Since there is no earthly good in frightening someone—except, perhaps, for science, or for a laugh—it is safe to say good literature will never be frightening, for it naturally follows that what we call ‘good’ must have something good about it.
The “fright industry” claims a great swath of schlocky middle-brow art and entertainment, from Boris Karloff to Rob Zombie, from Dracula to Death Metal, from H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King. For many, skull-fashion is cool and slasher films are a hoot.
But high-brow art is not necessarily good, and the broad appeal of horror, with its excess and sometimes its accompanying humor, is a fertile field for a certain amount of aesthetic experimentation. Poe built whole systems around the melancholy and the somber; his ghouls were never ghouls unless they served an aesthetic purpose; as science explored smaller and more defined spaces, Poe did the same in literature. Always the artist, in his Philosophy of Composition, Poe wrote:
The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven — and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields — but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident: — it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.
Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son and film noir share a shadowy aesthetic. Shadow belongs to art and science. Imagination works in the dark, and Faith lives there, as well. It isn’t only horror that likes the dark.
I can’t imagine John Ashbery or John Bernstein trying to write a scary poem. Perhaps they are wise not to—the scary is equated with the worst kind of camp, and if a poet has no broad appeal to begin with, it would be suicidal to one’s high-brow reputation to go the low-brow route to gain readers.
Poe knew that horror was best evoked in homely, not poetic terms:
My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified — have tortured — have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me, they have presented little but Horror — to many they will seem less terrible than barroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place — some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.
True, this is the narrator of “The Black Cat” speaking, and not Poe, but Poe understood that horror didn’t sit well with the Muse. There’s a reason why Thomas Lovell Beddoes and John Clare are minor Romantics. The poet who scares himself and tries to scare others is never going to be a major poet. The major poet transforms the terrible into beauty or laughter, and laughter and the beautiful can be terrible, even as it neutralizes the terror.
Every major writer occasionally wanders into the realm of bad taste.
The minor writers do it more often, and that’s why they are minor. And nothing screams ‘bad taste’ like only being scary, or disgusting, or offensive.
A ghost story is one thing, but what about a ghost poem? How easy would it be for a John Ashbery or Charles Bernstein to write a ghost poem? And what obstacles would stand in their way?
A rather recent Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series book, Poems Bewitched and Haunted, selected and edited by the late John Hollander, with his own translations of Heine, Goethe, Verlaine, and Baudelaire (Hollander left the translations of Classical authors to others) is a dashing little Halloween volume, bound and printed nicely with an orange ribbon bookmark, a steal at $12.50. (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)
Hollander made selections based on his own high-brow taste, and his bewitched and haunted poems are also 99% verse. Apparitions, witches, ghosts, and love’s revenge are the rule, rather than horror or fright for its own sake. A poem by Swinburne is the most horrific, featuring a woman who feeds her children to her husband and his new bride. Most of the poems are ‘ghostly’ in a Victorian manner.
Hollander obviously subscribes to the idea that rhymes and verse-chants have a haunted quality in themselves.
Scattered throughout the volume are many exquisite lines. Not many poems are excellent throughout; one gets the idea the poet often felt a little ashamed of his spooky ballad, and hence failed to put in the necessary work to bring it to completion. Or, fear made the poet nervous, fear of being blasphemous, and writing it down forever; because, after all, the haunted implies a wrong that we can’t shake off, and maybe the very task itself rattles the poet.
Many were hesitant in the superstitious, ancient days to conjure ghosts; then modern delight in ghosts fled into prose. The pagan poems are full of ghosts, but that makes translation into English necessary, and English poems that are truly ghostly are few. We’ve got Macbeth, we’ve got Thomas Lovell Beddoes, the Romantic sublime, which tends to be more pantheistc than ghostly, the Victorians, who often fail because their versifying is unimaginative, and then by the time we reach the Moderns, all that superstitious stuff has been cast out.
There is a story that a poet went to an old master for advice and got only this: “Work on your lighting.” There is a certain palpable ingredient which no poem requires so much as the ghost poem.
A haunted poem requires cinematic aplomb, a focus of story, a sly impetus of tension which can’t be faked or personalized away. A ghost poem either works, or it doesn’t; the sublime (on some level) must be reached, and one silly part, or a lack of finish, can spell failure. If a ghost poem takes itself too seriously, it will fail. If a ghost poem doesn’t take itself seriously enough, it will fail, too. The ordinary poem makes its own rules as it goes, forming itself on the force of the modern poet’s personality. The ghost poem, on the other hand, has a history: Virgil’s “Aeneas Meets His Dead Wife” (in this volume) is one example, and the ghost poem also has expectations: certain rules have to be obeyed, even as new ones need to be made.
What we are saying is that ghost poems are not easy to write.
The best poems in this volume are:
The Haunted Palace –Edgar Poe
Little Orphant Annie –John Whitcomb Riley
La Belle Dame Sans Merci –John Keats
The Witch Medea –Ovid, trans. Sandys
The Haunted House –Thomas Hood
Spectral Lovers –John Crowe Ransom
The Haunted Chamber –Henry Longfellow
A Lovely Witch’s Cave –Shelley
Mary’s Ghost: A Pathetic Ballad –Thomas Hood
The Ghosts –Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Two Ghosts Converse –Emily Dickinson
A Witch Exposed –Edmund Spenser
Phantom –Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Three Witches (from Macbeth) –Shakespeare
The Orchard Ghost –Mark Van Doren
No More Ghosts –Robert Graves
The Old Ghost –Thomas Lovell Beddoes
The Witch –Adelaide Crapsey
Aeneas Meets His Dead Wife –Virgil trans. Dryden
A Ghost Story –Randall Jarrell
Walpurgis Night from Faust –Goethe, trans. Shelley
The Amber-Witch –William Vaughn Moody
The Apparitions –William Butler Yeats
The Ghosts of Beauty –Alexander Pope
Thomas Hood has two of the best poems in the volume. A neglected poet who Poe claimed was too fond of puns, Hood shows that he can do the haunted poem in mode serious or funny.
Those who object to John Whitcomb Riley’s poem should read it out-loud to appreciate its excellence. The Ella Wilcox poem is also an anti-war poem. Robert Graves has a great idea: no more ghosts.
Witches could be said to represent men’s fear of women, women who “can’t be satisfied,” as Led Zeppelin put it, but Shelley writes of a beautiful and beneficial witch, Shelley too much of a gentleman to demean the feminine.
We’d like to share Coleridge’s simple “Phantom,” which is not often reproduced:
All look and likeness caught from earth,
All accident of kin and birth,
Had pass’d away. There was no trace
Of aught on that illumined face,
Uprais’d beneath the rifted stone
But of one spirit all her own;-
She, she herself, and only she,
Shone through her body visibly.
Homer’s “‘Circe” Heine’s “Lorelei,” and Baudelaire’s “The Incubus” suffer from so-so translations.
Robert Frost’s “Pauper Witch of Grafton” we had no patience for—nor the two Vachel Lindsay selections—that man had no reason to write verse. Two E.A. Robinson poems likewise were not good enough to be included. Thomas Hardy (3 poems) also failed to impress.
Tristan Corbiere’s, translated by Hollander, is a fetid little poem.
But some prefer this:
Sands of old bones—the rattling wave’s
Dead-march, bursting noise on noise
Pale swamps where the moon consumes
Enormous worms to pass the night.
Stillness of pestilence; simmering
Of fever; the will-o’-the-wisp
Languishes. Fetid herbiage, the hare
A timid sorcerer, fleeing there.
The white Laundress lays outspread
The dirty linens of the dead
In the wolves’ sunlight…sorrowful
Little singers now, the toads,
Poison, with colic of their own,
The mushrooms that they sit upon.
In the greenest of our valleys
By good angels tentanted,
Once a fair and stately palace—
Radiant palace—reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion—
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair!
And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms, that move fantasically
To a discordant melody,
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh—but smile no more.
(first stanza and last staza of Poe’s “Haunted Palace”)
Poe’s poem is a masterpiece because of its music, and that music’s fruit is in the unusual shape of its stanza, with lines of varying lengths.
The Modernists rejected verse as monontonous, and they were partly right to do so; but instead of expanding the possibilities of verse, they retreated into prose. At the crossroads, Poe, in his verse, in his Philosophy of Composition, The Poetic Principle, and The Rationale of Verse, argued that vigilant experimentation could make verse continually interesting.
The enemy of verse is not free verse, nor bad verse, but the equation in people’s minds of bad verse with verse.
“Windy Nights” by Robert Louis Stevenson, chosen by Hollander for his book, is an example of bad verse, or doggerel:
Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?
Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then
By he comes back at the gallop again.
Even this has movement and interest, but compared to the Poe, it simply “gallops about.”
John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974), in his poem, “Spectral Lovers,” shows the richness possible for even a modern poet who experiments with stanza:
By night they haunted a thicket of April mist,
As out of the rich ground strangely come to birth,
Else two immaculate angels fallen on earth,
Lovers, they knew they were, but why unclasped, unkissed?
Why should two lovers go frozen asunder in fear?
And yet they were, they were.
Over the shredding of an April blossom
Her thrilling fingers touched him quick with care,
Of many delicate postures she cast a snare;
But for all the red heart beating in the pale bosom,
Her face as of cunningly tinctured ivory
Was hard with an agony.
Stormed by the little batteries of an April night,
Passionate being the essence of the field,
Should the penetrable walls of the crumbling prison yield
And open her treasure to the first clamorous knight?
‘This is the mad moon, and must I surrender all?
If he but ask it, I shall.’
And gesturing largely to the very moon of Easter,
Mincing his steps, and swishing the jubilant grass,
And beheading some field-flowers that had come to pass,
He had reduced his tributaries faster,
Had not considerations pinched to his heart
Unfitly for his art.
‘Am I reeling with the sap of April like a drunkard?
Blessed is he that taketh this richest of cities;
But it is so stainless, the sack were a thousand pities;
This is that marble fortress not to be conquered,
Lest its white peace in the black flame turn to tinder
And an unutterable cinder.’
They passed me once in April, in the mist.
No other season is it, when one walks and discovers
Two clad in the shapes of angels, being spectral lovers,
Trailing a glory of moon-gold and amethyst,
Who touch their quick fingers fluttering like a bird
Whose songs shall never be heard.
We’ll close with Adelaide Crapsey’s “The Witch:”
When I was a girl by Nilus stream
I watched the desert stars arise;
My lover, he who dreamed the Sphinx,
Learned all his dreaming from my eyes.
I bore in Greece a burning name,
And I have been in Italy
Madonna to a painter-lad,
And mistress to a Medici.
And have you heard (and I have heard)
Of puzzled men with decorous mien,
Who judged—The wench knows far too much—
And burnt her on the Salem green?