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1 ...... RLS I n the 1960s, old gas lamps from the streets of Edinburgh , Scotland, were removed and sold, mainly to scrap collectors and antique dealers from the United States, in preparation for the city’s conversion to electric street lighting. More than 85,000 lamps were taken down, although a few in the closes—the narrow lanes and backstreets in Edinburgh’s medieval Old Town—were refitted with sodium lighting. An article on the transition in the Glasgow Herald reported that the old lamps, cleaned and burnished, were valuable commodities, creatively refashioned into novelty lights or “indoor plant containers.”1 There was some discussion about whether historically noteworthy streetlamps would be preserved. One lamp in particular was singled out: the one at the door of 17 Heriot Row, Robert Louis Stevenson’s childhood home in Edinburgh’s New Town, an elegant south-­ facing street across from Queen’s Street Gardens. It is the gas lamp he made famous in “The Lamplighter,” from A Child’s Garden of Verses: 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, 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, 2 ...... 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; And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light, O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him to-­ night!2 This portrait of a child’s fancy is quietly grounded in the actual. In the 1870s, unlike today, the lamps on Heriot Row were spaced far apart. The Stevensons were very lucky to have one before their door. And because Edinburgh’s lamplighters were tightly supervised during their beat, Leerie really did have to “hurry by with ladder and with light” to fulfill his nightly quota. Stevenson recalled how “the lamplighters took to their heels every evening, and ran with a good heart. It was pretty to see man thus emulating the punctuality of heaven’s orbs; and though perfection was not absolutely reached, and now and then an individual may have been knocked on the head by the ladder of the flying functionary , yet people commended his zeal in a proverb, and taught their children to say, ‘God bless the lamplighter!’” It’s quite believable that a child, even one from a well-­ off family, might wish to follow in Leerie’s romantic profession. The glowing gas lamps were like “domesticated stars,” the lamplighter a mythical being “distributing starlight.” Here was a little Prometheus “knocking another luminous hole into the dusk.”3 ...... The “quavering and flaring” of the wilderness of Edinburgh’s street lamps in gusty weather, the way they “begin to glitter along the street” at dusk, the “humming, lamplit city,” “the lamps springing into light in the blue winter’s even”4— the sight must have penetrated Stevenson’s consciousness, for it appears in his writing fairly often, a piece in the mo- 3 ...... saic of Scotland, childhood, and home to complement the incessant rain, his nurse Alison Cunningham’s fire-­ and-­ brimstone stories (he called her Cummy), and the summers spent at his grandfather’s manse in Colinton, just outside Edinburgh, where boys hid bull’s-­ eye lanterns under their coats, part of some lost childhood game. Louis, as he was called, seemed from an early age to have had both a powerful bent toward the marvelous and a love of the concrete, printed word. “Men are born with various manias; from my earliest childhood, it was mine to make a plaything of imaginary series of events; and as soon as I was able to write, I became a good friend to the paper-­ makers.”5 As a boy he was afflicted with a series of ailments: scarlet fever, bronchitis, gastritis. He had horrid nightmares he could recall well into adulthood. It’s unsettling to remember that some of the most charming children’s poems ever written were composed in a darkened room at his house, La Solitude, in Hyères...


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