Stevenson is lullaby-ing a solitary boy

Enjoy quaint good boys

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON — A CHILD’S GARDEN OF VERSES — 2017

I will first regret the poems are not in poetic layout but in plain prose layout in spite of the rhymes and the capital letters at the beginning of each group of what should have been lines. We miss that visual poetry. The illustrations are the only visual element and they are nice but not enough to make us enter in this world of children’s poetry, of poetry for children that has to be visually clear and attractive.

The second characteristic is that it is poetry written for children. Yet it is mostly in first person as if some hypothetical child were speaking and that is not possible because the language is by far too complicated for a child that has just learned how to read. It is thus poetry that has to be read to children and what children are going to find in the poetry is the music with lines, rhymes and rhythm. It is of course a common convention for children’s literature in the second half of the 19th century, which is Stevenson’s period. Children’s literature is adult literature for children.

The themes are essentially that of a garden, a vast garden and a vast house, if not mansion in the countryside by the sea. We are in a wealthy family or even more than wealthy, with a nurse for that child who is a boy and cannot be anything else, knowing how often he plays with tin soldiers or he plays soldier himself, even if at the end an allusion to a cousin girl is introduced. The world is seen through the eyes of the boy and described through the pen and language of the adult who is telling us the story. The big Louis author is alluding towards the end he is seeing the world through the eyes of a small Louis boy that he probably used to be.

Let’s play horsey

Then you have a lot of seascape, ships, boats, fishing, travelling and foreign countries, though the dominant one is India but only as a distant somewhere. The child is also imagining fairy countries, dreamlike countries to which he is able to travel. But do not expect any Wonderland.

The most surprising element is the total solitude of that child. He is alone, playing alone and by himself with toys he can play with alone. He does not have any partner and adults are not taking part in the games. The nurse only puts him to bed and gets him up. In many ways it is a sad vision of a solitary quasi abandoned child in a wealthy family where everyone is minding their own businesses and hardly the child. So he sleeps at night, watches the sun rising in the morning, plays in the garden all day long, watches the sun setting in the evening and goes back to bed at night. That kind of life is traumatic. A child living such a life should develop PTSS by total lack of love, total lack of company, total lack of another child of the same size, except the imaginary one he creates, and that should lead him to a split personality, a perfect soil for schizophrenia later on.

I was even amazed at finding some social Darwinism in one poem:

Naughty indeed

The child that is not clean and neat,

With lots of toys and things to eat,

He is a naughty child, I’m sure –

Or else his dear papa is poor.

In other words, it is the fate of a naughty rich boy or a poor boy. And it is normal if you are poor not to be clean and neat, not to have toys and food. There is no questioning of it and it is equaled to “naughtiness” for a rich boy. A good boy, meaning rich, is always clean and neat, has plenty of toys and plenty to eat. Just add to this it is the reward for being a good rich boy and social Darwinism is with you. These concepts of good boy and bad boy are constantly present in many poems and one is for me surprisingly European-centered to the point of reaching infantile arrogance:

Cricket arrogance

FOREIGN CHILDREN

Little Indian, Sioux or Crow,

Little frosty Eskimo,

Little Turk or Japanee,

Oh! Don’t you wish that you were me?

You have seen the scarlet trees

And the lions overseas;

You have eaten ostrich eggs,

And turned the turtles off their legs.

Such a life is very fine,

But it’s not so nice as mine:

You must often, as you trod,

Have wearied not to be abroad.

You have curious things to eat,

I am fed on proper meat;

You must dwell beyond the foam,

But I am safe and live at home.

Little Indian, Sioux or Crow,

Little frosty Eskimo,

Little Turk or Japanee,

Oh! Don’t you wish that you were me?

My flag is my island

How plain cruel it is to turn turtles off their legs knowing they cannot get back on their legs alone. Just as cruel as making the Indian, the Sioux, the Crow, the Eskimo, the Turk and the Japanese only dream of one thing: be a good white European, rich of course.

Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU

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