The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Poetry of Reality: Robert Louis Stevenson on What Makes Life Worth Living

If wonder springs from the quality of attention we pay to things and joy springs from our capacity for presence with wonder, then the quality of our attention shapes the quality of our lives. It is a dangerous falsehood that to find wonder in reality is to relinquish our realism — rather, this attentive gladness, this fluency in the native poetry of the universe, may be the truest realism we have.

That is what Robert Louis Stevenson (November 13, 1850–December 3, 1894) explores in some breathtaking passages from his long essay “The Lantern-Bearers,” found in his 1892 collection of personal writings Across the Plains (public library | free ebook).

Robert Louis Stevenson by William Notman © National Portrait Gallery, London

Stevenson writes:

There is one fable that touches very near the quick of life, — the fable of the monk who passed into the woods, heard a bird break into song, hearkened for a trill or two, and found himself at his return a stranger at his convent gates; for he had been absent fifty years, and of all his comrades there survived but one to recognize him. It is not only in the woods that this enchanter carols, though perhaps he is native there. He sings in the most doleful places. The miser hears him and chuckles, and his days are moments. With no more apparatus than an evil-smelling lantern, I have evoked him on the naked links. All life that is not merely mechanical is spun out of two strands, — seeking for that bird and hearing him. And it is just this that makes life so hard to value, and the delight of each so incommunicable. And it is just a knowledge of this, and a remembrance of those fortunate hours in which the bird has sung to us, that fills us with such wonder when we turn to the pages of the realist. There, to be sure, we find a picture of life in so far as it consists of mud and of old iron, cheap desires and cheap fears, that which we are ashamed to remember and that which we are careless whether we forget; but of the note of that time-devouring nightingale we hear no news.

Nightingale from The Birds of Great Britain, 1873. (Available as a print.)

Half a century before Anaïs Nin contemplated the elusive nature of joy, he adds:

The ground of a man’s joy is often hard to hit. It may hinge at times upon a mere accessory, like the lantern; it may reside… in the mysterious inwards of psychology… It has so little bond with externals… that it may even touch them not, and the man’s true life, for which he consents to live, lie together in the field of fancy…. In such a case the poetry runs underground. The observer (poor soul, with his documents!) is all abroad. For to look at the man is but to court deception. We shall see the trunk from which he draws his nourishment; but he himself is above and abroad in the green dome of foliage, hummed through by winds and nested in by nightingales. And the true realism were that of the poets, to climb after him like a squirrel, and catch some glimpse of the heaven in which he lives. And the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing.

For to miss the joy is to miss all. In the joy of the actors lies the sense of any action. That is the explanation, that the excuse… for no man lives in the external truth among salts and acids, but in the warm, phantasmagoric chamber of his brain, with the painted windows and the storied wall.

Complement with poet Ross Gay on the discipline of delight and René Magritte on the courage of joy, then revisit Hermann Hesse on the life-magnifying value of the little joys.

Published June 5, 2023




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