Sunday Poetry – Robert Louis Stevenson

On Classic FM last week I heard Teddy Tahu Rhodes singing Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel. I love this song cycle from the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson, & this poem, Whither Must I Wander, is my favourite. I find all the poems in the cycle quite melancholy but maybe that’s Vaughan Williams’ arrangement or the knowledge that RLS died young which makes me feel melancholy. I really should read Claire Harman’s biography & see if it’s a happier story than I imagine. Certainly his book about traveling in France with a donkey has some light hearted moments (I notice that I’ve been planning to read a biography of RLS for the last six years…). However, listening to Bryn Terfel sing these beautiful songs is always a pleasure.

Home no more home to me, whither must I wander?
Hunger my driver, I go where I must.
Cold blows the winter wind over hill and heather:
Thick drives the rain and my roof is in the dust.
Loved of wise men was the shade of my roof-tree,
The true word of welcome was spoken in the door–
Dear days of old with the faces in the firelight,
Kind folks of old, you come again no more.

Home was home then, my dear, full of kindly faces,
Home was home then, my dear, happy for the child.
Fire and the windows bright glittered on the moorland;
Song, tuneful song, built a palace in the wild.
Now when day dawns on the brow of the moorland,
Lone stands the house, and the chimney-stone is cold.
Lone let it stand, now the friends are all departed,
The kind hearts, the true hearts, that loved the place of old.

Spring shall come, come again, calling up the moorfowl,
Spring shall bring the sun and the rain, bring the bees and flowers;
Red shall the heather bloom over hill and valley,
Soft flow the stream through the even-flowing hours.
Fair the day shine as it shone on my childhood–
Fair shine the day on the house with open door;
Birds come and cry there and twitter in the chimney–
But I go for ever and come again no more.

The Master of Ballantrae – Robert Louis Stevenson

The story is mostly set at the time of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745 & the aftermath but the Preface is set in the late 19th century when a manuscript, telling the story of the Durrisdeers is discovered & a lawyer, Mr Thomson, shows it to an old friend (Stevenson) staying with him. The manuscript was written by Ephraim Mackellar, an old retainer of the family & describes the events leading up to a great tragedy that befell the family in the years after the Rebellion.

The Durie family have lived on their land for many years. Old Lord Durrisdeer has two sons. James, known as the Master of Ballantrae, is the elder. Handsome, blessed with winning manners but feckless & spoilt, James is forgiven his many misdeeds by his father & the local people.
Younger brother Henry is plain, quiet, dour & with none of the winning ways of his brother. His father openly favours James & plans to marry him to his ward, the heiress Alison Graeme. Alison is in love with James but his feelings for her are more offhand.

When the Rebellion breaks out with the arrival of Bonnie Prince Charlie in Scotland to claim his father’s throne, the Duries do as many other families of the time did. The old Lord decides that one son will go to the prince & the other will fight for King George, hedging their bets &
ensuring that their estates will be safe no matter who wins. James wins the toss of the coin & goes to join the Jacobites. Henry, with a bad grace, stays at home & declares for King George.

James sets off with many of the local tenants with him. Word comes back from the sole survivor that all were killed at Culloden. The old Laird is reluctant to lose Alison’s inheritance, so necessary for the upkeep of the property & encourages Henry to marry her. Both are reluctant. Alison because she loves James & Henry because he loves Alison but knows she doesn’t return his feelings. The locals, meanwhile, have forgotten all the Master’s wicked ways & turn against Henry, blaming him for staying at home while his brave brother.

The Master’s return begins a period of misery for Henry. The Master is now known as Mr Bally because, as an exiled Jacobite, he could be arrested & tried for treason if he’s caught by the King’s men. Henry is compelled to provide his brother with money that he can ill afford to take out of the estate & the economies he is forced to make get him a reputation as a miser because he will not tell his father & Alison the truth. The Master persecutes Henry in other ways, by being pleasant & kindly in company & cutting & dismissive when he & Henry are alone which make Henry look surly & ungracious when the whole family are together.

He had laid aside even his cutting English accent, and spoke with the kindly Scots tongue, that set a value on affectionate words; and though his manners had a graceful elegance mighty foreign to our ways at Durrisdeer, it was still a homely courtliness, that did not shame but flattered us. All that he did throughout the meal, indeed, drinking wine with me with a notable respect, turning about for a pleasant word with John, fondling his father’s hand, breaking into little merry tales of his adventures … that I could scarce wonder if my lord and Mrs Henry sat about the board with radiant faces, or if John waited behind with dropping tears.

The Master also ingratiates himself with Alison & little Katherine, Henry & Alison’s daughter. The old Lord can, of course, see no wrong in his eldest son. Mackellar is often a witness to this because Henry has had to take him into his confidence. Mackellar hates the Master & makes a formidable enemy of him when he refuses to drive off Jessie Broun, the young woman who has borne the Master’s child & hangs around Durrisdeer wanting to speak to him.

Henry & Alison’s estrangement grows & they barely see or speak to each other except at meals. Mackellar begins to suspect that the Master is not in such danger as he asserts & Henry discovers that Mr Bally is, in fact, in no danger at all & is a Government spy to boot. However, even after Henry exposes him to their father as a liar, the old man makes excuses for his favourite & rejoices that he is in no danger rather than reproach him for the lies.

The ill feeling between the brothers comes to a head on the night of February 27th 1757. As they play at cards late at night, the Master taunts Henry with his influence over Alison & says that she has always loved him & loves him still. Henry strikes his brother & this leads to a duel which takes place in the long shrubbery behind the house. The Master tries to grab Henry’s sword (against the rules of the duel) & is stabbed as a result. Henry & Mackellar think him dead & return to the house.  When Mackellar goes back to the shrubbery to retrieve the body, the Master has disappeared.

Henry falls very ill & Mackellar & Alison nurse him through a desperate fever.  Henry recovers from his illness but he is marked by it. He is devastated by the thought that he killed his brother & even when Mackellar tells him of the Master’s disappearance, he is not really comforted as he knows that they will meet again. Even as Henry recovers, his father sickens & dies of a brain fever. Some months later, a son, Alexander, is born, & Henry begins to revive as he makes plans for the boy’s future.

Chevalier Burke meets up with the Master again in India & is rejected by him when he needs help. The Master returns to Durrisdeer with his Indian servant, Secundra Dass & tries to ingratiate himself with the family again although with less success this time. The family escape to New York, leaving Mackellar to keep an eye on the Master.  It doesn’t take him long to discover where the family have gone & he follows them, forcing one final confrontation in the wilderness between the brothers.

The Master of Ballantrae is a novel full of adventure & excitement. James Durie is one of the most malevolent characters in fiction, able to inspire complete loyalty in his dependants but also inspiring fear, envy & hatred in others. His subtle undermining of Henry & attempts to seduce Alison & young Alexander are almost impossible to expose. Henry isn’t a completely sympathetic character which makes the tragedy more realistic. He’s sulky, resentful, stubborn &, after his illness, just as misguided as his own father in favouring one of his children over another. The Master is the incubus that haunts the family but he’s always very much a real man rather than a supernatural being although his end evokes all the reader’s fears of the uncanny.

Mackellar is a fascinating narrator. He begins by being completely on Henry’s side but his loyalties waver on the voyage to New York as the Master sets out to charm him as he has charmed so many others. The structure of the novel with several narrators telling the story & the role of a servant as witness reminded me of Wuthering Heights. Mackellar is like Nelly Dean; he’s our guide but he has his own prejudices & is just as interfering as Nelly ever was. The story is more than just a battle between good & evil but Mackellar’s dour narration is full of foreboding from the beginning as he tells his story from many years after the events.

Sunday Poetry – Robert Louis Stevenson

Stevenson again this week. I’ve just been listening to Laura Wright singing Over the Sea to Skye so when I came across this parody? adaptation? of the song, I couldn’t resist it. It’s from this anthology selected by Jenni Calder, Translated Kingdoms.

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
      Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
      Over the sea to Skye.

Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
      Eigg on the starboard bow;
Glory of youth glowed in his soul;
      Where is that glory now?

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
      Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
      Over the sea to Skye.

Give me again all that was there,
      Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
      Give me the lad that’s gone!

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
      Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
      Over the sea to Skye.

Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
      Mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, all that was fair,
      All that was me is gone.

Sunday poetry – Celebrations of Love

The anthology I’m now reading for Sunday Poetry is this lovely collection of Scottish Love Poetry by Antonia Fraser, published in 1975. This is another of the battered paperbacks I bought at the Lake Daylesford Book Barn in the 1980s when I used to stay with friends who had a lovely old house right on the Lake & two doors up from the Book Barn. Whenever I was missing, they knew where I’d be – next to the potbelly stove in the Book Barn.
Subtitled A Personal Anthology, in the Introduction, Fraser explains that her criteria was simply to choose the love poetry she enjoyed & had returned to over the years. The book is divided into 21 sections, each describing a different stage or condition of love, so I’ve decided to follow those sections & choose a poem from each of them over the next 21 weeks. The first section, Celebrations of Love, opens with the most famous Scottish love poem of all, Robert Burns’s A red, red rose. This is one of my favourites too & Bryn Terfel sings a gorgeous version of it on his CD of British love songs. But, I decided on a lesser known poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, a gentle celebration of contented, happy love.

I will make you brooches and toys for your delight
Of bird-song at morning and star-shine at night.
I will make a palace fit for you and me
Of green days in forests and blue days at sea.

I will make my kitchen, and you shall keep your room,
Where white flows the river and bright blows the broom,
And you shall wash your linen and keep your body white
In rainfall at morning and dewfall at night.

And this shall be for music when no one else is near,
The fine song for singing, the rare song to hear!
That only I remember, that only you admire,
Of the broad road that stretches and the roadside fire.

Travels with a Donkey – Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson set out for a fortnight’s travelling through the Cevennes region of France. The book he wrote about the journey is called Travels with a Donkey because the donkey, Modestine, is a source of exasperation & companionship during his journey. Stevenson began his journey in Velay, where he has a “sleeping sack” of his own design made up,

This child of my invention was nearly six feet square, exclusive of two triangular flaps to serve as a pillow by night & as the top & bottom of the sack by day. I call it ‘the sack’ but it was never a sack by more than courtesy; only a sort of long roll or sausage, green waterproof cart-cloth without & blue sheep’s fur within. It was commodious as a valise, warm & dry as a bed… I could bury myself in it up to the neck; for my head I trusted to a fur cap, with a hood to fold down over my ears & a band to pass under my nose as a respirator; & in case of heavy rain I proposed to make myself a little tent, or tentlet, with my waterproof coat, three stones & a bent branch.

He then needs a beast of burden to carry his bed & few possessions & meets Father Adam, an old man willing to sell his donkey. In the market place at Monastier, negotiations begin,

I was already backed by a deputation of my friends; but as if this were not enough, all the buyers & sellers came round & helped me in the bargain; & the ass & I & Father Adam were the centre of a hubbub for nearly half an hour. At length she passed into my service for the consideration of 65 francs & a glass of brandy. The sack had already cost 80 francs & two glasses of beer; so that Modestine, as I instantly baptized her, was on all accounts the cheaper article.

They set off, & after some very comical experiments in keeping the sack on Modestine’s back & encouraging her to keep moving faster than a snail’s pace, Stevenson sets out on his exploration of the Cevennes. The heart of the book is his sojourn at the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of the Snows. Stevenson’s Protestant heart quails a little at the thought of entering a Catholic monastery but he finds interesting companion there among his fellow travellers & the monks. Although many of them are bound by a vow of silence, the monks who serve visitors are allowed to speak & he learns a little more about the Trappist’s austerely beautiful way of life,

I took my place in the gallery to hear Compline & Salve Regina, with which the Cistercians bring every day to a conclusion. There were none of those circumstances which strike the Protestant as childish or as tawdry in the public offices of Rome. A stern simplicity, heightened by the romance of the surroundings, spoke directly to the heart. I recall the whitewashed chapel, the hooded figures in the choir, the lights alternately occluded & revealed, the strong manly singing, the silence that ensued, the sight of cowled heads bowed in prayer, & then the clear trenchant beating of the bell, breaking in to show that the last office was over & the hour of sleep had come; & when I remember, I am not surprised that I made my escape into the court with somewhat whirling fancies, & stood like a man bewildered in the windy starry night.

As he journeys through the Languedoc region, he hears stories of the Protestant enclave that stood out against the Catholic majority during bloody civil wars centuries before. He meets helpful peasants & obtuse peasants. He describes the mountainous countryside & the more or less comfortable inns he stays in on the journey (when he’s not camping out in his sleeping sack). Near the end of his travels, at St Jean du Gard, poor Modestine is sore & in need of rest. Stevenson is eager to push on to Alais where his letters await him &, rather unfeelingly, sells Modestine without a moment’s thought & jumps on a coach to complete his journey. But,

It was not until I was fairly seated by the driver, & rattling through a rocky valley with dwarf olives, that I became aware of my bereavement. I had lost Modestine. Up to that moment I had thought I hated her; but now she was gone, “And oh! The difference to me!” For twelve days we had been fast companions; we had travelled upwards of a hundred & twenty miles, crossed several respectable ridges, & jogged along with our six legs by many a rocky & many a boggy by-road. After the first day, although sometimes I was hurt & distant in manner, I still kept my patience; & as for her, poor soul! She had come to regard me as a god. She loved to eat out of my hand. She was patient, elegant in form, the colour of an ideal mouse, & inimitably small. Her faults were those of her race & sex; her virtues were her own.

My copy of Travels with a Donkey is a beautiful Folio Society edition with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone. There are no notes or introduction so I don’t know why Stevenson was in France or what prompted him to take his journey. I’ve read quite a bit of Stevenson in the last year or so & it’s probably time I read a good biography of him. I know Claire Harman has written one & I’ve loved her books on Jane Austen, Fanny Burney & Sylvia Townsend Warner so I think that’s the one I need.

Strange case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

The gothic novels of the 19th century are much better known these days through movie adaptations. Many more people have seen a movie version of Dracula or Frankenstein than have actually read the original novels. We all think we know the stories but the movies are often very inaccurate. It’s surprising to read Frankenstein & discover that the monster didn’t have bolts sticking out of his neck & Frankenstein didn’t have a hunchbacked assistant called Igor! Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde is another example of this. It’s really a novella or a long short story, only 65 pages long. I always thought the story was set in Edinburgh as Stevenson was Scottish but it’s set in London. There are no women in it, apart from servants. This comes as a surprise after seeing the Spencer Tracy movie with glamorous Lana Turner & Ingrid Bergman in starring roles. It’s almost impossible for readers today to read this book innocently because we know the secret of Jekyll & Hyde. The term has become proverbial for someone with a split personality. But, Dr Jekyll’s secret isn’t revealed in the book until the final chapter when he tells his own story. I will add a spoiler warning though in case there’s anyone who doesn’t want to know.


The story begins with two men, Mr Utterson, a lawyer, & his friend, Mr Enfield. As they take their weekly walk together, they come to a door in a wall & Enfield tells a story connected with it. He saw a man trample a child in the street. He chases after him as he tries to escape &, after rescuing him from an angry mob, compels him to pay the child’s family compensation. The man takes Enfield to that door in the wall, lets himself in & writes a cheque. The cheque is in the name of Dr Jekyll, a friend of both men. Jekyll is a respected doctor & it seems so unlikely that he would be associated with such a creature as Mr Hyde. When Jekyll makes a new will, leaving all his goods to Hyde if he should die or disappear, Utterson becomes obsessed with finding out the connection between the two men. Blackmail for some crime or youthful indiscretion seem the most likely explanations. There’s an atmosphere of mystery & dread from the beginning as everyone who comes across Hyde is repulsed by him without really knowing why. A housemaid who witnesses one of his crimes describes him to the police as “particularly small & particularly wicked-looking.” It’s only when Dr Jekyll tells his own story in a confession read by Utterson, that the full story is revealed.

It’s a story of scientific experimentation that resulted in a potion that, when taken, transformed Jekyll into Hyde, another personality who could live out the fantasies of violence & sin that Jekyll had to repress. The horror when Jekyll goes to sleep as himself & wakes as Hyde without taking the potion & realises that he now has no control over his transformation is chilling. The fact that most of Hyde’s crimes aren’t described only makes the story more horrible. The reader is left to imagine the horror. Much more effective than showing us, we can supply the details from our own fears.

The Introduction & Notes to my OUP edition by Roger Luckhurst explore all the theories that have been put forward to account for the hints in the story. It filled in the background to the writing of the story & the many allusions in it. That’s why I love OUP & Penguin editions of the classics. There’s so much that the original readers knew & could take for granted that modern readers don’t know. There are several other short stories & essays in this edition & I’m looking forward to reading them. I only discovered Stevenson last year after having several of his novels on my tbr shelves for years. I read Kidnapped, Catriona & The Master of Ballantrae. I think more of his short stories will have to be next.