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Robert Louis Stevenson published “At the Sea-Side” in 1885 as part of his collection A Child’s Garden of Verses. Stevenson dedicated his collection to his childhood nurse Alison Cunningham, whom he affectionately called “Cummy,” and who frequently read to the young Stevenson while caring for him. Written during the Late Victorian period, Stevenson’s poetry embodies important characteristics of this literary and historical era. Most importantly, “At the Sea-Side” connects with the Victorian period’s focus on colonialism and imperialism enacted through sea transportation and naval expeditions.
“At the Sea-Side” is a lyric poem offering the speaker’s personal feelings and thoughts. The poem itself is like a memory, with the speaker reminiscing about a childhood day spent on the beach digging in the sand. Stevenson’s biographical information provides additional framework for reading “At the Sea-Side.” Born into a family of lighthouse engineers, it was expected that Stevenson would continue in the family business, though he never did. From an early age, the sea was an important part of Stevenson’s life. Even as an adult, Stevenson crossed oceans and seas numerous times for love, for illness, and for adventure.
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Robert Louis Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father, Thomas, was a lighthouse engineer and the Stevenson family built a good portion of the deep-sea lighthouses along the Scottish coast. Margaret Isabella Balfour, Stevenson’s mother, came from a family of lawyers and clergymen (“Robert Louis Stevenson’s Life.” RLS Website). As a child, Stevenson was often ill and rather than going to school was frequently kept home. Stevenson received the majority of his education from his nannies and private tutors. It was through his “somewhat isolated childhood” that “a healthy imagination through which dreams of being a writer developed” (“Robert Louis Stevenson: The Life.” Robert Louis Stevenson Museum).
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It was assumed that Stevenson would enter the same occupation as his predecessors and be a lighthouse engineer as they did. At 17, Stevenson began his studies at Edinburgh University to pursue a degree in engineering. However, he had no passion for engineering and, to appease his father, began studying law instead. By 1875, he matriculated through law school, but never practiced or pursued a career in law. While at university, Stevenson cultivated his love of art and writing, and began to form his own identity. He “set himself up as a liberal bohemian who abhorred the alleged cruelties and hypocrisies of bourgeois respectability” (“Robert Louis Stevenson.” Britannica). He visited France and socialized with other writers and artists. As part of this new bohemian identity, he grew his hair long, wore a velvet jacket, developed atheist views, and “began spending time in the lounge of the Speculative Society—a group for orators and writers at the university” (“Robert Louis Stevenson: The Life.” Robert Louis Stevenson Museum).
In 1876, Stevenson visited the French village of Grez where he met Fanny Osbourne. Though the family was from California, Osbourne was in France with her two children, Belle and Lloyd. Osbourne and Stevenson connected and were attracted to one another; although Osbourne was married, she was separated from her husband at the time. After Osbourne and her two children returned to California, in August of 1879, Stevenson traveled to meet her there. His travels “which included coming very near death and eking out a precarious living in Monterey and San Francisco” ended when he married Fanny in 1880 following her divorce from her first husband (“Robert Louis Stevenson.” Britannica). Stevenson and his new family returned to Scotland following their wedding and honeymoon.
After he met Osbourne and before his marriage, Stevenson’s first publications began to appear. An Inland Voyager was the first book Stevenson published. Appearing in print in 1878, the book details Stevenson’s trip from Antwerp to northern France by canoe. Another piece of travel writing, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, appeared the following year. Stevenson’s journey to California to meet Osbourne is detailed in The Amateur Emigrant, which was fully published in 1895.
After travel writing, Stevenson turned his attention to writing short stories; indeed, Stevenson “initiated the British tradition” of short story writing/publication. “A Lodging for the Night,” published in 1877, was Stevenson’s very first short story and was followed by a collection of short stories titled New Arabian Nights (1882). Other famous short stories Stevenson produced include “Thrawn Janet” (1881), “Markheim” (1885) and “Olalla” (1885). In 1887, these short stories were published as a collection titled The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables (“Robert Louis Stevenson: The Life.” Robert Louis Stevenson Museum).
As he aged, the respiratory illness that plagued Stevenson as a child did not abate. During the 1880s, Steven again experienced trouble with his lungs (possibly caused by tuberculosis) that kept him confined to his house. Relegated to bed, Stevenson produced longer works of fiction. His “first volume-length fictional work, as well as the first of his writings that would be dubbed ‘for children,’” Treasure Island was published in book form in 1883. Other novels followed: Prince Otto in 1885, Kidnapped in 1886, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, The Black Arrow in 1888, and The Master of Ballantrae in 1889.
Recurring illness led Stevenson to frequently travel throughout his later years. Under the guidance of his physician, Stevenson and his family spent some time in Switzerland. Between 1881 and 1882, Stevenson vacillated between Switzerland and Scotland. In September of 1882, Stevenson suffered lung hemorrhages while in Scotland, which subsequently forced the Stevenson family to travel to the coast of France. A cholera outbreak then caused the Stevensons to leave France and sail to England, where Stevenson’s “frequent bouts of dangerous illness proved conclusively that the British climate, even in the south of England, was not for him” (“Robert Louis Stevenson.” Britannica).
In August of 1887, Stevenson traveled to the United States, and in June of 1888 he and his family sailed from San Francisco throughout the Pacific. They stopped at numerous islands while sailing through the Pacific, including the Hawaiian Islands. They explored and lived on one island before moving to the next. The family settled in the Samoan islands in 1889, where they built their home, Vailima. These Pacific adventures served as inspiration for Stevenson’s writing. Numerous publications contain tropical island settings and themes: The Wrecker (1892), Island Nights’ Entertainments (1893), The Ebb-Tide (1894) and In the South Seas (1896). These later writings were critically considered to be more compelling than his earlier works.
On December 3, 1894, Stevenson passed away in the Pacific Islands after suffering a brain hemorrhage.
When I was down beside the sea
A wooden spade they gave to me
To dig the sandy shore.
My holes were empty like a cup.
In every hole the sea came up
Till it could come no more.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. “At the Sea-Side.” 1885. Poetry Foundation.
Stevenson’s poem opens with a first-person speaker. The poem is in the past tense, indicating that the speaker is relating a memory. They note that the memory takes place by the sea. While down by the water, the speaker receives a shovel from an unidentified “they” (Line 2) to use to dig in the sand. The speaker digs multiple holes in the beach, and after (or as) they dig, the ocean waters fill the holes. The water keeps coming until the holes overflow.
By Robert Louis Stevenson