Today’s words are from a poet who’s been forgotten, but this one poem seems to have outlived all her other work largely because it’s a fine short ghost poem with a definite shiver from an ambiguous ending. The poem was called “All Souls’ Night, 1917,” and it was first published in 1920 in the author Hortense Flexner’s first collection Clouds and Cobblestones. That book’s acknowledgements indicate “All Souls’ Night” was never accepted by any of the many publications Flexner had published in toward the beginning of her career, and a selected poems published shortly after Flexner’s death in 1972 does not include it. So it was never her most famous or noteworthy poem while she lived.
Why did I hear of it, why is it out there on the Internet in 2022 to be read? Because of its eerie qualities “All Souls’ Night” has made a number of contemporary lists of Halloween poems.* To read or hear it once is likely to impress you of its value as such, and you can read it here with this link, or listen to my brief musical performance below. Our discussion has spoilers, so read or listen first. My performance is only 2 minutes.
I’ve looked at clouds and cobblestones from both sides now, and still somehow…
Now that you’ve experienced “All Souls’ Night,” let’s suppose you’re interested in at least a few questions that the poem might bring to mind after you read its 12-lines with their unambiguous chill. Yes, there’s a window here — just as there was in Sara Teasdale’s nursery last time — but either side of this window’s glass has questions.
Outside the window, there’s a date 1917 ending the original title. The poem internally mentions nothing about World War I which was ongoing that year and would still be a universal memory when the poem was published. Several other poems Flexner wrote and published around this time deal with the war, and one short play of hers, Voices, that was produced on Broadway in 1916, is about the despairs of war.**
Given that WWI is no longer in most any living soul’s memory, I’ve chosen to drop the 1917 in today’s title, as have some of the re-publishers of fantasy or Halloween poems that are featuring it. Outside this poem’s window we only know there are “hosts of lovers, young in death.” Maybe it’s me, but when I first read the poem, I thought the many lovers would be pairs, many of the lovers throughout time who are now dead and stayed in their passionate youth, and the poem does not directly disabuse that notion. But in the 1917 WWI context, one presumes the dead were soldiers, freshly dead. Whatever Flexner’s intent, I think the former has, potentially, greater impact today, even with our current European war. Can we simultaneously allow how Flexner might have intended her ending to be read, and allow how you or I as a modern audience can see the two groups or characters in this poem?
In the poem’s ending, the poem’s speaker, in a warm room next to a fireplace on the other side of the window asks that their warming fire should be allowed to die down, to eliminate the warmth and light on their side of the glass. It’s implied the poem’s speaker is there with others, a party perhaps, as the fire has been set for cheer in the poem’s opening line. With the onrushing crowd of ghosts outside, the insiders are now told at the end: hush, dim the light, turn the room cold so that the ghosts are unaware of them. This is an ambiguous statement if you think about it.
It can be read three ways I think. One, this is simply self-preservation, the ghosts might be vengeful toward the living. In the WWI context the dead might blame them for starting or not stopping the war. Or the folks inside may be smug, and the ghost lovers are their opposite. The insiders may be saying those outside lovers are the not-the-elect living, and that they would steal the warmth, which the insider speaker concludes they will not be able to use, being they are creatures who didn’t stay living and warm. Or lastly the poem’s statement may be one of pity: we shouldn’t be happy, we shouldn’t flaunt our warmth and light to those dead who now can have none of those things.
If, in the WWI context, Flexner has the ghost lovers to be likely the partners of the not dead inside, then the last reading is the most likely. But the reality of any of those readings is that the cheer, the warmth, and the joy inside the glass must cease. At least for the night, the light and temperature must equalize to death-like on either side of the window. That is the poems genius: it’s chilling on both sides.
At the time of the performance, I went more with the middle reading in my internal approach. I was tempted by that contrast, even if my reading isn’t correct, perhaps because I see so much in our current culture where the other is cast as undeserving. Their desires are a distorted, improper grabbing for joys, things they haven’t earned as members of “the elect.”
This touches on religious beliefs, so one more factor: the poem references All Souls’ Day, a Christian religious holiday. I’m not sure if Flexner wishes to put a religious overlay on her poem, other than an occasion for ghosts. The Flexner family were 19th century German Jewish immigrants to America, and beside Hortense, there are several notable members. The foremost Flexner was her uncle, Abraham Flexner who I see credited with (among other things) the founding of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the eventual American home of Albert Einstein. Abraham was raised Orthodox, but became an agnostic. I have no info on what religious customs Hortense Flexner may have been knowledgeable about.*** All Souls Day as a traditional Roman Catholic holiday was devoted to praying for those dead not in heaven, in purgatory, and was separate from All Saints Day, which was reserved for the saints who got right into heaven. Protestant Christianity dispensed with those twin holiday distinctions and more or less considered it one holiday.
OK, here’s the part about my short musical performance of “All Souls’ Night.” I got out the virtual orchestral instruments again and started writing orchestral string parts to go with acoustic guitar. To help with the ghostly air there are two non-acoustic instrument tracks that are mixed at an almost subliminal level: a somewhat overdriven electric piano and a suitably unreal synth patch. You can hear it with the graphic player were it’s seen, or with this backup highlighted link. I still have other pieces planned for our Halloween series this year, so check back or click Follow to experience them.
*Poets.org, a long-time online poetry repository, has “All Soul’s Night, 1917” as it’s only Hortense Flexner poem, and references it under themes where a search might find it, but I may never know what the Ur-source is for this poem’s revival.
**Don’t think big time. There were more theaters then, and the Broadway theater where it was produced was The Princess, which sat only 299, and we don’t know how long the run was. I have watched a low budget amateur performance of Voices. It’s an earnest to a fault two-hander with a young French WWI-experiencing girl and another mysterious character who turns out to be Jeanne D’Arc.
***I went down a happy rabbit hole reading about the Flexners. Hortense was a feminist and a suffrage activist, college educated and eventually a literature professor at two of the “Seven Sisters” women’s Ivy League schools. She’s also some kind of relative to Kenneth Flexner Fearing, a lefty poet who became a pulp-noir novelist around mid-century.