[As usual, for correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 5, 1485.]
To William Archer [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 297-299]
[Skerryvore, Bournemouth, 1 November 1885]
Dear Mr. Archer,
It is possible my father may be soon down with me; he is an old man and in bad health and spirits; and I could neither leave him alone nor could we talk freely before him. If he should be here when you offer your visit, you will understand if I have to say no, and put you off.
I quite understand your not caring to refer to things of private knowledge. What still puzzles me is how you (‘in the witness box’ – ha! I like the phrase) should have made your argument actually hinge on a contention which the facts answered.
I am pleased to hear of the correctness of my guess. It is then as I supposed; you are of the school of the generous and not the sullen pessimists; and I can feel with you. I used myself to rage when I saw sickfolk going by in their Bath-chairs; since I have been sick myself (and always when I was sick myself), I found life, even in its rough places, to have a property of easiness.
That which we suffer ourselves has no longer the same air of monstrous injustice and wanton cruelty that suffering wears when we see it in the case of others. So we begin gradually to see that things are not black, but have their strange compensations; and when they draw towards their worst, the idea of death is like a bed to lie on. I should bear false witness if I did not declare life happy. And your wonderful statement that happiness tends to die out and misery to continue, which was what put me on the track of your frame of mind, is diagnostic of the happy man raging over the misery of others; it could never be written by the man who had tried what unhappiness was like. And at any rate, it was a slip of the pen: the ugliest word that science has to declare is a reserved indifference to happiness and misery in the individual; it declares no leaning toward the black, no iniquity on the large scale in fate’s doings, rather a marble equality, dread not cruel, giving and taking away and reconciling.
Why have I not written my Timon?
Well, here is my worst quarrel with you. You take my young books as my last word. The tendency to try to say more has passed unperceived (my fault, that). And you make no allowance for the slowness with which a man finds and tries to learn his tools. I began with a neat brisk little style, and a sharp little knack of partial observation; I have tried to expand my means, but still I can only utter a part of what I wish to say, and am bound to feel; and much of it will die unspoken. But if I had the pen of Shakespeare, I have no Timon to give forth. I feel kindly to the powers that be; I marvel they should use me so well; and when I think of the case of others, I wonder too, but in another vein, whether they may not, whether they must not, be like me, still with some compensation, some delight. To have suffered, nay, to suffer, sets a keen edge on what remains of the agreeable. This is a great truth, and has to be learned in the fire. – Yours very truly,
Robert Louis Stevenson
We expect you, remember that.