This poem gives us a very positive take on death. Stevenson welcomes death as a return to home and stability. He paints it as a serene scene of rest and one that will be welcomed after his life’s journey has been done. He writes his own epithet in the second stanza where death is portrayed as coming home as if to rest from the rigours of life.
Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
‘Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.’
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
For once we are dealing with a writer who was actually a smash hit during his lifetime. You’ve almost certainly heard of him or his books, of which Treasure Island and Kidnapped are probably the best known (Kidnapped is also one of my favourite novels).
A Scot born into a family of lighthouse designers (you don’t hear that much anymore!), he looked set to follow this path until he began skipping the lectures of his Engineering university course. His holidays were devoted to travelling to inspect family engineering works, but it was the travel itself that he found more inspiring and soon after he embarked upon a literary career. He also moved away from his roots by distancing himself from religion and declaring himself an atheist.
Although he was a success almost immediately, his life was made difficult by his poor health. He bobbed about the world in the search of somewhere his health could be improved, but in vain. Eventually he ended up in Samoa (of all places!) and died of a cerebral haemorrhage.
This poem was written four years before his death and the epithet on his gravestone in Samoa carries the final three lines of this poem.
This poem presents death as a natural part of life and something not to be feared as it represents a rest at the end of a life’s journey. It is somewhat unusual in that it is a concept of death without any religious association and an acceptance of the nothingness of atheist belief as a natural part of existence.
What a beautiful sentiment in this poem! Stevenson shows he is ready for the end and asks simply for a grave in nature, under the starry sky. Although he is ready for death, he tells us that he has enjoyed life, but feels it is time to enjoy the next step. He is not struggling against death, but instead is ready for it.
In the second stanza, he writes his own epithet and gives his views on life. In it, he positions death as a return home and an end of the trials of life as depicted by a life at sea and that of the hunter.
Language and techniques
‘Requiem’ is a religious mass that is offered up to the dead. Although Stevenson was an atheist, he offers this poem as his thoughts and ideas about death.
We begin with a simple, pastoral image of his desired grave having only one basic requirements, namely to be ‘Under the wide and starry sky’. This simple natural image paints a serene and calm image, supported by the gentle alliteration of the ‘s’ at the end of the line, which reflects Stevenson idea of death as a type of rest at the end of our lives.
This idea of death as a positive and desirable commodity is further established by Stevenson’s readiness. He says ‘let me lie’ and says he will be ‘laid… down with a will’ and thus he is welcoming the end and is ready to embrace it.
Lest we think that he has had a wretched life and just wants it over, he repeats the idea of being ‘glad to live’ and ‘gladly die’. This demonstrates that death is simply being treated as the nature next stage of his existence and not one to be welcomed before time or to be feared or avoided.
In the second stanza, this is further reinforced by his use of the verb ‘longed’, which shows that Stevenson’s is really ready for this next stage and the release from his life’s journey.
His two metaphors for what the grave represents show us that he feels that death will be a final soothing rest. He positions death as a ‘sailor… home from sea’, which compares it to the rest from the storms and tossing of the sea that dominate a sailor’s existence. While ‘the hunter home from the hill’ suggests that it represents the end of the toil, tracking and struggle. Obviously, Stevenson was neither a sailor nor a hunter, so these metaphors represents the various strains of life and thus he feels ready to die as he is a little weary of life’s toil and simply wants to rest.
The repetition of the word ‘home’ continually reinforces this notion that death is a gentle release that we should all welcome as a natural part of our lives, at the end of our journeys.
Loads to say here.
First of all notice that each word in the poem is simple (one or two syllables at most) and the rhyme follows a simple, repetitive and regular AAAB rhythm. Stevenson is one of the most respected wordsmiths in literature and this simplicity is used to convey the sense of calm and rest he feels death represents. The words and rhyme almost lull us to rest.
We also have a crazy amount of alliteration going on. This serves the same effect with the soft ‘l’s of ‘let me lie’, ‘s’s of ‘starry sky’ and ‘h’s of ‘hunter home from the hill’.
Serene and calm, embracing death as a natural end of the struggles of life.