Poetry and magic share a curious history, since shamans and priests of ancient times would chant verses and incantations as part of their rituals designed to heal the sick, influence the weather, or appeal to the gods. So we might even say there is something peculiarly ‘magical’ about poetry.
Below, we introduce ten of the very best poems about magic and the supernatural, featuring witches, black magic, fairies, ghosts, and much else.
1. William Shakespeare, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire!
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon’s sphere;
And I serve the Fairy Queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green;
The cowslips tall her pensioners be;
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours;
In those freckles live their savours;
I must go seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.
These words are spoken (or sung) by one of the fairies in what is probably Shakespeare’s most fantastical play: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Puck asks a fairy where he has been, and the fairy weaves this enchanting song in response.
2. John Donne, ‘The Apparition’.
When by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead
And that thou think’st thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feign’d vestal, in worse arms shall see …
So begins this ghostly poem by the master of metaphysical poetry, John Donne (1572-1631). Perhaps surprisingly, it’s actually a seduction poem, which sees Donne attempting to talk a woman into bed by telling her that, by refusing to entertain him, she is killing him. Once he is dead from her neglect, he says, his ghost will come and visit her…
3. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, ‘The Magic Net’.
A charming little tale of enchantment, given in verse, from Germany’s foremost Romantic writer and philosopher. As Goethe’s treatment of the Faust legend reveals, he had a long-standing interest in magic and the occult, and this poem, whilst not as well-known, is delightful.
4. Percy Shelley, The Witch of Atlas.
’Tis said, she first was changed into a vapour,
And then into a cloud, such clouds as flit,
Like splendour-wingèd moths about a taper,
Round the red west when the sun dies in it:
And then into a meteor, such as caper
On hill-tops when the moon is in a fit:
Then, into one of those mysterious stars
Which hide themselves between the Earth and Mars …
This long narrative poem, one of Shelley’s most important works, was written in 1820 but not published until two years after his death. It details the adventures of the titular Witch who lives in a cave by a secret fountain. The Witch creates a hermaphrodite creature out of fire and snow. Together, they cast spells over kings, priests, and other authority figures, causing mischief and shaking things up – in a work that symbolises Shelley’s own desire to change the world.
5. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Lilian’.
Airy, Fairy Lilian,
Flitting, fairy Lilian,
When I ask her if she love me,
Claps her tiny hands above me,
Laughing all she can;
She’ll not tell me if she love me,
Cruel little Lilian …
Its first line the origin of the now-ubiquitous phrase ‘airy-fairy’, this little-known early poem by the greatest of the Victorian poets is about a fairy who has a cruel side, for she will not tell the speaker whether she loves him. But it’s the speaker himself whose thoughts take a dark turn in the poem’s final stanza …
6. Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Haunted Palace’.
Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow
(This—all this—was in the olden
Time long ago)
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A wingèd odor went away.
The palace of this poem is a palace of the mind, found in ‘the monarch Thought’s dominion’. This is a haunted palace because, whilst it is beautiful, it is also inhabited by ‘evil things, in robes of sorrow’ which ‘assailed the monarch’s high estate’. This poem may well have had its origins in Poe’s own troubled life, his battle with alcoholism, and his bouts of depression, and is thus an example of how the supernatural often functions as a symbol for a poet’s inner demons.
7. William Allingham, ‘The Fairies’.
Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather!
Allingham was an Irish poet, and this is his most famous poem, chock full of supernatural elements. It’s a mysterious poem in which the fairies are at once endearing and twee and menacing: the speaker tells us that ‘Is any man so daring / As dig them up in spite, / He shall find their sharpest thorns / In his bed at night …’
8. Emily Dickinson, ‘I Think I Was Enchanted’.
I think I was enchanted
When first a sombre Girl—
I read that Foreign Lady—
The Dark—felt beautiful—
And whether it was noon at night—
Or only Heaven—at Noon—
For very Lunacy of Light
I had not power to tell …
Of course, poetry can itself enchant, as the deep-rooted connection between religious ritual and incantation demonstrates. And this poem, by one of America’s finest poets of the nineteenth century, was supposedly written about the enchanting poetry of the British poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
9. Mary Coleridge, ‘The Witch’.
I have walked a great while over the snow,
And I am not tall nor strong.
My clothes are wet, and my teeth are set,
And the way was hard and long.
I have wandered over the fruitful earth,
But I never came here before.
Oh, lift me over the threshold, and let me in at the door!
So begins this Victorian poem which offers us an ambiguous ‘witch’ as its (initial) speaker: she appears to be some sort of outcast, making a journey to visit a man, perhaps her beloved. Is she a depiction of the much-shunned Victorian ‘fallen woman’? She has the power to make the fire die in the grate, so she seems to possess some otherworldly power or aura. Coleridge was the great-grand-niece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
10. W. B. Yeats, ‘Supernatural Songs’.
Here in the pitch-dark atmosphere above
The trembling of the apple and the yew,
Here on the anniversary of their death,
The anniversary of their first embrace,
Those lovers, purified by tragedy,
Hurry into each other’s arms; these eyes,
By water, herb and solitary prayer
Made aquiline, are open to that light …
Perhaps no list of classic poems about magic and the supernatural would be complete without something from W. B. Yeats – who, as well as writing political poems about the situation in Ireland, also wrote about the Celtic Twilight and had a long-standing interest in the occult and supernatural, as his ‘Supernatural Songs’ demonstrate.