Prince of romancers, and as essayist full of narrative description, ideas, Robert Louis Stevenson is nevertheless, first of all, a stylist. Writers there are – Lamb, De Quincey, Hazlitt, even Macaulay and Emerson in a degree –whose work has an atmosphere of books, who convey the impression that they see the world only through the refracting medium of literature. No such dabbler in the secondary and derived is Stevenson. He faced the primaries, the essential first-hand facts of life. Sailing around the Scottish coasts as a boy in his father’s visits to the light-houses; engineer’s apprentice at Anstruther harbour works: living a rackety life as an Edinburgh student; briefless barrister of the Parliament House; going the rounds of the New York publishing offices soliciting dreary employment; sick almost unto death, and alone, at a goat-ranch in the San Lucia mountains, where for two nights he lay under a tree in a stupor, till rescued and nursed back to health by a bear-hunter; canoeing with a single companion on French and Belgian rivers; sleeping out of doors on cold autumn nights in the highlands of France, accompanied only by an exasperating she ass; living in the Latin Quarter; roughing it in the steerage of an Atlantic liner; roughing it in an emigrant train; roughing it, with his wife, in a deserted mining shanty on the Californian hills; voyaging into the South Seas; contending with the jungle, the natives, and the politicians at Vailima and Apia – surely no novelist ever had such an equipment of varied experience, such a storehouse of novel reality, to exploit for the purposes of his art. Yet when all is said, we read him less for the story he has to tell than for the vivid language and the gay spirit in which he tells it.
One Use of Style.
The great value of the stylist is that he augments the resources of language by his own practice, while his example stirs the dialectic conscience of the reader. He sets the example of eschewing the language of formula; and from admiration to imitation is said to be but a step. The verbal currency of society, trade, and the newspapers is – perhaps naturally enough – for the most part a fumble with a limited set of terms. Anyone who has had occasion to write asking a business house to explain a clerical error or technical defect must have realised the utility of expecting anything outside the set phrases of Commercial Correspondence, which have nothing for the unusual contingency.
The commercial traveller who in an interview will gush and tell stories and make jokes becomes limp and colourless with a pen in his hand. The growth of ingenious and striking advertising has not weaned the business man from stereotype; the writing of advertisements has simply become a business by itself and in the counting-house the formula still reigns. In society a young person who has shed a score of defects and taken on a score of qualities in their place is merely ‘much improved’ a lecture is always simple ‘interesting’ although a lecture may be interesting in any one or more of a dozen different ways; one has even heard a rollicking, resourceful comedian described, in a burst of prim enthusiasm, as ‘an able fellow.’
In municipal language a speech is always ‘neat,’ or ‘eloquent’, or is ‘a few appropriate remarks,’ though the average speech is not neat, may have many merits in which neatness has no part, and although eloquence is of many diverse kinds. In the press a singer ‘appeared to advantage,’ or ‘gave a good account of himself,’ without any hint of the how; and the reporter who describes a graphic and rousing speaker as having received ‘a patient hearing’ often balances the account of his malapropism by saying of an audience that was dead silent and but half-awake that it listened with ‘rapt attention.’ Even to the grave we are pursued by fumbling formula and the tombstone of the man who never went to church bears witness that he was ‘of unostentatious piety.’
The Note of Stevenson’s style.
To this tepid, unexpressive phrasing, which does not necessarily correspond to tepid feeling and obtuse perception, but simply indicates mental laziness or wrong conceptions as to the function of language, Stevenson offers a supreme antidote, would the tepid folk but read the lesson. The note of his style is vividness. His periods throb with life. He observed keenly, he heard acutely, he felt intensely, and his language reflects this high mental tension. What, indeed, is all literary genius but an extra sensitiveness to the impact of ‘things as they are’?
While the desire of the average man, when he starts to write, is to find ‘the correct word,’ the recognised, well-established phrase, Stevenson enriches his vocabulary with unusual words, uses customary words in an unaccustomed significance, and avoids hackneyed phrases save in the way of humorous mimicry.
Not Always Correct.
His style is not always unexpungnable on the score of correctness. He uses the pleonastic ‘from thence,’ instead of ‘thence’ merely; he sometimes drops into siblilant ‘amongst,’ though in the same page one finds ‘among’ pleasant and simple; he writes ‘the swords rung together’ instead of rang; and the adjective ‘leisurely’ he treats as an adverb, telling us that ‘the Prince turned away and strolled leisurely in the direction of Montmartre.’ He even, in his healthy hankering after fresh, crisp terms, alights on an expression so amusing as the use of ‘pot herbs’ (kitchen stuff) to denote the ‘pot plants’ of the florist.
But as a rule his instinct for the strongest, happiest word is unerring. Style is by no means a matter of vocabulary, though Shakespeare, Milton and Carlyle have all three and exceptional range of words. It is said, by someone of a calculating bent, that Shakespeare had 15,000 words, Milton 8,000 and Carlyle 7,500, while the average good writer uses four to five thousand. Stevenson would at least run his fellow-countryman hard. Many of his effects are secured by the use of unusual words. In the story of the two Edinburgh sisters who, inhabiting the same room, lived at deadly enmity with each other, he represents them as praying for each other ‘with marrow emphasis.’
A less cunning artist would have written ‘unctuous,’ ‘suggestive,’ or some other relatively feeble because more conventional adjective. In few writers should we expect to find a frail man described as ‘debile,’ the novel word suggesting a person as he is at the end of a process of debilitation, enfeeblement. ‘Marish’ for ‘marshy’ carries no special suggestion, but has its justification in the euphony and novelty of the new-old word. ‘Poured forth among the sea’ has, similarly, only an arrestive unwontedness. ‘Degusting tenderly’ covers the whole meaning one would convey in the more cumbrous phrase ‘digesting and assimilating with infinite relish.’ The sustained song of a north-east wind is effectively suggested in ‘the high canorous note of the north-easter.’ An old man who holds up his hands in entreaty figures as ‘raising his hands in obsecration.’ The operation of tearing up by the roots is effectively rendered as ‘deracinating.’ A short, snapping sound is indicated as ‘the crepitation of the little wooden drum that beats to church’ in Samoa. Instead of weakly describing mountains shorn of their timber as deforested, Stevenson writes: ‘The displumed hills stood clear against the sky.’ Even in a familiar letter to a friend a common disability of authors is to set down as ‘scrivener’s cramp,’ and another friend is whimsically asked to ‘appoint with an appointment’ a certain day for a gathering of Stevenson’s friends to meet him at dinner on his way through London.
Sometimes we are inclined to question the accuracy of these verbal surprises. When we read that ‘frogs sang their ungainly chorus’ we feel that ‘ungainly’ applies rather to appearances than to sounds; but derivatively the word means ‘of no effect,’ uncouth, and the alternative approved words - ‘unmelodious’ or ‘hoarse’ – are both relatively unexpressive; for the tr-r-onk of the bull-frog is not really hoarse and is not only not melodious, but has an element of positive travesty in it that the word ‘ungainly’ not inaptly conveys. Stevenson has tried to find a word which is positively rather than negatively descriptive, and the arrestiveness of ‘ungainly’ is a further justification.
The Little Things.
Le no one make light of the effects produced by this scattering of cunning unusual words. Style is an appeal to the senses as well as to the intellect; and in the things of sense we are slaves to the little things. We are haunted for life by the memory of a woman’s once-heard happy, ululating laugh. A city suggests its peal of bells. A farm-stead as big as a little town lives on the mental retina only by its tun-shaped dovecot.
The elderly Scotswoman who was captivated and held in intellectual bondage by ‘that blessed word Mesopotamia,’ as pronounced by Dr. Chalmers, was not, perhaps, such an exceptional person as we have been invited to consider her.
Stevenson’s most enthralling short tale, ‘The Pavilion on the Links,’ grips me, after years, mainly by three items – two words and a passage. One of these words occurs in a few sentences describing a lonely bay bounded by two low promontories, with a beach of quicksands reputed to be able to
‘swallow a man in four minutes and a half; but the may have been little ground for this precision. The district was live with rabbits, and haunted by gulls which made a continual piping about the pavilion…at sundown in September, with a high wind, and a heavy surf rolling in close along the links, the place told of nothing but dead mariners and sea disasters. A ship beating to windward on the horizon and a huge truncheon of wreck half buried in the sands at my feet, completed the innuendo of the scene.’
‘Truncheon of wreck’ seems at first thought an unlicensed usage. A truncheon is, you say, a fashioned weapon, not a remnant of wreckage. Even then, the word is a good mouthful; and turning to the dictionary (but not until the whole exciting story is read!) you find the literal meaning of truncheon is ‘a piece of wood cut off.’
That, then, is my one memorable word in this tale. The other is the epithet ‘Traditore!’ (traitor) shouted in a formidable voice through the shutters of the lonely pavilion to terrify a fugitive in hiding there who has embezzled the funds of an Italian revolutionary society. It is night on these lonely links. The fugitive, his daughter, and two men who are standing by him for the daughter’s sake, are at dinner when their attention is taken by a sound like the rubbing of a wet finger on the window-glass. Then, like a bombshell, comes the stentorian ‘Traditore!’ from one of the enraged desperadoes who are haunting these remote and lonely downs in wait for their well-guarded prey.
‘Truncheon’ and traditore are the two catchwords of this obsessing tale; and here is the haunting passage:
The Sea-Wood of Graden had been planted to shelter the cultivated fields behinds and check the encroachments of the blowing sand. As you advanced into it from coastward elders were succeeded by other hardy shrubs; but the timber was all stunted and bushy; it led a life of conflict; the trees were accustomed to swing there all night long in fierce winter tempests; and even in early spring the leaves were already flying, and autumn was beginning, in this exposed plantation.
Divorced from its context, the passage may seem ordinary; but in situ it strikes the reader as profoundly suggestive of elemental strife and desolation. The passage is not merely staring, straightforward description, like that which we notably find in Defoe and Gilbert White; it has elements of artifice in it as well. Consider, for instance, the expression ‘The trees were accustomed to swing there all night long in fierce winter tempests.’ The trees, of course, swung by day as well as by night; but the cunning artificer realised the touch of eeriness that would be lent by the feeling of darkness superadded to the other horrors of the scene. Here, also, as in Stevenson’s prose as a whole, the light punctuation – the semicolons instead of full stops at the end of each complete simple sentence – have an effect of breathless haste, as if the whole scene could not be flashed upon you fast enough with sufficient unity of effect.
The Little More or the Little Less.
It is wonderful – perhaps to a plain man a little pitiful – how much of style is an affair of the little more or the little less. ‘What ails the folk at my sermons, John?’ said the old minister to the beadle – a tailor.
‘I give them learning, zeal and sound doctrine.’ ‘It’s the cut, minister,’ said the beadle. With a few inspired dabs and dashes of the brush, the pot-boiler takes an individuality denied to the fortnight’s moil of mediocrity. Several degrees of slope put upon two over-rounded lines transform the tubby craft into a rakish condor of the seas that will have five knots more of speed to the hour in addition to all the difference between squab ugliness and fleet beauty.
With a few touches of excision, addition, substitution, Stevenson could so suffuse with his own genius the prose of his wife or stepson that their work cannot be told from his.
The Short Sentence.
Stevenson does not write short periods. Since Macaulay’s day the simple sentence has had a great vogue, and in the interests of lucidity that is perhaps all to the good. But the content of a sentence counts for something as well as its clearness. In description, sententiousness may be natural; for description is in its essence the cataloguing of more or less separate and distinct things. But in analysis or argument a number of interacting elements combine to form the complete concept, and to chop these up into short sentences, repeating the noun or pronoun in each, is to purchase clearness at the expense of force. As one heavy projectile may effect a gaping breach in the wall which stood unharmed against a storm of petty pellets of multitudinous small arms, so a well-rounded period, built up of a number of clearly connected contributory clauses, has a dynamic force denied to a succession of mincing sentences.
Stevenson was good at imitation, and had he cared to write in short sentences he could have excelled in that style; but he let his matter determine whether his form of words should be sententious and simple or should be more complex and brilliant. ‘Brevity is good, whether you are or are not understood,’ wrote Byron. Stevenson desired his language not only to be understood – a very elementary, albeit necessary attribute of language – but also to be enjoyed; and so far is he from cultivating staccato brevity of expression that even where he might have put full stops he pointed with colons and semicolons; and, eschewing the stiffness secured by the easy device of dropping out ‘and’ and ‘but’ he made the full natural use of the conjunction. This gives his prose a fluidity and continuity denied to the short, choppy style of diction, which has a tendency to beget periods that are either pompous or inconsequential. Caesar’s ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ – an extreme example of the sententious manner - is viciously pert as English.
Wide glancing Picturesqueness.
Probably no writer has carried to such perfection as Stevenson the art of gathering together in one passage a number of suggestively picturesque details which have their effect heightened, both severally and jointly, by the mere juxtaposition, somewhat as a bevy of but moderately good-looking sisters in one household produce a cumulative impression of dazzling glamour upon the bachelor imagination, and send each other triumphantly off. What could be more wide-glancing yet more truly cognate than the details of this passage from ‘Will of the Mill’? –
One evening he asked the miller where the river went… It goes out into the lowlands, and waters the great corn country, and runs through a sight of fine cities (so they say) where kings live all alone in great palaces, with a sentry walking up and down before the door. And it goes under bridges, with stone men upon them looking down and smiling so curious at the water, and living folk leaning on their elbows on the wall and looking over too. And then it goes on and on, and down through marshes and sands, until at last it falls into the sea, where the ships are that bring tobacco and parrots from the Indies.
The river stands as the sufficient thread for all these pearls.
All this relates, of course, only to the mechanism of Stevenson’s prose. The imagination which conceived, and the constructive faculty which fashioned, a little world in each romance form another story. The pretty or forceful arrangement of words, or anything of the nature of ‘swallowing a dictionary,’ can be but a part of the secret of an imaginative writer’s charm, or simple Bunyan and slovenly Sir Walter would not be the enchanters they are.
As romancer, Stevenson’s outstanding qualities are graphic, swiftness in handling details, with the implied exclusion of the unessential; trenchant directness and compactnmess; the flashing in of such unexpected eerie features, such as the pirate Pew, with his unerring rapid gait and uncanny tapping stick – so startling, yet so feasible; and through all sustained sympathy with his creations and unflagging plausibility.
In his familiar letters, when he had no time, and there seemed to be no reason, for careful picking of terms, his hankering after virility of expression is shown by his recourse to Scottisism, ‘swear words,’ and tags of the pigeon English spoken to and by the Samoans. The ‘bad words’ are often nothing much beyond such indeterminate expletives as ‘be jowned to you!’ And as to the Scottisicms, here is an illustrative passage (from the Vailima Letters’) :-
We are all seedy, bar Lloyd; Fanny, as per above, self, nearly extinct; Belle, utterly overworked and bad toothache; Cook, down with a bad foot; Butler, prostrate with a bad leg. Eh, what a faim’ly!
As essayist his indulgent insight, culture and whimsical humour do not exclude an occasional strain of puritan severity (derived from his father); but the prevailing note is the animated optimism he had from his fun-loving mother, who wrote the characteristic motto for a friend’s guest-list:
The world is so full of a number of things,
I am sure we should all be as happy as kings.
PART TWO TO FOLLOW IN NEXT MONTH'S GATEWAY
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