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
Material place.

Far safer, of a midnight meeting External ghost,
Than an interior confronting
That whiter host.

Far safer through an Abbey gallop,
The stones achase,
Than, moonless, one’s own self encounter
In lonesome place.

Ourself, behind ourself concealed,
Should startle most;
Assassin, hid in our apartment,
Be horror’s least.

The prudent carries a revolver,
He bolts the door,
O’erlooking a superior spectre
More near.

~Emily Dickinson
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I have very little to say about this one. It’s perfect, really, and completely true. We are the most terrifying spectres we will ever meet. Humans can be haunted by the past, by the undone, by the unrealized. Our minds are more expansive than any construction, and so are vastly more capable of housing ghosts. The lines about encountering oneself in a lonesome place on a moonless night are especially vivid. We hide our true selves behind our external selves, and what we carry inside us should concern us more than any outer threat.

Though I doubt Dickinson was thinking specifically about writing and scary stories with this one, it also works on that kind of meta-level–we carry within us all the scary stories we are capable of creating.


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.


What mystery pervades a well!
The water lives so far,
Like neighbor from another world
Residing in a jar.

The grass does not appear afraid;
I often wonder he
Can stand so close and look so bold
At what is dread to me.

Related somehow they may be,—
The sedge stands next the sea,
Where he is floorless, yet of fear
No evidence gives he.

But nature is a stranger yet;
The ones that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.

To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.

~Emily Dickinson

Dickinson’s description of the well is evocative and powerful. It is a thing of mystery, otherworldly. Words like “afraid,” “dread,” “fear,” “stranger,” “haunted,” and “ghost” paint a vivid picture of the speaker’s visceral response to the well. It is mysterious, terrifying, alien, even though it is part of nature.

Compare this to yesterday’s poem, in which Dickinson uses a well as a metaphor for marriage–marriage is the dropping of a life into a well. What do you think? Are these poems meant to speak to each other?

The stimulus in danger

I LIVED on dread; to those who know
The stimulus there is
In danger, other impetus
Is numb and vital-less.
As ’t were a spur upon the soul,
A fear will urge it where
To go without the spectre’s aid
Were challenging despair.

~Emily Dickinson

I’m finding this poem really intriguing in light of yesterday’s. In that poem, the speaker describes the “splinter” that can throw a person off course. The tone of that poem makes it clear that the splinter is not a good thing. In this poem, however, dread acts in much the same way as the splinter in the previous poem–it intrudes. In this case, however, the intrusion is welcome–and productive.

This could be the procrastinator’s hymn, really. It reminds me of every friend I’ve ever known who swore they couldn’t start a paper until the night before it was due, that they thrived under pressure, that they needed a deadline–and needed it to be imminent–in order to get anything done.

It’s interesting to note that Dickinson couches this observation in the past tense, speaking as if from beyond the grave: “I lived on dread.” She goes on to invoke all the others who understand the efficacy of danger as a motivator. Even more interesting, I think, is the ending–fear urges to soul to go where it could not go otherwise. Without fear, the speaker would be “challenging despair.” Fear as a means of avoiding despair is an intriguing thought. I’m not sure what exactly to make of it. It feels deeply significant that the poem ends on the word “despair,” as if all the speaker’s fear-driven attempts (at what?) have, in the end, still come to naught.