It was night and I was hiking up a mountain in pitch dark with a friend. We weren’t supposed to be there – the park closed at sunset. However, all that meant to me was that when we camped there, we would be completely alone under the stars, one of my favorite things in the world.
It was tough going through the dense woods with just a small flashlight. After climbing about a mile, suddenly there was a rather large structure right in front of me.
I shone my flashlight over it. It was a large pedestal of stone holding a large carving of a book. The book of stone was wide open to pages with words carved on them.
I shone the flashlight slowly over the pages and read, one word at a time, a poem.
The words said:
Doomed to know not winter, but only Spring
A being trod* the flowery April, blithely* for a while
Took his fill of music, joy of thought and seeing,
Came and stayed and went, nor ever ceased to smile
Robert Louis Stevenson
*Trod is the past tense of “tread” which means “to walk”
*Blithely means “with no worries, completely carefree”
What a magical moment, in the dark with just a little flashlight, a mile up a mountain, in deep woods with endless stars overhead.
I thought it was the most beautiful poem I’d ever read. Taking your fill of music, joy of thought and seeing suddenly became the most sublime of pleasures.
I had no idea Robert Louis Stevenson had written poetry, and absolutely no clue what his poem was doing halfway up a mountain in Calistoga, in Napa Valley, heart of the wine country in California.
But one thing I was sure of, it was the perfect place to camp and we did.
After I came down the mountain I did some research and discovered one of the greatest love stories in history.
Robert fell in love with the American Fanny Osbourne at an artist colony near Paris when he was visiting from Scotland and she from San Francisco. And when I say fell in love, I mean fell in love.
However, Fanny could not have been more off-limits. She was older than Robert and very married. In 1878 these were 2 major disqualifiers for any kind of future.
The man Fanny was married to was no prize as he was openly cheating on her and treated her badly. However, back in 1878, women didn’t get divorced. So Fanny suffered her insufferable husband. Up until that moment in France when she fell equally in love with Robert.
Robert was dependent on his father for financial support. He wanted to make it as a writer but he didn’t have any income to show for it yet. This changed later as he became extremely popular, but at this stage of his life he had no source of income. So he had nothing to offer Fanny, he couldn’t support them himself and his father would have cut him off immediately if he took up with her.
Sadly, Fanny left for home and a miserable marriage in California, and Robert went back to Scotland and the painful loneliness of losing her.
He couldn’t take it very long. He suffered. He needed to be with her. He wrote a beautiful essay On Falling in Love and this about his feelings:
“Let the man learn to love a woman as far as he is capable of love … Life is no longer a tale of betrayals and regrets; for the man now lives as a whole …”
He made the decision to go to America and live his life with Fanny. He didn’t care what it took.
His father cut him off from any financial support, and so Robert was rather impoverished (not to mention quite ill) when he got on the boat to cross the ocean on his 6,000 mile journey to secure a life with her.
His rough ocean journey was followed by a grueling 12-day train trip across America to San Francisco.
Where he just showed up. He arranged a meeting with Fannny’s husband and told him he absolutely had to give Fanny a divorce so Robert could marry her. The husband was surprisingly moved by Robert’s declaration of true love and agreed.
With no home to go to, and nothing but their love, Robert and Fanny were jubilantly married. Ridiculously happy to be together.
Then Robert figured out their perfect honeymoon. He heard there was an abandoned silver mine in Calistoga and he figured it would be the perfect place to celebrate their marriage. It was a beautiful location, in the woods on a beautiful mountain, and because it was abandoned, it was free, no rent. I’m not kidding – a 3-room cabin bunkhouse by an abandoned silver mine.
Personally, I think you’ve got to love a guy who thinks like this.
Today it takes me a little more than an hour to drive to Napa, but getting to Napa from San Francisco wasn’t nearly as easy back then. It was a journey. Robert and Fanny took the ferry across the San Francisco Bay to Vallejo and then the stagecoach up to Calistoga. This was back in the day when stagecoach robberies happened every week. They also had Fanny’s two children with them.
The Stevenson family found the abandoned silver mine, named Silverado, after climbing about a mile through the woods, up Mount St. Helena. It was truly in an abandoned state and needed incredible cleanup to make the cabin livable. Rattlesnakes abounded.
Robert and Fanny cleaned it up, tossed the rattlesnakes out and had a joyous one month honeymoon.
Robert wrote about it in a wonderful book called Silverado Squatters. A squatter is someone who occupies land or a building without paying for it.
Robert was an extremely private person, so the most intimate details of his relationship with Fanny are left out, but the story of their life on the mountain is beautifully written, irresistibly charming. It transports you back in time to another world of innocence and love. And the way he describes their crazy stage coach ride to Calistoga is worth the reading alone.
As it turns out, I camped in the exact spot, under the wide and starry sky, where Robert and Fanny honeymooned. Something about the place was magical, I could feel it was special when I was there.
Since then I’ve read much more of his poetry, his letters and essays, all with great enjoyment. He’s one of my favorite writers and she is quite a woman. He called her his “tiger and tiger lily”. Boring she was not.
Their story is remarkable. The writer Henry James wrote of them, “They are a romantic lot, and I delight in them.” The best book I’ve read about both Robert and Fanny is The Volent Friend by Margaret McKay and I highly recommend it.
I wanted to write about this particular poem today because April is National Poetry Month, and Robert’s poem describing a being who treads the flowery month of April is still one of my absolute favorites. I wanted to share the poem with you plus the beautiful story of my discovery as a celebration of both poetry and the April we’re experiencing now.
May you also take your fill of music, joy of thought and seeing, nor ever cease to smile.