As light gives way to evening, I stand in my bedroom looking out across the Union College campus. The sun is setting almost in one color, a matte fuchsia broken by the black leading of winter branches. And I notice something new: the neon splash of the giant and iconic GE sign atop the old brick headquarters building that is Schenectady's calling card to the world. From here's it's just an indeterminate punctuation mark of color against the sky. But such a contrast, the waning, purpling light, the darkness of the barren trees and the early twentieth-century symbol of progress and illumination.
I turn from the window to go back to other tasks--folding the laundry, putting on my socks (the floor so cold). But the light reminds me of a poem from my childhood, one that made me melancholy, even before I knew what melancholy was. (But I am a Dane, so I may not have known such a time!)
I used to read Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Lamplighter" to myself, sitting on our living room sofa. It was in a Peter Pauper Press book calledA Child's Book of Poems, one of a series of the Peter Pauper Press books we had, one of the many, many books we had, all given to us by a man who may or may not have been my mother's lover and who may or may not have smuggled drugs (as my mother believed he did) inside the contact-paper-sheathed volumes, all right under my father's unwatching eyes.
My favorite book was A Child's Book of Poems. I knew I'd grow up to read As a Man Thinkethand The Way of All Flesh andOf Human Bondage and Crime and Punishment--other books my mother's friend had given her. They all seemed grown-up and vaguely erotic to me (though I was surely too young to know any more about eros than I did about melancholy). I'd get to them later.
In a Child's Book of Poems I could read about the brave pilgrims in Felicia Heman's bathotic tribute to them: Ay! Call it holy ground,/The soil where first they trod:/They have left unstained what there they found,/Freedom to worship God.
And I could read scary poems, like "Little Orphant Annie" and "An Incident of the French Camp" and sad poems, like "Oh Captain! My Captain!" I could laugh at "Father William" ("Be off, or I'll kick you down the stairs!") and intone the poem I came to recite for my daughters, "Wnyken, Blynken and Nod."
But no other poem in the whole book had the gravitas and wistfulness of "The Lamplighter." I hear it still in my mind. And I see a little boy by a window at dusk, small and frail, and the lamplighter in the cold and on his rounds, brokering with darkness.
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, 5
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,
O 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; 10
And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light;
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him to-night!