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Classical Frights — Halloween Poetry by the Great Ones

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By David E. Cowen, Bram-Stoker Nominated Author of Bleeding Saffron

Every October social media sites become saturated with celebrations worthy of Samhain (pronounced “so-win” in Gaelic I am told). The HWA has a rich tradition of dark poets who all relish this season. Not a single member of the HWA I would wager would not include Edgar Allan Poe on a short list of dark poets, probably then jumping to Robert Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, George Sterling and H.P. Lovecraft. But would you jump to Samuel Taylor Coleridge with his The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? What about Robert Frost or Carl Sandburg? Emily Dickinson? Conrad Aikin? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? John Keats? Why on earth would you think that dark poetry has not been a staple of the great ones for centuries. So, from the public domain, and in order to celebrate Samhain or Halloween or Día de Muertos, Tutti I Morti or whichever day of lost souls and dark spirits you cherish, here are some wonderful examples of dark poetry from some of the greatest poets you have read. Enjoy and HAPPY HALLOWEEN everyone!

The Sleeper

At midnight, in the month of June,

I stand beneath the mystic moon.

An opiate vapor, dewy, dim,

Exhales from out her golden rim,

And softly dripping, drop by drop,

Upon the quiet mountain top,

Steals drowsily and musically

Into the universal valley.

The rosemary nods upon the grave;

The lily lolls upon the wave;

Wrapping the fog about its breast,

The ruin moulders into rest;

Looking like Lethe, see! the lake

A conscious slumber seems to take,

And would not, for the world, awake.

All Beauty sleeps!—and lo! where lies

Irene, with her Destinies!

Oh, lady bright! can it be right—

This window open to the night?

The wanton airs, from the tree-top,

Laughingly through the lattice drop—

The bodiless airs, a wizard rout,

Flit through thy chamber in and out,

And wave the curtain canopy

So fitfully—so fearfully—

Above the closed and fringéd lid

’Neath which thy slumb’ring soul lies hid,

That, o’er the floor and down the wall,

Like ghosts the shadows rise and fall!

Oh, lady dear, hast thou no fear?

Why and what art thou dreaming here?

Sure thou art come o’er far-off seas,

A wonder to these garden trees!

Strange is thy pallor! strange thy dress!

Strange, above all, thy length of tress,

And this all solemn silentness!

The lady sleeps! Oh, may her sleep,

Which is enduring, so be deep!

Heaven have her in its sacred keep!

This chamber changed for one more holy,

This bed for one more melancholy,

I pray to God that she may lie

Forever with unopened eye,

While the pale sheeted ghosts go by!

My love, she sleeps! Oh, may her sleep,

As it is lasting, so be deep!

Soft may the worms about her creep!

Far in the forest, dim and old,

For her may some tall vault unfold—

Some vault that oft hath flung its black

And wingéd pannels fluttering back,

Triumphant, o’er the crested palls

Of her grand family funerals—

Some sepulchre, remote, alone,

Against whose portals she hath thrown,

In childhood, many an idle stone—

Some tomb from out whose sounding door

She ne’er shall force an echo more,

Thrilling to think, poor child of sin!

It was the dead who groaned within.

               Edgar Alan Poe

The Eldritch Dark

Now as the twilight’s doubtful interval

Closes with night’s accomplished certainty,

A wizard wind goes crying eerily,

And on the wold misshapen shadows crawl,

Miming the trees, whose voices climb and fall,

Imploring, in Sabbatic ecstacy,

The sky where vapor-mounted phantoms flee

From the scythed moon impendent over all.

Twin veils of covering cloud and silence, thrown

Across the movement and the sound of things,

Make blank the night, till in the broken west

The moon’s ensanguined blade awhile is shown….

The night grows whole again….The shadows rest,

Gathered beneath a greater shadow’s wings.

Clark Ashton Smith

Theme in Yellow

I spot the hills

With yellow balls in autumn.

I light the prairie cornfields

Orange and tawny gold clusters

And I am called pumpkins.

On the last of October

When dusk is fallen

Children join hands

And circle round me

Singing ghost songs

And love to the harvest moon;

I am a jack-o’-lantern

With terrible teeth

And the children know

I am fooling.

Carl Sandburg

The Shadow on the Stone 

      I went by the Druid stone

   That broods in the garden white and lone,  

And I stopped and looked at the shifting shadows  

   That at some moments fall thereon

   From the tree hard by with a rhythmic swing,  

   And they shaped in my imagining

To the shade that a well-known head and shoulders  

   Threw there when she was gardening.

      I thought her behind my back,

   Yea, her I long had learned to lack,

And I said: ‘I am sure you are standing behind me,  

   Though how do you get into this old track?’  

   And there was no sound but the fall of a leaf  

   As a sad response; and to keep down grief

I would not turn my head to discover

   That there was nothing in my belief.

      Yet I wanted to look and see

   That nobody stood at the back of me;

But I thought once more: ‘Nay, I’ll not unvision  

   A shape which, somehow, there may be.’  

   So I went on softly from the glade,

   And left her behind me throwing her shade,  

As she were indeed an apparition—

   My head unturned lest my dream should fade.

Thomas Hardy

Haunted Houses

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 vapoursdense

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.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Ghost House

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.

O’er ruined fences the grape-vines shield

The woods come back to the mowing field;

   The orchard tree has grown one copse

   Of new wood and old where the woodpecker chops;

The footpath down to the well is healed.

I dwell with a strangely aching heart

In that vanished abode there far apart

   On that disused and forgotten road

   That has no dust-bath now for the toad.

Night comes; the black bats tumble and dart;

The whippoorwill is coming to shout

And hush and cluck and flutter about:

   I hear him begin far enough away

   Full many a time to say his say

Before he arrives to say it out.

It is under the small, dim, summer star.

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.

They are tireless folk, but slow and sad—

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

Robert Frost

Dusk in Autumn

The moon is like a scimitar,

A little silver scimitar,

A-drifting down the sky.

And near beside it is a star,

A timid twinkling golden star,

That watches likes an eye.

And thro’ the nursery window-pane

The witches have a fire again,

Just like the ones we make,—

And now I know they’re having tea,

I wish they’d give a cup to me,

With witches’ currant cake,

Sara Teasdale

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, (340)

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,

And Mourners to and fro

Kept treading – treading – till it seemed

That Sense was breaking through –

And when they all were seated,

A Service, like a Drum –

Kept beating – beating – till I thought

My mind was going numb –

And then I heard them lift a Box

And creak across my Soul

With those same Boots of Lead, again,

Then Space – began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,

And Being, but an Ear,

And I, and Silence, some strange Race,

Wrecked, solitary, here –

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,

And I dropped down, and down –

And hit a World, at every plunge,

And Finished knowing – then –

Emily Dickinson

The Vampire

She rose among us where we lay.

She wept, we put our work away.

She chilled our laughter, stilled our play;

And spread a silence there.

And darkness shot across the sky,

And once, and twice, we heard her cry;

And saw her lift white hands on high

And toss her troubled hair.

What shape was this who came to us,

With basilisk eyes so ominous,

With mouth so sweet, so poisonous,

And tortured hands so pale?

We saw her wavering to and fro,

Through dark and wind we saw her go;

Yet what her name was did not know;

And felt our spirits fail.

We tried to turn away; but still

Above we heard her sorrow thrill;

And those that slept, they dreamed of ill

And dreadful things:

Of skies grown red with rending flames

And shuddering hills that cracked their frames;

Of twilights foul with wings;

And skeletons dancing to a tune;

And cries of children stifled soon;

And over all a blood-red moon

A dull and nightmare size.

They woke, and sought to go their ways,

Yet everywhere they met her gaze,

Her fixed and burning eyes.

Who are you now, —we cried to her—

Spirit so strange, so sinister?

We felt dead winds above us stir;

And in the darkness heard

A voice fall, singing, cloying sweet,

Heavily dropping, though that heat,

Heavy as honeyed pulses beat,

Slow word by anguished word.

And through the night strange music went

With voice and cry so darkly blent

We could not fathom what they meant;

Save only that they seemed

To thin the blood along our veins,

Foretelling vile, delirious pains,

And clouds divulging blood-red rains

Upon a hill undreamed.

And this we heard:  “Who dies for me,

He shall possess me secretly,

My terrible beauty he shall see,

And slake my body’s flame.

But who denies me cursed shall be,

And slain, and buried loathsomely,

And slimed upon with shame.”

And darkness fell.  And like a sea

Of stumbling deaths we followed, we

Who dared not stay behind.

There all night long beneath a cloud

We rose and fell, we struck and bowed,

We were the ploughman and the ploughed,

Our eyes were red and blind.

And some, they said, had touched her side,

Before she fled us there;

And some had taken her to bride;

And some lain down for her and died;

Who had not touched her hair,

Ran to and fro and cursed and cried

And sought her everywhere.

“Her eyes have feasted on the dead,

And small and shapely is her head,

And dark and small her mouth,” they said,

“And beautiful to kiss;

Her mouth is sinister and red

As blood in moonlight is.”

Then poets forgot their jeweled words

And cut the sky with glittering swords;

And innocent souls turned carrion birds

To perch upon the dead.

Sweet daisy fields were drenched with death,

The air became a charnel breath,

Pale stones were splashed with red.

Green leaves were dappled bright with blood

And fruit trees murdered in the bud;

And when at length the dawn

Came green as twilight from the east,

And all that heaving horror ceased,

Silent was every bird and beast,

And that dark voice was gone.

No word was there, no song, no bell,

No furious tongue that dream to tell;

Only the dead, who rose and fell

Above the wounded men;

And whisperings and wails of pain

Blown slowly from the wounded grain,

Blown slowly from the smoking plain;

And silence fallen again.

Until at dusk, from God knows where,

Beneath dark birds that filled the air,   

Like one who did not hear or care,

Under a blood-red cloud,

An aged ploughman came alone     

And drove his share through flesh and bone,

And turned them under to mould and stone;

All night long he ploughed.

Conrad Aiken

Lamia [Left to herself]

     Left to herself, the serpent now began 

To change; her elfin blood in madness ran, 

Her mouth foam’d, and the grass, therewith besprent, 

Wither’d at dew so sweet and virulent; 

Her eyes in torture fix’d, and anguish drear,

Hot, glaz’d, and wide, with lid-lashes all sear, 

Flash’d phosphor and sharp sparks, without one cooling tear. 

The colours all inflam’d throughout her train, 

She writh’d about, convuls’d with scarlet pain: 

A deep volcanian yellow took the place

Of all her milder-mooned body’s grace; 

And, as the lava ravishes the mead, 

Spoilt all her silver mail, and golden brede; 

Made gloom of all her frecklings, streaks and bars, 

Eclips’d her crescents, and lick’d up her stars:

So that, in moments few, she was undrest 

Of all her sapphires, greens, and amethyst, 

And rubious-argent: of all these bereft, 

Nothing but pain and ugliness were left.

John Keats

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