What good travellers we are, if we had only faith

Edmund William Gosse (1849-1928) was an art critic, author, poet and close friend to RLS. They first met in 1870, and in 1896 Gosse will remember that circumstance: “At the tail of this chatty, jesting little crowd of invaders came a youth of about my own age, whose appearance, for some mysterious reason, instantly attracted me. [RLS] was tall, preternaturally lean, with longish hair, and as restless and questing as a spaniel”. RLS will write about Gosse in“Talk and Talkers: I”, 1882: “He is no debater, but appears in conversation, as occasion rises, in two distinct characters, one of whom I admire and fear, and the other love”. Gosse will become an English Literature lecturer at Cambridge University and chief librarian of the House of Lords Library.

According to Colvin, the two had planned a joint book of old murder stories retold, and had been to visit the scene of one famous murder together. But the reference to ‘my new book’ seems about ‘What Was On The Slate’, RLS’s novel that was probably destroyed.

The two biblical quoting are about the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:4: an angel would occasionally stir the waters, which would then cure the first person to enter), and the Pool of Siloam (John 9:11: the place in Jerusalem where Jesus healed the blind man). These suggest the hydropathic establishment at Garloch where RLS stayed with his parents 5-14 April 1879.

The quoting about the “moon” is from Psalm 121, in the Scottish metrical version.

By Arcady he seems to mean a state of suspended will, inaction or alienation, where things look enchanting but no miracles happen and he feels lonely. [Thanks to Richard Dury for this advice!]

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 2, 611.]

To Edmund Gosse [Colvin 1911, 1, pp. 267-269]

[Gareloch?, 5-14 April 1879]

Pool of Siloam, by El Dorado Delectable Mountains, Arcadia.

My dear Gosse,

Herewith of the dibbs – a homely fiver.

Edmund William Gosse (1849-1928), by J.S. Sargent [http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/]

E.W. Gosse [http://www.kunstkopie.de/]

 How, and why, do you continue to exist? I do so ill, but for a variety of reasons. First, I wait an angel to come down and trouble the waters; second, more angels; third – well, more angels. The waters are sluggish; the angels – well, the angels won’t come, that’s about all. But I sit waiting and waiting, and people bring me meals, which help to pass time (I’m sure it’s very kind of them), and sometimes I whistle to myself; and as there’s a very pretty echo at my pool of Siloam, the thing’s agreeable to hear. The sun continues to rise every day, to my growing wonder. ‘The moon by night thee shall not smite.’ And the stars are all doing as well as can be expected. The air of Arcady is very brisk and pure, and we command many enchanting prospects in space and time. I do not yet know much about my situation; for, to tell the truth, I only came here by the run since I began to write this letter; I had to go back to date it; and I am grateful to you for having been the occasion of this little outing. What good travellers we are, if we had only faith; no man need stay in Edinburgh but by unbelief; my religious organ has been ailing for a while past, and I have lain a great deal in Edinburgh, a sheer hulk in consequence. But I got out my wings, and have taken a change of air.

Victorian Turkish baths in London, c. 1880 [http://www.victorianlondon.org/]

I read your book with great interest, and ought long ago to have told you so. An ordinary man would say that he had been waiting till he could pay his debts […]. The book is good reading. Your personal notes of those you saw struck me as perhaps most sharp and ‘best held.’

E.W. Gosse, Studies in the Literature of Northern Europe, 1879 [https://ia600302.us.archive.org/]

See as many people as you can, and make a book of them before you die. That will be a living book, upon my word. You have the touch required. I ask you to put hands to it in private already. Think of what Carlyle’s caricature of old Coleridge is to us who never saw S.T.C.

Th. Carlyle, The Life of John Sterling, 1st ed., 1851, containing a descriprion of Coleridge at Highgate [http://upload.wikimedia.org/]


With that and Kubla Khan, we have the man in the fact.

Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, written in 1797 under the influence of opium, and edited in 1816 [https://ia700408.us.archive.org/]

Carlyle’s picture, of course, is not of the author of Kubla, but of the author of that surprising Friend which has knocked the breath out of two generations of hopeful youth.

Coleridge’s periodical, The Friend (1809-1810) [https://ia600508.us.archive.org/]

Your portraits would be milder, sweeter, more true perhaps, and perhaps not so truth-telling – if you will take my meaning.

I have to thank you for an introduction to that beautiful – no, that’s not the word – that jolly, with an Arcadian jollity – thing of Vogelweide’s. Also for your preface. Some day I want to read a whole book in the same picked dialect as that preface. I think it must be one E.W. Gosse who must write it. He has got himself into a fix with me by writing the preface; I look for a great deal, and will not be easily pleased.

Gosse’s essay on Walter von der Vogelweide, in ‘Studies in the Literature of Northern Europe’, 1879 [https://ia600502.us.archive.org/]

Codex Manesse (1305-1315): portrait of Walther von der Vogelweide [http://upload.wikimedia.org/]

I never thought of it, but my new book, which should soon be out, contains a visit to a murder scene, but not done as we should like to see them, for, of course, I was running another hare.

If you do not answer this in four pages, I shall stop the enclosed fiver at the bank, a step which will lead to your incarceration for life. As my visits to Arcady are somewhat uncertain, you had better address 17 Heriot Row, Edinburgh, as usual. I shall walk over for the note if I am not yet home. – Believe me, very really yours,

Robert Louis Stevenson

I charge extra for a flourish when it is successful; this isn’t, so you have it gratis. Is there any news in Babylon the Great? My fellow-creatures are electing school boards here in the midst of the ages. It is very composed of them. I can’t think why they do it. Nor why I have written a real letter. If you write a real letter back, damme, I’ll try to correspond with you. A thing unknown in this age. It is a consequence of the decay of faith; we cannot believe that the fellow will be at the pains to read us.

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