Tuesday, 17 May 2011

A Child's Garden of Verses

by Trevor Millum
Robert Louis Stevenson is best known for writing Treasure Island, Kidnapped and the famous horror story Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. (Treasure Island is still, in my view, one of the best adventure yarns ever written.)  However, he was also a poet and wrote many poems for children. Being a sickly child and spending lots of time in bed, he sympathised with children and the thoughts and dreams and adventures you could have in your mind while stuck indoors.

'A Child's Garden of Verses' contains 64 of his poems for younger readers. Some of them will seem very quaint now or rather 'posh'.  But among this Garden of Verses are all sorts of little treasures. For example, 'Windy Nights' has an air of mystery which could be compared with the famous 'The Listeners'.

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

Whenever the trees are crying aloud
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop, goes he;
By at the gallop he goes, and then
By he comes back at the gallop again.

I like 'trees are crying aloud' and the way he uses repetition in the last four lines. The lines themselves pause at 'and then' before galloping back again.

Stevenson is fascinated by the weather - especially wind and rain - and night time. 'The Moon' begins:
The moon has a face like the clock in the hall;
She shines on thieves on the garden wall,
On streets and fields and harbour quays,
And birdies asleep in the forks of the trees.
and goes on to list other creatures that are out at night in a way that young writers could well imitate in their own poems. 

One of his main themes is Bed and Sleep, familiar topics to young readers!  Especially, the complaint that 'I have to go to bed while it's still light' and, of course, the classic ‘Land of Counterpane’ describing how, ill in bed, the young Stevenson plays with his toys on the bed around him.

The last poem is a poignant reminder that we all grow up and move away. Stevenson went as far as the South Pacific, dying at the age of 44 on the island of Samoa.

As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.
But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you. He intent
Is all on his play-business bent.
He does not hear, he will not look,
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there.

The edition I have is illustrated with the beautiful line drawings of Charles Robinson. There are many other editions of the book, with illustrations by artists as varied as Eve Garnett, Brian Wildsmith, Michael Foreman and Gyo Fujikawa. It would make an interesting project to compare the various artists’ pictures and see how they interpret the different poems. 

Trevor is a writer of all sorts of poetry and short stories for young readers. Most recently 'Double Talk', with Bernard Young, described by Ian McMillan as 'Children's poetry as it should be written - going inside the child's world and returning tired but happy'. Trevor also runs the 'Poetry Place' for Teachit, providing creative ideas for teachers. For more info, see www.trevormillum.co.uk   


  1. One of my absolute favourite books of childhood thank you Trevor for transporting me back. I have a copy upstairs still battered and faded but much loved.

  2. A Child's Garden of Verses was/is the first poetry book I ever owned. It's only just still in one piece, through being read and reread so often. I loved all the poems you mentioned, Trevor, but The Swing and The Lamplighter were probably my favourites. (I spent a lot of time on the swing, as a child. And I enjoyed the friendship evoked by Leery's kind wave of the hand to the little boy in bed. I could relate to the lad looking out of the window, when he should have been trying to go to sleep!)

    Being a literal-minded child, it wasn't till I was grown-up that I understood why the child 'had to go to bed by day' - now I get it: it was his normal bedtime; it's just that it was still daylight! But I shared his belief that his parents' demands were unreasonable. And it is only as an adult that I disovered a gem I'd never even noticed before - Keepsake Mill - which became an instant favourite once I'd read it. Meanwhile, Time to Rise has always delighted me - it was the first poem I ever learned by heart - and I wasn't even trying!

    When I grew up, I bought a second copy of the book, this time a big hardback picture-book version, illustrated by Brian Wildsmith - same poems, but such different artistic interpretations. As a child, I had spent hours poring over Eve Garnett's delightful pencil illustrations. The vivid colour and hard lines of these brightly painted colour illustrations are much bolder than those delicate pencilled lines, but each style brings something new to the lovely old words. Many of the poems seem dated and old-fashioned now, but many still ring as freshly as ever.

    Goodness me! Look what happy memories you've brought out in me, Trevor! Thank you.