‘The Vampire’ by Conrad Aiken is a fourteen stanza poem, each verse of which is made up of either six, seven, or eight lines. The lines are all of a similar length and are often set apart by their varying means of repetition and dark description.
For example, in the first stanza of this piece, the poet has chosen to begin the first three lines with the pronoun, “She,” and the remaining five with the conjunction, “And.” This choice is visually interesting as well as narratively powerful as it pushes the reader onward; events and descriptions fall in line one after another.
The poem begins with the speaker, and his fellow men, observing the arrival of a great being. A woman who has power over darkness. She comes, laughs at them, weeps, and “stills” them where they stand. The world is brought to a stop and the woman, a vampire, spreads darkness across the sky. The speaker is unable to fully comprehend what he is seeing as he looks at the vampire. She is strange in shape, and terrifyingly beautiful to behold. The vampire takes to the sky and casts sorrow over the world.
Those who are sleeping as all this unfolds are subjected to the most terrible dreams. They foresee the end of all things, the coming of permanent darkness, skeletons dancing, and children dying. When they rise from their sleep she stays in their consciousness, haunting them throughout the day. The vampire speaks to all the men who can listen. Her voice is impossibly to understand, her words only sound. They do not need to hear them though to have their blood chilled and hearts stopped. They know she is bringing horror to the world.
Finally, her words are made clear and she speaks of the wonders that await those who join her, and the unholy deaths that deniers will face. In the wake of this pronouncement, the world goes mad. Men scramble for an opportunity to be near her, and many are killed in the chaos. Some claim to have touched her hair or her face. Others describe her visage as beautiful, and red with blood.
Eventually, the violence ends, the night recedes, and the aftermath is revealed. There are bodies strewn across the field and trees splattered with red blood. In the final lines a new character is introduced, a plowman, whose job it is to turn over the devastation, hide it from view, reincorporate it into the earth,
Analysis of The Vampire
She rose among us where we lay.
She wept, we put our work away.
And saw her lift white hands on high
And toss her troubled hair.
The speaker begins ‘The Vampire’ by describing an unknown, “She.” This person enters the narrative as the main character, even though the reader, initially, has no idea what role she will play. She is said to have risen, “among us where we lay.” This first line allows the reader to situate the speaker in the poem. He is not an omniscient, all-knowing narrator, but a participant in the scene. He appears to be retelling something that happened to him and knows as little as the reader does while he is retelling.
The female main character is given further description. She has appeared out of nowhere and is weeping and laughing. This causes all those observing the scene, to stop working, and to still their “play.” Everyone stops what they are doing to observe her. The dichotomy of these two emotions has forced silence over the scene. No one quite knows what to make of this person.
As if taking advantage of everyone’s momentary pause, “darkness shoot[s] across the sky.” She has come from somewhere unknown, and one of the first things that happen after her arrival is the coming of darkness that overwhelms the sky. The woman appears to celebrate the arrival of the dark. She tosses her hair and throws her hands “high.”
Whoever she is, it is clear that she does not bring anything good along with her. The reader might come to the conclusion at this point that the “vampire” to which the title refers, is this mystery woman. This correct, assumption, will only be further enlightened in the coming lines.
What shape was this who came to us,
With basilisk eyes so ominous,
Yet what her name was did not know;
And felt our spirits fail.
The speaker moves away from the woman’s movements to describe her appearance. He seems unable to comprehend exactly what “she” is. Her “shape” is unknown to him. The features of her face are both ominous, sweet, and poisonous. Her mouth is attractive as if to lure one in before the poison strikes.
The speaker continues on to marvel over her hands which are, “so pale.” He watches her as she throws her them in the air. She is “wavering to and fro,” and then, without warning, she is gone. She disappears somewhere in the “dark and wind.” The description from the following stanza clears this up. She has taken to the sky and flown off to an unknown destination. While the viewers of this terrible scene might be glad she is gone, they know that their troubles are not over.
We tried to turn away; but still
Above we heard her sorrow thrill;
And shuddering hills that cracked their frames;
Of twilights foul with wings;
From where the speaker and his comrades stand they are able to hear her “sorrow thrill” above them. She has flown up into the darkness she brought, and they are unable to turn away from it.
Her departure brings on greater unhappiness to the larger world. The speaker describes the people of the world, particularly, those that are sleeping. Anyone who was sleeping at the moment of her entrance into the world was inflicted with terrible dreams. These dreams seem to act as a glimpse into her world. The sleepers can see, “skies grown red with rending flames … / …Of twilight foul with wings.” These terrible sights portend the horrors that are soon to come. It is hell on earth brought on by a league of vampires. They are the keepers of the “wings” that “foul” the skies.
And skeletons dancing to a tune;
And cries of children stifled soon;
Yet everywhere they met her gaze,
Her fixed and burning eyes.
The terror of the sleeper’s dreams continues in the fourth stanza. The speaker describes how they are forced to see dancing “skeletons” and the “stifled,” “cries of children;” an abrupt ending that can mean no good. These nightmares are playing themselves out over a “blood-red moon.”
When these poor people wake up and attempt to go about their normal daily routines, they are unable to shake “her gaze.” Everywhere they look, and everything they think about is filled with her “burning eyes.”
Who are you now, —we cried to her—
Spirit so strange, so sinister?
Heavy as honeyed pulses beat,
Slow word by anguished word.
The narrator continues to speak once more of a “we.” This could refer to the original group who first laid eyes on the vampire, or it could mean more broadly humankind. They are all crying out to the woman, “Who are you now…?” Why, they want to know, are you “so strange, so sinister?”
As if she was indeed listening, and heeding their call, the “dead winds” above their heads begin to stir and in the “darkness” of the day, they can hear her voice. It sounds “cloying sweet” and as heavy as “honey.” Her words are slow and “anguished” as if she is not used to speaking aloud.
And through the night strange music went
With voice and cry so darkly blent
And clouds divulging blood-red rains
Upon a hill undreamed.
While her speech might be halting, the sounds that she does make are like a piece of “strange music.” Its darkness penetrates through the night, and although no one can understand what her words mean, they seem to “thin the blood along” their veins. This is just one more clue that there is evil on the horizon. The unknown, nameless woman has not come to Earth with peaceful intentions.
The words of her song, while without literal meaning, are able to “Foretell” in the listeners, days of “delirious pains” and depict for them, the end of all things. She means to bring about the end of the world and just the fact that she is able to project these thoughts into their heads shows that she is fully capable of causing massive destruction.
And this we heard: ‘Who dies for me,
He shall possess me secretly,
And slain, and buried loathsomely,
And slimed upon with shame.’
Finally, the words that she is speaking/singing start to make some sense. This stanza is made up of the facts that the vampire wishes to impart to her listeners. She tells them that anyone who chooses to “die for me” will be able to “posses me secretly.” If one was to join her in eternal life, they would be taken on as a lover It would be their duty to “slake [her] body’s flame,” and satisfy her every desire.
Additionally, she wants the listeners below her to know, that anyone who goes against her will be “buried loathsomely” in the earth and, “slimed upon with shame.” Deniers will die a terrible, unholy death from which there will be no return.
nd darkness fell. And like a sea
Of stumbling deaths we followed, we
We were the ploughman and the ploughed,
Our eyes were red and blind.
Her speech ends suddenly and the viewers/listeners are cast into darkness once more. The darkness that descends upon them brings with it terrible death. Within the darkness, men work at cross purposes. There are those who are seeking out the vampire, those who only desire to leave this place, and then those who would resist with all their might. All of these men are “stumbling” around, rising and falling, and walking endlessly in the dark until their “eyes were red and blind.”
Without touching a single one of them she is already able to create a massive panic that results in death.
And some, they said, had touched her side,
Before she fled us there;
Ran to and fro and cursed and cried
And sought her everywhere.
The journey through the night continues, and each man experiences something different. Some say that they were able to catch up to her and had, “touched her side.” They are quick to point out that she flees quickly from person to person. Some were able to take, “her to bride…and some lain down for her and died.” These men gave into her and sacrificed their lives to join her immortal brood.
Additionally, amongst the group are those that have had no contact with the vampire. They are desperate to find her and run, “to and fro” cursing everyone and everything. The men are genuinely possessed with an unquenchable need for this woman. They would do anything to get to her.
‘Her eyes have feasted on the dead,
And small and shapely is her head,
Her mouth is sinister and red
As blood in moonlight is.’
The tenth stanza, one of the shortest of the poem, is made up of the narrative of the men who seek the vampire out. They say that her “eyes have feasted on the dead,” a dark and dreary description, but that her head is “small and shapely.” Her mouth is alluring, and begs them to “kiss” it; while at the same time being “sinister and red / As blood.” She is made of these contrasting elements, equal parts horror, and beauty.
Then poets forgot their jeweled words
And cut the sky with glittering swords;
The air became a charnel breath,
Pale stones were splashed with red.
The final four stanzas of the piece give an overview of what the world is like now that it has been taken over by lust for the female vampire and eternal life. Those among humankind who is the most moderated and thoughtful, the poets, “forgot” their “jewelled words” and took up swords. They have become violent, all with the hope of reaching their new goals.
The meekest, and kindest, among men, the “innocent souls” have become “carrion birds” that take sustenance from “the dead.” The beauty of the world, the “daisy fields” are “drenched with death.” Everything good has given in to her dark influence.
Green leaves were dappled bright with blood
And fruit trees murdered in the bud;
Silent was every bird and beast,
And that dark voice was gone.
The descriptions continue with the speaker stating that the “Green leaves” that once covered the trees have been splashed red with blood. The vibrant and luscious fruit trees are cut down before they have time to grow and “bud.”
The horror comes to a pause when the “twilight from the east” breaks over the world. The long night is ending and the “dark voice” disappears.
No word was there, no song, no bell,
No furious tongue that dream to tell;
Blown slowly from the smoking plain;
And silence fallen again.
The vampire’s “words” and “songs” are gone and there is no “furious tongue” to speak poison to the men. All that remains about the onlookers are “the dead.” They are those who “rose and fell” and now lay about the “smoking plain” groaning with pain. The wounds of the world are so deep they are in the “grain” of the Earth. It is not something that can be washed off and forgotten.
Until at dusk, from God knows where,
Beneath dark birds that filled the air,
And turned them under to mould and stone;
All night long he ploughed.
In the final stanza of the piece, the narrative comes to its conclusion. The long night has ended, the field is strewn with bodies, and another character enters into the poem, a “ploughman.” This man has a single purpose, to turn the ground, and reset the world for the next night.
The man takes up his plough and ignoring the bodies, “drove his share through flesh and bone.” The men, dead on the field, are “turned…under to mould and stone.” They become, once more, a part of the earth. The man works in this manner all night long, until no evidence remains of the massacre.
This entire poem works as a parable for the horrors that men will do to other men when properly motivated. One might cast the outline of this narrative over the premise of any war fought in the history of the world. Untold pain, and horror, is committed in the darkest moments, but when it is light again, everything is turned over and reset. This provides a fresh start for the earth, but also conceals all evidence of past terror.