“Bedtime in Summer” by Robert Louis Stevenson
In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.
I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me in the street.
And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?
“At the Sea-side” by Robert Louis Stevenson
When I was down beside the sea
A wooden spade they gave to me
To dig the sandy shore.
My holes were empty like a cup.
In every hole the sea came up,
Till it could come no more.
“Rain” by Robert Louis Stevenson
The rain is falling all around,
It falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here,
And on the ships at sea.
In honor of summer’s passing, I have chosen these brief poems from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1885 collection, A Child’s Garden of Verses. The selections above are favorites of my own children. They love these poems – which are, admittedly, more accessible for them than many great poems – for their imagery, their feel, and their simple rhythm. And while they cannot articulate these sensations, they delight in them, asking to hear them again and again.
That children should be regularly read to is a fact somewhat well-established in the minds of most people (though it could be pointed out that being established in the mind has not always translated into being well-established in practice). It would seem, however, that poetry seems an excluded category, often due to the mistaken assumption that children should only be read what they can understand. But the purpose of reading poetry to little ones is not that they may initially understand it, but so that they may learn to delight in both word and the world.
Too many of us have the idea that poetry is somehow “off limits” or inaccessible and if it is inaccessible to us, surely it is more so to our children. As a result, poetry becomes a kind of strange, specialized writing. In his book Standing by Words, Wendell Berry writes that the “subject of poetry is not words, but the world, which poets have in common with other people…As regards this connection between humans and the world, the specialization of poetry is exactly analogous to the specialization of religion. Putting exclusive emphasis upon a world of words has the same result as putting exclusive emphasis upon heaven; it leads to, and allows, and abets the degradation of the world.”
By reading good poems to my children, I am forming their tastes; teaching them to marvel at language, to enjoy the written and spoken word, to appreciate the beauty and simplicity of the commonplace. What’s more, by acquainting our children with good poetry, we not only teach them to delight in words, but in the world around them as well.