Text: Thomas Ollive Mabbott (E. A. Poe), “The Light-House,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. III: Tales and Sketches (1978), pp. 1388-1392 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 1388, continued:]


This is the last of Poe’s tales of terror, and was never finished. It was probably planned as a companion piece to “A Descent into the Maelström,” and like that story is laid in the Land of the Midnight Sun.

Marked advances in industrial technology in the first half of the nineteenth century had generated public interest and awareness. Increasing maritime commerce called for the multiplication of safety measures, and both the new technical journals and periodicals of general circulation discussed problems of the lighthouse service and reported on the construction of one major tower after another.* Poe’s lighthouse, however, is imaginary, although Alan Stevenson, beginning in 1838, built one at Skerryvore, off the west coast of Scotland, that is somewhat like it. Presumably Poe consulted an encyclopedia on the subject, as I have done.

The most famous disaster to a lighthouse occurred on November 20, 1703, when a great storm swept away the first Eddystone light — a timber structure — and several persons in it, including its builder, Henry Winstanley. That Poe’s lighthouse was doomed [page 1389:] to fall cannot be doubted, but whether the dog, whose great strength is emphasized, was to save only the diary, or his master too, must be left to the reader’s imagination.

The manuscript came with Poe’s papers to R. W. Griswold. It consists of four leaves — long narrow strips — the first having a space at the top for a title and the author’s name; the last, some space at the bottom where nothing was written. Since the script is the very neat hand characteristic of Poe’s last years and the style, clear and direct, almost without ornament, is one that is common toward the end of his career, I believe that the tale is unfinished, not because Poe gave it up, but because he was at work upon it and was prevented from completing it by his sudden death. Griswold’s son sold the first leaf in 1896,§ but the family retained the other pages, which Woodberry was allowed to print in 1909. The first page was again auctioned in the Stephen H. Wakeman Sale,* when a text was inaccurately printed. The last three pages were given to Harvard by Griswold’s grandchildren. Meanwhile, I printed a complete text in 1942.


(A) Manuscript: sheet 1 in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library, sheets 2, 3, and 4 in the Houghton Library, Harvard University; (B) George E. Woodberry, The Life of Edgar Allan Poe (1909), II, 397-399 (sheets 2, 3, and 4); (C) London Notes and Queries, April 25, 1942 (182:226-227); (D) Selected Poetry and Prose of Edgar Allan Poe (ed. T. O. Mabbott, 1951), pp. 344-345.

The manuscript (A) is followed for our text, and by the kind permission of Mrs. Lola Szladits of the Berg Collection and Mr. W. H. Bond of the Houghton Library a reproduction of all four sheets is included in this volume. It is the first time the entire manuscript has been so presented in one place.

[The sheets obviously belong together and at Mrs. Szladits’ suggestion we have asked Mr. Bond to describe them.]

“The Light-House” is written on four strips of light blue machine-made paper, basically (like all machine-made paper) wove, but showing faint traces of a dandy-roll apparently intended to give it the appearance of laid paper. None of the pieces contains a watermark. The strips are all the same width. — 102 mm. scant or 3 15/16″. The strip numbered 1 is 310 mm. or 12 3/8″ long; the strip numbered 2 is 289 mm. or 11 3/8″ long; that numbered 3 is 316 mm. or 12 7/16″ [page 1390:] long; that numbered 4 is 251 mm. or 9 7/8″, and is not cut square at the bottom. The paper is ruled in blue on both sides, the rules being 5/16″ apart or 8 mm. They are written on rectos only. Leaves 2 and 4 show traces of black adhesive, possibly some kind of wafer, across the top on the verso; leaf 3 shows similar traces across the top of the recto and was evidently formerly fastened thereby to the verso of leaf 2.

[THE LIGHT-HOUSE   (A)]   [[n]]

Jan 1 — 1796.{a} This day — my first on the light-house — I make this entry in my Diary, as agreed on with De Grät.{b} (1) As regularly as I can keep the{c} journal, I will — but there is no telling what may happen to a man all alone as I am — I may get sick, or worse . . . .{d} So far well! The cutter had a narrow escape — but why dwell on that, since I am here, all safe? My spirits are beginning to revive already, at the mere thought of being — for once in my life at least — thoroughly alone,(2) for, of course, Neptune,(3) large as he is, is not to be taken into consideration as “society”.{e} Would to Heaven I had ever found in “society” one half as much faith as in this poor dog: — in such case I and “society” might never have parted — even for the{f} year . . .{g} What most{h} surprises me, is the difficulty De Grät{i} had in getting me the appointment — and I a noble of the realm! It could not be that the Consistory had any doubt of my ability to manage the light. One man had attended it{j} before now — and got on quite as well as the three that are usually put in. The duty is a mere nothing; and the printed instructions are as plain as possible. It never would{k} have done to let Orndoff accompany me. I never should have made any way with my book as long as he was within reach of me, with his intolerable gossip — not to mention that everlasting meërschaum.{l} (4) Besides, I wish to be alone . . . . . .{m} It is strange that I never observed, until this moment, how [page 1391:] dreary a sound that word has — “alone”! I could half fancy there was some peculiarity in the echo of these cylindrical walls — but oh, no! — this{n} is all nonsense. I do believe I am going to get nervous about my insulation. That will never do. I have not forgotten De Grät’s{o} prophecy. Now for a scramble to the lantern and a good look around to “see what I can see. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .{p} To see what I can see indeed! — not very much. The swell is subsiding a little, I think — but the cutter will have a rough passage home, nevertheless. She will hardly get within sight of the Norland{q} (5) before noon to-morrow — and yet it can hardly be more than 190 or 200 miles.

Jan. 2.{r} I have passed this day in a species of ecstasy that I find it impossible to describe. My passion for solitude could scarcely have been more thoroughly gratified. I do not say satisfied; for I believe I should never be satiated with such delight as I have experienced to-day . . . .. . . ..{s} The wind lulled about{t} day-break, and by the afternoon the sea had gone down materially . . . ..{u} Nothing to be seen, with the telescope even, but ocean and sky, with an occasional gull.

Jan. 3.{v} A dead calm all day. Towards evening, the sea looked very much like glass. A few sea-weeds came in sight; but besides them absolutely nothing all day — not even the slightest speck of cloud . . . . . . . .{w} Occupied myself in exploring the light-house . . . .{x} It is a very lofty one — as I find to my cost when I have to ascend its interminable stairs — not quite 160 feet, I should say, from the low-water mark to the top of the lantern. From the bottom inside the shaft, however, the distance to the summit is 180 feet at least: — thus the floor is 20 feet below the surface of the sea, even at low-tide. . . . . .{y} It seems to me that the hollow interior at the bottom should have been filled in with solid masonry. Undoubtedly the whole would have been thus rendered more safe: — but what am I thinking about?{z} A structure such as this is safe enough under any [page 1392:] circumstances. I should feel myself secure in it during the fiercest hurricane that ever raged — and yet I have heard seamen say that, occasionally, with a wind at South-West, the sea has been known to run higher here than any where with the single exception of the Western opening of the Straits of Magellan. No mere sea, though, could accomplish anything with this solid iron-riveted wall — which, at 50 feet from high-water mark, is four feet thick, if one inch . . . . . . . .{a} The basis on which the structure rests seems to me to be chalk . . . . . .{b}

Jan 4.{c}

[No more was written.]



[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 1390:]

Title:  Untitled (A); [The Lighthouse.] (C)

a  Jan. 1 — 1796. (C); Jan. 1 — 1796. (D)

b  DeGrät. (C, D)

c  this (C)

d  worse . . . (C); worse. . . . (D)

e  “society.” (C, D)

f  a (C, D)

g  year. . . . (D)

h  more (C)

i  DeGrät. (C, D)

j  it (C, D)

k  never would / would never (D)

l  meerschaum. (C)

m  alone. . . . (B, D); alone . . . (C)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 1391:]

n  that (D)

o  DeGrät’s (C, D)

p  sec.” . . . (B, C); see.” . . . . (D)

q  Nordland (C)

r  Jan. 2. (B, C)

s  to-day. . . . (B, D); to-day . . . (C)

t  after (C)

u  materially. . . . (B, D); materially. . . (C)

v  Jan. 3. (B, C)

w  cloud. . . . (B, C); cloud . . . (D)

x  light-house . . . (C)

y  low-tide. . . . (B, D); low-tide . . . (C)

z  about. (D)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 1392:]

a  inch. . . . (B, D); inch . . . (C)

b  Chalk. . . . (B, D)

c  Jan. 4 (B); Jan. 4. (C); Jan. 4. (D)


[page 1392, continued:]


Title:  Supplied by Woodberry, in 1909.

1.  De Grät may mean “They wept,” in Norwegian; in German it suggests a fishbone, as Professor Eric Carlson wrote me. [Professor Pollin suggests that the name may come from Poe’s acquaintance James De Graw, for whom see Mabbott, I, 887-388.]

2.  The theme of the love of solitude had already been used by Poe in the third chapter of “The Journal of Julius Rodman,” “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” “Morning on the Wissahiccon,” and the poem “Alone” (Mabbott, I, 146-147).

3.  There is a dog named Neptune in “The Journal of Julius Rodman.” The name seems especially appropriate in “The Light-House,” however, where the dog is apparently destined to play an important part.

4.  Monsieur Dupin also smoked a meerschaum pipe; see “The Purloined Letter.”

5.  Nordland is a county in northwest Norway, wherein are located the Lofoten Islands, mentioned in “A Descent into the Maelström”; “norland” — sometimes capitalized — has the more general meaning of land or country to the north. The OED cites as an example: “As the storm-wind blows bleakly from the norland” — line 1707 of Elizabeth Barrett Barrett’s long poem “A Drama of Exile” (Poems, London, 1844). Poe reviewed the American edition, The Drama of Exile and Other Poems (1844), in the Broadway Journal for January 4 and 11, 1845.



[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 1388:]

*  The third number of Colton’s American Review, March 1845, contained an article critical of “Our Light-House System,” with the local collectors of customs as the responsible officials, and compared it unfavorably with that of Britain, where England’s lighthouses were governed by Trinity House of Deptford Stroud; Scotland’s, by the Commissioner of Northern Lights; and Ireland’s, by the Corporation for Improving and Preserving the Port of Dublin. Poe’s mention of the Consistory may have been suggested by knowledge of the existence of these boards.

  But an article in the London Quarterly Review for March 1849, reprinted in Littell’s Living Age for July 7, reviewed Stevenson’s Account of the Skerryvore Lighthouse (1848), retrospectively commenting on Robert Stevenson’s Account of the Bell Rock Lighthouse (1824) and John Smeaton’s Narrative of the Building of the Eddystone Lighthouse with Stone (2nd ed., 1813). Smeaton’s was the third at the site, completed in 1759. It was the first to use stone throughout, with each piece dovetailed into the one next to it, a practice adopted and improved upon by the Stevensons and other later engineers. [See B. Pollin, Discoveries in Poe, pp. 150-151 and 273 for other specific references.]

  See “The Domain of Arnheim,” n. 24, for a suggestion that Poe took some interest in Winstanley.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 1389:]

§  Auction of Bangs & Co., New York, April 11, 1896.

*  American Art Association, New York, April 29, 1924, lot 964. It is now in the Berg Collection






[S:1 - TOM3T, 1978] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (The Light-House)