‘His timbers yet are (indifferently) sound, and he may float again’

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 4, 1254.]

To W.E. Henley [Covin 1911, 2, pp. 211-213]

La Solitude, Hyères, April 20th, 1884

I have been really ill for two days, hemorrhage, weakness, extreme nervousness that will not let me lie a moment, and damned sciatica o’ nights; but to-day I am on the recovery. Time; for I was miserable. It is not often that I suffer, with all my turns and tumbles, from the sense of serious illness; and I hate it, as I believe everybody does. And then the combination of not being able to read, not being allowed to speak, being too weak to write, and not wishing to eat, leaves a man with some empty seconds. But I bless God, it’s over now; to-day I am much mended.

1885-1887 - self-portrait 1

RLS’s self-portrait, 1885-1887.


Insatiable gulf, greedier than hell, and more silent than the woods of Styx, have you or have you not lost the dedication to the Child’s Garden? Answer that plain question, as otherwise I must try to tackle to it once again.


RLS’s dedication of ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ to his nurse Cummy (1895 illustrated edition).


Sciatica is a word employed much by Shakespeare in a certain connection.


1803 engraving for Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, Act IV, Scene 1: “Thou cold Sciatica, cripple our Senators, that their limbs may halt as lamely as their manners!” [https://upload.wikimedia.org]


‘Measure for measure’, act I, sc. 2: “How now, which of your hips has the most profound sciatica?”, 1822 engraving [www.folger.edu]


‘Tis true, he was no physician, but as I read, he had smarted in his day. I, too, do smart. And yet this keen soprano agony, these veins of fire and bombshell explosions in the knee, are as nothing to a certain dull, drowsy pain I had when my kidneys were congested at Nice;


19th century ailments for sciatica by electrostatic [http://images.mentalfloss.com]


there was death in that; the creak of Charon’s rowlocks, and the miasmas of the Styx.






I may say plainly, much as I have lost the power of bearing pain, I had still rather suffer much than die. Not only the love of life grows on me, but the fear of certain odd end-seconds grows as well. ‘Tis a suffocating business, take it how you will; and Tyrrel and Forest only bunglers.


Tyrrel viewing the murdered princes (Richard III, IV, III): Sir James Tyrrel arranged the murder of the princes in the Tower and employed Dighton and Forrest to suffocate them [www.luminarium.org]


James Northcote, The Murder of the Princes in the Tower, c. 1805 [http://shakespeare.emory.edu/]


Well, this is an essay on death, or worse, on dying: to return to daylight and the winds, I perceive I have grown to live too much in my work and too little in life. ‘Tis the dollars do it: the world is too much.


1884 Fifty Dollar Bill [www.antiquebanknotes.com]

Whenever I think I would like to live a little, I hear the butcher’s cart resounding through the neighbourhood; and so to plunge again.


Drover with calves in a country cart, Gainsborough, 1755 [https://janeaustensworld.files.wordpre.com]


Butcher’s cart, Eastrington, 1870s[www.howdenshirehistory.co.uk]


The fault is a good fault for me; to be able to do so, is to succeed in life; and my life has been a huge success. I can live with joy and without disgust in the art by which I try to support myself; I have the best wife in the world […];


Fanny Stevenson in 1885 [www.newstalk.com]

I have rather more praise and nearly as much coin as I deserve; my friends are many and true-hearted.


Sidney Colvin (1845-1927) [http://media.vam.ac.uk]


Edmund Gosse (1849-1928) [http://robert-louis-stevenson.org]


William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) [http://media.vam.ac.uk]


Henry Charles Fleeming (pronounced ‘Flemming’) Jenkin (1833-1885)[http://robert-louis-stevenson.org]


Andrew Lang (1844-1912), in 1884[htt p://media.vam.ac.uk]


Will Hicock Low (1853-1932) [http://3.bp.blogspot.com]



Sir Walter Grindlay Simpson (1843-1898) [http://robert-louis-stevenson.org]


Fanny Sitwell (1839-1924) [http://robert-louis-stevenson.org]


Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) [http://robert-louis-stevenson.org]


Sir, it is a big thing in successes. And if mine anchorage lies something open to the wind, Sciatica, if the crew are blind, and the captain spits blood, one cannot have all, and I may be patched up again, who knows? ‘His timbers yet are (indifferently) sound, and he may float again.’

[Words written by William Cooper in 1782 to commemorate the tragic loss of the ship the Royal George. This tune is a march written by Handel for ‘Scipio’, 1725.]


Thanks for the word on Silverado.



Henley’s review of ‘The Silverado Squatters’ in the Saturday Review of 19 April 1884 [https://ia802707.us.archive.org]




[…] Yours ever,

The Sciaticated Bard

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