I have survived myself, and somehow live on, a curious changeling, a merry ghost

The old print which RLS is alluding here still remains unidentified.

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 2, 388].

To Fanny Sitwell [Colvin, 1912, pp. 114-116]

I have been staying in town, and could not write a word. It is a fine strong night, full of wind; the trees are all crying out in the darkness; funny to think of the birds asleep outside, on the tossing branches, the little bright eyes closed, the brave wings folded, the little hearts that beat so hard and thick (so much harder and thicker than ever human heart) all stilled and quieted in deep slumber, in the midst of this noise and turmoil. Why, it will be as much as I can do to sleep in here in my walled room; so loud and jolly the wind sounds through the open window.

The unknown places of the night invite the travelling fancy; I like to think of the sleeping towns and sleeping farm-houses and cottages, all the world over, here by the white road poplar-lined, there by the clamorous surf. Isn’t that a good dormitive […]?

[http://www.firstpost.com/]

[http://cdn.images.express.co.uk/]

[http://celinemarchbank.files.wordpress.com/]

[http://www.schoolfieldcountryhouse.com/]

Van Gogh, Lane of poplars at sunset,1884 [http://4.bp.blogspot.com/]

[http://i.dailymail.co.uk/]

[http://www.nps.gov/]

Saturday. – I cannot tell how I feel, who can ever? I feel like a person in a novel of George Sand’s; I feel I desire to go out of the house, and begin life anew in the cool blue night; never to come back here; never, never. Only to go out for ever by sunny day and grey day, by bright night and foul, by high-way and by-way, town and hamlet, until somewhere by a road-side or in some clean inn clean death opened his arms to me and took me to his quiet heart for ever. If soon, good; if late, well then, late – there would be many a long bright mile behind me, many a goodly, many a serious sight; I should die ripe and perfect, and take my garnered experience with me into the cool, sweet earth. For I have died already and survived a death; I have seen the grass grow rankly on my grave; I have heard the train of mourners come weeping and go laughing away again. And when I was alone there in the kirk-yard, and the birds began to grow familiar with the grave-stone, I have begun to laugh also, and laughed and laughed until night-flowers came out above me.

[http://www.mulberrycreekimagery.com/]

I have survived myself, and somehow live on, a curious changeling, a merry ghost; and do not mind living on, finding it not unpleasant; only had rather, a thousandfold, died and been done with the whole damned show for ever. It is a strange feeling at first to survive yourself, but one gets used to that as to most things. Et puis, is it not one’s own fault? Why did not one lie still in the grave? Why rise again among men’s troubles and toils, where the wicked wag their shock beards and hound the weary out to labour? When I was safe in prison, and stone walls and iron bars were an hermitage about me, who told me to burst the mild constraint and go forth where the sun dazzles, and the wind pierces, and the loud world sounds and jangles all through the weary day? I mind an old print […] of a hermit coming out of a great wood towards evening and shading his bleared eyes to see all the kingdoms of the earth before his feet, where towered cities and castled hills, and stately rivers, and good corn lands made one great chorus of temptation for his weak spirit, and I think I am the hermit, and would to God I had dwelt ever in the wood of penitence.

[MS incomplete]

J.-B. Corot, The Hermit’s Woods, or The Banks of Lake Trasimène, 1858 [https://d1ycxz9plii3tb.cloudfront.net/]

G. Inness, The monk, 1873 [http://mydailyartdisplay.files.wordpress.com/]

Paphanutius, Thebais, 1620 [http://i.ebayimg.com/]

A. Dürer, St. Anthony reading, 1519 [http://letture.files.wordpress.com/]

______________________________________________________________

Comment by Richard Dury:

July 29, 2014 at 1:15 PM (Edit)

Lovely to read this to the sound of the wind!
In ‘Forest Notes’, written in the same period (summer-autumn 1875), the final section has another evocation, like that of the ‘old print’, of leaving a forest and wandering over the world, spread before you like a map. At first this seems to have a different moral, because it is a welcomed journey, but it too leads to death—though a contented one:
“When you have had your will of the forest, you may visit the whole round world. You may buckle on your knapsack and take the road on foot. You may bestride a good nag, and ride forth, with a pair of saddle-bags, into the enchanted East. You may cross the Black Forest, and see Germany widespread before you, like a map, dotted with old cities, walled and spired, that dream all day on their own reflections in the Rhine or Danube. You may pass the spinal cord of Europe, and go down from Alpine glaciers to where Italy extends her marble moles and glasses her marble palaces in the midland sea. You may sleep in flying trains or wayside taverns. You may be wakened at dawn by the scream of the express or the small pipe of the robin in the hedge. For you the rain should allay the dust of the beaten road; the wind dry your clothes upon you as you walked. Autumn should hang out russet pears and purple grapes along the lane; inn after inn proffer you their cups of raw wine; river by river receive your body in the sultry noon. Wherever you went warm valleys and high trees and pleasant villages should compass you about; and light fellowships should take you by the arm, and walk with you an hour upon your way. You may see, from afar off, what it will come to in the end—the weather-beaten red-nosed vagabond, consumed by a fever of the feet, cut off from all near touch of human sympathy, a waif, an Ishmael, and an outcast. And yet it will seem well—and yet, in the air of the forest, this will seem the best—to break all the network bound about your feet by birth and old companionship and loyal love, and bear your shovelful of phosphates to and fro, in town and country, until the hour of the great dissolvent.”

 

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