Friday, September 27, 2013

Poetry Friday: Thoughts on Stevenson and Candlelight

When I was little, my family had a card game called Authors. The goal was to collect as many entire sets of "books" (each card was a different book) of the different authors as you could. It's not any Angry Birds, that card game, but we loved it.

For some reason I was drawn to Robert Louis Stevenson (you can see him at the far right of the middle row in the image above.) Even if I didn't have any of his cards at the outset, I would still cross my fingers and hope that I ended up with all four of the Stevenson cards. Maybe this was because of all the authors in the game, he was the only one looking directly at me. And those eyes!

But it might also have been because I had a book as a toddler called The Bumper Book - many of the poems in it were written by Stevenson, so I already loved the sound of his voice before I was old enough to read any of the novels he wrote which were listed in the card game. One poem I remember well, and it comes to me all summer long in Seattle, where the sun stays up in the sky until almost 10:00 at night:

Bed in Summer

IN winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.
I have to go to bed and see        
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me in the street.
And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue, 
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?

I'm sure my own kids thought of that poem when I told them it was time to stop reading and get to bed at 8:00 on a July night.  And my grandson is probably thinking of it when his mom puts him to bed, too. The days are getting shorter now - Autumn has arrived - and I will soon get that "yellow candlelight" feeling when I go to bed. I do love that poem.

Lately drawn to compression - and to the idea of happiness - this Stevenson poem is my current favorite:

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

I'm not sure I should like that poem as much as I do. All my advice to beginning poets focuses on the need for specificity - "No abstractions!" - and naming things. So what does "a number of things" tell me, specifically? Well, specifically nothing. Or unspecifically, everything. That's part of its charm. You can make of it what you will - you can be happy with just about anything on any day, and that little couplet pops into your mind. 

Robert Louis Stevenson - Portrait by John Singer Sargent, 1888

Those two lines of poetry inspired my most recent post on Books Around the Table, which is all about cultivating curiosity. If you do that, the world will be "so full of a number of things" that you can't help but be amazed - and happy - and a better writer. 

If that makes me sound wise or overwise, here's what Stevenson had to say about that: "To be overwise is to ossify; and the scruple-monger ends by standing stockstill." Wise man, Stevenson, but not overwise. I think I'll read his wonderful travel journal, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, again, a little each night at bedtime, though not by candlelight. 
The Poetry Friday round-up this week is over at Amy Ludwig VanDerWater's blog, The Poem Farm. Head over there to see what other people have posted.


  1. I love that Going to bed poem too. It just seems perfect all the way around. And my mother is fond of the quote " The world is so full of a number of things,
    I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings". She still says it from time to time. What a lovely, wise man, indeed! Thanks for posting about him and the game of Authors.

  2. I remember playing Authors too -- I had to convince my brother and cousins to play with me, though, because I was the only one that really liked it. It did teach me the titles of so many classics. Stevenson was one of my favorites to collect -- and these days I like learning about his time in Hawaii and Tahiti.

  3. It is interesting that Stevenson is the only one whose eyes we can see (and yes, you're right: those eyes!)-- in the portrait as well. He does look friendly... as a children's poet should.

  4. Yes, those eyes! And that poem, it reminds me of a poem that William Stafford may have written. Thank you for sharing.

  5. I played authors too, but mostly with my reading grandparents! They would tell me about the authors and which ones they liked, etc. You've brought me a happy memory, Julie. Stevenson's poems are good for bedtime I think because they're quiet, aren't they? Thanks for the thoughts too about poetry.

  6. I didn't even know there was a game called Authors! :) It looks really awesome. I loved reading "Kidnapped" as a child though and Treasure Island when I was a wee bit older. :) I love the couplet you cited. :)

  7. I want to play Authors...and want to see if it is still out there. Do you know the Ted Jacobs CDs? He sings poems, including many of Stevenson's. They are beautiful. I could not agree more about curiosity! Happy PF!

  8. How nice that many of you have memories of Authors, too. I think the game is still out there - at least, I hope it is!! Such lovely cards. Amy, I'll look for that Ted Jacobs CD. Thanks for the heads up on that.

  9. I want to play Aithors, too. I've loved that Stevenson poem - it captures so perfectly a child's sense of never wanting the day to end.

  10. I never played Authors, although I wish I had. I adore this poem by R.L. Stevenson! I remember feeling this exact same way about going to bed in the summertime! Thanks for posting, Julie!

  11. I love his poems, too. There's something about the poems you loved as a young child - they don't have to follow the rules!

  12. I was out of town last weekend, Julie - so coming by late! Love this dreamy post and your ponderings.

    I didn't have those Author Cards growing up, but I've discovered them on Etsy and have been making art out of them - using them as profile pics for imagined social media accounts in a little section in my Etsy shop I call "Hashtag Classic Authors" -
    Will have to do Stevenson soon! Thanks for sharing.

  13. Robyn - what a clever idea for using those cards! i love the "literary art with a vintage vibe"!!

    Thanks to everyone for the nice comments - so many of us have loved this poem and either "dressed by yellow candlelight" or " had to go to bed by day" - Stevenson appears to be alive and well for the next generation. Fingers crossed.