To Be Honest, To Be Kind: Chiasmus in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Christmas Sermon”

R L Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson

Like chiasmus in the ancient world, chiasmus in the modern world is not limited to the sacred writings of prophets. Just as chiasmus was used by Greek and Roman writers, it appears in the writings of Shakespeare, Milton, García Márquez, and others. Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Christmas Sermon” features several chiasms.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was a Scottish poet, novelist, and essayist. His enduring fame is due primarily to his books Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In the winter of 1887 he wrote “A Christmas Sermon” at Lake Sarnac, New York “while he convalesced from a lung ailment.” The essay was published in the December 1888 issue of Scribner’s Magazine, an American literary journal.

“A Christmas Sermon” is as much a funeral sermon (end of life) as it is a Christmas sermon (end of year). It reflects on man’s misdirected ambition, self-criticism, and judgement of others. In an effort to redirect man’s ambition it encourages a focus on life’s true endeavor—that of being honest, kind, and patient—and of adopting a modest and reasonable view of one’s self.

As a point of interest, Robert Louis Stevenson has been quoted many times in LDS General Conference talks, especially in recent years (see LDS Scripture Citation Index). In particular, a passage from “A Christmas Sermon” was referenced by Marion D. Hanks in October 1973.

This article presents diagrams and detailed analyses of four chiasms from “A Christmas Sermon,” which feature equivalent, contrasting, and complementary pairs. For an in-depth explanation of our methodology read our article, “Recognizing Parallelisms and Chiasmus in the Scriptures,” under the Methodology tab.

[Note: Thanks to Professor Richard Dury at RLS Website for his assistance in locating “A Christmas Sermon” in Scribner’s Magazine.]


Diagram and Analysis:

#1: This chiasm encourages us to develop a modest and reasonable attitude about our moral progress.

A: The idealism of serious people in this age of ours is of a noble character. It never seems to them that they have served enough; they have a fine impatience of their virtues.
B: It were perhaps more modest to be singly thankful that we are no worse.
C: It is not only our enemies, those desperate characters
C: —it is we ourselves who know not what we do;—
B: thence springs the glimmering hope that perhaps we do better than we think: that to scramble through this random business with hands reasonably clean, to have played the part of a man or woman with some reasonable fulness, to have often resisted the diabolic, and at the end to be still resisting it, is for the poor human soldier to have done right well.
A: To ask to see some fruit of our endeavour is but a transcendental way of serving for reward; and what we take to be contempt of self is only greed of hire.

A=A: “It never seems to them that they have served enough” complements “To ask to see some fruit of our endeavour is but a transcendental way of serving for reward.” A result of the “idealism of serious people in this age of ours” is too much focus on the “fruit of our endeavor” and a “contempt of self” from not having “served enough.” Stevenson equates these with “serving for reward” and the “greed of hire.”

B=B: “It were perhaps more modest to be singly thankful that we are no worse” complements “thence springs the glimmering hope that perhaps we do better than we think.” Stevenson suggests a “more modest” or “reasonable” approach, wherein if we are “thankful that we are no worse” we will develop the “glimmering hope that perhaps we do better than we think.”

C=C: “It is not only our enemies” equals “it is we ourselves.” The central focus of this chiasm suggests that we are oftentimes our own worst enemies. Recognizing this can lead us to the “glimmering hope” described above..


#2: This chiasm invites us to redirect our ambition away from the grand and toward life’s true endeavor, that of being kind, honest, and patient.

A: It may be argued again that dissatisfaction with our life’s endeavour springs in some degree from dulness.
B: We require higher tasks, because we do not recognise the height of those we have.
C: Trying to be kind and honest
D: seems an affair too simple and too inconsequential for gentlemen of our heroic mould;
E: we had rather set ourselves to something bold, arduous, and conclusive;
E: we had rather found a schism or suppress a heresy, cut off a hand or mortify an appetite.
D: But the task before us, which is to co–endure with our existence, is rather one of microscopic fineness, and the heroism required is that of patience. There is no cutting of the Gordian knots of life; each must be smilingly unravelled.
C: To be honest, to be kind—to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few friends but these without capitulation—above all, on the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself—
B: here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy.
A: He has an ambitious soul who would ask more;

achristmassermon_scribnersmagazine_dec1888_764
Scribner’s Magazine (December 1888), 764 (archive.org)

A=A: “[D]issatisfaction with our life’s endeavour springs in some degree from dulness” contrasts with “He has an ambitious soul who would ask more.” Man’s “dissatisfaction with our life’s endeavor” is the result of misdirected ambition.

B=B: “We require higher tasks, because we do not recognise the height of those we have” complements “here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy.” Repeating the same idea as in A=A, man’s requirement for “higher tasks” is the result of misdirected ambition, of not recognizing “the height of those we have.”

C=C: “Trying to be kind and honest” equals “To be honest, to be kind.” Here Stevenson reveals life’s true endeavor, that of being “kind and honest.” In the second half, he defines this term: “to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few friends but these without capitulation—above all, on the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself.”

D=D: “[S]eems an affair too simple and too inconsequential for gentlemen of our heroic mould” contrasts with “But the task before us … is rather one of microscopic fineness, and the heroism required is that of patience.” Stevenson provides the necessary redirection to help us understand that, although seemingly “too simple and too inconsequential,” the heroic “task before us” is micro, not macro. “Patience” and self-control are the required attributes that must be developed.

E=E: “[W]e had rather set ourselves to something bold, arduous, and conclusive” equals “we had rather found a schism or suppress a heresy, cut off a hand or mortify an appetite.” The central focus of this chiasm is man’s ambitious vanity that overlooks the true heroic quest in life, that of being “kind and honest.” However, as suggested above, man’s ambition can and must be redirected and turned into a positive force.


#3: This chiasm acknowledges that we will never fully succeed at being kind, honest, and patient.

A: he has a hopeful spirit who should look in such an enterprise to be successful.
B: There is indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can controvert:
C: whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed;
C: failure is the fate allotted. It is so in every art and study; it is so above all in the continent art of living well.
B: Here is a pleasant thought for the year’s end or for the end of life: Only self–deception will be satisfied,
A: and there need be no despair for the despairer.

A=A: “[H]e has a hopeful spirit who should look in such an enterprise to be successful” contrasts with “there need be no despair for the despairer.” Paradoxically, life’s endeavor requires neither a hopeful nor a despairing spirit.

B=B: “There is indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can controvert” complements “Only self–deception will be satisfied.” Despite “blindness” and “self-deception,” there is no way around this “one element in human destiny,” the need to become kind and honest.

C=C: “[W]e are not intended to succeed” equals “failure is the fate allotted.” The central focus of this chiasm reveals that we are “not intended to succeed” in being kind and honest. Recognizing and accepting this will help us avoid the disappointments of having a hopeful spirit and the limitations of a becoming a despairer. Only a reasonable approach will do.


#4: This chiasm celebrates the joyous effect of Christmas and discusses the eternal importance of developing a childlike character of gentleness and cheerfulness.

A: But Christmas is not only the mile–mark of another year, moving us to thoughts of self–examination: it is a season, from all its associations, whether domestic or religious, suggesting thoughts of joy.
B: A man dissatisfied with his endeavours is a man tempted to sadness. And in the midst of the winter, when his life runs lowest and he is reminded of the empty chairs of his beloved, it is well he should be condemned to this fashion of the smiling face.
C: Noble disappointment, noble self–denial are not to be admired, not even to be pardoned, if they bring bitterness.
D: It is one thing to enter the kingdom of heaven maim; another to maim yourself and stay without.
D: And the kingdom of heaven is of the childlike, of those who are easy to please, who love and who give pleasure.
C: Mighty men of their hands, the smiters and the builders and the judges, have lived long and done sternly and yet preserved this lovely character; and among our carpet interests and twopenny concerns, the shame were indelible if we should lose it.
B: Gentleness and cheerfulness, these come before all morality; they are the perfect duties. And it is the trouble with moral men that they have neither one nor other.
A: It was the moral man, the Pharisee, whom Christ could not away with. If your morals make you dreary, depend upon it they are wrong. I do not say “give them up,” for they may be all you have; but conceal them like a vice, lest they should spoil the lives of better and simpler people.

A=A: “Christmas … is a season … suggesting thoughts of joy” complements “If your morals make you dreary … conceal them like a vice, lest they should spoil the lives of better and simpler people.” Christmas is a season of “self-examination” and “joy,” not of “dreary” judgemental attitudes and behavior. To avoid spoiling the lives and holidays of “better and simpler people,” we should “conceal” our downer mindsets “like a vice.”

B=B: “[I]t is well he should be condemned to this fashion of the smiling face” equates “Gentleness and cheerfulness, these come before all morality; they are the perfect duties.” If the dreariness of winter tempts us “to sadness,” Christmas helps us to put on a “smiling face.” The “gentleness and cheerfulness” that Christmas invites are the “perfect duties” and supercedes the gloom of criticism.

C=C: “Noble disappointment, noble self–denial are not to be admired, not even to be pardoned, if they bring bitterness” contrasts with “Mighty men of their hands, the smiters and the builders and the judges, have lived long and done sternly and yet preserved this lovely character.” It is possible to be “mighty” and accomplished and yet preserve “this lovely character” of gentleness and cheerfulness. A moral philosophy that brings “bitterness” should not be “admired” nor “pardoned.”

D=D: “It is one thing to enter the kingdom of heaven maim; another to maim yourself and stay without” contrasts “the kingdom of heaven is of the childlike, of those who are easy to please, who love and who give pleasure.” The central focus of this chiasm is the childlike attributes that are necessary for us to develop in order to “enter the kingdom of heaven.” These include being “easy to please” and loving to “give pleasure.” In contrast, if we adopt dreary and critical attitudes we will “maim” ourselves and prevent our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.


Conclusion:

Robert Louis Stevenson uses chiasmus in “A Christmas Sermon” to divide his text into mini-sermons, drawing our attention to specific passages and inviting us to ponder his words. As we do so, we will more likely reflect upon our own lives and apply his message to a greater or lesser extent. Perhaps we will begin to see ourselves in a more modest light. Perhaps we will begin to redirect our ambitions to being more kind, honest, and patient. Perhaps we will learn to be less discouraged at our apparent lack of progress in life’s true endeavor. Perhaps we will begin developing greater gentleness and cheerfulness, especially at Christmas time. “A Christmas Sermon” serves as a case study in the function of chiasmus to guide a reader’s attention and thoughts.

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