A Ghost Hunter’s Poem (Written During a Ghost Hunt)

I stumbled upon something rare and wonderful: a poem written during a 1785 ghost hunt! The allegedly haunted spot was a bed chamber in a house on Mecklenburgh Street, which I’m assuming was in Dublin, given that I learned about all of this from the March, 1785, issue of that city’s Hibernian Magazine. The lady of the house complained of a woman phantom — dressed in black robes, yet bathed in light — that opened the bed curtains and gestured for the living woman to follow. Apparently, the living woman declined. Instead, she asked relatives to share the room with her the following night, and sure enough, they heard groans and “uncommon noises.” The relatives quickly vamoosed, but the living woman spread the word.

Knowledge of the haunted chamber reached a man named Nolan, “so well known for his poetic and political abilities.” He accepted a challenge to spend an entire night alone there. The Hibernian reporter says:

[Nolan] was accordingly shut in, about nine o’clock on the night of the 22nd of March last, but for the sake of defense against any improper practices, he took with him a dog, and a case of loaded pistols, and was not released till six o’clock the next morning; when he was found by his companions, so long fast asleep, that he suffered his fire and candle to expire, without being replenished.

The article adds that the poetic politician had no encounters with a ghost, but he did hear a lot of noises. After threatening to shoot whoever — or whatever — came near him, things quieted down.

Hibernian Magazine

Now, once upon a time, the most valuable part of a ghost hunter’s arsenal was old-fashioned patience. Nolan had his pooch and pistols, which — along with a bottle of something or other — would become standard equipment by the Victorian period. However, to bide his time, he also brought pen and paper. We know this because the Hibernian article reprints the poem he wrote during his sleepy stakeout. I’ve transcribed the work and offer some interpretive comments below it. (NOTE: Attempting to reproduce the original’s line format on this blog page was driving me bonkers, so I centered all the lines.)

Stanzas, written in a Haunted Room

IF from cearments of the silent dead
Our long-departed friends cou’d rise anew,
Why feel a horror, or conceive a dread
To see again those friends which once we knew?
To gaze on Beauty’s melancholy shade?
Or hear the sorrow of the love-lorn maid?

Father of all! You gave not to our ken,
To view beyond the ashes of the grave;
‘Tis not the idle tales of busy men
That can the soul appall. The truly brave,
Seated on Reason’s adamantine throne,
Can place the soul, and fear no ills unknown.

O! if the flinty prison of the grave
Could loose its doors, and let the spirit flee,
Why not return the wise, the just, the brave,
And set, once more, the pride of ages free?
Why not restore a Socrates again?
Or give thee, Titus, as the first of men?

Dear friend of human kind! you cannot come
To mend the manners of a Vandal age;
Lost are the boast of Athens and of Rome,
Nor patriot chief remains, nor hoary sage;
Intomb’d in dark oblivion’s cave they lie,
Strangers to all the fame of round Eternity

In this lone room, where yet I patient wait
To try if injured beauty can appear;
O! cou’d a Burgh escape his prison-gate,
Or cou’d I think Latouche’s form was near,
Why fear to view the shades which long must be
Sacred to FREEDOM and to CHARITY.

A little onward in the path of life,
And all must stretch in death this mortal frame,
A few short struggles end the weary strife,
And blot the frail memorial of our name.
Torn from the promontory’s lofty brow,
In time, the rooted oak itself lies low.

Here’s my stanza-by-stanza interpretation: 1) If the dead returned to us, why be afraid? What if it stirred our appreciation or sympathy instead? 2) God doesn’t let us see what lies beyond, so rather than be scared by silly stories, let’s be cool with what we can’t know. 3) But what if the dead could return? What if really smart folks, like Socrates, or great leaders, like Titus, came back? 4) Nah, can’t happen. We’re stuck in an age that pales in comparison to Classical Greece and Rome. 5) More of the same: if the dead could return, wouldn’t it be great if Burgh or LaTouche could return? These appear to be historical figures — dead before 1785 or they’d make bad ghosts — related to freedom and charity. The first might be James Burgh (1714–1775), who argued for free speech and universal suffrage. The second is possibly Claude Guimond de La Touche (1723-1760), a French playwright-poet educated by Jesuits. Little help for the Americanist here? Added points if you can identify Nolan! 6) We all die. Let it be.

I used to tell my students that, when it comes to literature, the room for interpretation is bigger than a closet but smaller than a gymnasium. In other words, unless you think this poem is all about your Uncle Marty, it’s great if you see something more or different in it. Nolan’s message, I guess, is fairly conventional. At the same time, the work’s uniqueness and charm come mostly from the ghostly context in which it was written.

— Tim

P.S. I found a reprint of the article and poem in a 1792 issue of the Gazette of the United States. It’s impressive how journalism provided an amazing method of spreading ghost stories far and wide.

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