Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 828
“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 poetry. He loves making contact with the solid ground while also contemplating the beauty of the nighttime sky (5). All he requires to sustain himself physically is bread and water (6), the conventional diet of prisoners, yet he hardly feels imprisoned by his free existence. He leads the kind of “natural” lifestyle often perceived, at least in Stevenson’s day, as essentially masculine or especially manly (7).
Although the speaker is cheerful and contented, however, he is not naive. The second stanza begins by raising the possibility—in fact, even the assumed inevitability—that a “blow” will someday befall the speaker and that he will somehow be overwhelmed (9-10). Of course, the truly inevitable blow is death, which everyone will have to face at some point or another. Yet by leaving unspecified the kind of blow he has in mind, the speaker includes any and all possibilities. His attitude is that of a cheerful stoic: he will face, with good spirits, whatever challenges fate throws his way. He is a kind of nineteenth-century existentialist before the word existentialist had even been invented: he accepts life as it is and imposes his own values on it.
Yet lines 13-14 can seem a bit sad and even mysterious:
Wealth I seek not, hope nor love,
Nor a friend to know me . . .
The refusal to seek wealth is understandable and is appropriate to this speaker’s character. He does not desire artificial material possessions of any kind. But why is he unwilling to seek hope, or love, or friendship? He seems an immensely lovable person who would also be a good friend. Why, then, is he so determined to avoid human contact? Or is he, instead, willing to take it if it comes his way but not willing to seek it out? However one interprets these lines, they imply a certain mystery about the speaker. Whereas before he had seemed fairly simple and straightforward, now he seems intriguingly complex. He is willing to lead the life he loves, but that life seems to involve the kind of loneliness that many people would find intolerable.
Stanza 3 is even darker than stanza 2 in this progressively dark poem. In the third stanza, which describes the approach of autumn, the speaker anticipates actual pain (from cold's “biting the blue finger” ), yet once again, his attitude is almost defiantly stoic, and, even while expecting a certain degree of suffering, he can still also imagine warmth and comfort, as when he mentions the warmth of a fire (22). His entire attitude toward life is mature and balanced. He is, paradoxically, precisely the kind of person who would make a good husband, father, relative, or friend, even though he seems to keep his distance from other people.
Stanza 4, in fact, essentially repeats stanza 2, almost like a refrain, thereby bringing the poem to a firm conclusion that once again, however, emphasizes the speaker’s mysterious isolation from others. This inspiring poem, therefore, ends on an intriguingly complex note.
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