No man can settle another’s life for him… each in turn must meet and beard the Sphynx

RLS left Davos on April 20th, 1882, with his wife and stepson.

After some weeks in London, where RLS’s parents joyned them, (Fanny was unwell and RLS needed some rest), they were back to Edinburgh on May 20th.

The following was addressed to Arthur Trevor Haddon, a young art-student who had read the works of Walt Whitman after reading RLS’s essay on him, and being staggered by some things he found there, had written asking for further comment and counsel.

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 3, 961.]

To Trevor Haddon [Colvin 1912, pp. 160-161]

17 Heriot Row, Edinburgh [June, 1882].

Dear Sir,

If I have in any way disquieted you, I believe you are justified in bidding me stand and deliver a remedy if there be one: which is the point.

Arthur Trevor Haddon (1864-1941), English portrait painter, won a scholarship at the Slade School in 1883 []

1st I am of your way of thinking: that a good deal of Whitman is as well taken once but 2nd I quite believe that it is better to have everything brought before one in books. In that way the problems reach us when we are cool, and not warped by the sophistries of an instant passion.

RLS, Familiar Studies of Men and Books, 1882 []

RLS-s essay on Walt Whitman, in Familiar Studies of Men and Books, 1882 [htps://]


Walt Whitman []

Life itself presents its problems with a terrible directness and at the very hour when we are least able to judge calmly. Hence this Pisgah sight of all things, off the top of a book, is only a rational preparation for the ugly grips that must follow.

Mount Pisgah, a mountain ridge of ancient Moab, now in Jordan, NE of the Dead Sea: from its summit (Mt. Nebo) Moses viewed the Promised Land, Deut. 34:1 []

But 3rd, no man can settle another’s life for him. It is the test of the nature and courage of each that he shall decide it for himself. Each in turn must meet and beard the Sphynx.

Oedipus and the Sphynx, Attic cup, 5th century BC []

Some things however I may say – and you will treat them as things read in a book for you to accept or refuse as you shall see most fit.

Go not out of your way to make difficulties. Hang back from life while you are young. Shoulder no responsibilities. You do not yet know how far you can trust yourself – it will not be very far, or you are more fortunate than I am. If you can keep your sexual desires in order, be glad, be very glad. Some day, when you meet your fate, you will be free, and the better man. Don’t make a boy and girl friendship that which it is not. […] Look at Burns: that is where amourettes conduct an average good man; and a tepid marriage is only a more selfish amourette – in the long run.

Robert Burns and Mary Campbell (Highland Mary) []

Robert Burns and his wife Jane Armour, c. 1779 []


Whatever you do, see that you don’t sacrifice a woman; that ‘s where all imperfect loves conduct us. At the same time, if you can make it convenient to be chaste, for God’s sake, avoid the primness of your virtue; hardness to a poor harlot is a sin lower than the ugliest unchastity.

Dante Gabriele Rossetti, “Found”, Compositional Study, 1854-1855 []

Never be in a hurry anyhow.

There is my sermon.

Certainly, you cannot too earnestly go in for the Greek; and about any art, think last of what pays, first of what pleases. It is in that spirit only that an art can be made. Progress in art is made by learning to enjoy it. That which seems a little dull at first, is found to contain the elements of pleasure more largely though more quietly commingled.

I return to my sermon for one more word: […] natural desire […] gives you no right to any particular woman: that comes with love only, and don’t be too ready to believe in love: there are many shams: the true love will not allow you to reason about it. […]


Sir Frank Dicksee, Romeo and Juliet, 1884 []

It is your fault if I appear so pulpiteering.

Wishing you well in life and art, and that you may long be young. – Believe me, yours truly,

Robert Louis Stevenson

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