I will be honest. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) is not a favourite poet of mine. Though extremely learned (he was fluent in over a dozen languages) and very skilled in rhyming scheme and meter, his metaphors seem a bit hackneyed and his subject matter (like Tennyson* in this regard) tending to the

 portentously Victorian. Some of Longfellow’s poems strike me as the sort of thing that William Topaz McGonagall would have written if he had possessed any poetic skill.

So why highlight him for this week’s theme? Well, several reasons. Our theme is “Lighthouse” and we looked at, Flannan Isle last year. It is a popular theme but less so with celebrated poets. We could have looked at Virginia Woolf, of course, and we should do sometime but her, To the Lighthouse isn’t really

about lighthouses at all, and I probably had better finish it (a project that has taken nearly fifty years to date) before pontificating about it.

But a more important reason is that Longfellow was massively popular in his time and if he is no longer as revered as contemporaries like Emily Dickenson, I think this tells us something about poetry and its place in our society. Longfellow and Tennyson were writing in an era without film or television to a mass popular audience, and to judge them against modernist and post modernist literary standards is probably to miss the point. Longfellow and Tennyson belong to a time when there was a huge popular appetite for accessible poetry that told stirring stories and, beyond that era, generations of children learned these epics by rote, and often enjoyed them.

But most of all, this is my opinion. You might love Hiawatha and revere Longfellow, so by all means feel free to disagree.  And anyway, there are no Minihahas in this poem about a lighthouse!

If you would like to know more about Longfellow, his work and life there is an excellent and well balanced New Yorker article by James Marcus here:

*Longfellow was accused of plagiarising Tennyson by Edgar Allan Poe

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 lip 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! 

Not 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’ertaken 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 welcomes 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 Jove,
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 nearer unto man!”

Prompt: Of course a lighthouse does not have to be literal. A guiding light might be a person, or a book.

And even literal lights convey multiple meanings. For example, for many islanders returning at night on the ferry, this one signifies home.

6 thoughts on “Lighthouse

  1. Lighthouses

    Tiumpan Head

    As I wait looking out through the window
    Waiting for the kettle to boil
    I see Tuimpan Head high over the sea
    And I see the lantern dark peeping over the top

    In the dark I see the lantern flashing
    In a pattern of every one second then eight seconds
    It is now automated from Edinburgh

    The old living quarters are now a kennels and cattery
    We used to drive up and park up on the hill
    It is a good viewpoint for seeing whales
    Sometimes we would walk up the hill
    That made a good walk
    Sometimes we would cycle up
    I had to get off and walk the last part

    The light guides home fishing boats
    And the evening ferry coming back to Lewis
    It is painted white with yellow trim
    Sitting pretty on the bottom of the hill

    Butt of Lewis

    We drove up to Ness and
    Standing on top of the cliff edge
    Built of unpainted red brick
    Stood the lighthouse
    The light was only automated in 1998
    One of the Windiest places
    It stands tall and magnificent

    Mull of Kintyre

    We drove down a steep narrow winding road
    Down the side of a cliff
    Before getting down to the white painted lighthouse
    At the bottom



  2. The Lighthouse Gang

    It was really great being a ” LIghthouse Kid!”. My dad was a lighthouse keeper for many years and when i was 8 we moved to a lighthouse station called Rubh Reagh, just outside Poolewe, near Gairloch. dad had trained for many years previously being stationed at various lighthouses. The remotest being Skerryvore, basically just a rock in the middle of an unforgiving sea. But Rubh Reagh was the first time we as a family would be stationed at a lighthouse together.

    The lighthouse and flats were close to steep cliffs. My sister and i would climb them and bring precious big shiny multi coloured pebbles up from the shore. My sister found one so big one day that it took her multiple trips and about 3 days to get it to the safety of our bedroom. My dad would collect sea urchins to varnish and sell to tourists who happened along our way for 50 p.a shell. One day a group of tourists arrived and my mother was in the garden harvesting vegetables and the keepers were all engaged in lighthouse duties so i charged them a pound and took them on a guided tour of the inside of our house! They were a bit non plussed but quite delighted at this up close and personal look into lighthouse living until dad came on the scene and took them round the actual lighthouse!
    A lot of serious lighthouse keeping work got done, obviously. Like recording rainfall, wind speed, guiding the light, generally the upkeep and mechanics of the lighthouse and reporting to headquarters and the weather office. One day however the office where the keepers did there reporting was empty for some reason, nothing to do with the lobster pots brimming over at the time or the salubriuos vegetable garden, and when my dad got back to the office, my 3 year old brother was sitting spinning on the chair on the end of the telephone telling the weather man at the end of the line all about his new shoes!

    Then there was the Foghorn! It was huge and sat just outside the boundary wall in front of the lighthouse. We soon found out if you lay underneath it when it was going off the feeling was incredible. Terrifying but incredible! To this day i don’t think any of the adults found us at it.

    Then there was the day i decided to pick a bunch of wildflowers for mom. thing is they were growing on the side of the cliff. so i got my sister who was then 5 to hold me by the legs as I hung upside down over the cliff picking the flowers. Who happened along the scene but my dear sweet mother who had just come round the corner of the house. Of course she froze. She was too scared to shout incase she startled my sister and to scared to rush us incase my sister dropped me. i still don’t know how we got out of that one unscathed! But here we are.

    After the wilds of life in Rubh Reagh we moved to the Shore Station in Portree. Dad was stationed to Rona lighthouse so we lived in the flats at the shore station. Dad had 4 weeks on Rona and 2 weeks at home in Portree with us. Here we had children of our own age to play with and we became The Lighthouse Gang. We had great fun building dens in the extensive gardens in ferns and tree climbing. We played a game called flashlight in the evenings invented by my mom. We would hide in the undergrowth in the dusk and the person who was it would try and find you by shining a torch on you. Of course most of our fun took place in the school holidays but after homework we would all pile out into the gardens and as we got older run around the village too. Life was a lot freer then i think. For kids.

    Before i forget i must tell you one more funny thing that happened at Rubh Reagh. Well i found it funny and still do…there were 4 keepers and their families at Rubh Reagh. 3 keepers on duty and one off always. Anyway one day us kids were told to put on our best clothes and go to the flag pole which was on the top of the cliffs nearer the front of the lighthouse. Dad and the other keepers were all dressed up in their uniforms looking very smart and mom and the other keepers wife were dressed up lovely too. Anyway we all stood around the flagpole and thelighthouse flag was hoisted and the keepers gave a salute and way way way out on the very far horizon we could just make out a tiny speck. It turned out to be Her Majesty on the Royal Yacht and the keepers had been told to perform this ceremony as she went past. I couldn’t help but wonder if she had seen my much practiced smile and was glad that i had given my teeth an extra scrubbing that day!

    There are many more adventures to tell like the time mom broke us out of sunday school to go and visit dad on Rona and we got caught in a terrible storm on the fishing boat that was taking us there but i will save them for another time. Dusk is coming and it’s getting hard to see the keyboard and I only have my standard lamp working in my living room just now, so i shall bid you all a happy evening as tomorrow beckons

    Keep shining your light.

    Cathy Macleod


  3. Lighthouse

    It stands proud and takes its place
    What it does is to keep the boats safe.
    its light shines like a beacon put into the sea
    for all the ships to see it

    and stay clear of the rocks
    ours is at Tumpian head
    at the end of point
    on the isle of Lewis.

    On other islands there is no life
    apart from the lighthouse.
    sometimes they are maned and others are not
    depending on the tides seas and rocks.

    Most coastal places have one with steep stairs to the top
    The light is so bright it would blind you to look,
    So your best just to stand back, and let the lighthouse do its job
    As it has for many years before
    And will for many more.

    By Donna Keenan


  4. Thanks, Donna. We have had a great response to this topic. Tiumpan Head seems to resonate for many of us. It’s a great spot but also is usually the first sight of the island that you get at night from the Ullapool ferry


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