‘Low Barometer’ by Robert Bridges is a seven stanza Sapphic poem, meaning that it is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. These stanzas each follow a structured and consistent rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef… and so on. This sing-song-like pattern to the verses allows a reader to move through them quickly. Faster reading of this piece helps to build up the tension of the moment and results in greater fear and wonder over what is being described.
Summary of Low Barometer
These ghosts are the embodiment of humankind’s worst fears and travel freely from place to place all throughout the night. They have crept out from their “caves” of the mind to haunt one in real life for the first time.
The speaker states that the men to whom all of this occurs try any number of things to ward off the ghosts. Some of them turn to prayer, but that does not seem to work as the ghosts continue to “trespass.”
The final section describes how in these moments reason is abandoned. No matter what humankind does or the horrors which befall its people, the Earth will always shield itself from these creatures by allowing the sun to rise. The ghosts are only able to wander freely at night and the sun drives them off.
Analysis of Low Barometer
The south-wind strengthens to a gale,
Across the moon the clouds fly fast,
The house is smitten as with a flail,
The chimney shudders to the blast.
In the first stanza of ‘Low Barometer the speaker begins by stating that there is a wind coming from the “south” which is “strengthen[ing]” to a “gale.” The storm’s strength is increasing, it is becoming more dangerous and intimidating. Already the pressure of this narrative is building. A reader should be able to feel the intensity grow as the lines work off of one another.
The speaker continues his description of the scene, stating that it is night. Now the scene is really developing and growing drearier. There are clouds, pushed by the wind, flying fast “Across the moon.”
In the final two lines of this quatrain, the speaker turns to a particular house and its chimney. The structure is being battered by the storm, it is being “flail[ed]” or beaten. The chimney is trying to hold on but is “shudder[ing]” in the middle of the storm.
On such a night, when Air has loosed
Its guardian grasp on blood and brain,
Old terrors then of god or ghost
Creep from their caves to life again;
In the second stanza the speaker states that it is on nights like this when the world’s weather is at its worst and most dangerous the “Air,” loosens one’s grasp on “blood and brain.” The visceral power that one sees around them and the fear they experience results in the loosening of their senses.
One’s weakened ability to tell true from false, and tamper down dark thoughts, results in a focus on “Old terrors.” Whatever one dreams of in their darkest moments is brought to light in the storm. The images “Creep from their” mental “caves” into real life.
And Reason kens he herits in
A haunted house. Tenants unknown
Assert their squalid lease of sin
With earlier title than his own.
In the third set of four lines, the speaker refers to “Reason” and how it “kens,” or knows, that it solely inhabits a “haunted house.” It is as if all reason has been abandoned to this dark place. There are other “Tenants” though, and they are “unknown,” making the scene even scarier.
These unknown elements, whether they are other forces like “Evil” or “Death” or actual physical monsters or ghosts, have been there much longer than “Reason” has. They have precedence and “earlier title” to the house and therefore control over what happens. “Reason” is subject to their will.
Unbodied presences, the pack’d
Pollution and remorse of Time,
Slipp’d from oblivion reënact
The horrors of unhouseld crime.
In the fourth stanza of ‘Low Barometer’, the speaker continues to describe the state of the haunted house and how the images from a dark moment can inhabit one’s brain. The narrator speaks of “Unbodied presences,” or ghosts. They are, he states, the “pack’d,” or packed, “Pollution and remorse of Time.” Ghosts are what time leaves behind as it moves forward, they are the leftovers.
All ghosts are not equal though, these have “Slipp’d from oblivion” or the afterlife, with the goal of the “reēact[ing]” their previous crimes. This alternate spelling of “reenact” is a simple historical alternative.
Some men would quell the thing with prayer
Whose sightless footsteps pad the floor,
Whose fearful trespass mounts the stair
Or burts the lock’d forbidden door.
The next stanza describes what it is that different types of men would do in the face of such fear. There are “Some” who would try to “quell” the ghost or ghosts, with “prayer.” This clearly doesn’t work though as in the next three lines the ghost is coming closer.
Its “sightless footsteps” (invisible to the eye) are making their way across the floor. It is trespassing up the stairs and carving at the lock, trying to get into the room in which the “Reason” hides.
Some have seen corpses long interr’d
Escape from hallowing control,
Pale charnel forms—nay ev’n have heard
The shrilling of a troubled soul,
There are other men, the speaker states, who have seen this type of creature before. They might have seen “corpses long interr’d / Escape” from the control of their caretakers. Some men have seen their forms wandering in all their horror and known the sight of a “troubled soul.” This is a reference to the inability of a ghost to rest after its death. It continues to walk the Earth without finding peace.
That wanders till the dawn hath cross’d
The dolorous dark, or Earth hath wound
Closer her storm-spredd cloke, and thrust
The baleful phantoms underground.
The corpses, or ghosts, move through the darkest hours of the night. They travel till “dawn hath cross’d / The dolorous dark.” This is the worst-case scenario, but it is only allowed to happen for a brief time before the world is set right again. The Earth does what it needs to do to banish the ghosts back “underground.” It wraps itself up in a “storm-spredd cloke,” blocking the ghosts’ access to the rest world. The earth is fighting back against the storm which is mentioned at the beginning of the poem and clearing its land of the ghostly interlopers.