In many countries around the world, 2nd November is marked as the Day of the Dead. It is a day on which people remember their loved ones who have passed away; they might visit their graves or attend special religious services.
On that theme, for this week’s poetry post I have chosen a poem by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) titled ‘Haunted Houses’. Judging merely by the title, you might think this is a piece of spooky Halloween writing about disembodied spirits and poltergeists that come to haunt us. But the poem is actually a comforting and sentimental meditation on the transience of the material and the permanence of the spiritual; its message is that our loved ones always remain with us, in our thoughts and memories; their presence doesn’t diminish even long after they’re gone from this physical plane.
Longfellow is known as one of the ‘fireside poets’ – poets whose works were meant to be read out as a form of entertainment for family and friends gathered by a fireplace. (That is what people used to do before the era of radio and television.) Read it aloud yourself, and notice how – apart from the carefully chosen wording, the structure of the poem itself supports its message: the ABAB rhyming scheme and the whole rhythm of the poem contribute to its calming, soothing effect.
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. 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. 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.
VOCABULARY & COMPREHENSION QUESTIONS FOR ENGLISH LEARNERS
- Find the synonym for ‘a ghost’.
- Which word means a short journey to attend some business?
- True or false: Longfellow depicts ghosts as loud and dangerous. (Find specific words to support your answer.)
- True or false: something that is ‘impalpable’ is possible to feel by touch.
- Find the phrase meaning a constant movement backwards and forwards.
- Find an example of alliteration (repetition of initial consonant sounds in nearby words).
- Find an antonym for harmful / malicious / damaging.
- Which word in this stanza means ‘to be present in great numbers’?
- In this stanza the poet uses a simile – a figure of speech used to compare two unlikely things. Can you find it?
- The word ‘mortmain’ refers to permanent, inalienable ownership of a piece of real estate. How do you feel about the poet’s assertion that it is not us, but our ancestors and previous owners who actually own the places we live in?
- Which verb here refers to a gentle movement of air?
- Find the adjective that means ‘extremely delicate’, ‘otherworldly beautiful’.
- Which noun refers to gasses surrounding a planet, but also to the mood or tone of a place (as in this stanza)?
- Find a synonym for balance / equilibrium.
- The poet refers to two different instincts. What do you think are the noble, aspiring instincts?
- Find more examples of alliteration.
- True or false: if you’re ‘perturbed’ you are calm, relaxed and composed.
- Find the noun which means ‘a collision’, ‘a crash’.
- Find the adjective meaning ‘shaking’.
- The word ‘realm’ originally meant ‘a kingdom’, ‘ a royal domain’, but the meaning has shifted. What do you think it means in this instance?
- The word ‘fancy’, here used as a noun, has a number of different meanings. Look at the following dictionary entry and choose the meaning you think fits best in this context.
- True or false: the poet describes the bridge connecting the two worlds as strong and stable.
- Find the antonym of climb / arise / go up.
If you have enjoyed this poem and would like to know more about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, visit my Pinterest board dedicated to him and his writings.
As always, you’re welcome to share your thoughts in the comments section below.