This is a collection of poems first published in 1885 that are told from the perspective of a child; recounting adventures and play. It’s been a while since I wrote about poetry and since I’ve read a lot of Stevenson‘s novels but none of his poetry, it seemed like a good fit.
Childhood Wonder in Words
What caught my eye most about this collection of poems was how it conjured that feeling of wonder and imagination that comes with being a child. Of course, the actual words are only an imitation of a child’s–far too well constructed to be real–but it is the feeling it gives the reader that stands out. These poems are full of nostalgia and longing for a time that can no longer be.
Given that this publication came out when there was a drastic shift in how text were being written–from Romanticism to Early Modernism–it’s possible that Stevenson was also using this collection as a way of voicing his feelings about his changing profession. At this point, Stevenson was getting to the end of his life–he died in 1894–and it seems fitting that he would use this call to childhood memories to mimic what might have been seen as the loss of his art, or at least the style of it.
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.“Bed in Summertime”, page 1
Most of the conflicts within these poems has to do with puzzlement–the child cannot understand why they must do a thing or why adults act the way they do. In the above example, this concludes with the confusion around having to go to bed when it is still light out, not connecting the fact that it doesn’t get dark as early in the summer as is does in the winter. It’s a simple conflict to have but it helps to capture the simplicity of a child’s life–being forced to go to bed when you would rather play seem catastrophic in youth.
Which Garden Was That?
I do want to take a moment to talk about the actual title of the collection since, well, there isn’t a garden in it. There might be the mention of a garden here or there–such as in the section titled ‘Garden Days’–but there is no central garden–so why a ‘garden’ of verse? (Probably not the most pressing literary question but it bothers me anyway).
The garden is an extension of the enclosed domestic space of the house, where there is safety, but also the space for free and imaginative play.Jean Webb
I think this has more to do with the idea of safely interacting with the outside world without actually having to leave what is comfortable. Think about it: the garden is still ‘home’ without still being trapped in the house. One can play at being out having adventures and trying new things without having to venture beyond what one already knows. Perhaps this is some of what Stevenson was feeling at this point in his life?
Gardens also have a connection to Christianity in which they represent innocence and the subsequent loss of it. This matches well with the course of childhood since we all start innocent only to have that torn away as we age.
This isn’t a bad collection of poems by any means but it did fail to truly capture my interest. Sure, the writing is able to mimic the feeling of childhood well and made me feel all kinds of nostalgic but there was little in the way of a coherent story-thread. I don’t mean that there needed to be some interconnected plot or anything but I would have liked for there to be some reason for all these poems to be together besides all involving childhood memories. That’s why it’s only 2-stars out of 5 from me.
Webb, Jean. “Conceptualising Childhood: Robert Louis Stevensons A Childs Garden of Verses.” Cambridge Journal of Education, vol. 32, no. 3, 2002, pp. 359–365., doi:10.1080/0305764022000024203.