Here, as promised, is the start of a series of Halloween-themed posts. Today’s audio piece uses words from 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson, and as usual for her it’s titled using the poem’s first line: “The only Ghost I ever saw.” Dickinson is no stranger to the gothic, but she often approaches it playfully — and that seems to be the case here. Here’s the full text of the poem along with chord-sheet notations for the 12-string guitar part I accompany it with today.
Sing along with Emily and the tree ghosts
The surface “plot” of this poem is straightforward, if detail sometimes puzzles. The poem’s speaker (presumably Dickinson) has seen a ghost once. She describes the encounter using some expected and unexpected description, and then closes with a puzzling final line. Since the description of the ghost is most of the poem let’s examine that closely. We first learn the ghost is dressed in “mechlin.” What’s that? A type of Flemish lace. The ghost has “no sandal on his foot.” The ghost moves soundlessly but with some speed, bird or dear-like. The ghost’s “fashions” are “quaint.” It might wear mistletoe. The ghost makes no footfall noises, but is not noiseless either. It’s said to laugh “like the breeze.”
The concluding lines say Dickinson doesn’t want to look behind and calls the day she saw her ghost “appalling.” I’m indebted to the Prowling Bee blog who notes that in Daniel Webster’s American 19th century dictionary, appalling may mean to astonish or to grow white among other meanings that have fallen out of use. Over time that we’ve taken it to mean frightening or disgusting.
This sort of mystery with detail is a format which suggests a riddle to me, and Dickinson did write riddle poems. So, is the ghost a metaphor for something else she’s observing? One could hazard a guess it’s snow, which might sweep in on winds like this with frosty lace, but the ghost is said to step “like flakes of snow.” It could be wind —and cold currents are often felt as “ghostly” — except again, Dickinson spends at least three lines in her short poem describing its actions as like a breeze. Snow like snow or breeze like breeze would be tautologies.
If it is a riddle, my best solution is that she’s viewing a tree in a grove of trees. Bark or moss, or even more likely the light filtering through small branches is the lace mosaic. It has no sandal to walk on the ground, its foot is in the ground — and note that Dickinson says no sandal on his foot (singular), not feet as in a human ghost. It steps in the wind in its swaying, but the noise in that movement isn’t from the foot of the tree, which stays stationary. And the branches dart back and forth like a deer leaping or a bird hopping. The prime clue is that mistletoe. Mistletoe is a parasite plant, it only grows by embedding its roots in trees. The branches make noise, the laughter, and in the path of the breeze the laughter would spread to other formerly still and pensive* trees around. Dickinson knows botany, I understand she and her family cultivated trees, and she has written other riddle poems with plants as answers.**
So my reading in summary: Dickinson is viewing a tree, perhaps one of the trees that surrounded the Dickinson homestead in autumn, and those flakes of snow its branches are stepping “like” are also appearing snowflakes in an approaching cold-front. The “interview” is cut short as the day is appalling — growing pale.
Is that an all-too-much a Scooby-Doo “There’s no such thing as ghosts” ending? I’m not certain of it, and the poem charms without the above, letting it stay in mystery. If that’s your worry, who’s to say — particularly at Halloween — that the trees aren’t sentient spirits?
You can hear my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “The only Ghost I ever saw” with my own musical setting using a player below if you see it. Is that player an invisible ghost for you? Well, summon it then with this highlighted link that will open a player.
*In the handwritten manuscript, Dickinson shows that she considered “smiling” instead of “pensive” in the poem.
**See this Dickinson flower riddle poem I recast as flower-power.