R.L. Stevenson – A Child’s Garden of Verses

On my recent holiday I became reacquainted with a beloved old companion. As a young child I used to lie in bed reading A Child’s Garden of Verses. To me they seemed to be the observations of a lonely child and that struck a chord with me. I loved the rhythm, as in Windy Night

Whenever the moon and stars are set

Whenever the wind is high,

All night long in the dark and wet,

A man goes riding by.

Late at night when the fires are out

Why does he gallop and gallop about?

I was sure I’d heard that eerie sound and it was comforting to know another child had heard it too.

Stevenson died at the age of forty-four, after suffering a life of ill-health. He probably had tuberculosis but was never diagnosed with it. But he spent a great deal of time in bed resting,

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.

…………………………………………

I was the giant great and still

that sits upon the pillow-hill,

And sees before him, dale and plain,

The pleasant land of counterpane.

His time in bed let his imagination roam. He wrote books as widely different as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Dr Hyde. A Child’s Garden of Verses was written in 1885 the year before Jekyll and Hyde and Kidnapped.

He was also a great traveller. He did huge walks, he travelled in Europe, lived in America for periods, and died in Samoa, where he had lived for some time. I am ashamed to say I still have not read Travels with a Donkey about his walk in the Cevennes, but now I am reminded of him I will seek it out.

If I have a favourite poem from A Child’s Garden of Verses, it would be From a Railway Carriage. The rhyming couplets mimicking the rhythm of the engine, the speed, the glimpses of other lives, all create an indelible impression of a world long gone. I read it and I am a child again.

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,

Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;

And charging along like troops in a battle,

All through the meadows the horses and cattle:

All of the sights of the hill and the plain

Fly as thick as driving rain;

And ever again, in the wink of an eye,

Painted stations whistle by.

Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,

All by himself and gathering brambles;

Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;

And here is the green for stringing the daisies!

Here is a cart run away in the road

Lumping along with man and load;

And here is a mill and there is a river:

Each a glimpse and gone for ever!

14 thoughts on “R.L. Stevenson – A Child’s Garden of Verses

  1. What wonderful memories you draw up from the deep.
    A time when things were real and feed us each one to him/her self.
    Thank you for this post.
    It is precious

  2. Thanks so much, Gert! Every time I come across him it is as you say –a visit to a place where someone understood. I pulled out my copy just now, and find, “The rain is raining all around/It falls on field and tree/ It rains on the umbrellas here,/ And on the ships at sea.” All those links between me and the sea (which I had not yet seen), and so many places that Stevenson’s words seemed to assure me that I would see. Also, one my mother liked for me: “A birdie with a yellow bill/ Hopped upon the window sill, / Cocked his shining eye and said:/ ‘Ain’t you ‘shamed, you sleepy-head!'”

      1. It is nice to have lived long enough to know that one is allowed to cherish these poems just as much as anything by Wallace Stevens or T.S. Eliot, or any of the “grown-up” poets who are also valued.

        1. Indeed. But he still seems to appeal to the little ones. Such an interesting man. Had a nanny until he was twenty-two, but then the strenuous walks and the travels…

  3. I had that book as a child. In a Puffin edition.
    I did read it.
    And yes this echoes in the back of the brain where memories are stored:

    “Whenever the moon and stars are set

    Whenever the wind is high,

    All night long in the dark and wet,

    A man goes riding by.

    Late at night when the fires are out

    Why does he gallop and gallop about?”

    But it paled beside yet another reading of “Emil and the Detectives” when I was sick in bed.

    1. I think it is something about the rhythm that, as you say, lodges it in the back of your brain. I have never read Emil and the Detectives, but having just read the plot outline I’ll be on to it soon. ‘Never send cash, always use the postal service’…love it.

  4. From a Railway Carriage is wonderful, isn’t it? As you say, it seems to have a propulsive rhythm all of its own. One of those classic examples where the form, style and and subject matter are all working together in complete harmony. Thanks for this lovely reminder!

    1. I didn’t either, but it is most interesting. He married a divorced woman. Quite unconventional for his time. I am looking for a biography by Claire Harman from 2005 which is said to be good.

  5. ‘From a Railway Carriage’ is my favourite too but anything I’ve ever read in the collection has been a gem — and I love that the Greek word ‘thesaurus’ means a storehouse or treasury because this ‘Garden’ is just that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s