Thursday, August 20, 2009


It was Robert Louis Stevenson, who also wrote:

I am a kind of farthing dip
Unfriendly to the nose and eyes;
A blue-behinded ape, I skip
Upon the trees of Paradise.

At mankind's feast, I take my place
In solemn, sanctimonious state,
And have the air of saying grace
While I defile the dinner plate . . .

(A "farthing dip," by the way, is a cheap grease candle, which smokes and sputters.)

I greatly admire Stevenson. He wrote a lot -- good, bad, and indifferent -- in his short life. For all his devotion to "boys' stories" he is astonishingly adult. That's not always a good thing, for someone's writing -- when Wordsworth grew up he could no longer write real poems -- but the reasonable voice of an adult is always there, which is probably why his stories have been so long-lived. Simple rollicking adventures, but there is a reassuring presence behind them, which says that everything, at some level, is under control. He's got Long John Silver under his eye, and he will never let the villain in him be too much admired or the hero in him be passed over unacknowledged. All that's taken care of: we can just follow the story.

And he wrote some wonderful stanzas, and even a few great poems. In my opinion, "Where Go the Boats" is one of the great poems in English. It's nostalgic and sentimental, sure. So is the Bible and Shakespeare. If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

Dark brown is the river,
Golden is the sand.
It flows along for ever,
With trees on either hand.

Green leaves a-floating,
Castles of the foam,
Boats of mine a-boating--
Where will all come home?

On goes the river
And out past the mill,
Away down the valley,
Away down the hill.

Away down the river,
A hundred miles or more,
Other little children
Shall bring my boats ashore.

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