Spirits of the Dead Summary by Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is an American author and poet belonging to the Romantic era. However, his most common theme of choice is horror, unlike other Romantics perhaps. His depiction of nature makes use of fear-inducing imagery, and his poems are often mysterious and ambiguous in their meanings. ‘Spirits of the Dead’ is no exception.

The poem itself is divided into five stanzas, and numbered I to V using Roman numerals by Poe himself. The length of the stanzas varies between that of four lines, and that of eight lines. The speaker of the poem is the restless soul of someone who has died, but whose soul has not crossed over to the afterlife yet. Hence, the soul is in a position to engage in a dialogue with mortal men.

The first stanza consists of four lines. In this stanza, the speaker says that the soul of a dead man is always in solitude on the gray tombstone where the corresponding corpse has been buried, and thus it broods on “dark” thoughts. “Dark” here signifies both the absence of daylight (as the souls of the dead never make themselves visible during the day), and gloominess (as that is the characteristic feature of the thoughts that restless souls have.

The second stanza consists of six lines. In this stanza, the speaker elaborates on the nature of the solitude experienced by the souls of the dead. He says that it is not loneliness that is felt by the souls. They are not lonely, for they are in the company of the ones they had known in life, but whom death had taken away before their time. Moreover, it is these souls of our old loved ones that control us in death,

The third stanza consists of eight lines. In this stanza, the speaker says that the calm night and the shining stars will mean very different things in death than what they had meant in life. Whereas stars provide a sense of hope to mortals, they only create a burning desire to cling on to life in the souls of the dead. They do not soothe, but rather inflame passions in the dead. That is why, Poe provides a contrast between the red that stars seem to take on in the eyes of the dead, and the ethereal light that appears to be characteristic of them to the living.

The fourth stanza consists of four lines. In this stanza, the speaker explains the torment of dead souls as the thoughts that plagued them in life, and the visions they thought they would escape from in death continue to persist in their minds, and cannot be exorcised at any cost. Those thoughts and visions cannot pass out of the dead souls, unlike dewdrops on blades of grass that disappear with the light of day.

The fifth and final stanza consists of six lines. In this stanza, the speaker says that the hillside of the graveyard, in which the corpses belonging to the dead souls are buried, is devoid of any breeze (which Poe compares to the “breath of God”). However, a steady line of mist is visible amongst the trees there, and this mist is a “symbol” and a “token” of death, which is a mystery to all except the dead souls who continue to roam the earth in search of some kind of closure.

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