Saturday, June 01, 2013


The Vagabond

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), "The Vagabond," Songs of Travel and Other Verses (London: Chatto & Windus, 1896), pp. 1-3:
(To an air of Schubert)

Give to me the life I love,
  Let the lave go by me,
Give the jolly heaven above
  And the byway nigh me.
Bed in the bush with stars to see,
  Bread I dip in the river—
There's the life for a man like me,
  There's the life for ever.

Let the blow fall soon or late,
  Let what will be o'er me;
Give the face of earth around
  And the road before me.
Wealth I seek not, hope nor love,
  Nor a friend to know me;
All I seek, the heaven above
  And the road below me.

Or let autumn fall on me
  Where afield I linger,
Silencing the bird on tree,
  Biting the blue finger.
White as meal the frosty field—
  Warm the fireside haven—
Not to autumn will I yield.
  Not to winter even!

Let the blow fall soon or late,
  Let what will be o'er me;
Give the face of earth around,
  And the road before me.
Wealth I ask not, hope nor love,
  Nor a friend to know me.
All I ask, the heaven above
  And the road below me.
What air of Schubert?

In line 2, "lave" is "What is left, is over, or remains; the remainder, the rest" (Oxford English Dictionary).

Robert Graves, Poetic Unreason and Other Studies (1925; rpt. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1968), pp. 37-38:
Stevenson has a famous ballad in praise of the Open Road, saying that all he asks is Heaven above and the road before him, and that bread dipped in water is enough for him to subsist on for ever. One would at first sight, picking up that poem without knowing who Stevenson was, say that a tramp was the only fit person to judge whether that poem was good or bad. But a tramp called in to bear witness would say in his own way that it was the most malicious and wicked poem ever written, countenancing with a shoddy idealism the miseries of a life of which Stevenson can have had no experience. He would speak of the horror of the condition called Breadsickness; after two or three months of unrelieved bread-diet the stomach revolts and even the smell of a baker's shop is enough to make the man vomit. A cup of hot tea to a tramp after innumerable cups of cold water—the Gospel emblem loses its force here—is the greatest gift that can be given. But the poem is not written for tramps, it is written by an invalid with an overpowering desire for freedom and a hatred of the dietary delicacies that his condition demands, to be read by invalids in a similar case. It is a good poem but with evident limitations.
I don't have access to Rudolf Stamm, "'To an Air of Schubert': R.L. Stevenson's 'The Vagabond' Re-considered," English Studies 64 (1983) 36-40.

Update from Steven Eldredge:
I doubt whether or not anyone will ever know what "air of Schubert" might have been in the poet's mind, but for most of us, the only "air" that comes to mind upon encountering this poem is the famous musical setting that Ralph Vaughan Williams gave it in his 'Songs of Travel' cycle. It was impossible for me to read it on your blog without hearing that c minor tramping melody!
A performance of Vaughn Williams' setting can be found here.

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