As well as writing Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) also wrote the perennially popular A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885), a collection of poems for younger readers including this lovely poem about gazing into the reflective waters of the river. Here is ‘Looking-Glass River’, along with a few words of analysis.
Smooth it glides upon its travel,
Here a wimple, there a gleam –
O the clean gravel!
O the smooth stream!
Sailing blossoms, silver fishes,
Pave pools as clear as air –
How a child wishes
To live down there!
We can see our coloured faces
Floating on the shaken pool
Down in cool places,
Dim and very cool;
Till a wind or water wrinkle,
Dipping marten, plumping trout,
Spreads in a twinkle
And blots all out.
See the rings pursue each other;
All below grows black as night,
Just as if mother
Had blown out the light!
Patience, children, just a minute –
See the spreading circles die;
The stream and all in it
Will clear by-and-by.
In a series of clear and easily visualised images, Robert Louis Stevenson summons the magical charm of the river with its ‘looking-glass’ aspect: it’s like a looking-glass not only because we look down and see ourselves and the world around us reflected in the surface of the water, but because to the imaginative child it hints at an inverted world, a magical realm that is like our own but also different. (After The Water-Babies and Through the Looking-Glass, can that watery mirror-world ever be the same to a young reader?)
‘How a child wishes / To live down there!’ Robert Louis Stevenson’s near-contemporary, A. E. Housman, took up this idea in his 1896 collection A Shropshire Lad, where his titular lad writes that he would like to be beneath the surface of the water he gazes into: ‘The pools and rivers wash so clean / The trees and clouds and air, / The like on earth was never seen, / And oh that I were there.’ Stevenson’s looking-glass river represents the same fantasy of escapism.
In Housman’s poem, the lad longs to ‘strip and dive and drown’; but with Stevenson’s poem any disturbance to the water is short-lived: although the disruption to the still water caused by a marten or trout may cause circular ripples to appear, these will soon pass and normality will return.