When you can’t do anything, there’s no need of being depressed

After a while, the difference with his father are renewed.The paper on Roads, RLS’s first paid publication, will be printed under the name L.S. Stoneven in Portfolio, Dec. 1873.

The history of the Covenant will concern RLS’s essay onJohn Knox and his Relations to Women,  published in Macmillan’s Magazine, Sept. 1875.

RLS reads to his father some notes on Free Will he has written for the Speculative Society and attacking the Duke of Argyll’s Reign of Law, 1866.

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sir Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 1, 143].

To Mrs. Sitwell [Colvin 1912, pp. 24-26]

[Edinburgh], Monday, 22nd September, 1873.

[…] I have just had another disagreeable to-night. It is difficult indeed to steer steady among the breakers: I am always touching ground; generally it is my own blame, for I cannot help getting friendly with my father (whom I do love), and so speaking foolishly with my mouth. I have yet to learn in ordinary conversation that reserve and silence that I must try to unlearn in the matter of the feelings. […]

[…] The news that Roads would do reached me in good season; I had begun utterly to despair of doing anything. Certainly I do not think I should be in a hurry to commit myself about the Covenanters; the whole subject turns round about me and so branches out to this side and that, that I grow bewildered; and one cannot write discreetly about any one little corner of an historical period, until one has an organic view of the whole. I have, however – given life and health – great hope of my Covenanters; indeed, there is a lot of precious dust to be beaten out of that stack even by a very infirm hand.

H. McCulloch (1806-1867), Old Mortality, Recutting the Tomb Stones of the Covenanters


Much later. – I can scarcely see to write just now; so please excuse. We have had an awful scene. All that my father had to say has been put forth – not that it was anything new; only it is the devil to hear. […] I don’t know what to do – the world goes hopelessly round about me; there is no more possibility of doing, living, being anything but a beast, and there’s the end of it.

It is eleven, I think, for a clock struck. O Lord, there has been a deal of time through our hands since I went down to supper! All this has come from my own folly; I somehow could not think the gulf so impassable, and I read him some notes on the Duke of Argyll – I thought he would agree so far, and that we might have some rational discussion on the rest. And now – after some hours – he has told me that he is a weak man, and that I am driving him too far, and that I know not what I am doing. O dear God, this is bad work!

G. Campbell 8th Duke of Argyll, ‘The Reign of Law’, 1867

George Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll, Scottish peer and Liberal politician,
by G.F. Watts, c. 1860

I have lit a pipe and feel calmer. I say, my dear friend, I am killing my father – he told me to-night (by the way) that I alienated utterly my mother – and this is the result of my attempt to start fair and fresh and to do my best for all of them.


I must wait till to-morrow ere I finish. I am to-night too excited.

Tuesday. – […] The sun is shining to-day, which is a great matter, and altogether the gale having blown off again, I live in a precarious lull. On the whole I am not displeased with last night; I kept my eyes open through it all, and I think, not only avoided saying anything that could make matters worse in the future, but said something that may do good. But a little better or a little worse is a trifle. I lay in bed this morning awake, for I was tired and cold and in no special hurry to rise, and heard my father go out for the papers; and then I lay and wished – O, if he could only whistle when he comes in again! But of course he did not. I have stopped that pipe.

RLS (aged 9) with his father (aged 41), in 1859


Now, you see, I have written to you this time and sent it off, for both of which God forgive me. – Ever your faithful friend,


My father and I together can put about a year through in half an hour. Look here, you mustn’t take this too much to heart. I shall be all right in a few hours. It’s impossible to depress me. And of course, when you can’t do anything, there’s no need of being depressed. It’s all waste tissue.


Calton Hill, Edinburgh

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