Margaret, are you grieving Over Goldengrove unleaving? Leaves, like the things of man, you With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? Ah! as the heart grows older It will come to such sights colder By and by, nor spare a sigh Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; And yet you wíll weep and know why. Now no matter, child, the name: Sorrow’s springs are the same. Nor mouth had, nor mind, expressed What heart heard of, ghost guessed It is the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for.
I recently watched a Zoom presentation of 19th century mourning customs. Since I was an English teacher for a good part of my former life, I suppose it is not surprising that I began to think about how death and mourning are presented in literature.
The first thing that came to my mind was Hamlet’s musing on the skull of Yorick, perhaps the most often quoted passage from Shakespeare’s works. I had the great privilege of teaching Hamlet to high school seniors for many years—five classes a day. I read the play out loud, explained the unfamiliar language and discussed the play with my students. Before I retired I practically had the play memorized—all parts. But it never got old because Hamlet is one of the great works of English literature, maybe as Kenneth Brannagh has suggested, the greatest work of art across all disciplines.
Setting the Scene
Act I, Scene v–Hamlet and his friend Horatio are walking through the cemetery when they come upon a gravedigger busy digging a fresh grave. They engage in idle conversation. Hamlet asks how long a corpse will last before it rots. The gravedigger nonchalantly holds up a skull he has recently unearthed. “Here’s a skull now. This skull has lain in the earth three and twenty years.” Hamlet asks whose it was. “This sir was Yorick’s skull, the King’s jester.”
The mood suddenly becomes serious as Hamlet reaches for the skull and holds it in his hands.
Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio; a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your jibes now? Your
gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chap-fallen.
Now get thee to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let
Her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come; make her laugh at that. Prithee, Horatio, tell
me one thing.
HORATIO: What’s that, my lord?
HAMLET: Dost thou think Alexander look o’ this fashion
In the earth?
HORATIO; E’n so.
HAMLET: And smelt so? Pah!
HORATIO; E’en so, my lord.
HAMLET: To what base uses we may return, Horatio!
Do high school seniors still study Hamlet?
Probably not. Too many triggers. But come to think of it, isn’t all great literature saturated with triggers that encourage us to think deeply about the disturbing aspects of life—like the inevitability of death?
Which raises the question: What is the purpose of education?
Andre Tchaikowsky, brilliant composer and pianist (not to be confused with the famous Russian symphonic composer) died in 1982, having bequeathed his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company. The video above featuring David Tennant in the title role of the RSC production probably features Andre Tchaikowsky (his skull, that is) in the role of Yorick.
The Merchant’s House Museum, where I worked for almost 20 years, has a reputation for being the most haunted house in New York City. There are several things about this historic house museum that distinguish it from other historic houses that encourage the ghosts to make their presence known.
First of all, only one family lived there for almost 100 years. The baby born in the house in 1840 died in an upstairs bedroom in 1933. Thus there is no confusion caused by a lot of unrelated departed individuals vying for attention.
And this is key—the house is still furnished with their furniture and decorative objects. Their personal possessions are still there, including their clothing. Even the textiles—the draperies, the upholstery, the carpet, are exact reproductions of what was there at mid nineteenth century.
And sometimes strange things happen
Visitors and staff have over the years reported inexplicable events. Apparitions in 19th century costume and hair styles appear suddenly. Objects are moved from their accustomed places without the intervention of a living person. Footsteps are heard on the stairs by an office worker working late, although no one else is in the house.
However, I am a ghost skeptic.
I am not too vocal about my misgivings because I realize that many people find it entertaining and exciting to think that the house is haunted and I don’t want to spoil the fun. It’s not that I don’t believe these strange events have happened; I just believe there is an alternative explanation.
When visitors ask if there are ghosts
My standard reply when I used to give tours was “Of course, that is the whole point.” The Merchant’s House offers guided tours, but visitors are also free to explore the house on their own for as long as they like with a self-guided tour book. It is then, in my opinion, that the real ghosts are likely to emerge. They are not scary; they are not even particularly mysterious. But if you just stand quietly and stare at their things, you will feel their presence beside you.
Here is the coal grate they stood before to warm themselves.
Here are the chairs they sat in.
Here is the table they sat around.
And as you climb the very stairway they climbed to make their way to bed, with your hand touching the stair rail their hands touched, one of them leads the way.
Here are the beds where they rested—and sometimes died.
Here is the window they looked out of.
Here are the mirrors that reflected their faces.
Of course you can never completely pierce the veil, but you will never come closer to knowing what life was like in the nineteenth century than you do at the Merchant’s House, and that is because, as they say, it is the most haunted house in New York City.
Unfortunately, this year because of COVID-19. the Merchant’s House has had to cancel their in-person ghost events and the popular candlelit ghost tours. But if you like to ruminate about ghostly happenings, go here and you will find several virtual events you might be interested in, including a summary of the paranormal studies of the House that are now taking place.
Construction on the 16-story apartment building has come to a halt. An occasional car passes by, and a few people are out walking their dogs, but nobody is running downhill to catch the commuter train to New York City. Nothing seems to be happening, yet this morning when I raised the shade, I witnessed a miracle in progress! Tiny leaves are making their appearance on the oak tree outside my window, and the tree is wearing a light green halo.
It reminded me of a poem Herb wrote that will appear in a forthcoming volume of poetry—Poems and Prayers—now in the hands of the book designer.
How strange that we applaud a fake
as he unspools a ribbon from his ear
or pulls a rabbit from his hat
But yawn next morning when we wake
and see a universe appear
from nothing, just like that!
I hadn’t intended to be back at the blog so soon, but wanted to share this thought. The certainty of the return of spring and the summer to come is surely a comfort in what, to say the least, is a most uncertain time.
I’m working on understanding the Victorian woman, trying to get inside her head. More on this subject to come.
I began writing Hints and Echoes on April 29, 2012. For almost eight years, I’ve held forth here on whatever happened to attract my attention and interest: automatic cars, cursive handwriting, robots, you name it.
Now, however, what is attracting my attention and interest— and time—are subjects that require more intensive study and research than is involved in writing a 500-700 word post.
Chief among these subjects is a book I am collaborating on. Herb is the author, but some of my journal entries figure prominently in it and so I need to be seriously involved in the process of editing. It is a memoir, tentatively titled Mary, Me, and History, which traces the progress of our own long lives as they are interwoven with the history of the nation.
And that’s not all—
Also as many of you know, for 20 years I devoted many volunteer hours to a historic house museum in New York City, where I eventually became the Museum historian and wrote a book about what domestic life was like for the occupants of that Museum during the middle years of the 19th century.
There were six daughters in the family. Four of them never married and continued to live in the house until the last one died almost 100 years after she had been born in the upstairs bedroom. For years I walked among their ghosts and wondered what life was really like for them.
My interest in the Victorian woman in general has continued since those days and I have become convinced that there is more to the story about the Victorian woman in general than we are accustomed to hearing.
Maybe, God willing, I will write something profound about that subject.
But in the meantime, since there are only 24 hours in the day and we must eat and sleep, although I think it would be great if we didn’t need to do either, I find that something must give.
I may check in from time to time to write about our progress on Herb’s book and what I’m thinking about the Victorian woman.
It says here 137 people follow hintsandechoes and get the posts in their email. I want to thank all of you for your interest and for listening!