Virginibus Puerisque, 1881


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Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers Contents

“Virginibus Puerisque i” (1876)
“Virginibus Puerisque ii” (1881)
“Virginibus Puerisque iii: On Falling in Love” (1877)
“Virginibus Puerisque iv: The Truth of Intercourse” (1879)
“Crabbed Age and Youth” (1878)
“An Apology for Idlers” (1877)
“Ordered South” (1874)

“Aes Triplex” (1878)
“El Dorado” (1878)
“The English Admirals” (1878)
“Some Portraits by Raeburn” (previously unpublished)
“Child’s Play” (1878)
“Walking Tours” (1876)
“Pan’s Pipes” (1878)
“A Plea for Gas Lamps” (1878)

Overview of Virginibus Puersique

Virginibus Puerisque (1881) was the first collection of Stevenson’s essays. Containing what would have been regarded as personal essays in the tradition of Lamb and Hazlitt, the volume brought together essays previously published in the prestigious Cornhill Magazine (“Walking Tours” and “Virginibus Puerisque” [1876]; “On Falling in Love” and “Apology for Idlers” [1877]; “Crabbed Age and Youth”, “Aes Triplex”, “English Admirals” and “Child’s Play” [1878]; “Truth of Intercourse” [1879]) as well as essays printed inMacmillan’s (“Ordered South” [1874]) and London (“A Plea for Gas Lamps”, “Pan’s Pipes” and “El Dorado” [1878]), and the previously unpublished “Some Portraits by Raeburn” and the second part of “Virginibus Puerisque”.

The essays promote a spirit of playfulness in defiance of both the hardships of human life and the restrictions imposed by bourgeois Philistinism. The volume did not sell well but had a good critical reception, confirming the author of Inland Voyage (1878) and Travels with a Donkey (1879) as one of the rising stars on the literary scene, notable for his youthful high spirits and elegant, if sometimes too showy, literary style.

Summaries

“Virginibus Puerisque i” (1876)

Compared to older days, people today are much more reluctant to get married, as seen by comparing characters in Shakespeare’s plays with those in modern comedies. We are afraid of life, and it is only our fear of “a cold and forlorn old age” with our male friendships gone, that leads us reluctantly to marriage and the assurance of always having a friend at home.

Marriage offers comfort but for this reason it is “not at all heroic”; men relax and lose their generous ambitions. Women, however, receive through marriage more freedom and more opportunity.

People marry not for love (“too violent a passion to make […] a good domestic sentiment”) but for “community of taste”, especially in everyday habits, rather than in art or philosophy. (A digression speaks about the need to be honest in our taste, even when it goes against popularly approved taste, such as admitting an impatience with Shakespeare.) To be happily married the couple must also be affectionate and willing to compromise, and must share the same sense of humour.

Marrying a writer is inadvisable since after a few hour’s work, “all the more human portion of the author is extinct”, though painters are a different case: painting is a sedative occupation, often outdoors, with a great deal of manual labour. Among a list of further characteristics indicating a good husband, drinking and smoking are most important since they tend to make a man content and sedentary.

This advice is offered to amuse and entertain, but the one serious and essential point is not to expect marriage to produce an easy, peaceful life. Marriage “is a field of battle, and not a bed of roses”.

“Virginibus Puerisque ii” (1881)

We always hope we can achieve the high (even the impossible) goals we set ourselves. This hope remains to us from our youth, and manifests itself especially in the way we continually hope we will conduct ourselves better in future. But we do not amend as we hope we will.

Even marriage leaves us unchanged, despite our hopes that it would reform all the imperfections we saw in ourselves. In marriage, in fact, we now bring our own failings to bear not just on ourselves but on the very person we care most about. The spouse thus becomes the witness, judge and victim of our moral defeats. “To marry is to domesticate the Recording Angel.”

It is harder to be virtuous in marriage since different social customs have developed different ideals in the man and the woman, and both sets of ideals must be accommodated. We must constantly compromise our ideals to comply with those of our spouse, and the danger lies in compromising so extensively that we become “a stout old brute”, the spouse’s brightness diminishes and love “flees for ever”.

Misconceptions about the spouse are further increased through the catchwords we are taught, especially those portraying women as angelic. The man must see through this to perceive the wife as “a creature of equal, if of unlike, frailties”.

It is cowardly to retreat from marriage, even with all its obstacles. It is worse “to avoid an occasion for our virtues” than it is to “push forward pluckily and make a fall”. We need to hold fast to Faith in these matters. Where Hope, the virtue of youth, ignorant of the self and the world, sees all things possible, Faith, the product of a more experienced mind, knows “the tyranny of circumstance and the frailty of human resolution”, counts on failure and still chooses to act. Faith knows there is both goodness and weakness in the spouse and prompts us to continue to try better in our marriage. “And ever, between the failures, there will come glimpses of kind virtues to encourage and console.”

“Virginibus Puerisque iii: On Falling in Love” (1877)

Falling in love always comes as a surprise, followed by “dismay” at finding oneself “in such changed conditions”. It is “the one illogical adventure […] in our trite and reasonable world”. We cannot control falling in love and not everyone can fall in love. In particular, it is hard to imagine “anaemic and tailorish persons” ever falling in love, and many “lovable” people miss the chance to fall in love. The ideal situation is to have two people “go into love step by step” together.

Falling in love benefits a man by awakening, or reawakening, him to generous feelings: “the strong sunny parts of nature”, which everyday life caused him to forget. People in love imagine their love benefits everyone else and tend to look condescendingly towards others, including those who also are in love.

The lover strives especially to benefit the beloved. “The essence of love is […] passionate kindness”, with no longer any trace of vanity. Although we are constantly misunderstood by others, it becomes of utmost importance to be understood by our beloved.

Lovers remove themselves from their past lives, but although they may feel jealous, they are never jealous of the other’s past, simply angry and remorseful at having missed it.

And yet for all this, in the end, each generation of lovers fades away into oblivion, with very little to show for its presence.

“Virginibus Puerisque iv: The Truth of Intercourse” (1879)

There is no truth in the saying that “it is easy to tell the truth and hard to tell a lie”. Truth needs both to be discovered and then “justly and exactly uttered”. It is hard enough to measure “external or constant things”, but precision about intangible things like human relations is very hard to discover and even harder to express.

We are not talking here of “matter of fact” truthfulness, which is “easy and to the same degree unimportant in itself”. More important is being honest about our own emotions and our relationships with others, since “that is the truth which makes love possible and mankind happy”.

To be proficient with words is not enough; we aim to communicate our emotions clearly and affect others the way we want to. This literary skill lies at the heart of the business of life, and, since we cannot simply read each other’s hearts, it requires the highest order of poetical skill to convey our “unlovely humours, ambiguous acts, and unpardonable words”. To ease this difficulty there are “looks and gestures” that speedily convey to the other person what we are feeling and thus avert misunderstanding.

We can pity the deaf and blind who cannot receive these clues from voice and body, but more to be pitied are those who cannot communicate their emotions through the voice and body and whose heart therefore cannot speak. Intimacy with such people will be difficult, “without charm or freedom”.

The great thing is “to have looks to correspond with every feeling”. Therefore the worst kind of person is the one who puts on a false front to the world and is condemned to live alone and unloved.

Truth of intercourse is more than just refraining from lies and requires the right balance between “the curt, pithy speaker” and the “wordy, prolegomenous babbler”. Many people have “a bad ear” for words.

“The cruellest lies are often told in silence”, especially when we are ashamed to reveal our emotions. There are also lies true to fact but false to sentiment. We must not take individual statements in isolation but in the context of the whole conversation, keeping in mind that “truth in spirit, not truth to letter, is the true veracity”.

The listener too has a responsibility here, and must be careful not to let emotions or preconceptions distort what is being heard. Between old friends and lovers, only the merest word or phrase is needed, and much is conveyed through the body, beyond the power of words to express. If a doubt should arise in these intimacies, then the confidence in the other is destroyed. Still, where there is strong affection such difficulties can be overcome, especially because the heart of the other person is ready to forgive. For less intimate friendships, though, in which we try to win the other’s kind regard, there is no point persisting in the face of the other’s indifference.

In the end, being understood lies in our own power: “it is only by trying to understand others that we can get our own hearts understood”.

“Crabbed Age and Youth” (1878)

There is a tendency to favour the “cowardly and prudential proverbs” of older people, who have already “ignominiously failed”, rather than the views of young people, “full of ardour and hope”. These proverbs discouraging “mediocre people … from ambitious attempts” are favoured because “mediocre people constitute the bulk of humanity” but they are not necessarily truer than “bold and magnanimous sayings common to high races and natures”. And even though cautious proverbs are promoted, it is the incautious, risk-taking characters in history who get the general praise – so long as no one actually imitates their actions.

Similarly, the opinions of the old are valued over those of the young, even though the old may be as disenchanted with life as the young are enchanted by it. Both views, however, can be valid. (We are not talking here of “catchwords”, opinions imposed on us or adopted without thinking, but about views carefully weighed and considered.)

All opinions should be seen as stages “on the way to something else”. No opinion or theory lasts our whole life or offers anything more than an impression amidst the confusion of life. Youth may understand the precautions of age but will not choose to follow them, nor should it. It makes no sense to be prudent in youth when we do not know what sort of future may be in store. Much better to open ourselves into whatever views come our way at any given time. Youthful experimenting and adventuring would seem the most prudent way to prepare for age after all. “The true wisdom is to be always seasonable, and to change with a good grace in changing circumstances.”

The common thread running through all stages is the acknowledgement that we have been wrong in the past but are now getting closer to the central truth of life. “How if there were no centre at all but just one alley after another, and the whole world a labyrinth without end or issue?” There are no whole truths, and always “two sides to a question”. Thus all argument – even the present argument – cannot be certain, and the best we can hope is to agree to differ.

“An Apology for Idlers” (1877)

In an age when respectability calls on us to be active “in some lucrative profession”, arguments in defence of idleness have a right to be heard, if only to set the record straight.

Idleness “does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class”.

People should be “a good deal idle in youth” before age takes away many of the pleasures of idleness. Age more often regrets missed opportunities to play truant than missed opportunities to work. In idleness we can acquire a deep education, which the world may not accept since what is learned does not fit into “one of your scholastic categories”. Yet the truant is in a position to learn a “knowledge of life at large, and [the] Art of Living”. And, having met so many different people, the idler will “have a great and cool allowance for all sorts of people and opinions”.

Busy people often have no curiosity, and no generosity to enjoy a thing for what it is, apart from its usefulness. There are more important things than doing one’s business, such as helping to make someone else happy by being happy oneself.

Business concerns are not so important in the grand scheme after all, and not worth giving away one’s “precious youth” in pursuing.

“Ordered South” (1874)

Invalids often look forward to enjoying the beauty of the places they are sent to for recuperation. Travel there stimulates the invalid, and the shift from the harsh north to the mild south prompts hopes for enjoyment. Once settled, however, the invalid realises that though the surroundings are as beautiful as he anticipated, he is no longer able to enjoy them. At first he thinks the scenery may be too soft to revive his emotions and longs again for the stimulating hardness of a northern winter, but then he remembers how miserable that northern weather actually can be.

Occasional unexpected small details will bring welcome joy to the invalid. Such moments of joy arise from the inexplicable arrangements of external and internal elements. (We can cultivate our mind to be receptive to beauty, but the “fine shades of sensation that heighten and harmonise the coarser elements of beauty ” can also increase the invalid’s “nervous prostration”.)

The gradual decline of the invalid’s desires and strength and activity brings on gentle thoughts of death as life “withdraws and withers up from round about him”. He will wish for an early death rather than a continuation of this partial living.

Yet many things still attach the invalid to life: the sight of children, the hope for better times to come for humanity, and especially the thought of his friends and “their unchangeable solicitude and love”, which death is powerless to extinguish. In fact we often care more about “the shadowy life that we have in the hearts of others” than about our actual life itself.

Note added in 1881: An older man sees the prospect of impending death differently. He has a greater sense of the loss his death will bring to others he is tied to by love or duty, and a regret at what he has not yet accomplished and what he might have made of his life had he lived longer.

“Aes Triplex” (1878)

Death brings such a radical change in our lives, taking away those we hold dear, yet leaving painful memories, that we construct elaborate (though often “erroneous”) rituals to help us bear up. And yet, this great fear of death does not much influence everyday life. Every moment of life is perilous, and yet we carry on with life regardless of the perils.

All that poets and philosophers tell us about life are dry abstractions, such as life as a “Permanent Possibility of Sensation”. We are not moved by such abstractions, however, but by the details of life; “[…] we do not, properly speaking, love life at all but living”. Our attachment to “the mixed texture of human experience” is what motivates us to take up the risks of living. Intelligence recognises “our precarious estate in life” and courage keeps us “not at all abashed before the fact”.

This openness to life makes us more generous to others, just as prudence shrinks our concerns to ourselves only so that we “ossify”. It is better to begin new projects even if it is doubtful we will ever complete them, than to “die daily in the sick room”. Even such hopeless striving does good in the world b spreading “something brave and spirited”, encouraging others and graceful in itself.

“El Dorado” (1878)

We act in life as if our goal was to attain as many things as possible. When it comes to happiness, however, it is never possible to attain our goal, and yet we continually strive for happiness. Happiness can be found only in the process of seeking happiness, not in any final happiness itself. “To be truly happy is a question of how we begin and not of how we end, of what we want and not of what we have.”

The world remains dull unless we bring to it “desire and curiosity”, which always find new attractions at each stage of life. “Problem gives rise to problem.” Since (apart form death) we never truly arrive anywhere, “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”.

“The English Admirals” (1878)

Various images and stories can inspire people to engage in battle by promoting the feeling that their cause is just and divinely blessed. For the “Englishman” the most powerful patriotic image is the sea, which “has been the scene of our greatest triumphs and dangers”. Despite the misery that occurred between decks, stories of great naval battles give us our most moving tales of heroism. The English Admirals all have heroic-sounding names, but it is their spirit that identifies them as (along with prize-fighters) truly English heroes, whose virtues are “a sort of apotheosis” of the virtues all English people share. Examples from naval history show English admirals coolly disregarding personal safety in the face of danger, preferring the extravagant gesture to mere businesslike actions.

The “measure of habitual foolhardiness” engendered by these “quixotic” stories promotes in us “courage on a reasonable occasion”. Such heroic tales serve us better than “a-curate-and-tea-party novel” or a book of political economy, since they not only give courage to soldiers going into battle, but “send back merchant clerks with more heart and spirit to their book-keeping by double entry”.

True heroes have acted not for fame (as they themselves sometimes say) but “because they liked to do things nobly for their own satisfaction”. Fame is too abstract to “move people greatly in moments of swift and momentous decision”. We are moved by delight in doing the thing itself.

“Some Portraits by Raeburn” (previously unpublished)

The exhibition of Raeburn at the Scottish Academy presents not the usual landscapes but a portrait gallery of “good society” from two generations ago, people who lived recently enough to be regarded as not “ancestors” but “relatives”. Though the portraits are “almost all of the same race and all from the same brush”, they all are individual and show Raeburn’s ability to perceive and portray what was essential in each person’s character, especially in the face. Thus each portrait becomes not just a piece of history but “a piece of biography”. A Raeburn portrait shows the subject unself-consciously busy in a world of his or her own.

Not everything about the exhibition is excellent. Some of the paintings are not equal to the others, and the hands of the sitters are carelessly depicted so that one pair of hands is not sufficiently distinguished from the others.

The portrait of Duncan of Camperdown shows the “alert, wiry, and strong” admiral whose “adamantine drollery” appears in several anecdotes about his naval exploits. The portrait of Robert M’Queen of Braxfield draws us to sympathise with the inhumane but intrepid old judge. [There follows several quick notices of portraits “remarkable for their execution, or interesting by association”.]

Raeburn’s portraits of women succeed only with “women of a certain age”, perhaps because all men know so little about younger women, perhaps because Raeburn could more easily look into the faces of older women without “bashful sentimentalism”. But then, the artificial ways young men and women have to act together when they meet socially make it impossible to understand each other or depict each other justly in art.

“Child’s Play” (1878)

Regret for lost childhood is unjustifiable when we remember the “manifold advantages” of maturity: greater appreciation of art, less terror of life, less constraint. But though adults live closer to the world of fact, they have lost the ability to weave imaginative enchantments over the world. Children “see and touch and hear through a sort of golden mist”, seeing but not necessarily looking, not regarding things for their own sake but only as they can use them for play.

Not only does maturity bring an “increase in the definition and intensity of what we feel” but it brings abstractions – in place of a child’s wonder and surprise, adults have “theories and associations” to explain what the world is about.

A child cannot construct a story in the imagination but has to act out the story, either in person, improvising with ordinary items to hand, or by proxy with toy soldiers or other toys. The child can do this in spite of whatever else may be going on around him, intersecting but not joining that adult world.

This way of playing is not an act of imagination but an enactment of stories adults have already imagined. In this way, relatively inexperience in the world, children try out and experiment with ways of doing things. ” ‘Art for art’ is their motto; and the doings of grown folk are only interesting as the raw material for play.”

Adults partake in this child’s play not through “conscious art” but through fantasy and day-dreaming. These activities are not as pleasant for adults, though, who can stir up uncomfortable memories, especially of times their own conduct had fallen short. Nor do adults act out their fantasies as children do, especially because the adult mind is not content with substitutions for the real things.

Children are always “making believe”, turning their daily activities into a game. Children enjoy hide-and-seek because it’s easy to make up stories about this activity, but a game like cricket (“a mere matter of dexterity”) cannot be turned into a story; it is a game but not “a game of play”.

Children are thus puzzled by and fearful of adults who come to them from such a different world, expecting them to conform to the adults’ world. Once adults understand children’s habit of play, they should know better than to expect “exactitude about matters of fact”. A child might be interested in how far the subject of play extends to everyday life, but an accurate account of the everyday life is beyond the child’s concern.

Adults should thus spare children their innocent playing just a little while longer. “Let them doze among their playthings yet a little! For who knows what a rough, warfaring existence lies before them in the future?”

“Walking Tours” (1876)

One doesn’t go on a walking tour to enjoy the landscape but to experience “certain jolly humours” that vary through the day, each one delightful in itself and leading to the next pleasure. Pushing oneself too far instead of enjoying each different experience destroys the pleasure.

To enjoy a walking tour properly one should walk alone, to be able to choose when to stop and start and where to go next. The walker should be free to follow whatever whim dictates. The company of others will also intrude on the walker’s “intoxication” arising from surrendering to the open air and to motion.

The first few days of the walking tour can be oppressive, but they are followed by an easiness, unless the walker insists on mulling over anxious thoughts. The easiness can take a variety of forms, like singing or skipping, that would be embarrassing if anyone noticed. Hazlitt delights in these extravagances, yet his preference for “leaping and running” can ruin the “equable stride” so conducive to freeing the mind from serious thoughts and encouraging fanciful thinking.

As the day progresses, the walker moves from fresh exhilaration to an “open-air drunkenness” where everything seems “a cheerful dream”.

Stopping points along the way allow the walker to sink into a timeless oblivion. The end-of-day resting place offers the pleasures of greater appreciation of food, wine and tobacco, reading that feels “racy and harmonious” and lounging outside feeling relaxed and purged. If the weather is bad the walker can spend the evening inside by the fire, detached, content and “happy thinking” – an antidote to the modern world of haste and anxiety.

Perhaps this pleasure may suddenly seem the height of folly, “but at least you have had a fine moment”, and the next day’s travel will bring something different.

“Pan’s Pipes” (1878)

The world is so varied and inconsistent that no explanation can completely express its full nature.

The Greek myth of Pan, however, expresses much of our human experience because the myth includes in itself the contradictions we find in the world. Pan is a figure of both terror and glee. For youthful minds Pan is not dead. “With a gleeful and an angry look”, he can be found in the woods by anyone open to his presence.

Pan’s pipes put “a spirit of gladness in all hearts” in a vast variety of ways, but they also stir up destructive forces throughout the world. A “panic terror” strikes those “highly respectable citizens” who flee from Pan because of his terrors and thereby miss his glee. They distrust their impulses, and become “recreant to Pan”.

The explanations of science, true in their way, do not always answer our experience of life. The “palpitating image of our estate” found “by means of art” in the figure of Pan, represents the “troubled and uncertain element in which we dwell” in a deeply satisfying way.

“A Plea for Gas Lamps” (1878)

Cities have always faced the problem of how to light their streets. Hand-held lanterns only partially satisfied this need. Oil-filled street lamps could be extinguished by “gamesome winds and gamesome youths”, and slung on “invisible cordage” across the road they became a hazard for riders on horseback.

Gas lamps were a great improvement. They were not as clear or steady as the moon and stars, and needed lamplighters to light them each evening and extinguish them each morning. But the lamplighters became known for their zeal and punctuality, and delighted children especially.

The “heroic task” of the lamplighter is coming to an end with the new electric street lamps, which can be lit by “a sedate electrician somewhere in a back office” who will light the city at the turn of a switch”.

The electric lamps give off a nightmarishly harsh glow and are not as suitable as the gas lamps’ “old mild lustre” for the ordinary citizen’s peaceful evening activities.

This section was provided by Robert-Louis Abrahamson.

Image from RLS, Virginibus Puerisque: An Essay in Four Parts (New York: Roycrofters, 1903).