The Ruricolist is now available in print.


Stevenson, somewhere, warns an aspiring writer to consider the unimportance of literature – particularly how little the world would change, had Shakespeare never lived. But this is wrong. Certainly, Shakespeare moved no great historical forces. If you can be convinced that history is a script, a set of roles to be filled – then you must allow Stevenson’s doubt.

But if an individual can have any effect on history, however subtle, then Shakespeare’s influence is everywhere. For if we remove Shakespeare, then, five centuries later, we have a different human race. Restore life to every soldier Harry’s speech inspired to heroism; take back every life the soldier saved. Take back the child of every pair of lovers brought together when the love suicides at Verona made a young man seek his Juliet, a young lady her Romeo. Take back every life that stayed to make the choice to be or not to be.

Go on with the rest of literature. All those soldiers who fell to fall like Achilles, all those poets who died to die like Werther; all who wandering with a book in hand found strange mothers for their children; even whom a shared admiration for a writer offered friendship and friendship became love. Go back to the beginning, back to folk tales and fireside legends; repeal poetry altogether and see how each woman’s love, with no better occasion than strength or success, breeds brutal children whose loves and lives are yet more brutal, and so on all the way down.

That literature mostly occupies idle time does not make our choice in literature vain choice: we get only a fixed measure of time, and whatever changes how we use any of that time, changes what we leave behind us. When we work, our work is in and for the present; what we aim for when we work for the future is a necessary delusion, not the true future but the present’s mirage of the future. The true future grows in our leisure.

This is literature’s unique power, which other arts only employ. It is not the musician they fall for, but the literary characters Music, and the Musician; not the flag they die for, but the Flag, the Nation, that someone once defined in telling.

If we could know the minds that went with the names, we would see that genealogy is a transcription of literature; that the human race we know has not merely happened, but has bred itself in a prolonged act of literary criticism.