Robert Louis Stevenson’s Selected Poems

I blush to confess that I was unaware that Robert Louis Stevenson, beloved author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, had written poetry until I came across this small volume at a used book sale. Poetry, it turns out, was his first ambition, to the displeasure of his father, who wanted him to follow in his trade as a lighthouse engineer. This appears to me to be a running theme in the biographies of poets and novelists, with the clear message being that the advice of fathers – however well intended – is better ignored.

Some of Stevenson’s earliest poems demonstrate his rebelliousness. Here, for example, is a stanza from “The Light-Keeper,” the profession Stevenson very narrowly avoided entering:

Lured from far,
The bewildered seagull beats
Dully against the lantern;
Yet he stirs not, lifts not his head
From the desk where he reads,
Lifts not his eyes to see
The chill blind circle of night
Watching him through the panes.
This is his country’s guardian,
The outmost sentry of peace.
This is the man
Who gives up that is lovely in living
For the means to live.

What a terrible thing, to have given up life’s loveliness “for the means to live.” Stevenson will later describe this man as a “martyr to a salary,” and we, with the benefit of posterity, can be appropriately grateful that the poet chose a different path from the one prescribed to him. In “An Epistle to Charles Baxter,” a friend from his university days, and later his financial manager, he continues to affirm the value of the life he has chosen for himself:

O more to me a thousand fold
The son’s brief triumph, wisely bold
To separate from the common fold,
The general curse,
The accustomed way of growing old
And growing worse.

Whatever else can be said about Stevenson’s life, he eschewed the customary ways entirely, preferring to carve his own path. Weak lungs, inherited from his mother, resulted in a pulmonary condition that flared up frequently, menacing his health and circumscribing his activities, but when he fell in love with a married American woman, Fanny Osbourne, traveling in France with her children, he risked scandal and deteriorating health to pursue the relationship, eventually traveling across the Atlantic on a steamship – a nearly fatal journey for him – to make his way, gradually, to San Francisco, where, nearly penniless, he waited for her to end her marriage.

His most celebrated collection of poems, A Child’s Garden Of Verses, was written specifically for children, and, much like Treasure Island, has been enjoyed by parents and children alike since its publication. Some of these are didactic (“You must still be bright and quiet, / And content with simple diet; / And remain, through all bewild’ring, / Innocent and honest children”) and some are playful (“A birdie with a yellow bill / Hopped upon the window sill, / Cocked his shining eye and said: / ‘Ain’t you ‘shamed, you sleepy-head?'”), but others have a latent sadness to them, shot through with the same sense of loss, of pleasures unexperienced or forgotten, that mark many of his adult verses. Here is “To Any Reader,” for example:

As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.
But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you. He intent
Is all on his play-business bent.
He does not hear; he will not look,
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there.

The poem is addressed to a child, and I do not think I am wrong to detect a hint of envy from the one who cannot hear and cannot look, on his “play-business bent,” who must ultimately acknowledge that those days are behind him. In a later poem, in a more adult collection, Stevenson returns to this same theme. Here is “Sing me a song of a lad that is gone”:

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
Glory of youth glowed in his soul:
Where is that glory now?

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Give me again all that was there,
Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
Give me the lad that’s gone!

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, all that was fair,
All that was me is gone.

These lines present a sad contrast to Stevenson’s earliest verses, affirming his intention to live life on his own terms and thus without regrets. But who doesn’t feel a little nostalgia when reflecting on their youth?

Towards the end of the collection are included two longer ballads, and these give greater scope to Stevenson’s abilities as a storyteller, abilities that justly made him famous, but his poetry deserves consideration on its own merits as well.