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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Maine's Portland Head Light

Out on Cape Elizabeth, Maine, there stands the Portland Head Light. If this lighthouse seems familiar to you, it may be because it is one of the most photographed and painted in the US. The oldest lighthouse in Maine, it was commissioned by George Washington and completed in 1791. It is one of four colonial lighthouses that have never been rebuilt.

Portland’s native son, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow dropped by the lighthouse many a time, and it is possible this was his inspiration for his 1849 poem, 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 bosum 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.

Be yours to bring man neared unto man. If you’ve not been, come and have a look for yourself. If you have, let us know.

Look here at this website for more on the Portland Head Light, and here, too.


John Hayes said...

Wow, St Christopher & Promtheus! I don't think I've ever seen the word "near" used as a verb before; they just don't write poems like that anymore! Great fun.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, John. I like 19th century poetry, the structure and the storytelling. I love that 19th century poets were popular mainstream entertainment, and able to make a living.

Longfellow has been out of fashion for a century, I guess, first pushed out of the pantheon by the likes of Frost and Sandburg. His like won't be seen again, but you're right, he can be awfully fun to read sometimes.

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