“If only I knew any Latin!”

Written just before a visit to London.

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 5, 1584.]

To Sidney Colvin [Colvin 1912, pp. 213-214]

[Skerryvore, Bournemouth, 17 March 1886]

My dear Colvin,


I have been reading the Vth and VIth Aeneid – the latter for the first time – and am overpowered.

Aeneas’s voyage to Sicily (Aeneid, V). Flemish tapestry, Palermo [https://bombacarta.com]

Master of the Aeneid, Aeneas sacrifices to the Gods before the tomb of his father, Anchises, in Sicily (Aeneid, book V) [http://images.metmuseum.org]

Dosso Dossi, The Sicilian Games in honor of Anchises (Aeneid, Book V) [www.webexhibits.org]

The Trojan women burn their own ships (Aeneid, Book V) [https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com]

W. Turner, Lake Avernus with Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl, 1798 (Aeneid, Book VI) [https://blogcamminarenellastoria.files.wordpress.com]

G.M. Crespi, Aeneas, the Sibyl, and Charon, 1695-1705 (Aeneid, Book VI) [http://1.bp.blogspot.com]

John Martin, Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld, 1820 (Aeneid, Book VI) [www.operedarte.nikla.net]

Nicolò dell’Abate, Aeneas descends into the underworld, 1543 (Aeneid, Book VI) [https://blogcamminarenellastoria.files.wordpress.com]


That is one of the most astonishing pieces of literature, or rather it contains the best, I ever met with. We are all damned small fry, and Virgil is one of the tops of human achievement;

A 3rd-century Tunisian mosaic of Virgil seated between Clio and Melpomene [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

I never appreciated this; you should have a certain age to feel this; it is no book for boys, who grind under the lack of enterprise and dash, and pass ignorantly over miracles of performance that leave an old hoary-headed practitioner like me stricken down with admiration. Even as a boy, the Sibyl would have bust me;

Michelangelo, The Cumaean Sibyl [www.icsrizzoli.it]

but I never read the VIth till I began it two days ago; it is all fresh and wonderful; do you envy me? If only I knew any Latin! if you had a decent edition with notes – many notes – I should like well to have it; mine is a damned Didot with not the ghost of a note, type that puts my eyes out, and (I suspect) no very splendid text – but there, the carnal feelings of the man who can’t construe are probably parents to the suspicion.

Two-page spread from ‘Bucolica, Georgica, et Aeneis’, a book containing three works by Virgil, printed by Pierre Didot the Elder, 1798 [https://media1.britannica.com]

My dear fellow, I would tenfold rather come to the Monument;

Sidney Colvin (1845-1927), art and literary scholar and museum administrator, had been director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge from 1876 to 1884, and was then keeper of the department of prints and drawings in the British Museum (1884-1912) [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

Sidney Colvin lived on the grounds of the British Museum (the ‘Monument’) [http://blog.britishmuseum.org]

The Round Reading Room at the British Museum, home of the British Library from 1854 to 1997 [https://ka-perseus-images.s3.amazonaws.com]


but my father is an old man, and if I go to town, it shall be (this time) for his pleasure.

Thomas Stevenson (1818-1887)[www.nationalgalleries.org]

In a next visit to London, RLS was not Colvin’s guest at the British Museum, but stayed with his father at a hotel, 5 Fitzroy Square.


He has many marks of age, some of childhood; I wish this knighthood business could come off, though even the talk of it has been already something, but the change (to my eyes) is thoroughly begun; and a very beautiful, simple, honourable, high-spirited and childlike (and childish) man is now in process of deserting us piecemeal. Si quis piorum – 

The Quoting is from Tacitus, Agricola, ch. 46: the opening words of his valediction to his father-in-law(The Agricola and Germania of Cornelius Tacitus : with explanatory notes and maps, 1885).


– God knows, not that he was pious, but he did his hand’s darg or tried to do it; and if not, well, it is a melancholy business. – Yours ever.










This entry was posted in Letters, Robert Louis Stevenson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.