Conscientiousness is a sort of moral opium

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sir Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 2, 274, dated May 19 ff., and 298, dated Jul. 20].

 To Fanny Sitwell [Colvin 1911, pp. 157-159]

[Swanston,] Tuesday, [May 1874.]

Another cold day; yet I have been along the hillside, wondering much at idiotic sheep, and raising partridges at every second step.

Thomas Sidney Cooper, Four sheep, 1874 []

Philip Reinagle (1749-1833), Partridges in a oorland landscape []

One little plover is the object of my firm adherence. I pass his nest every day, and if you saw how he flies by me, and almost into my face, crying and flapping his wings, to direct my attention from his little treasure, you would have as kind a heart to him as I. Today I saw him not, although I took my usual way; and I am afraid that some person has abused his simple wiliness and harried (as we say in Scotland) the nest. I feel much righteous indignation against such imaginary aggressor.

John Wright Oakes, Disturbed: a plover rising from its nest, 1879 []

However, one must not be too chary of the lower forms. Today I sat down on a tree-stump at the skirt of a little strip of planting, and thoughtlessly began to dig out the touchwood with an end of twig. I found I had carried ruin, death, and universal consternation into a little community of ants […]; and this set me a-thinking of how close we are environed with frail lives, so that we can do nothing without spreading havoc over all manner of perishable homes and interests and affections; and so on to my favourite mood of an holy terror for all action and all inaction equally – a sort of shuddering revulsion from the necessary responsibilities of life. We must not be too scrupulous of others, or we shall die. Conscientiousness is a sort of moral opium; an excitant in small doses, perhaps, but at bottom a strong narcotic.




Saturday. – I have been two days in Edinburgh, and so had not the occasion to write to you. Morley has accepted the Fables, and I have seen it in proof, and think less of it than ever. However, of course, I shall send you a copy of the magazine without fail, and you can be as disappointed as you like, or the reverse if you can. I would willingly recall it if I could.

[…] Try, by way of change, Byron’s Mazeppa; you will be astonished. It is grand and no mistake, and one sees through it a fire, and a passion, and a rapid intuition of genius, that makes one rather sorry for one’s own generation of better writers, and – I don’t know what to say; I was going to say ‘smaller men’; but that’s not right; read it, and you will feel what I cannot express. Don’t be put out by the beginning; persevere, and you will find yourself thrilled before you are at an end with it.

G. Byron, ‘Mazeppa’, 1st edition, 1819 []

G. Byron, ‘Mazeppa’, ed 1846 []

Sunday. – […] The white mist has obliterated the hills and lies heavily round the cottage, as though it were laying siege to it; the trees wave their branches in the wind, with a solemn melancholy manner, like people swaying themselves to and fro in pain.



I am alone in the house, all the world being gone to church; and even in here at the side of the fire, the air clings about one like a wet blanket.

Yet this morning, when I was just awake, I had thought it was going to be a fine day. First, a cock crew, loudly and beautifully and often; then followed a long interval of silence and darkness, the grey morning began to get into my room; and then from the other side of the garden, a blackbird executed one long flourish, and in a moment as if a spring had been touched or a sluice-gate opened, the whole garden just brimmed and ran over with bird-songs. – Ever your faithful friend,

Robert Louis Stevenson

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