‘My Shadow’ by Robert Louis Stevenson is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines. Stevenson has chosen to imbue this piece with a simple rhyming pattern of aabb ccdd, and so on, alternating end sounds he saw fit from stanza to stanza. Stevenson chose this rhyme scheme to match the content and intend audience of ‘My Shadow.’ It is very straightforward, emphasizing the pleasure of sounds over a complex style of syntax. The poem is aimed at two different audiences, first, and most obviously, children. The second is anyone seeking to relive the joy and simple wonder of childhood.
The main themes of this piece are curiosity and wonder. Stevenson’s speaker spends the poem considering his own shadow. He is unsure what exactly it is, and without access to or understanding of science, he has to come to his own conclusions. The speaker describes his shadow as a “he,” as if it is another boy accompanying him everywhere he goes.
Summary of My Shadow
The poem begins with the speaker describing how there is another child who follows him everywhere. It sticks close to him when he is playing, so much it is embarrassing for them both. He also has the strange ability to shrink and grow quickly, not at all like a normal boy.
The child’s innocence and honest inquiry into the nature of his world is endearing and takes an adult reader back to a time before everything was made so much clearer through science.
Analysis of My Shadow
I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.
In the first stanza of ‘My Shadow’, the speaker begins by describing his shadow as a companion. It is something that accompanies him everywhere he goes. Although the young narrator does not know what his shadow is, he does recognize it as a boy. This means that any adjectives used to describe the shadow likely apply, at least to some extent, to the boy.
The speaker says his shadow is “little” and that it goes “in and out with” him. This is a wide-reaching reference to all of the boy’s motions. The fact that the shadow mirrors him is one of the first things he notices. This is quickly followed by the speaker coming to the conclusion that his shadow does not serve a real purpose. Whatever is the ”use of him” is beyond the speaker’s ability to understand. This is where, with an adult speaker, science would provide the answers. The child does not have the ability to understand the true cause of a shadow.
The speaker goes on to take note of the fact that the shadow is “very, very” like him. Every part of the shadow is similar to the “heels to the head.” He speaks on the mirroring of his own emotions when he describes the shadow as jumping onto the bed before he does. He sees the shadow as copying him rather than as a projection of his own body.
The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow—
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,
And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.
The second stanza speaks on the strange aspects of the shadow the child takes note of. These include its ability to “grow.” He is referring to how the shape changes with the positioning of the sun. It is obviously a very odd feature for a child to have, making him an improper child. There is a contrast presented here between real children and the way they grow and the growth of this strange child. Normally kids grow “very slow” and in a much more logical way.
The speaker compares the quick growth of the child to the bounce of “an india-rubber ball.” It happens so fast that one can hardly follow it. In a similar way, the child shrinks until there is hardly anything left of him.
He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
He stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see;
I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!
The speaker goes on to describe how this child does not understand how to play, a critical part of childhood. This fact bothers the speaker as the shadow’s actions reflect badly on him. He is embarrassed by the shadow’s needy behavior and its seeming inability to leave his side. The strange child is always there, acting like a “coward.” In the last line, he compares the constant attention of the shadow to the way a very young child would cling to his “nursie.”
One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;
But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.
In the last quatrain of this piece, the speaker describes one time in which the shadow did not appear. He is not able to connect the events of this section to the physical manifestation of his shadow. Rather he presents the occasion as another quirk of this strange child who follows him around.
He speaks of a time in which he got up before the sun. The child was awake so early he could see the “shining dew on ever buttercup.” This line lets a reader know the scene was a beautiful one, something the speaker feels the shadow should not have missed. Rather than accompanying him on this early morning journey, the shadow remains in bed like “an arrant sleepy-head.” The speaker thinks this was the wrong decision.