Few things appear more hopeless than an abandoned house. Lonely and forgotten, the dwelling stands as a reminder of a forgotten past. Who once lived there? Why did they leave? What secrets did they leave behind? The house stands as a testament to these unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions, quietly crumbling into dust. It is just such a forgotten home that Frost describes in “Ghost House” (1906): “I dwell in a lonely house I know / That vanished many a summer ago, / And left no trace but the cellar walls, / And a cellar in which the daylight falls, / And the purple-stemmed wild raspberries grow.”
This house, despite its dilapidation, offers a secure refuge for Frost. Instead of leaving the abandoned house to its quiet rest, he has chosen to make it his home. Living in this strange abode, he seems unexpectedly content, although not entirely happy: “I dwell with a strangely aching heart / In that vanished abode there far apart.”
What possible benefits can Frost see to living in such a house? The answer lies in a sense of history: Perhaps the abandoned past of the ghost house has not entirely vanished. Human vitality and hope may yet linger where all appears simply to be dead, moldering into dust.
Back home in Maine, I have always been drawn to one such decaying reminder of my town’s past. On my neighbor’s property, which in the early 20th century formed the heart of a large farm encompassing most of the town, the farmer only had one hired man to help him. This handyman lived in a small one-room shack at the edge of the forest from 1927 until his departure in 1942. For 15 years, the handyman lived here, spending his days in rough farm work and his nights alone in his cabin, known today as “the handyman’s house.” Today, a visitor to his abandoned home can still see the petrified milk and empty beer cans he left behind when he moved out. From the outside, the house appears worthless — just an abandoned shack, with broken shingles and rotten walls. But inside, the remnants of the handyman’s life remain, a reminder of a type of rural life dying out in the 21st century.
Frost too envisions his ghost house as playing host to the ghosts of the past. These ghosts inhabit the old family burial ground adjacent to the poem’s ghost house: “I know not who these mute folk are / Who share the unlit place with me– / Those stones out under the low-limbed tree / Doubtless bear names that the mosses mar.”
This image of forgotten gravestones sticks in my mind; it is sobering to think on the forgotten people buried there. It is the memory of these men and women that provides Frost’s image of forgotten ghosts, dwelling forever in their abandoned homes. But it is not the job of the dead to keep their memory alive: That is the burden of the living. And so Frost’s narrator chooses to dwell in his ghost house, keeping company with the memory of the dead.
In a similar vein, I have visited the handyman’s house many times, reflecting on the memory of the long-dead farmworker who once dwelt there. By keeping the past alive, the ghostly inhabitants of the past are not forgotten. Their once vivid lives remain alive today in our minds. It is thus that Frost ends by describing a love affair between two deceased inhabitants of the ghost house, for only through the narration of his poem has their love survived death: “Though two, close-keeping, are lass and lad, — / With none among them that ever sings, / And yet, in view of how many things, / As sweet companions as might be had.”