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    Launch Reading Mode Next Chapter
    Chapter 8
    Previous Chapter
    I

    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
    paper.

    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.

    II

    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
    father.

    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.

    III

    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.

    NOTES

    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. _Òbermann_ 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
    _Poseur_.]

    [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.
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