Telling the story, not with the one eye of pity, but with the two of pity and mirth

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 4, 1266.]

To W.E. Henley [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 218-219]

La Solitude, Hyères [Late April 1884]

Dear boy,


Old Mortality is out, and I am glad to say Coggie likes it. We like her immensely.


RLS’s essay ‘Old Mortality’ was first published in Longman’s Magazine (May 1884), and later included in the book ‘Memories and Portraits’ (1887). It was suggested by the death of his friend J. W. Ferrier, whose sister Elizabeth Anne (‘Coggie’) was then visiting RLS at Hyères []



I keep better, but no great shakes yet; cannot work – cannot: that is flat, not even verses: as for prose, that more active place is shut on me long since.

My view of life is essentially the comic; and the romantically comic. As You Like It is to me the most bird-haunted spot in letters;


W. Hodges, Jacques and the Wounded Stag, ‘As You Like It,’ Act II, Scene I, 1790 []


J.E. Buckley, Rosalind, Celia and Jacques in the forest of Arden, 1864 []


Tempest and Twelfth Night follow.


Angelika Kauffmann (1741-1807), Scene with Miranda and Ferdinand []


F. Wheatley, Viola preparing to duel, circa 1771 []



These are what I mean by poetry and nature. I make an effort of my mind to be quite one with Molière, except upon the stage, where his inimitable jeux de scène beggar belief; but you will observe they are stage-plays – things ad hoc; not great Olympian debauches of the heart and fancy; hence more perfect, and not so great.


Moliere’s Company performing, 1670: a performance of French farceurs and Italian masked actors; the character on the extreme left is probably Molière []

Then I come, after great wanderings, to Carmosine, and to Fantasio;


De Musset, Carmosine, 1st edition, 1865. In his essay ‘The Ideal House, written in 1884, RLS includes among the ‘eternal books that never weary’, ‘De Musset’s comedies, the one volume open at Carmosine and the other at Fantasio’. Carmosine, the daughter of a rich doctor of Palermo, is affianced to Perillo, a law student. Alas, she sees her king at a tourney, falls madly in love with him and wants to die, for her love is hopeless. The king already has a queen, who counsels the girl to love her king, as indeed she should, but more purely. The king says tenderly that he will wear her clothes at the next tourney, but that she must marry the young Perillo. Church bells ring and Carmosine awakes to marry Perillo happily, for it has all been a dream. An adaptation from a novel by Boccaccio []




De Musset’s ‘Fantasio’ is a story of sacrifice and circumstance, illustrated by Princess Elsbeth’s ambiguous endeavor for happiness. In order for her kingdom to avoid war, she has been betrothed to the Prince of Mantua. Although the Princess is reluctant and unwilling, the fate of her kingdom is at stake. Fantasio, a gentleman deeply in debt, dresses up as the deceased court jester to hide from his creditors. When, disguised as the jester, he meets the Princess, falls in love, and tries to thwart the marriage []


to one part of La Dernière Aldini (which, by the by, we might dramatise in a week),


La Dernière Aldini: one of the Contes Venétiens by George Sand, 1838 []

to the notes that Meredith has found, Evan and the postillion, Evan and Rose, Harry in Germany.


The references are to chapters 6 and 16 of ‘Evan Harrington’ and chapter 26 of ‘Harry Richmond’ by George Meredith []

And to me these things are the good; beauty, touched with sex and laughter; beauty with God’s earth for the background.Tragedy does not seem to me to come off; and when it does, it does so by the heroic illusion; the anti-masque has been omitted; laughter, which attends on all our steps in life, and sits by the death-bed, and certainly redacts the epitaph, laughter has been lost from these great-hearted lies. But the comedy which keeps the beauty and touches the terrors of our life (laughter and tragedy-in-a-good-humour having kissed), that is the last word of moved representation; embracing the greatest number of elements of fate and character; and telling its story, not with the one eye of pity, but with the two of pity and mirth.






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