Robert Louis Stevenson at age 7.
I’ve been thinking how different poets speak to us at different times in our lives.
Take Robert Louis Stevenson, for example. “My Shadow,” from A Child’s Garden of Verses, was the first poem I truly loved. I picked it out of a library book when I was 8 or 9, and was convinced it was written just for me.
I memorized the poem and never took my shadow for granted ever again. She was much better than an imaginary friend, but what a copycat! ☺
When I had lunch at the Wai’oli Tea Room recently, I was fascinated by a picture I saw of Stevenson with King Kalakaua (the “Merrie Monarch”). I knew that Louis, as he liked to be called, spent about three years (1888-90) sailing around the eastern and central Pacific, visiting the Marquesas, Society Islands, Tahiti, etc., with an extended stay (5 months) in Hawai’i, before purchasing 400+ acres and building a home in Samoa (where he is buried). I wanted to know more.
RLS and his wife Fanny in the Gilbert Islands.
After a little digging, I stumbled upon an online exhibit at the Edinburgh City Libraries website, featuring a scrapbook of Louis’s South Sea adventures which belonged to his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne. What a treasure trove of goodies!
There are rare never-before-been-seen private photos of a relaxed Stevenson and his family, which offers a unique peek at how island life was perceived by foreign travelers during Victorian times.
RLS with his wife (Fanny), the King, his mother (Margaret Stevenson), and Lloyd Osbourne (seated on floor), aboard the Casco, a yacht Stevenson chartered in 1888 for his South Seas voyage.
Of course, I most love the photos of Louis in Hawai’i. Louis became great friends with the King; both were world travelers who enjoyed champagne and a good game of whist. Here is a poem Louis wrote for Kalakaua in February 1889:
RLS with Lloyd Osbourne and King Kalakaua in the King’s Boat House (1889).
(With a present of a pearl)
The Silver Ship, my King – that was her name
In the bright islands whence your fathers came –
The Silver Ship, at rest from winds and tides,
Below your palace in your harbour rides:
And the seafarers, sitting safe on shore,
Like eager merchants count their treasures o’er.
One gift they find, one strange and lovely thing,
Now doubly precious since it pleased a king.
The right, my liege, is ancient as the lyre
For bards to give to kings what kings admire.
‘Tis mine to offer for Apollo’s sake;
And since the gift is fitting, yours to take.
To golden hands the golden pearl I bring:
The ocean jewel to the island king.
~ from Songs of Travel and Other Verses (1896)
Feast given by HRM Kalakaua in Waikiki. His sister, Lili’uokalani, is on his right, and Stevenson’s mother is on his left. RLS is seated beside Lili’uokalani (1889). Look at all the food!
Even more interesting is Louis’s friendship with young Crown Princess Victoria Ka’iulani (13), who was being groomed for the throne, and who would soon be sent to England for schooling. They shared a Scots heritage (Ka’iulani’s father was Edinburgh financier Archibald Cleghorn), and Louis helped prepare her for the arduous journey to the UK by regaling her with legends and folktales of Scotland.
Crown Princess Ka’iulani, age 20 (1895)
They loved to talk about books and enjoyed tea parties under the giant banyan tree or in the thatch house (her mother’s office), where she shared funny stories about her pony and pet peacocks. She was devastated by Stevenson’s death at age 44, and herself succumbed to a fever at age 23, never realizing her royal birthright after the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893.
Even though Louis never had any natural children of his own, he remained a staunch child avocate all his life, and expressed paternal concern for Ka’iulani’s health and well being in a land far from her island home.
TO PRINCESS KAIULANI
Ka’iulani at age 14 (Hawaii State Archives)
[Written in April to Kaiulani in the April of her age; and at Waikiki, within easy walk of Kaiulani’s banyan! When she comes to my land and her father’s, and the rain beats upon the window (as I fear it will), let her look at this page; it will be like a weed gathered and pressed at home; and she will remember her own islands, and the shadow of the mighty tree; and she will hear the peacocks screaming in the dusk and the wind blowing in the palms; and she will think of her father sitting there alone. – R. L. S.]
Forth from her land to mine she goes,
The island maid, the island rose,
Light of heart and bright of face:
The daughter of a double race.
Her islands here, in Southern sun,
Shall mourn their Kaiulani gone,
And I, in her dear banyan shade,
Look vainly for my little maid.
But our Scots islands far away
Shall glitter with unwonted day,
And cast for once their tempests by
To smile in Kaiulani’s eye.
~ from Songs of Travel and Other Verses (1896)
So, a seemingly casual lunch connected me to Stevenson once again. Far more than “My Shadow,” I now see him as someone who stepped outside the prevailing “Western superiority” mindset, viewing island peoples as neither noble savages or cannibalistic heathens. He valued indigenous cultures, worked to protect their human rights, and honored their unique identities.
Did you know he’s the 25th most translated author in the world (ahead of Dickens, Poe and Wilde)? He was appreciated in his own time, but for most of the 20th century he was considered a second rate writer and largely dismissed by literary critics, known for his horror stories and children’s poetry (he’s nowhere to be found in my Norton Anthology). Fortunately, his work is now being re-evaluated and recognized for its considerable range, keen observations of human nature, and social and historical significance (novels, poetry, critical essays, plays, biographies, political tracts, letters, travel writing).
Though he was plagued by health problems his entire life (tuberculosis), he traveled widely to inform his writing, and never let his physical frailty prevent him from working. I’m glad I have visited the land of his birth, and that once, long ago, he visited mine.
Today’s Roundup is being hosted by the beautiful and talented Liz Garton Scanlon at Liz in Ink. Pop on over and sample some of the tasty poetry she’s serving up this week. Take her a piece of peacock cake, in honor of Princess Victoria Ka’iulani Kalaninuiahilapalapa Kawekiu i Lunalilo Cleghorn’s birthday tomorrow (her name is a poem in itself).
Peacock cake by schmish/flickr.
“The world is so full of a number of things; I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” ~ RLS
*Unless otherwise noted, all photos © 2010 Capital Collections, Edinburgh City Libraries and Image Services Library. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2010 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.