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About this poet

Born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson came from a long line of prominent lighthouse engineers. During his boyhood, he spent holidays with his maternal grandfather, a minister and professor of moral philosophy who shared his love of sermons and storytelling with him. Prone to illness, Stevenson spent many of his early winters in bed, entertained only by his imagination and a great love of reading, especially William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, John Bunyan and The Arabian Nights.

Encouraged to follow the family tradition of lighthouse engineering, he began studies at the University of Edinburgh in 1867, but quickly discovered he preferred a career in literature. To satisfy his father, he acquired a law degree and was admitted to the bar by the time he was twenty-five.

Stevenson spent the next four years traveling through Europe, mostly around Paris, publishing essays and articles about his travels. In 1876, he met Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, a married woman ten years his elder. When she decided to return to San Francisco soon after they met, Stevenson followed, taking the long voyage across the Atlantic and across the United States against the advice of his friends and physician. To add to his adventure and inform his writing, he chose to travel in steerage and was near death when he arrived in Monterey, California, in 1879. After being nursed back to health, he continued to San Francisco that winter, though it cost him his health. Osbourne, who had since been divorced, helped him recover. They married the following May.

After several months in the U.S. with his wife and her young son, Stevenson brought his family back to Britain. Frequently sick, he continued to write seriously, producing the bulk of his best-loved work. His first successful novel, Treasure Island was published in 1884, followed by A Child's Garden of Verses in 1885, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886.

A representative of Neo-romanticism during the Modernist period of English literature, Stevenson was an incredibly popular and successful writer. Though many leading critics dismissed his work entirely, he was admired by many authors, including Jorge Luis Borges, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Vladimir Nabokov, and J. M. Barrie. He was also friends with Henry James, who was a vocal supportor his work.

Following the death of his father in 1887, Stevenson left again for the U.S. with his family, planning a move to Colorado. Upon landing in New York, however, they decided to spend the winter at Saranac Lake, in the Adirondacks. That summer he chartered a yacht and sailed through eastern and central Pacific, stopping for extended stays among the Hawaiian Islands. In 1890, Stevenson purchased a four hundred-acre estate in Upolu, one of the Samoan islands. He adopted the native name Tusitala (Samoan for "Story Writer") and soon became immersed in local politics.

By 1894, Stevenson had become increasingly depressed, convinced the best of his work was behind him. He wrote that he wished his illnesses would kill him. On the evening of December 3, 1894, he collapsed, possibly due to a cerebral hemorrhage, and died. He is entombed at Mt. Vaea, at a spot overlooking the sea, with a tablet on which his poem "Requiem" is inscribed.

Due in part to the rise of the modernist aesthetic, Stevenson's work fell out of favor. Criticized by figures such as Virginia Woolf, he was soon remembered only as a contributor to children's literature. For most of the 20th century he was excluded from the Oxford and Norton anthologies of literature entirely, though he is now included. According to an index of translated authors kept by UNESCO, Stevenson is ranked the 25th most translated author in the world, ahead of fellow Victorians Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and Edgar Allan Poe.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

A Child's Garden of Verses (1885)
Underwoods (1887)
Ballads (1890)
Songs of Travel and other Verses (1895)

Christmas at Sea

Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850 - 1894
The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seamen scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor'wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But 'twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops'l, and stood by to go about.

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide-race roared;
But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard:
So's we saw the cliffs and houses, and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every 'long-shore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it's just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessed Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard's was the house where I was born.

O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother's silver spectacles, my father's silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china-plates that stand upon the shelves.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessed Christmas Day.

They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
"All hands to loose topgallant sails," I heard the captain call.
"By the Lord, she'll never stand it," our first mate Jackson, cried.
..."It's the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson," he replied.

She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood.
As the winter's day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

This poem is in the public domain.

This poem is in the public domain.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

Born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson

by this poet

poem
Great is the sun, and wide he goes 
Through empty heaven without repose; 
And in the blue and glowing days 
More thick than rain he showers his rays.

Though closer still the blinds we pull 
To keep the shady parlour cool, 
Yet he will find a chink or two 
To slip his golden fingers through.

The dusty attic
poem
Summer fading, winter comes—   
Frosty mornings, tingling thumbs   
Window robins, winter rooks,   
And the picture story-books.   
   
Water now is turned to stone
Nurse and I can walk upon;   
Still we find the flowing brooks   
In the picture story-books.   
   
All the pretty things put by,   
Wait upon the
poem
Trusty, dusky, vivid, true, 
With eyes of gold and bramble-dew, 
Steel-true and blade-straight, 
The great artificer 
Made my mate. 

Honour, anger, valour, fire; 
A love that life could never tire, 
Death quench or evil stir, 
The mighty master 
Gave to her. 

Teacher, tender, comrade, wife, 
A fellow-farer