To me, the medicine bottles on my chimney and the blood on my handkerchief are accidents; they do not colour my view of life… they do not exist in my prospect

[For correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 5, 1484.]

To William Archer [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 299-302]

Skerryvore, Bournemouth [30 October 1885]

Dear Mr. Archer,

You will see that I had already had a sight of your article and what were my thoughts.

W. Archer (1856-1924) sent RLS a copy of his article, crossing in the post RLS’s letter of 28 Oct []

W. Archer (1856-1924) sent RLS a copy of his article, crossing in the post RLS’s letter of 28 October []

One thing in your letter puzzles me. Are you, too, not in the witness-box? And if you are, why take a wilfully false hypothesis? If you knew I was a chronic invalid, why say that my philosophy was unsuitable to such a case? My call for facts is not so general as yours, but an essential fact should not be put the other way about.

RLS in 1885, by J.S. Sargent.

RLS in 1885, by J.S. Sargent.


The fact is, consciously or not, you doubt my honesty; you think I am making faces, and at heart disbelieve my utterances. And this I am disposed to think must spring from your having not had enough of pain, sorrow, and trouble in your existence. It is easy to have too much; easy also or possible to have too little; enough is required that a man may appreciate what elements of consolation and joy there are in everything but absolutely overpowering physical pain or disgrace, and how in almost all circumstances the human soul can play a fair part. You fear life, I fancy, on the principle of the hand of little employment. But perhaps my hypothesis is as unlike the truth as the one you chose. Well, if it be so, if you have had trials, sickness, the approach of death, the alienation of friends, poverty at the heels, and have not felt your soul turn round upon these things and spurn them under – you must be very differently made from me, and I earnestly believe from the majority of men. But at least you are in the right to wonder and complain.

William Archer []

William Archer []

To ‘say all’? Stay here. All at once? That would require a word from the pen of Gargantua.



We say each particular thing as it comes up, and ‘with that sort of emphasis that for the time there seems to be no other.’

Archer had quoted a sentence from Thoreau which RLS himself had quoted in this page of his essay: ‘No truth, we think, was ever expressed but with this sort of emphasis, that for the time there seemed to be no other’.


Words will not otherwise serve us; no, nor even Shakespeare, who could not have put As You Like It and Timon into one without ruinous loss both of emphasis and substance.

Is it quite fair then to keep your face so steadily on my most light-hearted works, and then say I recognise no evil? Yet in the paper on Burns, for instance, I show myself alive to some sorts of evil.

RLS’s essay on Robert Burns, in Familiar Studies, 1882.

But then, perhaps, they are not your sorts.

And again: ‘to say all’? All: yes. Everything: no. The task were endless, the effect nil. But my all, in such a vast field as this of life, is what interests me, what stands out, what takes on itself a presence for my imagination or makes a figure in that little tricky abbreviation which is the best that my reason can conceive. That I must treat, or I shall be fooling with my readers. That, and not the all of some one else.

And here we come to the division: not only do I believe that literature should give joy, but I see a universe, I suppose, eternally different from yours; a solemn, a terrible, but a very joyous and noble universe, where suffering is not at least wantonly inflicted, though it falls with dispassionate partiality, but where it may be and generally is nobly borne; where, above all, any brave man may make out a life which shall be happy for himself, and, by so being, beneficent to those about him (this I believe; probably you don’t: I think he may, with cancer). And if he fails, why should I hear him weeping? I mean if I fail, why should I weep? Why should you hear me? Then to me morals, the conscience, the affections, and the passions are, I will own frankly and sweepingly, so infinitely more important than the other parts of life, that I conceive men rather triflers who become immersed in the latter; and I will always think the man who keeps his lip stiff, and makes ‘a happy fireside clime,’

R. Burns, Epistle to Dr Blacklock, 1885 ed.: “To make a happy fireside clime / To weans and wife. / That’s the true pathos and sublime / Of human life”.


and carries a pleasant face about to friends and neighbours, infinitely greater (in the abstract) than an atrabilious Shakespeare or a backbiting Kant or Darwin.





Charles Darwin



No offence to any of these gentlemen, two of whom probably (one for certain) came up to my standard.

And now enough said; it were hard if a poor man could not criticise another without having so much ink shed against him. But I shall still regret you should have written on an hypothesis you knew to be untenable, and that you should thus have made your paper, for those who do not know me, essentially unfair. The rich, fox-hunting squire speaks with one voice; the sick man of letters with another. Yours very truly,

Robert Louis Stevenson

(Prometheus-Heine in minimis)

H. Heine, Kirchenrath Prometheus, in Neue Gedichte, 1844.


P.S. – Here I go again. To me, the medicine bottles on my chimney and the blood on my handkerchief are accidents; they do not colour my view of life, as you would know, I think, if you had experience of sickness; they do not exist in my prospect; I would as soon drag them under the eyes of my readers as I would mention a pimple I might chance to have (saving your presence) on my posteriors. What does it prove? what does it change? it has not hurt, it has not changed me in any essential part; and I should think myself a trifler and in bad taste if I introduced the world to these unimportant privacies.

But, again, there is this mountain-range between us – that you do not believe me. It is not flattering, but the fault is probably in my literary art.


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