A childish treble note that sounds in my ears freshly; not song, if you will, but a child’s voice

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 5, 1403.]

To Edmund Gosse [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 269-272]

Bonallie Tower, Bournemouth, March 12, 1885

My dear Gosse,

I was indeed much exercised how I could be worked into Gray; and lo! when I saw it, the passage seemed to have been written with a single eye to elucidate the – worst? – well, not a very good poem of Gray’s.


Gosse’s annotated school edition of Selected Poems of Thomas Gray, with notes and a short prefatory Life [https://archive.org/stream]




Gosse annotated, on the presentation copy sent to RLS, line 40 of ‘Ode on a distant prospect of Eton College’ – ‘And snatch a fearful joy’ – with a sentence from RLS’s ‘Suicide Club’ (‘New Arabian Nights’ I, 35) ‘Fear is the wrong passion; it is with fear that you must trifle, if you wish to taste the intensest joy of living’.


Your little life is excellent, clean, neat, efficient. I have read many of your notes, too, with pleasure. […] Your connection with Gray was a happy circumstance; it was a suitable conjunction.


Portrait of Edmund Gosse, 1886, by J.S. Sargent. RLS’s friend was lecturing in English literature at Trinity College, and just back from a successful lecture tour to the US [http://blog.library.leeds.ac.uk]


Thomas Gray (1716-1771) [https://media.poetryfoundation.org]


I did not answer your letter from the States, for what was I to say? I liked getting it and reading it; I was rather flattered that you wrote it to me; and then I’ll tell you what I did – I put it in the fire. Why? Well, just because it was very natural and expansive; and thinks I to myself, if I die one of these fine nights […], this is just the letter that Gosse would not wish to go into the hands of third parties.

Was I well inspired? And I did not answer it because you were in your high places, sailing with supreme dominion, and seeing life in a particular glory; and I was peddling in a corner, confined to the house, overwhelmed with necessary work, which I was not always doing well, and, in the very mild form in which the disease approaches me, touched with a sort of bustling cynicism. Why throw cold water? How ape your agreeable frame of mind? In short, I held my tongue.


RLS at his writing table in Bornemouth, 1885. Photo taken by his stepson Lloyd Osbourne.[https://upload.wikimedia.org]

I have now published on 101 small pages The Complete Proof of Mr. R. L. Stevenson’s Incapacity to Write Verse, in a series of graduated examples with table of contents.



I think I shall issue a companion volume of exercises: ‘Analyse this poem. Collect and comminate the ugly words. Distinguish and condemn the chevilles. State Mr. Stevenson’s faults of taste in regard to the measure. What reasons can you gather from this example for your belief that Mr. S. is unable to write any other measure?’ They look ghastly in the cold light of print; but there is something nice in the little ragged regiment for all; the blackguards seem to me to smile, to have a kind of childish treble note that sounds in my ears freshly; not song, if you will, but a child’s voice.


Closing of ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’, first edition, 1885 [https://ia902604.us.archive.org]

I was glad you enjoyed your visit to the States. Most Englishmen go there with a confirmed design of patronage, as they go to France for that matter; and patronage will not pay. Besides, in this year of – grace, said I? – of disgrace, who should creep so low as an Englishman?



‘It is not to be thought of that the flood’ – ah, Wordsworth, […] you would change your note were you alive to-day!


W. Wordsworth, Poems in Two Vomumes, 1807, sonnet 16, written at the time of the threat of French invasion [www.archive.org]

I am now a beastly householder, but have not yet entered on my domain. When I do, the social revolution will probably cast me back upon my dung heap. There is a person called Hyndman whose eye is on me; his step is beHynd me as I go.


Henry Hyndman (1842-1921), English writer and politician, and the founder of the Social Democratic Federation (1881). His speech at a demonstration by the unemployed had led the Saturday Review to declare that the Socialist propaganda with its incitement to assassination called for ‘immediate and exemplary punishment’ [Mehew 5, p. 85] [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

I shall call my house Skerryvore when I get it: SKERRYVORE: c’est bon pour la poéshie.


RLS named the cottage (given to Fanny by RLS’s father) “Skerryvore,” after the famous lighthouse built by the Stevenson family,  [www.awesomestories.com]

I will conclude with my favourite sentiment: ‘The world is too much with me.’


Wordsworth’s other sonnet quoted by RLS, ‘The world is too much with us’, 1807 [https://ia801408.us.archive.org]

Robert Louis Stevenson

The Hermit of Skerryvore.

Author of ‘John Vane Tempest: a Romance,’


Robert Stewart, British Foreign Secretary, who became the second Marquess of Londonderry in 1821. The Vane-Tempest-Stewart family was a British aristocratic family headed by the Marquess of Londonderry. No member of that family was named John [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

‘Herbert and Henrietta: or the Nemesis of Sentiment,’ ‘The Life and Adventures of Colonel Bludyer Fortescue,’ ‘Happy Homes and Hairy Faces,’


Annie Jones (1865–1902), a bearded woman from Virginia who toured with the Barnum Circus as an attraction [http://odditiesbizarre.com]

‘A Pound of Feathers and a Pound of Lead,’



part author of ‘Minn’s Complete Capricious Correspondent: a Manual of Natty, Natural, and Knowing Letters,’ and editor of the ‘Poetical Remains of Samuel Burt Crabbe, known as the melodious Bottle-Holder.’

Uniform with the above:

‘The Life and Remains of the Reverend Jacob Degray Squah,’ author of ‘Heave-yo for the New Jerusalem,’


John of Patmos watches the descent of the New Jerusalem from God, 14th century tapestry [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

‘A Box of Candles; or the Patent Spiritual Safety Match,’





and ‘A Day with the Heavenly Harriers.’


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