Robert Louis Stevenson himself, in a letter to his cousin R. A. M. Stevenson (September, 1868), wrote what is both a summary of his evaluation of Horace and Alexander Pope and a just index of his own intentions and later poetic achievement: “It is not so much the thing they say, as the way they say it. The dicta are often trivial and commonplace, or so undeniably true as to become part of orthodox boredom; but when you find an idea put in either of them, it is put in its optimum form.” Stevenson’s poetry is often about the commonplace—childhood, partings, reunions, homesickness, felicitations, greetings, friendship, the open road, the sea—but it is a crafting of common experience into heightened language and optimum form. His verse usually achieves its effects by a rigid application of meter and fixed rhyme scheme, although on occasion he breaks into a Whitmanesque style with a force far exceeding that of his more conventional poetry. Even in conventional poetic forms, however, he generally succeeds in lifting ordinary sentiment to a higher plane by the very simplicity, directness, and clarity of his language. This is one aspect, for example, of A Child’s Garden of Verses, accounting for its appeal to adults as well as to children.
Stevenson’s is a poetry of sentiment. At times, the sentiment appears to be artificial posturing that ranges from melancholy to high spirited. He does not make intellectual demands of his readers, but he does ask them to listen carefully; indeed, listening to his poems read aloud is the way most people first come to him. He also asks his readers to participate in the moment as he captures it, if only for that moment’s sake. The quality of that moment is often twofold; it has the permanence that poetry can give it, and it vanishes as it is apprehended by the reader.
A Child’s Garden of Verses
One can find no better starting place for examining Stevenson’s poetry than his envoi “To Any Reader” in A Child’s Garden of Verses. Here, in eight rhymed couplets, he encapsulates the sentiment of the volume. The reader is first carried back to childhood; Stevenson likens the reader’s watchful care over the child in the verses to that which mothers exercise over their children as they play. Then, reminded of the commonplace event of a mother knocking at the window to get her child’s attention, the reader is told that the child in the book will not respond in the familiar way. The child is there in the garden in one sense, but not there in another: “It is but a child of air.” Stevenson suggests that, however much one might observe and watch over his child, he cannot successfully intervene in his child’s life or break out of the historical confinement in which, as an adult, he finds himself. The moment one tries to do more than fix his attention on the child, to have the child in the verses give ear to his concerns, warnings, admonitions, or summonses, the child vanishes; he becomes “grown up,” and is “gone away.”
The reader must proceed warily in A Child’s Garden of Verses and not disturb the moments of the fifty-eight poems but, rather, enjoy them for what they are, privileged to observe and fleetingly share them before they dissolve, as they will when one tries to bring adult reflection to bear on them. Stevenson creates an ideal and somewhat idealized world of childhood—a special childhood, to be sure, but also a universal one. Although it is clear that the volume has...
(This entire section contains 1286 words.)
for its background his own holiday visits to his maternal grandfather’s house, Colinton Manse, near the Water of Leith, and is dedicated to Alison Cunningham (“Cummy”), his childhood nurse, to read the poems for the autobiography they contain would be to miss their point as poetry. Further, the child who narrates the poems is, above all, a persona created by a man in his thirties, a persona that is sometimes the object of gentle irony (in “Looking Forward” and “Foreign Children,” for example) and often (although children actually do this) speaks with a wisdom beyond his years (in “The Gardener” and “System”).
Each poem, in the words of “From a Railway Carriage,” “is a glimpse and gone for ever!” In those glimpses, Stevenson renders portraits that are quite new in children’s literature. Neither out to produce a didactic primer nor to condescend to children, he does provide childlike insights while retaining for his narrator a sense of wonder about the world. Just as, literarily speaking, the child was the invention of nineteenth century literature, so this child is a new invention who speaks in a language that the adult has outgrown. Where Charles Baudelaire, for example, had written of the philosophy of children’s toys in “La Morale du joujou” (1853), Stevenson goes to the heart of the matter in such poems as “The Dumb Soldier,” “The Land of Story Books,” and “The Land of Counterpane.”
Stevenson’s Underwoods, best known for its Scottish dialect poems, also contains many occasional pieces in English that are of some interest, because in them is found a preeminent prose writer paying tribute, returning thanks, or commemorating a gift, a death, a visit, an illness. Much the same can be said of Songs of Travel, and Other Verses. The Scots poems (book 2) are, by contrast, more interesting as poems in their own right. “A Lowden Sabbath Morn” and “Embro Hie Kirk” are perfect in their resonances of Robert Burns’s language, style (“the Burns stanza”), treatment of common religious themes, and, in the latter, religious controversy. Full of humor and hominess, like his earlier “pieces in Lallan” addressed to Charles Baxter, the poems in Scots lack an overall seriousness of purpose that might raise them from the status they achieve as minor poetry.
Stevenson’s Ballads amply illustrate that his forte was prose. The South Seas ballads “The Song of Rahero” and “The Feast of Famine” are, in his words, “great yarns” that suffer primarily because, as he wrote, they are “the verses of a Prosater.” “Heather Ale” is a curious retelling of a Pictish legend, and “Christmas at Sea” is the story of a young man’s first voyage in icy waters; it is not, except for the poignancy of the last two lines, remarkable. Stevenson is much more in his element in “Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands.” Here his storytelling ability comes to the fore, as does his undoubted ability to catch the conversational tones of the Scots language. The ballad has all that one could wish for—a murder, a test of honor in the face of ghostly visitation, far-flung travel and military exploits, inevitable fate, and the eerie sense of supernatural forces at work. However, like the other ballads, “Ticonderoga” would be better suited to Stevenson’s prose than to his mechanical verse.
Except for a very few poems (notably, “Requiem” and the poems in Scots), the master of prose succeeded best as a poet when he sought to recapture the evanescent moments of youth. Stevenson’s poetry takes its place far below that of the greater Victorians. His poetry is not a reminder to humanity of its precarious place in the universe or of the tenuous grasp it has on civilization. His poetry does, however, express the sheer delight, the cares, the rewards, and the experience itself of childhood. Like the child of A Child’s Garden of Verses, the reader looks to Stevenson the novelist and poet with a fondness for the magic of his “dear land of Story-books.”