Writers so different as Defoe, Cooper, Poe, and Sir Thomas Browne, are seen with varying degrees of emphasis in his literary temperament. He was whimsical as an imaginative child; and everyone has noticed that he never grew old. His buoyant optimism was based on a chronic experience of physical pain, for pessimists like Schopenhauer are usually men in comfortable circumstances, and of excellent bodily health. His courage and cheerfulness under depressing circumstances are so splendid to contemplate that some critics believe that in time his _Letters_ may be regarded as his greatest literary work, for they are priceless in their unconscious revelation of a beautiful soul.
Great as Stevenson was as a writer, he was still greater as a Man. So many admirable books have been written by men whose character will not bear examination, that it is refreshing to find one Master-Artist whose daily life was so full of the fruits of the spirit. As his romances have brought pleasure to thousands of readers, so the spectacle of his cheerful march through the Valley of the Shadow of Death is a constant source of comfort and inspiration. One feels ashamed of cowardice and petty irritation after witnessing the steady courage of this man. His philosophy of life is totally different from that of Stoicism; for the Stoic says, "Grin and bear it," and usually succeeds in doing neither. Stevenson seems to say, "Laugh and forget it," and he showed us how to do both.
Stevenson had the rather unusual combination of the Artist and the Moralist, both elements being marked in his writings to a very high degree. The famous and oft-quoted sonnet by his friend, the late Mr. Henley, gives a vivid picture:
"Thin-legged, thin-chested, slight unspeakably, Neat-footed and weak-fingered: in his face-- Lean, large-honed, curved of beak, and touched with race, Bold-lipped, rich-tinted, mutable as the sea, The brown eyes radiant with vivacity-- There shown a brilliant and romantic grace, A spirit intense and rare, with trace on trace Of passion, impudence, and energy. Valiant in velvet, light in ragged luck, Most vain, most generous, sternly critical, Buffoon and poet, lover and sensualist; A deal of Ariel, just a streak of Puck, Much Antony, of Hamlet most of all, And something of the Shorter Catechist."
He was not primarily a moral teacher, like Socrates or Thomas Carlyle; nor did he feel within him the voice of a prophetic mission. The virtue of his writings consists in their wholesome ethical quality, in their solid health. Fresh air is often better for the soul than the swinging of the priest's censer. At a time when the school of Zola was at its climax, Stevenson opened the windows and let in the pleasant breeze. For the morbid and unhealthy period of adolescence, his books are more healthful than many serious moral works. He purges the mind of uncleanness, just as he purged contemporary fiction.
As Stevenson's correspondence with his friends like Sidney Colvin and William Archer reveals the social side of his nature, so his correspondence with the Unseen Power in which he believed shows that his character was essentially religious. A man's letters are often a truer picture of his mind than a photograph; and when these epistles are directed not to men and women, but to the Supreme Intelligence, they form a real revelation of their writer's heart. Nothing betrays the personality of a man more clearly than his prayers, and the following petition that Stevenson composed for the use of his household at Vailima, bears the stamp of its author.
"At Morning. The day returns and brings us the petty round of irritating concerns and duties. Help us to play the man, help us to perform them with laughter and kind faces, let cheerfulness abound with industry. Give us to go blithely on our business all this day, bring us to our resting beds weary and content and undishonoured, and grant us in the end the gift of sleep."
Stevenson was a poet, a dramatist, an essayist, and a novelist, besides writing many political, geographical, and biographical sketches.