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“Christmas at Sea”
Robert Louise Stevenson
By Lynn Whitney
Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850 – 1894, beloved author of Treasure Island and Kidnapped,” was born into a family of lighthouse designers. A sickly child, his illnesses kept him homeschooled by private tutors for much of his youth. Long stretches of isolation led him to write stories compulsively.
As a young man, he was sent to the University of Edinburgh to study engineering, but found little interest in it, finding more pleasure in the friendships he made with other students in the Speculative Society, an exclusive debating club. During his vacations, Stevenson would travel with his father to inspect the lighthouses designed by his family, providing him with material he would latter use for his chosen career of writing.
Stevenson continued to move away from his family’s influence and began to lead a rather Bohemian life, eventually becoming part of the London literary circle. His need for adventure continued, however, and on a trip to France he met Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, whom he married in 1880. For the next seven years, the family traveled in search of suitable climates to accommodate Stevenson’s failing health. During this time, in spite of his ill heath, he wrote Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and A Child’s Garden of Verse.
In June of 1888, once again in pursuit of good health, Stevenson and his family charted the Casco, a 95 foot, two- masted schooner , and set sail from San Francisco. They sailed the eastern and central Pacific from June to January 1889, landing in Hawaii, for a brief stay. The cruise continued on until 1890, when Stevenson settled on Upolu, an island in Samoa. On Dec. 3, 1894, while trying to open a bottle of wine, Stevenson collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage and died. He is buried on a spot overlooking the sea. On his tomb is inscribed:
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.
“Christmas at Sea”
Perhaps this Christmas poem was written on the first leg of his voyage. It contrasts the harshness of a winter passage with a sentimental view of a childhood family Christmas. The ship reaches safety, but the writer is left with the true understanding that he is leaving home, his parents, and his past life forever.
The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seamen scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor’wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.
They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But ‘twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops’l, and stood by to go about.
All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.
We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide-race roared;
But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard:
So’s we saw the cliffs and houses, and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.
The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every ‘long-shore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.
The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it’s just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessed Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard’s was the house where I was born.
O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother’s silver spectacles, my father’s silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china-plates that stand upon the shelves.
And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessed Christmas Day.
They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
“All hands to loose topgallant sails," I heard the captain call.
“By the Lord, she’ll never stand it," our first mate Jackson, cried.
...”It’s the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson," he replied.
She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood.
As the winter’s day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.
And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.
Wishing you A Merry Christmas, and a storm free passage through life.