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Aes Triplex

AES TRIPLEX[1]

The changes wrought by death are in themselves so sharp and final, and
so terrible and melancholy in their consequences, that the thing
stands alone in man's experience, and has no parallel upon earth. It
outdoes all other accidents because it is the last of them. Sometimes
it leaps suddenly upon its victims, like a Thug;[2] sometimes it lays
a regular siege and creeps upon their citadel during a score of years.
And when the business is done, there is sore havoc made in other
people's lives, and a pin knocked out by which many subsidiary
friendships hung together. There are empty chairs, solitary walks, and
single beds at night. Again in taking away our friends, death does not
take them away utterly, but leaves behind a mocking, tragical, and
soon intolerable residue, which must be hurriedly concealed. Hence a
whole chapter of sights and customs striking to the mind, from the
pyramids of Egypt to the gibbets and dule trees[3] of mediaeval
Europe. The poorest persons have a bit of pageant going towards the
tomb; memorial stones are set up over the least memorable; and, in
order to preserve some show of respect for what remains of our old
loves and friendships, we must accompany it with much grimly ludicrous
ceremonial, and the hired undertaker parades before the door. All
this, and much more of the same sort, accompanied by the eloquence of
poets, has gone a great way to put humanity in error; nay, in many
philosophies the error has been embodied and laid down with every
circumstance of logic; although in real life the bustle and swiftness,
in leaving people little time to think, have not left them time enough
to go dangerously wrong in practice.

As a matter of fact, although few things are spoken of with more
fearful whisperings than this prospect of death, few have less
influence on conduct under healthy circumstances. We have all heard of
cities in South America built upon the side of fiery mountains, and
how, even in this tremendous neighbourhood, the inhabitants are not a
jot more impressed by the solemnity of mortal conditions than if they
were delving gardens in the greenest corner of England. There are
serenades and suppers and much gallantry among the myrtles overhead;
and meanwhile the foundation shudders underfoot, the bowels of the
mountain growl, and at any moment living ruin may leap sky-high into
the moonlight, and tumble man and his merry-making in the dust. In the
eyes of very young people, and very dull old ones, there is something
indescribably reckless and desperate in such a picture. It seems not
credible that respectable married people, with umbrellas, should find
appetite for a bit of supper within quite a long distance of a fiery
mountain; ordinary life begins to smell of high-handed debauch when it
is carried on so close to a catastrophe; and even cheese and salad, it
seems, could hardly be relished in such circumstances without
something like a defiance of the Creator. It should be a place for
nobody but hermits dwelling in prayer and maceration, or mere
born-devils drowning care in a perpetual carouse.

And yet, when one comes to think upon it calmly, the situation of
these South American citizens forms only a very pale figure for the
state of ordinary mankind. This world itself, travelling blindly and
swiftly in overcrowded space, among a million other worlds travelling
blindly and swiftly in contrary directions, may very well come by a
knock that would set it into explosion like a penny squib. And what,
pathologically looked at, is the human body with all its organs, but a
mere bagful of petards? The least of these is as dangerous to the
whole economy as the ship's powder-magazine to the ship; and with
every breath we breathe, and every meal we eat, we are putting one or
more of them in peril. If we clung as devotedly as some philosophers
pretend we do to the abstract idea of life, or were half as frightened
as they make out we are, for the subversive accident that ends it all,
the trumpets might sound[4] by the hour and no one would follow them
into battle--the blue-peter might fly at the truck,[5] but who would
climb into a sea-going ship? Think (if these philosophers were right)
with what a preparation of spirit we should affront the daily peril of
the dinner-table: a deadlier spot than any battlefield in history,
where the far greater proportion of our ancestors have miserably left
their bones! What woman would ever be lured into marriage, so much
more dangerous than the wildest sea? And what would it be to grow old?
For, after a certain distance, every step we take in life we find the
ice growing thinner below our feet, and all around us and behind us we
see our contemporaries going through. By the time a man gets well into
the seventies, his continued existence is a mere miracle; and when he
lays his old bones in bed for the night, there is an overwhelming
probability that he will never see the day. Do the old men mind it, as
a matter of fact? Why, no. They were never merrier; they have their
grog at night, and tell the raciest stories; they hear of the death of
people about their own age, or even younger, not as if it was a grisly
warning, but with a simple childlike pleasure at having outlived
someone else; and when a draught might puff them out like a fluttering
candle, or a bit of a stumble shatter them like so much glass, their
old hearts keep sound and unaffrighted, and they go on, bubbling with
laughter, through years of man's age compared to which the valley at
Balaclava[6] was as safe and peaceful as a village cricket-green on
Sunday. It may fairly be questioned (if we look to the peril only)
whether it was a much more daring feat for Curtius[7] to plunge into
the gulf, than for any old gentleman of ninety to doff his clothes and
clamber into bed.

Indeed, it is a memorable subject for consideration, with what
unconcern and gaiety mankind pricks on along the Valley of the Shadow
of Death. The whole way is one wilderness of snares, and the end of
it, for those who fear the last pinch, is irrevocable ruin. And yet we
go spinning through it all, like a party for the Derby.[8] Perhaps the
reader remembers one of the humorous devices of the deified
Caligula:[9] how he encouraged a vast concourse of holiday-makers on
to his bridge over Baiae[10] bay; and when they were in the height of
their enjoyment, turned loose the Praetorian guards[11] among the
company, and had them tossed into the sea. This is no bad miniature of
the dealings of nature with the transitory race of man. Only, what a
chequered picnic we have of it, even while it lasts! and into what
great waters, not to be crossed by any swimmer, God's pale Praetorian
throws us over in the end!

We live the time that a match flickers; we pop the cork of a
ginger-beer bottle, and the earthquake swallows us on the instant. Is
it not odd, is it not incongruous, is it not, in the highest sense of
human speech, incredible, that we should think so highly of the
ginger-beer, and regard so little the devouring earthquake? The love
of Life and the fear of Death are two famous phrases that grow harder
to understand the more we think about them. It is a well-known fact
that an immense proportion of boat accidents would never happen if
people held the sheet in their hands instead of making it fast; and
yet, unless it be some martinet of a professional mariner or some
landsman with shattered nerves, every one of God's creatures makes it
fast. A strange instance of man's unconcern and brazen boldness in the
face of death!

We confound ourselves with metaphysical phrases, which we import into
daily talk with noble inappropriateness. We have no idea of what death
is, apart from its circumstances and some of its consequences to
others; and although we have some experience of living, there is not a
man on earth who has flown so high into abstraction as to have any
practical guess at the meaning of the Word _life_. All literature,
from Job and Omar Khayyam to Thomas Carlyle or Walt Whitman,[12] is
but an attempt to look upon the human state with such largeness of
view as shall enable us to rise from the consideration of living to
the Definition of Life. And our sages give us about the best
satisfaction in their power when they say that it is a vapour, or a
show, or made out of the same stuff with dreams.[13] Philosophy, in
its more rigid sense, has been at the same work for ages; and after a
myriad bald heads have wagged over the problem, and piles of words
have been heaped one upon another into dry and cloudy volumes without
end, philosophy has the honour of laying before us, with modest pride,
her contribution towards the subject: that life is a Permanent
Possibility of Sensation.[14] Truly a fine result! A man may very well
love beef, or hunting, or a woman; but surely, surely, not a Permanent
Possibility of Sensation. He may be afraid of a precipice, or a
dentist, or a large enemy with a club, or even an undertaker's man;
but not certainly of abstract death. We may trick with the word life
in its dozen senses until we are weary of tricking; we may argue in
terms of all the philosophies on earth, but one fact remains true
throughout--that we do not love life, in the sense that we are greatly
preoccupied about its conservation; that we do not, properly speaking,
love life at all, but living. Into the views of the least careful
there will enter some degree of providence; no man's eyes are fixed
entirely on the passing hour; but although we have some anticipation
of good health, good weather, wine, active employment, love, and
self-approval, the sum of these anticipations does not amount to
anything like a general view of life's possibilities and issues; nor
are those who cherish them most vividly, at all the most scrupulous of
their personal safety. To be deeply interested in the accidents of our
existence, to enjoy keenly the mixed texture of human experience,
rather leads a man to disregard precautions, and risk his neck against
a straw. For surely the love of living is stronger in an Alpine
climber roping over a peril, or a hunter riding merrily at a stiff
fence, than in a creature who lives upon a diet and walks a measured
distance in the interest of his constitution.

There is a great deal of very vile nonsense talked upon both sides of
the matter: tearing divines reducing life to the dimensions of a mere
funeral procession, so short as to be hardly decent; and melancholy
unbelievers yearning for the tomb as if it were a world too far away.
Both sides must feel a little ashamed of their performances now and
again when they draw in their chairs to dinner. Indeed, a good meal
and a bottle of wine is an answer to most standard works upon the
question. When a man's heart warms to his viands, he forgets a great
deal of sophistry, and soars into a rosy zone of contemplation. Death
may be knocking at the door, like the Commander's statue;[15] we have
something else in hand, thank God, and let him knock. Passing bells
are ringing all the world over. All the world over, and every
hour,[16] someone is parting company with all his aches and ecstasies.
For us also the trap is laid. But we are so fond of life that we have
no leisure to entertain the terror of death. It is a honeymoon with us
all through, and none of the longest. Small blame to us if we give our
whole hearts to this glowing bride of ours, to the appetites, to
honour, to the hungry curiosity of the mind, to the pleasure of the
eyes in nature, and the pride of our own nimble bodies.

We all of us appreciate the sensations; but as for caring about the
Permanence of the Possibility, a man's head is generally very bald,
and his senses very dull, before he comes to that. Whether we regard
life as a lane leading to a dead wall--a mere bag's end,[17] as the
French say--or whether we think of it as a vestibule or gymnasium,
where we wait our turn and prepare our faculties for some more noble
destiny; whether we thunder in a pulpit, or pule in little atheistic
poetry-books, about its vanity and brevity; whether we look justly for
years of health and vigour, or are about to mount into a Bath-chair,
as a step towards the hearse; in each and all of these views and
situations there is but one conclusion possible: that a man should
stop his ears against paralysing terror, and run the race that is set
before him with a single mind. No one surely could have recoiled with
more heartache and terror from the thought of death than our respected
lexicographer; and yet we know how little it affected his conduct, how
wisely and boldly he walked, and in what a fresh and lively vein he
spoke of life. Already an old man, he ventured on his Highland tour;
and his heart, bound with triple brass, did not recoil before
twenty-seven individual cups of tea.[18] As courage and intelligence
are the two qualities best worth a good man's cultivation, so it is
the first part of intelligence to recognise our precarious estate in
life, and the first part of courage to be not at all abashed before
the fact. A frank and somewhat headlong carriage, not looking too
anxiously before, not dallying in maudlin regret over the past, stamps
the man who is well armoured for this world.

And not only well armoured for himself, but a good friend and a good
citizen to boot. We do not go to cowards for tender dealing; there is
nothing so cruel as panic; the man who has least fear for his own
carcass, has most time to consider others. That eminent chemist who
took his walks abroad in tin shoes, and subsisted wholly upon tepid
milk, had all his work cut out for him in considerate dealings with
his own digestion. So soon as prudence has begun to grow up in the
brain, like a dismal fungus, it finds its first expression in a
paralysis of generous acts. The victim begins to shrink spiritually;
he develops a fancy for parlours with a regulated temperature, and
takes his morality on the principle of tin shoes and tepid milk. The
care of one important body or soul becomes so engrossing, that all the
noises of the outer world begin to come thin and faint into the
parlour with the regulated temperature; and the tin shoes go equably
forward over blood and rain. To be overwise is to ossify; and the
scruple-monger ends by standing stockstill. Now the man who has his
heart on his sleeve, and a good whirling weathercock of a brain, who
reckons his life as a thing to be dashingly used and cheerfully
hazarded, makes a very different acquaintance of the world, keeps all
his pulses going true and fast, and gathers impetus as he runs, until,
if he be running towards anything better than wildfire, he may shoot
up and become a constellation in the end. Lord look after his health,
Lord have a care of his soul, says he; and he has at the key of the
position, and swashes through incongruity and peril towards his aim.
Death is on all sides of him with pointed batteries, as he is on all
sides of all of us; unfortunate surprises gird him round; mim-mouthed
friends[19] and relations hold up their hands in quite a little
elegiacal synod about his path: and what cares he for all this? Being
a true lover of living, a fellow with something pushing and
spontaneous in his inside, he must, like any other soldier, in any
other stirring, deadly warfare, push on at his best pace until he
touch the goal. "A peerage or Westminster Abbey!"[20] cried Nelson in
his bright, boyish, heroic manner. These are great incentives; not for
any of these, but for the plain satisfaction of living, of being about
their business in some sort or other, do the brave, serviceable men of
every nation tread down the nettle danger,[21] and pass flyingly over
all the stumbling-blocks of prudence. Think of the heroism of Johnson,
think of that superb indifference to mortal limitation that set him
upon his dictionary, and carried him through triumphantly until the
end! Who, if he were wisely considerate of things at large, would ever
embark upon any work much more considerable than a halfpenny post
card? Who would project a serial novel, after Thackeray and Dickens
had each fallen in mid-course?[22] Who would find heart enough to
begin to live, if he dallied with the consideration of death?

And, after all, what sorry and pitiful quibbling all this is! To
forego all the issues of living in a parlour with a regulated
temperature--as if that were not to die a hundred times over, and for
ten years at a stretch! As if it were not to die in one's own
lifetime, and without even the sad immunities of death! As if it were
not to die, and yet be the patient spectators of our own pitiable
change! The Permanent Possibility is preserved, but the sensations
carefully held at arm's length, as if one kept a photographic plate in
a dark chamber. It is better to lose health like a spendthrift than to
waste it like a miser. It is better to live and be done with it, than
to die daily in the sickroom. By all means begin your folio; even if
the doctor does not give you a year, even if he hesitates about a
month, make one brave push and see what can be accomplished in a week.
It is not only in finished undertakings that we ought to honour useful
labour. A spirit goes out of the man who means execution, which
outlives the most untimely ending. All who have meant good work with
their whole hearts, have done good work,[23] although they may die
before they have the time to sign it. Every heart that has beat strong
and cheerfully has left a hopeful impulse behind it in the world, and
bettered the tradition of mankind. And even if death catch people,
like an open pitfall, and in mid-career, laying out vast projects, and
planning monstrous foundations, flushed with hope, and their mouths
full of boastful language, they should be at once tripped up and
silenced: is there not something brave and spirited in such a
termination? and does not life go down with a better grace, foaming in
full body over a precipice, than miserably straggling to an end in
sandy deltas? When the Greeks made their fine saying that those whom
the gods love die young,[24] I cannot help believing they had this
sort of death also in their eye. For surely, at whatever age it
overtake the man, this is to die young. Death has not been suffered to
take so much as an illusion from his heart. In the hot-fit of life, a
tip-toe on the highest point of being, he passes at a bound on to the
other side. The noise of the mallet and chisel is scarcely quenched,
the trumpets are hardly done blowing, when, trailing with him clouds
of glory,[25] this happy-starred, full-blooded spirit shoots into the
spiritual land.


NOTES

This essay, which is commonly (and justly) regarded as Stevenson's
masterpiece of literary composition, was first printed in the
_Cornhill Magazine_ for April 1878, Vol. XXXVII, pp. 432-437. In 1881
it was published in the volume _Virginibus Puerisque_. For the success
of this volume, as well as for its author's relations with the editor
of the _Cornhill_, see our note to _An Apology for Idlers_. It was
this article which was selected for reprinting in separate form by the
American Committee of the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Fund; to
every subscriber of ten dollars or more, was given a copy of this
essay, exquisitely printed at the De Vinne Press, 1898. Copies of this
edition are now eagerly sought by book-collectors; five of them were
taken by the Robert Louis Stevenson Club of Yale College, consisting
of a few undergraduates of the class of 1898, who subscribed fifty
dollars to the fund.

Stevenson's cheerful optimism was constantly shadowed by the thought
of Death, and in _Aes Triplex_ he gives free rein to his fancies on
this universal theme.

[Note 1: The title, _AEs Triplex_, is taken from Horace, _aes triplex
circa pectus_, "breast enclosed by triple brass," "aes" used by Horace
as a "symbol of indomitable courage."--Lewis's Latin Dictionary.]

[Note 2: _Thug_. This word, which sounds to-day so slangy, really
comes from the Hindoos (Hindustani _thaaa_, deceive). It is the name
of a religious order in India, ostensibly devoted to the worship of a
goddess, but really given to murder for the sake of booty. The
Englishmen in India called them _Thugs_, hence the name in its modern
general sense.]

[Note 3: _Pyramids ... dule trees_. For pyramids, see our note 25 of
chapter II above... _Dule trees_. More properly spelled "dool." A dool
was a stake or post used to mark boundaries.]

[Note 4: _The trumpets might sound_. "For if the trumpet give an
uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" I _Cor_.
XIV, 8.]

[Note 5: _The blue-peter might-fly at the truck_. The blue-peter is a
term used in the British navy and widely elsewhere; it is a blue flag
with a white square employed often as a signal for sailing. The word
is corrupted from _Blue Repeater_, a signal flag. _Truck_ is a very
small platform at the top of a mast.]

[Note 6: _Balaclava_. A little port near Sebastopol, in the Crimea.
During the Crimean War, on the 25 October 1854, occurred the cavalry
charge of some six hundred Englishmen, celebrated by Tennyson's
universally known poem, _The Charge of the Light Brigade_. It has
recently been asserted that the number reported as actually killed in
this headlong charge referred to the horses, not to the men.]

[Note 7: _Curtius_. Referring to the story of the Roman youth, Metius
Curtius, who in 362 B.C. leaped into a chasm in the Forum, in order to
save his country. The chasm immediately closed over him, and Rome was
saved. Although the truth of the story has naturally failed to survive
the investigations of historical critics, its moral inspiration has
been effective in many historical instances.]

[Note 8: _Party for the Derby_. Derby Day, which is the occasion of
the most famous annual running race for horses in the world, takes
place in the south of England during the week preceding Whitsunday.
The race was founded by the Earl of Derby in 1780. It is now one of
the greatest holidays in England, and the whole city of London turns
out for the event. It is a great spectacle to see the crowd going from
London and returning. The most faithful description of the event, the
crowds, and the interest excited, may be found in George Moore's
novel, _Esther Waters_ (1894).]

[Note 9: _The deified Caligula_. Caius Caligula was Roman Emperor from
37 to 41 A. D. He was brought up among the soldiers, who gave him the
name Caligula, because he wore the soldier's leather shoe, or
half-boot, (Latin _caliga_). Caligula was deified, but that did not
prevent him from becoming a madman, which seems to be the best way to
account for his wanton cruelty and extraordinary caprices.]

[Note 10: _Baiae_ was a small town on the Campanian Coast, ten miles
from Naples. It was a favorite summer resort of the Roman
aristocracy.]

[Note 11: The _Praetorian Guard_ was the body-guard of the Roman
emperors. The incident Stevenson speaks of may be found in Tacitus.]

[Note 12: _Job_ ... _Walt Whitman_. The book of _Job_ is usually
regarded as the most poetical work in the Bible, even exceeding
_Psalms_ and _Isaiah_ in its splendid imaginative language and
extraordinary figures of speech. For a literary study of it, the
student is recommended to Professor Moulton's edition. Omar Khayyam
was a Persian poet of mediaeval times, who became known to English
readers through the beautiful paraphrase of some of his stanzas by
Edward Fitzgerald, in 1859. If any one will take the trouble to
compare a literal prose rendering of Omar (as in N.H. Dole's variorum
edition) with the version by Fitzgerald, he will speedily see that the
power and beauty of the poem is due far more to the skill of "Old
Fitz" than to the original. Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was perhaps the
foremost writer of English prose in the nineteenth century. Although a
consummate literary artist, he was even more influential as a moral
tonic. His philosophy and that of Omar represent as wide a contrast as
could easily be found. Walt Whitman, the strange American poet
(1819-1892), whose famous _Leaves_ _of Grass_ (1855) excited an uproar
in America, and gave the author a much more serious reputation in
Europe. Stevenson's interest in him was genuine, but not partisan, and
his essay, _The Gospel According to Walt Whitman (The New Quarterly
Magazine_, Oct. 1878), is perhaps the most judicious appreciation in
the English language of this singular poet. Job, Omar Khayyam, Carlyle
and Whitman, taken together, certainly give a curious collection of
what the Germans call _Weltanschauungen_.]

[Note 13: _A vapour, or a show, or made out of the same stuff with
dreams_. For constant comparisons of life with a vapour or a show, see
Quarles's _Emblems_ (1635), though these conventional figures may be
found thousands of times in general literature. The latter part of the
sentence refers to the _Tempest_, Act IV, Scene I.

"We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."]

[Note 14: _Permanent Possibility of Sensation_. "Matter then, may be
defined, a Permanent Possibility of Sensation."--John Stuart Mill,
_Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy_, Vol. I. Chap. XI.]

[Note 15: _Like the Commander's Statue_. In the familiar story of Don
Juan, where the audacious rake accepts the Commander's invitation to
supper. For treatments of this theme, see Molière's play _Don Juan_,
or Mozart's opera _Don Giovanni_; see also Bernard Shaw's paradoxical
play, _Man and Superman_.... _We have something else in hand, thank
God, and let him knock_. It is possible that Stevenson's words here
are an unconscious reminiscence of Colley Cibber's letter to the
novelist Richardson. This unabashed old profligate celebrated the
Christmas Day of his eightieth year by writing to the apostle of
domestic virtue in the following strain: "Though Death has been
cooling his heels at my door these three weeks, I have not had time to
see him. The daily conversation of my friends has kept me so agreeably
alive, that I have not passed my time better a great while. If you
have a mind to make one of us, I will order Death to come another
day."]

[Note 16: _All the world over, and every hour_. He might truthfully
have said, "every second."]

[Note 17: _A mere bag's end, as the French say. A cul de sac._]

[Note 18: _Our respected lexicographer ... Highland tour ... triple
brass ... twenty-seven individual cups of tea._ Dr. Samuel Johnson's
Dictionary appeared in 1755. For his horror of death, his fondness for
tea, and his Highland tour with Boswell, see the latter's _Life of
Johnson_; consult the late Dr. Hill's admirable index in his edition
of the _Life_.]

[Note 19: _Mim-mouthed friends_. See J. Wright's _English Dialect
Dictionary_. "Mim-mouthed" means "affectedly prim or proper in
speech."]

[Note 20: "_A peerage or Westminster Abbey!_" Horatio Nelson
(1758-1805), the most famous admiral in England's naval history, who
won the great battle of Trafalgar and lost his life in the moment of
victory. Nelson was as ambitious as he was brave, and his cry that
Stevenson quotes was characteristic.]

[Note 21: _Tread down the nettle danger_. Hotspur's words in _King
Henry IV_, Part I, Act II, Sc. 3. "Out of this nettle, danger, we
pluck this flower, safety."]

[Note 22: _After Thackeray and Dickens had each fallen in mid-course?_
Thackeray and Dickens, dying in 1863 and in 1870 respectively, left
unfinished _Denis Duval_ and _The Mystery of Edwin Drood_. Stevenson
himself left unfinished what would in all probability have been his
unquestioned masterpiece, _Weir of Hermiston_.]

[Note 23: _All who have meant good work with their whole hearts, have
done good work_. See Browning's inspiring poem, _Rabbi Ben Ezra_,
XXIII, XXIV, XXV:--


"Not on the vulgar mass
Called "work," must sentence pass,
Things done, which took the eye and had the price;
O'er which, from level stand,
The low world laid its hand,
Found straightway to its mind, could value in a trice:

But all, the world's coarse thumb
And finger failed to plumb,
So passed in making up the main account;
All instincts immature,
All purposes unsure,
That weighed not as his work, yet swelled the man's amount:

Thoughts hardly to be packed
Into a narrow act,
Fancies that broke through language and escaped;
All I could never be,
All, men ignored in me,
This, I was worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped."]


[Note 24: _Whom the Gods love die young._ "Quem di diligunt adolescens
moritur."--Plautus, _Bacchides_, Act IV, Sc. 7.]

[Note 25: _Trailing with him clouds of glory._ This passage, from
Wordsworth's _Ode on the Intimations of Immortality_ (1807), was a
favorite one with Stevenson, and he quotes it several times in various
essays.]

Robert Louis Stevenson

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