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.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882)
The image of the haunted house never seems to have lost its appeal to writers, artists, and filmmakers. From generation to generation, it emerges to strike fear into our hearts, from the remote Welsh mansion in J.B. Priestley’s novel, Benighted (adapted in 1932 as the Hollywood classic The Old Dark House) to the Gothic gingerbread house of Norman Bates’s tyrannical mother in Psycho, to the suburban apartment in the smash-hit chiller Paranormal Activity.
We therefore come to Longfellow’s poem with the expectation that our heart will pound and our flesh will creep. Indeed, in the opening stanza, the speaker makes the hair-raising claim that all houses are haunted! So are bats flying forever out of the belfry? Are clanking chains always heard on the stair? Are strange signs eternally found, written in the dust of the cellar?
The answer is no. Longfellow surprises us by making his ghosts “quiet,” “inoffensive,” and “silent.” Yet the speaker goes on to say that, “we meet them at the door-way, on the stair, along the passages.”
As we read these lines, the house in the poem and the house we live in may begin to merge in our mind. … Are we too living in a haunted house? Have we ever wondered who lived in our house before? … Wondered who laughed, cried and dreamed in the rooms that define our lives?
The speaker of the poem conjures up the scene of the “illuminated hall” where there are more ghosts than living guests. The sense of candlelight glinting off glass at the “table” creates a strange mood of glamour. The word “glamour” refers back to grammar, writing, secret knowledge, and the casting of spells.
In the final stanza, there is a sudden shift in perspective. The speaker identifies himself as the owner of the house. He sees a “stranger” at his “fireside.” Is this a visible ghost? Is this a malignant spirit, come to take possession? No, this is a living man and it is the speaker who is the ghost.
It is the living man, however, who should be pitied, for he merely sees “what is,” whereas the speaker sees the full pageant of the past. He sees all things “clear.” This clarity suggests that in passing away, he has been granted special knowledge of death and life.
We too are granted this special knowledge when we read the poem. As Longfellow’s words rhyme and chime in our head and connect with our experience—the world, here and now, all around us—the realms of death and life touch and reconcile. The canon of great literature is full of ghostly whispers—whispers that calm, soothe, and inspire in the illuminated hall of the imagination.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) was an American poet and educator, perhaps most famous for his poem “The Song of Hiawatha.”
Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.
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