“The Vagabond,” by the English poet Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), is spoken by a free-spirited rambler who claims to enjoy his sometimes challenging and isolated existence of moving from place to place in the great outdoors. The poem has been memorably set to music by the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and is widely performed and often recorded in that setting.
The poem begins with a vigorous, imperative, and emphatically accented verb (“Give”), thereby already implying the energy of the speaker. Yet the speaker is neither genuinely demanding nor actually weak (as that verb might imply). Instead, all he wants—all he asks for—is the kind of life he prizes and already possesses. Thus the first line already suggests his essential character: he is (in an effective example of alliteration) in “love” with the “life” he leads. Therefore, although he seems to ask for something in the poem’s first word, he actually desires (and apparently needs) very little. He is happy with his present lifestyle, but he by no means seems complacent and egotistical. He complains about nothing and no one, instead deriving simple pleasures from his close contact with nature. Appropriately enough to such a speaker, the language of the poem is simple, clear, colloquial, and unpretentious.
Content with what he already has, this speaker is more than willing to “let the lave”—that is, let the rest, or everything else—“go by” him. He is happy with the “jolly heaven above” and says so in an open, free-spirited way that suggests that he himself is jolly. He is satisfied with both the literal and the figurative “byway,” or path, on which he presently travels. In fact, the word byway, referring to a side road, suggests that he enjoys taking paths less traveled by others. He is adventurous and not afraid to be alone. He is, in some ways, a “Romantic” in his love of nature, but his diction has none of the pretentious elevation that sometimes afflicts poor Romantic...
(The entire section is 828 words.)