John Everett (1876-1949), "Worbarrow Bay, Dorset"

John Everett (1876-1949), “Worbarrow Bay, Dorset”

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his own requiem – and it echoed in the work of later poets…

Robert Louis Stevenson suffered from ill-health for much of his short life. Nevertheless, he usually remained in good spirits. But he knew what he was up against. Thus, it is not surprising that, on more than one occasion, he composed his own poetic epitaph. He wrote the following untitled poem in 1879, at the age of 29.

Now when the number of my years
     Is all fulfilled, and I
     From sedentary life
     Shall rouse me up to die,
          Bury me low and let me lie
          Under the wide and starry sky.
          Joying to live, I joyed to die,
          Bury me low and let me lie.

Clear was my soul, my deeds were free,
     Honour was called my name,
     I fell not back from fear
     Nor followed after fame.
          Bury me low and let me lie
          Under the wide and starry sky.
          Joying to live, I joyed to die,
          Bury me low and let me lie.

Bury me low in valleys green
     And where the milder breeze
     Blows fresh along the stream,
     Sings roundly in the trees –
          Bury me low and let me lie
          Under the wide and starry sky.
          Joying to live, I joyed to die,
          Bury me low and let me lie.

George Hellman (editor), Poems by Robert Louis Stevenson Hitherto Unpublished (1916).

The poem sounds vaguely familiar. Eventually — over a period of eight years — it was transformed into what is perhaps Stevenson’s best-known poem.

Requiem

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
     And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
     And the hunter home from the hill.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Underwoods (1887).

Another instance of less being more.

Requiem took on an interesting afterlife in the hands of A. E. Housman. At first thought, one might not think of Housman and Stevenson as kindred spirits. But there is a sort of Housman feel to Requiem don’t you think? It wouldn’t seem out of place in A Shropshire Lad.

Stevenson died in Samoa on December 3, 1894. On December 22, 1894, the following poem by Housman was published in the weekly issue of the The Academy above an obituary for Stevenson.

R. L. S.

Home is the sailor, home from sea:
     Her far-borne canvas furled,
The ship pours shining on the quay
     The plunder of the world.

Home is the hunter from the hill:
     Fast in the boundless snare
All flesh lies taken at his will
     And every fowl of air.

‘Tis evening on the moorland free,
     The starlit wave is still:
Home is the sailor from the sea,
     The hunter from the hill.

A. E. Housman, The Academy, No. 1181 (December 22, 1894).

In closing, a modern footnote courtesy of Philip Larkin. Larkin’s most famous (or, perhaps, infamous) poem begins with a line about one’s “mum and dad” which, out of delicacy, I will not quote here. (Larkin once remarked about the poem: “[It] will clearly be my Lake Isle of Innisfree. I fully expect to hear it recited by a thousand Girl Guides before I die.” ) Larkin knew English poetry inside-out, and had a delightful sense of humor.  The title of his poem? This Be the Verse. Yet another reason to love Larkin.

Stephen Pentz curates poems and pictures at the First Known When Lost blog.

Tags:


  1. zmkc on Sunday 12, 2014

    Home is the sailor, home from sea,
    And the hunter home from the hill.

    Such evocative lines, mingling Masefield’s Sea Fever and Cargoes with Brueghel’s Winter in my mind.

    • Stephen Pentz on Sunday 12, 2014

      Wonderful connections, zmkc. I have been thinking of Brueghel recently as a result of having revisited Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” and I was looking at “The Hunters in the Snow” earlier this week — I agree that it fits quite well with RLS’s lines. Thank you for the thoughts.

  2. Worm on Sunday 12, 2014

    As I was reading the Requiem poem I too immediately thought it seemed just like Housman

    • Stephen Pentz on Sunday 12, 2014

      Worm: it’s an interesting correspondence, isn’t it? And it relates, I think, both to the language and to the feeling. A Shropshire Lad was published 9 years after “Requiem” was published (although Housman was no doubt writing the poems well before 1896): the thought of Housman perhaps being influenced by RLS is intriguing. I was surprised when I first came across Housman’s “R. L. S.,” but then the possible connection began to make sense, despite their vastly different outer lives.