Poets have often been haunted by others, whether it’s the voices of earlier poets, or the memories and visions of a departed loved one. Some poets have even been haunted by history, with various historical figures and eras being summoned in their work as ghostly presences. Below, we introduce ten of the greatest poems about being haunted, and about ‘ghosts’ of various kinds.
John Donne, ‘The Apparition’.
When by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead
And that thou think’st thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feign’d vestal, in worse arms shall see …
So begins this ghostly poem by the master of metaphysical poetry, John Donne (1572-1631). Perhaps surprisingly, it’s actually a seduction poem, which sees Donne attempting to talk a woman into bed by telling her that, by refusing to entertain him, she is killing him. Once he is dead from her neglect, he says, his ghost will come and visit her…
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘Haunted Houses’.
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…
These ‘inoffensive ghosts’ surround us as we dine, and the hall is filled with them. Longfellow’s poem explores the links between the temporal and ethereal, the present and the past – arguing that a ‘bridge of light’ connects the seen and unseen worlds. See the link above to read the full, longer poem.
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Haunted Palace’.
Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow
(This—all this—was in the olden
Time long ago)
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A wingèd odor went away.
The palace of this poem is a palace of the mind, found in ‘the monarch Thought’s dominion’. This is a haunted palace because, whilst it is beautiful, it is also inhabited by ‘evil things, in robes of sorrow’ which ‘assailed the monarch’s high estate’. This poem may well have had its origins in Poe’s own troubled life, his battle with alcoholism, and his bouts of depression.
Emily Dickinson, ‘One Need Not Be a Chamber to Be Haunted’.
One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain has Corridors—surpassing
Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
Than its interior Confronting—
That Cooler Host …
So begins this wonderful poem about haunting from one of American poetry’s most distinctive voices. We can seek to protect ourselves from some perceived threat lurking out there in the real world, but to do so is to overlook a far more powerful and dangerous ‘spectre’, or something that is ‘More’ than a spectre, in that it can never be seen and thus will always remain invisible and, to a degree, unknowable. And fear of the unknown is one of the most potent fears.
Thomas Hardy, ‘A Spellbound Palace’.
And there swaggers the Shade of a straddling King, plumed, sworded, with sensual face,
And lo, too, that of his Minister, at a bold self-centred pace:
Sheer in the sun they pass; and thereupon all is still,
Save the mindless fountain tinkling on with thin enfeebled will.
So ends this fine but lesser-known poem by Hardy, who was a prolific poet as well as a novelist (he is said to have dictated his last ever poem from his deathbed). Hardy appears to be recalling a visit that he and his first wife Emma had paid to Hampton Court in 1874-75, in the early years of their marriage, and in the early years of Hardy’s own writing career.
The notion that Hampton Court Palace is ‘History’s own asile’ suggests not only that visitors to the palace have a chance to observe a place where English history has been preserved, but also that the history being preserved was wild and chaotic – as indeed it was, since Hampton Court immediately summons the ghosts of not only King Henry VIII but also his minister, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, whose fall from grace preceded Henry’s break with Rome and his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (a divorce Wolsey had failed to make happen) and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn.
Hope Mirrlees, Paris: A Poem.
An underrated poem which we never lose an opportunity to shout about, Paris was written in 1919 while Helen Hope Mirrlees was living in the French capital, just after the end of the First World War. This long modernist poem contains the ghost of Pere Lachaise, the ghosts of previous French writers, and numerous other hauntings. The link above takes you to a pdf of the first edition, published by Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1920.
Wilfred Owen, ‘The Kind Ghosts’.
She sleeps on soft, last breaths; but no ghost looms
Out of the stillness of her palace wall,
Her wall of boys on boys and dooms on dooms.
She dreams of golden gardens and sweet glooms,
Not marvelling why her roses never fall
Nor what red mouths were torn to make their blooms …
So begins this poem by the most famous war poet in English literature, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918). Slightly unusually for Owen, this poem does not focus on life in the trenches or the harsh realities of war, but instead uses the fairy-tale image of the wealthy woman (a princess?) sleeping in her palace chamber, unaware that everything around her has been paid for with the blood of young men who have given their lives in wars to preserve the kingdom.
Elizabeth Jennings, ‘Ghosts’.
‘Those houses haunt in which we leave / Something undone.’ So begins this wonderful sonnet by Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001), the only significant female poet to be associated with the 1950s ‘Movement’ in British poetry. Taking the idea of the haunted house and using it to explore the psychological and emotional impact a house can have on us, it’s one of Jennings’ finest poems and a beautiful poem about hauntings of various kinds.
Anthony Hecht, ‘The Ghost in the Martini’.
Throughout the ages, poets have been (surprisingly) interested in the association of ghosts with male lust, as we saw in Donne’s poem above. This poem by the American poet Anthony Hecht (1923-2004) is about a middle-aged male speaker trying to pick up a woman much younger than him at a party. Out of the martini comes the speaker’s younger self, and a narrative meditation on losing one’s youth begins to develop.
Michael Donaghy, ‘Haunts’.
A poem about fathers haunting sons – but is Donaghy’s father haunting him or his Donaghy haunting his future son? – this poem appeared in the 2000 collection Conjure, the third collection by the American poet Michael Donaghy (1954-2004). Tragically, Donaghy died just four years after it was published, aged just 50, lending this short poem about the generations all the more poignant.