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The Vagabond -- Robert Louis Stevenson

(Poem #780) The Vagabond
 Give to me the life I love,
   Let the lave go by me,
 Give the jolly heaven above
   And the byway nigh me.
 Bed in the bush with stars to see,
   Bread I dip in the river -
 There's the life for a man like me,
   There's the life for ever.

 Let the blow fall soon or late,
   Let what will be o'er me;
 Give the face of earth around
   And the road before me.
 Wealth I seek not, hope nor love,
   Nor a friend to know me;
 All I seek, the heaven above
   And the road below me.

 Or let autumn fall on me
   Where afield I linger,
 Silencing the bird on tree,
   Biting the blue finger.
 White as meal the frosty field -
   Warm the fireside haven -
 Not to autumn will I yield,
   Not to winter even!

 Let the blow fall soon or late,
   Let what will be o'er me;
 Give the face of earth around,
   And the road before me.
 Wealth I ask not, hope nor love,
   Nor a friend to know me;
 All I ask, the heaven above
   And the road below me.
-- Robert Louis Stevenson
 From "Songs of Travel and Other Verses", published in 1896.
 Meant to be sung "to an air of Schubert", though I don't know which one.

Robert Louis Stevenson's verse - energetic, enthusiastic and exciting - is
in many ways reminiscent of his prose, and like his prose, it's always fun
to read. Readers looking for profound insight or gut-wrenching emotion are
likely to be disappointed; equally, though, readers looking for metrical
felicity and magical atmospherics are likely to be enchanted.

I often think of Stevenson as a mixture of Walter de la Mare and John
Masefield: the former for his command of atmosphere, and the latter for his
wanderlust. The romance of the open road plays a significant role in
Stevenson's writings, yet it's always tempered with a sense of the beauty of
stillness, of silence. And while RLS cannot (in all honesty) hold a candle
to either de la Mare or Masefield, in many respects he does not miss by
much: his poems rarely fail to capture the imagination, and, having captured
it, to take it to places it's rarely seen before.


PS. A quick comment on form: note how the steady rhythm of the hexameter
drives this poem on, and gives it a vigour befitting its subject. Nicely


Stevenson poems on the Minstrels:
Poem #20, "Requiem"
Poem #84, "From a Railway Carriage"
Poem #290, "Bed in Summer"
Poem #450, "Auntie's Skirts"
The first of these has a biography and some critical information.

Walter de la Mare:
Poem #2, "The Listeners"
Poem #272, "Napoleon"
Poem #484, "Brueghel's Winter"
Poem #725, "Silver"

John Masefield:
Poem #27, "Sea Fever"
Poem #74, "Cargoes"
Poem #555, "Trade Winds"
Poem #695, "Beauty"
Poem #702, "Night is on the Downland"
Poem #758, "Sea-Change"

The Poet's Corner has many more poems by RLS, including the complete text of
"Songs of Travel" [1] and of "A Child's Garden of Verses" [2].

[1] [broken link]
[2] [broken link]

59 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Matthew Murray said...

On your page with the lyrics to "The Vagabond" by Robert Louis
Stevenson, it says that the words should be sung "to an air of Schubert."
I'm not sure if that was the original intention, but I've sung the same
words, by the same R.L. Stevenson, to a tune by someone else...I believe his
name was Ralph Vaughn Williams, though I could be mistaken...anyway, it
starts in c minor and has a key change (to e minor, I believe) at the bridge
("or let autumn fall on me..."), and then reverts back to its original key
at the start of the last verse. Just thought you might like to know this.
By the way, I sang this song for an Ohio Solo & Ensemble's on
the Class "A" required list. Thanks for your informative page.
Matthew C. Murray

Ronribman said...

I never realized this was a poem. I learned it as a song when I was a
school-child (60 plus years ago). The lyrics and the melody have, off and on,
been rattling around in my head since, but until the age of the computer
(when you could put in a few lines and locate the source in a couple of
nanoseconds) I had no idea where they came from. I'm delighted to find the
source. Thanks for posting it.

Ron Ribman

Johnny Cloesen said...


enige jaren geleden kwam ik bij de wandelclub Ise Valley Vagabond een vriendin tegen die mijn een schild gaf met de begin worden van dit gedicht.
heb mijn altijd afgevraagd of dit iets was wat zij had opgeschreven of wat? ben blij dat ik nu heel het gedicht ken. Het motto van de engelse wandelclub is vrienschap, en kijk eens wat de naam Vagabond teweeg brengt mensen van verschillende landen komen samen in een belgische cafe en door de moderne technieken kunnen zijn met elkaar in contact komen. ongelooflijk toch.


vagabond for ever

johnny cloesen

LarryBelz said...

What is the meaning of he phrase, "Biting the blue finger."?

FranktheSquibb said...

The Vagabond - comment.

I learned this song - set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams - at Woodhouse
Grammar School in 1955. Our music teacher was Miss Cook, and I can hear her
thumping out the 'dum-de-da-de-da' introduction to this day.

The only recording I've come across - and it's an excellent one - is one by
the Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel on the Deutsche Grammophon label (1985), ref 445

Armadillo Antiques said...

I believe "Or let autumn fall on me Where afield I linger, Silencing the
bird on tree, Biting the blue finger" means this:

I am content to be in the field in autumn even though it (autumn cold)
causes the birds to stop singing (or to fly south?) and turns my fingers
blue with cold. Richard Butler

Adam Holden said...

I don't know how old this page is and these comments, but I just wanted to point out to a previous commenter that the inscription "to an air of Schubert" was written on the original poem, but the song by Ralph Vaughan Williams is part of the cycle "Songs of Travel," a set of songs from RL Stevenson's poetry cycle Songs of Travel. There are other inscriptions, or dedications perhaps, on some of the other poems in his cycle, "To an air of Diabelli" and there's one to Bach as well.

There is also another recording I've found, though haven't listened to it yet, by Thomas Allen (bari) on the EMI label. It's a compilation CD, with also the Shropshire lad by RVW and orchestral songs by Elgar and Butterworth.

guitarman said...

I think the poem stinks! It is the tale of a totally selfish bum! It
speaks of an existence that leads no where, with no purpose........not
even a desire for love! Pure trash IMO
Perhaps value can be salvaged by making it the example of 'what not to

Hodgson John (FIN) said...

There is also a wonderful CBC recording of the Songs of Travel, sung by Gerald Finley.

yoshida said...

I found the verse in a facsimile book <The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady> by Edith Holden. She wrote down the verse on October in 1906 in her diary, <To an air of Schubert> is missing. Her diary witnesses the popularity of this poem. I suspect if she enjoys the Williams composition.
I am a Japanese native to have some difficulty in understanding the verse. But I am relieved to know that <Biting the blue finger> is a bit obscure even to native connoisseurs.


Pereira said...

what doeswhite as meal mean

Pereira said...

what does white as meal mean

James M Grimes said...

To Pereira: think of the appearance of white corn meal or hominy -
clumps of snow covering the stubbled fields in early winter.

My own favorite rendition of this poem is sung by Bryn Terfel - the
great Welsh bass-baritone. The album is "Bryn Terfel - the
Vagabond." But I'd like to find the recording by Gerald Finley that
John Hodgson mentioned.

Rachel Schaufeld said...

I remember learning this song at primary school in 1966. Our choir took part in an interschool concert where about 10 choirs performed in unison. I love the bleak independence of the lyrics.



I have also have this song going around in my head from learning it at TRENT BRIDGE school in 1956, i guess it will be with me till the end. TREVOR MILLINGTON.

Marq said...


My first introduction of the Songs of Travel came from a recording by Robert

I have just seen that there is a version with orchestra available. "The very
best of English Song".

Halket7 said...

I am coming from the same area as yourseslf, only this mornig it come into my
head from nowhere else but my fadingg memory, My schooldays of sixty years
ago was from where it was regurgitated, Thanks

Michel Wagemans said...

In a reaction to the question white as meal:

At this moment as an amateur singer i am working on the song cycle "Songs of
Travel" by Ralph Vaughan Williams based on the poems by RL Stevenson.

Though sometimes the text is unclear to me the last question about "white as
meal the frosty field" is not. I can only explain as

"white as flour the frosty field". Being Dutch we have the word "meel"
(similar to meal) and that means flour. It makes sence, a field covert in
early frost, whitish as if powderd with flour.

The blue fingers were a mystery to me aswell. Thanks to a former writer to
give his/her view on this.

Reading (or singing) the other verses gives more to wunder about.


And yes, i love the Bryn Terfel recording too.

Anthony Ordman said...

Really helpful; need to learn the words for a performance this week end.

Thank you !

Anthony Ordman

LLOYD HYDE said...

This poem has been one of my favorites for many years, it was one of the
poems of the upper division classes in my elementary school in Jamaica
West Indies. Although, I was a student then in the lower division class
there was always a sense of buoyancy when the lyrics of this poem
touched my space. As you may have imagined it has been quite some time
ago that this poet made an indelible mark on me with this magnificent
poem. Thank you RLS for what is indeed a masterpiece.

Paul Woodring said...

An additional thought about "biting the blue finger." Blue Finger is
the common name for the plant senecio mandraliscae which is native to
South Africa. Stevenson may have heard of, or even seen this plant in
his many travels, and used it here to suggest a plant withered by
frost. He may have favored this plant name because of the suggested
idea of cold fingers, thus getting a kind of double-entendre. Just a

John Grocott said...

Hi There,
Thanks for the link to Bryn Terfel and the 1985 recording of the Vagabond's song.

I remember this song was often played on BBC radio around the fifties. It was a version by Peter Dawson, Australian barotone and I would love to get hold of any recording of the song as it takes me back to my early days at school.

I will keep on searching.
Best. John Grocott. London UK

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Anonymous said...

this is a trash as guitarman says .

Anonymous said...

Guitarman- you are right in one sense .The words make us feel uncomfortable,but,it is the vagabond you should not like ....not the poem !

Anonymous said...

(guitarman )I also think your comment is the best here !

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Agnel CJ Kurian said...

What does "Let the lave go by me" mean?

Darryl B said...

"Let the lave go by me". The only meaning I have been able to discover for lave is wash or bathe, hence the vagabond is unwashed. There may be a better explanation which I have yet to discover.
I have lived with loved and sung RVW's setting of "Songs of Travel" for almost 50 years. I have three recordings and the Terfel is the one I like least. Admittedly he has a radiant voice, but curiously, Terfel sings better in German then in English. His phrasing is distinctly odd and he places emphases in some very unusual places. I don't think he has read the verses as poetry. My favourite recording, partly for nostalgic reasons, is the one I grew up with. That by John Shirley-Quirk. His sensitivity and intelligence shine through the whole work. Thomas Allen's is also a fine recording. I also have a recording of the orchestrated version by Christopher Maltman which reveals a new dimension. Only 3 of the songs, 1,3 and 8, were orchestrated by RVW the remainder were orchestrated by his assistant Roy Douglas.

Geoff said...

"Let the lave go by me .."; 'lave' is also an old Scottish word for 'remainder' or 'rest'. Being a Scot, Stevenson was probably amused by the idea of a vagabond shunning both washing and anything other than "The life I love .."

glotree said...

Lave can also refer to a river.

I hear in these words the voice of a person who's coping as best they can with what life has given them. Whatever has happened to him has reduced him to a wanderer, but he's embraced it, and even convinced himself he likes it. And maybe there's parts of it he does - sleeping in the wide open with the stars over him, for example. But in the verse about autumn, when he mentions "warm the fireside haven" I hear a note of longing, after which he immediately re-iterates his declaration that he will not give in to the cold of autumn and winter. It feels very much to me as though, since he has been denied the warmth of hearth and friend and love, he has convinced himself he doesn't need them, because if he doesn't need them then maybe it won't hurt so much that he doesn't have them.

Just my thoughts. But poetry is like beauty - the meaning or value is often in the eye/ear of the beholder. Where one person sees trash another sees a thing of great beauty. To each his own.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I came across this site; just trying to track down the melody we sang in school choir in 1962-ish - I don't think it was the Ralph Vaughan Williams one but rather something reminiscent of a well-known Scottish tune??? Hope someone may help. Thanks for all the info above. I've always remembered the 'white as meal' words and the jolly rhythm we sang.
[Valerie, NZ]

Anonymous said...

I cannot help but express my disdain for the comments by guitarman and those who agree with him.

Although I find the dedicated study of literature to be pointless and wasteful in terms of time and resources, the works that endure said studies convey the feelings of the character, if not the author.

To call this poem trash is your opinion, but I believe it to be ignorant. Not only because you are essentially calling the character which conveys this poem, along with his feelings, trash, but also because there is a certain beauty rather than selfishness in his words.

He seeks self-satisfaction and does so independently through the joys that his travels around the world present to him.

Although he does not seek love or companionship from another human, love and appreciation for the world around him is clearly present and constantly admired.

What's truly wonderful about this poem is how it emphasizes the beauty around us which many people, including you in this case, are taking for granted in our everyday lives. Whether it is the nature which surrounds us or the simple paths that we take on a daily basis.

Despite his occupation as a vagabond or a "bum" as you call it, you should not need to dedicate yourself to aimless voyages to appreciate each step you take in life.

Fabulous poem.

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Anonymous said...

Thanks to them who have given their valuable explanations to certain lines of this poem. As I am a teacher so these would help me a lot to make my students understand the poem better..

Atanu Das said...

The birds were biting their blue wing

Anonymous said...

I just got out of the shower singing this song. Could only remember the first verse. I too sang this in Ohio as a solo. Great song. It is like an old friend. It comes and goes. :-).

Glad I found t his site.


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