With Halloween just around the corner, I think it's a good time to share some of my favorite frightening poems. In the selection below, a Robert Browning monologue puts us inside the mind of a very disturbed individual; Edgar Allan Poe puts us inside his own -- also disturbed -- mind; an Edwin Arlington Robinson character is tempted to meet his dead beloved; and Wilfred Owen tells us a ghost story shortly before his own death. Enjoy, and feel free to share your favorites in the comments section below.
Victorian poet Robert Browning was a master of the dramatic monologue. A good rule of thumb with Browning is to be wary of his speakers: they often aren't who they seem to be at the beginning of a poem. As you read "Porphyria's Lover," you'll come to realize the chilling truth of this one.
The rain set early in tonight,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o'er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me -- she
Too weak, for all her heart's endeavor,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me forever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
Nor could tonight's gay feast restrain
A sudden thought of one so pale
For love of her, and all in vain:
So, she was come through wind and rain.
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last l knew
Porphyria worshiped me: surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While l debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string l wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
l am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
l warily oped her lids: again
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
And l untightened next the tress
About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
l propped her head up as before,
Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still:
The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
That all it scorned at once is fled,
And l, its love, am gained instead!
Porphyria's love: she guessed not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said aword!
Edgar Allan Poe's dark poem, "The Raven," is a favorite this time of year, but dark themes haunt most of Poe's poetry and prose. "Alone" is one of his most chilling poems, I think. It sheds light not only on his talents, but on what may have helped fuel his odd imagination.
From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were -- I have not seen
As others saw -- I could not bring
My passions from a common spring --
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow -- I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone --
And all I lov'd -- I lov'd alone --
Then -- in my childhood -- in the dawn
Of a most stormy life -- was drawn
From ev'ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still --
From the torrent, or the fountain --
From the red cliff of the mountain --
From the sun that 'round me roll'd
In its autumn tint of gold --
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass'd me flying by --
From the thunder, and the storm --
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view --
The Poetry Foundation calls Edwin Arlington Robinson "America's Poet Laureate of Unhappiness." His poem "Luke Havergal" is predictably unhappy, but it's also very, very creepy.
Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal,
There where the vines cling crimson on the wall,
And in the twilight wait for what will come.
The leaves will whisper there of her, and some,
Like flying words, will strike you as they fall;
But go, and if you listen she will call.
Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal --
No, there is not a dawn in eastern skies
To rift the fiery night that's in your eyes;
But there, where western glooms are gathering,
The dark will end the dark, if anything:
God slays Himself with every leaf that flies,
And hell is more than half of paradise.
No, there is not a dawn in eastern skies --
In eastern skies.
Out of a grave I come to tell you this,
Out of a grave I come to quench the kiss
That flames upon your forehead with a glow
That blinds you to the way that you must go.
Yes, there is yet one way to where she is,
Bitter, but one that faith may never miss.
Out of a grave I come to tell you this --
To tell you this.
There is the western gate, Luke Havergal,
There are the crimson leaves upon the wall.
Go, for the winds are tearing them away,--
Nor think to riddle the dead words they say,
Nor any more to feel them as they fall;
But go, and if you trust her she will call.
There is the western gate, Luke Havergal --
Finally, here's "Shadwell Stair," a ghost poem by Wilfred Owen. Owen was one of the great poets of World War I, and perhaps the greatest soldier-poet of all time. He wrote "Shadwell Stair" in 1918. He was killed in battle later that year.
I am the ghost of Shadwell Stair.
Along the wharves by the water-house,
And through the cavernous slaughter-house,
I am the shadow that walks there.
Yet I have flesh both firm and cool,
And eyes tumultuous as the gems
Of moons and lamps in the full Thames
When dusk sails wavering down the pool.
Shuddering the purple street-arc burns
Where I watch always; from the banks
Dolorously the shipping clanks
And after me a strange tide turns.
I walk till the stars of London wane
And dawn creeps up the Shadwell Stair.
But when the crowing syrens blare
I with another ghost am lain.