“Spirits of the Dead” by Edgar Allan Poe



This is a poem that Poe wrote in his youth. Although he was young when he wrote it (the poem was composed in 1827, which means he would have been 18 at the time), it still demonstrates his maturity as a poet.

Thy soul shall find itself alone
‘Mid dark thoughts of the grey 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, though clear, shall frown,
And the stars shall not look 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 fever
Which 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
Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token.
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!

Immediately, in the first stanza, we find ourselves alone in a cemetery. I see two interpretations for the soul mentioned here. Obviously, it could be taken literally as the spirit of one recently deceased, in that transitional period between worlds, awaiting the moment when the soul will pierce the veil and enter the next realm. But the phrase “dark thoughts” also implies that the soul is symbolic of a person’s psyche, one who is obsessed with his own mortality or the death of someone close.

In the second stanza, we see the spirits of the dead joining the lonely soul. This also has two interpretations, each associated with how you choose to interpret the soul. When taken literally, the soul of the newly departed is greeted by the spirits of those who have previously died. It appears that the spirits will serve as guides, ushering the soul to the next dimension. The second possibility, of the soul as psyche, implies that in his quiet hour, his mind is filled with memories of friends and family who have died and that those memories will overshadow his sanity.

The third stanza I find very interesting. Hope is described as something terrible, the cause of an eternal “burning and a fever.” Hope is one of those double-edged swords. While a life filled with hopelessness is certainly not desirable, we must concede that hope is also the reason people cling to their sorrows, in the hope that they may see their loved ones again in the afterlife. Hope also makes people sacrifice their happiness in this life, all because of the hope that there may be some reward in the next life. But of course, none of this is guaranteed.

In the fourth stanza, we see thoughts and visions that will never leave. For the literal soul of the departed, it has become pure consciousness. Nothing remains but thoughts and visions of the past life. For the soul as psyche, it is the mind giving way to madness and despair, unable to free itself from painful memories.

In the final stanza, the mist is presented as a symbol for the veil between life and death, that which separates us from the ultimate mystery. But the mist is also a symbol for the veil between the two realms of consciousness: waking consciousness and the subconscious. In the shadowy realm of the subconscious lie our hidden memories, which bubble to the surface as symbols in our dreams and fantasies. As hard as we try to explore our subconscious minds, we can never know all that exists in that part of the psyche.


Filed under Literature

14 responses to ““Spirits of the Dead” by Edgar Allan Poe

  1. Love, this post Jeff! Amazing insights in a good poem. The way that you layer the distinctions between the concrete aspect of being with the dead and also what the dead mean to psyche, or soul, has become important to me along the way. There is a sort of rumination that occurs when one thinks of the dead, imagining their lives, their struggles, pains, loves and losses.

    I have always enjoyed walking in cemeteries and feeling as if I were, even in a small way, among the ancestors.

    Great stuff!

    • Hi Debra! Glad you enjoyed the post. I too feel a strange attraction to cemeteries. One of my most vivid memories of New Orleans was visiting Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District.

  2. Magnificent poem, especially the last stanza sounded very powerful to me. Mist and fog – my favourite types of weather.

    • The weather has been getting cooler here in the mountains, so there has been a lot of fog and mist in the mornings when I go for a run. The best way to describe the feeling of running in the mist is exhilarating. I love it!

  3. Chad

    I was wondering if the word “pry” in the first stanza is supposed to be pronounced like “pree” so as to rhyme with secrecy in the following line. I have heard it done that way on some audio versions – it is strange sounding as every other part rhymes except for that one part.

    Any thoughts on if it’s to be pronounced like “prii” vs “pree” ?

    • Hi Chad. Great question, and I don’t know the answer to it. I suppose it’s possible that secrecy is pronounced “secrec-ii”, but I’m just throwing that out there. I guess at the end of the day, like all art, there is room for interpretation and someone reading this poem, like a Shakespearean actor, can add their own personal nuance to it.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and have a great day!

      • Its a technique called slant rhyme. Its famously used by Emily Dickinson. Theres a poem call. Can be trivial, can be massively important, its your job as a reader to find out. Loving the open conversations about poems you promote 😉

      • Hi Nathan. Thanks for sharing the info regarding the rhyming scheme. Definitely good stuff to know. Cheers!

  4. Ali

    Thanks for this. It’s been a great help for my English oral.

  5. well, maybe its because i just attended the funeral, wake and life celebration of a (Catholic) dear friend, i found this a comforting poem. all that jumble of sensations seem right and good and a crucial part of the journey we can only share in part with others.
    what a gifted voice at just 18!

    p.s. just spent 10 days in hillsborough – wow, like a little mayberry! 😉 wanted to get to asheville, too, to see how that place ‘felt’ but i guess that will be next time around.

    • Condolences on the loss of your friend. Glad that the poem offered some solace. As far as Asheville goes, it will be here when the time is right to visit. Best wishes — Jeff