Blog # 183: Stopford Brooke and Yet Another Lighthouse

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“In the morning we went to the Picture Gallery, where I spent an hour and a half contemplating the Turners. I made the Curator get for me out of a box the ‘Lost Sailor,’ that wonderful etching, almost the most wonderful piece of pure imagination in any branch of Art. It ought to be known, but if it were would it be understood? It requires knowledge to comprehend it. Those who have only seen waves at Folkestone or Dover would pooh pooh it and pass on. A man must have seen and watched a real storm billow breaking on cliffs where the water even at low tide lies twenty fathoms deep to recognize the exquisite truth and courage of that drawing. It is unique even in Turner’s outlining of the sea. Lashed to a barrel with outstretched arms and fingers still distended as they were in his last despairing effort to clench a rope, with his head fallen back in death, lies the sailor down in the trough between the fearful coast and the curling wave. Right over him in the distance— on the cliff— seen through a wild light of foam there stands the lighthouse— its saving gleam has shone in vain for the victim of the waters. It is the one touch of fine imagination which adds to the picture an infinity of human thoughts, pity, despair- all the past history of the ship which had struggled all the night against its destiny — the ship whose shattered mast is seen in the foreground driving on the rocks and on whose deck he had stood, and when he saw the light had pictured home and land and peace. And there he lies now — drowned in sight of shore. Everything else, in the room, of Turner’s sinks into insignificance before this one print.”

from a September 9, 1865, letter by Stopford Brooke

Begosh and begorrah, if I haven’t gone and discovered another lighthouse, a lighthouse closely linked to a drowning sailor. More accurately, I’ve had another lighthouse pointed out to me by Barbara Lounsberry. In Becoming Virginia Woolf: Her Early Diaries and the Diaries She Read, Lounsberry not only calls attention to Virginia’s strong and abiding interest in Stopford Brooke, she suggests that Brookes “might have supplied the central image for one of [Virginia’s] most famous works.” She then goes on to give an excerpt from a letter which I’ve put at the head of this blog. Lounsberry calls attention to Virginia’s highly favourable 1917 Times Literary Supplement review of The Life and Letters of Stopford Brooke, a book which contains the letter passage in full. Lounsberry also points out that Virginia’s library contained two editions of Brooke’s English Literature from AD 670 to AD 1832. Quick internet research shows that the Woolf library in Pullman, Washington, contains both volumes, one of them a 1917 edition, and the other a 1924 edition with an additional chapter.

The Brooke lighthouse is a worthy and valuable addition to the Stopes, Forster, Scott, Shelley, Caroline Stephen, and Christina Rossetti lighthouses. What I particularly like about it is the way in which it so directly connects with the drowning sailor motif. Turner’s drowned sailor brings Shelley, Steenie Mucklebackit and Cowper’s castaway within sight of the lighthouse. Coastal lighthouses warn of danger and can save lives, yet sometimes their “saving gleam” is not enough. The same is true of cultural lighthouses. Without lighthouses and their keepers, though, the dangers would be much higher and that is why the question of what to send to the lighthouse is so important. Without culture and the gifts which shape it, civilization will surely founder and we will all drown, “whelm’d in deeper gulfs.”

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