- 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.
- Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson died one hundred and twenty-one years ago, much too young at 44, of a cerebral hemorrhage. He knew a fair amount of illness in his brief life and asked that his poem Requiem serve as his epitaph.
One of the more popular writers of his day, as he has justly remained in death, his American connection, beyond his living in this country for a while during his years of wandering, is linked to his defense of the leper priest in 1890.
So much has been written about the famed leper priest that I feel no need to discuss here the basic facts of his life. After his death from leprosy in 1889 grave libels were made against Father Damien, chiefly by a Presbyterian minister C.M. Hyde, who, oddly enough, had praised Father Damien during his life.
The defense of Father Damien came from an unusual source, the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson had visited Molokai shortly after the priest’s death and had been deeply moved by what Father Damien had accomplished. When the libels of Hyde against Father Damien were published in the newspapers, Stevenson took up his pen and composed a reply to Hyde in the form of an open letter.
I have always been moved by the ending of Stevenson’s letter:
“This scandal, when I read it in your letter, was not new to me. I had heard it once before; and I must tell you how. There came to Samoa a man from Honolulu; he, in a public- house on the beach, volunteered the statement that Damien had “contracted the disease from having connection with the female lepers”; and I find a joy in telling you how the report was welcomed in a public-house. A man sprang to his feet; I am not at liberty to give his name, but from what I heard I doubt if you would care to have him to dinner in Beretania Street. “You miserable little ——-” (here is a word I dare not print, it would so shock your ears). “You miserable little ——,” he cried, “if the story were a thousand times true, can’t you see you are a million times a lower —– for daring to repeat it?” I wish it could be told of you that when the report reached you in your house, perhaps after family worship, you had found in your soul enough holy anger to receive it with the same expressions; ay, even with that one which I dare not print; it would not need to have been blotted away, like Uncle Toby’s oath, by the tears of the recording angel; it would have been counted to you for your brightest righteousness. But you have deliberately chosen the part of the man from Honolulu, and you have played it with improvements of your own. The man from Honolulu–miserable, leering creature–communicated the tale to a rude knot of beach-combing drinkers in a public-house, where (I will so far agree with your temperance opinions) man is not always at his noblest; and the man from Honolulu had himself been drinking–drinking, we may charitably fancy, to excess. It was to your “Dear Brother, the Reverend H. B. Gage,” that you chose to communicate the sickening story; and the blue ribbon which adorns your portly bosom forbids me to allow you the extenuating plea that you were drunk when it was done. Your “dear brother”–a brother indeed–made haste to deliver up your letter (as a means of grace, perhaps) to the religious papers; where, after many months, I found and read and wondered at it; and whence I have now reproduced it for the wonder of others. And you and your dear brother have, by this cycle of operations, built up a contrast very edifying to examine in detail. The man whom you would not care to have to dinner, on the one side; on the other, the Reverend Dr. Hyde and the Reverend H. B. Gage: the Apia bar-room, the Honolulu manse.
But I fear you scarce appreciate how you appear to your fellow-men; and to bring it home to you, I will suppose your story to be true. I will suppose–and God forgive me for supposing it–that Damien faltered and stumbled in his narrow path of duty; I will suppose that, in the horror of his isolation, perhaps in the fever of incipient disease, he, who was doing so much more than he had sworn, failed in the letter of his priestly oath–he, who was so much a better man than either you or me, who did what we have never dreamed of daring–he too tasted of our common frailty. “O, Iago, the pity of it!” The least tender should be moved to tears; the most incredulous to prayer. And all that you could do was to pen your letter to the Reverend H. B. Gage!
Is it growing at all clear to you what a picture you have drawn of your own heart? I will try yet once again to make it clearer. You had a father: suppose this tale were about him, and some informant brought it to you, proof in hand: I am not making too high an estimate of your emotional nature when I suppose you would regret the circumstance? that you would feel the tale of frailty the more keenly since it shamed the author of your days? and that the last thing you would do would be to publish it in the religious press? Well, the man who tried to do what Damien did, is my father, and the father of the man in the Apia bar, and the father of all who love goodness; and he was your father too, if God had given you grace to see it.”
To the Reverend Sister Marianne,
Matron of the Bishop Home, Kalaupapa.
To see the infinite pity of this place,
The mangled limb, the devastated face,
The innocent sufferers smiling at the rod,
A fool were tempted to deny his God.
He sees, and shrinks; but if he look again,
Lo, beauty springing from the breasts of pain!
He marks the sisters on the painful shores,
And even a fool is silent and adores.
Robert Louis Stevenson