TCS: Birthplace of Phantoms – a Prelude to Halloween

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Believe nothing you hear, and
only one half that you see.

–  Edgar Allan Poe


What we now call Halloween has evolved from the pagan Samhain or Samhuin (SAH-win or SOW-in – rhymes with cow), which was the first day of the new year in the ancient Celtic calendar, the beginning of the “darker half” of the year. Samhain is Irish Gaelic.  Samhuin is Scotts Gaelic.

Late October has long been the time of year for ghost stories, and other uncanny tales.

So make a cup of something hot to wrap your hands around, and wrap up the rest of you in something soft and comforting. If you listen carefully in the dim hush before the busyness of full daylight, you just might hear the murmur of a voice silenced long ago, or feel the subtle brush of a remembered hand over your hair. 

Felicia Hemans is the only one of today’s poets who was not born in late October, but this poem of hers combines poetic fancy with the otherworldly too well not to include it.

The Rock of Cader Idris

by Felicia Hemans

It is an old tradition of the Welsh bards, that on the summit of the mountain Cader Idris is an excavation resembling a couch; and that whoever should pass a night in that hollow, would be found in the morning either dead, in a state of frenzy, or endowed with the highest poetical inspiration.

I lay on that rock where the storms have their dwelling,
The birthplace of phantoms, the home of the cloud;
Around it for ever deep music is swelling,
The voice of the mountain-wind, solemn and loud.
‘Twas a midnight of shadows all fitfully streaming,
Of wild waves and breezes, that mingled their moan;
Of dim shrouded stars, as from gulfs faintly gleaming;
And I met the dread gloom of its grandeur alone.

I lay there in silence — a spirit came o’er me;
Man’s tongue hath no language to speak what I saw:
Things glorious, unearthly, pass’d floating before me,
And my heart almost fainted with rapture and awe.
I view’d the dread beings around us that hover,
Though veil’d by the mists of mortality’s breath;
And I call’d upon darkness the vision to cover,
For a strife was within me of madness and death.

I saw them — the powers of the wind and the ocean,
The rush of whose pinion bears onward the storms;
Like the sweep of the white-rolling wave was their motion,
I felt their dim presence, — but knew not their forms!
I saw them — the mighty of ages departed —
The dead were around me that night on the hill:
From their eyes, as they pass’d, a cold radiance they darted, —
There was light on my soul, but my heart’s blood was chill.

I saw what man looks on, and dies — but my spirit
Was strong, and triumphantly lived through that hour;
And, as from the grave, I awoke to inherit
A flame all immortal, a voice, and a power!
Day burst on that rock with the purple cloud crested,
And high Cader Idris rejoiced in the sun; —
But O! what new glory all nature invested,
When the sense which gives soul to her beauty was won!


“The Rock of Cader Idris” from The Poetical Works of Felicia Dorothea Hemans – Oxford University Press, 1914

Felicia Hemans (1793-1835) born as Felicia Browne in Liverpool; English poet whose family moved to Wales when she was a small child. She would later call Wales “Land of my childhood, my home and my dead.” She became proficient in Welsh, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, and was reading Shakespeare by the age of six. Her first poems were published when she was 15, and caused Percy Bysshe Shelley to write her a few letters of encouragement. Her marriage at age 19 to Captain Alfred Hemans, an Irish army officer, took her to Ireland, where she remained even after they separated. After the separation, the theme of choosing between caged domestication and freedom of thought and expression appeared in a number of her poems. In all, she published 19 volumes of poetry and prose. Her poetry collections included The Forest Sanctuary and Songs of the Affections. She is mostly remembered for two of her opening lines: “The boy stood on the burning deck” from her poem “Casablanca,” and “The stately homes of England,” made famous by Noël Coward’s parody of the original. She died of dropsy (edema) at age 41 in Dublin in 1835.

John Berryman, born October 25 –  Being born near Halloween not been a fortunate happenstance for several of today’s writers, including John Berryman.

Dream Song 29

by John Berryman

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
so heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;
thinking.

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.


Dream Song 29 from The Dream Songs, © 1969 by John Berryman, renewed 1997 by Kate Donahur Berryman – Farrar Straus and Giroux

John Berryman (1914-1972), American poet and scholar born as John Smith in Oklahoma; noted for The Dream Songs, a collection of 385 eighteen-line lyric poems in three stanzas, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.  When he was 12 years old, his father shot himself just outside the boy’s bedroom window, which became a recurring subject in his poetry. After his mother remarried, he took his stepfather’s surname. Berryman graduated from Columbia in 1936, then went to study at Cambridge University for two years on a scholarship. In 1948, he published his first important book of poetry, The Dispossessed. After teaching at Harvard and Princeton, he became a professor at the University of Minnesota, where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1956, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, a “dialogue” with the 17th century poet Anne Bradstreet, brought more critical acclaim. 77 Dream Songs from 1964 and 1968’s His Dream, His Rest were combined in The Dream Songs in 1969, and became his masterwork. Berryman’s lifelong struggles with alcoholism and depression ended at age 58 in 1972, when he jumped off a Minneapolis bridge a week after New Year’s.

Thomas Babbington Macaulay, October 25 – Overwork was probably a contributory cause of death for this busy man.

The Last Buccaneer

by Thomas Babbington Macaulay

The winds were yelling, the waves were swelling,
The sky was black and drear,
When the crew with eyes of flame brought the ship without a name
Alongside the last Buccaneer.

“Whence flies your sloop full sail before so fierce a gale,
When all others drive bare on the seas?
Say, come ye from the shore of the holy Salvador,
Or the gulf of the rich Caribbees?”

“From a shore no search hath found, from a gulf no line can sound,
Without rudder or needle we steer;
Above, below, our bark, dies the sea-fowl and the shark,
As we fly by the last Buccaneer.

“To-night there shall be heard on the rocks of Cape de Verde,
A loud crash, and a louder roar;
And to-morrow shall the deep, with a heavy moaning, sweep
The corpses and wreck to the shore.”

The stately ship of Clyde securely now may ride,
In the breath of the citron shades;
And Severn’s towering mast securely now flies fast,
Through the sea of the balmy Trades.

From St Jago’s wealthy port, from Havannah’s royal fort,
The seaman goes forth without fear;
For since that stormy night not a mortal hath had sight
Of the flag of the last Buccaneer.


“The Last Buccaneer” from The Poems of Thomas Babbington Macaulay, published in 1911, and re-published by Kessinger Publishing in 2008

Thomas Babbington Macaulay (1800-1859) English poet and historian notable for his books on British and Roman history, who was also a Whig politician. He served as Paymaster-General (1846-1848), Secretary at War (1839-1841), Member of Parliament for Edinburgh (1838-1847 and 1852-1856), and member of the Supreme Council of India (1834-1838). He was among the advocates for the establishment of the National Portrait Gallery, and served as one of its founding trustees (1856-1859). Macaulay died of a heart attack at age 59 in 1859. He is buried in Poet’s corner in Westminster Abbey.

Sylvia Plath, October 27 – This writer’s struggles are well documented in her most famous book, but much of the rest of her work has been overlooked.

Two Sisters of Persephone

by Sylvia Plath

Two girls there are: within the house
One sits; the other, without.
Daylong a duet of shade and light
Plays between these.

In her dark wainscoted room
The first works problems on
A mathematical machine.
Dry ticks mark time

As she calculates each sum.
At this barren enterprise
Rat-shrewd go her squint eyes,
Root-pale her meager frame.

Bronzed as earth, the second lies,
Hearing ticks blown gold
Like pollen on bright air. Lulled
Near a bed of poppies,

She sees how their red silk flare
Of petaled blood
Burns open to the sun’s blade.
On that green altar

Freely become sun’s bride, the latter
Grows quick with seed.
Grass-couched in her labor’s pride,
She bears a king. Turned bitter

And sallow as any lemon,
The other, wry virgin to the last,
Goes graveward with flesh laid waste,
Worm-husbanded, yet no woman;

Inscribed above her head, these lines:
While flowering, ladies, scant love not
Lest all your fruit
Be but this black outcrop of stones.


“Two Sisters of Persephone” appeared in Poetry magazine’s January 1957 issue.

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963 ) American poet, novelist, and  short-story writer born in Massachusetts. She was eight when she published her first poem. She won a scholarship to Smith College in 1950. Plath struggled with depression most of her life, and made her first suicide attempt in 1953. She married English poet Ted Hughes in 1956. They had two children before separating in 1962. Though best-known for The Bell Jar, her semi-autobiographical novel, she wrote over 400 poems. Plath committed suicide at age 30 in 1963. Her best known poetry collections are The Colossus and Other Poems and Ariel. Her Collected Poems, published in 1981, was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

John Keats, October 31 – I think being born on Halloween did have an impact on this poet’s imagination.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

by John Keats

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
  Alone and palely loitering;
The sedge is withered from the lake,
  And no birds sing.

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
  So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
  And the harvest’s done.

I see a lilly on thy brow,
  With anguish moist and fever dew;
And on thy cheek a fading rose
  Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads
  Full beautiful, a faery’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
  And her eyes were wild.

I set her on my pacing steed,
  And nothing else saw all day long;
For sideways would she lean, and sing
  A faery’s song.

I made a garland for her head,
  And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
  And made sweet moan.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
  And honey wild, and manna dew;
And sure in language strange she said,
  I love thee true.

She took me to her elfin grot,
  And there she gazed and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes—
  So kissed to sleep.

And there we slumbered on the moss,
  And there I dreamed, ah woe betide,
The latest dream I ever dreamed
  On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings, and princes too,
  Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cried—”La belle Dame sans merci
  Hath thee in thrall!”

I saw their starved lips in the gloam
  With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
  On the cold hill side.

And this is why I sojourn here
  Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
  And no birds sing.


This poem is in the public domain.

John Keats (1795-1821), the much-loved English poet who was born in London, and published three books of poetry before he died at age 25 of tuberculosis.

Annie Finch, October 31 – This writer is one who really revels in her natal day.

Samhain

by Annie Finch

(The Celtic Halloween)

In the season leaves should love,
since it gives them leave to move
through the wind, towards the ground
they were watching while they hung,
legend says there is a seam
stitching darkness like a name.

Now when dying grasses veil
earth from the sky in one last pale
wave, as autumn dies to bring
winter back, and then the spring,
we who die ourselves can peel
back another kind of veil

that hangs among us like thick smoke.
Tonight at last I feel it shake.
I feel the nights stretching away
thousands long behind the days
till they reach the darkness where
all of me is ancestor.

I move my hand and feel a touch
move with me, and when I brush
my own mind across another,
I am with my mother’s mother.
Sure as footsteps in my waiting
self, I find her, and she brings

arms that carry answers for me,
intimate, a waiting bounty.
“Carry me.” She leaves this trail
through a shudder of the veil,
and leaves, like amber where she stays,
a gift for her perpetual gaze.


“Samhain” from Eve, © 1997 by Annie Finch – Carnegie Mellon University Press

Annie Finch (1956 -) American poet, essayist, editor, literary critic, playwright, and translator. She has published over 20 books, which include her poetry, literary essays and criticism, and several anthologies she edited. Some of her poetry collections were clearly inspired by her Halloween birthday, including The Poetry Witch Little Book of Spells, and Spells: New and Selected Poems. She spent ten years researching and editing Choice Words: Writers on Abortion, the first major literary anthology about abortion, published in 2020. Finch’s mother, Margaret Rockwell Finch (1921-2018), was also a poet.

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Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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