November 17, 2011
Our friends at the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust are celebrating Robert Louis Stevenson Day all day on Thursday 17 November. You can wear velvet, tweet using the hashtag #RLSday, read facts and quotes posted on @EdinCityofLit, read poetry quotations @ByLeavesWeLive, take part in events happening all day and brush up on Robert Louis Stevenson’s works at the authoritative website here.
We asked our Assistant Librarian, Lizzie MacGregor, for some of her reflections on Robert Louis Stevenson’s work:
I recently read Robert Louis Stevenson’s unfinished novel Weir of Hermiston for the first time, and was absolutely enthralled by it – they didn’t call him ‘Tusitala’ (storyteller) for nothing. Many critics believe that it would have been Stevenson’s best novel, had it been finished, and certainly in it he has excelled in manipulating settings and characters; the sense of impending doom becomes so real that I was quite relieved when the book comes to a sudden halt (RLS died in the middle of chapter 9).
One of the pleasures of reading Stevenson is his masterly dialogue. When Lord Hermiston thunders from the judicial bench or from the head of his dining table you recoil from his harsh pronunciations, and when Kirsty starts on a tale of her redoubtable family’s misdeeds you feel you are sitting with her, in the Borders farmhouse, staring into the fire, all ears. And they are talking in Scots, of course.
If Stevenson was so adept at handling Scots in his dialogue, why does his poetry in Scots have the reputation for being weak? There is an interesting chapter in the book Scotland and the Lowland Tongue (published by Aberdeen University Press in 1983) called ‘An awkward squad: some Scots poets from Stevenson to Spence’ in which Kenneth Buthlay traces the uneasy development of the use of Scots in poetry from the second half of the 19th century, until the Scottish Renaissance got underway in the early years of the 20th. He thinks that Stevenson did not apply the same craftmanship to his poetry in Scots as to his English, and generally deems Stevenson to have considered his Scots versifying as being just that, talking of his ‘deprecating attitude towards what he writes as being, not poetry, not even respectable verse, but just crambo-clink: ‘I rhyme for fun’ ‘.
If there was a weakness, would it have stemmed from the fact that Stevenson might have felt awkward writing poetry in Scots, because of the risk of association with the post-Burns rhymsters of the Whistle-binkie school? I have always felt, though, that Stevenson’s poetry in Scots, while maybe not quite having the sustained strength of, for example, the tales of Thrawn Janet or Tod Lapraik , is written with a deal of energy, and fun. ‘It’s rainin … / A maist unceeivil thing o’ God / In mid July …’ And did anyone but him ever capture Edinburgh’s weather so well? The ‘snell an’ scowtherin’ norther blaw’, the ‘blast an’ blaudin’ rain’ (with of course, the antidote: ‘let the winter weet oor cla’es – We’ll weet oor thrapples!).
Derrick McClure, in his book Language, Poetry and Nationhood (Tuckwell Press, 2000) talks of ‘the unmistakeable sense of physical energy which prevails in his poems’, and puts it down to a preponderance of Scots verbs – a ‘forceful lexicon’.
One thing’s for sure – 161 years after his birth, Tusitala still enchants.