You will never be a Pirate!

This amiable and excellent public servant, art-critic, and versifier was a friend of old Savile Club days; the drift of his letter can easily be guessed from this reply.

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 4, 1237.]

To Cosmo Monkhouse [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 204-206]

La Solitude, Hyères, March 16, 1884

My dear Monkhouse,

You see with what promptitude I plunge into correspondence; but the truth is, I am condemned to a complete inaction, stagnate dismally, and love a letter. Yours, which would have been welcome at any time, was thus doubly precious.


William Cosmo Monkhouse (1840-1901) []

Dover sounds somewhat shiveringly in my ears.You should see the weather I have – cloudless, clear as crystal, with just a punkah-draft of the most aromatic air, all pine and gum tree.


St Margaret’s Bay, Dover, c. 1900. Monkhouse was there, recovering from an illness and ‘in love with stagnation’[]


St Margaret’s Bay, Dover []


The bay of Hyères []


A punkah, large swinging fan, fixed to the ceiling []


You would be ashamed of Dover; you would scruple to refer, sir, to a spot so paltry. To be idle at Dover is a strange pretension; pray, how do you warm yourself? If I were there I should grind knives or write blank verse, or – But at least you do not bathe? It is idle to deny it: I have – I may say I nourish – a growing jealousy of the robust, large-legged, healthy Britain-dwellers, patient of grog, scorners of the timid umbrella, innocuously breathing fog: all which I once was, and I am ashamed to say liked it.


Swimming legend: Captain Matthew Webb (1848-1883) became the first person to swim the English Channel, 1875. He tragically died while attempting to swim across Niagara Falls, 1883 []


S.T. Sill, Sly Grog Shop, 1852 []


Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893), View of Heath Street at night, 1882 []

How ignorant is youth! grossly rolling among unselected pleasures; and how nobler, purer, sweeter, and lighter, to sip the choice tonic, to recline in the luxurious invalid chair, and to tread, well-shawled, the little round of the constitutional. Seriously, do you like to repose? Ye Gods, I hate it. I never rest with any acceptation; I do not know what people mean who say they like sleep and that damned bedtime which, since long ere I was breeched, has rung a knell to all my day’s doings and beings.


RLS in bed, modeled in 1887 by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1899 cast []

[…] And when a man, seemingly sane, tells me he has ‘fallen in love with stagnation,’ I can only say to him, ‘You will never be a Pirate!’ This may not cause any regret to Mrs. Monkhouse; but in your own soul it will clang hollow – think of it! Never! After all boyhood’s aspirations and youth’s immoral day-dreams, you are condemned to sit down, grossly draw in your chair to the fat board, and be a beastly Burgess till you die. Can it be? Is there not some escape, some furlough from the Moral Law, some holiday jaunt contrivable into a Better Land? Shall we never shed blood? This prospect is too grey.

Here lies a man who never did

Anything but what he was bid;

Who lived his life in paltry ease,

And died of commonplace disease.

To confess plainly, I had intended to spend my life (or any leisure I might have from Piracy upon the high seas) as the leader of a great horde of irregular cavalry, devastating whole valleys. I can still, looking back, see myself in many favourite attitudes; signalling for a boat from my pirate ship with a pocket-handkerchief, I at the jetty end, and one or two of my bold blades keeping the crowd at bay; or else turning in the saddle to look back at my whole command (some five thousand strong) following me at the hand-gallop up the road out of the burning valley: this last by moonlight.


RLS, Moral Emblems II, V, 1882 []


Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, 1854 []


Et point du tout. I am a poor scribe, and have scarce broken a commandment to mention, and have recently dined upon cold veal!



As for you (who probably had some ambitions), I hear of you living at Dover, in lodgings, like the beasts of the field.


St Margaret’s Bay, Dover []

But in heaven, when we get there, we shall have a good time, and see some real carnage. For heaven is – must be – that great Kingdom of Antinomia, which Lamb saw dimly adumbrated in the Country Wife, where the worm which never dies (the conscience) peacefully expires, and the sinner lies down beside the Ten Commandments.




The Complete Works of Charles Lamb, 1879 ed. []


Lamb’s essay on the Restoration dramatists []


Till then, here a sheer hulk lies poor Tom Bowling, with neither health nor vice for anything more spirited than procrastination, which I may well call the Consolation Stakes of Wickedness; and by whose diligent practice, without the least amusement to ourselves, we can rob the orphan and bring down grey hairs with sorrow to the dust.

This astonishing gush of nonsense I now hasten to close, envelope, and expedite to Shakespeare’s Cliff. Remember me to Shakespeare, and believe me, yours very sincerely,

Robert Louis Stevenson


Shakespeare Cliff, Dover, c. 1890 []

This entry was posted in Letters, Robert Louis Stevenson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.