Growing Up RLS

November 13: Robert Louis Stevenson was born on this day in 1850. The chronic poor health that would periodically disable Stevenson in adulthood thoroughly dominated his youth. As described in A Child's Garden of Verses, regarded by many literary historians as "the most important collection of serious poems for children of the [19th] century," the result was the invalid's imbalance of deprivation and excess. Kept out of school, kept away from sports, and kept constant watch over by his nurse, young Stevenson would spend weeks and months in his sickbed, in a surfeit of toys and pretending:

When I was sick and lay a-bed,

I had two pillows at my head,

And all my toys beside me lay,

To keep me happy all the day.

 

And sometimes for an hour or so

I watched my leaden soldiers go,

With different uniforms and drills,

Among the bed-clothes, through the hills….

In the essay "Child's Play," written in his late twenties, Stevenson remembers make-believe as character-shaping, through "the expansion of spirit, the dignity and self-reliance that came with a pair of mustachios in burnt cork." But as often as not, the child in Stevenson's poems is staring out closed windows or into dying fires and at collapsed games, longing for the real world denied him. Most biographers offer a child-is-father-to-the-man reading of the poems, attributing Stevenson's adult adventures, runaway projects, adamant writing, and early exhaustion to his attempts to make up for lost time.

 

The Lighthouse Stevensons (2000) tells the story of how four generations of the family designed and engineered almost a hundred lighthouses on the Scottish coast. Stevenson got his early taste for the sea from sometimes accompanying his father on his island trips; the lines below from "Sing me a Song of a Lad that is Gone" refer to four of the islands in the Inner Hebrides:

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?

But this poem is from Songs of Travel, rather than the earlier Garden of Verses. Written during Stevenson's last years and published posthumously, the poem suggests more the man coming to port than the child setting sail:

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.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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