“A man who talks, not one who sings”

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 1950.]

To John Addington Symonds [Colvin 1911, 3, pp. 28-31]

Saranac Lake, Adirondack Mountains,

New York, U.S.A., November 21, 1887.

My dear Symonds,

I think we have both meant and wanted to write to you any time these months; but we have been much tossed about, among new faces and old, and new scenes and old, and scenes (like this of Saranac) which are neither one nor other.

John Addington Symonds (1840-1893), English poet and literary critic [www.bristol.ac.uk]

To give you some clue to our affairs, I had best begin pretty well back. We sailed from the Thames



in a vast bucket of iron that took seventeen days from shore to shore.


S.S. Ludgate Hill [https://media.mutualart.com]

I cannot describe how I enjoyed the voyage, nor what good it did me: but on the Banks I caught friend catarrh.


In New York and then in Newport I was pretty ill; but on my return to New York, lying in bed most of the time, with St. Gaudens the sculptor sculping me,

Saint-Gaudens’s medallion of RLS, modeled in 1887 in New York and cast in 1893 [www.sothebys.com]

and my old friend Low around,

Image result for will low painter

American painter Will H. Low in his atelier.


I began to pick up once more. Now here we are in a kind of wilderness of hills and fir-woods and boulders and snow and wooden houses.


Lake Colby, Saranac Lake, frozen solid [www.natureupnorth.org]


Adirondacks Cemetery near Saranac Lake [www.natureupnorth.org]


Forest Hill Ave, Saranac lake [https://photos.zillowstatic.com]


saranac lake [https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com]


So far as we have gone the climate is grey and harsh, but hungry and somnolent; and although not charming like that of Davos, essentially bracing and briskening.


Davos, late 19th century [www.davos.ch]


Davos, early 20th century [www.davos.ch]


The country is a kind of insane mixture of Scotland and a touch of Switzerland and a dash of America, and a thought of the British Channel in the skies.


Saranac Lake [www.saranaclake.com]

We have a decent house –

December 6th – A decent house, as I was saying, sir, on a hill-top, with a look down a Scottish river in front, and on one hand a Perthshire hill;



on the other, the beginnings and skirts of the village play hide and seek among other hills.

Saranac Lake, c. 1885 [https://localwiki.org]

We have been below zero, I know not how far (10 at 8 A.M. once), and when it is cold it is delightful;



but hitherto the cold has not held, and we have chopped in and out from frost to thaw,


Thaw in Saranac Lake [http://4.bp.blogspot.com]

from snow


Snow in Saranac Lake [https://storage.googleapis.com]


to rain,


from quiet air to the most disastrous north-westerly, curdlers of the blood. After a week of practical thaw, the ice still bears in favoured places.


Thaw in Saranac Lake [/www.natureupnorth.org]

So there is hope.

I wonder if you saw my book of verses?


It went into a second edition, because of my name, I suppose, and its prose merits. I do not set up to be a poet. Only an all-round literary man: a man who talks, not one who sings. But I believe the very fact that it was only speech served the book with the public. Horace is much a speaker, and see how popular! most of Martial is only speech, and I cannot conceive a person who does not love his Martial; most of Burns, also, such as ‘The Louse,’


‘The Tooth-ache,’


‘The Haggis,’


and lots more of his best. Excuse this little apology for my house; but I don’t like to come before people who have a note of song, and let it be supposed I do not know the difference. To return to the more important – news. My wife again suffers in high and cold places; I again profit. She is off to-day to New York for a change, as heretofore to Berne, but I am glad to say in better case than then. Still it is undeniable she suffers, and you must excuse her (at least) if we both prove bad correspondents.


Fanny Stevenson [https://s3.amazonaws.com]

I am decidedly better, but I have been terribly cut up with business complications: one disagreeable, as threatening loss; one, of the most intolerable complexion, as involving me in dishonour. The burthen of consistent carelessness: I have lost much by it in the past; and for once (to my damnation) I have gained.


RLS was managing all his publishing arrangements himself. An occasional lapse of memory or attention betrayed him into conflicting agreements with two different publishers, both his friends, Charles Scribner (who was publishing RLS’s monthly es says on his Magazine) and Samuel Sidney McClure. RLSwas the first to denounce the error when he became aware of it, and suffered sharply from the sense of his own unintentional fault.


I am sure you will sympathise. It is hard work to sleep; it is hard to be told you are a liar, and have to hold your peace, and think, ‘Yes, by God, and a thief too!’ You remember my lectures on Ajax, or the Unintentional Sin? Well, I know all about that now. Nothing seems so unjust to the sufferer: or is more just in essence. Laissez passer la justice de Dieu.

Lloyd […] has learned to use the typewriter,


Lloyd Osbourne (1868-1947), RLS’s stepson.


Lloyd’s typewriter, now at Vailima, Upolu, Samoa [https://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com]

and has most gallantly completed upon that the draft of a tale, which seems to me not without merit and promise, it is so silly, so gay, so absurd, in spots (to my partial eyes) so genuinely humorous.


RLS and Lloyd’s novel, ‘The Wrong Box’, was to be published in 1889 [https://pictures.abebooks.com]

It is true, he would not have written it but for the New Arabian Nights;


but it is strange to find a young writer funny. Heavens, but I was depressing when I took the pen in hand! And now I doubt if I am sadder than my neighbours. Will this beginner move in the inverse direction?

Let me have your news, and believe me, my dear Symonds, with genuine affection, yours.

Robert Louis Stevenson







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