‘The House of Ghosts’ by Margaret Widdemer is an eight stanza Sapphic poem. It is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Every quatrain contained within the text conforms to a consistent and structured rhyme scheme. The lines follow a pattern of abab cdcd efef, and so on, as the poem progresses from beginning to end.
A reader should also take note of the indented lines the poet has chosen to utilize. The indentions are only used in the second and fourth lines of each stanza. The un-indented and indented lines match up with the connected rhyming pairs.
Summary of The House of Ghosts
‘The House of Ghosts’ by Margaret Widdemer describes a speaker’s nightmare in which she fears not being remembered by her family members.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that she is entering the “House of Ghosts.” This place is well-known to her, and is later revealed to be her childhood home. Upon entering the house she sees her “hound” on the floor. She bends to speak with him and he does not raise his head or make a sound. She realizes that he is dead.
The next person she comes across is her father. The speaker touches him, but he doesn’t react. It has been so long since she was home that he does not recognize, or even hear her voice. Finally she calls out for her mother but she does not turn her head.
In the final lines the speaker flees from the house, her worst fears confirmed. She has been gone so long, and changed so much, that no one knows her.
Analysis of The House of Ghosts
The House of Ghosts was bright within,
Aglow and warm and gay,
A place my own once loved me in,
That is not there by day:
In the first stanza the speaker begins by describing how she remembers the “House of Ghosts.” At first it is not clear what this place it or why it should have such a foreboding name. It is especially strange when the following lines state that she remembers the house being “warm and gay.” It was a place that she was once “loved…in.” The house appears this way during the day, but at night, when she finally ventures inside, it is far from warm.
My hound lay drowsing on the floor:
From sunken graves returned
My folk that I was lonely for
Sat where the hearth-fire burned.
In the second stanza she describes the first thing she sees after entering the house. She comes across her “hound” sleeping on the floor. To an extent things are how she remembers them. In reality though, there is nothing of the house she remembers. The speaker is creating a world in which she re-imagines her family and memories in their rightful place her childhood home. Unlike normal memories, the ones she crafts seem to take on a life of their own. They are unexpected, dark, and extremely distressing.
In the second half of the stanza she states that her “folk” for whom she was “lonely,” or missing, were there by the fire as they always were. Everyone seems to be waiting for her, exactly as she would have wanted.
There was no lightest echo lost
When I undid the door,
There was no shadow where I crossed
The well-remembered floor.
The speaker is approaching her parents in the third stanza. She is walking towards them through the house, across the well-remembered floor. There is one line in this stanza which is particularly interesting and adds another element to the poem. She states that as she crosses the floor there is “no shadow.” This might lead one to believe that the entire experience is itself in her imagination. Not only are her parents imagined, she has created the entire house in her mind.
I bent to whisper to my hound
(So long he had been dead!)
He slept no lighter nor more sound,
He did not lift his head.
The first thing the speaker does as she gets inside is to bend down and speak to her “hound.” She is shocked, and exclaims in her mind, “So long he had been dead!” She did not expect this to be the case.
The dog does not sleep any lighter or any quieter than he would if he were dead. The animal does not “lift his head” when she speaks to it.
I brushed my father as I came;
He did not move or see—
I cried upon my mother’s name;
She did not look at me.
The next memory she comes upon is that of her father. She moves past him, brushing his arm. Her touch does not rouse him, he does not move. The speaker is scared by this fact and cries out her mother’s name. There is no reply.
So much times gone by, and she has changed so dramatically that no one hears or sees her. There is no one in the house to greet the speaker— her memories, animals, and parents have all passed on to another world where she does not exist.
Their faces in the firelight bent,
They smiled in speaking slow
Of some old gracious merriment
Forgotten years ago.
In the sixth stanza the speaker recalls the same room but under much different circumstances. She sees herself there “Forgotten years ago,” watching as the faces of her parents “smiled” in the “firelight.” They were so alive then, enjoying “some old gracious merriment.”
It is clear from her description of her family members that she remembers them as being good, genial people. This raises the question of why she is having this memory. Why did she leave home and what made her change so dramatically?
I was so changed since they had died!
How could they know or guess
A voice that plead for love, and cried
Of grief and loneliness?
In the second to last stanza the speaker remembers how she was all those years ago. It turns out that she is just as changed as her parents and dog are. They might be dead and forgetful, but she is no longer the person she was when they lived happily together.
She thinks that she has moved so far from the person she was that they would not recognize the “voice” that pleads with them for love and cries out with “grief and loneliness.”
At this point the nature of her nightmare is revealed. She is horrified by the idea of returning to her home so changed that no one, not even her dog, would recognize her.
Out from the House of Ghosts I fled
Lest I should turn and see
The child I had been lift her head
And stare aghast at me!
In the final stanza the speaker flees from the “House of Ghosts.” She is so terrified she doesn’t risk looking back over her should. There is a chance, she thinks, that she will see a younger version of herself “star[ing] aghast at [her]!” She thinks her younger self would be horrified by who she has become.