In 1871, RLS begins his Law classes at Edinburgh University. He gathers round him a group of lifelong friends, all fellow-members of the Speculative Society at the University, a famous literary and debating society, founded in 1764.
After a winter of troubled health, RLS has gone to Dunblane, Stirling, for a change, and thence writes to his college companion, Charles Baxter.
The Latin quote is from Virgil, Eclogues 5, 3.
‘The things restorative to the touch’ probably is from R. Browning’s verse novel The Ring and the Book, 1868.
Ch.J. Guthrie is another fellow member of the Speculative Society.
[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, 97].
To Charles Baxter [Colvin 1911, pp. 38-40]
Dunblane, Friday, 5th March 1872.
My dear Baxter,
By the date you may perhaps understand the purport of my letter without any words wasted about the matter. I cannot walk with you to-morrow, and you must not expect me. I came yesterday afternoon to Bridge of Allan, and have been very happy ever since, as every place is sanctified by the eighth sense, Memory. I walked up here this morning (three miles, tudieu! a good stretch for me), and passed one of my favourite places in the world, and one that I very much affect in spirit when the body is tied down and brought immovably to anchor on a sickbed. It is a meadow and bank on a corner on the river, and is connected in my mind inseparably with Virgil’s Eclogues. Hic corulis mistas inter consedimus ulmos, or something very like that, the passage begins (only I know my short-winded Latinity must have come to grief over even this much of quotation); and here, to a wish, is just such a cavern as Menalcas might shelter himself withal from the bright noon, and, with his lips curled backward, pipe himself blue in the face, while Messieurs les Arcadiens […] would roll out those cloying hexameters that sing themselves in one’s mouth to such a curious lilting chant.
In such weather one has the bird’s need to whistle; and I, who am specially incompetent in this art, must content myself by chattering away to you on this bit of paper. All the way along I was thanking God that he had made me and the birds and everything just as they are and not otherwise; for although there was no sun, the air was so thrilled with robins and blackbirds that it made the heart tremble with joy, and the leaves are far enough forward on the underwood to give a fine promise for the future. Even myself, as I say, I would not have had changed in one iota this forenoon, in spite of all my idleness and Guthrie’s lost paper, which is ever present with me – a horrible phantom. […]
No one can be alone at home or in a quite new place. Memory and you must go hand in hand with (at least) decent weather if you wish to cook up a proper dish of solitude. It is in these little flights of mine that I get more pleasure than in anything else. […] Now, at present, I am supremely uneasy and restless – almost to the extent of pain; but O! how I enjoy it, and how I shall enjoy it afterwards (please God), if I get years enough allotted to me for the thing to ripen in. When I am a very old and very respectable citizen with white hair and bland manners and a gold watch, […] I shall hear three crows cawing in my heart, as I heard them this morning: I vote for old age and eighty years of retrospect. Yet, after all, I dare say, a short shrift and a nice green grave are about as desirable.
Poor devil! how I am wearying you! Cheer up. Two pages more, and my letter reaches its term, for I have no more paper. What delightful things inns and waiters and bagmen are! If we didn’t travel now and then, we should forget what the feeling of life is. The very cushion of a railway carriage – ‘the things restorative to the touch.’ I can’t write, confound it! That’s because I am so tired with my walk. […] Believe me, ever your affectionate friend,