There is one masterpiece fewer in the world

The two following letters refer to the essay on the Spirit of Spring which Sidney Colvin was careless enough to lose in the process of a change of rooms at Cambridge.

The Petits Poèmes en Prose were attempts, not altogether successful, in the form though not in the spirit of Baudelaire.

Sir Anthony Nathan de Rothschild, 1st Baronet (1810–1876), was a British financier and a member of the prominent Rothschild banking family of England.

Sir Leslie Stephen (1832–1904) was the editor of Cornill: Colvin showed him the MS of  When the Devil was well.

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 2,  395 and 396].

To Sidney Colvin [Colvin 1912, pp. 116-117]

Swanston [7 or 8 June 1875.]

My dear Colvin,

Thanks. Only why don’t you tell me if I can get my Spring printed? I want to print it; because it’s nice, and genuine to boot, and has got less side on than my other game. Besides I want coin badly.

[…]I am writing Petits Poèmes en Prose. Their principal resemblance to Baudelaire’s is that they are rather longer and not quite so good. They are ve-ry cle-ver (words of two syllables), O so aw-ful-ly cle-ver (words of three), O so dam-na-bly cle-ver (words of a devil of a number of syllables). I have written fifteen in a fortnight. I have also written some beautiful poetry.

Ch. Baudelaire, Petits Poèmes en prose, 1869 [http://upload.wikimedia.org/]

Ch. Baudelaire, c. 1862 [http://upload.wikimedia.org/]

I would like a cake and a cricket-bat; […] and a passkey to Heaven if you please, and as much money as my friend the Baron Rothschild can spare. I used to look across to Rothschild of a morning when we were brushing our hair, and say – (this is quite true, only we were on the opposite side of the street, and though I used to look over I cannot say I ever detected the beggar, he feared to meet my eagle eye […]) – well, I used to say to him, “Rothschild, old man, lend us five hundred francs,” and it is characteristic of Rothy’s dry humour that he used never to reply when it was a question of money. He was a very humorous dog indeed, was Rothy. Heigh-ho! those happy old days. […] Funny, funny fellow, the dear old Baron.

Sir Anthony Nathan de Rothschild, 1st Baronet (1810–1876)[http://upload.wikimedia.org/]

How’s that for genuine American wit and humour? Take notice of this in your answer; say, for instance, “Even although the letter had been unsigned, I could have had no difficulty in guessing who was my dear, lively, witty correspondent. Yours, Letitia Languish.”

O! – my mind has given way. I have gone into a mild, babbling, sunny idiocy. I shall buy a Jew’s harp and sit by the roadside with a woman’s bonnet on my manly head begging my honest livelihood.

Meantime, adieu.

I would send you some of these PP. Poèmes of mine, only I know you would never acknowledge receipt or return them. – Yours, and Rothschild’s,

R.L.[…] Stevenson

[…]

To Sidney Colvin [Colvin 1911, 1, pp. 238-239]

[Swanston, June 1875.]

My dear Colvin, Fous ne me gombrennez pas. Angry with you? No. […] Is the thing lost? Well, so be it. There is one masterpiece fewer in the world. The world can ill spare it, but I, sir, I (and here I strike my hollow bosom, so that it resounds) I am full of this sort of bauble; I am made of it; it comes to me, sir, as the desire to sneeze comes upon poor ordinary devils on cold days, when they should be getting out of bed and into their horrid cold tubs by the light of a seven o’clock candle, with the dismal seven o’clock frost-flowers all over the window.Show Stephen what you please; if you could show him how to give me money, you would oblige, sincerely yours,

R.L.S.

I have a scroll of Springtime somewhere, but I know that it is not in very good order, and do not feel myself up to very much grind over it. I am damped about Springtime, that’s the truth of it. It might have been four or five quid!

Sir, I shall shave my head, if this goes on. All men take a pleasure to gird at me. The laws of nature are in open war with me. The wheel of a dog-cart took the toes off my new boots.

Victorian dog cart, c. 1890 [http://gb.fotolibra.com/]

Gout has set in with extreme rigour, and cut me out of the cheap refreshment of beer. I leant my back against an oak, I thought it was a trusty tree, but first it bent, and syne – it lost the Spirit of Springtime, and so did Professor Sidney Colvin, Trinity College, to me. Ever yours,

Robert Louis Stevenson

Along with this, I send you some P.P.P’s; if you lose them, you need not seek to look upon my face again. Do, for God’s sake, answer me about them also; it is a horrid thing for a fond architect to find his monuments received in silence. Yours,

R.L.S.

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