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A College Magazine


All through my boyhood and youth, I was known and pointed out for the
pattern of an idler;[1] and yet I was always busy on my own private
end, which was to learn to write. I kept always two books in my
pocket, one to read, one to write in. As I walked, my mind was busy
fitting what I saw with appropriate words; when I sat by the roadside,
I would either read, or a pencil and a penny version-book would be in
my hand, to note down the features of the scene or commemorate some
halting stanzas. Thus I lived with words. And what I thus wrote was
for no ulterior use, it was written consciously for practice. It was
not so much that I wished to be an author (though I wished that too)
as that I had vowed that I would learn to write. That was a
proficiency that tempted me; and I practised to acquire it, as men
learn to whittle, in a wager with myself. Description was the
principal field of my exercise; for to any one with senses there is
always something worth describing, and town and country are but one
continuous subject. But I worked in other ways also; often accompanied
my walks with dramatic dialogues, in which I played many parts; and
often exercised myself in writing down conversations from memory.

This was all excellent, no doubt; so were the diaries I sometimes
tried to keep, but always and very speedily discarded, finding them a
school of posturing[2] and melancholy self-deception. And yet this was
not the most efficient part of my training. Good though it was, it
only taught me (so far as I have learned them at all) the lower and
less intellectual elements of the art, the choice of the essential
note and the right word: things that to a happier constitution had
perhaps come by nature. And regarded as training, it had one grave
defect; for it set me no standard of achievement. So that there was
perhaps more profit, as there was certainly more effort, in my secret
labours at home. Whenever I read a book or a passage that particularly
pleased me, in which a thing was said or an effect rendered with
propriety, in which there was either some conspicuous force or some
happy distinction in the style, I must sit down at once and set myself
to ape that quality. I was unsuccessful, and I knew it; and tried
again, and was again unsuccessful and always unsuccessful; but at
least in these vain bouts, I got some practice in rhythm, in harmony,
in construction and the co-ordination of parts. I have thus played the
sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne,
to Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne, to Baudelaire and to
Obermann.[3] I remember one of these monkey tricks, which was called
_The Vanity of Morals_: it was to have had a second part, _The Vanity
of Knowledge_; and as I had neither morality nor scholarship, the
names were apt; but the second part was never attempted, and the first
part was written (which is my reason for recalling it, ghostlike, from
its ashes) no less than three times: first in the manner of Hazlitt,
second in the manner of Ruskin,[4] who had cast on me a passing spell,
and third, in a laborious pasticcio of Sir Thomas Browne. So with my
other works: _Cain_, an epic, was (save the mark!) an imitation of
_Sordello: Robin Hood_, a tale in verse, took an eclectic middle
course among the fields of Keats, Chaucer and Morris: in _Monmouth,_ a
tragedy, I reclined on the bosom of Mr. Swinburne; in my innumerable
gouty-footed lyrics, I followed many masters; in the first draft of
_The King's Pardon_, a tragedy, I was on the trail of no lesser man
than John Webster; in the second draft of the same piece, with
staggering versatility, I had shifted my allegiance to Congreve, and
of course conceived my fable in a less serious vein--for it was not
Congreve's verse, it was his exquisite prose, that I admired and
sought to copy. Even at the age of thirteen I had tried to do justice
to the inhabitants of the famous city of Peebles[5] in the style of
the _Book of Snobs_. So I might go on for ever, through all my
abortive novels, and down to my later plays,[6] of which I think more
tenderly, for they were not only conceived at first under the bracing
influence of old Dumas, but have met with, resurrections: one,
strangely bettered by another hand, came on the stage itself and was
played by bodily actors; the other, originally known as _Semiramis: a
Tragedy_, I have observed on bookstalls under the _alias_ of _Prince
Otto_. But enough has been said to show by what arts of impersonation,
and in what purely ventriloquial efforts I first saw my words on

That, like it or not, is the way to learn to write; whether I have
profited or not, that is the way. It was so Keats learned,[7] and
there was never a finer temperament for literature than Keats's; it
was so, if we could trace it out, that all men have learned; and that
is why a revival of letters is always accompanied or heralded by a
cast back to earlier and fresher models. Perhaps I hear someone cry
out: But this is not the way to be original! It is not; nor is there
any way but to be born so. Nor yet, if you are born original, is there
anything in this training that shall clip the wings of your
originality. There can be none more original than Montaigne,[8]
neither could any be more unlike Cicero; yet no craftsman can fail to
see how much the one must have tried in his time to imitate the other.
Burns[9] is the very type of a prime force in letters: he was of all
men the most imitative. Shakespeare himself, the imperial, proceeds
directly from a school. It is only from a school that we can expect to
have good writers; it is almost invariably from a school that great
writers, these lawless exceptions, issue. Nor is there anything here
that should astonish the considerate. Before he can tell what cadences
he truly prefers, the student should have tried all that are possible;
before he can choose and preserve a fitting key of words, he should
long have practised the literary scales;[10] and it is only after
years of such gymnastic that he can sit down at last, legions of words
swarming to his call, dozens of turns of phrase simultaneously bidding
for his choice, and he himself knowing what he wants to do and (within
the narrow limit of a man's ability) able to do it.

And it is the great point of these imitations that there still shines
beyond the student's reach his inimitable model. Let him try as he
please, he is still sure of failure; and it is a very old and a very
true saying that failure is the only highroad to success. I must have
had some disposition to learn; for I clear-sightedly condemned my own
performances. I liked doing them indeed; but when they were done, I
could see they were rubbish. In consequence, I very rarely showed them
even to my friends; and such friends as I chose to be my confidants I
must have chosen well, for they had the friendliness to be quite plain
with me. "Padding," said one. Another wrote: "I cannot understand why
you do lyrics so badly." No more could I! Thrice I put myself in the
way of a more authoritative rebuff, by sending a paper to a magazine.
These were returned; and I was not surprised nor even pained. If they
had not been looked at, as (like all amateurs) I suspected was the
case, there was no good in repeating the experiment; if they had been
looked at--well, then I had not yet learned to write, and I must keep
on learning and living. Lastly, I had a piece of good fortune which is
the occasion of this paper, and by which I was able to see my
literature in print, and to measure experimentally how far I stood
from the favour of the public.


The Speculative Society is a body of some antiquity, and has counted
among its members Scott, Brougham, Jeffrey, Horner, Benjamin Constant,
Robert Emmet, and many a legal and local celebrity besides. By an
accident, variously explained, it has its rooms in the very buildings
of the University of Edinburgh: a hall, Turkey-carpeted, hung with
pictures, looking, when lighted up at night with fire and candle, like
some goodly dining-room; a passage-like library, walled with books in
their wire cages; and a corridor with a fireplace, benches, a table,
many prints of famous members, and a mural tablet to the virtues of a
former secretary. Here a member can warm himself and loaf and read;
here, in defiance of Senatus-consults, he can smoke. The Senatus looks
askance at these privileges; looks even with a somewhat vinegar aspect
on the whole society; which argues a lack of proportion in the learned
mind, for the world, we may be sure, will prize far higher this haunt
of dead lions than all the living dogs of the professorate.

I sat one December morning in the library of the Speculative; a very
humble-minded youth, though it was a virtue I never had much credit
for; yet proud of my privileges as a member of the Spec.; proud of the
pipe I was smoking in the teeth of the Senatus; and in particular,
proud of being in the next room to three very distinguished students,
who were then conversing beside the corridor fire. One of these has
now his name on the back of several volumes, and his voice, I learn,
is influential in the law courts. Of the death of the second, you have
just been reading what I had to say. And the third also has escaped
out of that battle of life in which be fought so hard, it may be so
unwisely. They were all three, as I have said, notable students; but
this was the most conspicuous. Wealthy, handsome, ambitious,
adventurous, diplomatic, a reader of Balzac, and of all men that I
have known, the most like to one of Balzac's characters, he led a
life, and was attended by an ill fortune, that could be properly set
forth only in the _Comédie Humaine_. He had then his eye on
Parliament; and soon after the time of which I write, he made a showy
speech at a political dinner, was cried up to heaven next day in the
_Courant_, and the day after was dashed lower than earth with a charge
of plagiarism in the _Scotsman_. Report would have it (I daresay, very
wrongly) that he was betrayed by one in whom he particularly trusted,
and that the author of the charge had learned its truth from his own
lips. Thus, at least, he was up one day on a pinnacle, admired and
envied by all; and the next, though still but a boy, he was publicly
disgraced. The blow would have broken a less finely tempered spirit;
and even him I suppose it rendered reckless; for he took flight to
London, and there, in a fast club, disposed of the bulk of his
considerable patrimony in the space of one winter. For years
thereafter he lived I know not how; always well dressed, always in
good hotels and good society, always with empty pockets. The charm of
his manner may have stood him in good stead; but though my own manners
are very agreeable, I have never found in them a source of livelihood;
and to explain the miracle of his continued existence, I must fall
back upon the theory of the philosopher, that in his case, as in all
of the same kind, "there was a suffering relative in the background."
From this genteel eclipse he reappeared upon the scene, and presently
sought me out in the character of a generous editor. It is in this
part that I best remember him; tall, slender, with a not ungraceful
stoop; looking quite like a refined gentleman, and quite like an
urbane adventurer; smiling with an engaging ambiguity; cocking at you
one peaked eyebrow with a great appearance of finesse; speaking low
and sweet and thick, with a touch of burr; telling strange tales with
singular deliberation and, to a patient listener, excellent effect.
After all these ups and downs, he seemed still, like the rich student
that he was of yore, to breathe of money; seemed still perfectly sure
of himself and certain of his end. Yet he was then upon the brink of
his last overthrow. He had set himself to found the strangest thing in
our society: one of those periodical sheets from which men suppose
themselves to learn opinions; in which young gentlemen from the
universities are encouraged, at so much a line, to garble facts,
insult foreign nations and calumniate private individuals; and which
are now the source of glory, so that if a man's name be often enough
printed there, he becomes a kind of demigod; and people will pardon
him when he talks back and forth, as they do for Mr. Gladstone; and
crowd him to suffocation on railway platforms, as they did the other
day to General Boulanger; and buy his literary works, as I hope you
have just done for me. Our fathers, when they were upon some great
enterprise, would sacrifice a life; building, it may be, a favourite
slave into the foundations of their palace. It was with his own life
that my companion disarmed the envy of the gods. He fought his paper
single-handed; trusting no one, for he was something of a cynic; up
early and down late, for he was nothing of a sluggard; daily
earwigging influential men, for he was a master of ingratiation. In
that slender and silken fellow there must have been a rare vein of
courage, that he should thus have died at his employment; and
doubtless ambition spoke loudly in his ear, and doubtless love also,
for it seems there was a marriage in his view had he succeeded. But he
died, and his paper died after him; and of all this grace, and tact,
and courage, it must seem to our blind eyes as if there had come
literally nothing.

These three students sat, as I was saying, in the corridor, under the
mural tablet that records the virtues of Machean, the former
secretary. We would often smile at that ineloquent memorial, and
thought it a poor thing to come into the world at all and leave no
more behind one than Machean. And yet of these three, two are gone and
have left less; and this book, perhaps, when it is old and foxy, and
some one picks it up in a corner of a book-shop, and glances through
it, smiling at the old, graceless turns of speech, and perhaps for the
love of _Alma Mater_ (which may be still extant and flourishing) buys
it, not without haggling, for some pence--this book may alone preserve
a memory of James Walter Ferrier and Robert Glasgow Brown.

Their thoughts ran very differently on that December morning; they
were all on fire with ambition; and when they had called me in to
them, and made me a sharer in their design, I too became drunken with
pride and hope. We were to found a University magazine. A pair of
little, active brothers--Livingstone by name, great skippers on the
foot, great rubbers of the hands, who kept a book-shop over against
the University building--had been debauched to play the part of
publishers. We four were to be conjunct editors, and, what was the
main point of the concern, to print our own works; while, by every
rule of arithmetic--that flatterer of credulity--the adventure must
succeed and bring great profit. Well, well: it was a bright vision. I
went home that morning walking upon air. To have been chosen by these
three distinguished students was to me the most unspeakable advance;
it was my first draught of consideration; it reconciled me to myself
and to my fellow-men; and as I steered round the railings at the Tron,
I could not withhold my lips from smiling publicly. Yet, in the bottom
of my heart, I knew that magazine would be a grim fiasco; I knew it
would not be worth reading; I knew, even if it were, that nobody would
read it; and I kept wondering, how I should be able, upon my compact
income of twelve pounds per annum, payable monthly, to meet my share
in the expense. It was a comfortable thought to me that I had a

The magazine appeared, in a yellow cover which was the best part of
it, for at least it was unassuming; it ran four months in undisturbed
obscurity, and died without a gasp. The first number was edited by all
four of us with prodigious bustle; the second fell principally into
the hands of Ferrier and me; the third I edited alone; and it has long
been a solemn question who it was that edited the fourth. It would
perhaps be still more difficult to say who read it. Poor yellow sheet,
that looked so hopefully in the Livingstones' window! Poor, harmless
paper, that might have gone to print a _Shakespeare_ on, and was
instead so clumsily defaced with nonsense! And, shall I say, Poor
Editors? I cannot pity myself, to whom it was all pure gain. It was no
news to me, but only the wholesome confirmation of my judgment, when
the magazine struggled into half-birth, and instantly sickened and
subsided into night. I had sent a copy to the lady with whom my heart
was at that time somewhat engaged, and who did all that in her lay to
break it; and she, with some tact, passed over the gift and my
cherished contributions in silence. I will not say that I was pleased
at this; but I will tell her now, if by any chance she takes up the
work of her former servant, that I thought the better of her taste. I
cleared the decks after this lost engagement; had the necessary
interview with my father, which passed off not amiss; paid over my
share of the expense to the two little, active brothers, who rubbed
their hands as much, but methought skipped rather less than formerly,
having perhaps, these two also, embarked upon the enterprise with some
graceful illusions; and then, reviewing the whole episode, I told
myself that the time was not yet ripe, nor the man ready; and to work
I went again with my penny version-books, having fallen back in one
day from the printed author to the manuscript student.


From this defunct periodical I am going to reprint one of my own
papers. The poor little piece is all tail-foremost. I have done my
best to straighten its array, I have pruned it fearlessly, and it
remains invertebrate and wordy. No self-respecting magazine would
print the thing; and here you behold it in a bound volume, not for any
worth of its own, but for the sake of the man whom it purports dimly
to represent and some of whose sayings it preserves; so that in this
volume of Memories and Portraits, Robert Young, the Swanston gardener,
may stand alongside of John Todd, the Swanston shepherd. Not that John
and Robert drew very close together in their lives; for John was
rough, he smelt of the windy brae; and Robert was gentle, and smacked
of the garden in the hollow. Perhaps it is to my shame that I liked
John the better of the two; he had grit and dash, and that salt of the
Old Adam that pleases men with any savage inheritance of blood; and he
was a wayfarer besides, and took my gipsy fancy. But however that may
be, and however Robert's profile may be blurred in the boyish sketch
that follows, he was a man of a most quaint and beautiful nature,
whom, if it were possible to recast a piece of work so old, I should
like well to draw again with a maturer touch. And as I think of him
and of John, I wonder in what other country two such men would be
found dwelling together, in a hamlet of some twenty cottages, in the
woody fold of a green hill.


This article made its first appearance in the volume _Memories and
Portraits_ (1887). It was divided into three parts. The interest of
this essay is almost wholly autobiographical, telling us, with more or
less seriousness, how its author "learned to write." After Stevenson
became famous, this confession attracted universal attention, and is
now one of the best-known of all his compositions. Many youthful
aspirants for literary fame have been moved by its perusal to adopt a
similar method; but while Stevenson's system, if faithfully followed,
would doubtless correct many faults, it would not of itself enable a
man to write another _Aes Triplex_ or _Treasure Island_. It was
genius, not industry, that placed Stevenson in English literature.

[Note 1: _Pattern of an Idler_. See his essay in this volume, _An
Apology for Idlers_.]

[Note 2: _A school of posturing_. It is a nice psychological question
whether or not it is possible for one to write a diary with absolutely
no thought of its being read by some one else.]

[Note 3: _Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to
Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne, to Beaudelaire, and to Obermann_.
For Hazlitt, see Note 19 of Chapter II above. Charles Lamb
(1775-1834), author of the delightful _Essays of Elia_ (1822-24), the
_tone_ of which book is often echoed in Stevenson's essays.... Sir
Thomas Browne (1605-1682), regarded by many as the greatest prose
writer of the seventeenth century; his best books are _Religio Medici_
(the religion of a physician), 1642, and _Urn Burial_ (1658). The
300th anniversary of his birth was widely celebrated on 19 October
1905.... Daniel Defoe (1661-1731), an enormously prolific writer; his
first important novel, _Robinson Crusoe_ (followed by many others) was
written when he was 58 years old.... Nathaniel Hawthorne, the greatest
literary artist that America has ever produced was born 4 July 1804,
and died in 1864. His best novel (the finest in American Literature)
was _The Scarlet Letter_ (1850).... Montaigne. Stevenson was heavily
indebted to this wonderful genius. See Note 4 of Chapter VI above. ...
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) wrote the brilliant and decadent
_Fleurs du Mai_ (1857-61). He translated Poe into French, and was
partly responsible for Poe's immense vogue in France. Had Baudelaire's
French followers possessed the power of their master, we should be
able to forgive them for writing.... Obermann. _Ňbermann_ is the title
of a story by the French writer Etienne Pivert de Sénancour
(1770-1846). The book, which appeared in 1804, is full of vague
melancholy, in the Werther fashion, and is more of a psychological
study than a novel. In recent years, _Amiel's Journal_ and
Sienkiewicz's _Without Dogma_ belong to the same school of literature.
Matthew Arnold was fond of quoting from Sénancour's _Obermann_.]

[Note 4: _Ruskin ... Pasticcio ... Bordello ... Morris ... Swinburne
... John Webster ... Congreve_. These names exhibit the astonishing
variety of Stevenson's youthful attempts, for they represent nearly
every possible style of composition. John Ruskin (1819-1900) exercised
a greater influence thirty years ago than he does to-day Stevenson in
the words "a passing spell," seems to apologise for having been
influenced by him at all.... Pasticcio, an Italian word, meaning
"pie": Swinburne uses it in the sense of "medley," which is about the
same as its significance here. _Sordello_: Stevenson naturally
accompanies this statement with a parenthetical exclamation.
_Sordello_, published in 1840, is the most obscure of all Browning's
poems, and for many years blinded critics to the poet's genius.
Innumerable are the witticisms aimed at this opaque work. See, for
example, W. Sharp's _Life of Browning_ ... William Morris (1834-96),
author of the _Earthly Paradise_ (1868-70): for his position and
influence in XIXth century literature see H.A. Beers, _History of
English Romanticism_, Vol. II.... Algernon Charles Swinburne, born
1837, generally regarded (1906) as England's foremost living poet, is
famous chiefly for the melodies of his verse. His influence seems to
be steadily declining and he is certainly not so much read as
formerly.... For John Webster and Congreve, see Notes 37 and 26 of
Chapter IV above.]

[Note 5: _City of Peebles in the style of the Book of Snobs._
Thackeray's _Book of Snobs_ was published in 1848. Peebles is the
county town of Peebles County in the South of Scotland.]

[Note 6: _My later plays_, etc. Stevenson's four plays were not
successful. They were all written in collaboration with W.E. Henley.
_Deacon Brodie_ was printed in 1880: _Admiral Guinea_ and _Beau
Austin_ in 1884: _Macaire_ in 1885. In 1892, the first three were
published in one volume, under the title _Three Plays_: In 1896 all
four appeared in a volume called _Four Plays_. At the time the essay
_A College Magazine_ was published, only one of these plays had been
acted, _Deacon Brodie_, to which Stevenson refers in our text. This
"came on the stage itself and was played by bodily actors" at Pullan's
_Theatre of Varieties_, Bradford, England, 28 December 1882, and in
March 1883 at Her Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, "when it was styled a
'New Scotch National Drama.'"--Prideaux, _Bibliography_, p. 10. It was
later produced at Prince's Theatre, London, 2 July 1884, and in
Montreal, 26 September 1887. _Beau Austin_ was played at the Haymarket
Theatre, London, 3 Nov. 1890. _Admiral Guinea_ was played at the
_Avenue Theatre_, on the afternoon of 29 Nov. 1897, and, like the
others, was not successful. _The Athenaeum_ for 4 Dec. 1897 contains
an interesting criticism of this drama.... _Semiramis_ was the
original plan of a "tragedy," which Stevenson afterwards rewrote as a
novel, _Prince Otto_, and published in 1885.]

[Note 7: _It was so Keats learned_. This must be swallowed with a
grain of salt. The best criticism of the poetry of Keats is contained
in his own _Letters_, which have been edited by Colvin and by Forman.]

[Note 8: _Montaigne ... Cicero_. Montaigne, as a child, spoke Latin
before he could French: see his _Essays_. Montaigne is always
original, frank, sincere: Cicero (in his orations) is always a

[Note 9: _Burns ... Shakespeare_. Some reflection on, and
investigation of these statements by Stevenson, will be highly
beneficial to the student.]

[Note 10: The literary scales. It is very interesting to note that
Thomas Carlyle had completely mastered the technique of ordinary prose
composition, before he deliberately began to write in his own
picturesque style, which has been called "Carlylese"; note the
enormous difference in style between his _Life of Schiller_ (1825) and
his _Sartor Resartus_ (1833-4). Carlyle would be a shining
illustration of the point Stevenson is trying to make.]

No notes have been added to the second and third parts of this essay,
as these portions are unimportant, and may be omitted by the student;
they are really introductory to something quite different, and are
printed in our edition only to make this essay complete.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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