Halloween is the perfect time to explore a little bit of the monster in all of us. Poetry using monsters has been an important part of the literary genre of speculative poetry. Beowulf, for example, is considered by many to be one of the most important works of Old English literature. The poem, set in Scandinavia, begins with the hero Beowulf coming to the aid of Hrothgar, whose mead hall has been plagued by a monster. Grendel, a monster who is supposed to be descended from Cain, the biblical son of Adam and Eve, regularly descends on the celebrations held at the mead hall. The sounds of cheer pain Grendel, as it is a joy he cannot share and he goes to destroy everything and everyone within the mead hall. He is quickly defeated by the heroic Beowulf, who goes on to defeat Grendel’s Mother, and a dragon.
We can often learn about our culture and ourselves through the lens of literary monsters; they enable us to view humanity by examining a representation of our fears. Poetry provides an opportunity to create some interesting monsters, even evoke sympathy towards the monster. What causes the monster to behave this way? What does the monster represent?
Another example is the tragic monster in John Keats’ poem, Lamia. She performs a favor for the god, Hermes, bargains with him and is granted human form. She quickly falls in love with a man and for a brief time passes as just another human being, loved and in love. On her wedding day, however, she is revealed as a monster, and her human form melts away before the wedding guests and her beloved bridegroom to expose her hideous serpentine shape. Whatever favor she earned from Hermes has vanished and she can no longer exist as a monster in a human world. In deep despair and anguish, she screams and disappears.
Keats’ description of Lamia:
She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d;
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,
Dissolv’d, or brighter shone, or interwreathed
Their lustres with the gloomier tapestries –
So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries,
She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.
Upon her crest she wore a wannish fire
Sprinkled with stars, like Ariadne’s tiar:
Her head was serpent, but ah, bitter-sweet!
She had a woman’s mouth with all its pearls complete:
And for her eyes: what could such eyes do there
But weep, and weep, that they were born so fair?
As Proserpine still weeps for her Sicilian air.
Her throat was serpent, but the words she spake
Came, as through bubbling honey, for Love’s sake,
And thus; while Hermes on his pinions lay,
Like a stoop’d falcon ere he takes his prey.
Not all monsters are hideous, however. Take a look at this cute steam punk monster going trick-or-treating! (Compliments of video makers Sonia Joie and Sara Barkat.)
Try It: Monster Poetry
What kind of sympathetic monster can you fashion? Write a poem about a monster of your own creation. Is it destructive or simply hideous? What is your monster’s motivation, if any? Why does is look the way it does? Will your monster be defeated in the end?
Thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s poetry prompt. Here is a shadow acrostic poem from Andrew we enjoyed:
She sings such lovely, happy songs,
Heaven itself, with cause, has wept
And caused the vaults of sky to pour
Dreaming of spring time, and my beau
Outside beneath the glowing of the Zodiac
Where all of nature may with love be struck.
Oh, opposite of evil, whose presence here did rob
Fickleness from out my clouded sky!
Leave nothing but that song, that ever-reaching high,
Orchestrated glory given to
Velvet notes that come, full formed, from off your lip!
Each day, would it were so, would thus be lived with ease.
Photo by Alice Carrier, Creative Commons via Flickr.
How to Write a Poem uses images like the buzz, the switch, the wave—from the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry”—to guide writers into new ways of writing poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology and prompts included.
“How to Write a Poem is a classroom must-have.”
—Callie Feyen, English Teacher, Maryland