I wish I might become a man worth talking of

The following is the first which has been preserved of many letters to Alison Cunningham (‘Cummy’), the nurse whose care, during his ailing childhood, had done so much to preserve RLS’s life and awaken his love of tales and poetry, and of whom until his death he thought with the utmost constancy of affection. To Cummy, in 1885, he’ll dedicate his book A Child’s Garden of Verses.

The verse quoted is from Mathew 25. 40.

[For a correct critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 1, 129].

RLS in 1872, aged 22.

To Alison Cunningham (Colvin 1911, pp. 37-38)

[1871 or 1873]

My dear Cummy,

I was greatly pleased by your letter in many ways. Of course, I was glad to hear from you; you know, you and I have so many old stories between us, that even if there was nothing else, even if there was not a very sincere respect and affection, we should always be glad to pass a nod. I say ‘even if there was not.’ But you know right well there is. Do not suppose that I shall ever forget those long, bitter nights, when I coughed and coughed and was so unhappy, and you were so patient and loving with a poor, sick child. Indeed, Cummy, I wish I might become a man worth talking of, if it were only that you should not have thrown away your pains.

Alison Cunningham (1822-1913), ‘Cummy’.

Cummy in 1865,
aged 43.

Happily, it is not the result of our acts that makes them brave and noble, but the acts themselves and the unselfish love that moved us to do them. ‘Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these.’ My dear old nurse, and you know there is nothing a man can say nearer his heart except his mother or his wife – my dear old nurse, God will make good to you all the good that you have done, and mercifully forgive you all the evil. And next time when the spring comes round, and everything is beginning once again, if you should happen to think that you might have had a child of your own, and that it was hard you should have spent so many years taking care of some one else’s prodigal, just you think this – you have been for a great deal in my life; you have made much that there is in me, just as surely as if you had conceived me; and there are sons who are more ungrateful to their own mothers than I am to you. For I am not ungrateful, my dear Cummy, and it is with a very sincere emotion that I write myself your little boy,


RLS, ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’, 1885: dedication to Cummy.

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