Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses

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

In this one of his most famous lines, Robert Louis Stevenson presents us with a metaphor of the child as a king and the world as his vast domain.  This image of the child king and his great estate inspires many of these poems; they are narrated from a child’s point of view and reveal his experiences of the created and human world, a world seen as a rich kingdom full of treasures especially intended for the delight of a child. This wealth does not of course consist of King Midas’s gold or the wealth of nations but comes from the bounty of the created world that corresponds perfectly with a child’s endless love of play in all its varied forms.

In these poems the child is as rich as a king because he plays in all four seasons, in daytime and nighttime, in solitude and with friends, in the outdoors and in the household, and with toy soldiers and with storybooks, always the monarch of his world.  The world is created for the exquisite happiness of children. Earth, air, fire, and water exist as playful companions to befriend the child. In “At the Seaside” the boy who digs holes in the sand with his shovel is having fun with the ocean that runs away and returns:

“my holes were empty like a cup. / In every hole the sea came up, / Till it could come no more.”

When the boy flies his kite in the spring, the wind that hurls it on high appears to the child’s imagination as a fellow playmate:

 “O blower, are you young or old? Are you a beast of field and tree, / Or just a stronger child than me?”

The autumn fires burning leaves and the flames from the fireplace invite fun as much as the water and wind coming and going in the games they play:

“Blinking embers, tell me true/ Where are those armies marching to, / And what the burning city is/ That crumbles in your furnaces!”

Thus as the child enjoys the special pleasures of the four seasons, a new form of play always awaits him:

“Sing a song of seasons! Something bright in all! / Flowers in the summer, / Fires in the fall!” Mother Nature offers a cornucopia for the sheer enjoyment of the child’s fun in all times and in all places.

Play continues both at the break of day and at bedtime. At dawn the sun plays at a game of hide and seek. Though the curtains are drawn and the blinds are closed, the summer sun “will find a chink or two/ To slip his golden fingers through.” No one can hide anywhere for long without being discovered by the sun that finds its way through keyholes, attics, and haylofts. The sun rises every day “To please the child, to paint the rose, / The gardener of the World, he goes.”

This reveling in the world of play simply continues at night. In “Escape at Bedtime” the child marvels at “the thousands of millions of stars” that seem as infinite as the leaves on a tree and the crowds at the park. The constellations—“The Dog, and the Plough, and the Hunter”—are not hidden in vast space but near enough to continue the fun of the day:

“They saw me at last, and they chased me with cries, / And they soon had me packed into bed.”

This rhythm of day and night alternating and varying the pleasures of the child never ceases to please. The night produces its distinctive form of light and color “As the blinding shadows fall/ As the rays diminish/ Under evening’s cloak”—a time when candles shine and stars illumine “the night divine” until the glory of the morning transfigures the world beckoning the child to come outside and play, all the flowers speaking:

“’Up they cry, the day is come/ On the smiling valleys: / We have beat the morning drum; / Playmate, join your allies!”

It is as pleasurable going to bed as waking up in the morning. One delightful experience leads to another which leads to another in the eternal cycle of the seasons and in the constant rhythm of day and night. Nothing is déjà vu.

The child is as happy as a king because of all he owns and the size of his estate. His kingdom extends from the “Land of Nod” to “Foreign Lands” to the “Land of Story Books” to the “Little Land” to “My Kingdom”. In “The Land of Nod” the boy climbs “up the mountain-sides of dreams” where he encounters strange sights and dangerous adventures that he cannot continue in the morning. In “Foreign Lands” the child climbs a tree and beholds the vistas in the horizon. As he views the garden beyond, the river in the distance, and the roads ahead, he imagines the prospect of exploring the ocean:

“If I could find another tree/ Farther and farther I should see, / To where the grown-up river slips/ Into the sea among the ships.”

In “The Land of Story Books” the child plays make-believe with his gun as he pretends to be hunter and scout exploring the forests, and in “Picture Books in Winter” the child travels to “Seas and cities, near and far” encountering “Sheep and shepherds, trees and crooks” as well as “the flying fairies’ looks.”

The world is made for discovery, and the child is always traveling to these new lands and wondrous places. The child finds the world spacious, copious, and inexhaustible in its objects of interest and sources of fascination. In “My Kingdom” the pool of water becomes an ocean as the child makes a boat, searches caverns, and creates a town, noticing the sparrows, minnows, and bees all around him: “This was the world and I was king.”

In “My Treasures” this wealthy child-king amasses his riches. His chest contains the nuts he gathered in the autumn, the whistle he carved with Nursie “with a knife of my own,” the stone he discovered “with the white and the yellow and grey” he is convinced is gold, and a chisel, the most priceless item in the collection which he calls “the king” of his treasures.

With an intuitive glance, a child’s sensibility, and an innocent simplicity, the boy in these poems senses the goodness of God’s creation, the gift of life as “the wildest of adventures” (Chesterton’s phrase), and the wonder of the real world as a place of infinite delight fitted especially for children who like to hide and seek, to wonder and imagine, and to play outdoors and to play indoors as they “sing a song of seasons” or delight in “Happy chimney-corner days.”

Mitchell Kalpakgian

By

Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian is a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children s Literature.

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  • Lzyfvx 1

    What a marvelous article to brighten my spirit and tickle my memory. Written so light and airy, the images danced through my mind like will of the wisp.

  • Kathy Perry

    I read them to my Grandkids when they were little. I enjoyed them as much as they did, brought back many memories, things they don’t get to experience these days.

  • poetcomic1

      I always loved this book.  I have also loved RLS personally  ever since I read his letter about Father Damien to a pompous ass of a Presbyterian ‘missionary’ who tried to mock and defame the saint.
    http://www.fullbooks.com/Father-Damien.html

  • Jdknutsen

    I was given a copy of this book when I was a child and I still have it!  I plan to read it to my as-yet-unborn daughter.

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