Issues of mental health are tricky enough to understand in
It’s the spook-spookiest time of the year! Celebrate all-things Halloween literary style with these thirteen creepy poems!
1. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a well-known British Romantic epic poem. A sailor who has returned from a long sea voyage tells of his escapades to a fellow guest at a wedding. The wedding guest’s reaction turns from bemusement to impatience to fear and finally fascination as the mariner’s story progresses. In this particular section, dead sailors get up and start sailing the boat again:
“The thick black cloud was cleft, and still
The Moon was at its side:
Like waters shot from some high crag,
The lightning fell with never a jag,
A river steep and wide.
The loud wind never reached the ship,
Yet now the ship moved on!
Beneath the lightning and the Moon
The dead men gave a groan.
They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,
Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;
It had been strange, even in a dream,
To have seen those dead men rise.
The helmsman steered, the ship moved on;
Yet never a breeze up-blew;
The mariners all ‘gan work the ropes,
Where they were wont to do;
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools—
We were a ghastly crew.
The body of my brother’s son
Stood by me, knee to knee:
The body and I pulled at one rope,
But he said nought to me.”
2. “I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain” by Emily Dickinson
When it comes to Emily Dickinson poems, it’s hard to choose just one that stands out as the creepiest—but “I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain” features some particularly dark and disturbing imagery. Read until the end—that’s where it gets really creepy.
“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –”
3. “The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot
“The Hollow Men” by T. S. Eliot is probably most well-known for its last four lines:
“This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”
The poem itself is haunting, dealing with post-World War I Europe, the difficulty of hope and religious conversion and even Eliot’s own failed marriage. “The Hollow Men” follows the otherworldly journey of the spiritually dead, realizing their guilt and status as lost, broken souls. These first few lines illustrate how beautifully dark this poem gets:
“We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.”
4. “Her Strong Enchantments Failing” by A.E. Housman
Most of A.E. Housman’s, a classical scholar and emotionally withdrawn man, lyrical poems evoked dooms and disappointments of youth in the English countryside. “Her Strong Enchantments Failing” definitely falls into that “doom” category—make sure to read the entirety of the poem (it’s a short one!) to get the most impact from the chilling final line:
“Her strong enchantments failing,
Her towers of fear in wreck,
Her limbecks dried of poisons
And the knife at her neck,
The Queen of air and darkness
Begins to shrill and cry,
“O young man, O my slayer,
To-morrow you shall die.”
O Queen of air and darkness,
I think ’tis truth you say,
And I shall die tomorrow;
But you will die to-day.”
5. “Dead Man’s Hate” by Robert Ervin Howard
Robert Ervin Howard is best known for his career writing pulp novels, creating the character of Conan the Barbarian, and is widely regarded as the father of the sword and sorcery sub-genre. Howard often wrote tales of monsters, which was true even in his poetry:
“They hanged John Farrel in the dawn amid the marketplace;
At dusk came Adam Brand to him and spat upon his face.
“Ho neighbors all,” spake Adam Brand, “see ye John Farrel’s fate!
“Tis proven here a hempen noose is stronger than man’s hate!
For heard ye not John Farrel’s vow to be avenged upon me
Come life or death? See how he hangs high on the gallows tree!”
Yet never a word the people spoke, in fear and wild surprise-
For the grisly corpse raised up its head and stared with sightless eyes,
And with strange motions, slow and stiff, pointed at Adam Brand
And clambered down the gibbet tree, the noose within its hand.
With gaping mouth stood Adam Brand like a statue carved of stone,
Till the dead man laid a clammy hand hard on his shoulder bone.
Then Adam shrieked like a soul in hell; the red blood left his face
And he reeled away in a drunken run through the screaming market place;
And close behind, the dead man came with a face like a mummy’s mask,
And the dead joints cracked and the stiff legs creaked with their unwonted task.
Men fled before the flying twain or shrank with bated breath,
And they saw on the face of Adam Brand the seal set there by death.
He reeled on buckling legs that failed, yet on and on he fled;
So through the shuddering market-place, the dying fled the dead.
At the riverside fell Adam Brand with a scream that rent the skies;
Across him fell John Farrel’s corpse, nor ever the twain did rise.
There was no wound on Adam Brand but his brow was cold and damp,
For the fear of death had blown out his life as a witch blows out a lamp.
His lips were writhed in a horrid grin like a fiend’s on Satan’s coals,
And the men that looked on his face that day, his stare still haunts their souls.
Such was the fate of Adam Brand, a strange, unearthly fate;
For stronger than death or hempen noose are the fires of a dead man’s hate.”