Poetry: Stevenson – Block City

What are you able to build with your blocks?
Castles and palaces, temples and docks.
Rain may keep raining, and others go roam,
But I can be happy and building at home.

Let the sofa be mountains, the carpet be sea,
There I’ll establish a city for me:
A kirk and a mill and a palace beside,
And a harbor as well where my vessels may ride.

Great is the palace with pillar and wall,
A sort of a tower on top of it all,
And steps coming down in an orderly way
To where my toy vessels lie safe in the bay.

This one is sailing and that one is moored:
Hark to the song of the sailors on board!
And see on the steps of my palace, the kings
Coming and going with presents and things!

Now I have done with it, down let it go!
All in a moment the town is laid low.
Block upon block lying scattered and free,
What is there left of my town by the sea?

Yet as I saw it, I see it again,
The kirk and the palace, the ships and the men,
And as long as I live and where’er I may be,
I’ll always remember my town by the sea.

Once again, I have found a surprise poet! Until recently, I had no idea that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote any poetry, let alone a collection. But I came across this one and fell in love with it. This little poem has the signs of a storyteller in its lines. The images, the sounds, and the narrative all point back to the author’s other talents. But what I love most about this poem is how all these features work in service to what the poet seems to be describing: a child’s imagination at play. Here, there is a little child, I imagine a little boy because of the certain toppling of his city at the end, playing make-believe with his simple blocks and toys. Yes, we see blocks as a child who cannot read and sees covers of books: empty of meaning. Yet with a little prompting and imagination, a whole world is open to us both.

Listen to what this child tells us. He asks us first: what can we make with our blocks? And honestly, my recent block towers leave something to be desired. But like this child, my own children build cities, streets, windows, a shop, and a place to call home. This child builds all the things he’s heard about but perhaps has yet to read or see. In his mind, these simple blocks are a great landscape of palaces and harbors. Listen with him! Can’t you hear the seagulls, sailors, and attendants hurrying for the king? There are sculpted buildings and great boats. The whole room completes the backdrop scenery! And where is this found? In the contented play of a child.

What a joy to behold! Stevenson truly captures the imagination and heart of a child. Reading this poem reminded me of the days I spent with my little brothers when they were still littler than me. Days when we would play and explore and imagine our backyard was as big as the world. Now I watch my own children and see that same wonder and imagination. I love this depth in the poem as well. For it is not just nostalgia or memory Stevenson describes but a retained joy that can be shared with children today. For though he knocked down his block city and it only exists in his memory, he sees all he created again and again with each turn at the blocks with his children where perhaps he asks, “What are you able to build with your blocks?” And I wonder now, what do we build with what we have?

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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