‘Our inclement city’

Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife, Fanny, on the Marquesas Islands.

Whilst reading Javier Marias’s Poison, Shadow and Farewell, I came across this poem from Stevenson, written near the end of his life, whilst far from Edinburgh. This is the first stanza of To My Old Familiars.

Do you remember – can we e’er forget? –
How, in the coiled-perplexities of youth,
In our wild climate, in our scowling town,
We gloomed and shivered, sorrowed, sobbed and feared?
The belching winter wind, the missile rain,
The rare and welcome silence of the snows,
The laggard morn, the haggard day, the night,
The grimy spell of the nocturnal town,
Do you remember? – Ah, could one forget! 

After a day of ‘missile rain’ and ‘belching winter wind’ (such as was today) one could be forgiven for wanting to not only forget, but also to flee. Is there anyone who lives here that doesn’t curse the weather?

But for Stevenson (and many who grew up here, whether as children, or pretend-adults), this nostalgia for the city will probably outlast most other loves. Whether we are still here, despite decades of imminent departure, or in some more clement place (perhaps the South Seas), at the end we shall want to return to, or remain in, the city of our birth. The poem thus concludes, 

Yet when the lamp from my expiring eyes
Shall dwindle and recede, the voice of love
Fall insignificant on my closing ears,
What sound shall come but the old cry of the wind
In our inclement city? what return
But the image of the emptiness of youth,
Filled with the sound of footsteps and that voice
Of discontent and rapture and despair?
So, as in darkness, from the magic lamp,
The momentary pictures gleam and fade
And perish, and the night resurges – these
Shall I remember, and then all forget.


RLS and family, 1891

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