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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, October 28, 2007

Reason lives in a haunted house. That knowledge underlies the scary imagery of Halloween: stormy nights, with the chimney shuddering in the wind; unexplained footsteps in a dark hallway or on the stairs; a forbidden locked door burst open; corpses come to life; ghostly shrieks; baleful phantoms. Deploying those images, Robert Bridges (1844-1930), England's poet laureate during World War I, compares inner and outer weather: As reduced air pressure releases the tremendous, sometimes destructive energy of a storm, so, too, can the reduced pressures of custom or inhibition release tremendous, sometimes destructive human terrors, guilts and impulses:

LOW BAROMETER

The south-wind strengthens to a gale,

Across the moon the clouds fly fast,

The house is smitten as with a flail,

The chimney shudders to the blast.

On such a night, when Air has loosed

Its guardian grasp on blood and brain,

Old terrors then of god or ghost

Creep from their caves to life again;

And Reason kens he herits in

A haunted house. Tenants unknown

Assert their squalid lease of sin

With earlier title than his own.

Unbodied presences, the pack'd

Pollution and remorse of Time,

Slipp'd from oblivion reenact

The horrors of unhouseld crime.

Some men would quell the thing with prayer

Whose sightless footsteps pad the floor,

Whose fearful trespass mounts the stair

Or bursts the lock'd forbidden door.

Some have seen corpses long interr'd

Escape from hallowing control,

Pale charnel forms -- nay ev'n have heard

The shrilling of a troubled soul,

That wanders till the dawn hath cross'd

The dolorous dark, or Earth hath wound

Closer her storm-spredd cloak, and thrust

The baleful phantoms underground.

Even archaic language like "kens" and "unhouseld" contributes to the atmosphere of troubling, half-suppressed unconscious forces. (Bridges was born 12 years before Sigmund Freud.) This poem converts fairly conventional Halloween-show images of fearfulness into a portrait of what may be the most frightening spectacle of all: ourselves. ¿

(Robert Bridges's poem "Low Barometer" can be found in the book "Poetry and Prose." Clarendon. Copyright 1955.)

Robert Pinsky's new book of poetry is "Gulf Music."

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