Thirty-seven-year-old Robert Louis Stevenson arrived in Polynesia on this day in 1888. As the opening sentences of Stevenson’s The South Seas make clear, his trip was something of a last resort: “For nearly ten years my health had been declining; and for some while before I set forth upon my voyage, I believed I was come to the afterpiece of life, and had only the nurse and undertaker to expect.” Still, at least the hope of health colors his description of his first sunrise among the Marquesas Islands, which “touched a virginity of sense”:
Although the dawn was thus preparing by four, the sun was not up till six; and it was half-past five before we could distinguish our expected islands from the clouds on the horizon. Eight degrees south, and the day two hours a-coming. The interval was passed on deck in the silence of expectation, the customary thrill of landfall heightened by the strangeness of the shores that we were then approaching. Slowly they took shape in the attenuating darkness. Ua-huna, piling up to a truncated summit, appeared the first upon the starboard bow; almost abeam arose our destination, Nuka-hiva, whelmed in cloud; and betwixt and to the southward, the first rays of the sun displayed the needles of Ua-pu. These pricked about the line of the horizon; like the pinnacles of some ornate and monstrous church, they stood there, in the sparkling brightness of the morning, the fit signboard of a world of wonders.
Stevenson would die in Samoa six years later. His letters home make clear that he “was never fond of towns, houses, society” and that “the islanders, the island life and climate, make and keep me truly happier.” But his letters also make clear that island life was a continuation of the old struggle:
For fourteen years I have not had a day’s real health; I have awakened sick and gone to bed weary; and I have done my work unflinchingly. I have written in bed, and written out of it, written in haemorrhages, written in sickness, written torn by coughing, written when my head swam for weakness; and for so long, it seems to me I have won my wager and recovered my glove…. And the battle goes on—ill or well, is a trifle; so as it goes. I was made for a contest….
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.