Friday, February 22, 2013

RLS and Lighthouses

Robert Louis Stevenson has always been one of my favorite authors--Kidnapped, Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde... I read most of RLS's novels as a kid and in high school. I bought A Child's Book of Verses to read to my children and still have it, a tattered souvenir that traveled with our family to our many duty stations with the U.S. Navy. When we moved to Hawai'i for two years in 1984, I made a surprising discovery about RLS. He loved lighthouses and had a strong connection to them!

His father and grandfather were Scotland's greatest lighthouse engineers. RLS, himself, was trained in civil engineering and wrote papers on the construction of lighthouses. On his vacations from the University of Edinburgh, he traveled with his father to some of the grand sentinels of Scotland. At age sixteen, RLS began working in his father's office. By this time, Robert Stevenson the senior was designing lighthouses all around the British Empire. One of them was Point Venus Lighthouse in Tahiti, built in 1868 and named for a "Transit of Venus" observed there by Captain James Cook in 1769 to help astronomers gather data to make an accurate estimate of the size of the solar system. (I recently wrote an article about it for a magazine and am bugging Jon to take me there so I can see it. Imagine, my two favorite past times in one place--astronomy and lighthouses!)

In 1887, RLS traveled to the United States and visited several lighthouses on the continent, including Point Pinos Lighthouse at Monterey, California, where today's museum docents claim he played the lightkeeper's piano and signed the guestbook. I saw his famous signature in the guestbook and admired the piano on display, though I'm not sure if it was the one he played. It was fun to think so, and to run my fingers over the ivories where RLS's fingers may have lingered 125 years ago.
After leaving Californa, RLS sailed to Hawai'i in a chartered yacht, the Casco. His wife and mother were with him. Stevenson suffered from ill health, and doctors had advised him to seek a tropical climate. Perhaps another of the reasons for the trip was to escape the doom and gloom of Scotland, since its weather was not only damp and bad for the lungs, but RLS's father had recently died. The two men had had a troubled relationship after RLS decided to forsake a career as a marine engineer and become a writer. The elder Stevenson never reconciled with his son's decision, even after RLS became world-famous. Stevenson's mother was thrilled but called her husband "wonderfully resigned." No doubt, RLS was glad to leave these father-son memories behind when he left his homeland. But he rued the poor relationship with his father and his abandonment of the family profession. These lines, written in 1887, reflect those feelings--
 Say not of me that weakly I declined
 The labours of my sires, and fled the sea,
 The towers we founded and the lamps we lit,
 But rather say: In the afternoon of time
 A strenuous family dusted from its hands
 The sand of granite, and beholding far
 Along the sounding coast its pyramids
 And tall memorials catch the dying sun,
 Smiled well content, and to this childish task
 Around the fire addressed its evening hours.
King Kalakaua of Hawai'i (above) showed RLS and his entrouage a good time in the islands. There was a lot of drinking, smoking, and partying, I think, reveling by night and sleeping late into the day. Then RLS left in his yacht for the South Pacific. On the way, he stopped in Tahiti and took his mother to see Point Venus Lighthouse. Looking up the seven-story, 76-foot tower was a sobering moment for the 38-year-old RLS. He wrote in his journal: "Great were the feelings of emotion as I stood with mother by my side and we looked at the edifice designed by my father when I was sixteen…"
The Casco and its famous passengers also visited the Gilbert Island and New Zealand. Eventually, RLS reached Samoa and fell in love with the place. And, it was time to stop the vagabond's life. His health hadn't improved a great deal and he needed rest. He settled on the island Upolu and built his home, Valima, on a hillside overlooking the sea. He died there, probably of a stroke, at age 44 in December 1894--a great literary lighthouse gone.
RLS's poems about lighthouses are rich and descriptive. I love the series he wrote on lightkeepers. You'll find them here, along with a picture of his father's most famous lighthouse, the Bell Rock--

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