A wild energy that we never feel except in dreams

This is addressed to a favourite cousin of the Balfour (maternal) clan, Maud (1844-1919), married to a Cambridge professor, Churchill Babington, whose home is at the college living of Cockfield near Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk. RLS has visited him in the previous year.

He’s at Swanston Cottage, in the Pentland Hills, 5 miles South of Edinburgh, the holiday residence of the Stevenson family, 1867 to 1880.

‘Mrs. Hutchinson’ is Lucy Hutchinson’s famous Life of her husband John Hutchinson, one of the Puritan leaders to sign the death-warrant of King Charles I. Lucy Hutchinson (1620-1681) is as well probably the first translator into English of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura.

The line ‘stint his pipe of mellower days’ quotes Shakespeare’s sonnet no. 102.

The one ‘Naked as from the earth we came’ quotes a hymn by Issac Watts, 1707 (from Job 1, 21).

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sir Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 1, 89].

To Maud Babington [Colvin 1811, p. 34]

[Swanston Cottage, Lothianburn, Summer 1871].

My dear Maud,

If you have forgotten the handwriting – as is like enough – you will find the name of a former correspondent (don’t know how to spell that word) at the end. I have begun to write to you before now, but always stuck somehow, and left it to drown in a drawerful of like fiascos. This time I am determined to carry through, though I have nothing specially to say.

We look fairly like summer this morning; the trees are blackening out of their spring greens; the warmer suns have melted the hoarfrost of daisies of the paddock; and the blackbird, I fear, already beginning to ‘stint his pipe of mellower days’ – which is very apposite (I can’t spell anything to-day – one p or two?) and pretty. All the same, we have been having shocking weather – cold winds and grey skies.

Swanston Cottage, Edinburgh by Robert Hope (Scottish 1869-1936)

R. Hope (1869-1936), Swanston Cottage [https://it.pinterest.com]

Swanston Cottage today.

I have been reading heaps of nice books; but I can’t go back so far. I am reading Clarendon’s Hist. Rebell. at present, with which I am more pleased than I expected, which is saying a good deal. It is a pet idea of mine that one gets more real truth out of one avowed partisan than out of a dozen of your sham impartialists – wolves in sheep’s clothing – simpering honesty as they suppress documents. After all, what one wants to know is not what people did, but why they did it – or rather, why they thought they did it; and to learn that, you should go to the men themselves. Their very falsehood is often more than another man’s truth.

E. Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon (1609-1674),
‘History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England’, 1702-1704

I have possessed myself of Mrs. Hutchinson, which, of course, I admire, etc. But is there not an irritating deliberation and correctness about her and everybody connected with her? If she would only write bad grammar, or forget to finish a sentence, or do something or other that looks fallible, it would be a relief. I sometimes wish the old Colonel had got drunk and beaten her, in the bitterness of my spirit. I know I felt a weight taken off my heart when I heard he was extravagant. It is quite possible to be too good for this evil world; and unquestionably, Mrs. Hutchinson was. The way in which she talks of herself makes one’s blood run cold. There – I am glad to have got that out – but don’t say it to anybody – seal of secrecy.

L. Hutchinson (1620-1681),
‘Memoirs of the life of Colonel Hutchinson, 1822.


Lucy Hutchinson (1620-1681) [http://upload.wikimedia.org/]

Please tell Mr. Babington that I have never forgotten one of his drawings – a Rubens, I think – a woman holding up a model ship. That woman had more life in her than ninety per cent. of the lame humans that you see crippling about this earth.

By the way, that is a feature in art which seems to have come in with the Italians. Your old Greek statues have scarce enough vitality in them to keep their monstrous bodies fresh withal. A shrewd country attorney, in a turned white neckcloth and rusty blacks, would just take one of these Agamemnons and Ajaxes quietly by his beautiful, strong arm, trot the unresisting statue down a little gallery of legal shams, and turn the poor fellow out at the other end, ‘naked, as from the earth he came.’ There is more latent life, more of the coiled spring in the sleeping dog, about a recumbent figure of Michael Angelo’s than about the most excited of Greek statues. The very marble seems to wrinkle with a wild energy that we never feel except in dreams.

I think this letter has turned into a sermon, but I had nothing interesting to talk about.

I do wish you and Mr. Babington would think better of it and come north this summer. We should be so glad to see you both. Do reconsider it. Believe me, my dear Maud, ever your most affectionate cousin,

Louis Stevenson

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1 Response to A wild energy that we never feel except in dreams

  1. rdury says:

    Thanks for the picture of Swanson cottage today: it clearly shows the ‘narrow crowsteps’ (stepped gable edge of the roof) of the house that RLS mentions about in a notebook fragment called ‘Painting and Words’.


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