“Do you remember my strong, old, rooted belief that I shall die by drowning? I don’t want that to come true though it is an easy death; but it occurs to me oddly, with these long chances in front. I cannot say why I like the sea; no man is more cynically and constantly alive to its perils; I regard it as the highest form of gambling. Fine, clean emotions; a world all and always beautiful; air better than wine; interest unflagging, there is upon the whole no better life.”
— Robert Louis Stevenson to Sidney Colvin, Honolulu, June 1889
Sidney Colvin was huge in the life and career of Robert Louis Stevenson, especially his career. He would also become the second of four British representatives of the Stevenson Society of America in Saranac Lake in 1920, following the death of Lord Charles Guthrie, a companion of RLS from their law student days at Edinburgh University. When Colvin got around to writing his memoirs, he had plenty to say about his famous protg, whom he had met through a close friend, Mrs. Fanny Sitwell. That was in 1873 when Colvin, essayist and art critic, was slade professor of fine art at Cambridge, later curator of prints at the British Museum. RLS was 22 at the time:
“If you want to realize the kind of effect he made, at least in the early years when I knew him best, imagine this attenuated but extraordinarily vivid and vital presence, with something about it that at first sight struck you as freakish, rare, fantastic, a touch of the elfin and unearthly, a sprite, an Ariel. And imagine that, as you get to know him, this sprite, this visitant from another sphere, turned out to differ from mankind in general not by being less human but by being a great deal more human than they; richer blooded, greater-hearted; more human in all senses of the word, for he comprised within himself, and would flash on you in the course of a single afternoon, all the different ages and half the different characters of man, the unfaded freshness of a child, the ardent outlooks and adventurous daydreams of a boy, the steadfast courage of manhood, the quick sympathetic tenderness of a woman and already, as early as the mid-twenties of his life, an almost uncanny share of the ripe wisdom of old age.
“He was a fellow of infinite and unrestrained jest and yet of infinite earnest, the one very often a mask for the other; a poet, an artist, an adventurer; a man beset with fleshly frailties, and despite his infirm health, of strong appetites and unchecked curiosities; and yet a profoundly sincere moralist and preacher and son of the Covenanters after his fashion, deeply conscious of the war within his members, and deeply bent on acting up to the best he knew…”
Mr. Basil Champneys, one of Colvin’s friends, said that “Colvin was the very friend Stevenson needed at this juncture, for he had already won his spurs in art and literary criticism, had an extensive acquaintance with editors, and was both in attainment and judgement especially fitted to preside over the start of a literary career.”
It was through Colvin that Stevenson made the friends and connections that would shape his future and he acknowledged the debt from his last home in Samoa: “This most trusty and noble-minded man … paved my way in letters … set before me, kept before me, and still, as I write, keeps before me, a different standard of achievement … had the tact and wisdom to suffer me to be very much myself; to accept and cherish what was good in me; to condone much of what was evil; and while still holding before me a standard to which I could never quite attain, neither to damp nor disgust me of the trial!”
When Robert Louis Stevenson went off on his dangerous quest to the New World in 1879, to find and somehow marry Mrs. Fanny Osbourne, Colvin was given the task of delivering the letter to his parents to inform them of this new development only after their only, sickly child was irretrievably at sea
Many months later, after Stevenson’s close encounter with the Grim Reaper in California’s coastal range, RLS was inside his crucible looking out when he wrote another letter to Colvin.
For some reason, Sidney scissored out the end of this letter to be sent to Saranac Lake, where it is today behind glass inside the Stevenson Cottage on Stevenson Lane. From 608 Bush St., San Francisco, CA, March 1880:
Home is the sailor, home from sea
And the hunter home from the hill.
You, who pass this grave, put aside
hatred; love kindness; be all services
remembered in your heart and all
offenses pardoned; and as you go down
again among the living, let this be your
question: Can I make someone happier
this day before I lie down to sleep?
Thus the dead man speaks to you from
the dust: you will hear no more from him.
“Who knows, Colvin, but I may thus be of more use when I am buried than ever while I was alive? The more I think of it, the more earnestly do I desire this. I may perhaps try to write it better some day; but that is what I want in sense. The verses are from a beautiful poem by me. RLS.”
The poem is Requiem, first published in a collection of poetry called Underwoods in 1887. It is Stevenson’s epitaph:
“Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie,
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be.
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”
What follows is from Colvin’s last letter to the Stevenson Society of America, dated October 26, 1925:
“The thought of my own age (80) makes me realize that Stevenson, had he lived till now, would have been 75. But in mind and heart he could never have grown old. One cannot think of that spirit as destined to have been quenched by the passage of years had they been granted him. From childhood up he was always battling against a complication of physical infirmities, but in all the years of our intimacy I only once knew him to let himself be depressed by them, and that only for five minutes. In his rich nature two gifts were pre-eminent, courage and humour.
I am very truly yours,
(Sir) Sidney Colvin”