Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, “Christmas at Sea,” was first published on December 22, 1888 in the Christmas issue of the Scots Observer. Stevenson’s Christmas poem was published in 1888 when the Scots Observer was still a young publication. In its early days, it presented itself as an intellectual, Tory-imperialist weekly news outlet that was also heavily stocked with highbrow literary and intellectual editorial pieces.
In its first years, the Scots Observer was edited primarily by William Earnest Henley. Stevenson’s popularity in Victorian England following the immense and immediate successes of Treasure Island (1883) and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) made him the ideal contributor to Henley’s publication; —Stevenson’s his popularity would serve to draw readers and ensure the paper’s success.
Selling 2,000 copies/week per annum, the Observer’s circulation was considerably less than many of its rival publications. During the first two years of its circulation it sold for 6d. Though it was nearly twice the length of news publications from the same time period, many of the others offered more competitive pricing: Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (1888) and the Pall Mall Gazette (1889) had circulation figures of 750,000 and 12,250 respectively, and also sold for less than 2d.
With its elevated cost and sophisticated content, the Observer marketed itself to an elite audience. At the same time, though, it expresses an interest in popularity and attempts to narrow the gap between what was perceived by the Victorians to be popular poetry, and what was seen to be “good” poetry. Stevenson serves as one example of a poet whose work was incredibly popular, but was also deemed highbrow enough to include in an intellectual newspaper. Rudyard Kipling is another popular poet who published frequently in the Observer, especially during the second year of the newspaper’s circulation. Featuring a verse or two in each week’s publication, usually authored by well-known and respected poet, the Observer’s poetry did not disseminate the literary detritus that was associated with the literary annuals earlier in the century, or more recent middlebrow news publications.
Stevenson’s deceptively simple lyric poem fits snugly within the tradition of sentimental Christmas poetry that creates a community of feeling among readers by evoking sympathy and seasonal nostalgia. The speaker begins by describing a crew’s collective experience as they try to navigate their ship into Sydney Harbour during a tempestuous winter storm. In June 1888, Stevenson set out for the Pacific Islands of the South Sea, an excursion that would only end six years later with his death. The descriptions of nautical life that appear in “Christmas at Sea,” were drawn from some of his own experiences while he made the journey abroad. At the outset of the poem, the speaker presents a heroic crew and cultivates sympathy in the poem’s readers by emphasizing the toils and perseverance of the ship’s crew: although the frozen ropes “cut the naked hand” the sailors remain dedicated to raising the mast and steering themselves to safety. In solidarity, they “tumbled every hand on deck instanter” and remained grounded in spirit despite the fact that “the decks were like a slide.” In the final line of the fifth stanza, the focus narrows more sharply on the speaker. Henceforth, the narrative voice shifts from using the collective “we” to using the individual “I” and the speaker gives the reader access to the his innermost thoughts. The sympathetic tone of the poem is amplified by the turn towards the personal, and even moreso when the speaker reveals that crew’s toils occurred on Christmas day.
The speaker contrasts the arduous toils of nautical life with the warmth of Victorian domestic life on Christmas day–a particularly auspicious day of the year for Victorians. The sight of “frost” on the “village roofs” prompts the speaker to muse imaginatively on his family at home vis-à-vis the quintessential images of a Victorian Christmas scene. The speaker suddenly feels the warmth of the hearth emanating from the houses he sees on shore, he hears the full-bodied sound of church bells ringing in the distance, and catches a whiff of a savory feast as he thinks wistfully about his own doting family—all nostalgic images of idyllic Christmas past. In the final stanzas of the poem the speaker vexes himself for choosing a life at sea and having to be away from his family at Christmastime. The speaker is bought back to reality when the crew finally manages to regain control of the vessel, and the ship begins to make its way back out to sea. However, the speaker cannot put out of his head that he will be leaving the security and comforts of home and family behind.
In addition to perpetuating the nostalgia associated with the Christmas season, “Christmas at Sea” reflects Stevenson’s own political values as a committed Tory-Imperialist, which align with the political bent of the Scots Observer. Stevenson’s poem offers consolation for those Victorians that would have sent their loved ones abroad with the Royal Navy as part of the English Imperial effort. It attenuates anxiety surrounding what was a harrowing experience for British families. He does this by intimating that the men participating in the imperial effort remember and long for their families at home, even though they remain unable to bridge the geographical distance between themselves and England. Stevenson’s “Christmas at Sea” reflects Victorian notions of romanticism, while also serving as a tribute to sea-faring heroism.
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