.F.M. Russell

    17/06/2013 at 2:27 pm

    • I hadn’t seen this quote before — thank you for passing it along! Stevenson certainly wasn’t the only one who had difficulty articulating the specifics of indigenous Tahitian music. My favourite late-19th-C description of Tahitian music comes from Sir Edmund Pears, who visited Tahiti a year after RLS, and said the singing was “strange, thrilling, and unlike any other singing in the world outside Polynesia. … It was like Bach’s “Fugue in G Minor” gone mad, or a performance of giant bagpipes.”

      Letitia Henville

      19/06/2013 at 3:28 pm

      • You may find the answer to your scansion questions in Henry Teuira’s Ancient Tahiti, which has original Tahitian texts for some of the legends, including Ra-hero (Rahero), though they are not complete. The website “Polynesian songs and chants” makes some of his texts available.

        Though Stevenson doesn’t say so in his letter, it must be Lloyd who is the “wearied helper.”

        J.F.M. Russell

        19/06/2013 at 6:28 pm

      • Thanks for the follow-up! I can’t figure out how to ‘reply’ to your follow-up so I’m replying to mine instead.

        Unfortunately for my attempt at finding an ‘original’ or manuscript text, the version of Rahero in Ancient Tahiti is as much a translation as RLS’s version–Henry was working from the notes of her grandfather, the missionary J.M. Orsmond–and Ancient Tahiti’s many layers of editorial intervention (there are five prefaces, three of them written after Henry’s death) mean it isn’t a straight-forwardly ‘authoritative’ source. Also perhaps significant is that Orsmond’s main source for Ancient Tahiti was was Pōmare II, and the Pōmares and Tevas were historical rivals!

        Ultimately, though, you’re right — Ancient Tahiti has been, for me, yet another puzzle piece as I’ve tried to put together the background to, and context of, RLS’s translation.

        Letitia Henville

        19/06/2013 at 6:54 pm

  2. “Omare,” pronounce as a dactyl

    The imperative form is probably a convention of instructions of this kind. RLS had a certain interest in phonetics. In the essay ‘Yoshida-Torajiro’ (1880) he explains:

    Yoshida-Torajiro […] you are to pronounce with an equality of accent on the different syllables, almost as in French, the vowels as in Italian, but the consonants in the English manner – except the J, which has the French sound, or, as it has been cleverly proposed to write it, the sound of ZH.

    This was a period of development in phonetic transcription: Alexander Melville Bell’s The Standard Elocutionist (1860) and Visible Speech (1867), Henry Sweet’s Handbook of Phonetics (1877), foundation of the International Phonetic Association (1886). The digraph ‘zh’ was used (perhaps for the first time) in Bell’s Elocutionist (and later by Sweet), published while Bell was teaching elocution at the University of Edinburgh (until 1865) and so was a colleague of Fleeming Jenkins.

    So I think we can trace S’s interesting linguistic insights to the intellectual
    context in Edinburgh.


    07/07/2013 at 5:23 am

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