Ghost

THE ONLY ghost I ever saw
Was dressed in mechlin,—so;
He wore no sandal on his foot,
And stepped like flakes of snow.
His gait was soundless, like the bird, 5
But rapid, like the roe;
His fashions quaint, mosaic,
Or, haply, mistletoe.

His conversation seldom,
His laughter like the breeze 10
That dies away in dimples
Among the pensive trees.
Our interview was transient,—
Of me, himself was shy;
And God forbid I look behind 15
Since that appalling day!

~Emily Dickinson

This is a fascinatingly spooky little poem. The first line is fantastic–“The only ghost I ever saw,” the speaker says, as if she might be expected to have seen many more–or as if she is recounting a shared experience. You’ve seen ghosts; I’ve seen one, too. This ghost, she tells us, “was dressed in mechlin,” a kind of lace. This seems to be the ghost of one long-dead–she identifies it as “he” but tells us additionally that not only is he quiet and fast, he is “quaint.”

In the second stanza, we get more information about the ghost’s behavior. He speaks seldom, but interestingly, he also laughs. The speaker tells us that the encounter was “transient,” as one might expect from a ghost.

There’s nothing about this particular ghost that seems disturbing, other than, of course, the obvious fact that he is a ghost. He converses, laughs a little, apparently goes on his way after a brief encounter. The speaker even tells us that the ghost was shy of her.

So the final two lines come as a bit of a twist: “God forbid I look behind/Since that appalling day!” Other than the fact of the ghost’s existence, there’s nothing about him that seems creepy or particularly threatening. The ghost himself appears afraid of the living. So why does the speaker suddenly do an about-face at the end, describing the meeting as “appalling,” and painting a picture of herself as terrified from that day forward to look behind her?

Perhaps it is precisely the ghost’s ordinariness that is distressing. This ghost is not anything more than the spirit of an ordinary human being–a person not unlike the speaker. He is a reminder of the speaker’s own mortality–an insistence that she, too, is never far from her own death, that death is something that waits for us all.

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