“I have never called my verses poetry: they are verse, the verse of a speaker not a singer”

[For correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 1909.]

To William Sharp [E. Sharp, W. Sharp: A Memory, 1910, pp. 138-139]

[Saranac Lake, ? Mid-October 1887]

Dear Mr. Sharp,

What is the townsman’s blunder? — though I deny I am a townsman, for I have lived, on the whole, as much or more in the country: well, perhaps not so much.

William Sharp (1855-1905), Scottish poet, biographer and journalist, who achieved his greatest successes with the Celtic romances published under the pseudonym Fiona Macleod. In his review of RLS’s verse book ‘Underwoods’ in the Academy of 1 Oct 1887, he praised the ‘true and delightful Scottish poetry’ and after quoting from RLS’s poem ‘Ille Terrarum’ referred to ‘the townsman’s slip’ in the line, ‘the sweet-throat mavis tunes her lay’. presumably the ‘slip’ is that it is the male bird that does the singing [Cf. Mehew 6, p. 34] [www.oxforddnb.com]

RLS’s poem in Scots, ‘Ille Terratum’, in ‘Underwoods’, 1887.


Is it that the thrush does not sing at night? That is possible.


I only know most potently the blackbird (his cousin) does: many and many a late evening in the garden of that poem have I listened to one that was our faithful visitor;


and the sweetest song I ever heard was past nine at night in the early spring, from a tree near the N. E. gate of Warriston cemetery.

Map of Warriston Cemetery, Edinburgh [https://friendsofwarristoncemetery.files.wordpress.com]


That I called what I believe to have been a merle


by the softer name of mavis (and they are all turdi, I believe)


is the head and front of my offence against literal severity, and I am curious to hear if it has really brought me into some serious error.

Your article is very true and very kindly put: I have never called my verses poetry: they are verse, the verse of a speaker not a singer; but that is a fair business like another. I am of your mind too in preferring much the Scotch verses,

RLS’s poems in Scots, in ‘Underwoods’, 1887.


and in thinking “Requiem” the nearest thing to poetry that I have ever “clerkit.”

RLS, ‘Requiem’, in ‘Underwoods’, 1887.


Yours very truly,

Robert Louis Stevenson


R.L.S. Saranac, New York.







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