Robert Louis Stevenson -- Poet and Author
Robert Louis Stevenson - Poet and Author
1850 - 1894
1850 - 1894
By Colin Galbraith
Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh on the 13th November 1850, and his impact on the literary world was nothing short of astonishing. Raised in the New Town district from the age of six, he was part of a close family with strict Presbyterian and middle-class values, which became a source of great unrest within him as he grew.
From an early age he suffered from ill-health. Tuberculosis saw him bed-bound for long spells and as a result, spent little time at school. A nurse, Alison Cunningham (Cummy), was brought in to care for him and she held massive influence over his life. In the Dedication of his poetry collection, A Child's Garden of Verses, he referred to her as, "My second mother, my first wife".
Cummy took Stevenson on long walks through Edinburgh and its graveyards when he was young. She told him long and intricate tales, stimulating his mind with stories of Scottish history, the Bible, ghosts and ghouls. Whether these were directly responsible for the horrific nightmares he suffered is anyone’s guess.
When he was sixteen, his family published a pamphlet he wrote entitled, The Pentland Rising, an account of the murder of Nonconformist Scots Presbyterians. Nobody stopped to consider the strength of desire that existed within Stevenson after his first published work, least not his father.
Stevenson had been using fiction to rebel, and he attempted to appease his father’s anger at not wanting to follow into the family’s engineering business, by enrolling at Edinburgh University in 1867. He matriculated in a Law degree, but spent most of his time talking to the drunks, prostitutes and gamblers in Edinburgh’s Old Town to gather material for his writing, rather than attending lectures and seminars. When he left in 1872 he finally announced his desire to become a professional writer and an intense argument ensued.
With his health worsening, Stevenson travelled to Paris and met Fanny Vandergrift Osborne. They married in San Francisco in 1880 and travelled Europe together while he wrote a great many poems, articles, reviews and novels. In 1882 he published Nor I And Other Poems, which celebrated medium success and when he travelled to Braemar, Scotland in 1883, he wrote Treasure Island.
It has been suggested the famous poem from this novel ~
Fifteen men on the dead man's chest
Yo-ho-ho, and the bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
~ could have originally referred to the notorious pirate, Edward Teach, who left fifteen men on the island of Dead Man's Chest with a bottle of rum and a sword, thus providing a background for the inspiration of Stevenson’s novel.
Underwoods, a collection of poetry for the more mature reader, was published in London and New York simultaneously and sold out quickly. He felt that poetry was the source of his greatest happiness, for he could “do just what I like better than anything else.”
Many critics have since disagreed with this, citing the style of verse more revealing of a man’s fear of dying and severe illness, only scattered with moments of inspiration.
But it was Treasure Island that put Stevenson on the literary map and when The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde followed in 1886, Stevenson had made his name.
While holidaying in South Queensferry, north of Edinburgh, the idea for Kidnapped was spawned and written that same year, further supporting his reputation as a world-class writer.
Stevenson’s father died in 1887 at a time when his health was deteriorating at an alarming rate. He took his family out of Britain for good and onto the vast oceans of the South Pacific, eventually landing on the small island of Samoa where he set up home.
Despite being thousands of miles away in a climate he found suited him, Stevenson’s mind constantly drifted back to the cobbled streets of Edinburgh. As his health improved he threw himself into writing more novels, but also extensive letters. He wrote and published The Master of Ballantrae in 1889 and Catriona four years later – the sequel to Kidnapped.
In the last two years of his life Stevenson's letters to his friends in Great Britain increasingly revealed his longing for Scotland and the frustration he felt at the thought of never seeing his homeland again. To S. R. Crockett he wrote, "I shall never see Auld Reekie. I shall never set my foot again upon the heather. Here I am until I die, and here will I be buried. The word is out and the doom written."
It may have been his longing for Scotland that made Weir of Hermiston so powerful a tale. With its themes of rebellion, the Scottish landscape, language, and legends, it is widely regarded as the most Scottish of all his works.
While making mayonnaise with his wife on the 3rd December 1894, Stevenson collapsed from a stroke and never recovered. He was 44 years old, at the height of his creative powers and his health never better. Scotland and the world had lost a literary genius.
Stevenson’s impact on the reading public never weaned and many of his poetic work were published long after his death. Three Short Poems (1898), Poems And Ballads (1913), Poems Hitherto Unpublished (1916), New Poems And Variant Readings (1918) and Collected Poems (1950) were all published and sold very successfully, proving undeniably the strength of his genius.
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.
('Requiem' from Underwoods)
For an extensive list of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry and for further reading, the following links may prove useful:
Colin Galbraith has seen many poems of his poems published. His first chapbook, Brick by Brick, was published in April 2005 and a second chapbook about the recent Edinburgh Festival is scheduled for publication later this year. He can be contact through his website: http://www.colingalbraith.co.uk or his daily blog: http://freedomfromthemundane.blogspot.com.