To Any Reader

To Any Reader

Portrait of Robert Lewis Stevenson and his wife Fanny by John Singer Sargent

To Any Reader

by Robert Lewis Stevenson

As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.
But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you. He intent
Is all on his play-business bent.
He does not hear; he will not look,
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there.

I was looking at paintings by John Singer Sargent and I was really struck by this portrait of Robert Lewis Stevenson. It’s such an odd painting with both Stevenson and his wife off-center and Stevenson so gangly and dynamic. It really does convey so much personality.

So I wanted to post a Stevenson poem primarily so I could share this painting. But what poem would work? I think this one fits because it is a slightly odd poem, he places the child he’s addressing off-center, making him see himself first from the point of view of his mother, looking at him through the window to where he’s playing, and then from the point of view of another child reading the same book of poems at some time in the distant past (or, even more disorienting, perhaps of the distant future).

I found the painting at this lovely online gallery that has a great deal of information about Stevenson and the occasion of this and two other portraits that Sargent made of him. Evidently the two were friends. An interesting friendship

Robert Louis Stevenson is pacing and his wife Fanny is seated in background to the right of the door. By and large, the critical review was mixed about this painting. They thought the composition odd and the depiction of Stevenson strange and unflattering, just as some people had said about Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882). But Stevenson, himself, thought that Sargent had captured correctly his odd way in which he fidgeted about the room when he wrote.

In fact, we see the exact pose only in a different direction that Sargent had captured in his Sketchbook [thumbnail left] sometime prior to the painting. And others had noted the same peculiarities of RLS. “Often when he got animated he rose and walked about as he spoke, as if movement aided thought and expression” (Japp 1905 qu. Terry 93).

When Sargent painted Stevenson he wrote to Henry James and said that RLS “seemed to me the most intense creature I had ever met.”

Sargent was twenty-nine years old at the time and RLS was thirty-four. it was less than one year prior to the publication of RLS’s hugely popular “masterpiece” The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). It is fun to think that possibly Robert Louis Stevenson might have been working on the book, if not thinking about it, at the same time that Sargent painted him.

RLS was at the height of his most productive career. He had just published Treasure Island in book form in 1883 which was his first full length novel, and his popularity only grew in the public’s eye with The Black Arrow (1883), A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885), Kidnapped (1886), and its sequel David Balfour (1893) among others.

Read more at the John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery

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