Thy soul shall find itself alone
’Mid dark thoughts of the gray tombstone—
Not one, of all the crowd, to pry
Into thine hour of secrecy.
Be silent in that solitude,
Which is not loneliness—for then
The spirits of the dead who stood
In life before thee are again
In death around thee—and their will
Shall overshadow thee: be still.
The night, tho’ clear, shall frown—
And the stars shall look not down
From their high thrones in the heaven,
With light like Hope to mortals given—
But their red orbs, without beam,
To thy weariness shall seem
As a burning and a feverWhich would cling to thee for ever.
Now are thoughts thou shalt not banish,
Now are visions ne’er to vanish;
From thy spirit shall they pass
No more—like dew-drop from the grass.
The breeze—the breath of God—is still—
And the mist upon the hill,
Is a symbol and a token—
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!
“Spirits of the Dead” was originally titled “Visits of the Dead,” and was published in Poe’s first poetry collection, Tamerlane and Other Poems, in 1827. Its initial reception was lackluster and went largely unnoticed by readers and reviewers, as did its 1829 successor, Al Araaf, Tamerlane, and Other Poems; Poe received little acclaim or attention until the publication of “The Raven” in 1845. He was eighteen years old when “Spirits of the Dead” was published, and he referred to his early work, including “Spirits of the Dead,” as “the crude compositions of my earliest boyhood” (Quinn). The poem can also be found in the posthumous publication The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allan Poe (1946).
“Spirit of the Dead” is comprised of five stanzas in iambic octameter, with a varying rhyme scheme. Each stanza begins with a sequential roman numeral. The regular meter and rhyme scheme contribute to a beautifully poetic narration despite its thematic darkness and mystery. The poem also uses alliteration, allegory, repetition, personification, and gothic imagery to reinforce the themes of death and darkness without erasing the beauty of life and death.
The poem begins with gothic imagery that sets up a mysterious and haunting image of discontentment in life and death. Readers find themselves alone in a cemetery, their soul lost in “dark thoughts.” The alliterative phrase, to “be silent in that solitude / which is not loneliness,” highlights the beauty in death. Poe explores the relation of the human soul, lonely on earth, but not lonely in the larger reality of death, for “The spirits of the dead, who stood / In life before thee, are again / In death around thee, and their will / Shall then o’er shadow thee: be still.” The first stanza is an AABB rhyme scheme, and stanza two is an ABABCC rhyme scheme.
The third stanza explores downfalls of hope and devotion through personifying the night sky and stars, expressing their disapproval on the hope that mortals have in life after death. Hope is described not in a light of positivity and goodness, but rather as weakness; hope is described as “a burning and a fever,” which consumes mortals infinitely. Poe describes hope as undesirable, as mortals obsess over seeing their loved ones, sacrificing their happiness in life in hopes of a reward in death. As Poe gives readers a lesson in romanticizing death rather than life, his rhyme scheme, eight lines of AABBCCDD, becomes a repetitious pattern that is easily comprehensible.
The fourth stanza is in a rhyme of AABB and explores alliteration. The first two lines of the stanza begin with “Now are,” cementing the didacticism in the poem. Poe implements alliteration in this stanza, with “visions ne’er to vanish,” and “dew-drop from the grass.” The final stanza continues with the stanza AABBCC, and continues utilizing alliteration and repetition. The stanza begins with “the breeze – the breath of God,” calling to attention the connection between the nature and divinity of this cemetery through alliteration. Similarly, this stanza also explores the natural and ominous imagery of misty hills and trees, describing the hill as “shadowy–shadowy–yet unbroken.” The sense of mystery and ominousness in the final stanza concludes this exploration of death and meaning as “A mystery of mysteries!”, depicting a world that is jarring, mysterious, and beautiful despite its darkness.
“Spirits of the Dead” explores the intersections of gothic horror and romance, depicting beauty in both life and in death, and supporting Poe’s belief in seeing man and Nature holistically, rather than isolated sections. While it received very little response or acclaim upon its publication, it has contributed to Poe’s legacy and high regard as a prolific and influential writer and poet. This poem’s gothic imagery, the personification of nature, and the immersion into mystery and beauty explores the nuances and intersections of death and beauty.
Bibliography and Further Reading Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (1941); Edgar Allan Poe, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827); Spirits of the Dead, Poetry Foundation.
Credits Composed by Mariah Palmer, Fall 2018. Reading by Mariah Palmer.