By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Poetry moves us; it can make us think, see the world in a different way; it can even make us laugh. But can poetry send a shiver down the spine? We think so. Below, we have selected ten of the scariest and most chilling poems. We introduce each of the poems and provide a link to the full poem. So if you’re ready to have your spine tingled, read on …
1. 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.
2. Edgar Allan Poe, ‘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 …
As well as being one of the scariest Gothic poems in the English language, this is also one of the saddest, thanks to its tragic love story. But the way Poe sets the scene – the speaker is alone, at midnight, when someone taps on the door – is enough to make us hold our breath in anticipation.
3. 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.
4. 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 rather 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 …’
So this poem lulls us into a false sense of security, only to unsettle us with its talk of digging up thorn trees and the terrible fate that will befall anyone who does so …
5. Emily Dickinson, ‘I Felt a Funeral, in My Brain’.
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 …
This poem is unsettling partly because of the picture of mental decay it so powerfully depicts: it’s a poem about going mad, about losing one’s grip on reality and feeling sanity slide away. The speaker hears an insistent ‘treading – treading’, which evokes the hammering and turbulence within her brain.
Then, the mourners at this mental funeral sit down and the service takes place, featuring first a drum beating and then – following the creaking lift of the lid of a box, like a coffin lid – a sound that reminds the speaker of a bell (suggesting the tolling of a funeral bell to announce someone’s death).
6. 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 looks over his shoulder, rather than to turn around and extinguish that hope.
7. H. P. Lovecraft, from Fungi from Yuggoth.
The place was dark and dusty and half-lost
In tangles of old alleys near the quays,
Reeking of strange things brought in from the seas,
And with queer curls of fog that west winds tossed …
Perhaps no pick of scary poems would be complete without a poem from the master of supernatural horror and pioneer of ‘weird’ fiction, H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). This poem is part of his longer sequence Fungi from Yuggoth, which is a sequence of 36 sonnets detailing how someone acquires an ancient book full of arcane lore, which allows them to travel to parallel dimensions. The atmosphere of cosmic horror is created so deftly that you could be having nightmares for weeks …
8. Robert Graves, ‘A Child’s Nightmare’.
This poem by the author of I, Claudius and Goodbye to All That should unsettle the most devoted cat-lover, with its description of some strange purring creature, a ‘hideous nightmare thing’, that would loom over the speaker’s bed when he was a small child, purring and uttering the one word, ‘Cat!’
9. Sylvia Plath, ‘The Snowman on the Moor’.
A number of the poems of Sylvia Plath (1932-63) contain unsettling Gothic elements and tropes, and ‘The Snowman on the Moor’ makes our top ten pick of scariest 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 scary poem.
10. Mary Karr, ‘Field of Skulls’.
Have you ever tried staring into the night, the deep darkness that comes late at night? If you do so, Karr tells us in this truly chilling and powerful poem, ‘forms’ will arise from your imagination and take full shape before your eyes: these include the ‘field of skulls’ which gives her poem its title.