Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Poem of the Week
"The Land of Counterpane"

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"The Land of Counterpane"

Robert Louis Stevenson

When I was a boy, we had a walk-in closet in the bedroom where my brother and I slept, and sometimes I’d go inside and shut the doors and pretend that it was another world. Many years later, when I first read C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I said to myself, “Hey, I know what that’s like!” That was of course the joy of reading things like Treasure Island. It wasn’t that you thought there really were men like Billy Bones singing, “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!”, or Israel Hands climbing up the mast with a dagger between his teeth, to get at the boy hero Jack Hawkins, or old marooned Ben Gunn, who wants more than anything else in the world to taste a bit of cheese again. Why, if somebody told you the humdrum details of how real life pirates lived and died, it would be like opening the closet doors and saying, “Hey, kid, you know you’re still on earth, right?” — and if “earth” means Cleveland or Pavia or Tunbridge Wells, then think how sorry you’d be!

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If you like fairy tales, the phrase that served as our Word of the Week, I don’t see how you can help liking children, and if you like children, you’ll want to play with them and enter the worlds they weave out of their own imagination. What Daddy won’t sit for teatime with his little daughter? What Mommy won’t listen behind the door as her little son, who should be in bed sleeping, is humming the hum of an airplane about to take off, who knows where? And who would want to lose forever this childlike spiritedness? Robert Louis Stevenson certainly didn’t. He wrote a whole book of poems for children, back when authors with considerable talent and broad education used to do that, and there’s where we get our Poem of the Week, whimsically called “The Land of Counterpane,” that is, the Land of the Quilt.

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It’s funny that some of our best memories from childhood are of when we are too sick to go to school, but not too sick so that you’d feel too bad to play quietly, in the bed or on the bed, without any noise or hurry. Stevenson remembers those times. Or we might say that he does more than remember: he dwells in them. I can call to mind the names of the streets in my town. I remember the telephone number we had when I was small. But to dwell, now, that’s a different thing. That calls up a whole world: your feelings, your imagination, what you would daydream of, what you heard and loved to hear, what you saw, what you touched — and these are usually the most ordinary things. I am four years old, tracing words with a stick in the dry sand at the side of our street, and it’s a magical place, with strange creatures in it, like a quince bush, a song sparrow, and dandelions. So then — here is Stevenson as a man who still has the boy in him, who writes for children, and secretly writes also for us.

“The Land of Counterpane,” Clara Olmstead. Public Domain.

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When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bedclothes, through the hills.

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.

Aside: the tinkling sound in the background of Tony’s recording of this post was our cat, Junior, at his daily practice on the toy piano!

Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymns, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast for paid subscribers, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. Paid subscribers also receive audio-enhanced posts and on-demand access to our full archive, and may add their comments to our posts and discussions. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Poem of the Week
Stop by on Wednesdays to listen to Tony read the poem of the week. Sometimes you have to hear it to believe it!