On Robert Louis Stevenson, Pirate Birds, and the “Gaelic Negation”


The Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) lived a brief and itinerant life of literary productivity and fragile health across the second half of the nineteenth century. Relegated posthumously to the ambivalent company of swashbuckling yarn-spinners from the high-water era of the British Empire, Stevenson has enjoyed recent critical reappraisals, and his works have seen new scrutiny. His links to Henry James have received attention, and his influence on Joseph Conrad, Borges, Nabokov, and other notable twentieth-century authors point to a literary importance perhaps still not fully appreciated.

Was Stevenson associated with the “Order of the Third Bird,” or one of its adjacencies? The question has been raised before, perhaps most elaborately in an essay by Reni Eppling published in the Proceedings of ESTAR(SER) entitled “Pieces of Eight: Captain Flint as a Pirate Bird” (Series II, Volume III, Issue 2; 1969). Briefly, the argument presented there amounted to a claim that the hard-swearing, doublet-wearing, two-hundred-year-old parrot named “Captain Flint,” who is the spirit animal of the pirate band in Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), must be understood as an avatar of Birdishness in the book as a whole — and specifically as an allegory of the author’s relationship to the Practice of the Order across the 1870s. Without rehearsing Eppling’s rather baroque case, it suffices to mention that the parrot in question does enact a kind of “vigilance” at several key junctures in the narrative, and that its uncanny powers of attention do receive explicit mention in the book. We will put aside, here, any discussion of Gonzalo Merrill’s animadversion on Eppling’s essay, both because his counterposition (that actual pirate communities in the Caribbean in the eighteenth century were built around Birdish practices of sustained attention) can be shown to have no basis in fact, and because Sonny Kirkeyard, in editing the Eppling-Merrill materials from the late 1960s and early 1970s, came to believe that Merrill’s reply to Eppling was probably a joke (and may actually have been written by Eppling herself).

Be all that as it may, a lingering sense of Stevenson’s engagement with the Order has endured, and we have a recent query from an ESTAR(SER) researcher currently resident in Samoa (where the author lived out the last phase of his life, and died), who is apparently working on a new essay on Stevenson and the Birds. We reproduce it here in relevant part, and can facilitate any follow-up communication:

In the course of recent reading in the letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, I have been struck by what appears to be a veiled discussion of a tactic for use in the phase of NEGATION, such as is practiced by devotees of the Avis Tertia. The reference appears in an 1894 letter from RLS to his cousin, the painter and critic Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson. It would seem that the latter had attempted to narrate a particularly intense Action of the Birds in which he had participated (this letter we do not possess), and that RLS, in reply, wishes both to acknowledge the account, and gesture at a (related?) form of Negation that involves the total abolition of the present tense itself. Here is the relevant passage, from the final paragraph of the letter:

To look back, and to stereotype one bygone humour—what a hopeless thing!  The mind runs ever in a thousand eddies like a river between cliffs. You (the ego) are always spinning round in it, east, west, north, and south.  You are twenty years old, and forty, and five, and the next moment you are freezing at an imaginary eighty; you are never the plain forty-four that you should be by dates. (The most philosophical language is the Gaelic, which has no present tense…)

I am hopeful that any associates of ESTAR(SER) who might be in possession of information bearing on what we might want to call the “Gaelic Negation” will perhaps be willing to share details of such usages.