Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894) was the novelist behind Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. A literary celebrity during his lifetime, he is now one of the 30 most translated authors in the world, just below Charles Dickens. His parents were heavily religious and, throughout his life, Stevenson had health problems (tuberculosis or similar). A bit of an eccentric, a sickly only-child, he found it hard to make friends at school. Didn’t even read until he was seven or eight, but before then would still dictate stories to his mum and nurse.
When he was old enough to go to university, he told his folks he wanted to pursue a life of letters rather than law (they weren’t that surprised), and he started to act and dress more bohemian: he already had long hair but his dress was more velvety and unconventional. He never finished his degree, instead he was drawn more and more into travel and writing. The combination of the two, though, ruined his health. He got married, tried to settle in Europe and the US, looking for a place with a climate where he could be comfortable.
In 1888, Stevenson set sail from San Francisco with his family. They floated from island to island over several voyages, and ended up settling in Samoa, where he took the native name Tusitala (Samoan for “Teller of Tales”). His influence spread to the Samoans, who consulted him for advice, and he soon became involved in local politics. He always struggled with overwork and exhaustion. Here’s Wikipedia’s account of his last few years:
For a time during 1894 Stevenson felt depressed; he wondered if he had exhausted his creative vein and completely worked himself out. He wrote that he had “overworked bitterly”. He felt more clearly that, with each fresh attempt, the best he could write was “ditch-water”. He even feared that he might again become a helpless invalid. He rebelled against this idea: “I wish to die in my boots; no more Land of Counterpane for me. To be drowned, to be shot, to be thrown from a horse — ay, to be hanged, rather than pass again through that slow dissolution.” He then suddenly had a return of his old energy and he began work on Weir of Hermiston. “It’s so good that it frightens me,” he is reported to have exclaimed. He felt that this was the best work he had done. He was convinced, “sick and well, I have had splendid life of it, grudge nothing, regret very little … take it all over, damnation and all, would hardly change with any man of my time.”
Without knowing it, he was to have his wish fulfilled. During the morning of 3 December 1894, he had worked hard as usual on Weir of Hermiston. During the evening, while conversing with his wife and straining to open a bottle of wine, he suddenly exclaimed, “What’s that!” He then asked his wife, “Does my face look strange?” and collapsed beside her. He died within a few hours, probably of a cerebral haemorrhage, at the age of 44. The Samoans insisted on surrounding his body with a watch-guard during the night and on bearing their Tusitala upon their shoulders to nearby Mount Vaea, where they buried him on a spot overlooking the sea. Stevenson had always wanted his ‘Requiem’ inscribed on his tomb.
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.
Stevenson was loved by the Samoans and the engraving on his tombstone was translated to a Samoan song of grief which is well known and still sung in Samoa.
The guy’s quotes:
Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage with others.
You cannot run away from weakness; you must some time fight it out or perish; and if that be so, why not now, and where you stand?
All speech, written or spoken, is a dead language, until it finds a willing and prepared hearer.
Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a poor substitute for life.
You can read Kant by yourself, if you wanted to; but you must share a joke with someone else.
The cruelest lies are often told in silence.
Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.
Even if the doctor does not give you a year, even if he hesitates about a month, make one brave push and see what can be accomplished in a week.
For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.
Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere. Give us courage and gaiety and the quiet mind, spare to us our friends, soften to us our enemies.
The price we have to pay for money is sometimes liberty.
You think dogs will not be in heaven? I tell you, they will be there long before any of us.
I am in the habit of looking not so much to the nature of a gift as to the spirit in which it is offered.
It is a golden maxim to cultivate the garden for the nose, and the eyes will take care of themselves.
It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.
Nothing more strongly arouses our disgust than cannibalism, yet we make the same impression on Buddhists and vegetarians, for we feed on babies, though not our own.
Of what shall a man be proud, if he is not proud of his friends?
So long as we are loved by others I should say that we are almost indispensable; and no man is useless while he has a friend.
Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.
The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean; not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish.
When it comes to my own turn to lay my weapons down, I shall do so with thankfulness and fatigue, and whatever be my destiny afterward, I shall be glad to lie down with my fathers in honor. It is human at least, if not divine.
You can give without loving, but you can never love without giving.
To an Island Princess
From Songs of Travel
Since long ago, a child at home,
I read and longed to rise and roam,
Where’er I went, whate’er I willed,
One promised land my fancy filled.
Hence the long roads my home I made;
Tossed much in ships; have often laid
Below the uncurtained sky my head,
Rain-deluged and wind-buffeted:
And many a thousand hills I crossed
And corners turned – Love’s labour lost,
Till, Lady, to your isle of sun
I came, not hoping; and, like one
Snatched out of blindness, rubbed my eyes,
And hailed my promised land with cries.
Yes, Lady, here I was at last;
Here found I all I had forecast:
The long roll of the sapphire sea
That keeps the land’s virginity;
The stalwart giants of the wood
Laden with toys and flowers and food;
The precious forest pouring out
To compass the whole town about;
The town itself with streets of lawn,
Loved of the moon, blessed by the dawn,
Where the brown children all the day
Keep up a ceaseless noise of play,
Play in the sun, play in the rain,
Nor ever quarrel or complain; –
And late at night, in the woods of fruit,
Hark! do you hear the passing flute?
I threw one look to either hand,
And knew I was in Fairyland.
And yet one point of being so
I lacked. For, Lady (as you know),
Whoever by his might of hand,
Won entrance into Fairyland,
Found always with admiring eyes
A Fairy princess kind and wise.
It was not long I waited; soon
Upon my threshold, in broad noon,
Gracious and helpful, wise and good,
The Fairy Princess Moe stood.
Tantira, Tahiti, Nov. 5, 1888.