That man is a success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much, who has gained the respect of intelligent men, who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who leaves the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of Earth’s beauty nor failed to express it; who looked for the best in others, and gave the best he had; his memory is a benediction.
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) also attributed to Bessie A. Stanley
This is being read at a service on Thursday afternoon UK time to remember my friend, NZ-born Kirk Stephenson, who died tragically in London a couple of weeks back. It is apposite. Kirk lived life flat out - doing more in his 47 years (juggling travel, work, friends, family, tennis, opera...) than many would do in two lifetimes.
The sentiment in this piece is beautifully expressed, I think, finishing with the reassuring idea that 'memory is a benediction'. I gather it is much used at funerals so I must have heard it before but while I remember the odd phrase, I don't recall the whole piece (especially that bit about the poppy).
According to my brief internet research, the Stevenson attribution is in fact incorrect, and Emerson (another popular choice as author) is also wrong. US writer Bessie Stanley, they say, wrote the piece for a competition: a 100-word essay on ‘What constitutes success?’. It was published, apparently, in 1905, although people are divided on where.
It's understandable it would be sheeted home to Stevenson. G.K. Chesterton said he was a man who "seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his pen, like a man playing spillikins."
I have been to Vailima in Samoa where Stevenson lived his final years as Tusitala ('Story writer') and died suddenly aged 44. My son, despite being told not to, sat at the desk where the Scottish author wrote, and I breastfed my baby daughter on his wide and airy verandah while my oldest son read a child's version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde beside me. We walked up Mt Vaea to Stevenson's grave where the tablet bears his 'Requiem':
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.
Now I read that and think: '44, he was 44.' Never until now has it seemed so young.
Then I see Kirk's name written formally on the order of service that was emailed to me, and beside it the dates 1961-2008, and below it the names of the pieces of music he loved, and the names of people he loved and the words they are to stand up and read, including the piece at the start of this post, and I realise that while words are reassuring in this situation - are touchstones, charms, prayers - ultimately they make no sense. Forty-seven makes no sense. Like the man at the summit of Mt Vaea, he'd only just got started.