RLS and the academic asses

Literary Notes
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"GIVE TO me the life I love, / Let the lave go by me . . ." "Under the wide and starry sky / Dig the grave and let me lie . . ." It is unlikely that anyone who cares about poetry does not know such haunting lines by Robert Louis Stevenson. He is in most of the anthologies, with "The Vagabond", "Requiem" and a number of other enduring favourites. But almost nobody thinks of him as a major poet. He is the creator of Long John Silver, Allan Breck, Jekyll and Hyde, a great travel writer and essayist - the prose master so admired by Henry James and other good judges in his own day. He was also author of A Child's Garden of Verses, available in countless editions, selections (and translations), pleasant verses for kiddies. Yet RLS wrote poetry all his life.

At times it was his main medium of expression. His subject matter is very varied. He was fascinated by verse techniques, and used many successfully. He produced good Whitmanesque free verse, matched effects found in Verlaine and at moments anticipated Yeats, Eliot and Auden. He wrote brilliantly in the Scots language of his native Lothian. The Garden is not entirely a pleasant book. It conveys, read as a whole, a vivid impression of the fears and fantasies of a lonely childhood, haunted by sickness, like RLS's own. The special charm of a very high proportion of RLS's poetry is that it is warmly addressed to particular friends, which somehow increases its general charm.

However, although countless scholarly and critical books and articles have considered RLS's fiction, even his best biographers say little or nothing about his poetry.

There are a number of possiblities why this should be the case. First, he was modest about his verse. Friends, and friendly critics, of his own day, took him at his own valuation. He published three books of poems while alive, and had another collection ready when be died. But these were received as agreeable diversions from the main flow of his genius.

Secondly, the great heap of unpublished verse, some of it very good, which he had cared enough about to take with him all the way to Samoa, was auctioned in New York by his stepdaughter after his widow's death in 1914. Rich purchasers allowed the Boston Bibliophile Society to print scores of poems in handsome but inexpertly edited volumes for its members. As RLS's publishers regained control, they were content to reproduce such chaos.

In the popular "Tusitala" edition of RLS's works, of 1923, there is no regard for chronology and drafts and obvious discards jostle with good finished poems. In 1950, Janet Adam Smith produced a very carefully edited Collected Poems setting things straight. (Though she made what I think is the large mistake of separating "Light Verse" and "Poems for Children" from allegedly more "serious" stuff.) But this admirable book, though reprinted in 1971, never achieved wide currency, as I infer from the fact that, even living in Edinburgh, I have never seen a second-hand copy to buy. There are plenty of copies of the nasty little blue "Tusitala".

Thirdly, and frankly, academics have been asses. I have long observed that most university teachers of literature are as frightened of poetry as their students. For each one prepared to tackle it critically, there are 10 who would far rather write about novels. Non-academic people often love RLS's poetry - all the more if they know Vaughan Williams's wonderful settings of Son of a Vagabond. But university graduates sent forth as teachers or literary journalists will not instruct others that he was a major poet. Their tutors never told them.

Angus Calder is the editor of `Selected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson' (Penguin, pounds 7.99)