Robert Louis Stevenson’s Moral Emblems


Being the owner of half the volumes in the Tusitala Edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s collected works I’m not exactly unacquainted with the author’s books but this is one I hadn’t seen before. It is included in the Tusitala set (vol. 22) but this is one of the books I don’t own. The Moral Emblems & Other Poems Written and Illustrated with Woodcuts were published originally in Edinburgh Edition in 1898. The copies here are from a book edition prepared by Stevenson’s stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, in 1921. The 35 Tusitala volumes followed in 1924. Stevenson enjoyed sketching while on his travels so these crude woodcuts aren’t without precedent even if he didn’t make a habit of adding illustrations to his writing.

Emblem books were a popular form of moral instruction from the 16th century on. This particular example shares some of the pious qualities of its ancestors albeit with a wry attitude typical of its author. Regarding a man (“who might be you or me”) who pushes another into the sea, we’re told “And he will spoil his evening toddy / By dwelling on that mangled body.” The verses being written some years after Treasure Island, pirates appear in a couple of places, especially in the last sequence: Robin and Ben: Or, The Pirate and The Apothecary. The final illustrations aren’t as successful as his rough little vignettes but for someone with no reputation as a draughtsman they’re better than you’d expect. See the rest of the book here or download it here.




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