March 18, 2018

Irving, Burns and Keats on Halloween

On 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":
    . . .The lassies staw frae 'mang them a',
    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. . . .
John Keats was born on this day in 1795, the year before Burns died. He wrote no Halloween poems, though "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" might come close -- and even tell of Rab the next morning:
    . . . I saw pale kings, and princes too,
          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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