Famous Authors

In The Garden Of Childhood

By Madonna Dries Christensen


"The world is so full of a number of things, 
I'm sure we should all be happy as kings." 
~~~ Robert Louis Stevenson 

Mention Robert Louis Stevenson and someone will likely be reminded of Treasure Island or Kidnapped, his well-known books. I've long forgotten the details of those stories, if I ever knew them (they were boys' books). Instead, I recall lines from Stevenson's poetry in A Child's Garden of Verses. 

The Swing: "How do you like to go up in a swing, Up in the air so blue? Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing, Ever a child can do." 

The Wind: "I saw you toss the kites on high, And blow the birds about the sky; And all around I heard you pass, Like ladies' skirts across the grass." 

My Shadow: "I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, And what can be the use of him is more than I can see." 

Although Stevenson was thirty-five when he published his garden of verses, he wrote in a child's voice, from a child's point of view. Youngsters easily identified with the scenes Stevenson painted with simple words. Adults were immediately transported back to the sights, sounds, emotions, and mysteries of childhood. 

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on November 13, 1850. For more than a hundred years, the Stevenson men had been successful and prosperous engineers, building lighthouses along Scotland's coast. As a child, Robert fell ill with consumption; so much of his schooling took place at home. The slim, brown-eyed boy had a fanciful imagination and readily understood what he saw and felt. At age eight, while confined to bed, he wrote and illustrated a book he titled A History of Moses. 

Attempting to follow in his father's footsteps, Stevenson studied engineering at Edinburgh University, but poor health and lack of interest caused him to abandon that course of study. He then studied law and was admitted to Scotland's bar, but rather than practice law he engaged in the literary life, writing essays, travel sketches and short stories. His first two books dealt with travel. An Inland Voyage, an account of his canoe trip up the rivers of Holland, and Travels With A Donkey In Cevennes. 

At twenty-three, after being advised by his doctor to move to a warm, dry climate, Stevenson searched for a suitable place to live. In France, he met and fell in love with Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, ten years his senior and married with two children. She returned to California to obtain a divorce, with Stevenson following soon after. Married in 1880, they set out to find a healthful climate. On a voyage through the Seven Seas, Stevenson discovered that Samoa's weather suited him. There he wrote Treasure Island, A Child's Garden of Verses, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (based on a dream, and written and published in ten weeks). He also wrote many lesser-known books, essays and poetry. 

In dedicating A Child's Garden of Verses to his childhood nanny, Stevenson wrote: "To Alison Cunningham from Her Boy. My second mother, my first wife, the angel of my infant life." Although the collection was considered a classic almost from the beginning, some of the poems were not included in later publications. 

They were thought to be too philosophical to be understood by primary age children, more for adults than for children. But the majority of Stevenson's verses touch on the pleasures of childhood: the changing seasons, playing in the hayloft, the red cow in the meadow, digging in the sand at seaside, sailing toy boats, climbing trees, marching in a parade with pretend musical instruments. 

Given Stevenson's lifelong illness, it's not surprising that a dozen or so of his children's verses have a bedtime theme, in whole or part. 

The Land of Counterpane--"When I was sick and lay a-bed, I had two pillows at my head, And all the toys beside me lay, To keep me happy all the day." He goes on to explain about playing with lead soldiers and toy ships, moving them into battle among the hills and valleys created in the sheets and blankets. 

Bed in Summer--"In winter I get up at night and dress by yellow candlelight. In summer, quite the other way, I have to go to bed by day. I have to go to bed and see, The birds still hopping on the tree, or hear the grown-up people's feet, Still going past me in the street." 

Young Night Thought--This verse shows a little boy's imagination after Mama puts out the light. He sees "people marching by ... armies and emperors and kings ... a circus on the green ... every kind of beast and man ... until we reach the Town of Sleep." 

A Good Boy--My bed is waiting cool and fresh, with linen smooth and fair, And I must off to sleepsin-by, and not forget my prayer. 

Escape At Bedtime--This verse tells of a boy's flight into the garden, where he studied the stars until ... "they saw me at last, and they chased me with cries, and they soon had me packed into bed." 

My Bed Is A Boat, The Land of Nod, The Sun's Travels, The Lamplighter, The Moon, Good Night, Shadow March, In Port, all speak of bedtime in some manner, of being tucked in, of cuddling, of shadows and mysteries of the night. 

Good health eluded Stevenson. Death came at the age of forty-four from a brain hemorrhage. His unfinished novel, Weir of Hermiston, is considered by many to be his finest work. The last line he wrote might well have pertained to his sudden death. "It had seemed unprovoked, a willful convulsion of brute nature." 

Upon his death, native Samoans hacked a path up a mountainside and carried their friend to the top, the site he had chosen for his eternal bed. Fourteen years earlier, when he was gravely ill in California, he had written his epitaph: Requiem, the last three lines of which are engraved on his tombstone. 

Under the wide and starry sky, 
Dig the grave and let me lie. 
Glad did I live and gladly die, 
And I laid me down with a will. 
This be the verse you 'grave for me; 
Here he lies where he longed to be; 
Home is the sailor, home from sea 
And the hunter home from the hill. 

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