All Hallows’ Eve by Dorothea Tanning

In ‘All Hallows’ Eve’ Tanning explores themes of fear, relationships, and abuse. Through language that varies in its levels of metaphor, Tanning speaks about the abuse against the backdrop of Halloween within the fourteen lines of this poem. She compares the effects of abuse to the rage and terror of a werewolf.

 

Summary of All Hallows’ Eve

‘All Hallows’ Eve’ by Dorothea Tanning is a disturbing, multilayered poem that discusses the effects and terrors of domestic abuse. 

The poem takes the reader through a series of violent images that depict an abusive relationship between a male/female newlywed couple. Although the narrative is not clearly defined, there are certain poignant moments that inform the reader of the dynamic between the two. The woman does what she can to control her husband’s anger. She tries to make herself as perfect as possible or face the “werewolf” that she married. 

You can read the full poem here.

 

Structure of All Hallows’ Eve

All Hallows’ Eve by Dorothea Tanning is a fourteen-line poem that conforms to the pattern of a Shakespearean sonnet. It is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. But, unlike Shakespearean sonnets, the lines do not conform to iambic pentameter. Each line contains somewhere between seven and nine syllables. 

 

Poetic Techniques in All Hallows’ Eve

Tanning makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘All Hallows’ Eve’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and caesura. The latter happens when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might precede an important turn or transition in the text. For example, lines thirteen and fourteen which read: “Drink tasty antidotes. Otherwise / You and the werewolf: newlyweds”. 

The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “faucets for fountainheads” in line twelve and “creep” and “crack” in lines five and six. Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. 

Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines nine and ten as well as that between line eleven and twelve. The latter is the best example in ‘All Hallows’ Eve’. 

 

Analysis of All Hallows’ Eve

Lines 1-4

Be perfect, make it otherwise.

(…)

Rip apart the breathing beds.

In the first quatrain of ‘All Hallow’s Eve,’ the speaker begins by starting a series of images focused around the period of “all hallows’ eve” or Halloween. With just the title, a reader is likely to have a certain mood or atmosphere in mind when they approach these lines. Tanning does not disappoint. By the second line, she uses words like “shreds” to create a terrifying and violent image of the day and what else is to come. She speaks of “Yesterday,” the past when things were safer, as being “torn in shreds”. What tears it or who? That she doesn’t reveal. 

Lines three and four are also violent. They speak to something in the air, something unknown tracking into homes rising “apart the breathing beds,” or those who are sleeping within them. The perfect sing-song rhyme scheme of this poem is haunting. It feels like a nursery rhyme or fairytale that has gone very very badly. It is in the next quatrain that the person/people at the center of this violence are fleshed out. 

 

Lines 5-8

Hear bones crack and pulverize.

(…)

Minds unraveling like threads,

In the second quatrain of ‘All Hallows’ Eve,’ more violence follows. Whatever force or forces are out on “all hallows’ eve” are murderous and horrifying. There are bones that crack and are pulverized into dust. “Doom,” she continues, “creeps in on rubber treads”. This is a strange and haunting line that will lead a reader to several different interpretations. But, it is at this point that a reader should realize that there is more to this poem that initially meets the eye. It is not just about Halloween or the horrors that are in the air. There is a deeper relationship at work here, something physical and very real.

Although Tanning uses metaphors of supernatural violence to obscure it, but by the end of the poem it becomes clear that this piece is focusing on an abusive relationship. One in which the husband has control over the young wife who is trying to “Be perfect” and satisfy him. But, her efforts are for naught. 

The event and eighth lines of this stanza bring in the images of this housewife and many others who are in the same situation. They are “overwrought” with “Minds unraveling like threads”. 

 

Lines 9-14 

Try lipstick shades to tranquilize

(…)

Drink tasty antidotes. Otherwise

You and the werewolf: newlyweds.

In the last section of ‘All Hallows’ Eve,’ the speaker brings in more images that are related to the mundanity of day to day life and a woman’s efforts to please her husband. She is seeking out some way to quell his anger. She tries to “Sit tight, be perfect”. These things are necessary if she doesn’t want to meet the “werewolf” the man to whom she is married. The word “tranquilize” realties back to this image of the wolf as an animal that needs to be controlled.

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