The Old Street Lamp

: Hans Andersens Fairy Tales

DID you ever hear the story of the old street lamp? It is not remarkably

interesting, but for once you may as well listen to it.

It was a most respectable old lamp, which had seen many, many years of

service and now was to retire with a pension. It was this very evening

at its post for the last time, giving light to the street. Its feelings

were something like those of an old dancer at the theater who is dancing

for the last time and knows that on the morrow she will be in her

garret, alone and forgotten.

The lamp had very great anxiety about the next day, for it knew that it

had to appear for the first time at the town hall to be inspected by the

mayor and the council, who were to decide whether it was fit for

further service; whether it was good enough to be used to light the

inhabitants of one of the suburbs, or in the country, at some factory.

If the lamp could not be used for one of these purposes, it would be

sent at once to an iron foundry to be melted down. In this latter case

it might be turned into anything, and it wondered very much whether it

would then be able to remember that it had once been a street lamp. This

troubled it exceedingly.

Whatever might happen, it seemed certain that the lamp would be

separated from the watchman and his wife, whose family it looked upon as

its own. The lamp had first been hung up on the very evening that the

watchman, then a robust young man, had entered upon the duties of his

office. Ah, well! it was a very long time since one became a lamp and

the other a watchman. His wife had some little pride in those days; she

condescended to glance at the lamp only when she passed by in the

evening--never in the daytime. But in later years, when all of them--the

watchman, the wife, and the lamp--had grown old, she had attended to it,

cleaning it and keeping it supplied with oil. The old people were

thoroughly honest; they had never cheated the lamp of a single drop of

the oil provided for it.

This was the lamp's last night in the street, and to-morrow it must go

to the town hall--two very dark things to think of. No wonder it did not

burn brightly. How many persons it had lighted on their way, and how

much it had seen! As much, very likely, as the mayor and corporation

themselves! None of these thoughts were uttered aloud, however, for the

lamp was good and honorable and would not willingly do harm to any one,

especially to those in authority. As one thing after another was

recalled to its mind, the light would flash up with sudden brightness.

At such moments the lamp had a conviction that it would be remembered.

"There was a handsome young man, once," thought the lamp; "it is

certainly a long while ago, but I remember that he had a little note,

written on pink paper with a gold edge. The writing was elegant,

evidently a lady's. Twice he read it through, and kissed it, and then

looked up at me with eyes that said quite plainly, 'I am the happiest

of men!' Only he and I know what was written on this, his first letter

from his lady-love. Ah, yes, and there was another pair of eyes that I

remember; it is really wonderful how the thoughts jump from one thing to

another! A funeral passed through the street. A young and beautiful

woman lay on a bier decked with garlands of flowers, and attended by

torches which quite overpowered my light. All along the street stood the

people from the houses, in crowds, ready to join the procession. But

when the torches had passed from before me and I could look around, I

saw one person standing alone, leaning against my post and weeping.

Never shall I forget the sorrowful eyes that looked up at me."

These and similar reflections occupied the old street lamp on this the

last time that its light would shine. The sentry, when he is relieved

from his post, knows, at least, who will be his successor, and may

whisper a few words to him. But the lamp did not know its successor, or

it might have given him a few hints respecting rain or mist and might

have informed him how far the moon's rays would reach, and from which

side the wind generally blew, and so on.

On the bridge over the canal stood three persons who wished to recommend

themselves to the lamp, for they thought it could give the office to

whomsoever it chose. The first was a herring's head, which could emit

light in the darkness. He remarked that it would be a great saving of

oil if they placed him on the lamp-post. Number two was a piece of

rotten wood, which also shines in the dark. He considered himself

descended from an old stem, once the pride of the forest. The third was

a glowworm, and how he found his way there the lamp could not imagine;

yet there he was, and could really give light as well as the others. But

the rotten wood and the herring's head declared most solemnly, by all

they held sacred, that the glowworm only gave light at certain times and

must not be allowed to compete with them. The old lamp assured them that

not one of them could give sufficient light to fill the position of a

street lamp, but they would believe nothing that it said. When they

discovered that it had not the power of naming its successor, they said

they were very glad to hear it, for the lamp was too old and worn out to

make a proper choice.

At this moment the wind came rushing round the corner of the street and

through the air-holes of the old lamp. "What is this I hear?" it asked.

"Are you going away to-morrow? Is this evening the last time we shall

meet? Then I must present you with a farewell gift. I will blow into

your brain, so that in future not only shall you be able to remember all

that you have seen or heard in the past, but your light within shall be

so bright that you will be able to understand all that is said or done

in your presence."

"Oh, that is really a very, very great gift," said the old lamp. "I

thank you most heartily. I only hope I shall not be melted down."

"That is not likely to happen yet," said the wind. "I will also blow a

memory into you, so that, should you receive other similar presents,

your old age will pass very pleasantly."

"That is, if I am not melted down," said the lamp. "But should I, in

that case, still retain my memory?"

"Do be reasonable, old lamp," said the wind, puffing away.

At this moment the moon burst forth from the clouds. "What will you give

the old lamp?" asked the wind.

"I can give nothing," she replied. "I am on the wane, and no lamps have

ever given me light, while I have frequently shone upon them." With

these words the moon hid herself again behind the clouds, that she might

be saved from further importunities. Just then a drop fell upon the lamp

from the roof of the house, but the drop explained that it was a gift

from those gray clouds and perhaps the best of all gifts. "I shall

penetrate you so thoroughly," it said, "that you will have the power of

becoming rusty, and, if you wish it, can crumble into dust in one


But this seemed to the lamp a very shabby present, and the wind thought

so, too. "Does no one give any more? Will no one give any more?" shouted

the breath of the wind, as loud as it could. Then a bright, falling star

came down, leaving a broad, luminous streak behind it.

"What was that?" cried the herring's head. "Did not a star fall? I

really believe it went into the lamp. Certainly, when such high-born

personages try for the office we may as well go home."

And so they did, all three, while the old lamp threw a wonderfully

strong light all around.

"This is a glorious gift," it said. "The bright stars have always been a

joy to me and have always shone more brilliantly than I ever could

shine, though I have tried with my whole might. Now they have noticed

me, a poor old lamp, and have sent me a gift that will enable me to see

clearly everything that I remember, as if it still stood before me, and

to let it be seen by all those who love me. And herein lies the truest

happiness, for pleasures which we cannot share with others are only half


"That sentiment does you honor," said the wind; "but for this purpose

wax lights will be necessary. If these are not lighted in you, your

peculiar faculties will not benefit others in the least. The stars have

not thought of this. They suppose that you and every other light must be

a wax taper. But I must go down now." So it laid itself to rest.

"Wax tapers, indeed!" said the lamp; "I have never yet had these, nor is

it likely I ever shall. If I could only be sure of not being melted


The next day--well, perhaps we had better pass over the next day. The

evening had come, and the lamp was resting in a grandfather's chair; and

guess where! Why, at the old watchman's house. He had begged as a favor

that the mayor and corporation would allow him to keep the street lamp

in consideration of his long and faithful service, as he had himself

hung it up and lighted it on the day he first commenced his duties, four

and twenty years ago. He looked upon it almost as his own child. He had

no children, so the lamp was given to him.

There lay the lamp in the great armchair near the warm stove. It seemed

almost to have grown larger, for it appeared quite to fill the chair.

The old people sat at their supper, casting friendly glances at it, and

would willingly have admitted it to a place at the table. It is quite

true that they dwelt in a cellar two yards below ground, and had to

cross a stone passage to get to their room. But within, it was warm and

comfortable, and strips of list had been nailed round the door. The bed

and the little window had curtains, and everything looked clean and

neat. On the window seat stood two curious flowerpots, which a sailor

named Christian had brought from the East or West Indies. They were of

clay, and in the form of two elephants with open backs; they were filled

with earth, and through the open space flowers bloomed. In one grew some

very fine chives or leeks; this was the kitchen garden. The other, which

contained a beautiful geranium, they called their flower garden. On the

wall hung a large colored print, representing the Congress of Vienna and

all the kings and emperors. A clock with heavy weights hung on the wall

and went "tick, tick," steadily enough; yet it was always rather too

fast, which, however, the old people said was better than being too

slow. They were now eating their supper, while the old street lamp, as

we have heard, lay in the grandfather's armchair near the stove.

It seemed to the lamp as if the whole world had turned round. But after

a while the old watchman looked at the lamp and spoke of what they had

both gone through together--in rain and in fog, during the short, bright

nights of summer or in the long winter nights, through the drifting

snowstorms when he longed to be at home in the cellar. Then the lamp

felt that all was well again. It saw everything that had happened quite

clearly, as if the events were passing before it. Surely the wind had

given it an excellent gift!

The old people were very active and industrious; they were never idle

for even a single hour. On Sunday afternoons they would bring out some

books, generally a book of travels which they greatly liked. The old man

would read aloud about Africa, with its great forests and the wild

elephants, while his wife would listen attentively, stealing a glance

now and then at the clay elephants which served as flowerpots. "I can

almost imagine I am seeing it all," she said.

Ah! how the lamp wished for a wax taper to be lighted in it, for then

the old woman would have seen the smallest detail as clearly as it did

itself; the lofty trees, with their thickly entwined branches, the

naked negroes on horseback, and whole herds of elephants treading down

bamboo thickets with their broad, heavy feet.

"What is the use of all my capabilities," sighed the old lamp, "when I

cannot obtain any wax lights? They have only oil and tallow here, and

these will not do." One day a great heap of wax-candle ends found their

way into the cellar. The larger pieces were burned, and the smaller ones

the old woman kept for waxing her thread. So there were now candles

enough, but it never occurred to any one to put a little piece in the


"Here I am now, with my rare powers," thought the lamp. "I have

faculties within me, but I cannot share them. They do not know that I

could cover these white walls with beautiful tapestry, or change them

into noble forests or, indeed, to anything else they might wish."

The lamp, however, was always kept clean and shining in a corner, where

it attracted all eyes. Strangers looked upon it as lumber, but the old

people did not care for that; they loved it. One day--it was the

watchman's birthday--the old woman approached the lamp, smiling to

herself, and said, "I will have an illumination to-day, in honor of my

old man." The lamp rattled in its metal frame, for it thought, "Now at

last I shall have a light within me." But, after all, no wax light was

placed in the lamp--only oil, as usual.

The lamp burned through the whole evening and began to perceive too

clearly that the gift of the stars would remain a hidden treasure all

its life. Then it had a dream; for to one with its faculties, dreaming

was not difficult. It dreamed that the old people were dead and that it

had been taken to the iron foundry to be melted down. This caused the

lamp quite as much anxiety as on the day when it had been called upon to

appear before the mayor and the council at the town hall. But though it

had been endowed with the power of falling into decay from rust when it

pleased, it did not make use of this power. It was therefore put into

the melting furnace and changed into as elegant an iron candlestick as

you could wish to see--one intended to hold a wax taper. The candlestick

was in the form of an angel holding a nosegay, in the center of which

the wax taper was to be placed. It was to stand on a green writing table

in a very pleasant room, where there were many books scattered about and

splendid paintings on the walls.

The owner of the room was a poet and a man of intellect. Everything he

thought or wrote was pictured around him. Nature showed herself to him

sometimes in the dark forests, sometimes in cheerful meadows where the

storks were strutting about, or on the deck of a ship sailing across the

foaming sea, with the clear, blue sky above, or at night in the

glittering stars.

"What powers I possess!" said the lamp, awaking from its dream. "I could

almost wish to be melted down; but no, that must not be while the old

people live. They love me for myself alone; they keep me bright and

supply me with oil. I am as well off as the picture of the Congress, in

which they take so much pleasure." And from that time it felt at rest in

itself, and not more so than such an honorable old lamp really deserved

to be.