The Best Robert Louis Stevenson Poems

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

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. Many of Stevenson’s greatest poems were included in that volume, and many of the Robert Louis Stevenson poems we introduce below can be found in that book – although there’s one notable exception, which we’ll come to.

To Any Reader’.

Let’s begin with the poem from A Child’s Garden of Verses which Stevenson directly addresses to his readers:

As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play …

Looking-Glass River’.

A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) included this lovely poem about gazing into the reflective waters of the river:

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!

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.

See the link above to read the full poem and learn more about it.

My Shadow’.

This poem, also from A Child’s Garden of Verses, begins:

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.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

The funniest things about him is the way he likes to grow-
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,
And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all …

The poem is about how one’s shadow follows one everywhere, but its light, comic tone – the speaker is himself a young child – makes it one of the more humorous poems among Stevenson’s poetic oeuvre. The final image of the shadow having a lie-in while the boy rises early shows the wry irony Stevenson sometimes employed in his poems for children.

From a Railway Carriage’.

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:

All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by …

The rhythm of the poem echoes the rhythm of the train, with the rhyme scheme suggesting the sense of repetition – the poem being written in rhyming couplets, i.e. witches/ditches, battle/cattle, plain/rain, etc. (This metre and rhyme scheme must lend themselves to railway poetry: W. H. Auden’s popular ‘Night Mail’ uses a similar rhythm, and the same rhyme scheme, as Stevenson’s poem.)

But whilst the rhythm of the poem’s lines, like the rhythm of the train moving on its lines, is regular and steady, the view from the train window is constantly changing. In other words, there’s an interesting counterpoint, and interplay, between the aural rhythm of the poem (‘aural’ relating to hearing and sounds, of course), which remains steady, and the visual images the poem is describing, which are altering from one line to the next.

The Skye Boat Song’.

What, the author of Treasure Island also wrote the lyrics to the well-known Skye Boat Song? Well, yes and no. The original lyrics were composed by Sir Harold Boulton in the 1870s, but Stevenson deemed them ‘unworthy’ and set about penning alternative lyrics to the tune, probably in 1885, the same year that A Child’s Garden of Verses was published. Stevenson’s lyrics include the words:

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
Glory of youth glowed in his soul;
Where is that glory now?

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye …

‘The Moon’.

The moon has a face like the clock in the hall;
She shines on thieves on the garden wall,
On streets and fields and harbour quays,
And birdies asleep in the forks of the trees.

The subject of Stevenson’s poem ‘The Moon’ is obvious enough, and he weaves in long-established moon-associations: the idea of the ‘man in the moon’ (present since the Middle Ages in poems such as this one) is summoned in the poem’s first line, with the use of ‘face’ suggesting the dependable constancy and permanence of the moon in the night sky, much like a trust grandfather clock standing in the hall of a house.

‘Happy Thought’.

To conclude this pick of Robert Louis Stevenson’s best poems, here’s one which is only two lines long:

The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

1 thought on “The Best Robert Louis Stevenson Poems”

  1. I had the Child’s Garden of Verses as a youngster and still write poetry in the same styles,( although I can do free verse if I think it more appropriate.) No longer working in school I do wonder if poetry is ever recited out loud nowadays. ( It was always the best way to learn the times tables) From a Railway Carriage should be part of every child’s education.


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