From Christina Rossetti to Edgar Allan Poe, these beautiful and sometimes frightening poems are worth reading in the dead of night. Explore more of the best poems ever written with our Top Ten Series.
Best Gothic Poems
- 1 Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti
- 2 The cold earth slept below by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- 3 The Sick Rose by William Blake
- 4 Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- 5 The Haunted Palace by Edgar Allan Poe
- 6 Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath
- 7 The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson
- 8 La Belle Dame sans Merci by John Keats
- 9 Jessie Cameron by Christina Rossetti
- 10 The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
Without a doubt, this is Christina Rossetti’s most popular poem. ‘Goblin Market’ is packed full of intriguing gothic images and symbols, leading to a wide variety of interpretations. It is long, reaching twenty-eight stanzas, all of different lengths. The consistent rhyme scheme of the poem makes it feel light-hearted, but there are some very dark moments. The poem follows the story of two sisters, Laura and Lizzie. The former decides to follow the sounds of a goblin market and Lizzie trails along behind.
Unfortunately, things don’t go too well. After eating some of the fruit Laura starts wasting away and is only saved after kissing the fruit juice off her sister’s cheeks. In the end, the story turns into a life lesson, relayed by the sisters, to their children.
The cold earth slept below was published in Hunt’s Literary Pocket-Book in 1823, a year after Shelley’s death. It was later included in the collection, Posthumous Poems compiled by his wife, Mary Shelley. It describes the state of the world on a freezing winter night and the discovery of a lover’s body.
After a walk, the speaker is drawn to a light in a bog or swamp. It turns out to be the glare from his dead lover’s eyes. She too was drawn to this place but was unable to make it back and died there. An undeniably gothic image, combining themes of love, love lost, and death.
This is one of Blake’s best-known poems and is made up of an extended metaphor that alludes to perceived female purity. The speaker compares the rose, a symbol of nature, beauty and fragility to a woman’s innocence or chastity. As was the case in Blake’s time and in many places is still the case today, the value of a relationship with a woman was defined by whether or not that woman has had sex.
In ‘The Sick Rose’ the speaker makes clear that the woman alluded to in the text is not as pure as some might like. The rose has a sickness– a worm is feeding off of the rose’s beauty, depleting it of its worth. Blake’s rose is afflicted with the worm’s “dark secret love” and has its life destroyed. The worm, which clearly represents a phallus, kills the rose’s (aka, the woman’s), virginity.
The full title of this poem is ‘Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment’. Samuel Taylor Coleridge finished it in 1797 and published in 1816 alongside ‘Christabel’ and ‘The Pains of Sleep’. The preface informs the reader that the inspiration came from a dream the writer had, while under the influence of opium and reading about the summer palace (Xanadu) of Kubla Khan, the Mongol ruler. Coleridge also claims in the preface that he was interrupted while writing, and could therefore not finish the poem as he has planned. It was not until he was encouraged by Lord Byron to do so that Coleridge published the piece. Today, the poem is considered to be one of, if not the, most famous example of Romanticism in the English language.
‘The Haunted Palace,’ which was used in Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher, is a terrifying depiction of insanity. The text depicts a structure that slowly degrades, along with its residents. Just as the house falls apart, so does a mind. Poe sought to draw comparisons between these two different structures. It is one of Poe’s most popular gothic poems.
‘Lady Lazarus’ focuses on the very gothic theme of death. The title makes this very clear as it refers to the Biblical character, Lazarus, raised from the dead by Christ. The speaker begins by comparing herself to a Holocaust victim, and telling the reader that she has been through a lot. She has died a number of times, but like a cat, she keeps coming back. The speaker has died so many times that it has become an art and those who watch her, spectators.
‘The Lady of Shalott’ was published in 1833 and is one of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s most famous, early poems. The story is based loosely in an Arthurian legend of a woman who dies of love unrequited. In Tennyson’s retelling of the tale, the main character of the poem suffers from a curse. She is doomed to see the world through a mirror or face her death. Unfortunately, the curse does kill her after she abandons her mirror and leaves her room to see Sir Lancelot closer.
‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ tells the story of a knight who is seduced by a fairy-like woman. At first, it seemed to the knight that all his dreams were coming true. He had finally found the beautiful woman he was looking for. Unfortunately for him, he was lured away from his path. He woke up, cold, alone and disappointed. Was the experience a dream? Probably, but that hardly matters in the larger scheme of things. Keats was more interested in exploring dream states and other worlds than depicting something realistic.
Pride is at the heart of this poem. It is one of the most important themes and a character trait around which the events revolve. The trait can be seen in both Jessie Cameron and the neighbor’s son whom she refuses to marry. She is a brave young woman who is continually having to rebuke the advances of a young man, her neighbor’s son. He intends to marry her, but she wants nothing to do with him. At the climax of the poem, two are alone along the seashore when tragedy strikes and neither is seen again. Some of the neighbors think that he killed her, others, that they were both dragged out into the ocean.
Undoubtedly Poe’s best-known work, ‘The Raven’ is a long, supernatural, dream-like poem that makes use of Poe’s most frequently visited themes. There is loss, death, fear and, and above all else, the haunting presence of the talking raven. The creature cries throughout the text, a single word: “Nevermore.” If you are looking for the perfect gothic poem to set the scene for Halloween, to start off a dark night in delving into the scariest examples of writing in the English language, this is a great place to start.