To whom does the "we" in the fifth stanza of this poem refer? Is it the ghosts who haunt houses, or the humans who live in the haunted houses?

Haunted Houses

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.

We meet them at the door-way, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.

There are more guests at table than the hosts
Invited; the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts,
As silent as the pictures on the wall.

The stranger at my fireside cannot see
The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear;
He but perceives what is; while unto me
All that has been is visible and clear.

We have no title-deeds to house or lands;
Owners and occupants of earlier dates
From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands,
And hold in mortmain still their old estates.

The spirit-world around this world of sense
Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere
Wafts through these earthly mists and vapours dense
A vital breath of more ethereal air.

Our little lives are kept in equipoise
By opposite attractions and desires;
The struggle of the instinct that enjoys,
And the more noble instinct that aspires.

These perturbations, this perpetual jar
Of earthly wants and aspirations high,
Come from the influence of an unseen star
An undiscovered planet in our sky.

And as the moon from some dark gate of cloud
Throws o’er the sea a floating bridge of light,
Across whose trembling planks our fancies crowd
Into the realm of mystery and night,—

So from the world of spirits there descends
A bridge of light, connecting it with this,
O'er whose unsteady floor, that sways and bends,
Wander our thoughts above the dark abyss.

First possibility: The speaker here asserts that we humans do not have any permanent legal documents to our houses or lands, as the deed owners from their forgotten graves spread their dirty hands to put a claim on the inalienable possession of the property visited by them. In other words ghosts do not leave their ownership of the place they once owned, while alive.

Second possibility: The speaker adopts the point of view of the ghosts, stating we are spirits roaming around and have no title-deeds on our names. Even though their bodies hold in their dusty hands, the mortmain of the old estates, they do not have any rights on these properties as they are now owned by humans who are alive and staying in that house.

Help me decide which possibility is correct.

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2 Answers 2


Annie Niharika's answer or clarification to her own question suggests two explanations for the lines in question and asks which of the two is correct.

I ask why assume that Longfellow only intended one of the two possible meanings you can think of?

It seems possible to men that maybe Longfellow could have intended both of your possible meanings.

Maybe his meaning is that when living people live in a house they share ownership with all the dead persons who live there before them. Thus each of the dead former owners and occupants has a small share of the ownership, and the living person only has a smaller share of the ownership because of the claims of all the ghosts.

And then when a living owner and occupant dies, they become one of the ghosts sharing the ghostly ownership of the house, and a new living person becomes the living owner. Thus the ghostly ownership is diluted even more by one more ghostly owner, and the living owner has one more rival to their ownership due to having one more ghostly owner.

Thus over time the ownership becomes shared with the living by an ever increasing horde of ghosts.


The next lines make it clear

Owners and occupants of earlier dates From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands, And hold in mortmain still their old estates.

Mortmain is the perpetual, inalienable ownership of real estate by a corporation or legal institution. The prior owners, the ghosts, still, in reality, own the place they haunt, and therefore are the ones to have title to it. (It also means "dead hand" which may be another influence in choosing it.)


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