Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 12

Here we are at the final seance. For the last time, my patient comrade, I ask you to make yourself comfortable upon the old green settee, to look up at the oaken shelves, and to bear with me as best you may while I preach about their contents. The last time! And yet, as I look along the lines of the volumes, I have not mentioned one out of ten of those to which I owe a debt of gratitude, nor one in a hundred of the thoughts which course through my brain as I look at them. As well perhaps, for the man who has said all that he has to say has invariably said too much.

Let me be didactic for a moment! I assume this solemn--oh, call it not pedantic!--attitude because my eye catches the small but select corner which constitutes my library of Science. I wanted to say that if I were advising a young man who was beginning life, I should counsel him to devote one evening a week to scientific reading. Had he the perseverance to adhere to his resolution, and if he began it at twenty, he would certainly find himself with an unusually well-furnished mind at thirty, which would stand him in right good stead in whatever line of life he might walk. When I advise him to read science, I do not mean that he should choke himself with the dust of the pedants, and lose himself in the subdivisions of the Lepidoptera, or the classifications of the dicotyledonous plants. These dreary details are the prickly bushes in that enchanted garden, and you are foolish indeed if you begin your walks by butting your head into one. Keep very clear of them until you have explored the open beds and wandered down every easy path. For this reason avoid the text-books, which repel, and cultivate that popular science which attracts. You cannot hope to be a specialist upon all these varied subjects. Better far to have a broad idea of general results, and to understand their relations to each other. A very little reading will give a man such a knowledge of geology, for example, as will make every quarry and railway cutting an object of interest. A very little zoology will enable you to satisfy your curiosity as to what is the proper name and style of this buff-ermine moth which at the present instant is buzzing round the lamp. A very little botany will enable you to recognize every flower you are likely to meet in your walks abroad, and to give you a tiny thrill of interest when you chance upon one which is beyond your ken. A very little archaeology will tell you all about yonder British tumulus, or help you to fill in the outline of the broken Roman camp upon the downs. A very little astronomy will cause you to look more intently at the heavens, to pick out your brothers the planets, who move in your own circles, from the stranger stars, and to appreciate the order, beauty, and majesty of that material universe which is most surely the outward sign of the spiritual force behind it. How a man of science can be a materialist is as amazing to me as how a sectarian can limit the possibilities of the Creator. Show me a picture without an artist, show me a bust without a sculptor, show me music without a musician, and then you may begin to talk to me of a universe without a Universe-maker, call Him by what name you will.

Here is Flammarion's "L'Atmosphere"--a very gorgeous though weather-stained copy in faded scarlet and gold. The book has a small history, and I value it. A young Frenchman, dying of fever on the west coast of Africa, gave it to me as a professional fee. The sight of it takes me back to a little ship's bunk, and a sallow face with large, sad eyes looking out at me. Poor boy, I fear that he never saw his beloved Marseilles again!

Talking of popular science, I know no better books for exciting a man's first interest, and giving a broad general view of the subject, than these of Samuel Laing. Who would have imagined that the wise savant and gentle dreamer of these volumes was also the energetic secretary of a railway company? Many men of the highest scientific eminence have begun in prosaic lines of life. Herbert Spencer was a railway engineer. Wallace was a land surveyor. But that a man with so pronounced a scientific brain as Laing should continue all his life to devote his time to dull routine work, remaining in harness until extreme old age, with his soul still open to every fresh idea and his brain acquiring new concretions of knowledge, is indeed a remarkable fact. Read those books, and you will be a fuller man.

It is an excellent device to talk about what you have recently read. Rather hard upon your audience, you may say; but without wishing to be personal, I dare bet it is more interesting than your usual small talk. It must, of course, be done with some tact and discretion. It is the mention of Laing's works which awoke the train of thought which led to these remarks. I had met some one at a table d'hote or elsewhere who made some remark about the prehistoric remains in the valley of the Somme. I knew all about those, and showed him that I did. I then threw out some allusion to the rock temples of Yucatan, which he instantly picked up and enlarged upon. He spoke of ancient Peruvian civilization, and I kept well abreast of him. I cited the Titicaca image, and he knew all about that. He spoke of Quaternary man, and I was with him all the time. Each was more and more amazed at the fulness and the accuracy of the information of the other, until like a flash the explanation crossed my mind. "You are reading Samuel Laing's 'Human Origins'!" I cried. So he was, and so by a coincidence was I. We were pouring water over each other, but it was all new-drawn from the spring.

There is a big two-volumed book at the end of my science shelf which would, even now, have its right to be called scientific disputed by some of the pedants. It is Myers' "Human Personality." My own opinion, for what it is worth, is that it will be recognized a century hence as a great root book, one from which a whole new branch of science will have sprung. Where between four covers will you find greater evidence of patience, of industry, of thought, of discrimination, of that sweep of mind which can gather up a thousand separate facts and bind them all in the meshes of a single consistent system? Darwin has not been a more ardent collector in zoology than Myers in the dim regions of psychic research, and his whole hypothesis, so new that a new nomenclature and terminology had to be invented to express it, telepathy, the subliminal, and the rest of it, will always be a monument of acute reasoning, expressed in fine prose and founded upon ascertained fact.

The mere suspicion of scientific thought or scientific methods has a great charm in any branch of literature, however far it may be removed from actual research. Poe's tales, for example, owe much to this effect, though in his case it was a pure illusion. Jules Verne also produces a charmingly credible effect for the most incredible things by an adept use of a considerable amount of real knowledge of nature. But most gracefully of all does it shine in the lighter form of essay, where playful thoughts draw their analogies and illustrations from actual fact, each showing up the other, and the combination presenting a peculiar piquancy to the reader.

Where could I get better illustration of what I mean than in those three little volumes which make up Wendell Holmes' immortal series, "The Autocrat," "The Poet," and "The Professor at the Breakfast Table"? Here the subtle, dainty, delicate thought is continually reinforced by the allusion or the analogy which shows the wide, accurate knowledge behind it. What work it is! how wise, how witty, how large-hearted and tolerant! Could one choose one's philosopher in the Elysian fields, as once in Athens, I would surely join the smiling group who listened to the human, kindly words of the Sage of Boston. I suppose it is just that continual leaven of science, especially of medical science, which has from my early student days given those books so strong an attraction for me. Never have I so known and loved a man whom I had never seen. It was one of the ambitions of my lifetime to look upon his face, but by the irony of Fate I arrived in his native city just in time to lay a wreath upon his newly-turned grave. Read his books again, and see if you are not especially struck by the up-to-dateness of them. Like Tennyson's "In Memoriam," it seems to me to be work which sprang into full flower fifty years before its time. One can hardly open a page haphazard without lighting upon some passage which illustrates the breadth of view, the felicity of phrase, and the singular power of playful but most suggestive analogy. Here, for example, is a paragraph--no better than a dozen others--which combines all the rare qualities:--

  "Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked.
  Good mental machinery ought to break its own wheels and
  levers, if anything is thrust upon them suddenly which tends
  to stop them or reverse their motion. A weak mind does not
  accumulate force enough to hurt itself; stupidity often saves
  a man from going mad. We frequently see persons in insane
  hospitals, sent there in consequence of what are called
  religious mental disturbances. I confess that I think better
  of them than of many who hold the same notions, and keep
  their wits and enjoy life very well, outside of the asylums.
  Any decent person ought to go mad if he really holds such
  and such opinions.... Anything that is brutal, cruel,
  heathenish, that makes life hopeless for the most of mankind,
  and perhaps for entire races--anything that assumes the
  necessity for the extermination of instincts which were
  given to be regulated--no matter by what name you call
  it--no matter whether a fakir, or a monk, or a deacon
  believes it--if received, ought to produce insanity in
  every well-regulated mind."
There's a fine bit of breezy polemics for the dreary fifties--a fine bit of moral courage too for the University professor who ventured to say it.

I put him above Lamb as an essayist, because there is a flavour of actual knowledge and of practical acquaintance with the problems and affairs of life, which is lacking in the elfin Londoner. I do not say that the latter is not the rarer quality. There are my "Essays of Elia," and they are well-thumbed as you see, so it is not because I love Lamb less that I love this other more. Both are exquisite, but Wendell Holmes is for ever touching some note which awakens an answering vibration within my own mind.

The essay must always be a somewhat repellent form of literature, unless it be handled with the lightest and deftest touch. It is too reminiscent of the school themes of our boyhood--to put a heading and then to show what you can get under it. Even Stevenson, for whom I have the most profound admiration, finds it difficult to carry the reader through a series of such papers, adorned with his original thought and quaint turn of phrase. Yet his "Men and Books" and "Virginibus Puerisque" are high examples of what may be done in spite of the inherent unavoidable difficulty of the task.

But his style! Ah, if Stevenson had only realized how beautiful and nervous was his own natural God-given style, he would never have been at pains to acquire another! It is sad to read the much-lauded anecdote of his imitating this author and that, picking up and dropping, in search of the best. The best is always the most natural. When Stevenson becomes a conscious stylist, applauded by so many critics, he seems to me like a man who, having most natural curls, will still conceal them under a wig. The moment he is precious he loses his grip. But when he will abide by his own sterling Lowland Saxon, with the direct word and the short, cutting sentence, I know not where in recent years we may find his mate. In this strong, plain setting the occasional happy word shines like a cut jewel. A really good stylist is like Beau Brummell's description of a well-dressed man--so dressed that no one would ever observe him. The moment you begin to remark a man's style the odds are that there is something the matter with it. It is a clouding of the crystal--a diversion of the reader's mind from the matter to the manner, from the author's subject to the author himself.

No, I have not the Edinburgh edition. If you think of a presentation--but I should be the last to suggest it. Perhaps on the whole I would prefer to have him in scattered books, rather than in a complete set. The half is more than the whole of most authors, and not the least of him. I am sure that his friends who reverenced his memory had good warrant and express instructions to publish this complete edition--very possibly it was arranged before his lamented end. Yet, speaking generally, I would say that an author was best served by being very carefully pruned before being exposed to the winds of time. Let every weak twig, every immature shoot be shorn away, and nothing but strong, sturdy, well-seasoned branches left. So shall the whole tree stand strong for years to come. How false an impression of the true Stevenson would our critical grandchild acquire if he chanced to pick down any one of half a dozen of these volumes! As we watched his hand stray down the rank, how we would pray that it might alight upon the ones we love, on the "New Arabian Nights" "The Ebb-tide," "The Wrecker," "Kidnapped," or "Treasure Island." These can surely never lose their charm.

What noble books of their class are those last, "Kidnapped" and "Treasure Island"! both, as you see, shining forth upon my lower shelf. "Treasure Island" is the better story, while I could imagine that "Kidnapped" might have the more permanent value as being an excellent and graphic sketch of the state of the Highlands after the last Jacobite insurrection. Each contains one novel and admirable character, Alan Breck in the one, and Long John in the other. Surely John Silver, with his face the size of a ham, and his little gleaming eyes like crumbs of glass in the centre of it, is the king of all seafaring desperadoes. Observe how the strong effect is produced in his case: seldom by direct assertion on the part of the story-teller, but usually by comparison, innuendo, or indirect reference. The objectionable Billy Bones is haunted by the dread of "a seafaring man with one leg." Captain Flint, we are told, was a brave man; "he was afraid of none, not he, only Silver--Silver was that genteel." Or, again, where John himself says, "there was some that was feared of Pew, and some that was feared of Flint; but Flint his own self was feared of me. Feared he was, and proud. They was the roughest crew afloat was Flint's. The devil himself would have been feared to go to sea with them. Well, now, I will tell you. I'm not a boasting man, and you seen yourself how easy I keep company; but when I was quartermaster, lambs wasn't the word for Flint's old buccaneers." So, by a touch here and a hint there, there grows upon us the individuality of the smooth-tongued, ruthless, masterful, one-legged devil. He is to us not a creation of fiction, but an organic living reality with whom we have come in contact; such is the effect of the fine suggestive strokes with which he is drawn. And the buccaneers themselves, how simple and yet how effective are the little touches which indicate their ways of thinking and of acting. "I want to go in that cabin, I do; I want their pickles and wine and that." "Now, if you had sailed along o' Bill you wouldn't have stood there to be spoke twice--not you. That was never Bill's way, not the way of sich as sailed with him." Scott's buccaneers in "The Pirate" are admirable, but they lack something human which we find here. It will be long before John Silver loses his place in sea fiction, "and you may lay to that."

Stevenson was deeply influenced by Meredith, and even in these books the influence of the master is apparent. There is the apt use of an occasional archaic or unusual word, the short, strong descriptions, the striking metaphors, the somewhat staccato fashion of speech. Yet, in spite of this flavour, they have quite individuality enough to constitute a school of their own. Their faults, or rather perhaps their limitations, lie never in the execution, but entirely in the original conception. They picture only one side of life, and that a strange and exceptional one. There is no female interest. We feel that it is an apotheosis of the boy-story--the penny number of our youth in excelsis. But it is all so good, so fresh, so picturesque, that, however limited its scope, it still retains a definite and well-assured place in literature. There is no reason why "Treasure Island" should not be to the rising generation of the twenty-first century what "Robinson Crusoe" has been to that of the nineteenth. The balance of probability is all in that direction.

The modern masculine novel, dealing almost exclusively with the rougher, more stirring side of life, with the objective rather than the subjective, marks the reaction against the abuse of love in fiction. This one phase of life in its orthodox aspect, and ending in the conventional marriage, has been so hackneyed and worn to a shadow, that it is not to be wondered at that there is a tendency sometimes to swing to the other extreme, and to give it less than its fair share in the affairs of men. In British fiction nine books out of ten have held up love and marriage as the be-all and end-all of life. Yet we know, in actual practice, that this may not be so. In the career of the average man his marriage is an incident, and a momentous incident; but it is only one of several. He is swayed by many strong emotions--his business, his ambitions, his friendships, his struggles with the recurrent dangers and difficulties which tax a man's wisdom and his courage. Love will often play a subordinate part in his life. How many go through the world without ever loving at all? It jars upon us then to have it continually held up as the predominating, all-important fact in life; and there is a not unnatural tendency among a certain school, of which Stevenson is certainly the leader, to avoid altogether a source of interest which has been so misused and overdone. If all love-making were like that between Richard Feverel and Lucy Desborough, then indeed we could not have too much of it; but to be made attractive once more, the passion must be handled by some great master who has courage to break down conventionalities and to go straight to actual life for his inspiration.

The use of novel and piquant forms of speech is one of the most obvious of Stevenson's devices. No man handles his adjectives with greater judgment and nicer discrimination. There is hardly a page of his work where we do not come across words and expressions which strike us with a pleasant sense of novelty, and yet express the meaning with admirable conciseness. "His eyes came coasting round to me." It is dangerous to begin quoting, as the examples are interminable, and each suggests another. Now and then he misses his mark, but it is very seldom. As an example, an "eye-shot" does not commend itself as a substitute for "a glance," and "to tee-hee" for "to giggle" grates somewhat upon the ear, though the authority of Chaucer might be cited for the expressions.

Next in order is his extraordinary faculty for the use of pithy similes, which arrest the attention and stimulate the imagination. "His voice sounded hoarse and awkward, like a rusty lock." "I saw her sway, like something stricken by the wind." "His laugh rang false, like a cracked bell." "His voice shook like a taut rope." "My mind flying like a weaver's shuttle." "His blows resounded on the grave as thick as sobs." "The private guilty considerations I would continually observe to peep forth in the man's talk like rabbits from a hill." Nothing could be more effective than these direct and homely comparisons.

After all, however, the main characteristic of Stevenson is his curious instinct for saying in the briefest space just those few words which stamp the impression upon the reader's mind. He will make you see a thing more clearly than you would probably have done had your eyes actually rested upon it. Here are a few of these word-pictures, taken haphazard from among hundreds of equal merit--

  "Not far off Macconochie was standing with his tongue out of
  his mouth, and his hand upon his chin, like a dull fellow
  thinking hard.

"Stewart ran after us for more than a mile, and I could not help laughing as I looked back at last and saw him on a hill, holding his hand to his side, and nearly burst with running.

"Ballantrae turned to me with a face all wrinkled up, and his teeth all showing in his mouth.... He said no word, but his whole appearance was a kind of dreadful question.

"Look at him, if you doubt; look at him, grinning and gulping, a detected thief.

"He looked me all over with a warlike eye, and I could see the challenge on his lips."

What could be more vivid than the effect produced by such sentences as these?

There is much more that might be said as to Stevenson's peculiar and original methods in fiction. As a minor point, it might be remarked that he is the inventor of what may be called the mutilated villain. It is true that Mr. Wilkie Collins has described one gentleman who had not only been deprived of all his limbs, but was further afflicted by the insupportable name of Miserrimus Dexter. Stevenson, however, has used the effect so often, and with such telling results, that he may be said to have made it his own. To say nothing of Hyde, who was the very impersonation of deformity, there is the horrid blind Pew, Black Dog with two fingers missing, Long John with his one leg, and the sinister catechist who is blind but shoots by ear, and smites about him with his staff. In "The Black Arrow," too, there is another dreadful creature who comes tapping along with a stick. Often as he has used the device, he handles it so artistically that it never fails to produce its effect.

Is Stevenson a classic? Well, it is a large word that. You mean by a classic a piece of work which passes into the permanent literature of the country. As a rule, you only know your classics when they are in their graves. Who guessed it of Poe, and who of Borrow? The Roman Catholics only canonize their saints a century after their death. So with our classics. The choice lies with our grandchildren. But I can hardly think that healthy boys will ever let Stevenson's books of adventure die, nor do I think that such a short tale as "The Pavilion on the Links" nor so magnificent a parable as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" will ever cease to be esteemed. How well I remember the eagerness, the delight with which I read those early tales in "Cornhill" away back in the late seventies and early eighties. They were unsigned, after the old unfair fashion, but no man with any sense of prose could fail to know that they were all by the same author. Only years afterwards did I learn who that author was.

I have Stevenson's collected poems over yonder in the small cabinet. Would that he had given us more! Most of them are the merest playful sallies of a freakish mind. But one should, indeed, be a classic, for it is in my judgment by all odds the best narrative ballad of the last century--that is if I am right in supposing that "The Ancient Mariner" appeared at the very end of the eighteenth. I would put Coleridge's tour de force of grim fancy first, but I know none other to compare in glamour and phrase and easy power with "Ticonderoga." Then there is his immortal epitaph. The two pieces alone give him a niche of his own in our poetical literature, just as his character gives him a niche of his own in our affections. No, I never met him. But among my most prized possessions are several letters which I received from Samoa. From that distant tower he kept a surprisingly close watch upon what was doing among the bookmen, and it was his hand which was among the first held out to the striver, for he had quick appreciation and keen sympathies which met another man's work half-way, and wove into it a beauty from his own mind.

And now, my very patient friend, the time has come for us to part, and I hope my little sermons have not bored you over-much. If I have put you on the track of anything which you did not know before, then verify it and pass it on. If I have not, there is no harm done, save that my breath and your time have been wasted. There may be a score of mistakes in what I have said--is it not the privilege of the conversationalist to misquote? My judgments may differ very far from yours, and my likings may be your abhorrence; but the mere thinking and talking of books is in itself good, be the upshot what it may. For the time the magic door is still shut. You are still in the land of faerie. But, alas, though you shut that door, you cannot seal it. Still come the ring of bell, the call of telephone, the summons back to the sordid world of work and men and daily strife. Well, that's the real life after all--this only the imitation. And yet, now that the portal is wide open and we stride out together, do we not face our fate with a braver heart for all the rest and quiet and comradeship that we found behind the Magic Door?

Arthur Conan Doyle

Sorry, no summary available yet.