A Major Minor Poet?
Robert Louis Stevenson had no very high opinion of himself as a poet. ‘I do not set out to be a poet,’ he wrote, ‘only an all-round literary man who talks, not one who sings.’ And he confessed that he was a ‘person with a poetic character and no poetic talent.’
Those of his biographers who have made any study of his poetry have generally agreed with this modest valuation and have classed him patronisingly as a ‘minor poet.’ Hugh MacDiarmid went further and, characteristically, wrote him off as a ‘poetaster.’
It is no crime to be a minor poet. The great mass of poets are necessarily minor poets, but many a minor poet has written good poems or even the solitary memorable line. Few poets have been less gifted than John William Burgon, yet he produced the magnificent ‘A rose-red city half as old as Time.’ And major poets can be guilty of such duds as Wordsworth’s ‘Spade! with which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands.’
G.K. Chesterton, who was one of the more perceptive of Stevenson’s critics, observed that the ‘supreme and splendid characteristic of Stevenson was his levity.’ And it was this levity, this failure to take himself seriously, that kept him from joining the ranks of the solemn ‘great’ poets. His themes were simple. He never aimed high. Drunk or sober, Stevenson never looked at the thistle; he never tried to justify God’s ways to man; he never wandered in the Waste Land. His favourite subject was Robert Louis Stevenson, and most of his poems are best regarded as fragments of autobiography.
Although he had been writing verses since he was in his teens, it was not until 1885, when he was thirty-five, that his first volume of poetry was published. This was A Child’s Garden of Verses, one of the most popular collections of poetry – major or minor – ever published. Over the past century scores of editions in many languages have appeared, and there can be very few literate Scots who cannot recite a line or two from it.
It was in the rainy summer of 1881 when Stevenson was on holiday with his wife and parents in the Castleton of Braemar that his mother showed him Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book for Children with its text by Mrs Sale Barker. Stevenson read the verses and commented: ‘These are rather nice rhymes, and I don’t think such verses would be difficult to do.’ He believed that ‘it is much easier … to write fairly pleasing verse than reasonably interesting prose.’ It was a relaxation for him to turn from his work on the serial that was to become Treasure Island to composing ‘nice rhymes’ about his childhood. By the time he fled from the appalling Deeside weather to Davos in the Alps he had already written fourteen such rhymes. But it was not until he and Fanny were settled in Provence, first at Nice and later at Hyères, that A Child’s Garden began to take shape. By March 1883 he wrote to his old pal, W.E. Henley, that he had already written ‘XLVIII pieces or 599 verses.’ He thought of calling the collection Nursery Verses, or The Jews’ Harp, or ‘now I have it – The Penny Whistle.’ It was only when the work was completed that he finally settled on the title A Child’s Garden of Verses.
Stevenson and Fanny spent sixteen months at Hy
ères in a tiny Swiss-style chalet called La Solitude. It was, Stevenson wrote, ‘a most sweet corner of the universe, sea and fine hills before me, and a rich variegated plain; and at my back a craggy hill loaded with vast feudal ruins. I am very quiet; a person passing by my door half startles me; but enjoy the most aromatic airs, and at night the most wonderful view into a moonlit garden. By day this garden fades into nothing, overpowered by its surroundings and the luminous distance; but at night and when the moon is out, that garden, the arbour, the flight of stairs that mount the artificial hillock, the plumed blue-gum trees that hang trembling, become the very skirts of Paradise. Angels, I know, frequent it…’ Years later he was to write ‘I was only happy once; that was at Hyères.’
The happiness did not last. In the Spring of 1884 he was stricken by a fearsome combination of illnesses – a near-fatal haemorrhage, sciatica and Egyptian ophthalmia. Forbidden to move, he lay in bed in a darkened room with his right arm tied to his side. Unable to continue work on Prince Otto, he forced himself to write with his left hand and laboriously scrawled on a slate some of the final verses of A Child’s Garden. Edmund Gosse and other friends knew that when illness prevented him from writing prose he turned to verse and he himself confessed ‘you see how this damned poeshie flows from me’ in sickness. But there is no trace of suffering in the light-hearted verses of A Child’s Garden. Denigrators of Stevenson in the 1920s used to sneer at the ‘facile optimism’ of such lines as: ‘Happy Thought / The world is so full of a number of things, / I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.’
When the number of things includes haemorrhage, sciatica and partial blindness, optimism is not facial: it is miraculous. Or do we misread these familiar lines? Stevenson had a very Scottish sense of humour and it may be that the lines do not reflect a child’s view of the world, but the adult Stevenson’s ironic comment on the one-damned-thing-after-anotherness of life. There is another version that Stevenson did not include in the published collection. It runs: ‘The world is so big and I am so small, / I do not like it at all at all?’ It was not a Happy Thought.
A Child’s Garden of Verses was published in Britain on 6th March 1885. It was fairly well received by the reviewers but most of them failed to recognise that it was not any child’s garden of verses, but the garden of verses of one particular child, Robert Louis Stevenson of Edinburgh and Colinton, a little boy with well-to-do middle class parents living in a comfortable house ‘with a lamp before the door.’ The most favourable review came from William Archer, a critic percipient enough to recognise talents as different as those of Ibsen and Stevenson. He pointed out that the work was obviously autobiographical, and found ‘noteworthy, if not absolutely strange, the persistent dwelling on the sunny aspect of childhood, with scarcely a hint of the night side.’ Replying to Archer, Stevenson made an apologia for his attitude: ‘You are very right about my voluntary version from the painful side of life. My childhood was in reality a very mixed experience, full of fever, nightmare, insomnia, painful days and interminable nights … But to what end should we renew these sorrows? The sufferings of life may be handled by the very greatest in their hours of insight; it is of its pleasures that our common poems should be formed; these are the experiences that we should seek to recall or to provoke.’ And so these poems do not mention the little boy who would lie awake, terrified, thinking of the hell and eternal damnation that he was convinced awaited him. But they recall the little boy playing on the sands, at North Berwick with his spade and pail, climbing the trees in the garden of Colinton Manse, listening in bed in Heriot Row to the trees in Queen Street Gardens ‘crying aloud’ on stormy nights, building imaginary boats from the back-bedroom chairs, watching the dark brown Water of Leith as it ‘flowed along for ever,’ flying his kite, waiting at the window to ‘see Leerie going by,’ delighting in the speed of the train as it rushes along ‘faster than fairies, faster than witches…’ Minor verse it may be, but how evocative, how memorable.
His second collection of poems, Underwoods, was published in August 1887, the month in which he left Europe for his voluntary exile in the South Seas. Ben Jonson had used the title, Underwoods, for a collection of ‘lesser poems of later growth,’ and by his use of the title Stevenson was suggesting that his poems were as lowlier undergrowth flourishing beneath the forest trees that were his prose works. The dedication to no fewer than eleven doctors in three countries is a reminder that many of the verses were written during periods of illness, but, as in A Child’s Garden, there is no hint of pain or suffering in them, although some of them have a touch of gentle melancholy.
Although the title derives from Jonson, some critics have claimed that Herrick was Stevenson’s chief influence. But he was an eclectic versifier, and there are echoes of Arnold, Swinburne, Morris and Whitman in his verses. The collection is in two parts, Book I consisted of poems in English and Book II of poems in Scots, or ‘Lallan’ as he called it. Of the thirty-eight poems in Book I, nearly a third are addresses to friends – to his favourite cousin, Mrs Katherine de Mattos; to his sister in-law, Nelly Van de Grift Sanchez; to his American painter friend, Will H. Low; to Andrew Lang (‘dear Andrew with the brindled hair’); to his cousin and best friend, Bob Stevenson; to the inspiration of his youth, Mrs Frances Sitwell; to Henry James; to W.E. Henley. All these are graceful and elegant, nothing more. But there are three in Book I that are truly memorable. ‘The House Beautiful’ is one of Stevenson’s best. It begins:
And his most-quoted (and most misquoted) poem, ‘Requiem,’ which is carved on his tomb in Samoa
has a deserved place in nearly every anthology of English (and Scots) poetry.
In an interview some years before his death, Graham Greene described how he and the great Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, were walking in Buenos Aires discussing Stevenson, of whom they were both fervent admirers. When Greene mentioned Stevenson’s ‘finest poem,’ Borges stopped and there, amid the roar of traffic he recited the entire poem. Greene, tantalisingly, did not name the ‘finest poem,’ but when I wrote to him he kindly revealed that the poem in question was No. XXXVIII in Underwoods, in which Stevenson apologises to the shades of his ancestors for his failure to follow in their footsteps:
But Stevenson did not entirely despise ‘the childish task’ of writing, and years later, when he was near death, he wrote: ‘I ought to have been able to build lighthouses and write David Balfours too.’
Book II contains fifteen poems in Scots. The Stevenson family, although prosperous middle-class Edinburgh bourgeois, were completely bilingual in Scots and English, and writing in Scots came easily to Stevenson. He had no need to dredge in Jamieson’s Dictionary for Scots vocabulary, but expressed himself naturally and simply in a Lothian-based Scots. In his notes to these poems he complained of the anomalies of Scots spelling, but he had no great hopes for the revival of the language. ‘The day draws near,’ he mourned, ‘when this illustrious and malleable tongue shall be quite forgotten.’ That was written over a century ago, but the malleable tongue still survives.
Eleven of these Scots poems are in the Burns stanza which Stevenson handled masterfully. ‘A Lowden Sabbath Morn’ is not only a funny poem (perhaps a shade too couthy for some sophisticated tastes), it is a valuable genre picture of a world that has gone for ever. And ‘The Scotsman’s Return from Abroad’ relates how Mr Thomson, (Stevenson’s alter ego in his letters to his pal, Charles Baxter), returns to Scotland from ‘uncovenated lands’ where he cannot find a minister to preach a real good hellfire sermon.
Back home he goes to the kirk (presumably UP) and
Minor poetry again. But fun.
Ballads was the last collection of poems published during Stevenson’s lifetime. It consists of two long verse tales based on Polynesian legends, ‘The Song of Rahèro,’ and the shorter poems ‘Ticonderoga,’ ‘Heather Ale,’ ‘The Feast of Famine’ and ‘Christmas at Sea.’ When the book was published in 1890 the critics were generally unfriendly, probably, Stevenson thought, because the Polynesian legends were too exotic for the tastes of critics brought up on the myths of Greece and Rome. He was accused of trying to become ‘a Polynesian Walter Scott.’ There are good things in both poems, but the day of the long narrative poem died with Scott. Stevenson wrote two masterpieces on Polynesian themes, ‘The Beach of Falèsa’ and ‘The Ebb-Tide’ – both prose works. Of the Ballads the best is certainly ‘Christmas at Sea’ with its oddly moving last lines: ‘But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold, / Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.’
In the last year of his life Stevenson was preparing for publication a third collection of verses, provisionally titled Underwoods III. In a moment of prescience he suggested another possible title, Posthumous Poems, and indeed they were posthumously published in 1895 under the title of Songs of Travel. Four of them are poems of exile. In ‘To My Old Familiars’ he recalls his youth in Edinburgh:
and he wonders if
This poem and its companion, ‘The Tropics Vanish,’ both written at Apemama in Gilbert Islands, were dismissed by Stevenson as ‘pretty second-rate, but felt.’ How that Edinburgh wind haunted him through his life!
The most poignant poem of exile is ‘To S.R. Crockett’:
Thoughts of death were often in Stevenson’s mind during his last years in Vailima. In a letter to Sidney Colvin he wrote in praise of Vailima ‘my home and tomb that is to be; though it’s a wrench not to be planted in Scotland – that I can never deny – if I could only be buried in the hills, under the heather and a table tombstone like the martyrs, where the whaups and plovers are crying!’
Other poems in Songs of Travel are addresses to friends and relatives. The death of his father in 1887 had affected him deeply and years later, in Samoa, he remembered his last sight of the old man, senile and shrunken:
When Stevenson died, it seemed that his complete poetical works amounted to Underwoods, Ballads, Songs of Travel, A Children’s Garden of Verse and the Moral Emblems he had written to amuse his schoolboy stepson. He had however, left a number of notebooks with a mass of unpublished verses. When these came into the possession of his step-daughter, Mrs Isobel Strong, she decided to sell them, and at a series of auctions in New York in 1914, 1915 and 1916 most of them were acquired by the Bibliophile Society of Boston. Between 1916 and 1921 the Society printed, for members only, three volumes of Poems by Robert Louis Stevenson: hitherto unpublished. These volumes were edited, introduced and annotated by George S. Hellman, an American dealer in rare books and pictures. The choice of editor was not a happy one. Mr Hellman had little understanding of Stevenson and his background and his editing has been severely criticised by Janet Adam Smith, whose editing of the Complete Poems of Stevenson is a model of scholarship. Many of the poems edited by Hellman date from Stevenson’s student days in Edinburgh and deal with what Hellman quaintly described as ‘amatory attachments.’ Hellman believed that Mrs Stevenson had prevented the publication of these verses as they revealed ‘the intense sex side of Stevenson’s nature.’ In fact the amatory poems are completely innocuous and could never have brought a blush to a cheek as tough as Fanny’s. And by a misreading of a dedication to ‘Claire,’ Hellman invented a non-existent mistress for Stevenson.
Among more than 120 poems that were published by the Bibliophile Society of Boston there are poems on all the typical Stevensonian themes. In ‘O dull, cold northern sky,’ he rails against the Edinburgh winter; in a sonnet, ‘Not undelightful, friend, our rustic ease,’ he celebrates Spring 1872 at Swanston Cottage; he addresses Charles Baxter in Lallans; he experiments with triolets, rondeaux and sonnets gracefully and elegantly.
‘He is still read by the vulgar but he has joined that band of writers on whom, by tacit consent, the serious critics have nothing to say.’
That opinion, voiced by Edwin Muir in a snobbish essay written some forty years ago no longer holds true for Stevenson’s prose. ‘Serious critics’ have joined the ‘vulgar’(!). But they still ignore his poetry. Perhaps it is time they acknowledged that Stevenson may be a minor poet, but he is a major minor poet.
© David Fergus