Friday, August 24, 2007

The Lighthouse by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Lighthouse

The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
and on its outer point, some miles away,
the lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.

Even at this distance I can see the tides,
Upheaving, break unheard along its base,
A speechless wrath, that rises and subsides
in the white tip and tremor of the face.

And as the evening darkens, lo! how bright,
through the deep purple of the twilight air,
Beams forth the sudden radiance of its light,
with strange, unearthly splendor in the glare!

No one alone: from each projecting cape
And perilous reef along the ocean's verge,
Starts into life a dim, gigantic shape,
Holding its lantern o'er the restless surge.

Like the great giant Christopher it stands
Upon the brink of the tempestuous wave,
Wading far out among the rocks and sands,
The night o'er taken mariner to save.

And the great ships sail outward and return
Bending and bowing o'er the billowy swells,
And ever joyful, as they see it burn
They wave their silent welcome and farewells.

They come forth from the darkness, and their sails
Gleam for a moment only in the blaze,
And eager faces, as the light unveils
Gaze at the tower, and vanish while they gaze.

The mariner remembers when a child,
on his first voyage, he saw it fade and sink
And when returning from adventures wild,
He saw it rise again o'er ocean's brink.

Steadfast, serene, immovable, the same,
Year after year, through all the silent night
Burns on forevermore that quenchless flame,
Shines on that inextinguishable light!

It sees the ocean to its bosom clasp
The rocks and sea-sand with the kiss of peace:
It sees the wild winds lift it in their grasp,
And hold it up, and shake it like a fleece.

The startled waves leap over it; the storm
Smites it with all the scourges of the rain,
And steadily against its solid form
press the great shoulders of the hurricane.

The sea-bird wheeling round it, with the din
of wings and winds and solitary cries,
Blinded and maddened by the light within,
Dashes himself against the glare, and dies.

A new Prometheus, chained upon the rock,
Still grasping in his hand the fire of love,
it does not hear the cry, nor heed the shock,
but hails the mariner with words of love.

"Sail on!" it says: "sail on, ye stately ships!
And with your floating bridge the ocean span;
Be mine to guard this light from all eclipse.
Be yours to bring man neared unto man.

--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I don't remember where I found this poem. I think that I probably heard the last two stanzas quoted somewhere, and was pleasantly surprised to find the rest of the poem. I know it's long, and I thought about editing it down, and linking to the rest, but I couldn't feel good about any of the cuts I was about to make. I have marked my very favorite stanzas in bold, though.

This poem is a good example of something they talk about all the time in poetry classes, but I haven't talked about much: simile and metaphor. We find both used several times in this poem. I'll choose two obvious examples.

First, we have the line, "Like the great giant Christopher it stands." This is simile. Notice the word "like" signalling that we're about to have an explicit comparison: this thing is like that thing. In this case, the lighthouse is like St Christopher, the patron Saint of travellers. He was reportedly a giant of a man, named Reprobius (which simply means sinner) who decided to convert to Christianity. On the advice of a Holy Man, he stationed himself at a particularly dangerous river crossing and would carry travelers across because he was so strong. One day he carried the Christ Child across, and so, changed his name to Christopher (which means Christ carrier). Knowing that, it's easy to see how a lighthouse would remind the poet of St Christopher, a giant who would reach out into the dangerous waters to bring travelers safely to shore.

Later, he compares the lighthouse to another giant. This time, the lighthouse is Prometheus. It's not "like" Prometheus, it "is" him. This kind of comparison is called metaphor. The readers know that the two things aren't the same thing, but it can bring a much more powerful image to the mind. Here we have Prometheus, one of the Titans of Greek Mythology, who stole fire from the gods to bring light and warmth to man, chained to a rock in eternal punishment for his crime. His immortal liver is painfully devoured every day by an eagle, and yet he is not angry at mankind. Instead, he holds up the flame he still has clenched in his hand and wishes the mariners a safe journey. I was reminded, reading this, of the lighthouse keepers, many of whom were almost literally chained to the rock their lighthouse was on -- they were stuck out on isolated rocky islands, hard to approach by boat in the best of weather, for months at a time, all so that somebody else could safely travel the world.

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