“A dam tale to order, which will be what it will be”

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 5, 1729.]

To Sidney Colvin [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 356-357]

Skerryvore, Dec. 14, 1886

My dear Colvin,

This is first-rate of you, the Lord love you for it! I am truly much obliged. He – my father – is very changeable; […] at times, he seems only a slow quiet edition of himself; again, he will be very heavy and blank; but never so violent as last spring; and therefore, to my mind, better on the whole.

Sidney Colvin, c. 1890. RLS was referring to some steps that were being taken with Colvin’s help, to obtain recognition in the form of a knighthood for the Thomas Stevenson’s public services [https://media.vam.ac.uk]

RLS’s father will die in May, 1887 [www.nationalgalleries.org]



Fanny is pretty peepy; I am splendid. I have been writing much verse – quite the bard, in fact; and also a dam tale to order, which will be what it will be: I don’t love it, but some of it is passable in its mouldy way, The Misadventures of John Nicholson […].

‘The Misadventures of John Nicholson’ will be published in ‘Yule-Tide’ for Dec 1887. This is the first American edition, 1887.


All my bardly exercises are in Scotch; I have struck my somewhat ponderous guitar in that tongue to no small extent: with what success, I know not, but I think it’s better than my English verse; more marrow and fatness, and more ruggedness.

RLS’s poems in Scots will be published in ‘Underwoods’, Book II, 1887.



How goes Keats?

S. Colvin, ‘Keats’, ‘English Men of Letters’, 1887.


Pray remark, if he (Keats) hung back from Shelley, it was not to be wondered at, when so many of his friends were Shelley’s pensioners.

P.B. Shelley (1792-1822) [https://media.poetryfoundation.org]

J. Keats (1795-1821) [https://media.poetryfoundation.org]


I forget if you have made this point; it has been borne in upon me reading Dowden and the Shelley Papers;

Edwin Dowden’s two-volume biography of Shelley had just appeared.

What RLS calls the ‘Shelley’s papers’ may be the ‘Shelley Memorials’ (1859) or Richard Garnett’s ‘Relics of Shelley’ (1862).

Percy Florence Shelley, the poet’s son (1819-1889). RLS’s friendship with him may well have given him access to the originals [http://2.bp.blogspot.com]

and it will do no harm if you have made it. I finished a poem today, and writ 3,000 words of a story, tant bien que mal; and have a right to be sleepy, and (what is far nobler and rarer) am so. – My dear Colvin, ever yours,

The Real Mackay


Attested in 1856 as “A drappie o’ the real MacKay” (A drop of the real MacKay), the expression was used as advertising slogan of G. MacKay & Co., Ltd., a whisky distiller. Its corruption, ‘The real McCoy’, took the meaning of ‘the genuine article, not an imitation’.





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