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A Child's Garden of Verses - Book Review

A Child’s Garden of Verses is a small poetry collection by Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The poems, written by a parent, have spoken to generations of children, capturing imagination and sending readers to far off lands.

The edition I have is illustrated by the magical pictures of Charles Robinson – they help bring the poems alive. Some are as much illustration as poem, the picture being much bigger than the words – perfect for A Thought, where the words are caught by the leaves of trees, and Whole Duty of Children, with pictures of good children above and bad children below:

A child should always say what’s true
And speak when he is spoken to.


Many poems are in the first person, giving an immediacy and intimacy that lends itself to the spoken word. A lot of the poems have a rhythm to them that makes them perfect for reading aloud. Windy Nights talks of a man who rides by when the fires are out. The imagery invokes the dark of night and the light of story:

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And the ships are tossed at sea
.

One of Stevenson’s strongest childhood influences was his nurse, Alison Cunningham, and the first poem in the book, before the Contents, is addressed to her (it is subtitled from her boy). Nicknamed Cummy, Alison Cunningham was a major influence in Stevenson’s childhood; he was a sickly child who appreciated the care bestowed on him by a woman who had a lifelong impact on her charge.

And grant it, heaven, that all who read
May find as dear a nurse at need.


Stevenson understands, on a deep level, the magic of childhood and possibility. Some poems are very simple, yet give messages that any child will understand – the frustration of going to bed when outside it is still light and adults are awake, the wonder of play that can transform bedroom chairs in to a ship that can sail for days before tea time.

The book is divided in to three sections – the first and largest has the same title as the book. The second, The Child Alone, includes the poem The Unseen Playmate - a poem that speaks to both children and adults who have had or do have an imaginary friend. The final section, Envoys, comprises six poems addressed to people close to the author, and ending with a poem To Any Reader, addressed to adult, child and the child within the adult who lives forever.


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