Thursday, October 08, 2009

Longfellow on haunted houses

{Photo by Flickr user Stitch, reproduced under a Creative Commons license.}

For the past few Octobers, I've turned again and again to a pair of indispensable anthologies that D. J. Enright assembled: The Oxford Book of Death and The Oxford Book of the Supernatural, and you'll be hearing from both throughout the month. The former touches on ghosts only in proportion to their importance to our literature on death, whereas the latter deals with death throughout--for what role could the supernatural play in a world of immortals?

When I was searching for the lines from Nathaniel Hawthorne that I quoted in Sunday's post, I turned to the latter anthology, and on the same page with Hawthorne I found the following passage from a poem by Longfellow, "Haunted Houses" (1858), which seems an appropriate addendum to Sunday's exploration of the intersection of ghosts and real estate:
All houses wherein men have lived and died
    Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
    With feet that make no sound upon the floors.

We meet them at the doorway, on the stair,
    Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
    A sense of something moving to and fro.

There are more guests at table, than the hosts,
    Invited; the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts.
    As silent as the pictures on the wall.

The stranger at my fireside cannot see
    The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear:
He but perceives what is; while unto me
    All that has been is visible and clear.

We have no title-deeds to house or lands;
    Owners and occupants of earlier dates
From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands,
    And hold in mortmain still their old estates.

The spirit world around this world of sense
    Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere
Wafts through these earthly mists and vapours dense
    A vital breath of more ethereal air.
This was far better, meatier stuff than I remembered from my limited exploration of Longfellow: though carefully rhythmic, it carries none of the creak of the rocking horse that dogs his more famous poems, and some of its lines--the consonance of "From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands" and the push of "Impalpable impressions on the air"--are masterly.

Further exploration, however, revealed that Enright had presented only the first half of the poem--and it was a wise decision, at least for our skeptical era, for in the second half Longfellow trades ambiguity for meaning, presence for purpose:
Our little lives are kept in equipoise
    By opposite attractions and desires;
The struggle of the instinct that enjoys,
    And the more noble instinct that aspires.

These perturbations, this perpetual jar
    Of earthly wants and aspirations high,
Come from the influence of an unseen star,
    An undiscovered planet in our sky.

And as the moon from some dark gate of cloud
    Throws o'er the sea a floating bridge of light,
Across whose trembling planks our fancies crowd
    Into the realm of mystery and night,--

So from the world of spirits there descends
    A bridge of light, connecting it with this,
O'er whose unsteady floor, that sways and bends,
    Wander our thoughts above the dark abyss.
On this cloudy night, as the wind whips and howls around my house, I'll stick to the first half, opting for uncertainty, for the invisible floating of the ghosts, purposeless but carrying on regardless, just like us the living.


  1. minor typo at the end of the second stanza there -- "to and for". Also "sulent" -> "silent", though this is not as jarring. "Hold in mortmain" is very, very nice.

  2. Thanks for catching that. Is there anything more annoying than a typo in a poem? Completely destroys the rhythm and feel that have been building.

  3. Frankly, Longfellow's popular school-room stuff is a waste of time. His lesser-known works are far superior (by today's standards). He must be taken in doses, of course, and you have to forgive his constant need to attach some kind of answer to the question, "Well, what should we learn from this poem?" If you're looking for Longfellow's dark side, try "Footsteps of Angels," "Curfew," or "The Bells of San Blas."