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AN APOLOGY FOR IDLERS 1
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
Stevenson, lover of quaint and melodious words, doubtless found the name of Edinburgh musical on the lips of the true Scotchman, just as he found the old city romantic. It was his birthplace (1850) and when, in 1894, Apia, Samoa, became his death-place, that name too, at least, must have been to his liking. Between these dates stretched years of brave life, unsubdued by all his suffering. One of the most infrequent phenomena that this old world has to offer is the scholar who can appeal widely and yet not cheapen the quality or weaken the force of his material.
Stevenson's education was secured in Edinburgh University. His father and his grandfather had been lighthouse builders. He himself was called to the Scottish bar, but never practised. By heredity predisposed to weak lungs, during most of his days he moved from place to place, seeking health and the opportunity to write. From 1889 he lived in Samoa.
Stevenson was a charming and stimulating essayist, a great short-story writer, one of the best of poets for children, and a fairly successful novelist. He has been popular the world over, as an author who is both a good stylist and a good story-teller is sure to be. A favorite and fundamental idea in his essays is that one ought to get as much enjoyment out of life as possible. His short stories are picturesque, lyrical, rich in adventure. While a conventional ethics is always in the background, he never suffered convention unduly to restrict what is naturally human. His children's poems endeared him to young and old by their gentle, sunny kindliness, though other poems reveal a better gift for story-telling and a more thoughtful attitude to life. As compared with his short stories, Stevenson's novels have not retained quite the vogue in English-speaking countries that they once held, perhaps because the reader in the present day has been enticed away from the simple fascination of adventure to the sensationalism of contemporary society. Stevenson's leading essays are in Virginibus Puerisque and Familiar Studies of Men and Books, both of them early works. The titles of his short stories and novels are too well known to need mention here, though it should not be overlooked that of his novels the best, Weir of Hermiston and St. Ives, were left unfinished at his death. In nearly every one of his narratives Stevenson built the structure of the story under control of a fixed point of view, 1 From Virginibus Puerisque.
though he did not hesitate to introduce an episode if it served to make more lifelike any character in the tale. The syntax of his sentences gives the impression of what Professor Palmer has called a cultivated spontaneity. His sentences are compact, yet rhythmir., their flow retarded or accelerated by the use or omission of the conjunctions and and but. He was fond of the complex, but never of the involved sentence. hough he cultivated his style in imitation of various good writers, yet the matured result is distinctively his own. He is one of the best of examples of a man, endowed with talent only, who by patient perserverance becomes a distinguished author and even an idol of the crowd.
BOSWELL: We grow weary when idle.
JOHNSON: That is, sir, because others being busy, we want company; but if we were idle, there would be no growing weary; we should all entertain one another.
Just now, when every one is bound, under pain of a decree in absence convicting him of lèse-respectability, to enter on some lucrative profession, and labor therein with something not far short of enthusiasm, a cry from the opposite party who are content when they have enough, and like to look on and enjoy in the meanwhile, savors a little of bravado and gasconade. And yet this should not be. Idleness so-called, which does not consist of doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself. It is admitted that the presence of people who refuse to enter in the great handicap race for sixpenny pieces is at once an insult and a disenchantment for those who do. A fine fellow (as we see so many) takes his determination, votes for the sixpences, and, in the emphatic American ism, "goes for" them. And while such an one is plowing distressfully up the road, it is not hard to understand his resentment, when he perceives cool persons in the meadows by the wayside, lying with a handkerchief over their ears and a glass at their elbow. Alexander is touched in a very delicate place by the disregard of Diogenes. Where was the glory of having taken Rome for these tumultuous barbarians who poured into the Senate house and found the Fathers sitting silent and unmoved by their success? It is a sore thing to have labored along and scaled the arduous hilltops, and, when all is done, find humanity indifferent to your achievement. Hence physicists condemn the unphysical; financiers have only a superficial toleration for those who know little of stocks; literary persons despise the unlettered; and people of all pursuits combine to disparage those who have none.
But, though this is one difficulty of the subject, it is not the greatest. You could not be put in prison for speaking against industry, but you can be sent to Coventry for speaking like a fool. The greatest difficulty with most subjects is to do them well; therefore, please to remember this is an apology. It is certain that much may be judiciously argued in favor of diligence; only there is something to be said against it, and that is what, on the present occasion, I have to say. To state one argument is not necessarily to be deaf to all others, and that a man has written a book of travels in Montenegro is no reason why he should never have been to Richmond.
It is surely beyond a doubt that people should be a good deal idle in youth. For though here and there a Lord Macaulay may escape from school honors with all his wits about him, most boys pay so dear for their medals that they never afterward have a shot in their locker, and begin the world bankrupt. And the same holds true during all the time a lad is educating himself, or suffering others to educate him. It must have been a very foolish old gentleman who addressed Johnson at Oxford in these words: “Young man, ply your book diligently now, and acquire a stock of knowledge; for when years come upon you, you will find that poring upon books will be but an irksome task.” The old gentleman seems to have been unaware that many other things besides reading grow irksome, and not a few become impossible by the time a man has to use spectacles and cannot walk without a stick. Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life. /It seems a pity to sit, like the Lady of Shalott, peering into a mirror, with your back turned on all the bustle and glamor of reality. And if a man reads very hard, as the old anecdote reminds us, he will have little time for thoughts.
If you look back on your own education, I am sure it will not be the full, vivid, instructive hours of truantry that you regret; you would rather cancel some lack-luster periods between sleep and waking in the class. For my own part, I have attended a good many lectures in my time. I still remember that the spinning of a top is a case of kinetic stability. I still remember that emphyteusis is not a disease, nor stillicide a crime. But, though I would not willingly part with such scraps of science, I do not set the same store by them as by certain other odds and ends that I came by in the open street while I was playing truant. This is not the moment to dilate on that mighty place of education, which was the favorite school of Dickens and of Balzac and turns out yearly many inglorious masters in the Science of the Aspects of Life. Suffice it to say this: if a lad does not learn in the streets, it is because he has no faculty of learning. Nor is the truant always in the streets, for, if he prefers, he may go out by the gardened suburbs into the country. He may pitch on some tuft of lilacs over a burn and smoke innumerable pipes to the tune of the water on the stones. A bird will sing in the thicket. And there he may fall into a vein of kindly thought and see things in a new perspective. Why, if this be not education, what is? We may conceive Mr. Worldly Wiseman accosting such an one and the conversation that should thereupon
“How now, young fellow, what dost thou here?” "Truly, sir, I take mine ease."
"Is not this the hour of the class ? and shouldst thou not be plying thy Book with diligence, to the end thou mayest obtain knowledge?"
"Nay, but thus also I follow after Learning, by your leave.”
“Learning, quotha! After what fashion, I pray thee? Is it mathematics?"
"No, to be sure.”
“Indeed, sir, as a time may soon come for me to go upon Pilgrimage, I am desirous to note what is commonly done by persons in my case, and where are the ugliest Sloughs and Thickets on the Road; as also, what manner of Staff is of the best service. Moreover, I lie here, by this water, to learn by root-of-heart a lesson which my master teaches me to call Peace, or Contentment."
Hereupon Mr. Worldly Wiseman was much commoved with passion, and, shaking his cane with a very threatful countenance, broke forth upon this wise: “Learning, quotha !” said he; “I would have all such rogues scourged by the Hangman!"