By Clover Carroll
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 door-way, 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.
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.
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.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807 – 1882
Do you believe in ghosts? Many people do, though some would probably not admit it. I expect many of us have had brushes with the paranormal that we can’t quite explain. As All Hallow’s Eve—aka Halloween—approaches, as we both remember the dead and usher in the season of darkness, our thoughts may turn to menacing ghosts and sinister spirits. The gentle poem “Haunted Houses,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), dispels these fears by blurring the line between memory and the supernatural.
Longfellow begins his poem with a straightforward but surprising statement: “All houses wherein men have lived and died/ Are haunted houses.” The speaker dispels the typical ghostly prerequisite of suffering, unfinished business, or malicious intent; every soul that departed this earth, he proposes, lingers in his/her former dwelling. And Longfellow’s ghosts are very different from the “ghoulies and ghosties” of popular imagination; they are neither unhappy nor fearsome, and they neither moan nor clank. These are domesticated ghosts, busy with errands, moving purposefully around the house as they did in life. The speaker describes them as “harmless,” “inoffensive,” and welcome to join him at table.
In the next stanza, we learn that only the speaker can see and hear these phantoms—what “has been”—which makes us question whether they exist only in his memory. Yet now, having lulled us into a feeling of rational safety, he at last ushers in the notion of mysticism and otherworldliness that the earlier stanzas’ matter of fact tone held at bay. Here he admits his belief in the supernatural with “the spirit world around this world of sense / Floats like an atmosphere.” Note that the poet has reversed clauses in this statement in order to maintain his rhyme scheme; in free verse, it would read “the spirit world floats like an atmosphere / around this world of sense.” All our daily activities on the material plane occur within, or beside, a medium of departed souls. This mood of mystery and spirituality is confirmed in the final two stanzas, which create an ingenious simile in the form “as x, so y.” The ethereal image of moonlight floating across the ocean waves is compared to a glorious “bridge of light” that descends “from the world of spirits” to earth. Our thoughts, memories, and aspirations can travel across the “trembling planks” of this bridge to connect with the spirits of loved ones who have gone before, and to rise above “the dark abyss” of the materialistic world in which we live. In this memorable image, Longfellow deftly captures the way that moonlight “sways and bends” on the water to create the “unsteady floor” of this bridge that only spirits, not bodies, can cross.
Like most of Longfellow’s work, this poem is comforting, both in structure and in content. It assures us that, rather than being hostile, ghosts are simply the shades or vestiges of departed friends and family members—enhanced by memory and emotion—whom we are glad to have still with us in whatever form. The somber, nostalgic tone of this poem, published in 1858 in the Birds of Passage collection, may have been influenced by the loss of Longfellow’s first wife to a miscarriage when he was only 24 years old. But it foreshadows an even more devastating loss when his second wife, Frances, who had borne him six children during 18 years of happy marriage, died only a few years after its publication when her dress caught fire while sealing a letter with wax. Longfellow is most likely thinking of houses in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he taught at Harvard for many years.
Many of us can relate to Longfellow’s basic premise: many houses, and even spaces, are “haunted” by past presences, both living and dead. I expect we can all point to memories so vivid as to seem almost real. From the balcony at Emmanuel Church, Greenwood, for example, I can still see my mother in the pews below, where she stood the last time I saw her before her stroke in 1979. Thanks to that most powerful of blessings, the imagination, I have seen and felt the desolation of defeated soldiers laying down their arms at Appomattox, or the spirits of the Anasazi still roaming Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Some of these are memories, but others are at the very least energy fields that speak to us across the boundaries of time and known reality. As Faulkner said, and illustrates so effectively in his novels, “the past is never dead; it’s not even past.” Those who came before us still live in our hearts, our memories, our genes, and even perhaps our environment.
Longfellow was a leading member of the Fireside poets, a 19th century American literary group that included John Greenleaf Whittier (“Snow-bound”), Oliver Wendell Holmes (“Old Ironsides”), James Russell Lowell and William Cullen Bryant (apparently they were all attached to their middle names!). These were the first American poets to become as popular and well known and as their British rivals. As Jill Lepore notes in The American Scholar (Spring 2011): “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used to be both the best-known poet in the English-speaking world and the most beloved, adored by the learnèd and the lowly alike, read by everyone from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Abraham Lincoln to John Ruskin and Queen Victoria—and, just as avidly, by the queen’s servants.” Although his poems may now be viewed as sentimental and simplistic, at the peak of his career, Longfellow’s popularity rivaled Lord Alfred Tennyson’s in England as well as in America, and he was a noted translator and scholar in several languages—translating Dante’s Divine Comedy, among other things. He was the first American poet to be honored with a bust in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner.
The regular rhythm and unvarying abab rhyme scheme of this poem is also comforting and familiar. “In general, these poets preferred conventional forms over experimentation, and this attention to rhyme and strict metrical cadences made their work popular for memorization and recitation in classrooms and homes” (poets.org). Many adults, myself included, can still recite lines from “Song of Hiawatha” or “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Describing scenes of contentment and domestic happiness, of comfort and quiet reflection, or of patriotic fervor, Longfellow confirmed and celebrated traditional values rather than challenging assumptions. While Longfellow’s poetry is less layered and sophisticated, and therefore more accessible, than more celebrated and challenging poets such as John Keats or T.S. Eliot, this does not detract from our enjoyment of its grace and harmony or our appreciation of its own brand of artistry. There is room in our poetic universe both for the cerebral complexity of John Donne and the homespun coziness of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.