Since Halloween is about a week away, I thought I’d share one of my favorite spooky poems. Most people have heard Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s more famous long-form poems Paul Revere’s Ride, Evangeline, and A Song of Hiawatha. But this poem, Haunted Houses, published in the Birds of Passage Collection in 1858, is one of his lesser known works. This poem, which is meant to reassure us with its description of ghosts going about domestic, daily chores, also offers a desolate view of death. It’s also scary because, unbeknownst to Longfellow, this poem foreshadows the tragic death of his beloved second wife Fanny. Maybe it’s the coziness of this poem, with its choice of words, ethereal imagery, and soft rhythm, that lulls the reader into a sense of safety. But it’s a safety that ultimately sends chills down the spine when the reader begins to wonder if we too can make it across the bridge of light or else end up, forevermore, in the dark abyss.

This poem is in the public domain.

Haunted Houses

by Henry Wordsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882)

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.

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