The Characteristics of Robert Louis Stevenson

This article is taken from the 1902 book that G. K. Chesterton wrote with the Scottish minister W. Robertson Nicoll. The book was one of a series of eight books called “The Bookman Biographies,” six of which Chesterton co-wrote in 1902 and 1903 in collaboration other men of letters. The “Bookman Biography” on Robert Louis Stevenson was his second or third book of non-fiction.

This article is re-posted here because it epitomizes Chesterton’s philosophy of life, and the book is difficult to obtain; it is also easy to confuse with Chesterton’s much longer solo-authored book on Robert Louis Stevenson, which was published 25 years later, in 1927.


All things and all men are underrated, much by others, especially by themselves; and men grow tired of men just as they do of green grass, so that they have to seek for green carnations. All great men possess in themselves the qualities which will certainly lay them open to censure and diminishment; but these inevitable deficiencies in the greatness of great men vary in the widest degree of variety. Stevenson is open to a particularly subtle, a particularly effective and a particularly unjust disparagement.

The advantage of great men like Blake or Browning or Walt Whitman is that they did not observe the niceties of technical literature. The far greater disadvantage of Stevenson is that he did. Because he had a conscience about small matters in art, he is conceived not to have had an imagination about big ones. It is assumed by some that he must have been a bad architect, and the only reason that they can assign is that he was a good workman.

The mistake which has given rise to this conception is one that has much to answer for in numerous departments of modern art, literature, religion, philosophy, and politics. The supreme and splendid characteristic of Stevenson, was his levity; and his levity was the flower of a hundred grave philosophies. The strong man is always light: the weak man is always heavy. A swift and casual agility is the mark of bodily strength: a humane levity is the mark of spiritual strength. A thoroughly strong man swinging a sledge-hammer can tap the top of an eggshell. A weaker man swinging a sledge-hammer will break the table on which it stands into pieces. Also, if he is a very weak man, he will be proud of having broken the table, and call himself a strong man dowered with the destructive power of an Imperial race.

This is, superficially speaking, the peculiar interest of Stevenson. He had what may be called a perfect mental athleticism, which enabled him to leap from crag to crag, and to trust himself anywhere and upon any question. His splendid quality as an essayist and controversialist was that he could always recover his weapon.

He was not like the average swashbuckler of the current parties, tugged at the tail of his own sword. This is what tends, for example, to make him stand out so well beside his unhappy friend Mr. Henley, whose true and unquestionable affection has lately taken so bitter and feminine a form. Mr. Henley, an admirable poet and critic, is, nevertheless, the man par excellence who breaks the table instead of tapping the egg. In his recent article on Stevenson he entirely misses this peculiar and supreme point about his subject.

He there indulged in a very emotional remonstrance against the reverence almost universally paid to the physical misfortunes of his celebrated friend. “If Stevenson was a stricken man,” he said, “are we not all stricken men?” And he proceeded to call up the images of the poor and sick, and of their stoicism under their misfortunes. If sentimentalism be definable as the permitting of an emotional movement to cloud a clear intellectual distinction, this most assuredly is sentimentalism, for it would be impossible more completely to misunderstand the real nature of the cult of the courage of Stevenson. The reason that Stevenson has been selected out of the whole of suffering humanity as the type of this more modern and occult martyrdom is a very simple one.

It is not that he merely contrived, like any other man of reasonable manliness, to support pain and limitation without whimpering or committing suicide or taking to drink. In that sense of course we are all stricken men and we are all stoics. The ground of Stevenson’s particular fascination in this matter was that he was the exponent, and the successful exponent, not merely of negative manliness, but of a positive and lyric gaiety.

This wounded soldier did not merely refrain from groans, he gave forth instead a war song, so juvenile and inspiriting that thousands of men without a scratch went back into the battle. This cripple did not merely bear his own burdens, but those of thousands of contemporary men. No one can feel anything but the most inexpressible kind of reverence for the patience of the asthmatic charwoman or the consumptive tailor’s assistant. Still the charwoman does not write “Aes Triplex,” nor the tailor “The Child’s Garden of Verses.”

Their stoicism is magnificent, but it is stoicism. But Stevenson did not face his troubles as a stoic, he faced them as an Epicurean. He practised with an austere triumph that terrible asceticism of frivolity which is so much more difficult than the asceticism of gloom. His resignation can only be called an active and uproarious resignation. It was not merely self-sufficing, it was infectious. His triumph was, not that he went through his misfortunes without becoming a cynic or a poltroon, but that he went through his misfortunes and emerged quite exceptionally cheerful and reasonable and courteous, quite exceptionally light-hearted and liberal-minded. His triumph was, in other words, that he went through his misfortunes and did not become like Mr. Henley.

There is one aspect of this matter in particular, which it is as well to put somewhat more clearly before ourselves. This triumph of Stevenson’s over his physical disadvantages is commonly spoken of with reference only to the elements of joy and faith, and what may be called the new and essential virtue of cosmic courage. But as a matter of fact the peculiarly interesting detachment of Stevenson from his own body, is exhibited in a quite equally striking way in its purely intellectual aspect.

Apart from any moral qualities, Stevenson was characterised by a certain airy wisdom, a certain light and cool rationality, which is very rare and very difficult indeed to those who are greatly thwarted or tormented in life. It is possible to find an invalid capable of the work of a strong man, but it is very rare to find an invalid capable of the idleness of a strong man.

It is possible to find an invalid who has the faith which removes mountains, but not easy to find an invalid who has the faith that puts up with pessimists. It may not be impossible or even unusual for a man to lie on his back on a sick bed in a dark room and be an optimist. But it is very unusual indeed for a man to lie on his back on a sick bed in a dark room and be a reasonable optimist: and that is what Stevenson, almost alone of modern optimists, succeeded in being.

The faith of Stevenson, like that of a great number of very sane men, was founded on what is called a paradox—the paradox that existence was splendid because it was, to all outward appearance, desperate. Paradox, so far from being a modern and fanciful matter, is inherent in all the great hypotheses of humanity. The Athanasian Creed, for example, the supreme testimony of Catholic Christianity, sparkles with paradox like a modern society comedy. Thus, in the same manner, scientific philosophy tells us that finite space is unthinkable and infinite space is unthinkable. Thus the most influential modern metaphysician, Hegel, declares without hesitation, when the last rag of theology is abandoned, and the last point of philosophy passed, that existence is the same as non-existence.

Thus the brilliant author of “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” in the electric glare of modernity, finds that life is much too important to be taken seriously. Thus Tertullian, in the first ages of faith, said “Credo quia impossibile.”

We must not, therefore, be immediately repelled by this paradoxical character of Stevenson’s optimism, or imagine for a moment that it was merely a part of that artistic foppery or “fuddling hedonism” with which he has been ridiculously credited. His optimism was one which, so far from dwelling upon those flowers and sunbeams which form the stock-in-trade of conventional optimism, took a peculiar pleasure in the contemplation of skulls, and cudgels, and gallows.

It is one thing to be the kind of optimist who can divert his mind from personal suffering by dreaming of the face of an angel, and quite another thing to be the kind of optimist who can divert it by dreaming of the face of an angel, and quite another thing to be the kind of optimist who can divert it by dreaming of the foul fat face of Long John Silver. And this faith of his had a very definite and a very original philosophical purport. Other men have justified existence because it was a harmony.

He justified it because it was a battle, because it was an inspiring and melodious discord. He appealed to a certain set of facts which lie far deeper than any logic—the great paradoxes of the soul. For the singular fact is that the spirit of man is in reality depressed by all the things which, logically speaking, should encourage it, and encouraged by all the things which, logically speaking, should depress it.

Nothing, for example, can be conceived more really dispiriting than that rationalistic explanation of pain which conceives it as a thing laid by Providence upon the worst people. Nothing, on the other hand, can be conceived as more exalting and reassuring than that great mystical doctrine which teaches that pain is a thing laid by Providence upon the best. We can accept the agony of heroes, while we revolt against the agony of culprits. We can all endure to regard pain when it is mysterious; our deepest nature protests against it the moment that it is rational.

This doctrine that the best man suffers most is, of course, the supreme doctrine of Christianity; millions have found not merely an elevating but a soothing story in the undeserved sufferings of Christ; had the sufferings been deserved we should all have been pessimists.

Stevenson’s great ethical and philosophical value lies in the fact that he realised this great paradox that life becomes more fascinating the darker it grows, that life is worth living only so far as it is difficult to live. The more steadfastly and gloomily men clung to their sinister visions of duty, the more, in his eyes, they swelled the chorus of the praise of things. He was an optimist because to him everything was heroic, and nothing more heroic than the pessimist.

To Stevenson, the optimist, belong the most frightful epigrams of pessimism. It was he who said that this planet on which we live was more drenched with blood, animal and vegetable, than a pirate ship. It was he who said that man was a disease of the agglutinated dust. And his supreme position and his supreme difference from all common optimists is merely this, that all common optimists say that life is glorious in spite of these things, but he said that all life was glorious because of them. He discovered that a battle is more comforting than a truce. He discovered the same great fact which was discovered by a man so fantastically different from him that the mere name of him may raise a legitimate laugh—General Booth.

He discovered, that is to say, that religious evolution might tend at last to the discovery, that the peace given in the churches was less attractive to the religious spirit than the war promised outside; that for one man who wanted to be comforted a hundred wanted to be stirred; that men, even ordinary men, wanted in the last resort, not life or death, but drums.

It may reasonably be said that of all outrageous comparisons one of the most curious must be this between the old evangelical despot and enthusiast and the elegant and almost hedonistic man of letters. But these far-fetched comparisons are infinitely the sanest, for they remind us of the sanest of all conceptions, the unity of things.

A splendid and pathetic prince of India, living in far-off aeons, came to many of the same conceptions as a rather dingy German professor in the nineteenth century; for there are many essential resemblances between Buddha and Schopenhauer. And if any one should urge that lapse of time might produce mere imitation, it is easy to point out that the same great theory of evolution was pronounced simultaneously by Darwin, who became so grim a rationalist that he ceased even to care for the arts, and by Wallace, who has become so fiery a spiritualist that he yearns after astrology and table-rapping.

Men of the most widely divergent types are connected by these invisible cords across the world, and Stevenson was essentially a Colonel in the Salvation Army. He believed, that is to say, in making religion a military affair. His militarism, of course, needs to be carefully understood. It was considered entirely from the point of view of the person righting.

It had none of that evil pleasure in contemplating the killed and wounded, in realising the agonies of the vanquished, which has been turned by some modern writers into an art, a literary sin, which, though only painted in black ink on white paper, is far worse than the mere sin of murder. Stevenson’s militarism was as free from all the mere poetry of conquest and dominion as the militarism of an actual common soldier. It was mainly, that is to say, a poetry of watches and parades and camp-fires. He knew he was in the hosts of the Lord: he did not trouble much about the enemy. Here is his resemblance to that Church Militant, which, secure only in its own rectitude, wages war upon the nameless thing which has tormented and bewildered us from the beginning of the world.

Of course, this Stevensonian view of war suggests in itself that other question, touching which so much has been written about him, the subject of childishness and the child. It is true, of course, that the splendidly infantile character of Stevenson’s mind saved him from any evil arising from his militarism. A child can hit his nurse hard with a wooden sword without being an aesthete of violence. He may enjoy a hard whack, but he need not enjoy the colour harmonies of black and blue as they are presented in a bruise. It is undoubtedly the truth, of course, that Stevenson’s interest in this fighting side of human nature was mainly childish, that is to say, mainly subjective.

He thought of the whole matter in the primary colours of poetic simplicity. He said with splendid gusto in one of his finest letters:

“Shall we never taste blood?” But he did not really want blood. He wanted crimson-lake.

But of course, in the case of so light and elusive a figure as Stevenson, even the terms which have been most definitely attached to him tend to become misleading and inadequate, and the terms “childlike” or “childish,” true as they are down to a very fundamental truth, are yet the origin of a certain confusion. One of the greatest errors in existing literary philosophy is that of confusing the child with the boy.

Many great moral teachers, beginning with Jesus Christ, have perceived the profound philosophical importance of the child. The child sees everything freshly and fully; as we advance in life it is true that we see things in some degree less and less, that we are afflicted, spiritually and morally, with the myopia of the student. But the problem of the boy is essentially different from that of the child.

The boy represents the earliest growth of the earthly, unmanageable qualities, poetic still, but not so simple or so universal. The child enjoys the plain picture of the world: the boy wants the secret, the end of the story. The child wishes to dance in the sun; but the boy wishes to sail after buried treasure. The child enjoys a flower, and the boy a mechanical engine. And the finest and most peculiar work of Stevenson is rather that he was the first writer to treat seriously and poetically the aesthetic instincts of the boy.

He celebrated the toy gun rather than the rattle. Around the child and his rattle there has gathered a splendid service of literature and art; Hans Andersen and Charles Kingsley and George Macdonald and Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway and a list of celebrities a mile long bring their splendid gifts to the christening. But the tragedy of the helpless infant (if it be a male infant—girls are quite a different matter) is simply this, that, having been fed on literature and art, as fine in its way as Shelley and Turner up to the age of seven, he feels within him new impulses and interests growing, a hunger for action and knowledge, for fighting and discovery, for the witchery of facts and the wild poetry of geography. And then he is suddenly dropped with a crash out of literature, and can read nothing but “Jack Valiant among the Indians.” For in the whole scene there is only one book which is at once literature, like Hans Andersen, and yet a book for boys and not for children, and its name is “Treasure Island.”

G.K. Chesterton.

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