VerseDay: The macabre and fantastic in verse

Poets have the (un)enviable duty to explore the entirety of human experience, from birth to death and everything in between. But in my experience, few poets have tried to fully explore the darker emotions and experiences of humanity, and fewer still have tried to use verse to create entirely new and fantastic worlds.

In the spirit of Halloween and the Celtic festival of Samhain, I present a number of poems, or excerpts from longer works, that deal with some of the darker aspects of our lives.

I’d like to start with a poem from the mistress of all things death, Emily Dickinson:

It was not death, for I stood up,
And all the dead lie down.
It was not night, for all the bells
Put out their tongues for noon.

It was not frost, for on my flesh
I felt siroccos crawl,
Nor fire, for just my marble feet
Could keep a chancel cool.

And yet it tasted like them all,
The figures I have seen
Set orderly for burial
Reminded me of mine,

As if my life were shaven
And fitted to a frame
And could not breathe without a key,
And ’twas like midnight, some,

When everything that ticked has stopped
And space stares all around,
Or grisly frosts, first autumn morns,
Repeal the beating ground;

But most like chaos, stopless, cool,
Without a chance, or spar,
Or even a report of land
To justify despair. (It Was Not Death, Emily Dickinson)

Now, to an excerpt from some song lyrics about how feelings of jealousy and betrayal by one you love inspires one to pine for murder:

Three heavy stones will keep it from floating,
weigh it down to the bottom, food for the fishes.
And i know that it won’t be discovered
’cause i will be careful, so very careful.
What if it doesn’t rain for days and the river is
reduced to its muddy bed?
With a corpse exposed i would work in haste
and i might bury the bones in a shallow grave.
And the ran comes and moves rocks and the stones
washes away all the dirt and the mudflows
Bones are exposed and well.
you know how that goes!

i wait for the day when i finally defile
the bodies of my x lover’s lovers.
i’ll pile high to the sky
the bodies of my x lover’s lovers
Die die die die die die
die die die die die die die
watch them die…. (Ex Lover’s Lover, Voltaire)

I’ve always enjoyed reading the “Master of the Macabre,” Edgar Allan Poe, and I’ve included several examples of verse from him here today. This first example strikes me to be a poem of madness and cannibalism.

(IV) Hear the tolling of the bells –
Iron bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy menace of their tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.
And the people -ah, the people –
They that dwell up in the steeple,
All alone,
And who tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone –
They are neither man nor woman –
They are neither brute nor human –
They are Ghouls:
And their king it is who tolls;
And he rolls, rolls, rolls,
A paean from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the paean of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the paean of the bells,
Of the bells – (The Bells, Edgar Allan Poe)

Another personal favorite of mine is one of the greatest fantastic worlds ever created – Dante’s impressions of Hell. In fact, this particular poem was the first example of the idea of Hell-based torment matching the sin, and the entire idea of circles of Hell comes from Dante’s vision. I’ve quoted a very small excerpt below, from Canto 13 – the Wood of the Suicides:

I heard on all sides lamentations uttered,
And person none beheld I who might make them,
Whence, utterly bewildered, I stood still.
I think he thought that I perhaps might think
So many voices issued through those trunks
From people who concealed themselves from us;
Therefore the Master said: “If thou break off
Some little spray from any of these trees,
The thoughts thou hast will wholly be made vain.”
Then stretched I forth my hand a little forward,
And plucked a branchlet off from a great thorn;
And the trunk cried, “Why dost thou mangle me?”
After it had become embrowned with blood,
It recommenced its cry: “Why dost thou rend me?
Hast thou no spirit of pity whatsoever?
Men once we were, and now are changed to trees;
Indeed, thy hand should be more pitiful,
Even if the souls of serpents we had been.”
As out of a green brand, that is on fire
At one of the ends, and from the other drips
And hisses with the wind that is escaping;
So from that splinter issued forth together
Both words and blood; whereat I let the tip
Fall, and stood like a man who is afraid.(The Divine Comedy – Inferno, Canto 13, Dante)

I was put on to W. B. Yeats a few years ago by fellow Scrogue Sam Smith, and this happens to be one of the poems that he, directly or indirectly, put me on to:

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? (The Second Coming, W. B. Yeats)

Time for another Poe poem excerpt, this time about souls intertwined so tightly that even rotting death cannot separate them:

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we –
Of many far wiser than we –
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling -my darling -my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea –
In her tomb by the sounding sea.(Annabel Lee, Edgar Allan Poe)

One of my favorite fiction authors is H. P. Lovecraft, and while his poetry is singularly unimpressive, his and Poe’s works inspired others to write higher quality verse that had a similar foreboding, otherworldly quality of Lovecraft’s own fiction.

While the black perennial snows

Piled about the pole of night
Swell the fount whence Lethe flows;

While the worm, apart from light,
Eats the page where magians pored;
While the kraken, blind and white,

Guards the greening books abhorred
Where the evil oghams rust—
In accurst Atlantis stored;

While beneath the seal of dust
Dead mouths mutter not in sleep
To betray oblivion’s trust;

While the dusky planets keep,
Past the outlands of the sun,
Circuits of a sunless deep,

Never shall the spell be done
And the curse be lifted never
That shall find and leave you one

With forgotten things for ever. (Malediction, Clark Ashton Smith)

Here’s a poem about the human body and self-loathing:

Indelicate is he who loathes
The aspect of his fleshy clothes, —
The flying fabric stitched on bone,
The vesture of the skeleton,
The garment neither fur nor hair,
The cloak of evil and despair,
The veil long violated by
Caresses of the hand and eye.
Yet such is my unseemliness:
I hate my epidermal dress,
The savage blood’s obscenity,
The rags of my anatomy,
And willingly would I dispense
With false accouterments of sense,
To sleep immodestly, a most
Incarnadine and carnal ghost. (Epidermal Macabre, Theodore Roethke)

And finally, because I love this poem (and what The Simpsons did to it in their first ever Treehouse of Horror Halloween Special), I present to you the final stanza of The Raven:

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted – nevermore!

12 replies »

  1. How very timely, and as a guy who has always loved the darkness in poetry, let me offer up a couple more you might like. This one is dedicated to the pro-torture lobby:

    Old Ethan and the Vivisector’s Apprentice

    1. Lecture Hall

    Exquisite, this peeling,
    man so much like onion –

    never more than now,
    this layering aside,
    as the indisputable present
    sets his wires singing
    a million wasted days.

         He’ll wish his sweat
         had watered roses,
         he’ll wish he’d asked her name.
         He’ll wish a blanket
         soaked with grass,
         her body bathed in rain.

    You’ve read this Modernist hack,
    perhaps? –
         psshh – no art in that. A thousand raving
    pages, like a bucket slick with hearts –
    Ham-fingered clerk, he’d never in a million years…

    the subtlety, fragile lingering.

         Flesh is film, my summer love
         dulling the world aside
         sidestreet cinema selling dreams
         and dream a narcoleptic funk…

         But you, my winter love,
         celluloid and blood,
         ever, ever a skin away…

    2. Laboratory

         strip the nails
    bare to the knuckle.
    Also the cornea where

         love comes in at the cataract,
         prisms the mind’s glass eye,
         hires a whore on every street corner.

    Delicate, always – empathy is God’s purplest flower
    caroling in the shadow of the machine.

    Next, we crack the chest and give
    his thrashing purpose – one feather
    stroke on a beating heart
    is more smile than life
    among pine and red
    clay could ever know.

    When he slips this world’s shackles,
    runs flailing into whatever’s next,

    fury be his impulse
    and life the razor-edge –
    a thing to be wielded
    rather than endured –

    and love like lust,
    urgent for the convulscent now
    yet unborn in all things.

    And then there’s the poem that, although I have never said this before, is probably the one that made me want to be a poet: Keats’ haunting “The Eve of St. Agnes,” which I first discovered in my high school senior English class, taught by our own Dr. Jim Booth. It’s extremely long, so click here for the full text.

    I guess what clicked for me at the time was this intense association of beauty with darkness, the incongruous juxtaposition of the sublime with the occult. The nerve it hit was already inside me, although I have no idea where it came from, and the marraige of the beautiful and the haunted is something I have worked to perfect (with varying degrees of success) ever since.

    And they are gone: ay, ages long ago
    These lovers fled away into the storm.
    That night the Baron dreamt of many a woe,
    And all his warrior-guests, with shade and form
    Of witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm,
    Were long be-nightmar’d. Angela the old
    Died palsy-twitch’d, with meagre face deform;
    The Beadsman, after thousand aves told,
    For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold.

    Thanks, John. And thanks, Jim.

  2. Well, you hit on a couple of my favorites, Brian (although I always found Dickinson to be a bit on the twee side). And the Keats poem is also one I’ve admired.

    Most of the great contemporary dark verse isn’t happening in poetry, it’s happening in goth, industrial and metal music. But perhaps that’s another post (although thanks for noting Voltaire – he’s positively twisted even by my standards).

  3. On first encounter, The Second Coming gave me nightmares for days; even now the first four lines make me shudder.

  4. Boney – I’m not exactly a Dickinson fan myself, but as I said in the post, she really is the queen of death poems.

    As far as goth, industrial, etc, I thought about adding Voltaire’s Underground or, more up your demonic alley, Almost Human.

    As you pointed out, though, there’s a great deal of music out there that has great dark lyrics. Seraphim Shock is one of the more interesting groups I’ve had the pleasure of listening to, but The Cruxshadows Marilyn, My Bitterness, Monument, by Butterfly Messiah, Assemblage 23’s 30k feet (a phone call from a guy aboard an jet that’s about to crash to his wife – on the answering machine), and those are just three of the many, many, many examples of great dark versein contemporary music.

  5. Brian: Seraphim Shock WAS interesting. Red Silk Vow and the follow-up EP we wonderful stuff (although I’d say the impact had more to do with the music than the lyrics). But on their most recent they’ve decided to be a weasels-ripped-my-throat-out nu metal band and the effect is underwhelming.

    In addition to the ones you mention I’d add the late, great Switchblade Symphony – their third and final CD was about as perfect an illustration of life in a haunted dollhouse as I can imagine.

    And you know I’m partial to Fiction 8, who I do some lyrics for. “Winter Rain” on their last release, which I co-wrote, has to be one of my all-time favorites. It’s essentially about some untold moments in the life of Roy Baty, and there are some more lyrics out there in the series that haven’t been used yet. Hoping, though.

  6. Late on the uptake, Brian, but thought I’d share a favorite of mine from Poe:

    The City in the Sea

    Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
    In a strange city lying alone
    Far down within the dim West,
    Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
    Have gone to their eternal rest.
    There shrines and palaces and towers
    (Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
    Resemble nothing that is ours.
    Around, by lifting winds forgot,
    Resignedly beneath the sky
    The melancholy waters lie.

    No rays from the holy heaven come down
    On the long night-time of that town;
    But light from out the lurid sea
    Streams up the turrets silently –
    Gleams up the pinnacles far and free –
    Up domes – up spires – up kingly halls –
    Up fanes – up Babylon-like walls –
    Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers
    Of sculptured ivy and stone flowers –
    Up many and many a marvellous shrine
    Whose wreathed friezes intertwine
    The viol, the violet, and the vine.
    Resignedly beneath the sky
    The melancholy waters lie.
    So blend the turrets and shadows there
    That all seem pendulous in air,
    While from a proud tower in the town
    Death looks gigantically down.

    There open fanes and gaping graves
    Yawn level with the luminous waves;
    But not the riches there that lie
    In each idol’s diamond eye –
    Not the gaily-jewelled dead
    Tempt the waters from their bed;
    For no ripples curl, alas!
    Along that wilderness of glass –
    No swellings tell that winds may be
    Upon some far-off happier sea –
    No heavings hint that winds have been
    On seas less hideously serene.

    But lo, a stir is in the air!
    The wave – there is a movement there!
    As if the towers had thrust aside,
    In slightly sinking, the dull tide –
    As if their tops had feebly given
    A void within the filmy Heaven.
    The waves have now a redder glow –
    The hours are breathing faint and low –
    And when, amid no earthly moans,
    Down, down that town shall settle hence,
    Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,
    Shall do it reverence.

  7. Your posts bely your original thesis. Aside from the fact that you obviously aren’t taking into consideration much written in the early 20th century, or Baudelaire or Lord Byron or, to go to the issue of the fantastic, Carroll. Then there is the Sci-Fi epic poet Frederick Turner, with his epic poems Genesis and The New World.

  8. Dr. Troy – I don’t claim to be an expert in poetry, but some poets do a lot of fantastic or dark poetry. My original thesis was that dark and fantastic verse is uncommon, not that it doesn’t exist at all. As for my selection, I’m not a poet by trade nor someone who has studies poetry in depth, so I went with the poems and poets I was most familiar with as opposed to those who are less well known.