The Letter C (A-to-Z Challenge)

A Child’s Garden of Verses

Robert Louis Stevenson

When Young Maria Callas was three years old and cheerfully holding center stage at all the family parties by reciting poetry, a beloved great aunt now deceased presented her with Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, requesting that she would please learn the poem My Shadow and helpfully marking the page with a yellow paper clip so that we would not forget.*

YMC was more than happy to learn the poem, and I was delighted to find that the very first poem in the book was Bed in Summer, which I had read long ago in the margin of a first or second grade language-enrichment textbook and had nearly forgotten:


Bed in Summer

In winter I get up at night

And dress by yellow candle-light.

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.

 

And does it not seem hard to you,

When all the sky is clear and blue,

And I should like so much to play,

To have to go to bed by day?

As I read the verses again I remembered that as a seven year old I had loved the poem but had also found it confusing. How could a child in bed hear people’s feet in the street?  Why did the child in the poem have to get up so early during the winter, and why would he have been put to bed in the middle of the afternoon during the summer, when surely there wasn’t even school the next day? Was he being punished? The illustration showed an unsupervised child in a nightgown holding a candle so obviously it had been written a long time ago, before there was electricity and before parents knew that allowing children to play with fire was dangerous.  Perhaps in those olden days the nights and days were of different lengths.

Of course now the magic of Google tells me that in Edinburgh, Scotland (Robert Louis Stevenson’s hometown) the sun rises at 8:44 am in the deep of winter and sets at 10:03 pm in the height of summer.  In Riverside, California (my hometown) the latest winter sunrise is at 6:55 am and the latest summer sunset is at 8:05 pm.  So that clears that up.  As to the people walking in the street, young RLS must have had a bedroom at the front of his house at 17 Heriot Row, for he writes in the poem “The Lamplighter”

 

For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,

And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;

And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light,

O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight!

 

And that is why a little boy in a front bedroom of a house in Edinburgh can hear the sound of people’s feet on the pavement below him, and a little girl in a back bedroom of a tract house in Riverside, California cannot.

Finally, as to the unsupervised candle-handling, that was probably the illustrator’s error.  I think it most likely that the nurse took care of the candle.

I was delighted to have a whole book of verses by the writer of that beloved poem and for years I carried A Child’s Garden of Verses from bed to bed every evening as one by one I read the children to sleep.  In much the same way that I had loved yet wondered at Bed in Summer, the children and I found the whole volume to be both endearing and confusing. Some of the poems were instantly appealing:  Windy Nights, Where Go the Boats, The Land of Counterpane, The Swing, and these we read together over and over, but many other poems seemed odd to us and after one or two baffled attempts to ‘get it’ we skipped them. Now, as an adult reading it at my leisure (and without having to concentrate on getting four children to bed) I understand that these puzzling verses are the specific personal memories of RLS.  This volume was a childhood memoir expressed in poetry, a tribute to his own nurse, to his mother and father, his aunts and cousins and playmates.  Read in this light and as a whole it is a beautiful homage to a happy childhood.

Here is a contemporary review that appeared in the Guardian on May 13, 1885:

To write good verse for children – verse which is neither stilted nor bald, neither sentimental nor prosaic – is among the difficult achievements of literature, and Mr Stevenson’s delightful little volume is quite a triumph in its kind. A child’s way of looking at things is so different from ours that a grown person in trying to express it almost feels as though he is using a foreign language, while yet from the nature of his task he is bound to the greatest simplicity and homeliness.

This difficulty Mr Stevenson escapes through his wonderfully sympathetic imagination. He not only knows what the children like, but he likes it along with them. His verses are full of the surprises which children themselves constantly give us in their odd mixture of fantasy and realism. They are admirable pictures of wholesome child-life, “innocent and honest”, to use his own words – old-fashioned we had almost said, but, alas! for the world if so it is – delighting in its own wayward play.**

I can’t walk beside a stream without reciting, “Dark brown is the river, Golden is the sand…”  

It makes me happy, and sad, and seven years old.

See you tomorrow for Letter D,

<KK>

*She did not forget.  For months to follow a highlight of family parties was Young Maria Callas’ performance, standing on a table and solemnly lisping, “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…”

**”A Garden of Delights, A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, Reviewed in the Guardian, May 13 1885.” The Guardian. N.p., 1 Aug. 2003. Web. 3 Apr. 2015.

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4 Responses to “The Letter C (A-to-Z Challenge)”

  1. jazzytower Says:

    A lovely poem. Like your interjections, it worked well and pulled me in.:)

  2. zannierose (A-Z 1189 ) Says:

    lovely to have those childhood questions answered. When I was little- under 5, a waiter on a ship told me he would throw me out of the porthole if I did not eat my meal. I was worried and my mother said he was just pulling my leg. That made it worse as he was nowhere near my leg so most definitely was not pulling it

  3. julz Says:

    I still have a copy of this book, given to me as a child – oh dear – my maths has deserted me – can’t tell you how old the book is – smile.

    Haven’t looked at it for ages, and ages – but the cover is enuf to make me feel nostalgic – nice to have read your meanderings – I spose its easier to be a Brit, if not a Scot – to take in the little references that you found so hard to relate to.

    Who would have thought that you would have trouble realising the huge range of day lengths we get!

    Fellow A-Zer – julzcrafts.com – tho I intended to write them there, there is a re-direct each day to “the spare”, as I felt that I couldn’t let the daily posts get in the way too much or the crafts or other stuff – but it has anyway!

    All the best

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