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 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...
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- Critical Essays