Requiem by Robert Louis Stevenson
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 long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
I have always loved this wonderfully peaceful poem. Stevenson was an atheist, but sees death as a return home when life’s journey is done. He pictures death as serene and restful.
Stevenson wrote this poem four years before he died. He was living in Samoa and had long been aware that with his very poor health, death could come at any time. It did come very suddenly. He was preparing a salad on the veranda, when he clutched his head and fell to the ground. Probably he died from a cerebral haemorrhage, although he’d always thought it would be lung problems that would kill him.
The set rhyme scheme adds emphasis to the idea of an orderly progression from life to death. The word ‘wide’ in the first line makes us think of all the limitless possibilities of life. Stevenson is acknowledging the beauty of nature that, one day, he will no longer be there to enjoy. He states that he is content with dying, accepting that death must follow life. The metaphors about the sailor and the hunter make the poem general to many people, not just a personal comment by the poet. Home is an important concept to all of us – the homes we find in life, and what home there might be for us in death. Stevenson was a long way from his home in Scotland – he had found homes in France, England, USA and Samoa, but his heart never really left Scotland and many of his heroes seek homes in Stevenson’s books. Requiem is a tender, beautiful poem, relevant to us all.
Stevenson was buried at the top of Mt Vaea in Samoa. It was because of this poem that I made the arduous climb to the top of the mountain – a deeply moving literary pilgrimage. The last three lines of the poem are inscribed on Stevenson’s tomb.
You might be interested to know that you can actually stay in one of R.L. Stevenson’s homes. The house he grew up in Edinburgh operates as a B & B. I’ve had dinner there and know that it would be a truly amazing place to stay. It’s in Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town, is filled with R.L. Stevenson books and memorabilia, and the hosts are gorgeous people. Check it out and add it to your bucket list: Stevenson House
Here is a virtual movie of R.L. Stevenson reading his own epitaph:
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