Halloween in the Poetry Corner

It may be set “in the bleak December,” but I think “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe deserves its spot in the Poetry Corner for Halloween. It blends generic spookiness with the remembrance of the departed that lies at the root (or at least the trunk) of All Hallows’ Eve. If there’s a poem that does that better, I can’t think of it.

By the way, I’ve always been a little suspicious of Halloween, and I confess some sympathy with the people who deplore its celebration, even if their fervor frightens me nearly as much as the occult does. For now, I overcome my doubts about the social practice by observing the innocence of my own children’s delight in it. But if my daughter ever follows the pre-teens featured in this Post story (H/T to Fitz), I may change my tune.

But I digress. Here is “The Raven”:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘T is some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door;
Only this and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore,
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore:
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“‘T is some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door,
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door:
This it is and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door:—
Darkness there and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore:”
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore;
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore:
‘T is the wind and nothing more.”

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door,
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door:
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,—
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore:
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door,
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”

But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered, not a feather then he fluttered,
Till I scarcely more than muttered,—”Other friends have flown before;
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said, “Nevermore.”

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore:
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘Never—nevermore.’

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore,
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o’er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!”
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! prophet still, if bird or devil!
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore:
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us, by that God we both adore,
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore:
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting:
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

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!


2 Responses to “Halloween in the Poetry Corner”

  1. David Fitzgerald Says:

    My six year old’s answer to Poe:


    A blowing blustery day where . . .
    Underneath the leaves scatter.
    The apples start to get mouldy
    Up above, the leaves dance in the sky.
    Maybe a tree will fall today.
    Not everybody likes Autumn!

  2. David Fitzgerald Says:

    As usual, after reading one of Grannis’ posts, I find my thoughts flying off in a number of different directions. I think there is something important in what he’s alluding to here, but I’m not quite sure I have it all together. Here’s a stab at it.

    Let me start by saying I hate Halloween. To be more precise, I hate the over-commercialized, over-hyped, over-sexed (in the most constricting, earnest, pressurized and pre-pornographic way, as alluded to in the Post article Mark hyperlinked), stiltified holiday it has become. The Celtic holiday of Samhain (which is the bookend to Beltaine (May Day)) is about transitions. It is a harvest festival, originally marking the passage from summer to winter, day to night, light to darkness, life to death. The medieval Church, still at home with (if deeply troubled by) its pagan antecedents, understood that Samhain would be a perfect time to relocate the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. Let’s ritually deal with all our terrors at once, so to speak.

    Like all transitions, the passage of the seasons is inherently unsettling and, especially in an agricultural society facing a long, uncertain winter, even a bit terrifiying. Of course, in the best Celtic tradition, the Irish, when faced with terror, decided to laugh. In the interstices between night and day, life and death, winter and summer, the normal rules should be suspended. The inherently serious business of staying alive, and the cultural and societal rules that made living possible, for a night, are set aside. Free reign is given to the imagination, ghosts, goblins and all manner of creatures, normally confined to the world of the spirit, walk the earth, ritually. Conjure women, who always inhabit that uncertain realm between life and death and who make their very living in and around the birth canal, are, for this night, celebrated. In short, Halloween is a night for the unserious, the playful, the care free.

    As an aside, and in a nod to Jim Walsh, it is a night when we should be putting away the earnestness of Baal and celebrating the freedom of YHWH. There is certainly something of the freedom of the God of the outcasts, the apiru, those who dwell on the borders between civilized society and the wilderness, in the spirit of Samhain. Another way of phrasing this, again nodding to Jim, it is a night when we reject the either/or and embrace the both/and.

    Children, of course, get this. Since they spend much of their time rebelling against civilizing influences (well…at least mine do),playful feasts like this, to quote Poe, are the Balm of Gilead.

    I think the article from the post and the link Mark provided to the “Christian” website display the disturbing cultural tendency to “make serious” that which should playful. I think it quite illuminating that it is pre-adolescent girls, inherently on the cusp between childhood and burgeoning femininity, pushed by an inexorable and perhaps irresistable marketing colosus, who have lost the fun in Halloween and have transformed the event into another round of driving from store to store with Mom, insisting all the time how “important” it is that they “look good” on Halloween. This is truly innocence lost. Yes Virginia, much to my chagrin, you are a 21st century adult. Let’s hope you can still be saved.

    The solution posed by the “Christian” is like pumping water into the Titanic. All of the innocence and joy of Halloween, and perhaps of our culture generally, has been sucked away by commercialization and objectifying sexuality so, let’s try to get it back by starting a holy war, sanctioned by Christ, against anything which smacks of paganism. That’s what I call fighting fire with fire. I hear the Taliban is recruiting in Afghanistan.

    As we enter this holiday season, I’m hoping we can recapture some of the humility, the sense of human frailty in the face of the passage of time, that prompted the festivals in the first place. In that honest assessment of the human condition, and the joy we have in celebrating the grace of a God that has entered into it, may we all find joy.

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