23 May, 2010

A Child's Garden of Verses

When I was a child, this book was magic. It reflected the truths of the world: in summer it was too light to go to sleep; the holes dug at the beach filled with the sea; armies marched to war; pirates followed the shores of Africa; cherry trees were climbed; the wind was a man. Stevenson suffered from tuberculosis as a child, and loneliness prevails in much of the imagery of games to play while in bed or when alone. There is an elaborate poem about an invisible friend who takes the side of the French in a game of toy soldiers so you don't have to. The poems are so clearly from the perspective of an adult speaking to a child, and knowing the biography, are conversations between Stevenson's adult self and his childhood (the picture here is of Stevenson as a child). The book was published when he was 35 years old. "The Lamplighter," especially the second stanza, with its innocuous hint of being bedridden:
Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,
And my papa's a banker and as rich as he can be;
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I'm to do,

O Leerie, I'll go round at night and light the lamps with you!
His family were lighthouse designers--several generations of his family had designed and overseen the building of 20 lighthouses along the Scottish coast. That informs my reading of "The Lamplighter." He also famously resisted electrical lighting in favor of gas lighting.

But I like the short, gnomic poems, his (often dark) poetic maxims that provide moral instruction yet point toward a kind of openness of interpretation and slipperiness of application. He is never really sentimental-- there is a subtly ironic stance toward nostalgia in these poems.

Whole Duty of Children

A child should always say what's true
And speak when he is spoken to,
And behave mannerly at table;
At least as far as he is able.

Looking Forward

When I am grown to man's estate
I shall be very proud and great,
And tell the other girls and boys
Not to meddle with my toys.

Happy Thought

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

Time to Rise

A birdie with a yellow bill
Hopped upon my window sill,
Cocked his shining eye and said:
"Ain't you 'shamed, you sleepy-head!"

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