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

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Wandering Willie Changes His Tune

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


Summary: In this post, John F. Russell shows that Stevenson’s poem ‘Home, no more home to me’ (Songs of Travel XVII) with its subtitle ‘To the Tune of Wandering Willie’ was not written to the tune generally known by that name and used by Burns for ‘Here awa’, there’s awa’, Wandering Willie’ (the words of which clearly inspired Stevenson for his poem).
Stevenson used a different tune given the title of ‘Wandering Willie’ in a music book he possessed—the tune of ‘The Cooper O’ Dundee’, used by Burns for his song ‘Bonie Dundee’.


Common Ground

“To write with authority about another man, we must have fellow-feeling and some common ground of experience with our subject,” Stevenson writes at the very beginning of “Some Aspects of Robert Burns” (1879). This common ground is revealed throughout the essay and is first evident in a description of Burns’ appearance as a young man:

Already he made a conspicuous figure in Tarbolton church, with the only tied hair in the parish, and his plaid, which was of a particular color, wrapped in a particular manner round his shoulders. Ten years later … we shall find him out fishing in masquerade, with a fox-skin cap, belted great-coat, and great Highland broadsword. He liked dressing up, in fact, for its own sake.

In The Quest for Robert Louis Stevenson (2004), John Cairney quotes a fellow-student of RLS as saying,

His whole appearance was a shock to a puritan neighbourhood. His chestnut hair fell in limp strands over his shoulder. He did not hesitate to dress as a Bohemian; he wore a velveteen jacket like a workman and a grey, flannel shirt to hide his thin arms. And to warm his thin body, he swathed himself like his claimed ancestor, Rob Roy Macgregor, in a dramatic mantle with flowing folds.

According to Rosaline Masson in I Can remember Robert Louis Stevenson (1922), he delighted in dressing up for the Jenkin theatricals:

 I play Orsino every day, in all the pomp of Solomon— splendid Francis-the-First clothes, heavy with gold and stage jewellery. I play it ill enough, I believe ; but me and the clothes, and the wedding wherewith the clothes and me are reconciled, produce every night a thrill of admiration. Our cook told my mother (there’s a servants’ night, you know) that she and the housemaid were “just prood to be able to say it was oor young gentleman.” To sup afterwards with these clothes on, and a wonderful lot of gaiety and Shakespearean jokes about the table, is something to live for.

Burns and Stevenson declared their individuality and altered their identities with their clothes, and this is also reflected in their name changes. At the age of eighteen Stevenson went from Lewis to Louis, and he says of Burns,

 His father wrote the family name Burnes; Robert early adopted the orthography Burness from his cousin … and in his twenty-eighth year changed it once more to Burns.

Both had unconventional views on religion and both died young, Burns at 37 and Stevenson at 44.



RLS was a whistling vagabond, not a fiddling philanderer, but Burns and he were both tone poets and it is their songs that demonstrate their fellow-feeling. Those who are familiar only with Stevenson’s original lyrics to  Over the Sea to Skye or To the Tune of Wandering Willie should know that he also wrote verse to at least 25 other tunes, even supplying original words to Auld Lang Syne. This is nowhere near Burns’ 361 lyrics, but he wrote over a twenty year period, while Stevenson only began in earnest to put words to music at the age of 37.

Burns always associated music with his songs and never wrote a lyric until he could sing the melody. Stevenson was a modern poet, so not all his songs were meant to be sung, and he made it a challenge to find the ones that were by generally not identifying the music at all.

Although Burns was competent on the violin, an instrument that requires an excellent sense of intonation and relative pitch, biographer James Currie said the poet’s voice was “untunable, and that it was long before he learned to distinguish one tune from another,” while Evelyn Blantyre Simpson in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Edinburgh Days (1898) makes a similar comment about Stevenson:

Many of the artists were musical, but Louis Stevenson took no part in their impromptu concerts. He liked their songs and rattling refrains, but he was no singer, nor had he much of an ear for music.

In Songs of Robert Burns (1903) James C. Dick says,

His songs are the epitome of Scottish music, still known and still admired. Considering this it is the more remarkable that Burn’s biographers should with one accord have ignored or omitted a description of his musical perception and his treatment of music.

If Stevenson’s biographers mention his music at all it is limited, as Simpson’s remarks indicate, to a sentence or two about supposed poor musicianship. Stevenson wrote more than 120 short pieces, almost 1/3 of which were original. His compositions consisted of songs, dances, instrumental works, counterpoint exercises and at least ten pieces that used piano. He wrote in 19 different keys, including five modes. Using six different meters he wrote at least 65 solo pieces, 27 duets, 14 trios and two quartets for various combinations of flute, flageolet, clarinet, violin, piano, guitar, mandolin and voice. He frequently transposed pieces and knew how to modulate from one key to another. He played piano, Boehm flageolet and penny whistle. Never having studied music or any musical instrument as a child, and never having studied music formally in any way as an adult, he accomplished all this in about six years. This is not a description of someone who, as Graham Balfour wrote in his biography, “failed to master the rudiments” and whose “knowledge of music was not very profound.”

Although RLS did all that, his music was completely ignored until  Robert Murrill Stevenson’s essay “Robert Louis Stevenson’s Musical Interests” (PMLA, 72.iv (1957), 700-04) nothing has appeared in print since.

Dick says Burns “never heard a symphony or a string quartette” and his musical education began in his youth during church music rehearsals. For Stevenson, “wealth is only useful for two things: a yacht and a string quartette,” and as a young man he went to concerts at the Edinburgh Choral Society and heard music in friends’ homes but only studied theory and harmony when he was 36. Burns destroyed the music for the single song he composed at 23 because it displeased him so much, but a third of Stevenson’s works are original and accessible.

Both their lyrics were written to fit the music, but Burns only used popular airs. Stevenson’s verses in this genre include:

1.     Come Here is Adieu to the City (Rosin the Bow)

2.     Early in the Morning  (Early One Morning)

3.     Fine Pacific Islands (British Grenadiers)

4.     Madrigal (The Harp that Once)

5.     Nous n’ron plus au bois (children’s song)

6.     Over the Sea to Skye (Scottish folksong)

7.     Over the Water wi’ Charlie (Scottish folksong)

8.     She Rested by the Broken Brook (Drink to Me)

9.     Song of the Road (Over the Hills and Far Away)

10.  Stormy evening (Oldfield)

11.  Student Song (Auld Lang Syne)

12.  Topical Song (Poor Old Joe)

13.  Wandering Willie (Scottish folksong)

More broadly educated than Burns, Stevenson also wrote to European art music:

1.     Air de Diabelli (Diabelli Sonatina)

2.     Come My Little Children (anonymous gavotte, 1700)

3.     Ditty (Bach keyboard suite)

4.     Early in the Evening (Rinaldo, Handel)

5.     Infinite Shining Heavens (Bach, Pentecostal Air)

6.     Home from the Daisied Meadows (Beethoven piano variations)

7.     I Will Make you Brooches (Schumann, Ländliches Lied)

8.     In Lupum (Schumann, Happy Farmer)

9.     Tempest Tossed (Beethoven piano variations)

10.  To You Let Snow and Roses (Mozart, Clemenza di Tito)

11.  Vagabond (Schubert)


Wandering Willie

Since Stevenson rarely indicated what music inspired his verses, the fact that he occasionally did must mean something special. Number XVII in Songs of Travel has the subtitle To the Tune of Wandering Willie in parentheses, so there should be no doubt about what music inspired it. The standard lyrics to the tune, more properly known as Here awa’ there awa’, are by Burns, so in boldly naming the song, Stevenson implies that he is not afraid to be compared.

To the Tune of Wandering Willie was written in 1888 at Tautira, Tahiti, where Stevenson suffered a long illness. He sent the poem to Charles Baxter in a letter that explains his motivation:

image 01 my dear charles

That he is familiar with the music called Wandering Willie is assumed from his references to it in his writings throughout his life. He first mentions it in a letter to his mother in 1874 while staying at Mentone.

image 02  i have a great pleasure

Booth, Bradford A. and Ernest Mehew. Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. Letter 236, 5 February, 1874.

Willie reappears in the essay “A Night in France” (1875):

image 03 to these airs

It is sung in Deacon Brodie (1888):

image 04 brodieFinally it appears in The Master of Ballantrae (1889), where Stevenson quotes his own lyrics.

image 04a mr mackellar

With so many references to Wandering Willie in his works, we must believe that RLS had no doubt he was referring to the version made famous by Burns, especially since he challenges him outright in his letter to Baxter.


The Real Willie

Every major source of Scots songs, Wandering Willie shows some variation of the tune found in James C. Dick’s Songs of Robert Burns. An arrangement by Haydn can be heard by clicking here, and a portion of a recording from the Linn edition of complete songs by clicking here.

image 05  tone poetry

Probably as a reference for his own poem, RLS wrote out what he assumed was the music. Click here to listen to a recording.

New York Public Library, Robert Louis Stevenson collection of papers, [1873]-[1944] bulk (1881-1917), Berg Coll MSS Stevenson

New York Public Library, Robert Louis Stevenson collection of papers, [1873]-[1944] bulk (1881-1917),
Berg Coll MSS Stevenson

A comparison of the first four bars of both tunes shows they are not the same. The difference is clear when both melodies are in the same key.

image 08   here a wa home no more

Burns’ song is in waltz time, while Stevenson’s has a two beat measure. The pitches and the shapes of the melodies are different. Even though he mentions the song many times throughout his life and seems to be thoroughly familiar with it, Stevenson is obviously not using the same tune as Burns.

RLS wrote Wandering Willie while recovering from a severe illness. It is easy to believe he was not always in his right mind. The simplicity of the melody he notated indicates he may have written it from memory and this could also have led to mistakes, but the inconsistencies in the two songs are greater than what would be caused by illness or bad memory.

This is not the first time RLS has mistaken a piece of music. In Hammerton’s Stevensoniana (1903) J. Cuthbert Hadden quotes Stevenson as remarking,

He never could remember the name of an air, no matter how familiar it was to him.

Proof of this assertion is found in a letter he wrote to his mother in 1872:

Booth, Bradford A. and Ernest Mehew. Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995: Letter 105, August 1, 1872.

Booth, Bradford A. and Ernest Mehew. Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995: Letter 105, August 1, 1872.

Unfortunately Lang, lang ist’s her is not the German version of Auld Lang Syne but of Long, Long Ago.

Deutsche Weisen

Deutsche Weisen

In Stevenson’s defense it should be noted that in German, English and Scots the words “lang” and “long” sound alike and the association could easily have misled his hand in a hurried letter.


Beauties of Caledonia and the Caledonian Companion

However, it is not because of illness, a faulty memory, or a confused hand that Stevenson worked from the wrong melody.

Probably in June of 1888 when he was in San Francisco preparing for his journey across the Pacific on the yacht Casco, he bought a music book called Beauties of Caledonia, first published in Boston by Oliver Ditson in 1845. Stevenson’s Library Database identifies it as part of his personal library and says that,

According to the Journal of the Robert Louis Stevenson Club (London), no.15, (Feb 1954), pp.9-10, this has the stamp of Gray’s Music Store, 623 & 625 Clay Street, San Francisco, and is one of the nine books previously in RLS’s library at Vailima that were returned to Samoa in celebration of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Beauties of Caledonia contains all but one of the tunes Stevenson said he knew and loved in his letter to his mother in 1874; Auld Lang Syne, My Boy Tammie, Jock  O’ Hazeldean, and Scots wha’ hae. Wandering Willie was listed in the table of contents both as Here awa’ there awa’ and under the title:

image 11  wandering willie

The note in small print reads,

The beautiful air of ‘Here awa’, there awa,’ is preserved in Oswald’s collection of Scots tunes. Burns, who was fond of the melody, wrote the following fine verse to it.

The collection referred to is James Oswald’s Caledonian Companion, and the tune appears as the first piece in volume eight.

image 12  here awa willie

One glance at the melody called Wandering Willie in Beauties of Caledonia shows they are different. The tune in Caledonian Companion is the same one referenced in every major source of Burns songs, but the one in Beauties of Caledonia does not appear in any source as Wandering Willie.

Below is a comparison between the melody Stevenson used, the melody from Beauties of Caledonia (BOC), and the tune Burns used from the Caledonian Companion (CC).

image 13 home no more

Stevenson’s rhythmically simplified melody is the same as that in Beauties of Caledonia. Burns’ tune from Caledonian Companion is completely different not only in rhythm but in melody.

As previously mentioned, the note under the title of Wandering Willie in Beauties of Caledonia reads, “The beautiful air of ‘Here awa’, there awa,’ is preserved in Oswald’s collection of Scots tunes. Burns, who was fond of the melody, wrote the following fine verse to it.” Although it is the inappropriate melody for Here awa’, there awa, it is in Oswald (CC), it is still a beautiful air, and in fact Burns was fond of it because he wrote lyrics to it called Bonie Dundee (first version, 1792), which appears in volume one of Scots Musical Museum:

image 14 bonie dundee

O whar did ye get that hauver-meal bannock?   [oatmeal cake]

O Silly blind body, O dinna ye see?

I gat it frae a brisk sodger laddie,

Between Saint Johnstone and Bonie Dundee.

O, gin I saw the laddie that gae me’t!

Aft has he doudl’d me on o’ his knee.

May Heaven protect my bonie Scots laddie,

And send him safe hame to his babie & me.

Because the lyrics hint at illegitimacy, the Boston music publisher Oliver Ditson may have found them offensive and so substituted the words of Here awa’ there awa, or he may have known the music from another version called The Cooper O’ Dundee in the Burns collection Merry Muses of Caledonia, shown below in a transcription by MacColl in Folk Songs and Ballads of Scotland (1965).  A few moments spent reading the lyrics will explain why Ditson would never have used them.

image 15 cooper o dundee

Why Ditson did not use the appropriate tune for Wandering Willie remains a mystery, but it must have been unthinkable in 1845 to include the scurrilous text from The Cooper o’ Dundee. Perhaps he felt that even though the lyrics were changed, the tune would remind people of the The Cooper o’ Dundee and he decided to disguise the melody too. He did this by changing the meter from 6/4 to 2/4, altering some pitches, and imposing characteristic Scotch rhythms.

image 16 bonnie dundee

The result was that in Beauties of Caledonia Ditson fitted Burns’ text from Wandering Willie to a highly altered version of the melody of Bonie Dundee. For mistakenly writing his poem from a memory of this corrupted music while recovering from a severe illness, Stevenson deserves understanding.


The Texts

Although written to a different melody, RLS’s poem is still related to Burns’.

image 17 rls burns

      [roof-tree=ridgepole, highest horizontal timber in a roof]

The similarities between the two lyrics include:

image 18  rls burns similarities.


The principle technical differences between the works are the rhythm and language. Burns’ poem is in Scots and a four beat triplet rhythm (dactylic tetrameter) that gives it a feeling of warmth and the effect of Nannie rocking Willie in her arms or of a boat swaying on the water.

Stevenson’s work is in an eight beat, duplet rhythm (trochaic octameter) and in English. The lines are twice as long as Burns’, many begin with monosyllables, and there are pauses at the middle and end of each, resulting in a hesitant, plodding feeling and an appropriate sense of wandering, weariness and desolation.

RLS never mentions Willie in his poem, but Burns repeats the name six times. Stevenson’s wanderer narrates while the loved ones are absent; Burns’ lover narrates and the wanderer is absent.

By their titles the two lyrics indicate some association with Sir Walter Scott’s poem Wandering Willie (1806) or  Wandering Willie’s Tale in Redgauntlet (1824). In the story the blind fiddler Wandering Willie recounts the inability of tenant Steenie Steenson to prove that he has paid his rent until he is given the receipt and is guided to the money by the ghost of his former landlord Sir Robert Redgauntlet. Stevenson knew Redgauntlet, and though not a ghost story, his poem has its own eeriness and a theme of loss.

Scott’s poem is essentially a longer version of Burns’ with similar themes and description. A woman’s heroic lover goes to sea to do battle, but her natural doubts about his faithfulness are resolved when he returns.  The similarities of Scott’s and Burns’ poems emphasize the difference with Stevenson’s. His bleak, unnamed wanderer never leaves land, never performs any heroics, never unites with his loved ones, and is finally left hopelessly alone amongst the desolation of his house.

Both poets read themselves into their verse. Burns is Willie, and Bonie Dundee, Here awa’ there awa’ and The Cooper o’ Dundee are all about unfaithfulness, the particular Burns trait of “professsional Don Juan” that Stevenson objected to most in his essay.

Stevenson is the wanderer in his poem, although in real life illness and hunger for adventure drove him from home. The poem was written in “the most beautiful spot,” warm, luxuriant Tautira, yet he repeatedly longs for the hills, heather and moorland of Scotland. In Scott’s story Steenson is threatened with the loss of his home, while Stevenson is in fact homeless, ill and stranded in Tahiti, pitifully regretting the loss of his former friends. The prophetic last line defies any hope of a return,

But I go for ever and come again no more.


Though their poems were written to different music and different stories, Stevenson and Burns shared common ground in their conspicuous clothing, individualism, conversational ability and writing. They shared fellow feeling as amateur musicians, collectors of melody, and in their devotion to molding words to the music they loved.

Their lives were entangled in their texts, but while Burns was consistently the Wandering Willie, Stevenson not only changed his tune but altered his identity from that of an unfaithful, absent lover to a lonely, pining, remorseful adventurer.

Written by rdury

26/09/2014 at 2:39 pm

Stevenson’s The Hair Trunk published

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New Stevenson publication


The Hair Trunk or the Ideal Commonwealth: An Extravaganza, ed. Roger G. Swearingen (Kilkerran: humming earth/Zeticula, 2014). Available from Amazon, UK £35, USA $60.

The appearance of a previously-unpublished work by Stevenson is always an event, and this edition of The Hair Trunk edited by Roger Swearingen (and published by a small specialist publisher in Ayrshire), is no exception. This posting does not pretend to be be a review, but I can say that the book will  appeal to those interested in Stevenson’s life, ideas and works; in addition, all who appreciate his prose will find much to enjoy.

The edition is based on the 1879 fair-copy MS in the Huntington Library, which must be closely based on an earlier good copy MS made sometime after the first beginnings in April or early May 1877.

Since the text is unknown to most people, I will give a summary, followed by a series of quotations of passages that struck me as I read, and some sample pages. Finally (of interest for EdRLS editors) I will outline Swearingen’s editorial principles.



The story itself, of the slightly-absurd and satiric style not too far removed from The New Arabian Nights, is unfinished, so is perhaps not the main attraction, but I’ll try to summarize it. ‘[T]he Strange Adventure of the Hair Trunk’ (p. 13) starts with five students and a friend, Blackburn, disoriented just after their period at University has ended—their joking conversations in which they make fun of everything while planning to avoid the grip of conventional existence and perhaps remain young forever (ch. I-III).

They hit on the idea of setting up an ideal commonwealth on the Navigator Islands, i.e. Samoa (pp. 19–20) and before that to spend the summer and winter in an island off the West coast of Scotland, sailing and preparing for the greater project. We never get to either of these places, as the lack of money has first to be faced; Blackburn proposes that they appropriate a hoard of gold in a hair trunk (a horsehair-covered trunk) which he just happens to know about. Their right to appropriate it is argued by Blackburn as similar to that of colonizers, seeing that they have declared independence and are bound not by civic but by international law (ch. IV). They decide to break into the house with black ‘masques’. A scene with Blackburn in his rooms reveals more enigmatic details about him (ch. V).

The adventure to take possession of the treasure occupies the remaining 4 chapters of the unfinished Book II (ch. V consists of no more than the title). The six walk across a forested ridge in the west of Scotland and stop at at cottage inhabited by Blackburn’s old nurse (no further explanation supplied), and go to reconnoiter the grounds of nearby Tufto Castle (ch. II). Inside (ch. III), we find the formidable Mrs Lemesurier, her son Hugo , and Major Cunningham (‘family friend’ and constant inmate of the castle). Hugo wants to know the identity of the stranger who his mother entertained to lunch; she takes umbrage and orders him to leave the house. At the inn, Hugo meets Blackburn, recognises him as the stranger, stealthily follows him on his night-time sortie, is captured by the others in the grounds of the Castle and is forced to agree to stay where he is for several hours while the others make off with the treasure (ch. IV).

What was to happen next? The clues (which are scattered around without stressing their importance, so that everything seems to happen by a series of absurd chance events and coincidences) point to the solution that Michel Le Bris provides in his conclusion (La Malle en cuir, 2011): Blackburn is the illegitimate child of Mrs Lemesurier, half-brother of Hugo. Whether the group were intended to reach Samoa we do not know, but we may suppose that the Ideal Commonwealth did not prove a great success. In his May 1877 letter announcing the start of the story, Stevenson says ‘the trunk is the fun of it – everybody steals it’, which suggests that the conclusion was to be reached via a plot like that of The Wrong Box.


Passages that struck me as I read

Essayistic passages

Swearingen remarks that in reading The Hair Trunk we are constantly reminded of ‘characters and jokes and comic paradoxes in the essays and stories that Stevenson was writing and publishing at the same time’ (xvi), and cites passages with affinities to cited passages in The New Arabian Nights, and An Inland Voyage. As might be supposed, I was struck by the passages that reminded me of the essays. Each of the following, I thought, could easily come from one of Stevenson’s essays (here, as elsewhere, references are to pages of the volume not of the MS, and the editor’s intercalated MS page numbers have been removed; ellipses not in square brackets are Stevenson’s).

Here is the author’s comment on the dismay of students at having to enter ‘the Babel of Society’—something we also find in ‘An Apology for Idlers’ (1877) and its view of ‘the great handicap race for sixpenny pieces’. The thoughts in the second half of the quoted passage, on the sad departure from scenes of happy experiences, are related to those in section VII of ‘Fontainebleau: Village Communities of Painters’ (1884), where Stevenson has the more consoling idea of somehow leaving something behind: ‘those thrilling silences and whispers of the groves, surely in Fontainebleau they must be vocal of me and my companions?’.

To say farewell to the past, and go forth into the bleak world with no friend but the one below your own hat, and no object but the vain abstraction called Success—is something in the nature of a surgical operation even for the pluckiest of men. And Cambridge, emptied of its jolly companions, swept by a fitful wind and dabbled with Spring showers, struck cold and heavy on their hearts. This was the last bivouac before the battle. Tomorrow, they would be down in the heart of the enemy’s country, among bawling Q.C.’s and obscene financiers; tomorrow, youth with all its agreeable dallyings about the brink, would be forever at an end, and they must take up life with its solemn absurdities and run, with hunger at their heels, in the great race for a bald head and a bedeviled conscience. Nor was it merely a certain natural chill, before entering on the unpleasant Babel of Society; there was also a touch of something not unlike remorse among their feelings. For we cannot take away our own rich, vital and benificent personalities from any place we have long honoured with our presence, without unfeigned pity for what we leave behind us. How solitary will be our morning’s walk, with nothing moving in it all forenoon but birds and shadows! How will even the oldest inhabitant support the burthen of his existence, when he lacks our animating countenance? It seems really sad to snuff out the life and light from a whole unoffending countryside—to take away the many coloured lanthorn by which it saw itself, the brains by which it had an intelligent knowledge of its own existence, the centrepoint about which it turned, the admirable being for whom it sang, and shone, and decked itself in Spring Novelties at Easter! (15)

Blackburn meditates on the lack of convictions in the young men of today and their consequent exposure to dogmatic atheists like Herbert Spencer (though the poor and the Bohemian artist are immune). In ‘Lay Morals’ (1879) he will return to this lack of a morality and sketch out his own non-Bible based system.

[These young men] had been thoroughly unsettled, and nowise edified, by modern theories. From these, they had learned nothing positive but a taste for theorising. They had given up their old ideas without faithfully embracing any others; and now they hung in the wind, a cock-shot [= target] for enterprising dogmatists. Indeed the combination of Bohemianism with what are called modern ideas, produces quite a remarkable immunity from all convictions. The morality of current unbelief, suitable enough for highly respectable Professors, is promptly repudiated by the whole army of social freelances. Its virtues are not their virtues; and where they have need of indulgence, the atheistic rabbi meets them with uncompromising words and a countenance of iron. I can imagine almost any number of consecutive vestrymen falling in tears upon the neck of Mr Herbert Spencer; but I cannot for the life of me imagine a single landscape painter in the same graceful attitude. A Gospel which may be said to consist of equal parts of teak-wood and compound arithmetic, will never have much vogue among the slums and studios. Whether for good or ill, it will remain a dead letter for the outcast and the insubordinate. Its missionaries may succeed, for a time, in destroying other systems, but they will never be men enough to substitute their own. (39-40)

Blackburn analyses the methods of colonialism, a surprising anticipation here of comments that we find in Stevenson’s writings in the 1880s. Here, it is a justification for the group’s appropriation of the treasure (‘we shall treat the trousered proprietor in England exactly as we should treat the nude proprietor in Queensland’—with Stevenson unable to resist a play on the Latin law term ‘nude proprietor’ (titular owner of a property presently occupied by someone else).

As soon as [colonists] arrive … with their guns and hymn-books, their missionaries and their new diseases … they take possession of the land around them: and in the old civil law formula, ‘by force or fraud or on an insufficient grant’ … vi, clami vel precario … they steadily extrude the inoffensive aborigines. If these prove refractory, the settler shoulders his gun and passes round his rum bottle. And what with lead, and fire-water, and imported epidemics, civilisation advances with gigantic strides. Missionaries look on smiling. M.P.’s, vested in their integrity, compliment each other on our Colonial Empire. Christian manufacturers turn out the deadliest rum and the most imperfect hand-mirrors, literally by the ship load. ’Tis a vast conspiracy; theft and midnight murder are the ingredients of the bowl. (42)

Here are thoughts on Bohemianism (a subject considered for an essay c. 1876-78 and touched on at the end of ‘Lay Morals’), distinguishing the Bohemian from the ‘aesthetic soul’; the associated comments enter into the psychology of perception (especially aesthetic perception), an interest for several 1870s essays from ‘Roads’ (1873) onwards. The heterogeneous mixing (‘the destiny of humankind […] bitter beer’) is also typical of Stevenson’s essays, as are the cheeky presuppositions (‘the pratical advantages of robbery and murder’).

[A] truly aesthetic soul is not usually to be found in a Bohemian. The trick of looking upon things and apartments, as a whole, instead of seeing them in spots by the focus of a man’s natural eyes, is one only to be acquired after some trouble and by considerable exercise of the will. It is usually found in combination with some particular notions about the destiny of humankind, and a distaste for bitter beer. To a fellow who goes running about the world with a crop for all corn [=willing to eat everything], who likes green fields and slums at about an equal rate and can enjoy the society of that least and lowest of mankind, the billiard-marker, such a faculty is unnecessary and would end by being vastly disagreeable. Research in pleasures is not in his way, and research in furniture tenfold less. The man who can contentedly wear a fine coat along with a pair of ragged trousers, will not wince at a little discord between chairs and tables. Such people swallow the bad along with the good; they are more pleased than displeased; they can take out a great deal of pleasure in the contemplation of the mediæval wine cooler in one corner of the room, and quietly pass over the deformed chiffonier in the other. In short, they have no moral indignation in the æsthetic kingdom; and must count rather as private saints than as great apostles, in the goodly fellowship of those who adore the beautiful and the Apollo Belvedere. Nay, we may go farther, and say that theirs is, in a mild way, the same tolerant topsy-turvy habit of soul as enables the Sicilian bandit to enjoy the practical advantages of robbery and murder, side by side with the comforts of religion. (53-4)

We find several strong but compassionate women in Stevenson’s writings, notably Miss Gilchrist in St. Ives, and just such a caustic but kindly woman is  the subject of a section of ‘Talk and Talkers (A Sequel)’ (1882). Here is another (note the typical creation of new meaning in the use of ‘unanimously’):

She was what, in Scotland, we call daft; she had lived all her life as an aggressive eccentric of the old school, free-tongued, undaunted, a female grenadier; and yet her plump speech and warfaring deportment in society, were not inconsistent with genuine tenderness of soul. In all her flights, although you might stare, you never doubted but she was a lady and a woman. Such dames were not uncommon once in Scotland, but the race is swiftly and unanimously dying out. (78)


In ‘Talk and Talkers’ (1882), Stevenson celebrates ‘good talk’ and praises in particular the abilities of ‘Spring Heel’d Jack’ (his cousin Bob), ‘the insane lucidity of his conclusions, the humorous eloquence of his language’. An example of this entertainingly crazy talk is found in the Young Man’s rationale of the Suicide Club in The New Arabian Nights—and The Hair Trunk, which contains many dialogues between the young men, has numerous such examples. (Once again, ellipses not in square brackets are Stevenson’s.)

Here is Turton’s protest against civilization, followed in the text by his scheme for the division of society and the ‘Redistribution of the Sexes’:

Here’s a gigantic piece of machinery which has been at work for centuries. And what’s the outcome? Nobody allowed to do what he likes … young men languishing in clammy offices … the fine, manly instincts of the criminal classes thwarted at every corner … and the whole place crawling with policemen and indigent citizens! Civilisation is up a tree. Civilisation is a hopeless, wholesale, ungodly failure … a blague, an imposition, a joke and a damned bad joke! — You will doubtless point to the Pyramids of Egypt. Well … they are very good Pyramids. Steam is a capital invention. Printing, Gunpowder, Representative Government … I know all your catchwords. (30)

A rejection of ‘catchwords’ (empty formulas justifying conventional conduct) is found in several of Stevenson’s essays from Crabbed Age and Youth’ (1878) onwards. In the following example, the praise for ‘an artistic form of vice’ is again reminiscent of the Young Man’s rattling conversation:

     “Yes; my father had a craze for gold. […]”
“Well, there’s something fine about a pose of that sort,” said Turton. “It is an artistic form of vice. It’s gratifying an appetite, and I always sympathise with that … it’s so genuine. There’s a kind of grandeur about the merest bald-headed person eating pickles; it’s natural, it’s durable, it’s as old as the sea; it’s true; it’s a protest against Members of Parliament and Isosceles triangles. No man can stand up, before his maker, and pretend that he prefers the angles at the base of an Isosceles triangle to pickles! The lie would stick in his throat; he would become the despicablest humbug in the world: the very brute beasts, sir, would regard him with contempt. (58)


As in his essays, Stevenson’s prose here has some occasional epigrams:

We cannot get away from sickness, misunderstandings and death. (35)

[T]here is nothing so profoundly wounding as an excess of politeness. (46)

A city is one vast chorus of voices requesting you to spend a coin. (51)

Intelligent trust is one thing: credulous levity another. (55)


I also marked passages that simply gave me pleasure to read. One of these is the description of the ‘great city’ from the beginning of Book I ch. V in the ‘Sample pages’ below. Another that I marked, not for the pleasure of the prose, but for the surprise, is the ending of Book I, where Turton looks over the shoulders of Blackburn at the reader: ‘And over the shoulders of the unconscious Prophet, he makes a knowing grimace to the reader of these pages’. Here are a few others:

Sloops and uninhabited islands, Ideal Commonwealths and cheap tobacco, the rhythm of the Ocean below the moving deck, the smell of salt sea air, the swift and final disappearance out of their lives of all hard work and social discommodity, the realisation of all that a young Bohemian ever dreamed in his most ruddy hours […] (34)

[O]verzealous disciples are perhaps the most mortifying accident in life to discreet Prophets with a taste for making a distinction. Poor Luther, poor Calvin, ground, all their lives long, under such calamities. The latter, indeed, was reluctantly compelled to burn some of his fellow creatures in the interests of moderation. (55-6)

The great vault of heaven and all the tumbled hills were strange and inspiring to behold. The blood raced gladly in the young men’s veins; the road rang below their consonant feet and a solemn exhilaration grew up within them as they thus met the peep of day upon the hilltops. (62)

‘[W]hiskey [sic] […] occupies over other liquids a somewhat similar preeminence of purity to that of mountain atmosphere over all other and meaner sorts of air’ (64)


Sample pages



HT_ch5.2_001 HT_ch5.2_002



Editorial principles and practices

The following will be of interest to other EdRLS editors. We may not always follow exactly the same practices, but it is always interesting to see how someone else does it.

1. Stevenson’s changes are assimilated without comment, but any interesting earlier wordings are listed in the ‘Textual Notes’ (i.e. changes ‘of intention or desired effect’ or changes that ‘shed light on Stevenson’s intentions or his actual or potential satiric targets’)

2. Corrections are silently made of spelling, hyphenation and capitalization errors. Such correction removes unintended distractions and would have been made if the text had been set in type for publication. (It is not clear if acceptable spelling variants have been standardized, but possibly that has been the policy too.)

3. Unchanged are idiosyncratic capitalization of words not usually capitalized (Bargee, Summer, Spring, Island), as Stevenson possibly ‘wishes to emphasize or give an abstract categorical status to the words by so doing’.

3. Stevenson’s punctuation has not been changed or standardized; to do so ‘might make the text somewhat easier to read, but only at the cost of other effects that Stevenson may have been anxious to retain’.

4. The MS page numbers have been added to the text in square brackets at the point corresponding to the end of the page (see the sample pages of Chapter V above) and these numbers are the only reference used for Explanatory and Textual Notes (Swearingen’s rationale: ‘Doing so keeps alive the idea that this edition presents the text of a manuscript […] not a work that he saw through to publication’).

5. Explanatory Notes: these are illustrated; as much of the humour depends on knowledge no longer shared, little-known novels and stories have been summarized, little-known songs, hymns and verses have been quoted, philosophic and scientific references have been explained. To give an idea of ‘how facts and personalities were regarded at the time’, the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1911) has sometimes been quoted.

6. References: (i) Beinecke references are in the form ‘Yale GEN MSS 664, Box 33, Folder 34, Beinecke 6587’; (ii) Letter references are to the letter number, not to the volume and page; (iii) OED references are to ‘online edition accessed [month, year]’ with this annotation made once only in the list of Reference abbreviations at the front of the volume.


Written by rdury

08/09/2014 at 4:22 pm

Posted in News