Master of the Macabre: Edgar Allan Poe’s Darkest Poems for Halloween

Celebrate Halloween with five of Edgar Allan Poe’s darkest poems. 

There is no doubt that Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most well-known, celebrated American authors to ever put pen to paper, and while most know him as the master of the short story, having written literary classics such as The Tell-Tale Heart, The Masque of the Red Death and The Fall of the House of Usher, few know that Poe’s illustrious, yet short-lived writing career began as a poet in 1827 when he published Tamerlane, and Other Poems, a 40-page collection of poetry, at the age of 18 and under the pseudonym “The Bostonian.” Its release, in which only 50 copies were printed, received no attention whatsoever, but would serve as the foundation for Poe’s career, one that would revolutionize literature and inspire generations of writers.

Two years later, after being discharged from the United States Army and before receiving appointment at the West Point military academy, Poe–who had recently moved back to Baltimore to live with his aunt, Maria Clemm–would continue his writing career and publish a second collection of poetry titled Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems (1829). This collection received slightly more attention than his first but fell, for the most part, on deaf ears and blind eyes. It wouldn’t be until 1831, after a third poetry collection titled Poems was published and after the death of his elder brother, Henry, that Poe would turn his attention from poetry to prose, a form that would prove crucial to the launch of his career.

It would be Poe’s contribution to and shaping of the modern short story, his dark and chilling tales of suspense and horror and his literary critiques in which he emphasized artistic style over social function that he would become a renowned author, albeit not the revered literary master he is today. However, despite his radical rethinking of writing and reconstitution of a “writer’s life,” few recognize the poetic genius that lies within Poe’s poetry, both in his early work and in later poems in which a complete refinement of poetic style is presented to us in his widely-acclaimed, chill-inducing The Raven. Published in 1845, The Raven would be his magnum opus, the one work of his that would transform Poe from the feared Tomahawk Man, a nickname that captures his critiquing style, to the household name he is today.

Much like his short stories, Poe’s poetry deals with death and grief, as well as alienation and isolation. The dark, eerie places he creates with his pose are no scarier than the terrors that await us within our minds, terrors whose apparitions have very real consequences. In what is perhaps my favorite poem of his, Alone, Poe reveals to us his relationship with Isolation and their dynamic, one that seems to be every bit a part of him as his name. In poems like Lenore, To One in Paradise and To One Departed, Poe deals with the death of crucial female figures in his life, first with his mother, then with Virginia, his wife. And while most of Poe’s poetry contain glimpses of the shadows that haunt mankind, we chose poems of his with Eidolons and particularly ghoulish things for ’tis the season of the spook and who other than Edgar Allan Poe could make us cower in fear at that inexplicable “bump” in the night? Here, five Edgar Allan Poe poem’s fit for a Halloween poetry reading.

Dream-Land

By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule-
From a wild clime that lieth, sublime,

Out of SPACE- out of TIME.

Read the full poem here.

Edgar Allan Poe’s Dream-Land describes the strange travels of a voyager who has arrived to a distant, dark land ruled by an Eidolon, a phantom, named NIGHT.

In Poe’s macabre fashion, this dream-world is constructed as a nightmare with skies that are perpetually on fire, seas that roar with tempestuous restlessness, mountains that crumble unto themselves and the ghosts of friends and family whose corporeal is no longer.

And yet, it is in these moments when Poe, as he presents himself on paper, is most at home and even in so dark a land as the one presented in Dream-Land, there is some comfort–T’ is a peaceful, soothing region— to be found in loneliness.

For readers, Dream-Land is the perfect image capturing Poe’s poetic style and themes of interest. As in other works of his, the fantastical realm of the spooky is combined with elements of the real, such as the isolation and alienation that occurs when in a new, foreign place, one you are unfamiliar with and are apprehensive to explore.

The City in the Sea

LO! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
There shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing that is ours.
Around, by lifting winds forgot,
Resignedly beneath the sky

The melancholy waters lie.

Read the full poem here.

In The City in the Sea, the reader enters the dark and gloomy land of Death; a land in which Poe so eloquently states that “the good and the bad and the worst and the best” have gone to rest. It is the sharp plunge the reader takes into this ghostly realm that sets the dark, grim atmosphere for the rest of the poem.

In this land, the only light present is that which emanates from the bowels of the lurid sea surrounding Death’s kingdom. This spectral light casts a warped shadow on the city’s turrets and streets, towers and graves, draping the city in an eternal gloominess where silent horrors lie just around every corner.

In The City in the Sea, Poe is creating more than Death’s ghoulish kingdom; he is creating a place of loneliness and despair, of desperation; a place in which the sun has ceased to shine and the only light to guide the way is one as melancholy as its inhabitant(s), one whose hue can only be tempered by Hell’s reddish glow.

The Haunted Palace

In the greenest of our valleys
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace—
Radiant palace—reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion,
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion

Over fabric half so fair!

Read the full poem here.

Originally released in 1839 as The Haunted Palace, this poem then became incorporated into The Fall of the House of Usher as a song titled In the Greenest of Our Valleys. In The Haunted Palace, order dances with chaos, reason with insanity as the Thought dominion of a ruler’s mind begins to crumble, turning from a stately palace to a dilapidated ruin in which Logic and Reason have fled.

Through establishing the ruler’s former mental state in the first four stanzas with flowery prose that illuminates the “banners, yellow, glorious, golden” that once proudly flapped in the wind, the gentle air that wafted through the streets and the sounds of a “lute’s well-tuned law,” Poe then takes a sharp right that promptly leads us down the dark, winding road to insanity. It is down this road that we meet “evil things, in robes of sorrow” and where the spirits that once moved musically have dissipated into vast forms that now move to a discordant melody, one that recognizes no past and has no future.

It is Poe’s ability to create atmosphere, to take us places where we never dared venture on our own or, if we have ventured to those dark corners of the world, show us the ugly reflection of those places and leave us with no other choice but to confront them that make poems like The City in the Sea so powerful and relevant to the societal and internal pressures of today, pressures that have constructed a society in which 1 in 5 Americans suffer from mental health illness.

In no way is this poem a PSA for mental health illness, but the aesthetic beauty that is Poe’s prose gives readers a glimpse into the world of a mental health sufferer, one in which evil things threaten your very safety and destroy the world around you.

Fairy-Land 

Dim vales—and shadowy floods—
And cloudy-looking woods,
Whose forms we can’t discover
For the tears that drip all over:
Huge moons there wax and wane—
Again—again—again—
Every moment of the night—
Forever changing places—
And they put out the star-light

With the breath from their pale faces.

Read the full poem here.

It should be noted that Poe published two versions of Fairy-Land, the first appearing in 1829 and the second incorporated into his third collection of poetry, Poems. In the latter, Poe frames the former as a story within a conversation but it is the first in which the dream is presented as the whole that we delve into for Halloween.

In Fairy-Land, a land of whimsy is turned into an eerie land where the fantastical becomes the ghoulish. Pale faces peep behind forms dripping with tears and the irrational manifests itself in a yellow Albatross that signals to the reader that everything here–the ghouls and melancholy–is but a product of the observer’s, a role in which the reader takes on, imagination. It is our ability to construct these dark places for ourselves that both makes us human and defines our condition.

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.
“’Tis 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.

Read the full poem here.

Consider The Raven Edgar Allan Poe’s “drop the mic” moment because if you really think about it, this man is the godfather of rap. With a rhyming scheme and repetition that echoes the pangs of memory and shakes the heart with grief, the reader also becomes a prisoner in that room and his grief over his eternal love Lenore becomes our grief as we too find ourselves attempting to flee the Raven’s penetrating eye and biting tongue, haunting reminders of what once was but no longer is.

The Raven captures the grief’s eternal presence as a rude visitor, unwilling to leave and whose only contribution to conversation is nevermore.  It is the finality of that one word, nevermore, the blackness that stretches beyond its bounds that chills us as readers and makes this poem so endearing and everlasting, an homage to the bleakness of what it means to be human and to have loved and lost.

Poe’s work haunts us for many reasons, but in addition to the dark and macabre images his poetry and short stories weave, it is the chilling and desolate, devoid of human life, places he takes us that penetrate our spirit, reminding us of the joys and despairs that make up life. Poe’s ability to capture the darker side of humanity in feelings of isolation and loneliness, and depression and grief, are what linger with us, inspiring us to explore ourselves through written expression and teaching us how with sincerity and passion.

*Feature image via We Shape Life

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