Although he is best-known as the author of such adventure tales as Treasure Island and Kidnapped, and horror stories like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson was also one of the greatest writers of children’s verse during the Victorian period. His 1885 collection A Child’s Garden of Verses followed hot on the heels of the superstardom that Stevenson experienced in the wake of the success of Treasure Island in 1883.
One of the poems in this collection, ‘The Moon’, is reproduced below, along with a few words of analysis.
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 squalling cat and the squeaking mouse,
The howling dog by the door of the house,
The bat that lies in bed at noon,
All love to be out by the light of the moon.
But all of the things that belong to the day
Cuddle to sleep to be out of her way;
And flowers and children close their eyes
Till up in the morning the sun shall arise.
A Child’s Garden of Verses first appeared in 1885 under the title Penny Whistles; its original title suggests something light and playful, and this whimsicality is a feature of many of the poems in the collection. (The poems were even translated into Latin in 1922, under the title Carmina non prius audita de ludis et hortis virginibus puerisque. Children’s literature would have to wait until the Harry Potter phenomenon before Latin scholars produced a translation; Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis appeared in 2003.)
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. (Both the moon and clocks have ‘faces’, so the association is hardly forced.)
The moon looks down on both the inanimate landscape and the people who live among it – those from all works of life, even thieves climbing over a garden wall – and, of course, those who live among it but are not ‘people’, such as the ‘birdies’.
In the middle stanza of ‘The Moon’, Stevenson turns to consider those creatures which love to be out and about at night, by the light of the moon: the nocturnal activities of the mewling cat and the mouse it pursues, as well as the dog howling to be let into the house, and the bat which sleeps during the day and hunts at night.
These nocturnal animals are in stark contrast to those who ‘belong to the day’, such as children and flowers, mentioned in the poem’s final stanza. Those who are diurnal rather than nocturnal hug sleep closely to them, keeping out of the moon’s way.
‘The Moon’ is written in quatrains comprising two couplets, rhymed aabb; its metre is tetrameter, mostly iambic but with numerous anapaestic feet too, such as in the final line, ‘Till up in the morning the sun shall arise’.
The use of anapaests alongside iambs gives Stevenson’s poem a sprightly, sing-song feel, which is entirely appropriate: many of the poems in A Child’s Garden of Verses could almost be sung as much as recited. It’s a charming collection full of poems of praise and joy for the natural world, as well as more modern innovations such as the railways (as in this poem).