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STEVENSON AS AN INTERPRETER OF LIFE 85
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON AS AN INTERPRETER
JAMES ALLEN GEISSINGER
It is difficult to think of Robert Louis Stevenson as other than
the creator of delightful and weird romances. His name always
calls up Treasure Island — not to mention the other progeny of
his fruitful imagination — Treasure Island and the higher geog-
raphy. Stevenson will always stand forth as master of the finest
artistry and as a modern symbol of the imagination. And it
seems nothing short of sheer prose to turn from the fairy world
flung into space by the deftness and swiftness of this man's fancy
to our gray world of every day.
Yet Dr. Japp and Mr. Zangwill both insist that he will finally
be remembered as an essayist and not as a romancer. We must
all of us agree, I think, that whatever comes of Stevenson the
fictionist, Stevenson the essayist has enriched the world by his
half-dozen slim volumes of comment on life and men. If we think
of the essay as a bit of preachment, we may still think of Stevenson
as an essayist. He seems to like the role of preacher; and what-
ever our own homiletical notions may be, we must admit that his
preaching is always fresh, human, and in good spirit; his truths
stay with us and his disclosures send us afield for more truth, —
qualities all preaching does not possess. " To be honest, to be kind ,
to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make upon the whole a
family the happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be
necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few friends, but these
without capitulation — above all, on the same grim condition, to keep
friends with himself — here is a task for all that a man has of forti-
tude and delicacy." This is commonplace truth put with such
finality and authority that, if it has not become scripture, it has
at least served as a text for not a few preachers.
What could be more delightful than this from An InlandVoyage?
86 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
Stevenson and his companion are off in their canoes. The lads
and lasses of Origny run along the banks of the Oise, cheering.
The last of those to send their adieus after the gay voyagers are
the three graces, and just as the canoes flash round a bend in the
stream, one of the girls leaps upon a tree-stump and kisses her
hand to the canoeists, crying gleefully, " Come back again, come
back again." To which challenge, our preacher cannot refrain
from replying from beneath his gypsy mask: —
Come back again? There is no coming back, young ladies, on the
impetuous stream of life.
'The merchant bows unto the seaman's star,
The ploughman from the sun his season takes.'
And we must all set our pocket watches by the clock of fate. There is a
headlong, forthright tide, that bears away man with his fancies like straw,
and runs fast in time and space. It is full of curves like this, your winding
river of Oise; and lingers and returns in pleasant pastorals; and yet,
rightly thought upon, never returns at all. For though it should revisit
the same acre of meadow in the same hour, it will have made an ample
sweep between whiles; many little streams will have fallen in; many
exhalations risen towards the sun; and even although it were the same
acre, it will not be the same river Oise. And thus, O graces of Origny,
although the wandering fortune of my life should carry me back again
to where you await death's whistle by the river, that will not be the
old I who walks the street; and those wives and mothers, say will those
be you ?
Some one may think that this comes very near being, what any
preaching may easily become, platitudinous; yet it is saved by the
freshness of the treatment, by the blithe spirit of the preacher,
and by the swish of the paddles that he manages to get into his
It is said that Coleridge once asked Charles Lamb if he had ever
heard him preach. Lamb replied, "I never heard you do any-
thing else." We may say the same for Stevenson. Let no one
protest that he was rather an artist. I do not mean that he was a
boor. I know that he never wears the prophet's rage like Carlyle,
and is never confessedly a teacher of men like Ruskin. He is also
STEVENSON AS AN INTERPRETER OF LIFE 87
unconventional, both as to subject and treatment. He affects "a
light conscience." He assumes a care-free manner. He speaks
very much as if he were a scarcely interested spectator of the splen-
did pageant of life. Still he cannot deceive us. It is easy to see
where his heart is. The universe haunts him. He travels far
and is always interested in new lands, yet deeper than that interest
is his interest in life. He is always trying to get " back of beyond."
He rides with a careless grace in his canoe, or astride Modestine,
or in the steerage; yet he is always looking out of the tail of his eye
at life. He will take the universe unawares and surprise it out of
its secret. As he goes to and fro in the world " full of a number
of things," he is ever singing the " beauty and terror of the world."
I have always thought that that picture of him that shows him a
gaunt invalid, propped up in pillows, the haunting face circled
with unkempt hair, the eyes looking far away
To where the roads on either hand
Lead onward into fairy land.
gives us the soul of the man. He is ever doing one thing, in essay
or romance — spelling out the meaning of life.
This is not to be wondered at, whether we think of the man's
inheritance and experience, or whether we remind ourselves that we
are all doing the same thing most of our time. An ancient worthy
assures us that God hath given to the sons of men this sore travail
to be exercised therewith. And long before his day men were
searching out by wisdom all things done under the sun. At the
present moment an especial interest is manifest in the interpre-
tion of life, as can be seen from our periodical literature and the
lecture platform. The pity is, not that this is so, but that so much
of the discourse on life rests upon meagre data, small observation,
and limited experience, and proceeds in a petulant mood to a dis-
heartening conclusion. For the most part our latter-day prophets
make us to feel the "devouringelement in the universe " rather than
the universe; while those truths revealed to babes and savages and
" hid from political economists " are never set before us. The cur-
rent reading of life is altogether partial, because so ill-informed.
We need to get this point if we are to realize Stevenson's value to
88 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
his generation, and we may believe to all generations, as an in-
terpreter of life.
In our childhood we have no suspicion of the universe. We
never imagine that we could have made a better one. We are in
"eternal brotherhood with it." Life then, whatever its outward
seeming, always " has a golden chamber at the heart of it." Then
we hear "the nightingale singing" and the "music of the runnel."
Life is an opportunity for admiration and joy. Even to the end,
for not a few men, life is fraught with hope. Until the autumn
time, many a man commits himself to the sunshine on the hills, the
laughter of children, gracious women, true men, bird-songs and
apple-blossoms; believes in these things as much as he does in
" old iron, cheap desires, and cheap fears," and thinks of them
more. Some, indeed, like Paul the apostle, grow in capacity
for faith, hope, and love, with the years, as every normal person
should; but a pathetically large number lose their sight as they
grow older. For many of us the bloom of the world gets rubbed
off as we go forward across the continent of the years. Then it
is that we grow conscious of the catastrophe and forget the myrtle
vine. We see nature red in tooth and claw. We accept that
miserable fable from the Orient that tells us that life is but the
clinging to a wild vine upon which the mice remorselessly gnaw,
while the dragon waits patiently below and the beast watches re-
lentlessly above. Our only possibility is a lick at the honey ac-
cidentally caught on the wild bush at our side. A delirium-tremens
view of life, one would say; yet a number of folk who would re-
sent any insinuation of nervous disorder on their part hold this
view of the universe and life. Indeed, they seem to get a kind
of satisfaction in thinking of the mud and old iron, the poison-
berries and pestilences, the ironies and hardships, that enter into
the mixture of life. To every man with a reasonably good diges-
tion and a normal perspective of life these fellows must seem to
be the blue-devils philosophers, and by good rights ought to join
the Suicide Club.
Stevenson had no sympathy with such representations of life.
He does not belong in the company of such interpreters. From
the first he believed in himself, his fellows, life, and God. He
says somewhere, "There is manifestly a God if we want to find
STEVENSON AS AN INTERPRETER OF LIFE 89
him." Spite of the rampant materialism in the thought of his
time, life was always to him more than "a Permanent Possibility
of Sensation," and not even the capitalization of the theorem
could make up for its other deficiencies. He believed in the
"livableness of life." He saw that pessimism is not convincing.
Some few men may believe in it. Many other men may believe
that they believe in it; but when they draw their chairs in to
dinner, it is evident that their philosophy of life sits lightly upon
them. The multitude of men and women, Stevenson saw, live
their lives with a relish, enjoy their dinners, make their jests with
an unmistakable satisfaction, and sleep through the night. This
fact weighed with Stevenson, as did the simple faith of the chil-
dren. So he proclaims the world excellent, revels in the com-
panionship of children, remembers the faces of women without
desire, is pleased with the deeds of men without envy, and has
an affection for his paddle. In his early manhood he had a dislike
for what he calls the " Bastile of civilization." He had no lust
for the glory and the wealth that come to him who "can sit
squarest on a three-legged stool." He could not see that man's
wash-bowl has a right to be considered a worthy competitor of
God's river, if the imagination is to be cleansed. Yet as he grew
older he came to love even civilization, to see registered in it an
age-long and gigantic striving on the part of man, not wholly use-
less. So in the closing years our gypsily-inclined philosopher,
carrying with him the fragrance of the out-of-doors, becomes some-
thing of a patriarch, with a numerous household about him and
a personal interest in all the affairs of his island empire.
In other words, Stevenson is the prophet of good cheer. The
world as he sees it is a heartening place. Suspicion of the
nature of things is contemptible. To lack faith is to think that
God is not a gentleman. Pessimism becomes an infinite inso-
lence, a suspicion that does not speak well for the character of its
Those of us who have been compelled to listen to the current
mouthings of a cheap cyncism, much in vogue, who have been
pelted and pestered with the ooze and slime of things in general,
have no difficulty in understanding the welcome that was given
90 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
at once to Stevenson's protest. His life and his word came as a
clean, heartening breath of air. This is generally recognized.
No one questions but that he has added immensely to the good
cheer of human-kind. We do well, however, to keep one other
fact before our minds when we think of this service : his protest
was not merely instinctive.
There are evidently not a few critics who tacitly assume that
his view of life was largely temperamental. Well, it was temper-
amental. His life enters into his message, and was back of all
his preaching. I think we should not try to question this point.
His temperament must be taken into account, and also his train-
ing, and his inheritance, and his opportunity for seeing life, and
his experience as a sufferer. His temperament was anything but
morbid. All of his intimate friends remark the gaiety of the
man. His coming into the room was always like the lighting of
another candle. He was no juniper-bush fellow. On the con-
trary, he was a blithe pilgrim, and at the start struck a good stride
as he took the road for the City. He loved the road and the
morning and the valley. He knew Seigneur, and had found
"him the best of acquaintances." He was a Scotchman. Yes,
yet not a Shorter Catechist, nor a gypsy, nor a Bohemian; but a
genial, brotherly traveller, who somewhere, sometime, must have
been converted to the "religion of healthy-mindedness." And
though for twelve long years the road ran for him along the Valley
of the Shadow, he was all that way "a fellow with something
pushing and spontaneous in his inside," and strode right on with
unflagging courage, leaving behind him "a hopeful impulse that
has immensely bettered the tradition of mankind."
Still, the man's temperament does not account for his view of
life. That was reached by a rational process. It came as the
result of his large knowledge of the facts of life, of his powers of
divination, and of the penetration of his vision.
The interpreters to whom reference has been made lack both
in powers of vision and generalization. They see life in spots.
They abstract a section of the universe and look at it under their
glasses. They literally yank facts out of their settings to study
them. They have a capacity for single notes or for the simple
themes of life, but not for the great symphony. Their conclusions
STEVENSON AS AN INTERPRETER OF LIFE 91
are worthless because so partial. Life, whole and living — this
is beyond them. They have not the poet's vision, nor the poet's
method, nor the poet's artistry. The forward movement of life,
the universal lift, registered in the history of man and the cosmos,
they have never divined. One gets up from the average book
that treats of life, that essays to interpret life to us, and goes forth
into the real world, bearing as it does upon its whole face the
image of God, and is conscious of one great fact: our book-man
has lost the bloom of the world in his reproduction of it — the
bloom and the perspective and the liveness. Much of our phi-
losophizing on life is as true as the average amateurish land-
scape sketch, and no truer. Its hard lines, crude drawing, and
wooden surface may suggest to its author the loveliness of the
earth, but it is no symbol of that subtle beauty to the general
Herein is the genius of Stevenson. He has both vision and
the poet's synthetic power. He sees life whole. His picture
sets reality before us with the charm and beauty of reality still
upon it, satisfying the eyes and the imagination alike. And we
may be sure that this kind comes only by patient brooding and
quiet thinking, and then only to those to whom the Muses have
been unusually generous.
I insist upon this point, as it makes his message all the more
significant. And we have his own word for our insistence.
We know that he was reared of Scotch parents, under the Scotch
creed. We know that he very early began to make notes upon life
for himself. We know that he early turned away from his father's
Calvinism. The reaction was not violent; still it was important.
We are told that various influences soon cured his soul and brought
him the vision of God and the Moral Order. These facts help us
to understand much of what he has said, and enable us to better
appreciate his intellectual temper. Of this experience, or of these
experiences, he says: "I came about like a well-handled ship.
There stood at the wheel that unknown steersman, whom we call
God." His word for it, then, his view of life was an achievement.
In the light of his ancestral inheritance, his parental training, his
course of life, his temperament, and his suffering, this is all the
more important. It will not do for us to wave his word aside as
92 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
but the welling up of a happy, care-free heart. He speaks only after
a large experience and when his imagination has made the whole
circle of truth.
Ihis may seem like making too serious a claim. I know his
books are not heavy, lengthy treatises. He deals in no scientific
or philosophic jargon. Yet we should not be misled by the gaiety
of his manner nor by the lightness of his touch. He is following
most closely Nature's method: a delicate line, a filmy hint, an
elusive signal. Nature, whenever we go to her, refuses to give ua
truth in broadsides. She never puts her word into the form of a
systematic theology. Still, her suggestions are worthy of our
attention. They mark the path to all the truth we shall ever
know. Stevenson discloses the greatness of his art in the delicacy
of his portraiture. We are stupid indeed if we think that such
work indicates a lack of largeness and sincerity and earnestness in
the intellectual processes of the man. So when Stevenson insists
that life is good and livable and that he knows Seigneur, we are to
take him seriously.
Here is an example of what is meant. He had slept the night
in God's great hostelry. Setting out anew on his journey, he
registers his gratitude: "The room was airy, the water excellent,
and the dawn had called me to a moment. I say nothing of the
tapestries or the inimitable ceiling, nor yet of the view which I
commanded from the windows ; but I felt that I was in some one's
debt for all this liberal entertainment. And so it pleased me, in a
half-laughing way, to leave pieces of money on the turf as I went
along, until I had left enough for my night's lodging. I trust
they did not fall to some rich and churlish drover." We mistake
if we think of this as a mere youthful, whimsical doing, or as a
dramatic turn. It is the outgoing of a reverent, grateful, and
One cannot but think of " Sweet Saint Francis" and his preach-
ing to the birds that gather "from moor and mere and darkest
wood " around Assisi's convent gate — a prac tice on the part of the
mystic saint that admits of most severe criticism if we are only
prosaic enough ; but the poet Longfellow points the deeper mean-
ing. The feathered throng departs —
STEVENSON AS AN INTERPRETER OF LIFE 93
Deep peace was in Saint Francis' heart.
He knew not if the brotherhood
His homily understood;
He only knew that to one Ear
The meaning of his words was clear.
Stevenson's "settling" for his liberal entertainment is of a piece
with the preaching to the birds.
It is said that Stevenson was once in a boat which was bearing
several Sisters of Charity to a lepers' island. As the boat neared
the shore and the women caught sight of their future of suffering
and isolation, they were very much moved and sat quietly weeping.
What finer or more tender or truer word could have been spoken
to them under the circumstances than that spoken by Stevenson ?
"Ladies, God himself is here to give you welcome." Only one
who really knows Seigneur can ever speak like that, and we must
let such words mean all they can.
So of the Vailima prayers. They have become justly famed.
Yet it is a mistake to think of them as simply artistic prod-
ucts, though that they are. They ought to speak to us of a pro-
found and beautiful faith in God, however gaily they seem to trip
If any one still believes that Stevenson's interpretation of life
is largely temperamental rather than rational, let him read this:
" If I from my spy-hole, looking with purblind eyes upon the least
part of a fraction of the universe, yet perceive in my own destiny
some broken evidences of a plan, and some signals of an over-
ruling goodness, shall I then be so mad as to complain that all
cannot be explained ? Shall I not rather wonder with infinite and
grateful surprise, that in so vast a scheme I seem to have been
able to read, however little, and that little encouraging to faith?"
Here in his own words he tells us that his life-view is an achieve-
We all set forth with an instinctive faith in the world. The
problem of life, as it presents itself to the intellect, seems to be to
adjust this faith to our enlarging and often disconcerting experi-
ence. Not a few are utterly unable to do this, and journey most
of the way with the "mists of darkness" upon their eyes. A
larger number cling to their childhood faith, whether or not they
94 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
can rationalize it. Stevenson was gifted above his fellows, was
poet and mystic; yet he, too, had to wait. But he was one who
could wait. He had it in him to cling to his paddle. And he
clung instinctively to his faith until the mists burned off and the
whole valley of the earth lay before him in the glory of the sun-
light. His victory was facilitated by temperament and a long
experience of suffering, yet possible, after all, because of an un-
usual gift of vision and imagination.
And this Robert Louis Stevenson, who sets forth life whole and
with the glory of God upon it, so that a love for it arises in our
hearts, belongs of good right, not simply because of his romances,
but because of his preaching, among the immortals.