1 February 2018 Susannah

Robert Louis Stevenson & Requiem

R.L. Stevenson grave

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.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

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:

Share your thoughts on this poem by leaving a comment.

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Featured image credit- R.L. Stevenson grave in Samoa, from Public Domain
Body image credit- Robert Louis Stevenson, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12038926

Comments (12)

  1. Miland

    I wonder about Stevenson being an atheist, yet being quite willing to let go of life. Perhaps with many atheists it is a case of the heart having reasons of which the mind knows nothing, something subconscious?

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I think we atheists feel that if you have lived a good life, been loved and have loved, and have left some sort of legacy behind you, then letting go is not difficult. You do not have to believe in some sort of afterlife to be able to die with dignity or even without regret.

  2. Carol

    My mother taught me that poem when I was very young. Edinburgh was our birthplace and my mother worked just around the corner from his home. It was lovely to hear Robert Louis Stevenson’s voice reciting his poem. It is a pity that sometimes the last lines are misquoted.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      You come from one of my favourite cities in the world and I know just where RLS’s birthplace is. I am glad you also love the poem.

  3. Anna

    Just beautiful, thank you Susanna. I have never seen this one either, just so poignant, thank you

  4. Thanks, a great poem and story. Last year I published a compilation about death. One contributor chose Stevenson’s haunting 4 verse poem “Where go the Boats?” It expressed his (ie the contributor) understanding of death, especially in the final verse, how the time will come when we will hand our hopes and dreams onto future generations.
    “…Away down the river
    A hundred miles or more
    Other little children
    Shall bring my boats ashore.”

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It is a wonderful poem, isn’t it. In Edinburgh I’ve been walking by the stream, the Water of Leith, where RLS played with his paper boats as a boy and of course I thought of those lines.

  5. Karen Holt

    I fell in love with his poetry as a child, but have never come across this one. So beautiful it pit a lump in my throat, tears in my eyes, and a wistful smile on my face.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh Karen, you have made my day. I love that poem so much and am so glad you loved it too.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh you lucky woman! I have dined there, which was amazing, but never stayed there and so am turning green with envy!

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