Bed 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?
And now for something completely different: a short series of bedtime poems. Robert Louis Stevenson kicks us off with this sweet little complaint about going to bed when you don’t want to.
As a young mother, I was a strict about bedtime. By 7:30 everyone was tucked in with lights out and doors closed so I could get the break I needed. In July when we vacationed in northern Michigan I had to relax my schedule because up here in high summer it stays light at least until nine and it’s not fully dark till ten-thirty or eleven.
Still, I made the kiddos go to bed long before the stars came out. That was always a battle. To settle down the restless brood of bed-averse children (my four and their three cousins), my husband told stories he made up on the spot. The stories always had the same cast of characters—Jelly Bean and Winston, their friend Gloria, their enemies the Sea Witch, the Cave Witch and meanest of all, the Doodledoo. Night after night he told these stories. Year after year. When he ran out of ideas, he’d ask, “What do you think happened next?” And the kids would move the plot forward, as kids do.
One of my daughters has made northern Michigan her home, and so I left the poem on her bed as a reminder of those sweet moments. For any parents reading this, “Bed in Summer” is a wonderful poem to read to your kids at night. They’ll appreciate the sympathy for their plight and perhaps with a little encouragement might memorize it as a summer project!
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was born in Edinburgh, an only child in a family of lighthouse engineers. From childhood on he suffered from lung problems and was often bedridden, a biographical detail that adds a poignant note to “Bed in Summer.” Helicopter parents, take heart: this most prolific novelist and poet, the twenty-fifth most translated writer of all time, didn’t start reading until age seven.
He enrolled at University of Edinburgh to study engineering and continue in the family business, but spent his time in brothels and smoking hashish. He switched to law and earned his degree but never practiced, deciding to devote his energies to writing instead. He was a lifelong traveller, roaming by donkey, canoe, and ship all over the world despite frequently becoming ill to the point of death.
While in France at an artists’ colony, he fell in love with a married woman eleven years his senior. Later he secretly travelled to the United States to reunite with her. The voyage nearly killed him. They married after she divorced, and travelled together with her children and his widowed mother through the Pacific, eventually settling in Samoa, where he died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at age forty-four.
His most famous works are the adventure novels Kidnapped, Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Master of Ballantrae, and the children’s anthology of poetry, The Child’s Garden of Verses.
Wildly popular in his time, Stevenson has fallen in and out of favor through the years. These days he’s found his way back into anthologies. I love this anecdote from film critic Roger Ebert (courtesy of Wikipedia):
I was talking to a friend the other day who said he’d never met a child who liked reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Neither have I, I said. And he’d never met a child who liked reading Stevenson’s Kidnapped. Me neither, I said. My early exposure to both books was via the Classics Illustrated comic books. But I did read the books later, when I was no longer a kid, and I enjoyed them enormously. Same goes for Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The fact is, Stevenson is a splendid writer of stories for adults, and he should be put on the same shelf with Joseph Conrad and Jack London instead of in between Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan.