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Robert Louis Stevenson: A Memorial

Stevenson's Gloom
THE problem of Stevenson's gloom cannot be solved by any commonplace cut-and-dried
process. It will remain a problem only unless (1) his original dreamy tendency crossed, if
not warped, by the fatalistic Calvinism which was drummed into him by father, mother,
and nurse in his tender years, is taken fully into account; then (2) the peculiar action on
such a nature of the unsatisfying and, on the whole, distracting effect of the bohemian
and hail- fellow-well-met sort of ideal to which he yielded, and which has to be charged
with much; and (3) the conflict in him of a keenly social animus with a very strong
egotistical effusiveness, fed by fancy, and nourished by the enforced solitariness
inevitable in the case of one who, from early years up, suffered from painful, and even
crushing, disease.
His text and his sermon - which may be shortly summed in the following sentence - be
kind, for in kindness to others lies the only true pleasure to be gained in life; be cheerful,
even to the point of egotistic self-satisfaction, for through cheerfulness only is the flow of
this incessant kindliness of thought and service possible. He was not in harmony with the
actual effect of much of his creative work, though he illustrated this in his life, as few
men have done. He regarded it as the highest duty of life to give pleasure to others; his art
in his own idea thus became in an unostentatious way consecrated, and while he would
not have claimed to be a seer, any more than he would have claimed to be a saint, as he
would have held in contempt a mere sybarite, most certainly a vein of unblamable
hedonism pervaded his whole philosophy of life. Suffering constantly, he still was always
kindly. He encouraged, as Mr Gosse has said, this philosophy by every resource open to
him. In practical life, all who knew him declared that he was brightness, naive fancy, and
sunshine personified, and yet he could not help always, somehow, infusing into his
fiction a pronounced, and sometimes almost fatal, element of gloom. Even in his own
case they were not pleasure-giving and failed thus in essence. Some wise critic has said
that no man can ever write well creatively of that in which in his early youth he had no
knowledge. Always behind Stevenson's latest exercises lies the shadow of this as an
unshifting background, which by art may be relieved, but never refined away wholly. He
cannot escape from it if he would. Here, too, as George MacDonald has neatly and nicely
said: We are the victims of our own past, and often a hand is put forth upon us from
behind and draws us into life backward. Here was Stevenson, with his half-hedonistic
theories of life, the duty of giving pleasure, of making eyes brighter, and casting sunshine
around one wherever one went, yet the creator of gloom for us, when all the world was
before him where to choose. This fateful shadow pursued him to the end, often giving us,
as it were, the very justificative ground for his own father's despondency and gloom,
which the son rather too decisively reproved, while he might have sympathised with it in
a stranger, and in that most characteristic letter to his mother, which we have quoted, said
that it made his father often seem, to him, to be ungrateful - "HAS THE MAN NO
GRATITUDE?" Two selves thus persistently and constantly struggled in Stevenson. He
was from this point of view, indeed, his own Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the buoyant, self-
enjoying, because pleasure-conferring, man, and at the same time the helpless yet
fascinating "dark interpreter" of the gloomy and gloom-inspiring side of life, viewed
 
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