Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Sidney Calvin
Robert Louis Stevenson (18501894)
[Born at 8 Howard Place, Edinburgh, on November 30, 1850: the only child of Thomas Stevenson, civil engineer, and his wife Margaret Isabella, youngest daughter of the Rev. James Balfour of Colinton. His father, who with two elder brothers, David and Alan, conducted the business of harbour and lighthouse engineers founded by their distinguished father, Robert Stevenson, destined him from the first for the family profession. But weak health and a strong bias of nature foiled this purpose and directed him to the career of letters. His education was irregular, at private schools, at the Edinburgh Academy, under private tutors, and at the University of Edinburgh. For twenty years after 1873, in spite of nervous, arterial, and pulmonary troubles, he plied nearly every known mode of the literary art. Partly from ill health and partly from choice, he was much of a traveller. The order of the main incidents of his life as a writer is as follows:18749: lived chiefly at Edinburgh, with occasional visits to London and long sojourns at Barbizon, Grez, and Paris: published The Inland Voyage, Travels with a Donkey, Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes, and New Arabian Nights.187980: travelled to and returned from California, where he was married to Mrs. Fanny van de Grift Osbourne.18804: passed two summers in Scotland and two winters at Davos, a few months at Marseilles, and a year at Hyères: published Treasure Island, Virginibus Puerisque, Familiar Studies of Men and Books, and The Silverado Squatters.18847: settled at Bournemouth, living invalid life: published A Childs Garden of Verses, Prince Otto, The Dynamiters, Jekyll and Hyde, Kidnapped, The Merry Men, Underwoods, and Memories and Portraits: wrote plays in collaboration with W. E. Henley.188790: sailed with his family to America; wintered at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks; starting from San Francisco in the spring of 1888, took three successive ocean voyages among the Pacific Islands: published Ballads, The Master of Ballantrae, and Letter to the Rev. Doctor Hyde.18904: built and settled at Vailima, island of Upolu, Samoa: published In the South Seas, The Wrecker, A Footnote to History, Island Nights Entertainments, Catriona, Across the Plains, The Ebb-Tide. Died suddenly December 4, 1894.Songs of Travel and the unfinished novels Weir of Hermiston and St. Ives were published posthumously.]
POETRY, wrote Walter Savage Landor, was always my amusement, prose my study and business. Much the same thing might truly have been said of that very different personage, Robert Louis Stevenson. He once wrote of himself that he was a poetical character with a prose talent. There was no time in his literary life when the chief part of his industry and effort was not given to prose: there was no time when he was not also accustomed occasionally to write verse. And though it was the preponderance and excellence of his work in prose that chiefly won and holds for him his place in literature, yet the charm and power of his spirit are to be felt scarcely less in the relatively small and unassuming body of his poetry. He wrote in verse generally when he was too tired to write in prose, and almost always from one of two impulses: either to give direct expression to personal moods and affections or else to exercise himself in the technical practice of this or that poetic form. The two impulses sometimes, of course, worked together to a single result: but as a rule the stronger the pressure of the immediate feeling that moved him, the simpler, more traditional and ready to hand was the form he chose for expressing it. Although an acute and interested student of poetic forms and measures, he was, with one or two exceptions presently to be noted, no great metrical innovator on his own account. Neither did he consider that he had a right to be regarded as a lyrical or singing poet at all. In a letter written to Mr. John Addington Symonds not long after the publication of his volume Underwoods, he defined with his usual modesty his own view of his poetical status and affinities: I wonder if you saw my book of verses? It went into a second edition, because of my name, I suppose, and its prose merits. I do not set up to be a poet. Only an all-round literary man: a man who talks, not one who sings. But I believe the very fact that it was only speech served the book with the public. Horace is much a speaker, and see how popular! most of Martial is only speech, and I cannot conceive a person who does not love his Martial; most of Burns also. Excuse this little apology for my house; but I dont like to come before people who have a note of song, and let it be supposed I do not know the difference.
A man writes verses at eighteen if ever, and at that age Stevenson records that he was busy with a tragedy of Semiramis in imitation of Webster and a series of sentimental outpourings of his own which he called Voces Fidelium. Neither of these ever saw the light. When he first came in touch with literary circles five years later, his mind seemed concentrated on the single endeavour of achieving a prose style that should match and truly express the vividness of his perceptions and imaginings, and poetry seemed hardly to be in his thoughts at all. But I believe he was already beginning to try his hand at some of those pieces in the Lothian vernacular which were afterwards published in Underwoods, and of which two are included in the present selection, as well as at confessions and meditations in various modes of English verse.
A couple of years later again, when Stevenson began to frequent the Fontainebleau region, we find him for a while much taken up with the study of Charles dOrléans and with the attempt, then in fashion among his friends, to imitate in English the Old French forms of ballade, rondeau, triolet, &c. His letters at this time were apt to contain experiments of this kind, sometimes, like his translation of Nous nirons plus au bois, as happy in execution as deep and sincere in feeling. While he was absent, to the anxious concern of his friends, on his marriage expedition to California in 1879, and suffering with high courage much illness and privation, he sometimes cast into unstudied but deeply felt verse the emotions of the time: to this period belong the lines beginning Not yet, my soul, these friendly fields desert, as well as the famous Requiem, perhaps his best known utterance in verse.
During the six invalid years on the Continent or in England that followed, the tale of such occasional poems, composed in self-confession or as addresses to friends, continued to grow, but he showed no signs of intending to publish them. Occasionally there came a metrical experiment, like the set of alcaics addressed to Mr. Horatio Brown at Davos and beginning Brave lads in olden musical centuries, perhaps the second-best achievement of this pattern in our literature after Tennysons ode to Milton. Once at the same place the tragic death of a friends son drew from him those consolatory stanzas In Memoriam F. A. S., which have since comforted so many stricken hearts and of which the rhythm and cadence are at once so personal and so moving. But as a rule he preferred to employ the most familiar vehicles, especially the four-stressed couplet or blank verse,a blank verse of no very studied or complicated structure, perhaps more resembling that of Landor in his occasional and complimentary pieces than any other model.
It was during Stevensons stay at Hyères in 18834 that his friends became aware of a new departure he was beginning to make in verse. He took to sending home, first in batches and then in sheaves, sets of nursery verses reviving, with a fidelity and freshness unparalleled, the feelings and fancies, the doings and beings, of an imaginative child; the child being of course truly himself. Penny Whistles was his name for them: and after returning to England and settling at Bournemouth in 1884 he gathered them into a volume under the new title A Childs Garden of Verses. This was his first published book of verse. Partly for that reason, partly because of the period of life with which they deal, I have put specimens from it at the head of the following selections.
Having once thus come before the public as a writer of verse, he next gathered together what he thought the pick of his occasional and experimental efforts both in English and in Scots, and published them in a volume of which he borrowed the title, Underwoods, from Ben Jonson. In the English portion of the book many of his private affections and experiences, and some of his thoughts and observations as a traveller, are recorded in no such strain of brilliant and high-wrought craftsmanship as he maintains in his prose, but for the most part in modes which attract and satisfy by a certain quiet, companionable grace and unobtrusive distinction of their own. The attempt to revive the measures and the dialect of Burns, and yet not to be a slavish imitator of his spirit, has been a stumbling-block to almost all who have ventured on it; but here, too, Stevensons personality has strength enough to assert itself through a wide range of mood, from the satire, smiling but not without its sting, of A Lowden Sabbath Morn to the heartfelt recollections of Ille Terrarum. Of this section of Stevensons work two short contrasted examples will be found here.
When in 1887 Stevenson left England once more, and as it turned out for good and all, he carried with him both the habit of throwing his immediate personal emotions into simple and heartfelt occasional verse and that of trying his hand deliberately at new styles and measures. This time his new technical experiments were in the ballad form. The first, Ticonderoga, a tale of Highland second-sight during the American War of Independence, was written at the Adirondacks at the beginning of winter, 1887. During the eighteen months of seafaring in the Pacific archipelagos which followed, he took an intense interest in the native island populations and their traditions, partly because of resemblances he found between them and those of the Scottish Highlands, and wrote two long and vigorous ballads in a swinging six-beat and triple-time measure on subjects of island history, Rahero and The Feast of Famine. It is no doubt due to the remoteness of the scenes, names, and manners, as well as to the fact that prose narrative, not verse, was what his public were used to expect from him, that these ballads have had less success than almost any of his writings. When in 1890 they were reprinted in a volume, he included with them two others more familiar in theme, the Galloway story of Heather Ale, and the English one, told with fine spirit in the first person, Christmas at Sea: as a specimen of his narrative poetry I have chosen this last.
Meanwhile the growth of Stevensons mind and deepening of his character, together with his sense of exilevoluntary, but exile none the lessfrom old scenes and friendships, seemed to give every year a richer and fuller note to the occasional meditations or addresses to his friends in verse which he continued to send home. The more remote and solitary the island haunt from whence he wrote, the more poignant seemed his recollections of Scotland or of London; and once at any rate, in the verses To S. R. Crockett given below, he showed a touch of something like metrical genius in his manner of taking over a phrase from a prose dedication and turning it into verse of a new and very moving rhythm. After his sudden death at Vailima in December, 1894, a volume, partly prepared by himself, of these later occasional verses, together with some of earlier date that had not previously been collected, was published under the title Songs of Travel. From this volume our concluding specimens are taken.