Addressed by way of thanks to a friend at Cambridge, Albert George Dew-Smith, who had sent RLS a present of a box of cigarettes. Dew-Smith, a man of fine artistic tastes and mechanical genius, with a silken, somewhat foreign urbanity of bearing, was the original, so far as concerns manner and way of speech, of Attwater in RLS’s Ebb-Tide (published in 1893-94). He was an amateur photographer active in the 1880s and 1890s, and worked as a lens grinder at the Observatory in the University of Cambridge.
In this poem the word ‘sterling’, according to Colvin, means “a series of piles to defend the pier of a bridge”.
[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 3, 739.]
To Albert George Dew-Smith [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 11-14]
[Hôtel Bélvedère, Davos, November 1880.]
Figure me to yourself, I pray –
A man of my peculiar cut –
Apart from dancing and deray,
Into an Alpine valley shut;
Shut in a kind of damned Hotel,
Discountenanced by God and man;
The food? – Sir, you would do as well
To cram your belly full of bran.
The company? Alas, the day
That I should dwell with such a crew,
With devil anything to say,
Nor any one to say it to!
The place? Although they call it Platz,
I will be bold and state my view;
It’s not a place at all – and that’s
The bottom verity, my Dew.
There are, as I will not deny,
Innumerable inns; a road;
Several Alps indifferent high;
The snow’s inviolable abode;
Eleven English parsons, all
Entirely inoffensive; four
True human beings – what I call
Human – the deuce a cipher more;
A climate of surprising worth;
Innumerable dogs that bark;
Some air, some weather, and some earth;
A native race – God save the mark! –
A race that works, yet cannot work,
Yodels, but cannot yodel right,
Such as, unhelp’d, with rusty dirk,
I vow that I could wholly smite.
A river that from morn to night
Down all the valley plays the fool;
Not once she pauses in her flight,
Nor knows the comfort of a pool;
But still keeps up, by straight or bend,
The selfsame pace she hath begun –
Still hurry, hurry, to the end –
Good God, is that the way to run?
If I a river were, I hope
That I should better realise
The opportunities and scope
Of that romantic enterprise.
I should not ape the merely strange,
But aim besides at the divine;
And continuity and change
I still should labour to combine.
Here should I gallop down the race,
Here charge the sterling like a bull;
There, as a man might wipe his face,
Lie, pleased and panting, in a pool.
But what, my Dew, in idle mood,
What prate I, minding not my debt?
What do I talk of bad or good?
The best is still a cigarette.
Me whether evil fate assault,
Or smiling providences crown –
Whether on high the eternal vault
Be blue, or crash with thunder down –
I judge the best, whate’er befall,
Is still to sit on one’s behind,
And, having duly moistened all,
Smoke with an unperturbed mind.