“I drew the nothings that my soul enjoyed”

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 5, 1535.]

To William Sharp [E. Sharp, W. Sharp, a Memoir, 1910, pp. 116-118]

Skerryvore [Early February 1886]

Dear Sir,

Having at last taken an opportunity to read your pleasant volume, it has had an effect upon me much to be regretted and you will find the consequences in verse.

William Sharp (1855-1905), Scottish poet, biographer and journalist, who achieved his greatest successes with the Celtic romances published under the pseudonym Fiona Macleod [www.electricscotland.com]

The ‘pleasant volume’ is ‘Sonnets of this Century’, edited and arranged by Sharp, and published in Walter Scott’s ‘Canterbury Poets’ series. RLS’s copy, now at Princeton, is inscribed ‘To RLS in slight aknowledgement of an irredeemable debt of pleasure’ [Cf. Mehew 5, p. 191]


I had not written a serious sonnet since boyhood, when I used to imitate Milton and Wordsworth with surprising results:

John Milton (1608-1674) [http://le-citazioni.it]

Wordsworth (1770-1850), 1798 portrait [https://upload.wikimedia.org]


and since I have fallen again by your procuring (a procuration) you must suffer along with me. May I say that my favourite sonnet in the whole range of your book is Tennyson Turner’s “The Buoy-Bell”?

Rvd. Charles Tennyson Turner (1808-1879), elder brother of Alfred Tennyson [http://cdn.quotesgram.com]

“The Buoy-Bell” by Tennyson Turner, in Sharp’s book.


Possibly there is a touch of association in this preference; but I think not. No human work is perfect; but that is near enough.

Yours truly,

Robert Louis Stevenson

The form of my so-called sonnets will cause you as much agony as it causes me little. I am base enough to think the main point of a sonnet is the disjunction of thought coinciding with the end of the octave: and when a lesser disjunction makes the quatrains and sestets I call it an ideal sonnet; even if it were rhymed anyhow. But the cross rhyme, tears—fear, in the second is, even in my base eyes, a vile flaw.

THE ARABESQUE (Complaint of an artist)

I made a fresco on the coronal,

Amid the sounding silence and the void

Of life’s wind-swept and unfrequented ball.

Frescoed lunette by Dino di Puccio and Jacopo d’Agnolo, Prato, Italy, 1389 [www.comune.prato.it]

I drew the nothings that my soul enjoyed;

Robert Fludd, ‘Utriusque Cosmi’, The nothingness that was prior to the universe, 1617 [https://pbs.twimg.com]

The pretty image of the enormous fact

I fled; and when the sun soared over all

And threw a brightness on the painted tract,

Lo, the vain lines were reading on the wall!


     In vain we blink; our life about us lies

O’erscrawled with crooked mist; we toil in vain

To hear the hymn of ancient harmonies

That quire upon the mountains as the plain;


And from the august silence of the skies

Babble of speech returns to us again.


RLS’s sonnet ‘The Arabesque’, in Sharp’s book [https://ia800206.us.archive.org]



I saw a circle in a garden sit

Of dainty dames and solemn cavaliers,

Whereof some shuddered at the burrowing nit,

And at the carrion worm some burst in tears;

And all, as envying the abhorred estate

Of empty shades and disembodied elves,

Under the laughing stars, early and late

Sat shamefast at this birth and at themselves.

Francesco Podesti, The first day of the Decameron, 1847 [https://c1.staticflickr.com]

       The keeper of the house of life is fear:

W. Blake, Fear and Hope are visions, 1826 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

In the rent lion is the honey found

By him that rent it; out of stony ground

The toiler, in the morning of the year,

Beholds the harvest of his grief abound

And the green corn put forth the tender ear.

The quote is Jud. 14: 5-8, Samson, the lion, the bees, the honey, and the riddle [www.wordsforcourageousliving.com]

V. Van Gogh, Wheatfield under thunderclouds, 1890 [https://lasottilelineadombrablog.files.wordpress.com]

RLS’s sonnet ‘The Touch of Life’, in Sharp’s book.




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