For the poem of melancholy horror to succeed, the reader must fall under its spell.
But just a tincture of the didactic and the effect is ruined. Modern poets are especially prone to spoil this type of poem; they write of the horrible, but rarely combine horror with melancholy—which produces the sublime effect we have in mind. The poem of melancholy horror peaked between 1800 and 1960.
American poetry in the last 20 years seems to be wholly absent of what we call melancholy horror. We always seem to say, ‘That’s not melancholy, that’s depressing.’ We could assign this recent phenomenon to what we might term the scientific ego in the contemporary poet, a sort of clever hardness which will have no part of Victorian or Romantic sorrow.
Molly Peacock, Edith Sitwell, and Robert Lowell, to name some slightly older poets at random, have written poems of melancholy horror, but a determined busy-ness and verbosity, combined with a didactic intent, ensures failure. Fred Seidel often gives us horror—and ego. But there’s no melancholy, no shadow.
Part of the problem involves an acute misreading of Poe’s Heresy of the Didactic. The issue is one of appearance: one must not appear to impart a moral or a lesson to the reader.
It is fine to impart a lesson; one just cannot seem to do so.
Poe made this quite explicit.
In terms of appearances, we all know that the best way to call attention to something is when we bungle the hiding of it.
This is what the modern poets do: They know they cannot preach, but they cannot resist doing so, and because the moderns, in being good moderns, have chucked the stage devices of cheap, theatrical effects of the “old” poetry, and because the moderns suffer no hesitation in being frank and discursive in the above-board modern style, they tend to blurt out their lessons, which are poor lessons to begin with—since these moderns are not in the habit of really having anything to say, having been taught that the didactic should be avoided.
Pondering their Poe and the writings of the New Critics, with its ‘heresy of the paraphrase,’ the modern poets have come to think that one can write poetry while having nothing to say at all; if one cannot paraphrase their poem, they think, if their poem has no message or meaning, this is all the better, and perhaps, one day, they may even reach that ‘pure’ style of non-style all moderns affect, and yet, given the modern style, in which melancholy surfaces and all sorts of cheap Victorian effects are to be eschewed, what remains is a kind of didacticism by default, sans lesson, sans moral, sans theme, just a kind of blathering that “wins” by avoiding the pitfalls Poe and the New Critics superficially laid out.
What Poe really meant—no one knows what the New Critics meant, since they never really thought the problem through—was this: The poet must not appear to be didactic; if the poet can impart a message without anyone noticing, good for the poet. Thus a Wordsworth, who does have something to say, can succeed even in the face of Poe’s “heresy,” while a Robert Lowell, let’s say, stumbles, for Lowell imparts only the vaguest half-lessons, not because his lessons are well-hidden, but because he discursively bungles the HIDING ITSELF precisely because there is very little worth hiding in the first place.
If Lowell’s poem, “Mr. Edwards and the Spider,” for instance, were coherent in what it were ‘trying to say,’ the melancholy horror might work; but as it is, the poem is unfocused, flat, the transition from the stated theme to “as a small boy…” is clumsy; the poem has no emotional impact not because the theme lacks horror, but because the poet lacks wit.
Here, then are some of the best Lyric Poems of Melancholy Horror, certainly not meant to be definitive:
- Darkness –Byron
- Because I Could Not Stop For Death –Dickinson
- Mariana –Tennyson
- Bluebeard –Millay
- La Belle Dame Sans Merci –Keats
- The Truth the Dead Know –Sexton
- In the Waiting Room –Bishop
- In Response To A Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, W.VA Has Been Condemned –James Wright
- Pike –Ted Hughes
- Strange Fits of Passion –Wordsworth
- Lady Lazarus –Plath
- A Brown Girl Dead –Countee Cullen
- Mental Traveler –Blake
- O Where Are You Going? –Auden
- Sweeney Among the Nightingales –Eliot
- The Men’s Room In the College Chapel –Snodgrass
- Alone –Poe
- The Phantom-Wooer –Beddoes
- My Last Duchess –Browning
- The Tourist From Syracuse –Donald Justice
- Rime of the Ancient Mariner –Coleridge
- Advice To A Raven In Russia (1812) –Barlow d. 1812
- Blue-Beard’s Closet –Rose Terry Cooke
- Death of The Hired Man –Frost
- Second Coming –Yeats
- In A Dark Time –Roethke
- Piazza Piece –Ransom
- Nerves –Arthur Symons
- Hunchback in the Park –Dylan Thomas
- Suspira –Longfellow