Nov. 13, 2003

Where Go the Boats

by Robert Louis Stevenson

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Poem: "Where Go the Boats," by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Where Go the Boats

Dark brown is the river,
    Golden is the sand.
It flows along for ever,
    With trees on either hand.

Green leaves a-floating,
    Castles of the foam,
Boats of mine a-boating—
    Where will all come home?

On goes the river
    And out past the mill,
Away down the valley,
    Away down the hill.

Away down the river,
    A hundred miles or more,
Other little children
    Shall bring my boats ashore.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Robert Louis Stevenson, born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1850). He began to suffer from a lung disease at a very early age. He said, "My recollections of the long nights when I was kept awake by coughing are only relieved by thoughts of the tenderness of my nurse." His nurse stayed up with him at night when he couldn't sleep and told him all kinds of stories about ghosts and monsters and pirates. His father was an engineer who specialized in building lighthouses, and Stevenson studied engineering himself until he dropped out of school and became a bohemian, hanging out with seamen, chimneysweeps and thieves. He wanted to live a life of adventure, to sail the high seas, but his poor health forced him to move to France, where the weather was supposed to be better. One night, he was passing by the window of a house when he looked inside and fell instantly in love with a woman he saw eating dinner with a group of friends. He stared at her for what seemed like hours, and then opened the window and leapt inside. The guests were shocked, but Stevenson just bowed and introduced himself. The woman was an American named Fanny Osborne, and when she traveled back to the United States, he followed her all the way to San Francisco, and finally married her there.

Stevenson and his wife traveled constantly during the years of their marriage, looking for a climate to improve his health. They tried Switzerland, Scotland, France, England, and even New Jersey. Stevenson's health kept declining, people called him "Bag of Bones," but he wrote constantly on trains, in boats, and in his bed, coughing. He once said, "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive." They finally settled on the Pacific island of Samoa.

One day in the summer of 1881, Stevenson painted a map of an imaginary island for his stepson, and the map gave him an idea for the novel Treasure Island (1883). He finished it in a few weeks, and was happy to get the hundred pound payment, never realizing that the book would become one of the most popular adventure stories of all time, with one of literature's most famous villains, the one-legged pirate Long John Silver. A few years later, he wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) in a single week. Despite his productivity, he believed strongly in the benefits of idleness. He said, "A faculty for idleness implies . . . a strong sense of personal identity."

Stevenson's contemporaries saw him as one of the greatest writers of his generation. Henry James considered him an equal, and G.K. Chesterton wrote, "All his images stand out in sharp outline. . . . It is as if [the words] were cut out with cutlasses." But with the rise of modern fiction and its emphasis on psychology and emotion rather than action, critics began to look down on Stevenson as merely a children's writer of adventure stories. One of the few modern writers who claimed Stevenson as an influence was Jorge Luis Borges, who said, "If you don't like Stevenson, there must be something wrong with you."

It's the birthday of Saint Augustine, born in Tagaste, Numidia (354), a part of North Africa that is now Algeria. His father was a wealthy Roman landowner, living on the outer edge of the Roman Empire, and his mother was a local tribeswoman. Augustine grew up thinking of his father as a tyrant and his mother as a saint. He lived at a time when the Roman Empire was beginning to decline, and there were new religions cropping up everywhere. His mother was a Christian, but he went away to college in Carthage and got involved in a new religion called Manichaeism, which taught that the universe was controlled by two equal but opposing forces, one good and one evil. When he came home from college, and his mother found out about his new religion, she was so disgusted that she threw him out of the house. He went to live with a rich friend and started living the high life, trying to get over his mother's rejection. He made a name for himself as an orator, and he spent most of his free time out on the town, spending his friend's money on expensive goods and on women. Then, without warning, his rich friend fell sick and died. Augustine was shocked to learn that his friend had received the Christian sacrament on his deathbed. He thought his friend was a Manichaean like him. The incident plunged Augustine into a deep depression. He wrote, "Darkness fell upon my heart, and wherever I looked there was only death."

Augustine moved to Rome to try to escape his grief. He started having doubts about Manichaeism, because it said nothing about life after death. He got a job as a lawyer and continued to live a life he knew his mother disapproved of, keeping a mistress and having a baby out of wedlock. But eventually he started reading about Christianity. A friend gave him a book of St. Paul's Epistles, and he had the book with him one day in the garden when he heard a child's voice in the street say, "Take up and read." He opened the book and the first words he read were "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and take no care for the flesh in its desires." He was instantly converted. He said, "It was as though the light of salvation had been poured into my heart."

Augustine wanted to live the rest of his life in quiet meditation, but when he visited the city of Hippo, near his hometown, the parishioners there forced him to become a priest and replace their aging bishop. He accepted the post out of fear for his safety, but he regretted for the rest of his life that he had been forced to take time away from reading and writing to perform the duties of a bishop, stranded in such a provincial town. At the time, Christians were spread so far and wide across the Roman Empire that there was a lot of diversity in their beliefs. Augustine became a famous theologian in part because he spoke out against this diversity, arguing that all Christian churches should follow the doctrine of the central church in Rome. It is partially due to his writings that the Catholic Church did not break up into separate churches for another thousand years. Augustine especially attacked the group of Christians known as Donatists, who believed that the only true Christians were those people who lived their lives completely free of sin. Augustine argued that no one could possibly be free from sin, because sinfulness is the very nature of humans. He developed the idea of original sin, saying that all humans are born sinful because all humans are descended from Adam and Eve, who committed the first sins.

Augustine used himself as an example of sinfulness by writing The Confessions (c. 400), one of the first memoirs of Western literature. In that book, he described all the sins he had committed in the years of his life before his conversion, everything from crying over a fictional character in a poem, to stealing pears from a neighbor's tree, to his sexual fantasies and exploits. He wrote, "Lord, how loathsome I was in Thy sight. [Lust] stormed confusedly within me. . . . The torrent of my fornications tossed and swelled and boiled and ran over." He believed that people could never hope to be innocent, and so their only hope lay in God's forgiveness. His ideas about sin became the doctrine of the Catholic Church. It is because of him that many Christian churches still baptize infants, to cleanse them of the sin they have inherited from their ancestors.

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