A Measure of Spirits

A Measure of Spirits

This week’s choices are Hallowe’en-themed, evoking ghosts and other spirits.

Though Hallowe’en is a Christian festival, traditionally a vigil to honour the saints and pray for the souls of the newly departed dead, it has roots in pre-Christian times with the observance of the Celtic Samhain marking the end of harvest time and the beginning of the darker half of the year; Samhain was considered a liminal time of year, when the boundaries between the world of the living and that of the gods (and perhaps the dead) thinned and fairies and spirits could cross between them. The souls of the dead were generally supposed to revisit their homes seeking hospitality, so it was important to appease them before partaking in any celebration. This belief is still honoured, perhaps most visibly in Mexico as the Day of the Dead.

In the parts of the UK where the Celtic beliefs perhaps had the strongest hold: Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man, people would go from one house to another impersonating the Aos Sí (pronounced eess-SHEE), collecting offerings to the fairies: households that donated could expect good luck; those that didn’t would suffer some misfortune. Impersonators of the fairies were also supposedly protected from their malice.

It is easy to see how the tradition of “Trick or Treat” grew out of these practices; the carving of jack-o-lanterns from turnips or pumpkins similarly arose out of the belief that grotesque faces warded off evil spirits (like the gargoyles on churches and castles), though the legend of the jack-o-lantern has it that Jack struck a bargain with the Devil that his soul would never go to hell—after a life of sin, Jack is refused entry to Heaven when he dies, and the Devil keeps his bargain, denying Jack entry to Hell and throwing a live coal from the fires at the unfortunate soul who puts the glowing brand in a hollow turnip to stop it from going out and has been roaming the world ever since looking for a resting place. This reminds me of Kipling’s tale of Tomlinson, who nearly suffers the same fate (see Poem 50. Tomlinson).

Like Hallowe’en, Christmas Eve was believed to be a liminal time, which is why it also is a popular night for telling ghost stories and creepy tales. Although there are thousands of ghost stories in the English language, I have a particular fondness for those of M.R. James, the Provost and Vice-Chancellor of King’s College, Cambridge and of Eton College, who is generally acknowledged to have written some of the finest such stories, as well as hinting at his preferred method of story-telling. October 28th was the 127th anniversary of his reading his two earliest ghost stories, “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” and “Lost Hearts” to the Chit-Chat Club of King’s College Cambridge, and I enjoyed immensely Robert Lloyd Parry’s recreation of the event on Wednesday evening. Like many other performing artists, Robert Lloyd Parry is having to find other sources of income while theatres and other venues remain closed. If you enjoy his performances, I suggest contributing something to them via his website.

Our ghostly tour begins with Thomas Hardy who conducts us around “A Spellbound Palace” and raises a couple of 16th Century spectres—Tudor the price of one, as it were. I’ll get my coat.

The centrepiece of this week’s choices is Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman” — a romantic tale of the 18th Century with a supernatural flavour.

Finally, William Allingham warns us about “The Fairies” and advises us to propitiate them and beware of them, just as the ancient Celts did.


Poem 91. A Spellbound Palace

Sheer in the sun they pass; and thereupon all is still,
Save the mindless fountain tinkling on with thin enfeebled will.

Thomas Hardy (1880—1928)
On this kindly yellow day of mild low-travelling winter sun
The stirless depths of the yews
Are vague with misty blues:
Across the spacious pathways stretching spires of shadow run,
And the wind-gnawed walls of ancient brick are fired vermilion.
Two or three early sanguine finches tune
Some tentative strains, to be enlarged by May or June:
From a thrush or blackbird
Comes now and then a word,
While an enfeebled fountain somewhere within is heard.
Our footsteps wait awhile,
Then draw beneath the pile,
When an inner court outspreads
As ’twere History’s own asile,
Where the now-visioned fountain its attenuate crystal sheds
In passive lapse that seems to ignore the yon world’s clamorous clutch,
And lays an insistent numbness on the place, like a cold hand’s touch.
And there swaggers the Shade of a straddling King, plumed, sworded, with sensual face,
And lo, too, that of his Minister, at a bold self-centred pace:
Sheer in the sun they pass; and thereupon all is still,
Save the mindless fountain tinkling on with thin enfeebled will.

Hardy paints a lovely word picture of Hampton Court Palace. I can imagine the scene very clearly from his description: the maze-like paths between the dark yews that cast pointed shadows, the dark red bricks of the walls eroded by time and the elements and the occasional uncertain birdsong that merges with the faltering sound of cascading water. Passing inside the building, I envisage the unexpected courtyard in the centre with the fountain’s spray catching the light like crystals and falling so continuously that it appears that time has stopped.

The space is so secluded that it is a sanctuary from the outside world. Asile is a French word which is the root for the English word asylum. In this quiet place, Hardy invokes the spirits of those most associated with the palace: Henry VIII, the swaggering monarch with a sensual face and his unnamed minister—Cardinal Wolsey or perhaps Thomas Cromwell—these ghosts are almost transparent (sheer) in the sunshine but as they pass, a silence falls, broken only by the water of the central fountain.

This reminds me of the dree feeling one gets when alone in a secluded spot like this: surely someone (or something?) is watching? It is the basis of the “Pleasing Terror” that M.R. James identified as a key part of a great ghost story.

Poem 92. The Highwayman

I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.

Alfred Noyes (1880—1958)
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
He'd a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
They fitted with never a wrinkle: his boots were up to the thigh!
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
           His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.
Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
And he tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred;
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord's black-eyed daughter,
           Bess, the landlord's daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened; his face was white and peaked;
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
But he loved the landlord's daughter,
           The landlord's red-lipped daughter,
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say—
"One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I'm after a prize to-night,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
Then look for me by moonlight,
           Watch for me by moonlight,
I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way."
He rose upright in the stirrups; he scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair i' the casement! His face burnt like a brand
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
           (Oh, sweet black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the West.
He did not come in the dawning; he did not come at noon;
And out o' the tawny sunset, before the rise o' the moon,
When the road was a gipsy's ribbon, looping the purple moor,
A red-coat troop came marching—
King George's men came marching, up to the old inn-door.
They said no word to the landlord, they drank his ale instead,
But they gagged his daughter and bound her to the foot of her narrow bed;
Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!
There was death at every window;
           And hell at one dark window;
For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride.
They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest;
They had bound a musket beside her, with the barrel beneath her breast!
"Now keep good watch!" and they kissed her.
She heard the dead man say—Look for me by moonlight;
           Watch for me by moonlight;
I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!
She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!
She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!
They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years,
Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
           Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers!
The tip of one finger touched it; she strove no more for the rest!
Up, she stood up to attention, with the barrel beneath her breast,
She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;
For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
           Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins in the moonlight throbbed to her love's refrain.
Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horse-hoofs ringing clear;
Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
The highwayman came riding,
           Riding, riding!
The red-coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still!
Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!
Nearer he came and nearer! Her face was like a light!
Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
           Her musket shattered the moonlight,
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.
He turned; he spurred to the West; he did not know who stood
Bowed, with her head o'er the musket, drenched with her own red blood!
Not till the dawn he heard it, his face grew grey to hear
How Bess, the landlord's daughter,
           The landlord's black-eyed daughter,
Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.
Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!
Blood-red were his spurs i' the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,
When they shot him down on the highway,
           Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with the bunch of lace at his throat.
And still of a winter's night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.
Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard;
He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred;
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord's black-eyed daughter,
           Bess, the landlord's daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

This poem is one of my favourites, and Nicola loved it too—almost as much as she loved “The Listeners” by Walter de la Mare.

Part One sets up the story, introducing us to the main characters in this drama: the dashing but anonymous highwayman; Bess, the beautiful daughter of the inn-keeper; and Tim, the ostler or groom, who loves Bess. I imagine this inn to be rather like Jamaica Inn on Bodmin Moor, miles from anywhere and therefore a favourite haunt of smugglers and other ne’er-do-wells. The highwayman visits the inn to make an assignation with Bess, who sits in her window waiting for him, but neither of them have spared a thought for the stable-boy Tim, whose desire for Bess leads him to spy on the couple, and learn the highwayman’s plans. The robber kisses his beloved’s hair, which she lets down from the window since he can barely reach her hand, though he stands up in his stirrups.

The second part describes the outcome: the King’s troops march up to the inn and occupy it, taking Bess hostage and making free with her father’s ale. As a kind of weird jest, they truss the poor girl up at the window with a musket, while they lay their ambush around her.

Knowing that her lover is due any moment, she first tries to slip her bonds but is unable to loosen any of the knots despite trying until her hands are raw. Taking a different and desperate tack, she twists her hands until she can just get her finger to the trigger. Knowing that she has the means of warning the robber and fearing to make any further move lest her plan be discovered, she waits and hopes that the man will not come, for the road remains empty. Her hopes are dashed when she hears the echoing “Tlot-tlot!” of his horse’s hooves as the highwayman rides over the hill,  completely unaware of his danger as the soldiers prime their muskets and prepare to fire on him. As he comes within range, Bess sacrifices herself, firing the musket and suffering a mortal wound but knowing that the crack of the shot has warned him off.

The next morning, the man discovers the tale of the musket shot in the night and that his love has traded her life for his; with nothing to live for, now that Bess is gone, he mounts a suicidal attack on the troops: his drawn rapier is useless against their concentrated fire and like his lover, he soon lies dead from a musket shot.

Their story doesn’t end there, though—like all tragedies, they are doomed to re-enact these events in death, and the poem ends as it began, with the highwayman riding “up to the old inn-door”.

This is such an atmospheric and descriptive poem—it is like Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners”; its torrents of darkness and ghostly moon-galleons set the scene for this tragic love story that makes me think of Romeo and Juliet, though it has little in common with Shakespeare’s play apart from the central tragedy of two people dying for each other.

The language is frankly gorgeous—it’s so well-written that it is like watching a film: you see the highwayman on his horse, dark-haired Bess, the madness of desire in the eyes of the stable-hand, the colour of the troops’ coats, the desperation in the girl’s face and the violence of her end and that of her lover.

Some explanations seem appropriate:

A stable-wicket is a gate into the building, and a casement is a kind of window.

When the highwayman is telling Bess his plans and he says, “Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day”, he is saying if the red-coats pursue him too closely so that he can’t easily break away, he will wait until night-time. To press (in this sense) is still used today in phrases like, “time is pressing” and “pressing the point”. To harry means to persistently attack or harass.

King George’s men are the soldiers who enforced the law—they are also mentioned in Kipling’s poem “A Smuggler’s Song”:

If you meet King George’s men, dressed in blue and red,
You be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.
If they call you ‘pretty maid,’ and chuck you ‘neath the chin.
Don’t you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one’s been!

A Smuggler’s Song, by Rudyard Kipling

When the “red-coats looked to their priming”, they are checking that their muskets are ready to fire.

Looking for information on this poem, I discovered that the video for Fleetwood Mac’s song “Everywhere” from their “Tango in the Night” album tells the story of the poem (and you can see the opening lines at the start of the video). The artist Karliene performs part 2 of the poem with a musical setting in a YouTube video, and Phil Ochs’s performance is also available on YouTube.


  • Read more about the poem on Wikipedia.
  • Watch Fleetwood Mac’s Everywhere video on YouTube.
  • Watch Loreena McKennit’s version of the poem on YouTube.
  • Watch Karliene’s version of Part 2 on YouTube.
  • Watch Phil Ochs’s version on YouTube.

Poem 93. The Fairies

Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather!

William Allingham (1824—1889)
Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather!
Down along the rocky shore
Some make their home,
They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide-foam;
Some in the reeds
Of the black mountain-lake,
With frogs for their watchdogs,
All night awake.
High on the hill-top
The old King sits;
He is now so old and grey
He’s nigh lost his wits.
With a bridge of white mist
Columbkill he crosses,
On his stately journeys
From Slieveleague to Rosses;
Or going up with the music
On cold starry nights,
To sup with the Queen
Of the gay Northern Lights.
They stole little Bridget
For seven years long;
When she came down again
Her friends were all gone.
They took her lightly back,
Between the night and morrow,
They thought that she was fast asleep,
But she was dead with sorrow.
They have kept her ever since
Deep within the lake,
On a bed of fig-leaves,
Watching till she wake.
By the craggy hillside,
Through the mosses bare,
They have planted thorn trees
For pleasure, here and there.
Is any man so daring
As dig them up in spite,
He shall find their sharpest thorns
In his bed at night.
Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather!

This is another of my favourites because it has a lovely rhythm and draws mental pictures just like my other choices this week.

The fairies depicted by Allingham have much in common with Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it seems to me—they swap babies for changelings, repay injuries with injuries and are more of an object of fear than of comedy, just as the ancient Celtic Aos Sí were.

A modern re-telling of the myth is presented in Raymond Feist’s “Faerie Tale”, when an American family of the 1980s encounters the fairies.

M.R. James’s contribution is “After Dark in the Playing Fields”. It isn’t one of his ghost stories as such, and is mildly comic in tone, but it does have a kind of chilling moment at the end when the narrator says:

You see—no, you do not, but I see—such curious faces: and the people to whom they belong flit about so oddly, often at your elbow when you least expect it, and looking close into your face, as if they were searching for someone—who may be thankful, I think, if they do not find him.

After Dark in the Playing Fields. by M.R. James

Yes indeed.

Robert Lloyd Parry has uploaded a reading of “After Dark in the Playing Fields” to YouTube, as part of a double bill with another James story, “Rats”.


  • Read about Raymond Feist’s Faerie Tale at Wikipedia.
  • Watch Robert Lloyd Parry’s reading of After Dark in the Playing Fields on YouTube.