Stevenson’s Confession of Faith

The Critic

Nov. 1903, Vol. XLIII No. 5, pp. 414-416


“The Faith of Robert Louis Stevenson,” by John Kelman, Jr., might with appropriateness have been called “An Inland Voyage.” We have had few books that have told us so much of the Puck-Hamlet of modern English literature.

It is a great biography. It is an excursion into the fastness of “R. L. S.’s” soul, and, though from this book we will not learn what the size of his collar (if he wore any) was, or whether he had three or four dents in his nose and their prenatal history, the reader will finish the book with a consciousness that Stevenson is still in the flesh, and has been sitting beside him.

Mr. Kelman has approached his subject sympathetically. He has grasped the attitude—or attitudes—of the author of “Will o’ the Mill.” His spiritual revolts and his mental affirmations, his vagaries, his genius, his scepticism, and his genial Satanism—the leer seraphic—are analyzed, and pronounced “good.”

The keynote of Stevenson’s faith, as Mr. Kelman has made it the keynote of the book, is found in Stevenson’s little-read poem, “If This Were Faith.” Mr. Kelman writes: “In the saddest and bravest song he ever wrote he turns from the bewilderment of a life which for the time had lost faith and almost lost hope to strenuous and courageous action as a last resort and citadel”:


God! If this were enough,

That I see things bare to the buff
And up to the buttocks in mire.
That I ask nor hope nor hire,
Not in the husk,
Nor dawn beyond the dusk,
Nor life beyond death:
God! If this were faith!

Having felt Thy wind in my face
Spit sorrow and disgrace,
Having seen Thy evil doom
In Golgotha and Khartoum,
And the brutes, the work of Thine hands,
Fill with injustice lands
And stain with blood the sea.
If still in my veins the glee
Of the black night and the sun
And the lost battle run;
If, an adept,
The iniquitous lists I still accept
With joy, and joy to endure and be withstood,
And still to battle and perish for a dream of good;
God! If that were enough!

If to feel in the ink of the slough
And the sink of the mire
Veins of glory and fire
Run through and transpierce and transpire.
And a secret purpose of glory fill each part,
And the answering glory of battle fill my heart;
To thrill with the joy of girded men,
To go on forever and fail, and go on again,
And be mauled to the earth and arise,
And contend for the shade of a word and a thing not seen with the eyes,
With the half of a broken hope for a pillow at night
That somehow the right is the right,
And the smooth shall bloom from the rough:
Lord! If that were enough!


We strut across the earth and then go into it. En passant we wrangle and pray. Our wranglings are petty, and our prayers bear the stamp of cowardice. It is all of a piece with life, with the mewling existence begotten of the fears that make the days a procession of pallid, anæmic shapes. The bogey man is everywhere. In the street, in the market-place, in the pulpit, in the heavens, there is the Shape that forebodes and forbids. There are no men. What seem so are fragments. If you pieced together the noblest qualities of a million human beings the net result would not be a Stevenson or a Whitman. Most men are like the Farnese torso—mere stump—head and hands gone. Mankind has in all ages rever[415]enced the brave man because he deifies the qualities that he lacks. Read all the litanies and prayer-books ever written; after you have finished you feel the stifling oppression that settles on one in the steam room in a Turkish bath. These prayers whine, dodge, are hang-dog, round-shouldered, and knee-worn. Our attitude toward the Supreme Being is essentially barbaric. There is no difference in spirit between the savage’s petition to his god and a Thanksgiving Day proclamation. The official “Thank-you” begs the question, lacks directness, is the product of skulking beggary.

Great souls never cringe. And in the measure that a man is brave in that measure he is great. In so far as he puts off alien supports and substitutes a sense of interdependence for dependence is he strong. He will recognize his helplessness when standing out of relation to his fellow-men, but not for that will he sell himself. So much for the world; the rest I keep. And you shall not have the kernel of myself that I keep for myself, though you should slay me. I will be brother and friend, but not slave. Of such stuff is the stentorian spirit. In the same manner that he fronts the frowning world will he front the Supreme Power. There shall be no fawning, no knee-quaking in His presence. The strong soul will not be a subaltern in life’s battle, no mere aide-de-camp to the General. God shall be the Great Comerado.

Such was Stevenson’s attitude toward life and God; and his great poem in his confession of faith. He will not palter with wrongs, nor blench at evil. Clear-eyed and strong-souled, he faces the Eternal and says: “I see things bare to the buff,” and they re “up to the buttocks in mire.” The fair things of the world are arranged like the fruit on a street vendor’s stand: the speck is carefully concealed; and if the speck is not there, there is a worm at the core. It is this vision of the world which Stevenson conjures up in those lines.

The world is fair and ever young. Pan is born anew every day. The waters run, the stars shine, the sun gushes over the land like a divine benediction. But this is not all. These are the meretricious coverings of things. The soul of the thinker cannot be balked by appearances. It is licentious, and will burrow. If the heavens proclaim the glory of God, what shall we say of the cancer hospitals? And the Sin, and Want, and Care that, gaunt and frowsy, stalk through our great cities—vices not willed into being—the product of human relations, the outgrowth of legitimate wants, good instincts turned awry in the collisions of personality, sins woven of universal greed, craft begotten of inhering weakness.

It is thus things are in the mire. Mankind is a stunted aspiration. The palace which the soul of youth is given as a birthright is turned into a marketplace, where his strength is peddled to the highest bidder; at thirty he already hears the measured, noiseless drip, drip, drip of the days that wear the echoing hollows in the granite purposes of twenty.

“I ask nor hope nor hire.” Brave words! We are always asking God for something. Our souls are mendicant; we are that beggar who stands hat in hand imploring a Divine Providence to drop a penny into it. The strong soul, who believes it less culpable to steal than to beg, does not wish to be paid for what he has done. Pour into our souls the wine of Truth, O God, and keep your crusts. Moisten our lips turned papyri with thirst. Keep your houris for lower intelligences. We care naught about “dawn beyond the dusk.” We want the Light now, in the Eternal Present.

“Adepts” we are indeed. From all eternity we have been waging war. Each atom is a centre of contending forces; each cell is an embryonic individual menacing the stability of a million other cells. And before they were welded into the agglomeration that is styled James or John they fought elsewhere. They struggled in the partuitions of the primordial nebulæ and they partici[416]pated in the sack of Rome. But it is trite to say that life is a battle. To call the lists “iniquitous” is not only not trite, but it is decidedly bold. This is almost a judgment on the constitution of things. But it does not whine. Stevenson accepts thing with joy, “and joy to endure and be withstood, and still to battle and perish for a dream of good.” “I was ever a fighter,” says Browning defiantly in “Prospice,” another brave man’s prayer. To both these poets it is the fight that makes life worth the living. They prefer a place in the “iniquitous lists” of God, they will take their places on the firing line of human endeavor, rather than rust and rot in the ennui of a complacent optimism that stays at home and mumbles in drowsy meditation of that “far-off divine event”—to which the whole creation does not move.

In Stevenson’s eye, all is not ill. The skies are not always overcast. In the murk of things he discerns veins of glory that cross and transpire. The secret grace in things peeps out at times. Men and women are beautiful in perspective. The pageant of souls across the earth attracts. Love’s ordinances are imperative. The link that binds man to man is a golden thread that girdles the world. If pain fills the universe it is because of the discordancy between the internal and the external. And all discordancy breathes a promise. The world of willing is segmental. Action is but an arc in the circumference of the soul’s possibilities. The life of the renunciant strikes the diapason below which the minor chords dwindle and subside. It is on these heights that we “thrill with the joy of girded men.” The renunciant is panoplied ‘gainst fate. Like Socrates and Epicurus, the soul triumphant will discourse of itself though death be creeping through its mortal members. The fustian of circumstance cannot balk its gaze. It will go on “forever, and fail, and go on again. “Noble words! that project the soul toward the infinite spaces where upswirling thought is dispersed in the glow of an exalted intuition.

Paradise lies beneath the shadow of a hair. Everything is decisive. Each thought is an Atlas that supports a world of thought. The fighter will contend for the shade of a word and a “thing not seen with the eyes.” The things that are tangible are not always real. They are but gowned phantasms. Behind the fact visible stands the spirit invisible, and this alone matters. This or that shall not hold the poet’s attention. He looks beyond, and still beyond. He will swim nowhere but in the infinite, soundless sea of tendencies. He is not concerned with you, but with your relations. To his gaze you shall not stand in limits. You are the hub round which the multi-spoked universe revolves. You are playfellow to the stars, and the minutes are but hooded eternities.

What pathos in the closing lines of this greatest of all prayers:

With the half of a broken hope for a pillow at night
That somehow the right is the right,
And the smooth shall bloom from the rough.

Misgivings again assail him. Suppose right should not be the Right? Suppose our lights are bog lights? Every vice was once a virtue. Shall every virtue become a vice? We cannot go backward, say some. What meaning has backward or forward in its relations to eternal duration? Life is evolving, but never evolves. We can never say, “Here we rest.” All forward motion presupposes a goal; and who has with certainty named the goal of evolving life? In the circumvolutions of time how stand we who have battled for the right if “right” be but a euphemism—a gaudy word to cover a naked necessity? The sinuous ages wear a leer, and mock. Yet the spirit of man, indomitable and unafraid, believes the “smooth shall bloom from the rough!”

Lord! If that were enough!