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Robert Louis Stevenson: A Memorial

Personal Cheerfulness And Invented Gloom
NOW, it is in its own way surely a very remarkable thing that Stevenson, who, like a
youth, was all for HEITERKEIT, cheerfulness, taking and giving of pleasure, for relief,
change, variety, new impressions, new sensations, should, at the time he did, have
conceived and written a story like THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE - all in a grave,
grey, sombre tone, not aiming even generally at what at least indirectly all art is
conceived to aim at - the giving of pleasure: he himself decisively said that it "lacked all
pleasurableness, and hence was imperfect in essence." A very strange utterance in face of
the oft-repeated doctrine of the essays that the one aim of art, as of true life, is to
communicate pleasure, to cheer and to elevate and improve, and in face of two of his
doctrines that life itself is a monitor to cheerfulness and mirth. This is true: and it is only
explainable on the ground that it is youth alone which can exult in its power of
accumulating shadows and dwelling on the dark side - it is youth that revels in the
possible as a set-off to its brightness and irresponsibility: it is youth that can delight in its
own excess of shade, and can even dispense with sunshine - hugging to its heart the
memory of its own often self-created distresses and conjuring up and, with self-
satisfaction, brooding over the pain and imagined horrors of a lifetime. Maturity and age
kindly bring their own relief - rendering this kind of ministry to itself no longer desirable,
even were it possible. THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE indeed marks the crisis. It
shows, and effectively shows, the other side of the adventure passion - the desire of
escape from its own sombre introspections, which yet, in all its "go" and glow and glitter,
tells by its very excess of their tendency to pass into this other and apparently opposite.
But here, too, there is nothing single or separate. The device of piracy, etc., at close of
BALLANTRAE, is one of the poorest expedients for relief in all fiction.
Will in WILL O' THE MILL presents another. When at the last moment he decides that it
is not worth while to get married, the author's then rather incontinent philosophy - which,
by-the-bye, he did not himself act on - spoils his story as it did so much else. Such an
ending to such a romance is worse even than any blundering such as the commonplace
inventor could be guilty of, for he would be in a low sense natural if he were but
commonplace. We need not therefore be surprised to find Mr Gwynn thus writing:
"The love scenes in WEIR OF HERMISTON are almost unsurpassable; but the central
interest of the story lies elsewhere - in the relations between father and son. Whatever the
cause, the fact is clear that in the last years of his life Stevenson recognised in himself an
ability to treat subjects which he had hitherto avoided, and was thus no longer under the
necessity of detaching fragments from life. Before this, he had largely confined himself
to the adventures of roving men where women had made no entrance; or, if he treated of
a settled family group, the result was what we see in THE MASTER OF
BALLANTRAE."
 
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