The Light-Keeper

by Robert Louis Stevenson

I

The brilliant kernel of the night,
    The flaming lightroom circles me:
I sit within a blaze of light
    Held high above the dusky sea.
Far off the surf doth break and roar
Along bleak miles of moonlit shore,
    Where through the tides the tumbling wave
Falls in an avalanche of foam
And drives its churnèd waters home
    Up many an undercliff and cave.

The clear bell chimes: the clockworks strain:
    The turning lenses flash and pass,
Frame turning within glittering frame
    With frosty gleam of moving glass:
Unseen by me, each dusky hour
The sea-waves welter up the tower
    Or in the ebb subside again;
And ever and anon all night,
Drawn from afar by charm of light,
    A sea-bird beats against the pane.

And lastly when dawn ends the night
    And belts the semi-orb of sea,
The tall, pale pharos in the light
    Looks white and spectral as may be.
The early ebb is out: the green
Straight belt of sea-weed now is seen,
    That round the basement of the tower
Marks out the interspace of tide;
And watching men are heavy-eyed,
    And sleepless lips are dry and sour.

The night is over like a dream:
    The sea-birds cry and dip themselves;
And in the early sunlight, steam
    The newly-bared and dripping shelves,
Around whose verge the glassy wave
With lisping wash is heard to lave;
    While, on the white tower lifted high,
With yellow light in faded glass
The circling lenses flash and pass,
    And sickly shine against the sky.

1869

II

As the steady lenses circle
With a frosty gleam of glass;
And the clear bell chimes,
And the oil brims over the lip of the burner,
Quiet and still at his desk,
The lonely light-keeper
Holds his vigil.

Lured from afar,
The bewildered sea-gull beats
Dully against the lantern;
Yet he stirs not, lifts not his head
From the desk where he reads,
Lifts not his eyes to see
The chill blind circle of night
Watching him through the panes.
This is his country’s guardian,
The outmost sentry of peace.
This is the man,
Who gives up all that is lovely in living
For the means to live.

Poetry cunningly gilds
The life of the Light-Keeper,
Held on high in the blackness
In the burning kernel of night.
The seaman sees and blesses him;
The Poet, deep in a sonnet,
Numbers his inky fingers
Fitly to praise him:
Only we behold him,
Sitting, patient and stolid,
Martyr to a salary.

1870

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