A celebrity writer in his own time, Robert Louis Stevenson gave the world and every boy their love of peg-legged pirates, adventures at sea and hidden treasure marked with an X on a map. He also gave us Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Less known to Americans may be his poetry, which brooded upon more nostalgic, romantic and sentimental themes.
In his Songs of Travel and Other Verses (1896), Stevenson captures the wanderlust of youth, and the bohemian spirit that he cultivated in his personal life. As Scottish gentry, Stevenson could have contented himself with life at university or perhaps as an attorney. Instead, Stevenson roamed his native lands. He then toured the world, lived for a time in the United States, and moved to Samoa, where his travels finally ended. But for all of those past homes, he illuminated why we can never really go home, in these verses from Songs of Travel:
HOME no more home to me, whither must I wander?
Hunger my driver, I go where I must.
Cold blows the winter wind over hill and heather;
Thick drives the rain, and my roof is in the dust.
Loved of wise men was the shade of my roof-tree.
The true word of welcome was spoken in the door –
Dear days of old, with the faces in the firelight,
Kind folks of old, you come again no more.
Home was home then, my dear, full of kindly faces,
Home was home then, my dear, happy for the child.
Fire and the windows bright glittered on the moorland;
Song, tuneful song, built a palace in the wild.
Now, when day dawns on the brow of the moorland,
Lone stands the house, and the chimney-stone is cold.
Lone let it stand, now the friends are all departed,
The kind hearts, the true hearts, that loved the place of old.
Spring shall come, come again, calling up the moorfowl,
Spring shall bring the sun and rain, bring the bees and
Red shall the heather bloom over hill and valley,
Soft flow the stream through the even-flowing hours;
Fair the day shine as it shone on my childhood –
Fair shine the day on the house with open door;
Birds come and cry there and twitter in the chimney –
But I go for ever and come again no more.
The words capture, for me, that feeling that anyone who has moved far afield of their native land feels, of bittersweet loss. My childhood home sits at the base of a hill in an old Pennsylvania mill town, in a 1950’s era tract of land filled with little ranches. New owners of my grandmother’s home have made their alterations to the old yellow brick pile, noble pines planted by my grandfather are long gone. A dog known only to us is buried in the backyard. Underneath layers of new paint lie the scheme that I knew–a red door and green stoop–replaced with burgundy and a covered porch.
But the people who made that house a home for me are much older or no more themselves.
And in suburban Ohio, another house, once red and tidy, sits cloaked in “greige” and fortified with a foreboding chain link fence. Other homes are still occupied by family, and still others are renovated beyond recognition. Like Stevenson, the change of seasons may brighten those pathways and doorways for new families and new generations, but the energies that made such places home are extinguished and poignantly lost to oblivion.
All that, from the guy who gave us Billy Bones and Long John Silver.
And if those words are not moving enough in prose, English composers adored them as well. Here is Ralph Vaughan Williams send up of Stevenson’s meter: