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"Home is the sailor from the sea": Robert Louis Stevenson or A. E. Housman?

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Tombstone of Robert Louis Stevenson

The tombstone atop Stevenson’s mountain grave bears as an epitaph his poem ‘Requiem.’  Chronicle / Alamy

The tombstone atop Stevenson’s mountain grave bears as an epitaph his poem ‘Requiem.’ Chronicle / Alamy

Literary Quirks

At times, the world, especially the literary world, is hit with a conundrum about who wrote what. Among other literary problems, hoaxes, and outright lies, there remains a little category that can only be labeled, quirks. Because of the rich interplay by poets, novelists, and other creative writers, who often engage the words of others for various reasons, at times the line between legitimate use and plagiarism seems to be crossed. But plagiarism is deliberate engagement of fraud; the plagiarist wants readers to believe s/he is author of the stolen property.

Legitimate use of another works include allusion, echoing, and use of several words in a string for the purpose of emphasis; the legitimate user of the words believes that his readers will know the source being referenced; he is not trying to deceive or steal the words of another as the plagiarist does. Normally, the context surrounding the use of others' words will make clear whether the use is legitimate or whether it is plagiarism.

Confusion has arisen over the lines, "Home is the sailor, home from the sea / And the hunter home from the hill," and "Home is the sailor from the sea / The hunter from the hill." Some readers have asked how these lines could come from two different sources; others have surmised that Stevenson is quoting Housman. But might it not be the other way around? Do the lines belong to Robert Louis Stevenson or A. E. Housman? Let us investigate.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson's "Requiem"

Robert Louis Stevenson is the older poet, born in 1850, died in1894. A. E. Housman was born in 1859 and died in 1936. After Robert Louis Stevenson died in 1894, his epitaph was carved on his tombstone. The epitaph was later published as a poem and given the title, “Requiem."

Apparently, there remains a controversy about the insertion of second "the" in the penultimate line of Stevenson’s epitaph, "Home is the sailor, home from the sea." Some argue that the line should read, "Home is the sailor, home from sea." Some internet sources present the line without the definite article while others insert it.

I will continue to employ the line with the definite article for the simple reason that that is how it appears on Stevenson's tombstone. Could the engraver have made an error? Of course. But until I have encountered proof of that error, I will go with what is chiseled in stone.

Requiem

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you 'grave for me:
Here he lies where he long'd to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

A. E. Houseman

A. E. Housman's "XXII - R. L. S."

The following A. E. Housman poem, "XXII - R. L. S.," is a tribute to Robert Louis Stevenson, focusing on the final two lines from Stevenson's "Requiem":

XXII - R. L. S.

Home is the sailor, home from sea:
Her far-borne canvas furled
The ship pours shining on the quay
The plunder of the world.
Home is the hunter from the hill:
Fast in the boundless snare
All flesh lies taken at his will
And every fowl of air.
'Tis evening on the moorland free,
The starlit wave is still:
"Home is the sailor from the sea,
The hunter from the hill."

Housman's tribute appears in The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman. In a letter to Grant Richards, a friend of Housman, dated January 15, 1929, Housman mentions his tribute poem: "The poem on R.L.S. appeared at his death in the Academy in 1894."

Problem Solved

The issue has been resolved: Housman alluded to Stevenson's lines in a tribute to the older poet, who had died. When poets compose tributes to other poets who have preceded them in the poetic arts endeavor, those tribute writers often employ the words of the honored person; they are confident that those who care enough to read such a tribute know whose words belong to whom. Thus, the reason for using the honored poet's words is for special emphasis to inform the affection charged in the tribute, not for plagiarism.

Note that Housman tweaked the wording a bit, but nevertheless made it possible for his readers to make the connection with Stevenson's earlier poem. Thus this literary issue is a quirk—no plagiarism, no hoax—and because of the facts presented, the relationship between the authors and their words can now be understood.

Sources

  • Robert Louis Stevenson, "Requiem," bartley.com
  • AE Housman, "XXII - RLS," The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman
  • The Letters of A. E. Housman, edited by Archie Burnett
  • Find a Grave: Robert Louis Stevenson

Musical rendition of "Requiem"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on December 29, 2019:

Rick Emmons, thank you for your excited utterance! How edifying to see such passion regarding the use, or misuse as it were, of the definite article. While it may not satisfy your obviously superior “knowlege,” the following added text, nevertheless, expresses my view:

“Apparently, there remains a controversy about the insertion of second "the" in the penultimate line of Stevenson’s epitaph, "Home is the sailor, home from the sea." Some argue that the line should read, "Home is the sailor, home from sea." Some internet sources present the line without the definite article while others insert it.

“I will continue to employ the line with the definite article for the simple reason that that is how it appears on Stevenson's tombstone. Could the engraver have made an error? Of course. But until I have encountered proof of that error, I will go with what is chiseled in stone.”

By the way, Rick, “it’s contributors” should be “its contributors.” The context calls for the possessive pronoun, not the contraction for “it is.”

Rick Emmons on December 28, 2019:

This is a flagrant insult to the memory of Robert Louis Stevenson and a damning instance of pretended knowlege of the literary world and it's contributors. It's NOT "home from THE sea." The correct wording is "home from sea." I am truly amazed at such a blunder...

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