Things aren’t necessarily all they may seem to be at first sight. Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem is beautifully written, ‘mellifluous’ comes to mind, and the sentiments seem noble and praiseworthy. The conventional Victorian would doubtless have approved. You and I, however, might notice a little play with words. In line 2, ‘grave‘, a noun, is a tomb, but in line 5 it becomes a verb, meaning to carve in stone. And when we read that Stevenson ‘laid me down with a will’, it might occur to us that, as well as rhyming with line 8’s ‘hill’, drawing up a will prior to one’s death is a sensible use of one’s time.
The poem’s concluding words, ‘Home is the sailor’ might also give us pause. Stevenson was born in Scotland, but was much travelled, living in America, the south of France, England, and finally Samoa. Only 4 of his 44 years of life were spent in the latter, so it might seem odd to call it ‘home’. Then again, he writes, ‘Glad did I live and gladly die”, but inheriting the weak lungs of his mother, Stevenson endured ill health throughout his life. Determined to marry the woman he loved, though she was already married, he pursued her by travelling steerage across the Atlantic, and then in an emigrant train to San Francisco, where he arrived penniless, starving and dangerously ill. The lady obtained a divorce and they were married, but he suffered from progressively worsening tuberculosis until a cerebral haemorrhage was the final straw. Ill did he live, and ill did he die.
You may be thinking that I’ve nothing entirely positive to say about this poem. Not so – I do like the opening line, ‘Under the wide and starry sky’. Stevenson didn’t know it, but if you’re up-to-date with modern science, you’ll know that we’re all ‘stardust’. The atoms we’re made of were created billions of years ago, in the inconceivable temperatures and pressures of cataclysmically exploding stars, which hurled out into surrounding space, the elements needed for life. And these atoms of ours will still be around billions of years from now, somewhere in the trackless depths of space. So, ‘under the wide and starry sky’, some might say, is a ‘pretty cool’ place to be, alive or dead.
Philip Larkin, a fellow poet, seems to have understood that we’re not meant to take Stevenson’s poem too literally. The title of his poem is taken straight from the beginning of line 5 of Stevenson’s – “This Be the Verse”. How would you and I react if we saw an epitaph on a gravestone starting with, ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’?! You might find yourself indulging in a John McEnroeism – ‘You can’t be serious, man’. Well not totally, no – we’re not to take Larkin’s poem too literally either. There’s a lot of mischievous overstatement in it, but a bit of underlying bite as well. Yes, he’s ‘larkin’ about, but neither must his poem, like Stevenson’s, be taken too lightly. It’s to be enjoyed for its racy language and style, and also for its ‘truth’, even if it’s not ‘the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’.
I’m suggesting that because the content of Larkin’s poem seems ‘too bad to be true’, it’s suggesting to us that the content of Stevenson’s poem seems ‘too good to be true’. Both of them, however, make enjoyable reading, and should at least sometimes appear side-by-side in anthologies of poetry.