THE POEM OF MELANCHOLY HORROR

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:

  1. Darkness  –Byron
  2. Because I Could Not Stop For Death  –Dickinson
  3. Mariana –Tennyson
  4. Bluebeard  –Millay
  5. La Belle Dame Sans Merci  –Keats
  6. The Truth the Dead Know  –Sexton
  7. In the Waiting Room  –Bishop
  8. In Response To A Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, W.VA Has Been Condemned   –James Wright
  9. Pike  –Ted Hughes
  10. Strange Fits of Passion –Wordsworth
  11. Lady Lazarus   –Plath
  12. A Brown Girl Dead  –Countee Cullen
  13. Mental Traveler   –Blake
  14. O Where Are You Going?  –Auden
  15. Sweeney Among the Nightingales   –Eliot
  16. The Men’s Room In the College Chapel  –Snodgrass
  17. Alone  –Poe
  18. The Phantom-Wooer  –Beddoes
  19. My Last Duchess  –Browning
  20. The Tourist From Syracuse  –Donald Justice
  21. Rime of the Ancient Mariner  –Coleridge
  22. Advice To A Raven In Russia (1812) –Barlow d. 1812
  23. Blue-Beard’s Closet  –Rose Terry Cooke
  24. Death of The Hired Man  –Frost
  25. Second Coming  –Yeats
  26. In A Dark Time  –Roethke
  27. Piazza Piece  –Ransom
  28. Nerves   –Arthur Symons
  29. Hunchback in the Park  –Dylan Thomas
  30. Suspira   –Longfellow
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13 Comments

  1. Christopher Woodman said,

    January 15, 2010 at 2:36 am

    ~

    WHY WE CAN’T LOVE YOU

    Our balkaned country’s

    Not so quick as your

    Kitchen-garden kingdom.

    The escarpments rise too

    Precipitously white

    And difficult

    For courtship unfamiliar

    With the dry-stone divinations

    Cast in fields logic can’t plough

    Or lessons harvest.

    Don’t be astonished that

    Your green hips and poppy

    Stained embankments

    Can’t distract us from our grief—

    It’s the scent of the tight fruit

    Of old trees and lost hedgerows

    Makes us wild

    For dark restless brides

    With high-arched country feet.

    If we sit down and weep

    Beside your still waters with you

    We will never quench our

    Thirst for those lean,

    Burn and briar spun limbs

    That leap

    The starveling falls

    And make the last return

    The furious bridegroom’s best—

    The saintly salmon’s honeymoon

    Our bliss—

    The blood-streaked spawn,

    The long white body’s gentle rest.

    ~

    My favorite landscape in the world, the most lyrical, the most melancholy, filled with the most longing, loneliness and sometimes horror. And of course the most beautiful.

    Dumfriesshire with its burns, wrecked hills, huge sky, treacherous black bogs, and heather.

    There was a geo-survey station situated near where I lived in Eskdalemuir because it was the most remote from artificial vibrations of any place in the whole of the U.K. Then Flight 103 came down in Lockerbie — that was where my nearest shop was located, 18 miles from my house by a single-lane, unfenced road. There were sheep all over it.

    Of course it could also have been the Hebrides, Donegal or Connemara. Or Innishmore.

    ~

    The shepherd children ‘guddled’ for salmon with their bare hands under the banks of the little stream that ran near my house. There were 16 in the MacTaggart family — but there were only 5 beds in the 2 rooms in the cottage.

    ~

    Isn’t there always a perverse element in Melancholy Horror? Don’t all of us who have loved too hard hanker for it ever after?

    ~

    Why are there so few really contemporary poems on the list?

    Is it because we’ve invented an illness called depression and a whole industry to treat it whereas before we felt it was part of the human condition? Is it because we used to feel it was normal to die for love, for example, or to be haunted by despair? Are we just too sensible and well-adjusted for melancholy?

    Aren’t we even a bit embarrassed by poems like this one of mine? Hasn’t melancholy horror become more a mental-health issue than an inspiration?

    ~

    Isn’t that another reason why nobody’s reading poetry, because our feelings, compulsions and nightmares are treated with drugs before they are deep enough to become creative or lived well enough to deliver us?

    ~

    “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.” Philip Larkin

    ~

    Christopher

  2. thomasbrady said,

    February 22, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    “we’ve invented an illness called depression and a whole industry to treat it” may have a lot to do with it, Christopher, good point; depression and melancholy are still with us, however; I’d like to think it’s still an issue of aesthetics, but indeed what you say is true…

  3. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 23, 2010 at 2:55 am

    Why do you want it to be just a question of aesthetics? Is it because you want poetry to remain pure and undefiled, secure in its ivory tower of delight and entertainment — with a little healthy education thrown in just to keep Horace happy?

    Do you think Philip Larkn thought daffodils were just pretty flowers for Wordsworth, as deprivation was just, uh, “deprivation” for himself?

    Why are you so afraid of the possibility that daffodils and deprivation might be important? My argument about “depression,” at least as we use the word today, is that it has been railroaded by the doctors into the pharmacy. Up until just recently, depression, like daffodils and deprivation, was considered a riddle of the human condition, poised as we all are between hope and despair. Melancholy was considered the most important of the four temperaments, and the inescapable occupational hazard of the philosopher.

    I’m a classic melancholic myself, and I certainly know the struggle. On the other hand, I’m very lucky to have lived in a community which has permitted me to undergo my own night-sea journeys. My considered opinion at 70 is that if you just run to the doctor when you’re feeling depressed, you’re running away from half of real life.

    Of course there’s a moment for help, but it’s just a tiny oasis in the desert without water. If you stay there the well will very soon dry up, and you’ll be even thirstier than you were before, and have no legs to walk on.

    ~

    In your “aesthetic,” Tom, the details of the human condition would seem to be useful to poets only if they’re good, sound nice, and are properly behaved.

    I’d say that all the details of the human condition are useful to the poet who can examine life in such a way that it’s worth living. Indeed, great poets like Wordsworth and Larkin shoulder the burden of their own survival quite alone, and in so doing lend us a hand.

    Christopher

  4. thomasbrady said,

    February 23, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    My ‘aesthetic’ is not as frivolous as you suppose. My ‘Beauty’ belongs not just to daffodils, but even so, the poets of the daffodils, i.e., the Romantics, were tough as nails. It’s easy to talk the fearful talk. But where’s the joy that allows us to get up in the morning? I do agree with you that drugging oneself to numb away one’s problems is not a good idea. I suppose I’m as melancholy as much as the next person; I’ve never run to a pharmacy. But that’s an individual’s choice. I’ve probably been luckier than most, too, but that’s hard to measure.

    As usual, this guy sums it up well:

    “There are moments when, even to the sober eye of Reason, the world of our sad humanity must assume the aspect of Hell; but the Imagination of Man is no Carathis, to explore with impunity its every cavern. Alas! the grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful; but, like the Demons in whose company Afrasiab made his voyage down the Oxus, they must sleep, or they will devour us– they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish.” –Edgar Poe

  5. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 24, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    The “esoteric” element in poetry let’s sleeping dragons lie. Psyche wakes them — and if you have the courage, and can endure the subsequent torments, you too can love them in the full light of day.

    And when the next John Keats comes along he will write about you too, and light a candle at your altar.

  6. Bob Tonucci said,

    April 17, 2010 at 12:01 am

    Blue-Beard’s Closet

    by Rose Terry Cooke

    Fasten the chamber!
    Hide the red key;
    Cover the portal,
    That eyes may not see.
    Get thee to market,
    To wedding and prayer;
    Labor or revel,
    The chamber is there!

    In comes a stranger –
    “Thy pictures how fine,
    Titian or Guido,
    Whose is the sign?”
    Looks he behind them?
    Ah! have a care!
    “Here is a finer.”
    The chamber is there!

    Fair spreads the banquet,
    Rich the array;
    See the bright torches
    Mimicking day;
    When harp and viol
    Thrill the soft air,
    Comes a light whisper:
    The chamber is there!

    Marble and painting,
    Jasper and gold,
    Purple from Tyrus,
    Fold upon fold,
    Blossoms and jewels,
    Thy palace prepare:
    Pale grows the monarch;
    The chamber is there!

    Once it was open
    As shore to the sea;
    White were the turrets,
    Goodly to see;
    All through the casements
    Flowed the sweet air;
    Now it is darkness;
    The chamber is there!

    Silence and horror
    Brood on the walls;
    Through every crevice
    A little voice calls:
    “Quicken, mad footsteps,
    On pavement and stair;
    Look not behind thee,
    The chamber is there!”

    Out of the gateway,
    Through the wide world,
    Into the tempest
    Beaten and hurled,
    Vain is thy wandering,
    Sure thy despair,
    Flying or staying,
    The chamber is there!

  7. Bob Tonucci said,

    May 16, 2010 at 10:01 am

    Cheap Valentine

    I guess I like you
    Even though you have no legs and must wear 80 pairs of stockings

    I knew your breasts were peculiar
    Now one of them has exploded, ruining a sweater
    I was disgusted to see you had given birth to a cigarette

    Your eyes are demanding
    I’m sorry, I don’t have 23 thousand owls
    But I guess I like you.

    — Pete Dexter

  8. Marcus Bales said,

    May 16, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter
    John Crowe Ransom

    There was such speed in her little body,
    And such lightness in her footfall,
    It is no wonder her brown study
    Astonishes us all.

    Her wars were bruited in our high window.
    We looked among orchard trees and beyond
    Where she took arms against her shadow,
    Or harried unto the pond

    The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
    Dripping their snow on the green grass,
    Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
    Who cried in goose, Alas,

    For the tireless heart within the little
    Lady with rod that made them rise
    From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
    Goose-fashion under the skies!

    But now go the bells, and we are ready,
    In one house we are sternly stopped
    To say we are vexed at her brown study,
    Lying so primly propped.

  9. Marcus Bales said,

    May 16, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    Neutral Tones
    Thomas Hardy

    We stood by a pond that winter day,
    And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,
    And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;
    They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.

    Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
    Over tedious riddles of years ago;
    And some words played between us to and fro
    On which lost the more by our love.

    The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
    Alive enough to have strength to die;
    And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
    Like an ominous bird a-wing…

    Since then keen lessons that love deceives
    And wrings with wrong have shaped to me
    Your face, and the God-curst sun, and a tree,
    And a pond edged with grayish leaves.

  10. Marcus Bales said,

    May 16, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    Wreck on the Highway
    Bruce Springsteen

    Last night I was out driving
    Coming home at the end of the working day
    I was riding alone through the drizzling rain
    On a deserted stretch of a county two-lane
    When I came upon a wreck on the highway

    There was blood and glass all over
    And there was nobody there but me
    As the rain tumbled down hard and cold
    I seen a young man lying by the side of the road
    He cried “Mister, won’t you help me please…”

    An ambulance finally came and took him to Riverside
    I watched as they drove him away
    And I thought of a girlfriend or a young wife
    And a state trooper knocking in the middle of the night
    To say “Your baby died in a wreck on the highway.”

    Sometimes I sit up in the darkness
    And I watch my baby as she sleeps
    Then I climb in bed and I hold her tight
    I just lay there awake in the middle of the night
    Thinking ’bout the wreck on the highway

  11. The Noochie-Coochie Man said,

    August 14, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    Poe

    a lyric elixir of death

    embalms
    the spindle spirits of your hour glass loves
    on moon spun nights

    sets
    icicled canopy
    for corpses of poesy
    with roses and northern lights

    Where frozen nightingales in ilix aisles

    sing burial rites

    —Mina Loy (1882-1966)

  12. Noochness said,

    December 6, 2010 at 10:09 am

    I Was With Her Long Enough To Change Brands of Cigarettes

    We had split a bottle of wine and a pint of rum
    before we went into the fair.
    It started with a kiss on the ferris wheel.
    I didn’t know that actually happened until then.
    One of my favorite days of all time…

    Six months later
    I gave her money that she referred to as “fetus money.”
    We were long over as a romantic couple.
    That day she listed why she hated me.

    I had told her that I was sorry and I said so again
    but those words can’t take away a clumsy fuck.

    The way she talked to me
    it sounded like her mistakes
    never hurt anyone but herself.
    My mistakes have bad aim
    and always seem to hit those near me.

    She looked so young
    I felt so old
    I had driven another away
    or she’d changed
    or vice versa
    whatever it was
    it was done
    and I was tired of looking.

    Bucky Sinister

  13. Noochness said,

    February 12, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    In the end Coverly, by way of consolation, took Betsey to a coffee house in the commercial center. They bought their tickets and sat in canvas chairs with mugs of coffee to drink. A young woman with yellow hair drawn back over her ears was plucking a small harp and singing:

    “Oh Mother, dear Mother, oh Mother,
    Why is the sky so dark?
    Why does the air smell of roach powder?
    Why is there no one in the park?”

    “It’s nothing, my darling daughter,
    This isn’t the way the world ends,
    The washing machine is on spinner,
    And I’m waiting to entertain friends.”

    “But Mother, dear Mother, please tell me,
    Why does your Geiger counter tick?
    And why are all those nice people
    Jumping into the creek?”

    “It’s nothing, it’s nothing, my darling,
    It’s really nothing at all,
    My Geiger counter simply records
    An increase in radioactive fall.”

    “But Mother, dear Mother, please tell me,
    Before I go up to bed,
    Why are my yellow curls falling,
    Falling off of my head?
    And why is the sky so red?
    Why is the sky so red…”

    There was something in Coverly’s nature—something provincial no doubt—that made this sort of lamentation intolerable and he seized Betsey’s hand and marched out of the coffee house, snorting like someone much older. It wasn’t much of a night.

    — from The Wapshot Scandal by John Cheever


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