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The Vagabond by Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Vagabond” is a poem about a wandering heart who seeks nothing other than a vagrant, gypsy life. The uncertainty, directionless journey, and a life without anchored to worldly comforts attract the poet the most. His love for nature cannot let him be like others who think twice before they leap. Stevenson’s poetic persona wants to leap unbound like a gust. He does not fear uncertainty, not even death. Who can stop such a soul who is born to break free? No one! These themes of wandering and adventure are what make this piece dearer to readers.

  • Read the full text of “The Vagabond” here in the analysis section.
Analysis of The Vagabond by Robert Louis Stevenson


Summary

In the first stanza of “The Vagabond”, Stevenson’s persona seeks a life he loves. He wants to live in close proximity to nature. A river will pass him by. Heaven’s kind embrace and a byway nearby, are all the speaker wants. He would sleep in the bush by looking at the stars. Whenever he would feel like eating, he would eat whatever he got by dipping it in the river water. The speaker wants such a carefree life of a vagrant. He wants to live in this way forever.

In the following stanza, he says he does not fear death. He will accept whatever God sends. His only wish is to stay close to nature and a road to roam forever. He does not wish for a friend, hope, nor love. All he wants is the wide heaven above him and the road stretched beneath. His vagrant spirit will neither yield to the dry autumn nor the harsh winter. Lastly, the poet reiterates his wishes mentioned in the second stanza.

Meaning

“The Vagabond” appears as the first poem of Songs of Travel and Other Verses by R.L. Stevenson. Being the opening piece, it reveals the main idea of the overall body of work. It revolves around the spirit of wanderlust. As the title says, this piece details the life of a vagabond. It has come from the Latin term vagari, meaning “wander”. So a vagabond is a person whose heart beats with the spirit of roaming without a particular destination or goal. He leads a carefree and detached life. Life’s unrefined taste appeals to him the most. This idea closely resembles the philosophy of cynicism. Stevenson specifically explores the free-spirited and nonconformist attitude of his persona.

Structure & Form

Stevenson’s “The Vagabond” consists of four stanzas. Each stanza contains eight lines. The second and fourth stanzas are the same. The overall rhyme scheme of the poem is ABAB CDCD. There are a few exceptions. For example, lines one and three of the second stanza do not rhyme. From the rhyme scheme, it becomes clear that each stanza consists of two rhyming quatrains. The poet uses an end-stopped line in order to conclude the sense of a quatrain. Besides, this poem is composed of iambic tetrameter and trimeter alternatively. It is also called the ballad meter.

Let’s have a look at the scansion of the first stanza in order to understand the overall metrical scheme of the poem.

Give/ to me/ the life/ I love,

⁠Let the/ lave go/ by me,

Give/ the jol/-ly heaven/ a-bove

⁠And the/ by-way/ nigh me.

Bed in/ the bush/ with stars/ to see,

⁠Bread/ I dip/ in the river

There’s/ the life/ for a man/ like me,

⁠There’s/ the life/ for e-ver.


Poetic Devices

Stevenson uses the following poetic devices in the poem.

  • Alliteration: The repetition of similar sounds can be found in “Let the lave”, “Bed in the bush”, “Biting the blue”, etc.
  • Inversion: The conventional structure of lines is inverted in this poem. For example, inversion or hyperbaton occurs in “Give to me the life I love”, “Bread I dip in the river”, etc. 
  • Personification: It occurs in “jolly heaven”, “face of earth”, “let autumn fall on me”, etc. In these examples, inanimate ideas such as the sky, earth, and autumn are personified.
  • Metaphor: In “Let the blow fall soon or late”, the poet metaphorically refers to the ultimate “blow” in one’s life, death. Stevenson compares autumn and winter to his adversaries in the third stanza.
  • Simile: It occurs in “There’s the life for a man like me” and “White as meal the frosty field”.
  • Anaphora: This device is used in the last two lines of the first and third stanzas. It also occurs in the first two lines of the second stanza. For example, the opening lines contain the word “Let” in the beginning.


Themes

“The Vagabond” centers on the themes of travel, vagrant life, adventure, uncertainty, and the love for nature. The main theme of this poem is travel and adventure. Through this piece, Stevenson reveals his adventurous zeal to explore the unbound nature. He speaks through a speaker who is madly in love with a carefree life of a vagabond. Like a gypsy, he wants to unleash his free spirit. By remaining close to nature, he can achieve this goal. Besides, the theme of uncertainty is also appreciated in this poem. Worldliness makes one enslaved to comfort. The speaker wants to break free from the shackles of comfort and wants to lead an uncertain lifestyle.

Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation

Lines 1-4

Give to me the life I love,

⁠Let the lave go by me,

Give the jolly heaven above

⁠And the byway nigh me.

R.L. Stevenson’s “The Vagabond” begins with the epigraph “To an air of Schubert”. It is an allusion to the Austrian composer Franz Schubert. He was active during the late Classical and early Romantic eras. Despite a short lifespan, he composed a wide array of works. In this poem, Stevenson pays tribute to Schubert. It tells readers that the poem imitates his musicality.

In the first stanza, Stevenson’s persona asks for a life he loves. This statement reflects his individualism and non-conforming attitude to the social norms. He wants to do what he loves, not what others want him to do.

In the following lines, he refers to three things including a “lave”, “jolly heaven”, and “byway”. The “lave” is a reference to a stream or rivulet that passes by him. In “jolly heaven”, Stevenson personifies the sky as a happy, cheerful person. Through this phrase, the poet wants to say that the sky makes the speaker happy. The term “byway” is of special importance. It refers to a path less traveled. The speaker seeks a byway in order to explore what is there.

Lines 5-8

Bed in the bush with stars to see,

⁠Bread I dip in the river—

There’s the life for a man like me,

⁠There’s the life for ever.

These lines depict the speaker’s wish to be close to nature. He wants a bed in the bush. Isn’t it a bit odd? A lover of nature finds a cozy bed in a bush. For him, it is as comfortable as a bed where we sleep. He loves such a spot as from there he can easily see the stars.

If he is hungry, he would dip bread in the river and eat it. It feels more delicious than the lavish dishes at home. The speaker loves such an unrefined lifestyle where he won’t face any restrictions. Nobody is going to judge him regarding how he eats or how he sleeps at night.

Finally, the speaker replies in a satisfied tone that it is the life best suitable for a man like him. He can live such a kind of life forever. There won’t be any grudges in his heart if he can live in that way. These lines also hint at the fact that the speaker is not a vagabond rather he wishes to be one.

Lines 9-16

​Let the blow fall soon or late,

⁠Let what will be o’er me;

Give the face of earth around

⁠And the road before me.

Wealth I seek not, hope nor love,

⁠Nor a friend to know me;

All I seek, the heaven above

⁠And the road below me.

The second stanza begins with an interesting metaphor. Here, the term “blow” presents a variety of ideas. It can be a reference to a sudden shock or the final blow in a man’s life. On the other hand, this term also hints at some positive connotations. It can mean the flowering period in a man’s life or a wish to leave a place.

However, after reading the following lines it becomes clear that Stevenson uses the term as a metaphor of death. If we think about the other meanings it is going to somehow make sense. Whatsoever, the speaker says that whatever happens with him, he will not lose hope. Indeed, he does not know what is waiting for him in the future (“Let what will be o’er me”), he just wishes for the “face of earth”, a metaphorical reference to the ground, and a road before him.

In the following lines, the poet reveals his nonconforming attitude and his unconventional way of living life. According to his speaker, he does not need a friend to know him. He is well aware of his nature so he does not need one to explore it for him. Besides, he does not seek wealth, hope, or love as mother nature is there to inspire and love. All he wants is the beautiful sky (referred to as “heaven”) above and a road to walk on until his death. Here, the “road” is a metaphor of life.

Lines 17-24

Or let autumn fall on me

⁠Where afield I linger,

Silencing the bird on tree,

⁠Biting the blue finger.

White as meal the frosty field—

⁠Warm the fireside haven—

Not to autumn will I yield,

⁠Not to winter even!

The speaker’s tone becomes confident and courageous in this stanza. He fearlessly says, “let autumn fall on me”. By the term “autumn”, the poet refers to the autumnal wind. It is harsh and dry. It seems the seasonal harshness cannot discourage him from leading a vagrant life.

In the field where the speaker lingers, he can see the birds silenced by autumn. But it cannot silent his passion. The next line “Biting the blue finger”, is a reference to the effect of winter. This line contains anticipation concerning the coming of winter.

The winter cold can turn his skin bluish. Still, he would be wandering about in nature. He would enjoy the beauty of the frosty field and the warmth of a fireside haven. “Haven” means shelter.

Besides, the poet uses a simile to compare two distinct ideas, “meal” and “frosty field”. Here, the white color of the meal is compared to that of the snow. The term “meal” is also a metaphor. It is used to portray how the frosty beauty of nature is a kind of spiritual food for the speaker.

In the last two lines, the poet depicts his unyielding nature by saying that he would not surrender either to the dry autumn or harsh winter. In these lines, Stevenson uses anaphora for the sake of emphasizing his idea.

Lines 25-32

​Let the blow fall soon or late,

⁠Let what will be o’er me;

Give the face of earth around,

⁠And the road before me.

Wealth I ask not, hope nor love,

⁠Nor a friend to know me;

All I ask, the heaven above

⁠And the road below me.

The last stanza of “The Vagabond” is often excluded from the main body. It is used as a refrain of the second stanza. Being a song, the poet repeats the whole stanza in the end. This refrain also serves another purpose. It is used to portray the dominant passion in the speaker’s heart. Besides, it also emphasizes his nonconformist attitude and unconventional mindset.

Historical Context

“The Vagabond” was first published in Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry collection Songs of Travel and Other Verses. It was published in 1896. This collection explores the recurring themes in Stevenson’s major works. These are traveling and adventure. Ralph Vaughan Williams composed his Songs of Travel with poems from Stevenson’s book. In “The Vagabond”, the poet beautifully introduces his adventurous self through his words. If readers want to know who this vagabond is, he is none other than Stevenson himself. In his life, he traveled extensively. This spirit of a carefree wanderer is infused in this poem.

Questions & Answers

What is the message of the poem “The Vagabond”?

The message of “The Vagabond” concerns the poet’s wish to lead a life like a vagabond. He reiterates the ideas of freedom and non-conformity in order to describe what kind of a person he is.

Is the speaker worried about death?

The speaker is not worried about death at all. He says, “Let the blow fall soon or late,/ Let what will be o’er me”. It means he is not concerned about death. Besides, he is not afraid of what is waiting for him in the future. Whatever comes in his way, he is always ready to face it, be it death or a sudden catastrophe.

What type of poem is “The Vagabond”?

It is a lyric poem that is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker. Here, the speaker is none other than the poet R.L. Stevenson himself. Besides, this poem is in the ballad meter.

What kind of imagery do you think the vagabond evokes when he talks of his ideal life?

In this poem, the speaker evokes visual imagery and tactile imagery. While he talks of his ideal life, he depicts a vagabond’s life by visually depicting the scenes. In the third stanza, he makes use of tactile imagery to describe the effect of seasons on him.

What is the only thing the vagabond wants?

The only thing that the vagabond wants is the sky above him and a road.

What did the vagabond compare the whole world to?

The speaker compares the whole world to a human face. It is a use of personification.

Why does the vagabond not seek wealth, love, hope, or friends?

He does not seek wealth as nature is the biggest wealth of humankind. Some are able to explore it. While others are blind to this precious aspect of nature. Mother nature always loves those who depend on her. As the speaker has nature with him, he does not need any friends, love, or hope. Nature is the biggest source of hope and love.

What does “Let the lave go by me” mean?

In this line, the “lave” is a reference to a river that flows by the speaker. The speaker wants to live by a babbling river.

What is meant by “Biting the blue finger”?

This line describes how chilling winter feels like. In extreme cold, the skin becomes bluish. This visual, as well as tactile image, is portrayed here.

What does the vagabond ask for in the first stanza of the poem?

In the first stanza, he asks for a lave, jolly heaven, and byway. He wants to sleep in a bush overlooking the stars. If he is hungry, he would dip his bread in the river and eat it.

How is the life of a vagabond different from us?

A vagabond leads a carefree life. He faces several challenges and lives a life of uncertainties. In contrast to that, our life is more routined. At some point of life, it becomes quite certain what would happen after another.

What does the vagabond say about autumn and winter?

He describes how autumn sings the coming of winter and makes everything silent. The weather starts to become harsh and cold.

Why does a poet choose to be a vagabond?

The poet chooses to be a vagabond as it is the only way to live close to nature. He does not seek worldly comfort. Nature is like a spiritual resort to him.

Why does the poet repeat the second stanza once again?

The poet repeats the second stanza in order to emphasize the way of life he wants. It also highlights the things that are meaningful to him in comparison to others.

What does the speaker want from life? What are the three things he feels he can live without?

The speaker only wants the sky to seek inspiration and a road to wander. He feels he can live without wealth, a life partner, and a friend.

What are the difficulties that the vagabond may have to face while living in the open?

The vagabond has to deal with several challenges that include the unavailability of food and shelter. During harsh weather, he has to fight with it.

What does “Silencing the bird on tree” denote?

This line describes how the birds stop singing at the stroke of winter. It seems as if autumn has silenced everything with its dry spell.

Why are the words “autumn” and “fall” used together in “The Vagabond”?

The terms are placed in succession for the sake of emphasis. It symbolizes death and hopelessness. Besides, the use of synonymous words within a line is called palilogy.

How do the fields appear in cold weather?

In cold weather, the snow-covered fields look as white as a meal.

What is the meaning of “Bread I dip in the river”?

This line describes how the speaker dips his bread in the river before eating. It hints at the unrefined way of living.

What does “jolly heaven” mean?

The phrase contains a personal metaphor. Here, the sky is described as a cheerful individual. It is actually a reference to the poet’s cheerfulness when he looks up at the sky. The sky feels him with happiness and peace.


Explore More R.L. Stevenson Poems


Similar Wanderlust Poems

  • “Sea Fever” by John Masefield — This poem describes Masefield’s strong desire to live like a seafarer.
  • “Journey to the Interior” by Margaret Atwood — In this poem, Atwood guides readers through a metaphorical journey.
  • “A child said, What is the grass?” by Walt Whitman — This poem reveals Whitman’s childlike spirit that wanders about the mysteries of nature.
  • “The Centaur” by May Swenson — This piece describes how a child imaginatively rides a horse and explores nature.


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