I won the toss, sir, and Hades went off once more discomfited

A poetical counterpart to this letter will be found in the piece beginning ‘Not yet, my soul, these friendly fields desert,’ which was composed at the same time and later printed in Underwoods, 1887.

The quoting of St Paul is 2 Corinthians 11:23.

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 3, 699.]

To Edmund Gosse [Colvin 1911, 1, pp. 331-332]

Post Office, San Francisco, [East Oakland], Cal., 16 April [1880].

My dear Gosse,

You have not answered my last; and I know you will repent when you hear how near I have been to another world. For about six weeks I have been in utter doubt; it was a toss-up for life or death all that time; but I won the toss, sir, and Hades went off once more discomfited. This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that I have a friendly game with that gentleman.

Hades, Roman copy from a Greek original of the 5th century BC [http://upload.wikimedia.org/]

I know he will end by cleaning me out; but the rogue is insidious, and the habit of that sort of gambling seems to be a part of my nature; it was, I suspect, too much indulged in youth; break your children of this tendency, my dear Gosse, from the first. It is, when once formed, a habit more fatal than opium – I speak, as St. Paul says, like a fool. I have been very very sick; on the verge of a galloping consumption, cold sweats, prostrating attacks of cough, sinking fits in which I lost the power of speech, fever, and all the ugliest circumstances of the disease; and I have cause to bless God, my wife that is to be, and one Dr. Bamford (a name the Muse repels), that I have come out of all this, and got my feet once more upon a little hilltop, with a fair prospect of life and some new desire of living.

Fanny in 1877

Fanny in 1877

Dr Bramford’s grave, Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland [http://image2.findagrave.com/]

Yet I did not wish to die, neither; only I felt unable to go on farther with that rough horseplay of human life: a man must be pretty well to take the business in good part. Yet I felt all the time that I had done nothing to entitle me to an honourable discharge; that I had taken up many obligations and begun many friendships which I had no right to put away from me; and that for me to die was to play the cur and slinking sybarite, and desert the colours on the eve of the decisive fight.[…] Of course I have done no work for I do not know how long; and here you can triumph. I have been reduced to writing verses for amusement. A fact. The whirligig of time brings in its revenges, after all. But I’ll have them buried with me, I think, for I have not the heart to burn them while I live. Do write […]. I shall go to the mountains as soon as the weather clears; on the way thither, I marry myself; then I set up my family altar among the pinewoods, 3000 feet, sir, from the disputatious sea.

Th. Hill (1820-1908), Mount St Helena, Napa Valley [http://www.knightsbridgewinery.com/]

– I am, dear Weg, most truly yours,

R.L.S.

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