“And the wind swoops at me round the corner, like a lion, and fluffs the snow in my face”

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 1944.]

To Sidney Colvin [Colvin 1911, 3, pp. 39-41]

Saranac Lake [c. 20 December 1887]

My dear Colvin,This goes to say that we are all fit, and the place is very bleak and wintry, and up to now has shown no such charms of climate as Davos,

G. Schmocker, Davos in the Snow, c. 1880 [www.richardreddingantiques.com]

but is a place where men eat and where the cattarh, catarrh (cattarrh, or cattarrhh) appears to be unknown. I walk in my verandy in the snaw, sir, 

RLS at Saranac Lake, pictured in a diorama on Baker’s veranda [www.adirondackdailyenterprise.com]

looking down over one of those dabbled wintry landscapes that are (to be frank) so chilly to the human bosom,

Adirondack Carousel, William Morris Park, Sananac Lake [http://2.bp.blogspot.com]

Haystack Mountain, Saranac Lake in winter [www.saranaclake.com]


and up at a grey, English – nay, mehercle, Scottish – heaven;

Pentland Hills, Scotland [www.edinburghspotlight.com]

Black Hill, Pentlands, Scotland [https://farm5.staticflickr.com]


and I think it pretty bleak; and the wind swoops at me round the corner, like a lion, and fluffs the snow in my face;


and I could aspire to be elsewhere; but yet I do not catch cold, and yet, when I come in, I eat. So that hitherto Saranac, if not deliriously delectable, has not been a failure; nay, from the mere point of view of the wicked body, it has proved a success. But I wish I could still get to the woods; alas, nous n’irons plus au bois is my poor song;


the paths are buried, the dingles drifted full, a little walk is grown a long one; till spring comes, I fear the burthen will hold good.

Adirondacks mountains [www.mikeitsnow.com]




I get along with my papers for Scribner not fast, nor so far specially well;


only this last, the fourth one (which makes a third part of my whole task), I do believe is pulled off after a fashion. It is a mere sermon: ‘Smith opens out’;

The Rev. George Smith of Galston (1748-1823), the minister thus referred to by Burns (in the Holy Fair), was a great-grandfather of RLS on the mother’s side; and against RLS himself, in his didactic moods, the passage was often quoted by his friends when they wished to tease him. His daughter Henrietta (“Helen”) Scott Smith married Lewis Balfour, a minister of nearby Sorn (later Minister at Collinton), and was the grandmother of Robert Louis Stevenson [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

but it is true, and I find it touching and beneficial, to me at least; and I think there is some fine writing in it, some very apt and pregnant phrases. Pulms et Umbra, I call it; 

RLS’s essay, Pulvis et Umbra, Scribner’s Magazine, Aprril 1888. The phrase ‘pulvis et umbra sumus’ comes from Horace, Odes IV, VII (Diffugere nives – The snow has vanished), “we’re only dust and shadow” [https://babel.hathitrust.org]

Horace, Odes, IV, 7, 1886 edition: Though the earth renews itself, and the waning moon waxes afresh, yet death is the ending of human life. Let us then make the best of our days while they last [https://ia601509.us.archive.org]

I might have called it a Darwinian Sermon, if I had wanted. Its sentiments, although parsonic, will not offend even you, I believe. The other three papers, I fear, bear many traces of effort, and the ungenuine inspiration of an income at so much per essay, and the honest desire of the incomer to give good measure for his money. Well, I did my damndest anyway.

We have been reading H. James’s Roderick Hudson, which I eagerly press you to get at once: it is a book of a high order – the last volume in particular.

Henry James (1843-1916) [www.victorianweb.org]

H. James, Roderick Hudson, first UK edition, 1875 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]


I wish Meredith would read it.

George Meredith (1828-1909), English novelist and poet [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

It took my breath away. I am at the seventh book of the Aeneid, and quite amazed at its merits (also very often floored by its difficulties). The Circe passage at the beginning, and the sublime business of Amata with the simile of the boy’s top – O Lord, what a happy thought! – have specially delighted me.



– I am, dear sir, your respected friend,

John Gregg Gillson, J.P., M.R.I.A., etc.


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1 Response to “And the wind swoops at me round the corner, like a lion, and fluffs the snow in my face”

  1. rdury says:

    I shivered as I read the comments on the winter scene to the accompaniment of the winter wind!

    Liked by 1 person

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