Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Tahiti and Literature

In the South Seas 

In the South Seas

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.”   ― Robert Louis Stevenson

Tahiti was the setting for Herman Melville’s Omoo, published in 1847. This was the second of Melville’s novels — a sequel to Typee and so a second “Peep at Polynesian Life.” While both of his books were popular, another of my favorite authors also wrote eloquently of his travels including Tahiti. While he had previously travelled with a donkey, Robert Louis Stevenson in 1888 travelled to Tahiti, and after two more voyages settled in the Samoan Islands for the remainder of his life. It was from his time in Tahiti that he was inspired to write some of his most evocative poetry including the following:

Let me fathom out with my arms the length of golden-bred Tahiti
And number one by one the lands of Tautira.
I am seized with fear at Tepari
I shall stop short at Vaita
Clouds are over the sun and it blows a bad wind,
And my home is beyond at Faaroa.
At Vaiumete is a ledge where a man must go with the arms spread.
I must measure with my arms the face of that weary cliff.

Stevenson loved Tahiti and developed a close friendship with a Tahitian named Ori, becoming a "brother" to the Tahitian sub chief (Bell, p 217). While he published three tales about Tahiti his collection of travel essays, In the South Seas, did not include essays on the time he spent in Tahiti. I have always marveled at the various, often famous, adventure novels by Stevenson. My fascination with this author is enhanced by his life story, for as a sickly child, would grow up to travel extensively, often because of his illness. Needless, his wanderlust led in part to the wonderful novels of adventure that we have today.

In the South Seas by Robert Louis Stevenson. Penguin Classics, New York. 1999 (1896)
Dreams of Exile, Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Ian Bell. Henry Holt, New York. 1992


Brian Joseph said...

When I looked at Stevenson's bibliography I was surprised that I have only read I have only read The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. As I have sen the film versions of several of his books I had the false impression that I had read more of his works.

I think that folks often read him when young. As his books were never assigned to me in school I missed out. As I loved that I have been thinking about reading more of his work.

James said...


My love of Stevenson began early with "A Child's Garden of Verses" and continued with Treasure Island and Kidnapped. It was later in life that I began to explore his other works that, in addition to The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, include essays, poems, short stories, and travel narratives. I would also recommend Ian Bell's short biography for further insight into the amazing life of RLS.