January 16, 2018

Stevenson, Belloc, Kids

On this day in 1894 Robert Louis Stevenson died, and on this day in 1896 the second edition of Hilaire Belloc's A Bad Child's Book of Beasts was published. Although now a footnote to his classic adventure novels, Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses was very popular in his day, and the literary histories regard it as "the most important collection of serious poems for children of the [19th] century." Belloc's comic verse has also remained popular -- his 150 other books have not -- and his Beasts take a place with Stevenson's Garden in the "Golden Age of Children's Literature," though in opposite sorts of chapters.

Stevenson's poems are autobiographical in factual and darker ways. The chronic poor health that would only periodically disable him in adulthood thoroughly dominated his youth. The result was the invalid's imbalance of deprivation and excess. While he was kept in bed for weeks and months at a time, kept out of school, kept away from sports, and kept constant watch over by his nurse, young Louis spent his days and nights in a surfeit of toys and pretending.:
    When I was sick and lay a-bed,
    I had two pillows at my head,
    And all my toys beside me lay,
    To keep me happy all the day.

    And sometimes for an hour or so
    I watched my leaden soldiers go,
    With different uniforms and drills,
    Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

    And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
    All up and down among the sheets;
    Or brought my trees and houses out,
    And planted cities all about.

    I was the giant great and still
    That sits upon the pillow-hill,
    And sees before him, dale and plain,
    The pleasant land of counterpane.
Even when not confined to "The Land of Counterpane" Stevenson's child is often staring out closed windows, or into dying fires, or at collapsed games:
    ...We sailed along for days and days,
    And I had the very best of plays;
    But Tom fell out and hurt his knee,
    So there was no one left but me.
    ("A Good Play")
In the essay "Child's Play," written in his late twenties, Stevenson remembers make-believe as character-shaping, through "the expansion of spirit, the dignity and self-reliance that came with a pair of mustachios in burnt cork." But in another essay from the same year, he asks, "Does not life go down with a better grace foaming in full body over a precipice, than miserably straggling to an end in sandy deltas?" This sort of question is regarded as more than rhetorical by those who write about Stevenson, and biographer Ian Bell (Dreams of Exile, 1992) is not alone when he reads the Garden poems as "altogether more dark" than they at first seem. The world adventures, the runaway projects, the adamant writing and the poor health would kill Stevenson just three weeks past his forty-fourth birthday. Although still full of boyish plans near the end, and although now looking out at the world from his Samoan hilltop, Stevenson felt the end and the child's sick-room closing in: "Small is the word; it is a small age and I am of it."

Hilaire Belloc was as robust as Stevenson was thin, as planted in Sussex as Stevenson was nomadic. He was a politician, a prominent essayist and debater, a man who had sure arguments about England, Catholicism, anti-Semitism (all good), women's suffrage, social insurance and minimum wage (all bad). But he also had a sense of humor, which he could turn not only against the sunny-cute view of children but against their parents:
    The Big Baboon is found upon
    The plains of the Cariboo:
    He goes about with nothing on
    (A shocking thing to do).
    But if he dressed respectably
    And let his whiskers grow,
    How like this Big Baboon would be
    To Mister So-and-so!
Still, he was a type that RLS could only close his eyes to as a child, and could not be as a man:
    ...When my eyes I once again
    Open, and see all things plain:
    High, bare walls, great bare floor;
    Great big people perched on chairs,
    Stitching tucks and mending tears,
    Each a hill that I could climb,
    And talking nonsense all the time --

    O dear me,
    That I could be
    A sailor on the rain-pool sea,
    A climber on the clover tree,
    And just come back, a sleepy head,
    Late at night to go to bed.
    ("The Little Land")

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