October 24, 2017
Irving, Burns and Keats on HalloweenOn this storied day or hallowed eve are based such spirit-world tales as Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," first published in Irving's 1820 collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Most of the collection concerned Irving's travels in England, but included were "Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle," regarded by many as the first American short stories, though both originated as German folktales. For all that the Headless Horseman scared the life out of Ichabod Crane, the real Sleepy Hollow, in the lower Hudson Valley near Tarrytown, New York, was a favorite spot of Irving's, and the place where he is buried.
Halloween in America is said to have arrived with Irish and Scottish immigrants in the 1840s, some of whom would have brought the customs, if not the lines, from Robert Burns's "Halloween." The poem is difficult to those without the dialect but it gives, says Burns, an authentic account of "the principal charms and spells of that night, so big with prophecy to the peasantry in the west of Scotland." The following tells the custom of lassies going to the barn to pull three stalks of grain, aware that Rab is following, and that if the "tap-pickle" (uppermost grain) on the third stock is missing they will, as Burns's notes put it, "come to the marriage-bed anything but a maid":
To pou their stalks o' corn;
But Rab slips out, an' jinks about,
Behint the muckle thorn:
He grippit Nelly hard and fast:
Loud skirl'd a' the lasses;
But her tap-pickle maist was lost,
Whan kiutlin in the fause-house
Wi' him that night. . . .
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cry'd--"La belle Dame sans merci
Hath thee in thrall!"
I saw their starv'd 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 wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.
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