Between the Dark and the Daylight.
Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
That is known as the Children’s Hour.
I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.
From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.
A whisper, and then a silence:
Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
To take me by surprise.
A sudden rush from the stairway,
A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
They enter my castle wall!
They climb up into my turret
O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
They seem to be everywhere.
They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!
Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti,
Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
Is not a match for you all!
I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.
And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!
While no bloodcurdling wraith prowls the stanzas of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s sentimental paen to our inner child, the atmosphere somehow always brings to mind Rudyard Kipling’s “They,” my favorite ghost story after E. F. Benson’s “In the Tube” and Henry James’ marvelously unnerving “The Turn of the Screw.” Kipling’s best contribution to the form, one of many such tales from the staunch Imperialist best remembered for The Jungle Books, centers on spectral children – arguably the most heartbreaking species of ghost. James’ gothic novella gives us a pair of isolated youngsters imperiled by the ghosts of former servants, while the narrator-protagonist of “In the Tube” possesses a childlike openness we should all be so lucky to call upon in his circumstances.
The theme here, if you hadn’t guessed, is childhood; not only in connection to how we conceive of and deal with ghosts, but how we negotiate the inherited norms of adulthood to which ghosts pose an implicit challenge.
In his charming little book, Letters to Vanessa, philosopher Jeremy W. Hayward writes, “The magical dimension of our world is real, as real as the itch on your arm and the hand scratching the itch. It is the dimension that you and I felt as children but could not describe. We could not describe it because none of the adults around us ever spoke of it, so we did not have a language to describe it.”
Ghost stories, I argue, are the fledging syntax of such a language. To children, “supernatural,” is a misnomer – a post hoc classification affixed to experiences more or less seamless with our picture of the world at the time. There’s nothing “para” normal about a floating, red-eyed hag above our bed or a mysterious cloaked figure disappearing through the wall. Terrifying, perhaps. Compelling, certainly. But not incredible. To a child, anomalies are every bit as entitled to their role in the grand scheme of things as a daffodil. Only when revisited through the lens of adulthood do spirits and their ilk demand “rational explanation.”
Something dormant in us, perpetually nine, ignites at the telling of a good ghost story, totally absorbed regardless of where our rational mind stands on the issue. Whatever mood I’m in, mention a shadowy figure lurking in the periphery or that you hear urgent footsteps on the stair where none should be and, even as I search for a solution consistent with what my adult self needs to be true about the world, part of me can no more help accepting the tale at face value than a toddler can help crying when he bangs his knee. I hedge my bets with careful language, yes (“It couldbe the house settling…”), but the hairs on the back of my neck stand up all the same. Suggest that it’s haunted, and suddenly a nondescript post office passed every day en route to work becomes imbued with meaning, given a glamour altogether incongruous with its designated function. It becomes, in a word, magical. Something formerly mundane thrills us. Something fixed dislodges and enters into free play. We are again, if only for a moment, in the fairyland of childhood, where a patina of enchantment blankets everything like morning dew.
The narrator of Longfellow’s poem is working late, tending to very grownup concerns. Note the first hint of what his children are up to, the “patter of little feet,” comes from above. Our language for impractical people, for “childish dreamers,” is rife with allusions to height. We say their heads are “in the clouds,” their assertions “unfounded,” their feet “not on the ground.” And though we consciously wield phrases like these in the pejorative, implicit in them is the idea of adulthood as a kind of fall from grace – a “descending” of “the broad hall stair” from the airy world of play to the myopic preoccupations of maturity.
Fortunately for our narrator, just as “night is beginning to lower,” the impish ambassadors of his inner child make a raid on the study. The mere promise of it sets him rearranging this mundane environment in their image. He is suddenly in a castle – up becomes down, topsy turvey. From there, he enters into their magical world with an abandon poignant and bittersweet.
Longfellow calls this The Children’s Hour not because it is when children are most alive in themselves – what hour is that not the case? – but because “between the dark and the daylight” they are most needed by those whose hold on their inner child is in slipping.
Perhaps that, too, is why ghosts observe a similar schedule.