Robinson Crusoe and the double columns!

From Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Wrong Box, the first of an eventual three novels co-written with his son-in-law Lloyd Osbourne. I never associate Stevenson with comedy but he pulls off a grand farce here.

And then a remark of his uncle’s flashed into his memory: If you want to think clearly, put it all down on paper. ‘Well, the old boy knew a thing or two,’ said Morris. ‘I will try; but I don’t believe the paper was ever made that will clear my mind.’

He entered a place of public entertainment, ordered bread and cheese, and writing materials, and sat down before them heavily. He tried the pen. It was an excellent pen, but what was he to write? ‘I have it,’ cried Morris. ‘Robinson Crusoe and the double columns!’ He prepared his paper after that classic model, and began as follows:

Bad. —— Good.
1. I have lost my uncle’s body.
1. But then Pitman has found it.

‘Stop a bit,’ said Morris. ‘I am letting the spirit of antithesis run away with me. Let’s start again.’

Bad. —— Good.
1. I have lost my uncle’s body.
1. But then I no longer require to bury it.

2. I have lost the tontine.
2.But I may still save that if Pitman disposes of the body, and
if I can find a physician who will stick at nothing.

3. I have lost the leather business and the rest of my uncle’s
3. But not if Pitman gives the body up to the police.

‘O, but in that case I go to gaol; I had forgot that,’ thought Morris. ‘Indeed, I don’t know that I had better dwell on that hypothesis at all; it’s all very well to talk of facing the worst; but in a case of this kind a man’s first duty is to his own nerve. Is there any answer to No. 3? Is there any possible good side to such a beastly bungle? There must be, of course, or where would be the use of this double-entry business? And—by George, I have it!’ he exclaimed; ‘it’s exactly the same as the last!’ And he hastily re-wrote the passage:

Bad. —— Good.
3. I have lost the leather business and the rest of my uncle’s
3. But not if I can find a physician who will stick at nothing.

‘This venal doctor seems quite a desideratum,’ he reflected. ‘I want him first to give me a certificate that my uncle is dead, so that I may get the leather business; and then that he’s alive—but here we are again at the incompatible interests!’ And he returned to his tabulation:

Bad. —— Good.
4. I have almost no money.
4. But there is plenty in the bank.

5. Yes, but I can’t get the money in the bank.
5. But—well, that seems unhappily to be the case.

6. I have left the bill for eight hundred pounds in Uncle
Joseph’s pocket.
6. But if Pitman is only a dishonest man, the presence of this
bill may lead him to keep the whole thing dark and throw the body
into the New Cut.

7. Yes, but if Pitman is dishonest and finds the bill, he will
know who Joseph is, and he may blackmail me.
7. Yes, but if I am right about Uncle Masterman, I can blackmail

8. But I can’t blackmail Michael (which is, besides, a very
dangerous thing to do) until I find out.
8. Worse luck!

9. The leather business will soon want money for current
expenses, and I have none to give.
9. But the leather business is a sinking ship.

10. Yes, but it’s all the ship I have.
10. A fact.

11. John will soon want money, and I have none to give.

12. And the venal doctor will want money down.

13. And if Pitman is dishonest and don’t send me to gaol, he will
want a fortune.

‘O, this seems to be a very one-sided business,’ exclaimed Morris. ‘There’s not so much in this method as I was led to think.’

The Crusoe reference is to an early episode in the novel (ch 4) when Robinson sits down to map out his situation – it was a long favorite of enlightenment readers but really does leave a large window for the grotesque-ing above.

I now began to consider seriously my condition, and the circumstances I was reduced to; and I drew up the state of my affairs in writing, not so much to leave them to any that were to come after me—for I was likely to have but few heirs—as to deliver my thoughts from daily poring over them, and afflicting my mind; and as my reason began now to master my despondency, I began to comfort myself as well as I could, and to set the good against the evil, that I might have something to distinguish my case from worse; and I stated very impartially, like debtor and creditor, the comforts I enjoyed against the miseries I suffered, thus:—

I am cast upon a horrible, desolate island, void of all hope of recovery.But I am alive; and not drowned, as all my ship’s company were.
I am singled out and separated, as it were, from all the world, to be miserable.But I am singled out, too, from all the ship’s crew, to be spared from death; and He that miraculously saved me from death can deliver me from this condition.
I am divided from mankind—a solitaire; one banished from human society.But I am not starved, and perishing on a barren place, affording no sustenance.
I have no clothes to cover me.But I am in a hot climate, where, if I had clothes, I could hardly wear them.
I am without any defence, or means to resist any violence of man or beast.But I am cast on an island where I see no wild beasts to hurt me, as I saw on the coast of Africa; and what if I had been shipwrecked there?
I have no soul to speak to or relieve me.But God wonderfully sent the ship in near enough to the shore, that I have got out as many necessary things as will either supply my wants or enable me to supply myself, even as long as I live.

Upon the whole, here was an undoubted testimony that there was scarce any condition in the world so miserable but there was something negative or something positive to be thankful for in it; and let this stand as a direction from the experience of the most miserable of all conditions in this world: that we may always find in it something to comfort ourselves from, and to set, in the description of good and evil, on the credit side of the account.

There is more intensity in the passion of cold, remorse, hunger, and the fetid damp of the mediaeval dungeon than in eating water melons

Robert Louis Stevenson’s verdict on Francois Villon vs. Ezra Pound’s. Differences of personal temperament aside, I think I’ve rarely seen so good a snapshot of a generational shift in tastes and values. Stevenson’s essay is from his 1882 Familiar Studies of Men and Books (online here). Pound’s is from his 1910 The Spirit of Romance (online here).

And while I don’t necessarily agree with Pound’s line I’ve used as a title, I do appreciate the delivery.


Of this capital achievement and, with it, of Villon’s style in general, it is here the place to speak. The Large Testament is a hurly-burly of cynical and sentimental reflections about life, jesting legacies to friends and enemies, and, interspersed among these many admirable ballades, both serious and absurd. With so free a design, no thought that occurred to him would need to be dismissed without expression; and he could draw at full length the portrait of his own bedevilled soul, and of the bleak and blackguardly world which was the theatre of his exploits and sufferings. If the reader can conceive something between the slap-dash inconsequence of Byron’s Don Juan and the racy humorous gravity and brief noble touches that distinguish the vernacular poems of Burns, he will have formed some idea of Villon’s style. To the latter writer—except in the ballades, which are quite his own, and can be paralleled from no other language known to me—he bears a particular resemblance. In common with Burns he has a certain rugged compression, a brutal vivacity of epithet, a homely vigour, a delight in local personalities, and an interest in many sides of life, that are often despised and passed over by more effete and cultured poets. Both also, in their strong, easy colloquial way, tend to become difficult and obscure; the obscurity in the case of Villon passing at times into the absolute darkness of cant language. They are perhaps the only two great masters of expression who keep sending their readers to a glossary.

“Shall we not dare to say of a thief,” asks Montaigne, “that he has a handsome leg?” It is a far more serious claim that we have to put forward in behalf of Villon. Beside that of his contemporaries, his writing, so full of colour, so eloquent, so picturesque, stands out in an almost miraculous isolation. If only one or two of the chroniclers could have taken a leaf out of his book, history would have been a pastime, and the fifteenth century as present to our minds as the age of Charles Second. This gallows-bird was the one great writer of his age and country, and initiated modern literature for France. Boileau, long ago, in the period of perukes and snuff-boxes, recognised him as the first articulate poet in the language; and if we measure him, not by priority of merit, but living duration of influence, not on a comparison with obscure forerunners, but with great and famous successors, we shall instal this ragged and disreputable figure in a far higher niche in glory’s temple than was ever dreamed of by the critic. It is, in itself, a memorable fact that, before 1542, in the very dawn of printing, and while modern France was in the making, the works of Villon ran through seven different editions. Out of him flows much of Rabelais; and through Rabelais, directly and indirectly, a deep, permanent, and growing inspiration. Not only his style, but his callous pertinent way of looking upon the sordid and ugly sides of life, becomes every day a more specific feature in the literature of France. And only the other year, a work of some power appeared in Paris, and appeared with infinite scandal, which owed its whole inner significance and much of its outward form to the study of our rhyming thief.

The world to which he introduces us is, as before said, blackguardly and bleak. Paris swarms before us, full of famine, shame, and death; monks and the servants of great lords hold high wassail upon cakes and pastry; the poor man licks his lips before the baker’s window; people with patched eyes sprawl all night under the stalls; chuckling Tabary transcribes an improper romance; bare-bosomed lasses and ruffling students swagger in the streets; the drunkard goes stumbling homewards; the graveyard is full of bones; and away on Montfaucon, Colin de Cayeux and Montigny hang draggled in the rain. Is there nothing better to be seen than sordid misery and worthless joys? Only where the poor old mother of the poet kneels in church below painted windows, and makes tremulous supplication to the Mother of God.

In our mixed world, full of green fields and happy lovers, where not long before, Joan of Arc had led one of the highest and noblest lives in the whole story of mankind, this was all worth chronicling that our poet could perceive. His eyes were indeed sealed with his own filth. He dwelt all his life in a pit more noisome than the dungeon at Méun. In the moral world, also, there are large phenomena not cognisable out of holes and corners. Loud winds blow, speeding home deep-laden ships and sweeping rubbish from the earth; the lightning leaps and cleans the face of heaven; high purposes and brave passions shake and sublimate men’s spirits; and meanwhile, in the narrow dungeon of his soul, Villon is mumbling crusts and picking vermin.

Along with this deadly gloom of outlook, we must take another characteristic of his work: its unrivalled insincerity. I can give no better similitude of this quality than I have given already: that he comes up with a whine, and runs away with a whoop and his finger to his nose. His pathos is that of a professional mendicant who should happen to be a man of genius; his levity that of a bitter street arab, full of bread. On a first reading, the pathetic passages preoccupy the reader, and he is cheated out of an alms in the shape of sympathy. But when the thing is studied the illusion fades away: in the transitions, above all, we can detect the evil, ironical temper of the man; and instead of a flighty work, where many crude but genuine feelings tumble together for the mastery as in the lists of tournament, we are tempted to think of the Large Testament as of one long-drawn epical grimace, pulled by a merry-andrew, who has found a certain despicable eminence over human respect and human affections by perching himself astride upon the gallows. Between these two views, at best, all temperate judgments will be found to fall; and rather, as I imagine, towards the last.

And Pound (skipping about more):

Villon never forgets his fascinating, revolting self. If, however, he sings the song of himself he is, thank God, free from that horrible air of rectitude with which Whitman rejoices in being Whitman. Villon’s song is selfish through self-absorption; he does not, as Whitman, pretend to be conferring a philanthropic benefit on the race by recording his own self-complacency. Human misery is more stable than human dignity ; there is more intensity in the passion of cold, remorse, hunger, and the fetid damp of the mediaeval dungeon than in eating water melons. Villon is a voice of suffering, of mockery, of irrevocable fact ; Whitman is the voice of one who saith :
” Lo, behold, I eat water melons. When I eat water melons
the world eats water melons through me.

They call it optimism, and breadth of vision. There is, in the poetry of Francois Villon, neither optimism nor breadth of vision. Villon is shameless. Whitman, having decided that it is disgraceful to be ashamed, rejoices in having attained nudity.

Much of both the Lesser and the Greater Testaments is in no sense poetry ; the wit is of the crudest ; thief, murderer, 1 pander, bully to a whore, he is honoured for a few score pages of unimaginative sincerity; he sings of things as they are. He dares to show himself. His depravity is not a pose cultivated for literary effect. He never makes the fatal mistake of glorifying his sin, of rejoicing in it, or of pretending to despise its opposite. His
” Ne voient pan qu’aux fenestres”
is no weak moralizing on the spiritual benefits of fasting.
Many have attempted to follow Villon, mistaking a pose for his reality. These searchers for sensation, self-conscious sensualists and experimenters, have, I think, proved that the ” taverns and the whores ” are no more capable of producing poetry than are philosophy, culture, art, philology, noble character, conscientious effort, or any other panacea. If persistent effort and a desire to leave the world a beautiful heritage, were greatly availing, Ronsard, who is still under-rated, and Petrarch, who is not, would be among the highest masters. Villon’s greatness is that he unconsciously proclaims man’s divine right to be himself, the only one of the so-called “rights of man” which is not an artificial product. Villon js no theorist, he is an objective fact. He makes no apology; herein lies his strength ; Burns is weaker, because he is in harmony with doctrines that have been preached, and his ideas of equality are derivative. Villon never wrote anything so didactic in spirit as the ” man’s a man for a’ that.” He is scarcely affected by the thought of his time, because he scarcely thinks ; speculation, at any rate, is far from him. But I may be wrong here. If Villon speculates, the end of his speculation is Omar’s age-old ending :
” Come out by the same door wherein I went.” – ” Rubiyat,” xxvii.
At any rate, Villon’s actions are the result of his passions and his weaknesses. Nothing is ” sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”
As a type of debauchee he is eternal. He has sunk to the gutter, knowing life a little above it ; thus he is able to realize his condition, to see it objectively, instead of insensibly taking it for granted.

Some pirate novels

Rereading Marcel Schwob’s La Cité Dormante the other day put in mind a host of pirate stories and novels I’d loved as a kid, many of which my parents or grandparents read to me.  Here’s what I can recall:

Treasure Island (Stevenson)

The Master of Ballantrae (Stevenson)

The Life, Adventures, and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton (Defoe)

A General History of the Pyrates (Defoe)

The Pirate (Walter Scott) – My grandfather read me this one when we visited most weekends but it was so long and I’d often fall asleep so soon into it that I have only the wispiest sense of the plot.

The Red Rover (Fennimore Cooper)

The Coral Island (Ballantyne)

Swallows and Amazons (Ransome)

The Book of Pirates (Howard Pyle)

The Ghost Pirates (William Hope Hodgson)

Tales of Pirates and Blue Waters (Conan Doyle)

The Sea Hawk (Sabatini)

Captain Blood (Sabatini)

The Black Swan (Sabatini)

(And for all the Sabatini books the movies are even more recommended)

A High Wind in Jamaica (Richard Hughes)

And the final entries, by Pierre Mac Orlan, are confusing.  Of the three I remember (which his wiki page tells me must have been À bord de L’Étoile Matutine, Les Clients du Bon Chien jaune, and L’Ancre de miséricorde) only the first has been translated (as On Board the Morning Star) so someone had to have read the other two to me.  I’ve bought a copy of Les Clients du Bon Chien jaune because I remember the terrifying at the time image of pirates dressed as skeletons and hunched in the rigging as they approach their prey with an eerie flute playing in accompaniment.

The more it looks like Queer Street, the less I ask

From Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:

“And you never asked about the—place with the door?” said Mr.

“No, sir: I had a delicacy,” was the reply. “I feel very strongly about putting questions; it partakes too much of the style of the day of judgment. You start a question, and it’s like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of a hill; and away the stone goes, starting others; and presently some bland old bird (the last you would have thought of) is knocked on the head in his own back-garden and the family have to change their name. No, sir, I make it a rule of mine: the more it looks like Queer Street, the less I ask.”

“A very good rule, too,” said the lawyer.

Natives, buccaneers, or the odious French

From Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, from Squire Trelawney’s description of readying the expedition’s ship:

So far there was not a hitch. The workpeople, to be sure—riggers and what not—were most annoyingly slow; but time cured that. It was the crew that troubled me.

I wished a round score of men—in case of natives, buccaneers, or the odious French—and I had the worry of the deuce itself to find so much as half a dozen, till the most remarkable stroke of fortune brought me the very man that I required.


I incline to Cain’s heresy

From Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:

“I incline to Cain’s heresy,” he used to say quaintly: “I let my brother go to the devil in his own way.”

The reference is to Cain’s reply to God when asked about his brother Abel – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9).

I’ve said this at work when people ask about the progression of someone else’s project or their absence in a meeting.  Like most of my answers it confuses more than responds.

The receipt of letters is the death of all holiday feeling

From Robert Louis Stevenson’s An Inland Voyage:

No one should have any correspondence on a journey; it is bad enough to have to write; but the receipt of letters is the death of all holiday feeling.

‘Out of my country and myself I go.’  I wish to take a dive among new conditions for a while, as into another element.  I have nothing to do with my friends or my affections for the time; when I came away, I left my heart at home in a desk, or sent it forward with my portmanteau to await me at my destination.  After my journey is over, I shall not fail to read your admirable letters with the attention they deserve.  But I have paid all this money, look you, and paddled all these strokes, for no other purpose than to be abroad; and yet you keep me at home with your perpetual communications.  You tug the string, and I feel that I am a tethered bird.  You pursue me all over Europe with the little vexations that I came away to avoid.  There is no discharge in the war of life, I am well aware; but shall there not be so much as a week’s furlough?

Just so much gained upon the wholesale filcher

From Robert Louis Stevenson’s An Inland Voyage:

For I think we may look upon our little private war with death somewhat in this light.  If a man knows he will sooner or later be robbed upon a journey, he will have a bottle of the best in every inn, and look upon all his extravagances as so much gained upon the thieves.  And above all, where instead of simply spending, he makes a profitable investment for some of his money, when it will be out of risk of loss.  So every bit of brisk living, and above all when it is healthful, is just so much gained upon the wholesale filcher, death.  We shall have the less in our pockets, the more in our stomach, when he cries stand and deliver.  A swift stream is a favourite artifice of his, and one that brings him in a comfortable thing per annum; but when he and I come to settle our accounts, I shall whistle in his face for these hours upon the upper Oise.