With Halloween coming up and spookiness in the air, it seemed like a good time to share ten of the most haunting, uncanny, and unsettling poems — that are also the most beautiful.
“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” John Keats
Has this man abducted by a fairy-lover, or did he actually abduct her? What kind of kinky stuff is happening between them, and why is there a parade of ghostly kings? This is Keats at his wildest and creepiest.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, Alone and palely loitering? The sedge has withered from the lake, And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, So haggard and so woe-begone? The squirrel’s granary is full, And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow, With anguish moist and fever-dew, And on thy cheeks a fading rose Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads, Full beautiful—a faery’s child, Her hair was long, her foot was light, And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head, And bracelets too, and fragrant zone; She looked at me as she did love, And made sweet moan
I set her on my pacing steed, And nothing else saw all day long, For sidelong would she bend, and sing A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet, And honey wild, and manna-dew, And sure in language strange she said— ‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her Elfin grot, And there she wept and sighed full sore, And there I shut her wild wild eyes With kisses four.
And there she lullèd me asleep, And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!— The latest dream I ever dreamt On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too, Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci Hath thee in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam, With horrid warning gapèd wide, And I awoke and found me here, On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here, Alone and palely loitering, Though the sedge is withered from the lake, And no birds sing.
“Full Fathom Five,” from “Ariel’s Song” William Shakespeare
This short but oft-quoted passage from The Tempest describes a dead man lying under the ocean with nymphs circling around his coral and pearl body, singing a song. Creepy!
Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange. Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: Ding-dong. Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.
“Goblin Market” Christina Rosetti
This strange, long poem (illustrated above by Dante Gabriel Rosetti) has the creepiest array of goblins ever, incestuous sisterly homoeroticism, dizzy spells, and a forcible fruit-eating scene (below) that is genuinely horrifying and also sort of funny?
Laugh’d every goblin
When they spied her peeping:
Came towards her hobbling,
Flying, running, leaping,
Puffing and blowing,
Chuckling, clapping, crowing,
Clucking and gobbling,
Mopping and mowing,
Full of airs and graces,
Pulling wry faces,
Cat-like and rat-like,
Ratel- and wombat-like,
Snail-paced in a hurry,
Parrot-voiced and whistler,
Helter skelter, hurry skurry,
Chattering like magpies,
Fluttering like pigeons,
Gliding like fishes,—
Hugg’d her and kiss’d her:
Squeez’d and caress’d her:
Stretch’d up their dishes,
Panniers, and plates:
“Look at our apples
Russet and dun,
Bob at our cherries,
Bite at our peaches,
Citrons and dates,
Grapes for the asking,
Pears red with basking
Out in the sun,
Plums on their twigs;
Pluck them and suck them,
“Good folk,” said Lizzie,
Mindful of Jeanie:
“Give me much and many: —
Held out her apron,
Toss’d them her penny.
“Nay, take a seat with us,
Honour and eat with us,”
They answer’d grinning:
“Our feast is but beginning.
Night yet is early,
Warm and dew-pearly,
Wakeful and starry:
Such fruits as these
No man can carry:
Half their bloom would fly,
Half their dew would dry,
Half their flavour would pass by.
Sit down and feast with us,
Be welcome guest with us,
Cheer you and rest with us.”—
“Thank you,” said Lizzie: “But one waits
At home alone for me:
So without further parleying,
If you will not sell me any
Of your fruits though much and many,
Give me back my silver penny
I toss’d you for a fee.”—
They began to scratch their pates,
No longer wagging, purring,
But visibly demurring,
Grunting and snarling.
One call’d her proud,
Their tones wax’d loud,
Their looks were evil.
Lashing their tails
They trod and hustled her,
Elbow’d and jostled her,
Claw’d with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soil’d her stocking,
Twitch’d her hair out by the roots,
Stamp’d upon her tender feet,
Held her hands and squeez’d their fruits
Against her mouth to make her eat.
“Mad Girl’s Love Song”Sylvia Plath
A disturbing, lovely, and intimate look at mental illness, hallucinations, and young love from young Plath, with a cameo from seraphim and Satan’s henchmen.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; I lift my lids and all is born again. (I think I made you up inside my head.)
The stars go waltzing out in blue and red, And arbitrary blackness gallops in: I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane. (I think I made you up inside my head.)
God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade: Exit seraphim and Satan’s men: I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
I fancied you’d return the way you said, But I grow old and I forget your name. (I think I made you up inside my head.)
I should have loved a thunderbird instead; At least when spring comes they roar back again. I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. (I think I made you up inside my head.)”
“Reapers” Jean Toomer
I’ve been haunted by the image of a small rodent in the path of reapers since I first read this poem in grade school. It contains a lot of symbolism about race, violence. and American society, but it’s also plain creepy.
Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones Are sharpening scythes. I see them place the hones In their hip-pockets as a thing that’s done, And start their silent swinging, one by one. Black horses drive a mower through the weeds, And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds. His belly close to ground. I see the blade, Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade.
“The Stolen Child” W.B. Yeats
This is the ultimate poem about changelings, or children taken away by fairies and exchanged (often an explanation for the frequent deaths of children). The creepiest thing about it? It kind of makes going off to fairyland sound really tempting. Damn you, Yeats, you’re good.
Where dips the rocky highland Of Sleuth Wood in the lake, There lies a leafy island Where flapping herons wake The drowsy water-rats. There we’ve hid our fairy vats Full of berries, And of reddest stolen cherries. Come away, O, human child! To the woods and waters wild With a fairy hand in hand, For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Where the wave of moonlight glosses The dim grey sands with light, Far off by farthest Rosses We foot it all the night, Weaving olden dances, Mingling hands, and mingling glances, Till the moon has taken flight; To and fro we leap, And chase the frothy bubbles, While the world is full of troubles And is anxious in its sleep. Come away! O, human child! To the woods and waters wild, With a fairy hand in hand, For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Where the wandering water gushes From the hills above Glen-Car, In pools among the rushes, That scarce could bathe a star, We seek for slumbering trout, And whispering in their ears; We give them evil dreams, Leaning softly out From ferns that drop their tears Of dew on the young streams. Come! O, human child! To the woods and waters wild, With a fairy hand in hand, For the world’s more full of weeping then you can understand.
Away with us, he’s going, The solemn-eyed; He’ll hear no more the lowing Of the calves on the warm hill-side. Or the kettle on the hob Sing peace into his breast; Or see the brown mice bob Round and round the oatmeal chest. For he comes, the human child, To the woods and waters wild, With a fairy hand in hand, For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.
“Outcast” Claude McKay
This haunting sonnet compares being black in America to being a ghost, wandering and alone.
For the dim regions whence my fathers came My spirit, bondaged by the body, longs. Words felt, but never heard, my lips would frame; My soul would sing forgotten jungle songs.
I would go back to darkness and to peace, But the great western world holds me in fee, And I may never hope for full release While to its alien gods I bend my knee.
Something in me is lost, forever lost, Some vital thing has gone out of my heart, And I must walk the way of life a ghost Among the sons of earth, a thing apart; For I was born, far from my native clime, Under the white man’s menace, out of time.
“Love in the Asylum” Dylan Thomas
I think of this as a companion of sorts to the Plath poem, with its similar imagery of mad visions and desperate love. And just knowing, from the title, that this is all taking place in an asylum makes it all extra creepy.
A stranger has come To share my room in the house not right in the head, A girl mad as birds
Bolting the night of the door with her arm her plume. Strait in the mazed bed She deludes the heaven-proof house with entering clouds
Yet she deludes with walking the nightmarish room, At large as the dead, Or rides the imagined oceans of the male wards.
She has come possessed Who admits the delusive light through the bouncing wall, Possessed by the skies
She sleeps in the narrow trough yet she walks the dust Yet raves at her will On the madhouse boards worn thin by my walking tears.
And taken by light in her arms at long and dear last I may without fail Suffer the first vision that set fire to the stars.
“I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain.”
It’s hard to choose a particularly creepy Dickinson poem from the lot, but this one has an especially disturbing set of images.
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 –
From “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The “Rime“ is one of the greatest pieces of Romantic literature. And the section of this epic poem in which the dead sailors get up and start sailing the boat again without seeing anything is as terrifying as anything in the horror genre.
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.
‘I fear thee, ancient Mariner!’
Be calm, thou Wedding-Guest!
‘Twas not those souls that fled in pain,
Which to their corses came again,
But a troop of spirits blest:
For when it dawned—they dropped their arms,
And clustered round the mast;
Sweet sounds rose slowly through their mouths,
And from their bodies passed.
Around, around, flew each sweet sound,
Then darted to the Sun;
Slowly the sounds came back again,
Now mixed, now one by one.
Sometimes a-dropping from the sky
I heard the sky-lark sing;
Sometimes all little birds that are,
How they seemed to fill the sea and air
With their sweet jargoning!
And now ’twas like all instruments,
Now like a lonely flute;
And now it is an angel’s song,
That makes the heavens be mute.
It ceased; yet still the sails made on
A pleasant noise till noon,
A noise like of a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.
Till noon we quietly sailed on,
Yet never a breeze did breathe:
Slowly and smoothly went the ship,
Moved onward from beneath.
Under the keel nine fathom deep,
From the land of mist and snow,
The spirit slid: and it was he
That made the ship to go.
The sails at noon left off their tune,
And the ship stood still also.
The Sun, right up above the mast,
Had fixed her to the ocean:
But in a minute she ‘gan stir,
With a short uneasy motion—
Backwards and forwards half her length
With a short uneasy motion.
Then like a pawing horse let go,
She made a sudden bound:
It flung the blood into my head,
And I fell down in a swound.