For two good emotions I would sacrifice a thousand years of fame

During his days in London RLS has gone with Mrs. Sitwell to the British Museum to revisit the Elgin marbles, and has carried off photographs of them to put up in his room at Edinburgh.

‘The desire of the moth for the star’ is from Shelley’s poem ‘One word is too often profanated’, 1824.

‘La Géante’ is a poem from Flaubert’s Fleurs du Mal, 1855.

The story King Matthias’s Hunting Horn has perished like so many other of this time.

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 2, 328].

To Fanny Sitwell [Colvin 1912, pp. 98-101]

[Edinburgh, October 27, 1874], Tuesday.

 Well, I’ve got some women now, and they’re better than nothing. Three, without heads, who have been away getting framed. And you know they are more to me, after a fashion, than they can be to you, because, after a fashion also, they are women. I have come now to think the sitting figure in spite of its beautiful drapery rather a blemish, rather an interruption to the sentiment. The two others are better than one has ever dreamed; I think these two women are the only things in the world that have been better than, in Bible phrase, it had entered into my heart to conceive. Who made them? Was it Pheidias? or do they not know? It is wonderful what company they are – noble company.

The Elgin Room in the British Museum, 19th century []

The Elgin Room in the British Museum, 19th century []

Parthenon’s East pediment : Hestia, the Titaness Dione and Aphrodite (then supposed to be the Three Fates) []


And then I have now three Japanese pictures that are after my own heart, and I get up from time to time and turn a bit of favourite colour over and over, roll it under my tongue, savour it till it gets all through me; and then back to my chair and to work.

Utagawa Hiroshige I, Hanami in Goten-yama, 1847-1848 []

This afternoon about six there was a small orange moon, lost in a great world of blue evening. A few leafless boughs, and a bit of garden railing, crisscross its face; and below it there was blueness and the spread lights of Leith, lost in blue haze. To the east, the town, also subdued to the same blue, piled itself up, with here and there a lit window, until it could print off its outline against a faint patch of green and russet that remained behind the sunset.


Leith seen from Edinburgh []

Edinburgh and Leith from the air []


I must tell you about my way of life, which is regular to a degree. Breakfast 8.30; during breakfast and my smoke afterwards till ten, when I begin work, I read Reformation; from ten, I work until about a quarter to one; from one until two, I lunch and read a book on Schopenhauer or one on Positivism; two to three work, three to six anything; if I am in before six, I read about Japan: six, dinner and a pipe with my father and coffee until 7.30; 7.30 to 9.30, work; after that either supper and a pipe at home, or out to Simpson’s or Baxter’s: bed between eleven and twelve.


Wednesday. – Two good things have arrived to me today: your letter for one, and the end of John Knox for another. […] I cannot write English because I have been speaking French all evening with some French people of my knowledge. It’s a sad thing the state I get into, when I cannot remember English and yet do not know French! And it is worse when it is complicated, as at present, with a pen that will not write! If you knew how I have to paint and how I have to manoeuvre to get the stuff legible at all.


Thursday. – I have said the Fates are only women after a fashion; and that is one of the strangest things about them. They are wonderfully womanly – they are more womanly than any woman – and those girt draperies are drawn over a wonderful greatness of body instinct with sex; I do not see a line in them that could be a line in a man. And yet, when all is said, they are not women for us; they are of another race, immortal, separate; one has no wish to look at them with love, only with a sort of lowly adoration, physical, but wanting what is the soul of all love, whether admitted to oneself or not, hope; in a word “the desire of the moth for the star.” O great white stars of eternal marble, O shapely, colossal women, and yet not women. It is not love that we seek from them, we do not desire to seek their great eyes troubled with our passions, or the great impassive members contorted by any hope or pain or pleasure; only now and again, to be conscious that they exist, to have knowledge of them far off in cloudland or feel their steady eyes shining, like quiet watchful stars, above the turmoil of the earth.






[…] I write so ill; so cheap and miserable and penny-a-linerish is this John Knox that I have just sent, that I am low. Only I keep my heart up by thinking of you. And if all goes to the worst, shall I not be able to lay my head on the great knees of the middle Fate – O these great knees […] – I know all Baudelaire meant now with his géante – to lay my head on her great knees and go to sleep. […]


Friday. – I have finished The Story of King Matthias’ Hunting Horn, whereof I spoke to you, and I think it should be good. It excites me like wine, or fire, or death, or love, or something; nothing of my own writing ever excited me so much; it does seem to me so weird and fantastic.

Saturday. – I know now that there is a more subtle and dangerous sort of selfishness in habit than there ever can be in disorder. I never ceased to be generous when I was most déréglé; now when I am beginning to settle into habits, I see the danger in front of me – one might cease to be generous and grow hard and sordid in time and trouble. However, thank God it is life I want, and nothing posthumous, and for two good emotions I would sacrifice a thousand years of fame. Moreover […] I know so well that I shall never be much as a writer that I am not very sorely tempted.

My only chance is in my stories; and so you will forgive me if I postpone everything else to copy out King Matthias; I have learned by experience that a story should be copied out and finished fairly off at the first heat if ever.

I am even thinking of finishing up half-a-dozen perhaps and trying the publishers. What do you say? Give me your advice.

Sunday. – Good-bye, […]. A long story to tell but no time to tell it: well and happy. Adieu. – Ever your faithful friendm

Robert Louis Stevenson


Photograph after the manner of the Elgin marbles, 1867 []

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