This week’s choice is from “A Child’s Garden of Verses” by Robert Louis Stevenson who is perhaps better known for his novels “Treasure Island”, “Kidnapped” and “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”.
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight!Robert Louis Stevenson (1850—1894)
Poem 192. The Lamplighter
My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky;
It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.
Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,
And my papa’s a banker and as rich as he can be;
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I’m to do,
Oh Leerie, I’ll go round at night and light the lamps with you!
For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light,
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight!
This poem is about a child and his admiration for the men who lit the gas lamps in the Edinburgh streets near Stevenson’s childhood home before automatic ignition made them redundant. Each man would visit a succession of lamps, climbing a ladder with a lantern and igniting the gas in the street lamps.
The first stanza describes the anticipation felt by the child narrator as the hour draws near when the gas lamp in the street is lit, always at sunset: the child’s meal time.
In the second stanza, the child thinks of his ambitions: when he is stronger—perhaps this means when he is older or perhaps he is rather sickly (like Stevenson himself when he was young)—he won’t follow his siblings into their respective dream jobs, nor will he follow his father into the bank: his only wish is to light the lamps with Leerie.
The final stanza shows us the reason for the child’s fascination: the operation of lighting the lamp occurs right outside the house where the child can see it, and the implication is that Leerie the lamplighter is perhaps a kindly man who has noticed the child’s face at the window and nods to him from time to time while pursuing his duties. The child evidently waits eagerly for that moment and treasures the thought of a nod from this man who has the power of bringing light to the dark streets.
I like this poem because it reminds us that children see the world differently: a wonderful place full of mysterious and powerful—perhaps magical—people who can perform amazing feats.
Stevenson never enjoyed good health and died of a cerebral haemorrhage at his home in Samoa on this day in 1894. He wrote his own epigraph for his tomb, which was translated into a song of grief by the Samoan people who loved him:
Under the wide and starry sky,Epitaph, Robert Louis Stevenson
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.