The land of counterpane

Ill at home, I am reminded of the Robert Louis Stevenson poem, The Land of Counterpane, with it’s lovely sense of content self-sufficiency. The poem is ripe with the imaginative possibilities delivered by the altered state of being sick. Stevenson sends his ships in fleets up and down the bedclothes, and becomes a giant tree, surveying the land of scattered toys all around him.

land of counterpane 3


Gazing out of my sickroom window, this resonates so much with me still: being sick at home as a child was just like inhabiting a magical land of counterpane. My mother would have left out a tray-on-legs next to my bed, with water, a thermos of soup, a thermos of tea, some fruit, and a few other bits and pieces. A few simple items of medecine, depending on  the ailment. Box of tissues, a Dispirin to take after lunch etc. Hard-working mother and fulltime teacher that she was, this would have been done at some ungodly hour of the morning, when it was determined that I was indeed too ill  – or too infectious – to go to school, but not so bad that I could not be left on my own.

There weren’t really any other options to this solitary state, and no neighbour to look in on me. Measles, mumps, chicken pox, flu – all were happily spent quite alone all day in a magical land of no school and the potential for hours of reading through bleary eyes, if they were up for the task. During the primary school break time, she would call me from the staff room, and I would rush on shaky legs out of my room and into her bedroom where the phone was, to assure her I was okay. And there was her full attention to bask in, when she came home after a long day’s work at 4 or 5 in the afternoon.

Sometimes I think I or my sisters were really quite sick, and I am not sure this would happen nowadays in most families of the over-cossetted middle class, but it was a different time then. And the system seemed to work quite well. It certainly suited my particular personality. I would love to go further down this quite revealing path, but my head is woozy and my nose and eyes are streaming. I am struck by how lucky I am that this is flu, and not Ebola, in which case I think the romantic notion of the land of counterpane would fall away.

As a homage to those simpler times of my childhood, here is the poem itself, which I seem to remember my sisters and I reading from a much-loved copy of Stevenson’s anthology A child’s garden of verses:

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.


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