Growing Up RLS

November 13: RobertLouis Stevenson was born on this day in 1850. The chronic poor health thatwould periodically disable Stevenson in adulthood thoroughly dominated hisyouth. As described in A Child’s Gardenof Verses, regarded by many literary historians as “the most importantcollection of serious poems for children of the [19th] century,” theresult was the invalid’s imbalance of deprivation and excess. Kept out ofschool, kept away from sports, and kept constant watch over by his nurse, youngStevenson would spend weeks and months in his sickbed, in a surfeit of toys andpretending:

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 latetwenties, Stevenson remembers make-believe as character-shaping, through”the expansion of spirit, the dignity and self-reliance that came with apair of mustachios in burnt cork.” But as often as not, the child inStevenson’s poems is staring out closed windows or into dying fires and atcollapsed games, longing for the real world denied him. Most biographers offera child-is-father-to-the-man reading of the poems, attributing Stevenson’sadult adventures, runaway projects, adamant writing, and early exhaustion tohis attempts to make up for lost time.

The LighthouseStevensons (2000) tells the story of how four generations of the familydesigned and engineered almost a hundred lighthouses on the Scottish coast.Stevenson got his early taste for the sea from sometimes accompanying his fatheron his island trips; the lines below from “Sing me a Song of a Lad that isGone” 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 onthe starboard bow;

Glory of youth glowed in his soul;

   Where isthat glory now?

But this poem is from Songsof Travel, rather than the earlier Gardenof Verses. Written during Stevenson’s last years and publishedposthumously, the poem suggests more the man coming to port than the childsetting sail:

Billow and breeze, islands and seas,

  Mountains of rain and sun,

All that was good, all that was fair,

   All thatwas 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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