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Great Poems

What are the Scariest Poems in the English Language? [by David Lehman]

Robert Frost 2            What is the scariest poem in the language? I wager that many would select Poe’s “The Raven,” and it is unquestionable that Poe has the ability, in his verse as in his stories, to scare the dickens out of you. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" will get votes, as it should. There are poems by Emily Dickinson that, like a Magnum .44 wielded by Dirty Harry, could "blow your head clean off." Byron's "Darkness" makes you shudder, and many poems from the Elizabethans and the Metaphysicals make you see a skull and bones on the other side of your pillow. You can, however, make the case that Robert Frost -- Frost, who was once habitually misread as a genial Yankee sage -- has written as dark and frightening a poem as we have.  The French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal confessed himself terrified by the “eternal silence of those infinite spaces.” It is Frost who captures that silence.

            The brilliant sonnet “Design” – in which a spider makes a meal of a moth -- exemplifies the view of nature that informs Frost’s poetry. Nature at work is aesthetically satisfying; it has order, pattern, design; but there is nothing moral or ethical about it. Nature, as opposed to human nature, is indifferent to individual life. Put another way, nature feeds on itself, and life requires death, as the life of the spider requires the death of the moth.

            Humanity is stupid or destructive in Robinson Jeffers’s poems, which take the side of nature against human life. Frost doesn’t go that far, but in his poems the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Man is frail, and the loss of a man may be mourned, but the mourning lasts a mere moment. In Frost’s “Out, Out – “ a boy working with a buzz saw loses his hand in an accident. The results are surprisingly fatal: “No one believed. They listened at his heart. / Little – less – nothing! – and that ended it.” But what truly shocks the reader is not only the death in quick stages -- brilliantly captured in that line with two dashes -- -- but also the moment when the boy, a “big boy / Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart,” pleads, “Don’t let him cut my hand off -- / The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!” We infer that brother and big sister lack parents, and this knowledge deepens the pathos. 

             The ending of “Out, Out –“ seems at first to indict humanity for its essential callousness. They – the same “they” that had listened at the boy’s heart – go right on living: “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” Callousness or realism? The ending is similar to the ending of Auden’s great “Musée des Beaux Arts,” in which Icarus, in Brueghel’s painting, falls from the sky to his death in the sea, “and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen / Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, / Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” Both poems are superb, but Frost’s will give you the chills while Auden’s more analytical approach will make you ponder the thesis that humanity is necessarily indifferent to human suffering.

             Among the scariest of Frost’s poems is “Desert Places.” Compare it to Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man.” Both poems are about “nothing.” It may be that Stevens’s poem is the stronger of the two; it certainly requires enormous attention and rewards numerous re-readings. But “Desert Places” has something that “The Snow Man” with its “distant glitter of the January sun” lacks. “Desert Places” has terror.

              In his "Pensées" (i.e., thoughts), Blaise Pascal wrote: “When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” Here is the final stanza of Frost's "Desert Places":

            They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
            Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
            I have it in me so much nearer home
            To scare myself with my own desert places.

 Take that, Pascal.-- DL

from the archive; first posted October 31, 2015

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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