Robert Louis Stevenson

Stevenson wrote this essay for the British Weekly in 1887.  It was reprinted in The Art of Writing in 1905.

    The essay has been abridged for reasons of space.

 

he most influential books, and the truest in their influence, are works of fiction.  They do not pin the reader to a dogma, which he must afterwards discover to be inexact; they do not teach him a lesson, which he must afterwards unlearn.  But the course of our education is answered best by those poems and romances where we breathe a magnanimous atmosphere of thought and meet generous and pious characters.  Shakespeare has served me best.  Few living friends have had upon me an influence so strong for good as Hamlet or Rosalind.  The last character, already well beloved in the reading, I had the good fortune to see, I must think, in an impressionable hour, played by Mrs. Scott Siddons.  Nothing has ever more moved, more delighted, more refreshed me; nor has the influence quite passed away.  Kent’s brief speech over the dying Lear had a great effect upon my mind, and was the burthen of my reflections for long, so profoundly, so touchingly generous did it appear in sense, so overpowering in expression.  Perhaps my dearest and best friend outside of Shakespeare is D’Artagnan - the elderly D’Artagnan of the Vicomte de Bragelonne.  I know not a more human soul, nor, in his way, a finer; I shall be very sorry for the man who is so much of a pedant in morals that he cannot learn from the Captain of Musketeers.  Lastly, I must name the Pilgrim’s Progress, a book that breathes of every beautiful and valuable emotion.

 

 book which has been very influential upon me fell early into my hands, and so may stand first, though I think its influence was only sensible later on, and perhaps still keeps growing, for it is a book not easily outlived: the Essais of Montaigne.  That temperate and genial picture of life is a great gift to place in the hands of persons of today; they will find in these smiling pages a magazine of heroism and wisdom, all of an antique strain; they will have their “linen decencies” and excited orthodoxies fluttered, and will (if they have any gift of reading) perceive that these have not been fluttered without some excuse and ground of reason; and (again if they have any gift of reading) they will end by seeing that this old gentleman was in a dozen ways a finer fellow, and held in a dozen ways a nobler view of life, than they or their contemporaries.

 

he next book, in order of time, to influence me, was the New Testament, and in particular the Gospel according to St. Matthew.  I believe it would startle and move any one if they could make a certain effort of imagination and read it freshly like a book, not droningly and dully like a portion of the Bible.  Anyone would then be able to see in it those truths which we are all courteously supposed to know and all modestly refrain from applying.  But upon this subject is it perhaps better to be silent.

 

come next to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a book of singular service, a book which tumbled the world upside down for me, blew into space a thousand cobwebs of genteel and ethical illusion, and, having thus shaken my tabernacles of lies, set me back again upon a strong foundation of all the original and manly virtues.  But it is, once more, only a book for those who have the gift of reading.

 

lose upon the back of my discovery of Whitman, I came under the influence of Herbert Spencer.  No more persuasive rabbi exists, and few better.  How much of his vast structure will bear the touch of time, how much is clay and how much brass, it were too curious to inquire.  But his words, if dry, are always manly and honest; there dwells in his pages a spirit of highly abstract joy, plucked naked like an algebraic symbol but still joyful; and the reader will find there a caput mortuum of piety, with little indeed of its loveliness, but with most of its essentials; and these two qualities make him a wholesome, as his intellectual vigour makes him a bracing, writer.  I should be much of a hound if I lost my gratitude to Herbert Spencer.

 

oethe’s Life, by Lewes, had a great importance for me when it first fell into my hands - a strange instance of the partiality of man’s good and man’s evil.  I know no one whom I less admire than Goethe; he seems a very epitome of the sins of genius, breaking open the doors of private life, and wantonly wounding friends, in that crowning offence of Werther, and in his own character a mere pen-and-ink Napoleon, conscious of the rights and duties of superior talents as a Spanish inquisitor was conscious of the rights and duties of his office.  And yet in his fine devotion to his art, in his honest and serviceable friendship for Schiller, what lessons are contained!  Biography, usually so false to its office, does here for once perform for us some of the work of fiction, reminding us, that is, of the truly mingled tissue of man’s nature, and how huge faults and shining virtues cohabit and persevere in the same character.

 

his brings us by a natural transition to a very noble book - the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  The dispassionate gravity, the noble forgetfulness of self, the tenderness of others, that are there expressed and were practised on so great a scale in the life of its writer, make this book a book quite by itself.  No one can read it and not be moved.  Yet it scarcely or rarely appeals to the feelings - those very trusty parts of man.  Its address lies further back: its lesson comes more deeply home; when you have read, you carry away with you a memory of the man himself; it is as though you had touched a loyal hand, looked into brave eyes, and made a noble friend; there is another bond on you thenceforward, binding you to life and to the love of virtue.

 

ordsworth should perhaps come next.  Every one has been influenced by Wordsworth, and it is hard to tell precisely how.  A certain innocence, a rugged austerity of joy, a sight of the stars, “the silence that is in the lonely hills,” something of the cold thrill of dawn, cling to his work and give it a particular address to what is best in us.  I do not know that you learn a lesson; you need not - Mill did not - agree with any one of his beliefs; and yet the spell is cast.  Such are the best teachers; a dogma learned is only a new error - the old one was perhaps as good; but a spirit communicated is a perpetual possession.  These best teachers climb beyond teaching to the plane of art; it is themselves, and what is best in themselves, that they communicate.

 

 should never forgive myself if I forgot The Egoist.  It is art, if you like, but it belongs purely to didactic art, and from all the novels I have read (and I have read thousands) stands in a place by itself.  Here is a Nathan for the modern David; here is a book to send the blood into men’s faces.  Satire, the angry picture of human faults, is not great art; we can all be angry with our neighbour; what we want is to be shown, not his defects, of which we are too conscious, but his merits, to which we are too blind.  And The Egoist is a satire; so much must be allowed; but it is a satire of a singular quality, which tells you nothing of that obvious mote, which is engaged from first to last with that invisible beam.  It is yourself that is hunted down; these are your own faults that are dragged into the day and numbered, with lingering relish, with cruel cunning and precision.  A young friend of Mr. Meredith’s (as I have the story) came to him in an agony.  “This is too bad of you,” he cried.  “Willoughby is me!”  “No, my dear fellow,” said the author; “he is all of us.”  I have read The Egoist five or six times myself, and I mean to read it again; for I am like the young friend of the anecdote - I think Willoughby an unmanly but a very serviceable exposure of myself.

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