Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Lighthouse Poem

Edgar Guest (1881-1959) was an English-born poet who became an American favorite. Born in Birmingham, England, he came to the United States with his family at the age of ten and lived the reaminder of his life in Detroit, Michigan. He began his career in journalism as a copy boy at the Detroit Free Press, advanced to the job of reporter, and began publishing poetry when still a teenager. His first poem appeared in the newspaper where he worked in December 1898.

Guest's career continued to rise. He became a U.S. citizen in 1902. His poems, mostly sentimental and uplifting with traditional rhyme schmes, became American favorites. He continued to pen his verses--more than 11,000 in all--until his death in 1959. He is often called "The People's Poet." Below is a snapshot of guest working in his office. (Courtesy of East Central University, Oklahoma)

"The Lighthouse Keeper Wonders" is typical of Guest's friendly, heartwarming style. I re-print it here because it continues to have meaning in the modern world--

Few lighthouse keepers remain on duty today anywhere in the world. The United States has no resident lightkeepers; all of our active lighthouses run automatically and are merely checked periodically by Coast Guard maintenance crews. A few lighthouses (including their optics) have been transferred to nonprofit groups and are operated privately. In a sense there are lightkeepers at these sites, but their work in no way compares to that of the nostalgic and traditional lightkeeper of yesterday. Automation has made the work obsolete.

Canada still has lightkeepers, most of them stationed in British Columbia, and the fight is on to keep them employed and serving the needs of mariners. I correspond with several BC lightkeepers and spent a day on Chrome Island Lighthouse in the Georgia Strait (with lightkeepers Roger and Leslie Williamson) in September 2012. They wonder how long they'll be allowed to continue their work. The lights on the island and the fog signal run automatically; the Williamsons are on site primarily to do weather observations and reports for shipping and recreational boaters. Several rounds of job reductions have removed most of the keepers, one-by-one, from Canadian lighthouses. Budgets are strapped, and modern navigational tools seem to suggest lightkeepers aren't needed; yet....

The day I went out to Chrome Island, courtesy of VanIsle Charters in Deep Bay, the sun was shining and the water was pleasant. It was a wonderful day for boating. the island was beautiful--no wind, a clear sky, calm water. Within hours dark clouds moved in, the wind picked up, and the water turned to a nasty chop. I rushed to finish my interview with the keepers and the fabulous meal they had prepared, hugged them good-bye, and took off for the mainland. It was a miserable, bumpy, bouncy ride with waves coming over the front of the boat. I was nearly seasick byu the time we rounded the breakwater at Deep Bay--only about a mile from the lighthouse and an easy ten minute trip earlier in the morning. Yes, I have a weak stomach when it comes to boats, but I got to see how quickly the weather can turn bad in the Georgia Strait and why lightkeepers are still needed.

Enjoy Edgar Guest's poem, and think of all the lightkeepers whose jobs are gone because of automated machinery. All things pass; progress comes. Sometimes it's sad to see it happen. Call me nostalgic, sappy, sentimental perhaps, but I do love the era of manned lighthouses. The word "lighthouse" contains the word "house," which to me suggests someone ought to live there and care for the place. And if there's trouble on the water, then that "someone"--the keeper--is there to help. the story of lighthouses isn't just about stones, bricks, mortar, metal, glass. People built them and lived in them, raised their families at lighthouses....that's the story I love best.

"The Lighthouse Keeper Wonders"
by Edgar Guest
The light I've tended for forty years
is now to be run by a set of gears,
the keeper said, and it isn't nice
to be put ashore by a mere device.
Now, fair or foul the winds that blow
or smooth or rough the sea below,
It is all the same. The ships at night
will run to an automatic light.
The clock and gear which truly turn
Are timed and set so the light shall burn.
But, did ever an automatic thing
set plants about in early spring?
And did ever a bit of wire and gear
A cry for help in the darkness hear?
Or welcome callers, and show them through
The lighthouse rooms, as I used to do?
"Tis not malice these things I say,
All men must bow to the newer way.
But it's strange for a lighthouse man like me
After forty years on shore to be.
And I wonder now--will the grass stay green?
Will the brass stay bright and the windows clean?
And will ever that automatic thing
Plant marigolds in early spring?
Port Burwell Lighthouse with Marigolds, Ontario, Canada
Photo Source-

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