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

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Mysterious story titles

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RLS plans something—but what?

The Beinecke Library at Yale has a single sheet with what looks like a series of titles or subjects:

Yale, B 6530: 'List of subjects'

Yale, B 6530: ‘List of subjects’























…..Excellent old melodrama: the bottle Imp.
…..…..…..Aladdin, Pollock [?]

Mistaken identity.
…..on a cue from a French author: the Twins
…..…..Humorous [?]: les trois Bossus.
…..Metempsychosis: from Magics [?]. The Body Changer.
…..…..Scientific, from an Axxxx [?American; Armenian?] xxxx [pastor?] Hoyten [Hayton?]: The Sand Bag [Bug?].

Return of the Husband:
…..…..…..Ulysses. (concealed [?] ^disguised^ Prince)
…..…..…..Colonel Chabert
…..…..…..Enoch Arden

[in ink and in another hand, sloping, below: calculations of interest and: Aranxx | imaginaire]


 Story-types and examples

Stevenson has organized the list as a series of universal story-types (Revenge, return of the Husband etc.), each followed by one or more titles as examples (Ulysses, Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, and Tennyson’s Enoch Arden are all examples of the Return of the Husband).

Is this a preparation for a study of narratives? ‘on a cue from’ suggests that this is a list of stories to be adapted from other sources, and also reminds us of Stevenson’s own proposed titles ‘ The Bottle Imp: A Cue from an Old Melodrama’ and ‘The Waif Woman: A Cue from a Saga’ (L7, 436; Dec 1892, to Colvin), and of course Stevenson actually wrote ‘The Bottle Imp’ and ‘Rahero’, a long-ish narrative poem published in Ballads (1890). On this evidence, the document would then seem to be a list of possible narratives to write (in verse or prose), subdivided into story types.


the bottle Imp: Stevenson read the story among the play collection of his neighbour Sir Percy Shelley, some time after spring 1885, and wrote his story with this title in 1889-90.

Aladdin, Pollock: ‘talisman’, ‘magical object’, fits the stories of  the Bottle Imp and Aladdin and the lamp. Pollock, publisher of the toy theatre sets described in “A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured”, would seem more appropriate in notes for an essay or study of story types.

the Twins: this could possible be the story of Louis XIV and his twin (the Man in the Iron Mask) told by Dumas in in Le Vicomte de Bragelonne.

les trois Bossus: a humorous medieval French tale ‘Les trois bossus ménestrels’: a wife gets rid of her husband, killed by mistake as a result of his own actions prompted by jealousy.

Magics [?]: possibly the name of the author, something like ‘Murger’.

The Body Changer: untraced reference.

Hoyton/Hayton: The Sand Bug/Bag: untraced reference.

Rahero: Hawaiian folk-tale that Stevenson took as the basis of a ballad in 1889.

Ulysses / Colonel Chabert / Enoch Arden: stories of a husband’s return by Homer, Balzac and Tennyson. These titles seem more like examples of the story-type that ideas for stories to write (Stevenson cannot surely have been thinking of retelling the story of the return of Ulysses in verse or prose).


The best clue to dating is ‘Rahero’, which seems added later in lighter pencil. This story was learnt by Stevenson  from Princess Moë and others some time after Nov 1888 in Tautira, Tahiti (Lewis, 465-66). The mention of ‘the bottle Imp’ fits into this dating, since Fanny Stevenson reports that ‘he spoke of it several times when we were living in Honolulu, as being, in its ingenuity and imaginative qualities, singularly like the Hawaiian tales’ (Tus 13, 12), in other words in the period in Hawaii immediately after the stay in Tahiti.


A list of ideas for a book of Ballads? (but including The Bottle Imp?)

A list of ideas for a book of prose tales? (but including Rahero?) The interesting ‘on a cue from a French author: the Twins’ suggests a planned companion piece for ‘The Bottle Imp’ and ‘The Waif Woman’ in a collection of retold and adapted stories.

An attempt to list some universal story types also found in the South Seas? (but with Rahero the only South Seas title?)

Ideas for an essay on story types? (but after the period when he had virtually abandoned essay-writing?)

Any suggestions will be welcome, as will any help with the untraced names and titles.


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

‘The Isle of Voices’ Manuscript

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The Rosenbach ‘Isle of Voices’ MS: Some Notes & Queries

by Bill Gray

The MS of ‘The Isle of Voices’ from the Rosenbach Museum, Philadelphia, has provided some interesting new readings and puzzles. Several of these are in deleted words or passages, so will only appear in the Notes to the EdRLS volume (Short Stories 4 – or Fables and Fairy Tales). These range from the amusing:

‘I can see cocoanuts’ (prompting Richard Dury to reply ‘I can see cocoanuts too!’), to the more challenging:

Being a landlubber I was quite pleased with myself for deciphering:

islands; and by a very good chance for Keola she had lost a man off the bowsprit
[when he was handing the flying jib] in a squall…

Not only flying jib but also the verb to hand are technical nautical terms.

Another nautical term still puzzles me however; when the mate shouts:

it’s not clear whether the correct term is romping (as in all previous editions) or ramping. The latter appears to be a nautical term, and seems to fit Stevenson’s handwriting, which is notoriously tricky. But I’m a landlubber. Any suggestions?

A couple of changes to the actual text of ‘The Isle of Voices’ in the EdRLS edition are, I think, more definitely required. Firstly, the reference to the wizard’s hunting ground looks more likely to be the wizard’s haunting ground:

–there seem too many ‘peaks’ for hunting, and haunting makes at least as much sense.

‘Peak counting’, as well as arguably better sense, suggest that in the following passage:

and hold his secret.”  With that he spoke to his wife Lehua,
and complained of her father’s ???.

Keola actually complains to his wife Lehua about her father’s meanness rather than his manners as it’s usually transcribed. Kalamake (with all his silver dollars) has after all just refused to give Keola the concertina he so desires.

A more fundamental change seems required in the sequence where Lehua unexpectedly turns up on the Isle of Voices to save Keola. As she fans the fire required to operate the magic mat, there is a question of which part of Keola’s anatomy gets scorched. Custom has it that it’s his hands, but a closer look at:

and the flame burned high, and scorched Keola’s ???

suggests that it’s actually his hams that are getting burned. RLS refers to Thorgunna ‘squatting on her hams’ at the end of ‘The Waif Woman’, which was written as a ‘companion piece’ to ‘The Isle of Voices’.  And anatomically it seems to make more sense.

Finally, in the following:

were wise; they wrought marvels, and this among the rest; but that was at
night, in the dark, under the ??? stars and in the desert.  The same will
I do here in my own house and under the plain eye of day.”

is it the fit stars (the usual transcription, though the meaning seems obscure), the fix stars or the first stars (my suggestion)?

Bottle Imp – Stevenson number

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The Bottle Imp, the well-designed “Scottish Studies ezine” published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, is planning a Stevenson number for November 2012.

Provisional contents:

Scott Hames: views of Stevenson’s style, past and present

Julia Reid: “borders” in the essays

Barry Menikoff: on the South Sea tales

Penny Fielding: the new EUP Edition

Alisdair Braidwood: later writers influenced by Stevenson

David Wingrove: on “Olalla”

Richard Dury: shifting viewpoint in the essays

Written by rdury

19/05/2012 at 5:44 am