Something Moves in the Fern

Something Moves in the Fern

For this Hallowe’en season, I have chosen a poem by my favourite ghost story writer, M.R. James: “Living Night”, also known as “The Livermere Poem”

Then the horses stir and the sleepy cats purr
As something moves in the fern
And did you not see in the hollow oak tree
Two eyes begin to burn?

M.R. James (1862—1936)

Poem 291. Living Night

O William Frog upon the log
How sweet your accents ring
An airy tune beneath the moon
Remote, you sit and sing.

All through the rushes and in the bushes
Odd creatures slip in the dark
And dusky owls with feathery cowls
Go sweeping about the park.

You hear on the breeze from behind the trees
The Ampton clock begin
And when it is still, how thin and shrill
The bell of the Hall chimes in.

Then the horses stir and the sleepy cats purr
As something moves in the fern
And did you not see in the hollow oak tree
Two eyes begin to burn?

You heard a foot pass, it trailed over the grass
You shivered, it came so near
And was it the head of a man long dead
That raised itself out of the mere?

Then a call came clear from over the mere
And died in the night beyond
And the moor hens woke and you heard a croak
From the swan on the Judgment pond.

Four black things with eyes of flame
In the hour before the dawn
And their dry throats cluck for they long to suck
The blood of a sleeping fawn.

But all around from the trees and the ground
The elves and the owls creep on
And the black things shrink and we rather think
That their chance of a meal is gone.

There blows a dull breath over Troston Heath
And cocks are crowing afar
And a pool of blood in the old Broom wood
Looks up at the morning star

Montague Rhodes James (generally known as M.R. James) was one of the greatest exponents of the ghost story. He was involved in education all his life from his own time at Temple Grove in London, Eton and Cambridge, where he eventually became a don and provost at King’s College before returning to Eton as Provost (chairman of the governing body) where he served until he died in 1936. He began writing his ghost stories for the Chit Chat Club at Cambridge, writing one each year and performing it for his friends on Christmas Eve. He later wrote “The Haunted Dolls’ House” for the library of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House; the short but shocking tale “Wailing Well”, which he wrote and read for the Eton Scouts at their 1927 Worbarrow Bay camp in Dorset, and “A School Story” which was written for King’s College Choir School. He wrote guidebooks, a memoir of his years at Eton and King’s College and the children’s book “The Five Jars”.

This poem begins with a rather twee address to “William Frog, upon the log” which makes one wonder quite where this poem is going to go but James quickly changes gear and evokes a properly spooky atmosphere with his suggestion of “Odd creatures” slipping through the bushes in the dark and the silent forms of hunting owls (James admitted in “After Dark in the Playing Fields” that he had “a fondness for owls” and they do turn up quite frequently in his stories).

The poem is set at Great Livermere (near Bury St. Edmunds) where James spent his youth, and in the third stanza we hear the bells of the clock on the church at Ampton across Great Livermere Lake followed by the smaller bell of the nearby Hall sounding “thin and shrill” as if the human world is receding from view.

James steps up the unsettling hints in the next stanza: we see animals unsettled by an unseen something brushing through the undergrowth and a pair of eyes shine brightly from the hollow of an oak tree. Remember that at the time James was writing there were no streetlights, so the darkness in the woods would have been quite impenetrable and eyes lighting up in a tree would have been an unsettling sight.

James’s ghost stories work in a similar way to this poem, beginning with the familiar and gradually hinting at the supernatural until they reach “the Jamesian wallop” as the hosts of “A Podcast to the Curious”—a podcast focusing on James’s work—call it. We hear a stealthy tread pass nearby but nothing is seen and then there’s the suggestion that a corpse has raised its head above the surface of the lake—this is a question rather than an assertion of fact, so that we simply get a disconcerting impression and after all, it might just be a submerged log shifting.

This impression is further built on by a loud but indefinable cry echoing over the water and the alarm of the moorhens and swans—remember the notorious antipathy of the natural world to anything supernatural. The Judgment pond at Great Livermere is separate from the lake but its name suggests the Biblical Day of Judgment.

Then we have the most overt intrusion of the supernatural: four dark vampiric forms that seek to slake their thirst with the blood of a young deer: here is our Jamesian wallop. It seems, though, that they are doomed to failure: the elves and the owls seem to join in denying these horrors their unspeakable feast. I have already mentioned James’s owls, and his fairy folk are not like the elves depicted in Tolkien’s works: they are more elemental and dangerous to cross, just as they have always been considered in British and Irish folklore.

The poem ends with the arrival of the dawn heralded by a breath of air from Troston in the east and the crowing of cocks in the villages around, and all that remains of the four bloodsuckers is a pool of blood reflecting the light of the morning star Venus.

Setting or environment, then, is to me a principal point, and the more readily appreciable the setting is to the ordinary reader the better. The other essential is that the ghost should make himself felt by gradual stirrings diffusing an atmosphere of uneasiness before the final flash or stab of horror.

from “Ghosts—Treat Them Gently!” by M.R. James.

I like this poem largely for its author’s adherence to his own rules for ghost stories, and because it seems like a good choice for Halloween, and because it has allowed me to ramble on about James and his stories.


  • Read about Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House at The Royal Collection Trust.
  • Read James’s thoughts on writing ghost stories at the M.R. James Archive.
  • Listen to Jim Moon read the poem on SoundCloud.
  • Watch Robert Lloyd Parry perform “A School Story” and “Wailing Well” on his Nunkie channel on YouTube.