Book review: RLS In Love: The love poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson
STUART CAMPBELL HAS HAD THE bright idea of bringing together Stevenson's love poems and printing them in chronological order. Reading them in this way makes a powerful impression. The popularity and fame of Stevenson as a novelist has distracted attention from his poetry, except perhaps A Child's Garden of Verses. He wrote a substantial range of poems, both in English and in Scots, "that illustrious and malleable tongue", as he called it.
None of the love poems are in Scots, because neither of the two recipients were Scottish. It is a curious coincidence that the first name of both was Fanny and that both were involved in unhappy marriages. Stevenson met the first of them, Fanny Sitwell, during a brief visit to England. He had a rival for Fanny's attention in Sidney Colvin, who married her many years later. He afterwards edited an edition of Stevenson's letters and discussed him in his book, Memories and Notes. Stuart Campbell, in his introductory essay to RLS In Love, quotes from Colvin's description of Stevenson:
"He was a fellow of infinite and unrestrained jest and yet of infinite earnest, the one often the mask for the other; a poet, an artist, an adventurer; a man beset with fleshly frailties, and despite his infirm health of strong appetites and unchecked curiosities; and yet a profoundly sincere moralist and preacher and son of the Covenanters."
The second of these two ladies, Fanny Osbourne, was very different. She was American, a more forceful and down-to-earth character, and much more responsive to Stevenson's "strong appetites". In the first page of his book Campbell has a quotation from a letter from Stevenson to his cousin, Bob: "I wish I had made more of a religion of sex." It was no doubt these strong appetites which prompted him to make his strenuous journey across the Atlantic and across America to the West Coast in pursuit of the second Fanny. They married and stayed together for the rest of his life.
These love poems, often written in immediate response to some event, are a demonstration of Stevenson's ability to write fluent, eloquent and polished verse, almost, it would seem, spontaneously. In his notes, Campbell makes many good points and does not hesitate to point out what he sees as the occasional weakness. He says of one poem, for instance: (p. 151) "The final couplet is cringe-making. Stevenson is in a suicidal state of mind." But it is such revelations of Stevenson's reaction to events which is one of the qualities which make these poems so fascinating.