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EDMUND CLARENCE STEDMAN
THE WORK OF ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
[Address by Edmund Clarence Stedman, poet and critic (born in Hartford, Conn., October 8, 1833; --), delivered in Carnegie Hall, New York City, January 4, 1895, at a memorial meeting held to do honor to the memory of Robert Louis. Stevenson. The meeting was given under the auspices of the Uncut Leaves Society. Mr. Stedman presided, and the list of fifty vice-presidents included many notable names.]
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN :—Such an assemblage—in the chief city of the Western World—is impressive from the fact that we have not come together for any civic, or political, or academic purpose. I have been thinking, too, of its significance in view of considerations quite apart from the sorrowful cause of our gathering. But of these this is not the time to speak. On its face, this demonstration is a rare avowal of the worth of literary invention. It shows a profound regard for the career of a writer who delighted us, a sense of loss instantaneously awakened by the news of his taking-off. For the moment we realize how thoroughly art and song and letters have become for us an essential part of life—a common ground whereupon we join our human love and laughter and tears, and at times forego all else to strew laurel and myrtle for one who has moved us to these signs and emotions.
Yes, we are brought together by tidings, almost from the antipodes, of the death of a beloved writer in his early prime. The work of a romancer and poet, of a man of insight and feeling, which may be said to have begun but fifteen years ago, has ended, through fortune's sternest cynicism, just as it seemed entering upon even more splen
did achievement. A star surely rising, as we thought, has suddenly gone out.
A radiant invention shines no more; the voice is hushed of a creative mind, expressing its fine imaginings in this, our peerless English tongue. His expression was so original and fresh from Nature's treasurehouse, so prodigal and various its too brief flow, so consummate through an inborn gift made perfect by unsparing toil that mastery of the art by which Robert Louis Stevenson conveyed those imaginings to us: so picturesque, yet wisely ordered, his own romantic life-and now, at last, so pathetic a loss, which renews
The Virgilian cry,
that this assemblage has gathered, at the first summons, in tribute to a beautiful genius, and to avow that with the putting out of that bright intelligence the reading world experiences a more than wonted grief.
Stevenson was not of our own people, though he sojourned with us and knew our continent from east to west as few of this large audience can know it. But a British author now, by statutory edict, is of our own. Certainly his fame is often made by the American people-yes, and sometimes unmade. Theirs is the great amphitheatrum. They are the ultimate court of review. All the more we are here “for the honor of literature”; and so much the more it is manifest that the writer who lightens our hearts, who takes us into some new wonderland of his discovery, belongs, as I say, to the world. His name and fame are, indeed, a special glory of the country that bore him, and a vantage to his native tongue. But by just so much as his gift is absolute, and therefore universal, he belongs in the end to the world at large. Above all, it is the recounter-and the Greeks were clear-headed in deeming him a maker, whether his story be cast in prose or versewho becomes the darling of mankind. This has been so whether among the Grecian isles, or around the desert camp-fires, or in the gardens of Italy; and is so when he brings us his romance, as in our modern day, from our Pacific Eldorado, or from Indian barracks and jungle, or from the land of the Stuarts, or, like Stevenson and our
own Melville before him, from palm-fringed beaches of the Southern Seas.
Judged by the sum of his interrupted work, Stevenson had his limitations. But the work was adjusted to the scale of a possibly long career. As it was, the good fairies brought all gifts, save that of health, to his cradle, and the gift-spoiler wrapped them in a shroud. Thinking of what his art seemed leading to—for things that would be the crowning efforts of other men seemed 'prentice-work in his case-it was not safe to bound his limitations. And now it is as if Sir Walter, for example, had died at forty-four, with the “Waverley Novels” just begun! In originality, in the conception of action and situation, which, however fantastic, are seemingly within reason, once we breathe the air of his Fancyland; in the union of bracing and heroic character and adventure; in all that belongs to talewriting pure and simple, his gift was exhaustless. No other such charmer, in this wise, has appeared in his generation. We thought the stories, the fairy tales, had all been told, but “Once upon a time” meant for him our own time, and the grave and gay magic of Prince Florizel in dingy London or sunny France. All this is but one of his provinces, however distinctive. Besides, how he buttressed his romance with apparent truth! Since Defoe, none had a better right to say: “There was one thing I determined to do when I began this long story, and that was to tell out everything as it befel."
One or two points are made clear as we look at the shining calendar of Stevenson's productive years. It strengthens one in the faith that work of the first order cannot remain obscure. If put forth underhanded it will be found out and will make its way. In respect of dramatic force, exuberant fancy, and ceaselessly varying imagination on the one hand, and on the other of a style wrought in the purest, most virile and most direct temper of English narrative prose, there has been no latter-day writing more effective than that of Stevenson's longer fictions"Kidnapped,” with its sequel, “David Balfour"; "The Master of Ballantrae," and that most poetic of absolute romances, “Prince Otto." But each of his shorter tales as well, and of his essays—charged with individuality–has a quality, an air of distinction, which, even though the
thing appeared without signature, differentiated it from other people's best, set us to discovering its authorship, and made us quick to recognize that master-hand elsewhere.
Thus I remember delighting in two fascinating stories of Paris in the time of François Villon, anonymously reprinted by a New York paper from a London magazine. They had all the quality, all the distinction, of which I speak. Shortly afterward I met Mr. Stevenson, then in his twenty-ninth year, at a London club, where we chanced to be the only loungers in an upper room. To my surprise he opened a conversation-you know there could be nothing more unexpected than that in London—and thereby I guessed that he was as much, if not as far, away from home as I was. He asked many questions concerning “the States”; in fact, this was but a few months before he took his steerage passage for our shores. I was drawn to the young Scotsman at once. He seemed more like a New Englander of Holmes's Brahmin caste, who might have come from Harvard or Yale. he grew animated I thought, as others have thought, and as one would suspect from his name, that he must have Scandinavian blood in his veins—that he was of the heroic, restless, strong and tender Viking strain, and certainly from that day his works and wanderings have not belied the surmise. He told me that he was the author of that charming book of gipsying in the Cévennes which just then had gained for him some attentions from the literary set. But if I had known that he had written those two stories of Sixteenth-century Paris—as I learned afterward when they reappeared in the “New Arabian Nights”
-I would not have bidden him good-by as to an “unfledged comrade," but would have wished indeed to grapple him to my soul with hooks of steel.”
Another point is made clear as crystal by his life itself. He had the instinct, and he had the courage, to make it the servant, and not the master, of the faculty within him. I say he had the courage, but so potent was his birth-spell that doubtless he could not otherwise. Nothing commonplace sufficed him.
A regulation stay-at-home life would have been fatal to his art. The ancient mandate, “ Follow thy Genius," was well obeyed. Unshackled free
dom of person and habit was a prerequisite; as an imaginary artist he felt—Nature keeps her poets and storytellers children to the last-he felt, if he ever reasoned it out, that he must“gang his own gait,” whether it seemed promising, or the reverse, to kith, kin, or alien. So his wanderings were not only in the most natural but in the wisest consonance with his creative dreams. Wherever he went, he found something essential for his use, breathed upon it, and returned it fourfold in beauty and worth. The longing of the Norseman for the tropic, of the pine for the palm, took him to the South Seas. There, too, strange secrets were at once revealed to him, and every island became an “Isle of Voices." Yes, an additional proof of Stevenson's artistic mission lay in his careless, careful, liberty of life; in that he was an artist no less than in his work. He trusted to the impulse which possessed him--that which so many of us have conscientiously disobeyed and too late have found ourselves in reputable bondage to circumstances.
But those whom you are waiting to hear will speak more fully of all this—some of them with the interest of their personal remembrance—with the strength of their affection for the man beloved by young and old. In the strange and sudden intimacy with an author's record which death makes sure, we realize how notable is the list of Stevenson's works produced since 1878; more than a score of books—not fiction alone, but also essays, criticism, biography, drama, even history, and, as I need not remind you, that spontaneous poetry which comes only from a true poet. None can have failed to observe that, having recreated the story of adventure, he seemed in his later fiction to interfuse a subtler purpose—the search for character, the analysis of mind and soul. Just here his summons came. Between the sunrise of one day and the sunset of the next he exchanged the forest study for the mountain grave. There, as he had sung his own wish, he lies “under the wide and starry sky.' If there was something of his own romance, so exquisitely capricious, in the life of Robert Louis Stevenson, so, also, the poetic conditions are satisfied in his death, and in the choice of his burial-place upon the top of Pala. As for the splendor of that maturity upon which we counted, now never to be