Dickens /Poems /The Lighthouse

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The Lighthouse – 1855 – A Poem

Wilkie Collins composed two dramas for representation at Dickens’s residence, Tavistock House, described in the bills as ‘The Smallest Theatre in the World’.

The first of these plays was called The Lighthouse, and the initial performance took place on 19 Jun 1855. Dickens wrote the Prologue and ‘The Song of the Wreck,’ and enacted the part of Aaron Gurnock, a lighthouse-keeper, his clever impersonation recalling Frédérick Lemaître, the only actor he ever tried to take as a model.

The Song of the Wreck was intended by Dickens to be The Story of the Ship’s Carpenter and the Little Boy, in the Shipwreck. The song was delivered by Dickens’ eldest daughter, Mary, who assumed the role of Phœbe in the play.

A story of those rocks where doom’d ships come
To cast them wreck’d upon the steps of home,
Where solitary men, the long year through—
The wind their music and the brine their view—
Warn mariners to shun the beacon-light;
A story of those rocks is here to-night.
Eddystone Lighthouse!

In its ancient form,
Ere he who built it wish’d for the great storm
That shiver’d it to nothing,[2] once again
[Pg 116]Behold outgleaming on the angry main!
Within it are three men; to these repair
In our frail bark of Fancy, swift as air!
They are but shadows, as the rower grim
Took none but shadows in his boat with him.

So be ye shades, and, for a little space,
The real world a dream without a trace.
Return is easy. It will have ye back
Too soon to the old beaten dusty track;
For but one hour forget it. Billows, rise;
Blow winds, fall rain, be black, ye midnight skies;
And you who watch the light, arise! arise!
The wind blew high, the waters raved,
A ship drove on the land,
A hundred human creatures saved
Kneel’d down upon the sand.
Three-score were drown’d, three-score were thrown
Upon the black rocks wild,
And thus among them, left alone,
They found one helpless child.
A seaman rough, to shipwreck bred,
Stood out from all the rest,
And gently laid the lonely head
Upon his honest breast.
And travelling o’er the desert wide
It was a solemn joy,
To see them, ever side by side,
The sailor and the boy.
In famine, sickness, hunger, thirst,
The two were still but one,
Until the strong man droop’d the first
And felt his labours done.
Then to a trusty friend he spake,
‘Across the desert wide,
O take this poor boy for my sake!’
And kiss’d the child and died.
Toiling along in weary plight
Through heavy jungle, mire,
These two came later every night
To warm them at the fire.
Until the captain said one day,
‘O seaman good and kind,
To save thyself now come away,
And leave the boy behind!’
The child was slumbering near the blaze:
‘O captain, let him rest
Until it sinks, when God’s own ways
Shall teach us what is best!’
They watch’d the whiten’d ashy heap,
They touch’d the child in vain;
They did not leave him there asleep,
He never woke again.

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