The best Halloween poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
What are the best poems about Halloween, the best poems for Halloween? In this post, we’ve gathered up a mixture of the two: some of the following ten poems are specifically about Halloween, while others are suitably Gothic poems to enjoy on or around Halloween. So, if you have your pumpkin at the ready, get ready to click on the title of each poem to take you through to a treat rather than a trick …
1. Robert Fergusson, ‘Hallow-Fair’.
At Hallowmas, whan nights grow lang,
And starnies shine fu’ clear,
Whan fock, the nippin cauld to bang,
Their winter hapwarms wear;
Near Edinburgh a fair there hads,
I wat there’s nane whase name is,
For strappin dames and sturdy lads,
And cap and stoup, mair famous
Than it that day …
Robert Fergusson died aged just 24 in 1774, and might be seen as a sort of precursor to Robert Burns, who was just a teenager at the time of Fergusson’s death. Fergusson’s ‘Hallow-Fair’ (1772) is a great Halloween poem to begin this list: it’s rich in Scots dialect and offers a window onto eighteenth-century Scotland, focusing on the Hallowmas Fair held annually (usually on 1 November, so the day after All Hallows’ Eve) in Edinburgh.
2. Robert Burns, ‘Halloween’.
Upon that night, when fairies light
On Cassilis Downans dance,
Or owre the lays, in splendid blaze,
On sprightly coursers prance;
Or for Colean the rout is ta’en,
Beneath the moon’s pale beams;
There, up the Cove, to stray an’ rove,
Amang the rocks and streams
To sport that night …
Like Fergusson’s ‘Hallow Fair’, Burns’s ‘Hallowe’en’ (1785) provides a valuable snapshot of eighteenth-century life, as well as the Halloween customs and observances (including the prophecies or predictions) which marked the festival. For Burns, Halloween is a night on which the usual rules can be overturned or, at least, suspended – it’s as if anything might happen.
3. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Christabel’.
Is the night chilly and dark?
The night is chilly, but not dark.
The thin gray cloud is spread on high,
It covers but not hides the sky …
If you go down in the woods today – or rather tonight – and your name is Christabel, you’d better beware… Coleridge’s classic poem is one of the great Gothic poems in English literature. It’s got it all: mysterious night-time encounters, enigmatic characters, and even two women who end up going to bed together, if that’s your sort of thing for Halloween.
The poem focuses on the titular character’s encounter with Geraldine, who claims to have escaped from a gang of men who kidnapped her. Coleridge completed the first two parts of the poem in 1800, but Wordsworth advised his friend to leave it out of the second edition of Lyrical Ballads published that year, and so the unfinished ‘Christabel’ wasn’t published until 1816.
4. John Keats, ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’.
St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith …
This poem had to make it onto a list of the best poems for Halloween for two reasons. One is its suitably Gothic atmosphere, and the other is the fact that its author, John Keats, was born on Halloween – 31 October, 1795.
On a cold night in a medieval castle, a young lover breaks into his sweetheart’s chamber, hides in her closet, and then persuades her semi-conscious self to run away with him. It’s a dark and stormy night on which the two lovers elope, which makes this poem a great addition to this pick of the finest Halloween poems.
5. Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Ulalume’.
The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crispéd and sere—
The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year;
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
In the misty mid region of Weir—
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir …
Surprised that we’ve opted for this poem rather than the far more famous ‘The Raven’? Much as we were tempted to include ‘The Raven’ here, ‘Ulalume’ (1847) seems to fit the bill for great Halloween poems much more neatly. And it even shares, with ‘The Raven’, a narrator who has lost his loved one.
The brooding narrator wanders the moors one October night, unaware that he is meandering in the direction of the tomb of his lost beloved. Although criticised for privileging stylish sound-effects over richness of content (by Aldous Huxley among others, who called it, in something of a mixed review, ‘a carapace of jewelled sound’), the poem is a great one for reading aloud during the Halloween season.
6. Robert Browning, ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’.
My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
Askance to watch the working of his lie
On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
Suppression of the glee, that purs’d and scor’d
Its edge, at one more victim gain’d thereby …
This remarkable dramatic monologue, first published in 1855, recasts the Victorian penchant for medievalism into an altogether darker frame: the poem details the quest of the titular Roland to find the elusive Dark Tower. Browning creates a vivid dreamscape out of his fevered imagination and his attempts to overcome writer’s block in the early 1850s.
Browning borrowed the title for his grotesquely Gothic poem from a line in Shakespeare’s King Lear; the character of Roland as he appears in Browning’s poem has in turn inspired Stephen King to write his Dark Tower series.
7. Christina Rossetti, ‘Goblin Market’.
Evening by evening
Among the brookside rushes,
Laura bow’d her head to hear,
Lizzie veil’d her blushes:
Crouching close together
In the cooling weather,
With clasping arms and cautioning lips,
With tingling cheeks and finger tips …
Given its supernatural theme, this long poem – which launched the poetic career of Christina Rossetti when it was published in 1862 – is a great poem to discover, or revisit, for Halloween.
Put briefly, it’s a narrative poem about two sisters, Lizzie and Laura, the latter of whom succumbs to temptation and tastes the delicious and exotic fruit sold by the goblins of the poem’s title. What follows has been read as a commentary on Victorian attitudes to women, female sexuality, and even the market economy concerning fruit (and we’re only partly kidding about that last one).
8. Thomas Hardy, ‘The Shadow on the Stone’.
I went by the Druid stone
That broods in the garden white and lone,
And I stopped and looked at the shifting shadows
That at some moments fall thereon
From the tree hard by with a rhythmic swing,
And they shaped in my imagining
To the shade that a well-known head and shoulders
Threw there when she was gardening …
Begun in 1913 – when Hardy was busy writing some of his finest poetry, in response to the death of his estranged first wife Emma – ‘The Shadow on the Stone’ was inspired by a Neolithic stone block in the grounds of Hardy’s home, Max Gate. Hardy fancies he sees the ghostly shadow of his former wife hard at work in the garden; imagining his wife stands behind him, Hardy thinks of turning around, but decides against it – preferring to entertain the possibility that Emma’s ghost does look over his shoulder, rather than to turn around and extinguish that hope.
9. John Kendrick Bangs, ‘Halloween’.
The ghosts of all things past parade,
Emerging from the mist and shade
That hid them from our gaze,
And, full of song and ringing mirth,
In one glad moment of rebirth,
And again they walk the ways of earth
As in the ancient days …
Bangs (1862-1922) might have been worth mentioning in this list for his marvellous name alone, but as it happens, his poem ‘Halloween’ is a classic popular poem about Halloween and more than earns its place on this list, with its image of witches riding on their broomsticks and cackling ‘Unto the Hunter’s Moon’ and the ghosts of the past roaming the Earth once more.
10. Sylvia Plath, ‘The Snowman on the Moor’.
A number of the poems of Sylvia Plath (1932-63) contain Gothic elements and tropes, and ‘The Snowman on the Moor’ makes our top ten pick of great Halloween poems because it’s got more than its fair share of them.
It’s about a woman who walks out on her husband in order to wander the moors, only to be hunted down by him and brought back home. The likening of the woman to a ghost, and the description of the ‘giant’ husband as ‘corpse-like’ – and the collection of women’s skulls he carries in his belt – make for a suitably Gothic poem.
If you enjoyed this collection of Gothic poems for Halloween, discover more spooky stuff with our interesting literary-themed Halloween facts. Discover more classic poetry with these birthday poems, these unsentimental poems for wedding ceremonies, and these poems about beaches.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (top): Illustration to Robert Burns’ poem Halloween by J.M. Wright and Edward Scriven (c. 1841), via Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): Snap-Apple Night by Daniel Maclise (1833), via Wikimedia Commons.