This is in reply to some technical criticisms of his friend W.E. Henley on the poem Our Lady of the Snows, referring to the Trappist monastery in the Cévennes so called, and afterwards published in Underwoods (1887).
James Walter Ferrier (1850-1883) was one of RLS’s friends from his days at Edinburgh University; he will die of alcoholism as a young man.
[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 2, 606-607.]
To W.E. Henley [Colvin 1911, 1, pp. 270-272]
17 Heriot Row, Edinburgh [early April 1879]
My dear Henley,
Heavens! have I done the like? ‘Clarify and strain,’ indeed? ‘Make it like Marvell,’ no less.
I’ll tell you what – you may go to the devil; that’s what I think. ‘Be eloquent’ is another of your pregnant suggestions. I cannot sufficiently thank you for that one. Portrait of a person about to be eloquent at the request of a literary friend. You seem to forget sir, that rhyme is rhyme, sir, and – go to the devil.
I’ll try to improve it, but I shan’t be able to – O go to the devil.
Seriously, you’re a cool hand. And then you have the brass to ask me why ‘my steps went one by one’? Why? Powers of man! to rhyme with sun, to be sure. Why else could it be? And you yourself have been a poet! Grrrrr! I’ll never be a poet any more. Men are so dd ungrateful and captious, I declare I could weep.
O Henley, in my hours of ease
You may say anything you please,
But when I join the Muse’s revel,
Begad, I wish you at the devil!
In vain my verse I plane and bevel,
Like Banville’s rhyming devotees;
In vain by many an artful swivel
Lug in my meaning by degrees;
I’m sure to hear my Henley cavil;
And grovelling prostrate on my knees,
Devote his body to the seas,
His correspondence to the devil!
Impromptu poem.I’m going to Shandon Hydropathic cum parentibus. Write here. I heard from Lang.
Ferrier prayeth to be remembered; he means to write, likes his Tourgenieff greatly. Also likes my What was on the Slate, which, under a new title, yet unfound, and with a new and, on the whole, kindly dénouement, is going to shoot up and become a star.
I see I must write some more to you about my Monastery.
I am a weak brother in verse. You ask me to re-write things that I have already managed just to write with the skin of my teeth. If I don’t re-write them, it’s because I don’t see how to write them better, not because I don’t think they should be. But, curiously enough, you condemn two of my favourite passages, one of which is J.W. Ferrier’s favourite of the whole. Here I shall think it’s you who are wrong. You see, I did not try to make good verse, but to say what I wanted as well as verse would let me. I don’t like the rhyme ‘ear’ and ‘hear.’ But the couplet, ‘My undissuaded heart I hear Whisper courage in my ear,’ is exactly what I want for the thought, and to me seems very energetic as speech, if not as verse. Would ‘daring’ be better than ‘courage’? Je me le demande. No, it would be ambiguous, as though I had used it licentiously for ‘daringly,’ and that would cloak the sense.
In short, your suggestions have broken the heart of the scald. He doesn’t agree with them all; and those he does agree with, the spirit indeed is willing, but the dd flesh cannot, cannot, cannot, see its way to profit by. I think I’ll lay it by for nine years, like Horace. I think the well of Castaly’s run out. No more the Muses round my pillow haunt. I am fallen once more to the mere proser. […] God bless you.