About Robert Louis Stevenson and the poem ‘Where go the boats?’
Robert Louis Stevenson was a nineteenth-century Scottish writer and poet. He was a popular author of many children’s books. Despite suffering from a severe health ailment for most of his life, he wrote and published several successful works centered on entertainment and imagination.
The poem ‘Where Go the Boats?’ was published in 1885 in Stevenson’s book ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’. It is a children’s poem about the thoughts of a child as they watch their paper boats sail away along a river.
Stanza-wise summary of the poem ‘Where Go the Boats?’
In the first stanza of the poem ‘Where go…’, the speaker, who is a child, describes a river that they behold. It is dark brown in color, its banks are covered with golden sand, and it flows infinitely with trees growing on either side of its banks.
In the next stanza, the speaker mentions that they can see green leaves floating, and foaming ripples that resemble castles, on the river. They wonder in which place all their paper boats that have been sent floating will reach ashore.
In the third stanza, the speaker describes the path of the river, which first passes past a mill, and then down a valley and hill. In the last stanza, the speaker says that the river continues its course down more than a hundred miles, and other little children who shall be playing on its banks shall take the boats ashore.
Themes in the poem ‘Where Go the Boats?’
The Central theme
The main theme of the poem ‘Where go the boats?’ is childhood. The poem is all about a child’s point of view as they watch their paper boats sail along a river. Playing with paper boats is a popular childhood pastime, and the deep meanings it could have is reflected through the speaker’s thoughts.
The lines Where will all come home? and Other little children shall bring my boats ashore justify this theme as they imply the child’s innocence and naivety with regard to the boats and the river. Also, the phrase Other little children implies that many children, and not only the speaker, are generally engaged in playing with toy boats.
The first theme in the poem ‘Where Go the Boats’ is nature. The poet opens the poem by describing a river, using imagery like golden sand, dark brown, and trees. The boat’s journey takes place amid the natural course of nature, which in itself is beautiful and eternal.
Journey of life
The next theme in the poem is the journey of life. The whole narration could in fact be a metaphor for the life of a living being, in regard to its destinies and uncertainties. Just like the boats sailing along the river, we too persevere forward in our lives without knowing where we shall end up in the future or what fate has in store for us.
Line-by-line interpretation of the poem ‘Where go the boats?’
Dark brown is the river.
Golden is the sand.
The speaker begins the poem by describing a river that he is watching. It is dark brown in color, probably because it has become muddy due to rain. The riverbanks are golden, maybe because the sun shines on them, thus making the sands appear golden in color. But by nature, the flowing river always keeps its sands clean and golden.
It flows along forever,
With trees on either hand.
The speaker says that the river seems to be flowing forever. As the river flows for miles together, it looks as if it has no end before it finally joins the sea. The banks of the river are lined with trees on either side, which serve to tend to passersby, birds, and animals.
Green leaves a-floating,
Castles of the foam,
The trees growing on the banks may be huge with branches spreading across the river. The green leaves which fall from them into the river due to the wind are floating on the water. The gushing river is most likely to foam, causing ripples and bubbles. To the speaker, the cascading foam appears like a beautiful castle.
Boats of mine a-boating—
Where will all come home?
Here, the speaker shifts the subject of their narration from the river to their paper boats, which they have just left into the water to sail. The flowing river would take them along its course leaving them to wonder where they would all come home, or reach, in the end. This makes it clear that the child was at the river because they were watching the boats all the while.
On goes the river
And out past the mill, Away down the valley,
Away down the hill.
The river seems to be going on and on, flowing past a mill located nearby. Further, it flows down a valley and a hill, in all its splendid glory, enjoying its course willingly and unfailingly.
Away down the river,
A hundred miles or more, Other little children
Shall bring my boats ashore.
The river continues its journey endlessly for miles together, maybe a hundred or more without any hassles. The speaker had earlier wondered where his boats would go. But now, he imagines that other children playing on the banks of the river further down would bring his boats safely to the land.
Analysis of the poem ‘Where go the boats?’
‘Where Go the Boats?’ by Robert Louis Stevenson is a simple poem for children describing paper boats sailing along a river. The poet has attempted to capture the fine aspects of childhood games against the background of nature.
The poem ‘Where go..’ has a total of sixteen lines divided into four stanzas of four lines each. It has a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD AEFE AGHG. The speaker here is presumably a child, as toy boats are a childhood game and the lines highlight their naive thoughts about it. Also, the phrase Other little children implies that the speaker is one such little child.
The gender of the speaker is not clear. We thereby use a gender-neutral pronoun, they, while referring to him/her. The title of the poem highlights the innocent question arising in the speaker’s mind as they watch their boats sail away, that is, what could be the boats’ future? It is clear that the poem is centered on the boats, and not the river, although both of them are integral themes.
The poem has a tone of wonder and curiosity. It describes the innocence of childhood, and makes the reader, along with the speaker, wonder what shall happen in the future or what shall become of the boats.
The poet has used visual imagery like golden, trees, green leaves, castles, etc. to describe the peaceful background of the river and general nature, which serves as a setting for the narration. Also, the repeated use of phrases like on goes, away, hundred miles, forever, brings the reader’s attention to the theme of endlessness and uncertainty of life.
The first stanza only describes the river. It is only in the second stanza that we are introduced to the fact that the speaker is talking about his boats. Here, the boats are said to be boating rather than floating, which implies that the child is imagining the boats to have a life of their own. We assume the poet is referring to boats made of paper as it is the most common material used for making toy boats.
Also, it must be noted that they are interested in where the boats will come home rather than ‘When.’ This hints that the child is perfectly aware that there is no exact time at which their boats’ journey will end, yet he is still concerned about the final ‘Place’ where the journey may culminate.
The third stanza again describes the river, this time about the course it takes. The repetition of the phrase away here brings into notice the child’s slight worry that he has no control over the course of the river, thus restricting him from controlling the destiny of his boats once he has set them into the water.
Also, the line on goes the river can be interpreted as despite what happens in the world or what the speaker thinks, the river pays no heed and continues to flow timelessly. The poem ends with a guess that the speaker finally makes with regard to the destiny of their boats. Yet, it is not a near future, as the river may take the boats a hundred miles or so forward.
Here, the child shifts to a tone of hope as he finally accepts fate. The boats shall never return, but end up as someone else’s possession. Either way, he has no control over time but can only be optimistic about what might happen.
Although this poem is presumably nothing else but a simple and relatable narrative for children, it can also be interpreted as a metaphor for the general nature of life. Human beings are just like boats, going forward for a long time with no surety of what the future holds. The river is like our fate, which is mysterious and takes us on a ride according to its own whims.
The literary devices used in the poem ‘Where Go the boats?’ are imagery, enjambment, repetition, metaphor, and personification.
The phrases golden, trees, green leaves, castles, etc. are examples of imagery that the poet has used to give a good visual impression of nature and childhood.
Several continuous lines in the poem are the same sentence. For instance, It flows along forever with trees on either hand and Other little children shall bring my boats ashore.
In the poem, the phrase away down has been repeated thrice.
Castles – Here, the ripples and contortions formed by the foam on the water are compared to castles.
Boats of mine a-boating – Here, the boats are personified as living entities that are boating on their own along the river.