The Old Street Lamp by Hans Christian Andersen
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
eveningnever in the daytime. But in later years, when all of
themthe watchman, the wife, and the lamphad 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 halltwo 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
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
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
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 enjoyed.
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
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
The next daywell, 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 togetherin 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 lamp.
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 dayit was
the watchman's birthdaythe 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 lamponly 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 seeone 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.