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03 September 2012

The only Ghost I ever saw

The only Ghost I ever saw
Was dressed in Mechlin—so—
He wore no sandal on his foot—
And stepped like flakes of snow—
His mien, was soundless, like the Bird—
But rapid—like the Roe—
His fashions, quaint, Mosaic—
Or haply, Mistletoe—

His conversation—seldom—
His laughter, like the Breeze—
That dies away in Dimples
Among the pensive Trees—

Our interview—was transient—
Of me, himself was shy—
And God forbid I look behind—
Since that appalling Day!
                                                            F331 (1862)  274

There’s a lot of mystery in this poem’s story. Dickinson recounts her encounter with a ghost who was dressed in lace ruffles but no shoes. His fashion was “Mosaic”—a “quaint” assemblage of styles and fabrics. He might even be wearing mistletoe! Alas, he had little to say and the experience was somehow “appalling.”
Here, Captain Blood wears
Mechlin lace at throat and
as ruffles at his wrists
            The mystery, to me, lies in what about the encounter—other than seeing a very real-seeming ghost—was so disturbing. Her description is of a quite enchanting and non-threatening ghost. He was quiet, stepping in his bare feet as softly as “flakes of snow.” He laughed, although, ghostlike, the sound died away “in Dimples.” And he was “shy” with her, as befits a proper ghost. Nor did the “interview” last long, for she admits it was “transient.” I can only conclude that she was being a bit tongue-in-cheek when she refers to the “appalling Day.”
            The poem begins in a ballad form, like so many of Dickinson’s poems: iambic tetrameter alternating with iambic trimeter. But after the sixth line she uses the trimeter exclusively—a meter typically associated with a more lighthearted verse. She’s telling a ghost story and so relishes the details and ends with a note of faux horror. The audience is to understand that it was all-in-all an experience to be relished rather than suppressed because of its fearsomeness. One wonders, however, whom the gentleman might be. An old landholder from the previous century, perhaps, or maybe some lord from Europe who met an unfortunate end in New England?
            I find the rhyme scheme somewhat lacking. The first, long, stanza is sprinkled with “oh” sounds: so, snow, Roe, Mistletoe; the second has “Breeze” coupled with “Trees.” But the last quatrain has the slant rhyme of “shy” with “Day”—and the effect is to bring the poem to an almost screeching stop. It just doesn’t fit with the quietness of his step and mien and the “pensive Trees”—all lovely and quirky.


  1. I agree that ending with "appalling" doesn't at all fit the merry tone of the poem. It confuses me and I don't believe she actually felt that way during the "interview" or, in her recounting in this poem, she is unable to express in the body of the poem how she actually felt besides this ambivalence.

  2. If she's appalled at anything, it might be that her visitor was so shy "of me." Perhaps if she turned to look behind as he left he'd be further put off. The dimples, it seems, literally refer to the impressions a breeze makes as it gently passes through some trees, only to, like the ghostly visitor, die away, leaving the speaker alone again.

    Great blog. Keep it coming. Emily would approve of these anonymous (dare I say ghostly?) communications.

  3. I think that perhaps ED is describing getting caught outdoors in a brief storm of precipitation that was neither snow nor rain nor hail nor anything for which we have a meteorological term, but she describes many aspects of it here, including an eerie feeling that there was a spirit stirring up this storm.

  4. Well, commenters, I just did what I should have done when writing about this poem: checked the Emily Dickinson Lexicon. The third meaning listed (drawn from the Webster's of Dickinson's day) is as follows -- and all becomes clear!: "Amaze; astonish; daze; enlighten; cause one to feel weak with joy; [word play on “pall”] wane; fade; turn white; become pale; decline; dwindle; retreat while beckoning; move away slowly."

  5. I love your blog & share your passion for ED. "The Only Ghost"is one of her poems that's mystified me. We're thrown off by "mistletoe" "laughter" "dimples," "shy." She's not using "shy" in "human" sense but rather indicating that actual ghost sighting rare & fleeting."Wore no sandal" although it's cold & snowing is creepy & indicates that the ghost is real-from another world, impervious. Ghosts rarely show themselves & don't stick around to chat. A ghost's laughter quite likely would be quite chilling. In first stanza there's a lot of white--snow, lace, and, I submit, mistletoe! "American or Eastern mistletoe has large groups of waxy white berries and broad dark-green evergreen leaves." Like typical "real" ghost, hers is white. Even transient meeting with actual ghost would be "appalling" in retrospect, at least for me--a never to be forgotten experience; an existential moment that creates a permanent, fresh perspective on reality.

  6. Terrific discussion, especially about the funny tone of the poem. I think you’re right to look at the definition of appal here.

    I don’t know whether to read the ghost as literal or not (my instinct with Dickinson is not to, but the poem resists it for me). One thing I might add is that mistletoe, according to the Lexicon, is associated with the druids. So the ghost (whoever or whatever he is) is ancient, perhaps even pagan.

    It strikes me too that the references to white in the poem (mechlin, snow, appal, ghost) seem relevant to Dickinson, who doesn’t seem to use color imagery indiscriminately, though I can say exactly what it means, except that she’s simply having fun. Always a possibility.

    Anyway, great blog. I just discovered it, and it’s quite impressive! Please keep it up!

    1. I haven't revisited this poem in quite a while. After re-reading it -- and my notes about what 'appall' would have meant, I think the final stanza is also written in a droll tone. She's making light of being afraid: the dread ghost was a rather pleasant surprise.

  7. Could it be that the ghost was not a ghost at all, but rather an insect? The tone is one of irony, this was not a frightening experience in the least! Its tongue-in-the-cheek (or in the dimple) attitude makes it fun to read. It is amazing how often Dickinson had a bit of fun while writing (juxtaposed with moments of horror).

    Thank you for this wonderful blog. I am currently in the midst of a similar project, translating ALL of Dickinson into Polish, and your interpretations often clarify an issue here and there in her poems that might have stopped me in my tracks. This particular poem is number 1437 in my catalogue, just finished. 352 to go.

  8. Love the wordplay -even a pun - in “appalling” , as the ghost would certainly be familiar w burial pall - the white of burial wrappings!

    1. That's what led me to believe that the Ghost is in fact Death! It could be one of her many positive personifications of this force.

    2. That makes real sense and leads me to like this poem a lot more. Thanks!

  9. I am curious about the exclamation point at the end. My understanding is that ED eschewed punctuation yet there is a clear exclamation at the end. Does this exclamation change our reading of “appalling Day”?

    1. I can't remember off the top of my head any other exclamation points although I'm sure there are a few. Rare, though. I think it adds to the 'fun' an earlier commenter referred to (Jackson). It's a bit of light melodrama, perhaps.