Throughout the poem, Stevenson writes with young readers in mind, something that he often did. The language he uses is simple, direct, and entertaining. He uses numerous exclamation marks and tries to tap into a child’s perspective as much as possible.
Explore Looking-Glass River
Throughout the six stanzas of this piece, the speaker, a child, describes how he and other children enjoy looking into the waters of a river and seeing their reflections. Deep below them, they can see into the depths of the water as well, something that’s quite entertaining. This is fun for a time, but then the wind comes along and disturbs the clarity of the water. In the final stanza, the speaker takes on a more dominant tone, telling everyone not to worry and that the water will clear again.
Stevenson engages with themes of nature and life in ‘Looking-Glass RIver.’ Although the poem depicts children looking into a river, it can also be read on a deeper level as a description of life’s ups and downs. The water darkens, the children lose sight of their reflections and what’s beneath them, and they start to worry as if the lights in a room have been blown out. But, the speaker assures them, things will clear up again. Soon, they’ll be able to see clearly once more.
Structure and Form
‘Looking-Glass River’ by Robert Louis Stevenson is a six-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. Although the lines appear to be around the same lengths, they do not follow a single metrical pattern. As they appear in the original text, their alternating indentions help to emphasize the already very prominent rhyme scheme. One might consider how this movement mimics the feeling of a river.
Stevenson makes use of several literary devices in ‘Looking-Glass River.’ These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and similes. The latter is a type of figurative language. It occurs when the poet compares one thing to another through “like” or “as.” For example, two of the second stanza. It reads: “Pave pools as clear as air.”
Alliteration is a type of repetition that occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “smooth stream” in line four of the first stanza as well as “Pave pools” in line two of the second stanza. These examples are common in poetry that’s directed towards children, as this piece is. They help increase the feeling of rhyme and rhythm in a poem, as well as making it more fun for a young reader to hear or read themselves.
Enjambment is a common formal device that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the second stanza as well as lines three and four of the fourth stanza.
Stanzas One and Two
Smooth it glides upon its travel,
Here a wimple, there a gleam–
O the clean gravel!
O the smooth stream!
Sailing blossoms, silver fishes,
Pave pools as clear as air–
How a child wishes
To live down there!
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker begins by describing the movements of a stream, the “looking-glass river” alluded to in the title. He depicts it as something that moves evenly and easily through its environment. It “travel[s],” he adds, personifying it through a comparison to what a human being would do. Several exclamations in these lines are meant to draw attention to the beautiful elements that one can find and observe around the water.
In the second stanza, the speaker goes on to describe the “silver fishes” one could look into the river and see as well as the blossoms that move along its surface. From a child’s perspective, he depicts the clear pools that act like looking glasses. The poet knows that any child would find this appealing.
Stanzas Three and Four
We can see our colored faces
Floating on the shaken pool
Down in cool places,
Dim and very cool;
Till a wind or water wrinkle,
Dipping marten, plumping trout,
Spreads in a twinkle
And blots all out.
Through the first-person plural “we,” the speaker describes himself and others like him (other children) and how they can all see their “colored faces” in the “shaken pool.” They are distant in the water, making them think deeply about what’s down there. The images of their faces are very clear, that is, until a fish, the wind, or some more water come along and wipe it away. The ripples in the water spread and “blot” everything out.
The easy rhymes in these lines, in addition to the direct and simple images, help identify this poem as one that’s ideal for a young reader.
Stanzas Five and Six
See the rings pursue each other;
All below grows black as night,
Just as if mother
Had blown out the light!
Patience, children, just a minute–
See the spreading circles die;
The stream and all in it
Will clear by-and-by.
In the fifth stanza of ‘Looking-Glass River,’ the speaker uses personification to describe the rings the fish or wind make in the river. They “pursue” on another and block out the children’s line of sight into the depths of the river. It suddenly all goes “black as night.” This is another great example of a simile with night being compared to what it looks like inside a house when a child’s mother blows out the light of a candle.
In the final stanza, the speaker, who has thus been quite childish, takes on a more adult tone. This could suggest that the speaker has changed altogether. They tell the other children to wait for a moment, and the river will even out again. Then it will be “clear.” It’s at this point in the poem that it’s quite easy to read these lines as a metaphor for life, troubles, and the inevitable conclusion of one’s fears and worries.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Looking-Glass River’ should also consider reading some of Robert Louis Stevenson’s other poems. For example:
- ‘Rain’ – explores themes of nature and human experiences. Stevenson depicts this through images of rain falling in different environments.
- ‘The Land of Story-Books’ – depicts a boy’s land of make-believe inspired by a well-loved collection of books.
- ‘My Shadow’ – is told from the perspective of a child trying to understand his shadow. He depicts it as another child that follows him around.