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Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) composed “Requiem,” one of the most frequently quoted short poems in the English language, as his own epitaph. Despite its forbidding, even moribund title, “Requiem” explores the coaxing lure of death and its enticing promise of undisturbed repose, welcomed after a life teeming with both joys and sorrows. First composed in 1880 when Stevenson had just turned 30, “Requiem” is a young man’s meditation on the inevitability of mortality that conceives of the reality of death without the gentle solace of some myth-y afterlife. The poet does not want to die, certainly, but cannot find it in himself to fear death. Gladly live, the poet advises, and gladly die. Stevenson refuses to reimagine the grave as a stardust portal into some vast other after-world. An expression of Neo-Romantic High Victorian wisdom poetry, in which a poet speaks sincerely and directly to readers coming to the poet for insight into the shared human experience and how to handle life’s challenges, “Requiem” remains one of the most anthologized poems of a writer known otherwise for iconic exotic adventure novels often marketed (and largely dismissed by academics) as Young Adult fiction, most notably Kidnapped and Treasure Island. “Requiem” has been translated into more than 80 languages, a measure of its profound and enduring humanity.
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Even as a child, Robert Louis Stevenson was torn between the urgencies that would define his maturity: the pull between practicality and the anarchic draw of creativity; between family expectations and his own dreams; between the calm and precise environments of science and the dangerous insular worlds of the imagination; between the reassuring familiarity of home, rooted and stable, and the beckoning call of adventure, chaotic and free-wheeling.
Born November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Stevenson should have been a respectable lighthouse engineer. His father’s family had for generations tended the formidable structures that dotted the Firth of Forth, an estuary that emptied into the nearby North Sea, maintaining one of the United Kingdom’s busiest seaports in Scotland’s notoriously mercurial weather. Stevenson, however, was a dreamy child, fascinated by long talks with his maternal grandfather, a minister, about existential questions about the cosmos. A sickly child, Stevenson early on was a voracious reader and began writing his own stories, dictating them to his doting mother, when he was only six.
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Following his father’s admonition, Stevenson dutifully matriculated at the University of Edinburgh to study mechanical engineering but found the studies oppressive. He dreamed of being a writer, but to placate his father Stevenson completed a law degree and by 1875 was admitted to the bar. He disdained the practice of law as soul-deadening and took the next four years to tour Europe on his father’s allowance, publishing a number of politely-received travel pieces. In 1876, he began a complicated long-term relationship with a much older married American, Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne. He accompanied her to San Francisco, although the ocean crossing considerably weakened him. When Osbourne divorced in 1879, the two married. They moved to Bournemouth, a quaint seaport along the British Channel, where over the next several years Stevenson completed his most successful novels, among them Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In 1885 he published A Child’s Garden of Verses, which included some of his most beloved short verses, among them “My Shadow,” “The Swing,” and “The Lamplighter.”
By 1887 Stevenson enjoyed wide commercial success. After briefly touring the United States, Stevenson on a whim chartered a yacht, and he and Fanny spent a year cruising the beautiful if dangerous expanses of the Pacific Ocean. In 1890, they settled in the South Seas on an estate in the shadow of Mt. Vaea, a dormant volcano on Upolu in the Samoan Island archipelago. Although he relished the beauty of the island and the welcoming culture of the Native population, Stevenson sank into a depression; what he wrote, mostly travel essays, did not spark him. On December 3, 1894, just after his 44th birthday, Stevenson collapsed and died, most likely from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was buried with much local fanfare on the slope of Mt. Vaea beneath a marble tomb with a simple tablet that bore the lines from “Requiem.”
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 longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. “Requiem.” 1880. Poets.org.
The plot of Stevenson’s brief lyric is deceptively simple, even straightforward. The narrator, unnamed, really no more than a voice, shares his instructions for his burial. There is no talk of resurrection and salvation, the soul, heaven and hell, angels and demons. There is a hole in the ground. Dig my grave out under the sky, far from the boundaries of the city. Lay me down in that simple grave without fanfare. Put a marker above it to give anyone who chances past the best possible advice: live, full and rich, so that death, when it comes, offers at last the chance for grateful repose.
The conditions of the narrator’s actual dying are not noted, whether these instructions are for imminent execution or are part of some long-term design. The instructions themselves are on the whole traditional, even modest, a simple burial uncomplicated by pomp or elaborate ceremony. The grave itself is to be adorned with an unprepossessing marker that bears a simple three-lined inscription, which the narrator provides, that embraces the grave as home, a place for grateful and earned rest.
What is not shared here is the narrator’s life. Although the narrator is never given a name or defining life-narrative circumstances, the poem reveals indirectly by suggestion the robust and animated life that the narrator has enjoyed. Although contemplating, really planning, his death, he nurses no regrets nor indulges morbidly melodramatic emotional excesses. His has been a peripatetic life, a life of spacious roaming in which the concept of home, with its suggestion of roots and stability, has become itself ironic. Home because of its sheer absence has become a formidable presence for the narrator, a coaxing idea that lends a dark urgency to his otherwise tumultuous life of travel and adventure, excitement and surprise. He describes his life using the freighted metaphors of the well-traveled sailor and the experienced hunter, lives spent engaged in adventure, rejecting the stability of home as an untenable anchorage, pursuing the delight and rewards of nature, the widest and least domesticated environments of enticing, open-ended possibilities. He has not pined for home nor wished his life had been anything other than the unchoreographed adventure it has been. Nor does he demonize the concept of home, disdain its bourgeois connotations as claustrophobic, oppressive, and imprisoning. This is no scathing, simplistic indictment of staid High Victorian conservative notions of the rewards of work and family, no mockery of the middle-class satisfactions in comfort and stability. The narrator seeks to inspire not derogate others.
The narrator, in the end, understands that death does not disturb, much less intimidate. Of course, he is not happy to die. That would be grandiose and distractingly self-aggrandizing. Rather, he is happy that he lived, happy that his life-narrative has taken him far and wide, that he has seen much of a world that stays curiously abstract and two-dimensional to those who accept the more limited world of commitment, property, and propriety. If such an adventurous heart is to embrace a home, let it be this last inviting refuge, an unpretentious grave beneath an extraordinarily ordinary night sky scattered with the familiar glint of stars. Death, as it turns out, is the hobgoblin only of timid hearts, those who have lived only by carefully avoiding living. Whatever his age, whatever his circumstances, the narrator speaks of a life that has earned the reward of rest. After a life of ranging adventure and high drama, he finally accepts home, accepts it where he sees it is best celebrated, after the world has shared with the eager and grasping heart the magnificence of its bounty, the joys of its finest moments, and the tumult of its darkest sorrows.
By Robert Louis Stevenson