“The Haunted House”, by George MacDonald

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I recently discovered this creepy old George MacDonald poem and the painting that inspired it. It may take reading it a few times aloud to get what he’s saying (it did for me, anyway), which I recommend doing with all poetry. So you don’t think it’s all gloom, here’s a snippet from stanza eleven:

God is in heaven–yes, everywhere;
And Love, the all-shining, will kill Despair.”

Enjoy the poem (if you dare).

haunted_house_thomas_moranTHE HAUNTED HOUSE
by George MacDonald

from The Threefold Cord: Poems by Three Friends: edited by George MacDonald (1883)

Suggested by a drawing of Thomas Moran, the American painter.

I. THIS must be the very night!
The moon knows it!–and the trees–
They stand straight upright,
Each a sentinel drawn up,
As if they dared not know
Which way the wind might blow!
The very pool, with dead gray eye,
Dully expectant, feels it nigh,
And begins to curdle and freeze!
And the dark night,
With its fringe of light,
Holds the secret in its cup!

II.

What can it be, to make
The poplars cease to shiver and shake,
And up in the dismal air
Stand straight and stiff as the human hair
When the human soul is dizzy with dread–
All but those two that strain
Aside in a frenzy of speechless pain,
Though never a wind sends out a breath
To tunnel the foggy rheum of death?
What can it be has power to scare
The full-grown moon to the idiot stare
Of a blasted eye in the midnight air?
Something has gone wrong;
A scream will come tearing out ere long!

III.

Still as death,
Although I listen with bated breath!
Yet something is coming, I know–is coming;
With an inward soundless humming,
Somewhere in me or in the air–
I cannot tell–but its foot is there!
Marching on to an unheard drumming,
Something is coming–coming–
Growing and coming;
And the moon is aware–
Aghast in the air
At the thing that is only coming
With an inward soundless humming,
And an unheard spectral drumming!

IV. Nothing to see and nothing to hear!
Only across the inner sky
The wing of a shadowy thought flits by,
Vague and featureless, faceless, drear–
Only a thinness to catch the eye:
Is it a dim foreboding unborn,
Or a buried memory, wasted and worn
As the fading frost of a wintry sigh?
Anon I shall have it!–anon!–it draws nigh!
A night when–a something it was took place
That drove the blood from that scared moon-face!
Hark! was that the cry of a goat,
Or the gurgle of water in a throat?
Hush! there is nothing to see or hear,
Only a silent something is near;
No knock, no footsteps three or four,
Only a presence outside the door!
See! the moon is remembering–what?
The wail of a mother-left, lie-alone brat?
Or a raven sharpening its beak to peck?
Or a cold blue knife and a warm white neck?
Or only a heart that burst and ceased
For a man that went away released?
I know not–know not, but something is coming
Somehow back with an inward humming.

V. Ha! Look there! Look at that house–
Forsaken of all things–beetle and mouse!
Mark how it looks! It must have a soul!
It looks, it looks, though it cannot stir;
See the ribs of it–how they stare!
Its blind eyes yet have a seeing air!
It knows it has a soul!
Haggard it hangs o’er the slimy pool,
And gapes wide open as corpses gape:
It is the very murderer!
The ghost has modelled himself to the shape
Of this drear house all sodden with woe,
Where the deed was done, long, long ago,
And filled with himself his new body full–
To haunt for ever his ghastly crime,
And see it come and go–
Brooding around it like motionless time,
With a mouth that gapes, and eyes that yawn
Blear and blintering and full of the moon,
Like one aghast at a hellish dawn.
–It is coming, coming soon!

VI. For, ever and always, when round the tune
Grinds on the barrel of organ-Time,
The deed is done;–and it comes anon–
True to the roll of the clock-faced moon,
True to the ring of the spheric chime,
True to the cosmic rhythm and rime;
Every point, as it first went on,
Will come and go till all is gone;
And palsied with horror from garret to core,
The house cannot shut its gaping door;
Its burst eye stares as if trying to see,
And it leans as if settling heavily,
Settling heavy with sickness dull:
It also is hearing the soundless humming
Of the wheel that is turning–the thing that is coming.
On the naked rafters of its brain,
Gaunt and wintred, see the train
Of gossiping, scandal-mongering crows,
That watch, all silent, with necks a-strain,
Wickedly knowing, with heads awry,
And the sharpened gleam of a cunning eye–
Watch, through the cracks of the ruined skull,
How the evil business goes!
–Beyond the eyes of the cherubim,
Beyond the ears of the seraphim,
Outside, forsaken, in the dim
Phantom-haunted chaos grim,
He stands with the deed going on in him!

VII. O winds, winds! that lurk and peep
Under the edge of the moony fringe!
O winds, winds! up and sweep;
Up, and blow and billow the air,
Billow the air with blow and swinge;
Rend me this ghastly house of groans;
Rend and scatter the skeleton’s bones
Over the deserts and mountains bare;
Blast and hurl and shiver aside
Nailed sticks and mortared stones;
Clear the phantom, with torrent and tide,
Out of the moon and out of my brain,
That the light may fall shadowless in again!

VIII. But alas! then the ghost
O’er mountain and coast
Would go roaming, roaming; and never was swine,
That, grubbing and talking with snork and whine
On Gadarene mountains, had taken him in,
But would rush to the lake to unhouse the sin
For any charnel
This ghost is too carnal;
There is no volcano, burnt out and cold,
Whose very ashes are gray and old,
But would cast him forth in reviving flame,
To blister the sky with a smudge of shame.

IX. Is there no help–none anywhere,
Under the earth, or above the air?
–Come, come, sad woman, whose tender throat
Has a red-lipped mouth that can sing no note!
Child, whose midwife, the third grim Fate,
Shears in hand, thy coming did wait!
Father, with blood-bedabbled hair!
Mother, all withered with love’s despair!
Come, broken heart, whatever thou be,
Hasten to help this misery!
Thou wast only murdered, or left forlorn;
He is a horror, a hate, a scorn!
Come, if out of the holiest blue
That the sapphire throne shines through;
For pity come, though thy fair feet stand
Next to the elder-band;
Fling thy harp on the hyaline,
Hurry thee down the spheres divine;
Come, and drive those ravens away;
Cover his eyes from the pitiless moon;
Shadow his brain from her stinging spray;
Droop around him, a tent of love,
An odour of grace, a fanning dove;
Walk through the house with the healing tune
Of gentle footsteps; banish the shape
Remorse calls up, thyself to ape;
Comfort him, dear, with pardon sweet;
Cool his heart from its burning heat
With the water of life that lakes the feet
Of the throne of God, and the holy street.

X. O God, he is but a living blot,
Yet he lives by thee–for if thou wast not,
They would vanish together, self-forgot,
He and his crime:–one breathing blown
From thy spirit on his would all atone,
Scatter the horror, and bring relief
In an amber dawn of holy grief:
God, give him sorrow; arise from within:
Art thou not in him, silence in din,
Stronger than anguish, deeper than sin?

XI. Why do I tremble, a creature at bay!
‘Tis but a dream–I drive it away.
Back comes my breath, and my heart again
Pumps the red blood to my fainting brain
Released from the nightmare’s nine-fold train;
God is in heaven–yes, everywhere;
And Love, the all-shining, will kill Despair.
To the wall’s blank eyeless space
I turn the picture’s face.

XII. But why is the moon so bare, up there?
And why is she so white?
And why does the moon so stare, up there–
Strangely stare, out of the night?
Why stand up the poplars
That still way?
And why do those two of them
Start astray?
And out of the black why hangs the gray?
Why does it hang down so, I say,
Over that house, like a fringed pall
Where the dead goes by in a funeral?
–Soul of mine,
Thou the reason canst divine:–
Into thee the moon doth stare
With pallid, terror-smitten air:
Thou, and the Horror lonely-stark,
Outcast of eternal dark,
Are in nature same and one,
And thy story is not done!
So let the picture face thee from the wall,
And let its white moon stare.
(End.)

———————–

What do you guys make of the last several stanzas? I know what I think, but I’d love to hear your take on it.

Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


30 Comments

  1. whipple

    Until that last stanza, I would have said he identified more with the house.

    But now he seems haunted himself by that loneliness that longs for a sense of place. AP, I know you’re a Buechner fan. So, if you’ve read “Speak What We Feel,” I’d say I feel like the haunting thing here is almost the same thing that Buechner said haunted Mark Twain (in a sense).

    I hope that wasn’t too vague.

  2. Steve Fronk

    I don’t know for certain but it seems that the poem might be refering to Moran’s painting “Haunted House”, found here http://www.canvaz.com/gallery/1219.htm. I believe the picture posted above is “Haunted House II.”

    The references to the “slimy pool” and the “poplars” seem to better fit this painting.

  3. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Good eye, Steve. I agree that the poem seems to fit Haunted House One better–but where are the crows? And the moon, which is such a prominent fixture in the poem, is absent in both paintings. Weird. I wonder if GMac was drawing from both paintings? And now that I look at it, I wonder if that isn’t a hint of a slimy pool in the bottom left of H.H. II? Either way, I love both paintings.

  4. Steve Fronk

    The other intersting item about that poem is that we aren’t certain of its author. It is included in a collection called “A Threefold Cord: Poems by Three Friends.” George MacDonald, Greville Matheson, and John Hill MacDonald, George’s brother make up the three friends. No assignments are made so we are left to wonder who is responsible for each poem. George was know to say that his brother John was the real poet in the family.

  5. Becca

    Opening. I have to start there, because it all ties together.

    There is a sense that something is rotten in Denmark. Even the moon is frightened, because it has witnessed a great evil.

    This evil was done inside the house, and over time the house had taken on the shape of the “ghost” of that deed.

    The awful deed seems suspended in time. Its memory tolls like a song repeated. (St VI) The house is frozen, open-mouthed, open-eyed. Like the face of a corpse frozen mid-scream. Like the _Tell-Tale Heart_, this whole picture seems to call for remembrance of the injustice.

    MacD says the deed was done “long ago. But yet, it continues “going on in him”. This emphasizes the heavy sense of foreboding that rises after wickedness. Guilt without resolution loops time.

    Distraught, the author calls for the winds to stir and knock the house down. There is an ache to destroy the haunting memory, the guilt. (VII.) Perhaps destruction will quell the suffocating darkness. Perhaps it will kill the unbearable weight of waiting for judgment.

    The Gadarene mountain is a reference, I’m assuming, to the demoniac in Luke 8:30, Mark 5:9, etc. With this, the author laments that even if the house (embodying the ghost of the deed) were physically destroyed, the guilt would remain, wandering like legion. Even a volcano couldn’t kill the guilt.

    The blood in father’s hair makes me feel like the child was born and killed in the house. MacD says the child was murdered or abandoned. (Stanza IX), and I wondered if an illegitimate birth was delivered and ended here. This is possibly supported by a reference to the three fates.

    The fates were supposed to visit on the third night after a child’s birth to determine the course of his/her life, right? (Stanza IX) Atropos was the third of the fates, and she determine the manner and time of death by cutting their life line with a pair of shears.

    I think MacD is using the medieval use of “hyaline”. That word has since been taken over by the medical community, but was used in Revelation to describe the sea of heaven. (This was Milton’s use of that word, I believe as well.) So, there is a cry here for Salvation to leave the purity of heaven and move into this chaos and guilt. A call for Redemption to peirce through the rooms of the house (the soul, the deed) and wash it with mercy and forgiveness.

    Stanza X. I think that this is a reminder that even the existence of a soiled human life is a manifestation of mercy. And there’s a claim that one breath from the Divine could bring cleansing. A prayer that God would grant a guilty soul repentant sorrow. An expression of faith that God is “stronger than anguish, deeper than sin.”

    XI. The narrator wakes from the nightmare where all of this has transpired. It wasn’t real. Or was it?

    There’s something in the phrase “ninefold train”. There is a nightmare in King Lear that is described in a similar fashion: With the invocation of St Withold, SP writes:

    Swithold footed thrice the old (wold, moor),
    He met the night-mare, and her nine fold (foals?),
    Bid her alight,
    And her troth plight,
    And aroint thee, witch, aroint thee!

    I think perhaps this is a reference to medieval theories on why nightmares happen. (There was a belief that a witch turned the sleeper into a horse and “rode him.” So this dreamer has been released from that agony.)

    Safe from the dream, the narrator realizes that God is merciful… He wakes to this comforting truth. (And Love, the all-shining, will kill Despair.) So, he turns the picture’s face back to the wall, refusing condemnation.

    But still, he finds he is haunted. Why is this image so piercing? He answers himself. It haunts him because it stares into his own heart. It is a mirror. He realizes that his nature is dark as well.

    So he turns the picture back out. And invites the moon to stare. This loops back to the opening. The haunting “knowing” of luna is valid.

    I think it’s a recognition of his inability to be righteous. And a recognition that all is hopeless without grace.

    It reminds me of a Milton Vincent thought.

    Likewise, the deeper I go into the gospel, the more I comprehend and confess aloud the depth of my sinfulness. A gruesome death like the one that Christ endured for me would only be required for one who is exceedingly sinful and unable to appease a holy God. Consequently, whenever I consider the necessity and manner of His death, along with the love and selflessness behind it, I am laid bare and utterly exposed (Hebrews 4:13) for the sinner I am.

    Such an awareness of my sinfulness does not drag me down, but actually serves to lift me up by magnifying my appreciation of God’s forgiving grace in my life. And the more I appreciate the magnitude of God’s forgiveness of my sins, the more I love Him and delight to show Him love through heart-felt expressions of worship.

  6. Becca

    I might be off on some of this, though. I didn’t spend as long on it as it deserves, but there’s a cheeky toddler running about… 🙂

  7. Becca

    Forgot these. They may or may not apply.

    – Old Christian lore suggested that the popular was used to construct Christ’s cross. Thereafter, the poplar tree was supposed to quiver in remembrance of the crucifixion. Could this be a foreshadowing of MacD’s ultimate message?

    -The poplar tree also has a rich history in other mythologies as a tree of mourning. Mourning women were supposed to turn into poplar trees. Perhaps this is the meaning he intended. (He seems very intentional with his symbols.)

    -Check out Monet’s poplars on Google. Some of the trees in the background here look awfully close to their form.

    -I think there is a slimy pond in the foreground of this painting. It’s green and there are weeds in front.

  8. Kathy Krueger

    Seems that Becca has given us a full run down of the poem. I didn’t catch all the literature ties (not as well read) but I definitely agree with her summary. It was exactly what I saw as I read.

  9. Becca

    oh no. did i ruin it? oh man. i wish RR had a delete button. i’m so sorry if i goofed it up. maybe the admin can delete for me? promise i don’t mind.

    i was have trouble explaining the weight i felt in the end without the rising burden of setup.

    dang it. i get more mouthy around poetry than liquor. i’m an introvert in real life!!

  10. whipple

    Even still, thanks for the rich background, especially on poplars. I love GM’s depiction of certain trees as evil (Ash? as I recall) and others as good (Beech).

  11. Ashley Elizabeth

    I had the great grace of meeting Jim Towey who was, among other titles, Mother Teresa’s attorney. He shared with me a moment of her life, and this poem summoned that moment from my memories. Going with her when she traveled stateside to visit the homes her order ran in Brooklyn, he watched as the Sisters brought to her a man who had broken almost every rule and surely(!) must be banished from the home. Mother sat with him a while and upon her returning declared that he would stay, despite the Sisters’ adherence to the strict rules of the house. Jim questioned her. He smiled as he told me her response: We all are but one sin away from that man who is settled on the edge of losing everything.

    GMac reminded of this grace. “The Haunted House” is too a reminder. We all are but one sin away from losing it all. The poplar tree shakes in remembrance of sin and so do we. Mother’s story, through Jim, can either call me to the edge and mourn for what I’ve caused; or it can call me to cross remembering “He and his crime:–one breathing blown
    From thy spirit on his would all atone”.

  12. Karisa

    Good poetry gives me shivers, and this poem more than most. Masterfully crafted.

    Becca. My goodness, who ARE you? Your grasp of literature and poetic device is extraordinary—even when a cheeky toddler is on the loose. Also, your mention of Milton Vincent caught me by (pleasant) surprise. His preaching and his book are not widely known, but they have helped me “breathe deeply of the atmosphere of the gospel” like I have never done before.

  13. Becca

    Karisa, thanks. I have felt terrible all day for exploding all over this post, so your kindness will help me sleep better tonight.

    I was a lit major in undergrad. ‘Currently getting a MA in Storytelling, but not with a performance emphasis. (I hate people looking at me.) I’m in the program to learn specifically about how orality has impacted literature (Walter Ong’s book _Orality and Literacy_ is a good starting place, if you are interested in that topic.)

    Sixteen years ago, I decided to pursue ministry instead of a career in literary criticism. It was one of the hardest choices I’ve ever made. I’m glad I made it, but time hasn’t helped me conquer the word disease. It just simmers and bubbles back up every time I press it down.

    It’s hard to find an outlet for such conversations in evangelical world. My friends and I used to spend hours and hours having talks like this, splashing in words, admiring nuances, digging up etymology, trying to crack open time-blurred meanings, swapping theories, drinking too much coffee in all-night truck stops, sleeping through chemistry the next day. Bliss.

    But no one in my world does that now. So it all just simmers and burns up stolen hours. I think that’s why I just exploded when I saw the topic. Woosh! Geyser! So embarrassing!

    Anyway, that’s the story. Now that I know the temptation, it will be easier to avoid next time. Thanks for not kicking me out of the ring. 🙂

    And yes on Milton Vincent. His writing is not known yet, but I think it will be soon. Don’t you?

  14. JenniferT

    Becca, I hope you and I get to meet in person someday. We have similar stories. I too was once on the academic track (studying George MacDonald, in fact!) and left, but have a hard time finding literary cohorts outside of that world….especially poetry lovers. Some days I’m reading Eliot or Yeats or Herbert and want to turn to someone and say, “Dang, wasn’t that a great line!!” If you’re ever in Nashville, let’s have coffee and you can explode all you want. 🙂

  15. Profile photo of Stephen Lamb

    Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Becca, I am fascinated by the topic of “how orality has impacted literature,” and, moving on from there, my primary of interest, why we believe what we believe about religion, etc. A friend just introduced me to Walter Ong’s “Orality and Literacy” a couple weeks ago, and to tide me over until I have time to read it, I’ve been listening to the lectures archived in the Walter J. Ong Collection. If you’ve written anything on this, please post some links.

  16. Becca

    JenniferT, I would love to meet you! And thanks for telling me about your story. (I keep dreaming about a place online to discuss books/poems on the Hutchmoot list. ‘Just an online folder arranged by book/poem title where permanent discussions can hover waiting and growing. Do you know of anything like this?)

    Stephen, I’m not advanced enough to recommend my own writing. However, maybe you would enjoy some of these resources? These should come after Ong’s book, since his is the best starting place I’ve found so far.

    1.) Deborah Tannen’s _Talking Voices: Repetition, Dialogue, and Imagery in Conversational Dialogue

    2.) Richard Bauman’s _Story, Performance, and Event: Contextual Stories of Oral Narrative_

    3.) Joseph Campbell’s _Hero with a Thousand Faces_. This is a classic, so I feel inclined to mention it. However, I’m personally not a fan. Campbell’s methods of interpretation are sophomoric. He is a bad “listener” and seems far more intent on eisegesis than exegesis. (He presses his own ideas and forms onto stories with almost no regard for their inherent message.) Still, his story cycle is worth knowing. And, understanding his strong Jungian influence is helpful for unpacking several aspects of our culture. (Jung promotes some wacky, awful ideas as well. So, heads up on that.) Privately, I have wondered if Campbell’s story cycle is responsible for producing the non-creative swarm of nearly identical plots in many movies/books written since. Anyway, Campbell moves back and forth between oral/literate stories. So, it might be of use somehow.

    4.) Do you know Jay O’Callahan? He might be my favorite living storyteller. He comes from a highly-literate background, so the balance of oral and literate traits within the stories he crafts is very high. Masterful. Enchanting. I think of him as the “Wendell Berry” of storytelling. And I think of Wendell Berry as the Jay O’Callahan of written craft. Both sides to a coin, I think.

  17. Becca

    P.S. Stephen. I haven’t read this one yet, so I can’t recommend it. But it’s next on my list to explore.

    http://www.amazon.com/Muse-Learns-Write-Reflections-Antiquity/dp/0300043821/ref=pd_sim_b_1

    The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present

    Particularly, I think it would be fascinating to explore how orality/literacy affected linear, Western logic. (I don’t know if Havelock addresses this or not.) If you know good resources on that topic, please share.

    Over the past few years, I’ve been doing some reading about Hebrew block logic. Though Marvin Wilson has some troublesome doctrinal issues, I think his general idea is intriguing. And, I’m super-interested in finding out how orality/literacy/linear logic might have affected polemic methods commonly used to wield Scripture in modern culture. Do we need to unearth and address soul gaps left ravenous as a result? Has the pride of self-sufficient exploration created blind spots in the church?

    This whole topic is equally fascinating and frightening to me. Thinkers have fallen into the caves of mysticism trying to follow these tracks. Logic and reason are obviously gifts of God, so I don’t want to throw them out. But I fear sometimes we’ve tried using them as bridle and bit for the Divine. How do we pull our toes away from that edge enough to respect the smallness we are and the bigness He is? I don’t know yet.

    John Donne said,

    ETERNAL God—for whom who ever dare
    Seek new expressions, do the circle square,
    And thrust into straight corners of poor wit
    Thee, who art cornerless and infinite—
    I would but bless Thy name, not name Thee now
    —And Thy gifts are as infinite as Thou—

  18. JenniferT

    Becca, in answer to your question, many such discussions happen on this blog. These Rabbit Roomers are wonderful word-lovin’ book lovin’ folks. See you at next year’s Hutchmoot!

  19. Alan

    I don’t know much about literature (I blame my engineering degree for that), but I do know there was a “haunted house” in the woods close to my home growing up. That decrepit mansion fit the description of the HH in MacDonald’s haunted house to a “t”. And the metaphysical characteristics he gives this house make me shiver. If I had read this poem as a child (and understood the words) I would have been both terrified and intrigued. Currently that haunted mansion’s ghost “O’er mountain and coast, [has gone] roaming, roaming…” because they tore it and its poplars down to build a new subdivision. So is life. If only the folks living in that subdivision knew what used to be there…

  20. Katy Bowser

    I’ve loved this whole thread, as well as digging into a good, dark poem on this cold fall day. Thanks so much Becca and everyone else- I feel like I just popped in and audited a little class poetry class.

    On an aside, one of our cherished Nashville storytellers is a woman named Minton Sparks. She has a website, http://www.mintonsparks.com, and you can watch her perform a good bit on You Tube- here’s a favorite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxwxYAf96uY

    Y’all keep at it- I’m learning things!

  21. Dan R.

    Agreed, Dieta!
    I must admit, through the first 3-ish stanzas I was thinking,
    ‘ooh, I know what’s coming: it’s The Reckoning isn’t it! With the humming and drumming and trees bending and everything!’
    he he he, you know you listen to too much Andrew Peterson when… 🙂

  22. Thistlefur

    “Thinkers have fallen into the caves of mysticism trying to follow these tracks. Logic and reason are obviously gifts of God, so I don’t want to throw them out. But I fear sometimes we’ve tried using them as bridle and bit for the Divine.”

    Bridle and bit for the Divine…what a fantastic illustration…are you sure you’re not a songwriter, too? ;

  23. Nicole M

    Becca, you are amazing. I would like to shake your hand. I have always said that in my next life (I’m a nurse right now) I’m going to be an English major so I can really delve into the meaning of literature and actually discuss a poem the way you did.

    AP, thank you so much for posting this. Every time I read a Rabbit Room post, I get a little ache in my belly and a sad catch at my heart because of the dangerous beauty of the things posted here. This poem gave me bellyaches and heartcatches in spades. Wonderful.

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