Featured Poem: Foreign Lands by Robert Louis Stevenson

Apologies for the slight delay with this week’s featured poem – blame Bank Holiday bugs in the system…!

Even if it hasn’t been the best of summers, it seems like a wasted opportunity not to spend a good chunk of time out and about (just so long as you remember to pack a brolly rather than a parasol, and some extra layers for every eventuality) and as it’s the Bank Holiday, now’s near-on the last chance to do so. Last week’s poem hinted towards the potential downsides of a day out; of peril more serious than a touch of sunburn, sand in sandwiches or an ice cream coming a cropper, and more akin to a vast, threatening black cloud creeping across a gloriously sunny sky. This week, we’ll go for something considerably less sinister without the dark edge, celebrating the close of summer on a positive note and soaking up its remaining goodness like the last drops of an icy cool drink.

A good anthology to delve into whenever, but especially in summertime is A Child’s Garden Of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. You don’t have to be a child yourself to appreciate it – its simplistic but delightful verses are a treat to read to children but also allow the inner child within us all to roam free, summing up the fun and games of children’s summer days; fascinating flights of fancy alongside the more regular routines, with snippets of everyday life made extraordinary due to the fact they are reflected through a child’s eyes. And the title itself seems highly appropriate, not just for the summer when more time is spent being – and reading – out of doors, but as gardens are places of wonder, especially for children, and their versatility couples up extremely well with the variety and pick-and-mix quality of childhood. The same garden can take on many distinct guises depending on the individual child; it could be a fairy paradise, a football stadium, a jungle on the other side of the world, a secret hideaway (in that vein, I always liked the idea of a cross between an English country garden and a topsy-turvy maze; a hybrid of The Secret Garden and Alice In Wonderland)…in short it’s a place of adventure, right at hand and much safer than being out at sea or elsewhere – aside from a few little insect nasties, but that’s nothing a brave adventurer can’t handle…or is it? We’re increasingly being told that children’s sense of adventure is being lost, due to any number of factors – cautious parents, safety standards, other more modern methods of occupying time. It’s got to such an extent that recent reports have identified the existence of lessons for children in how to climb trees and, more worryingly, that the inability to do so is contributing to children becoming physically weaker.

Whether it’s the case that children are becoming less physically adventurous or the media once more making a mountain out of a molehill (I can’t say I’ve seen a shortage of kids scrambling about atop everything in sight), or subsequently just how serious the consequences of not ascending a tree are – making a big deal out of it feels hypocritical to me, a child who was always more comfortable exploring imaginary landscapes than physical ones – it is still lamentable that for whatever reason, adventure may be endangered. That’s why, in the face of concern about the actual world, that children’s imagination should be encouraged even further. Nothing else can send you quite so far and wide, without risking much more than a whirling head from so many different imagined scenes. It’s not that what is imagined should take the place of physical experience; rather, that the best adventures are had when the two go hand-in-hand, as is evidenced in this selection from Stevenson’s child-friendly collection. Plus it’s set at the summit of a cherry tree, which may provide some encouragement to get climbing and clamouring without the need of any lessons in doing so.

Foreign Lands

Up into the cherry tree
Who should climb but little me?
I held the trunk with both my hands
And looked abroad in foreign lands.

I saw the next door garden lie,
Adorned with flowers, before my eye,
And many pleasant places more
That I had never seen before.

I saw the dimpling river pass
And be the sky’s blue looking-glass;
The dusty roads go up and down
With people tramping in to town.

If I could find a higher tree
Farther and farther I should see,
To where the grown-up river slips
Into the sea among the ships,

To where the road on either hand
Lead onward into fairy land,
Where all the children dine at five,
And all the playthings come alive.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

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