The Changing Light at Sandover by James Merrill
Poets and Poetry – 20th Century – Epics
Vast in both size and scope, Merrill’s epic poem is heavily influenced by his decades-long use of an ouija board to communicate with voices from the beyond. At once humorous, and unsettling, the poem shifts from past to present and dark to light, all the while casting long shadows of the dearly departed. Yet even in this shaded realm, Merrill’s images gleam like fine-cut jewels: “The room/Grown dim, an unknown curtain in the panes’/Glass night tawnily maned, lit from below/So that hair-wisps of brightness quickened…”
The Vinland Sagas
13th Century – Epics
Tucked inside these thirteenth century tales of Viking exploration is the strange story of Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, perhaps the first European woman to set foot in North America. Gudrid, born in Iceland circa 985 AD, helped to lead a Norse expedition to Newfoundland. One night, Gudrid is visited by a ghostly vision of a woman who looks exactly like herself– the the shade even calls herself Gudrid. Entranced by her spectral doppelgänger, the living Gudrid welcomes the stranger into her dwelling. The brief visit ends abruptly when the ghostly presence vanishes with a deafening clatter, leaving Gudrid astonished. Contemporary scholars posit that this encounter serves as an allegory for the coming colonization of the Americas and the erasure of the female explorer from our popular understanding of the “discovery” of the Americas.
“Porphyria’s Lover” by Robert Browning
Poets and Poetry – Dramatic Monologue – 19th Century
While not exactly a ghost poem, Browning’s dramatic monologue haunting and deliciously macabre. The poem begins as the narrator describes how his lover, Porphyria, comes to him during a raging storm. Defying the wishes of her family, she gives herself to him, almost willing him to take her life so he can forever possess her body. The speaker knows what he must do in order to preserve their forbidden love- he gathers her abundant hair “in one long yellow string” and winds it “three times her little throat around.” Once Porphyria is no longer breathing, her lover can truly own and use her.