Among the countless dazzling artifacts displayed at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art are a trove of lethal weapons, ranging from ornately carved aboriginal war clubs to medieval crossbows decorated with engraved ivory panels to French flintlock rifles adorned with silver filigree. What's most striking about these objects is not their beauty per se but how sheerly gratuitous that beauty is. After all, clubs, crossbows, and firearms kill just as efficiently without ivory inlays or Rococo silverwork. That the makers of these death-dealing implements devoted so much energy to their ornamentation reflects something vital about our species: our need to transmute our most savage instincts into art.
That paradoxical impulse is perfectly epitomized by the murder poem. Taking as its subject the very worst aspects of human nature - our propensity for crime, cruelty, and bloodshed - it shapes that disruptive material into order, wholeness, and meaning. There is, in fact, a wide range of aesthetic and emotional satisfactions to be derived from the selections in this volume. Some tell gripping stories of violence and retribution. Others offer insight into the workings of the psychopathic mind. Still others elicit pity and terror by putting us in the place of the victims. And some - by encouraging us to identify with the killers themselves - offer the vicarious thrill of the forbidden, reminding us of Plato's dictum that "the virtuous man is content to dream what the wicked man actually does." For all their variety, however, they share a need to confront and make sense of experiences, from serial murder to familicide, that defy rational comprehension. In doing so they perform the essential function of all true poetry, famously defined by Robert Frost as "a clarification of life... a momentary stay against confusion."
Her Second Husband Hears Her Story
by Thomas Hardy
"Still, Dear, it is incredible to me
That here, alone,
You should have sewed him up until he died,
And in this very bed. I do not see
How you could do it, seeing what might betide."
"Well, he came home one midnight, liquored deep -
Worse than I'd known -
And lay down heavily, and soundly slept:
Then, desperate driven, I thought of it, to keep
Him from me when he woke. Being an adept
"With needle and thimble, as he snored, click-click
An hour I'd sewn,
Till, had he roused, he couldn't have moved from bed,
So tightly laced in sheet and quilt and tick
He lay. And in the morning he was dead.
"Ere people came I drew the stitches out,
And thus 'twas shown
To be a stroke." - "It's a strange tale!" said he.
"And this same bed?" - "Yes, here it came about."
"Well, it sounds strange - told here and now to me.
"Did you intend his death by your tight lacing?"
"O, that I cannot own.
I could not think of else that would avail
When he should wake up, and attempt embracing." - "Well, it's a cool queer tale!"
The Murdered Traveller
by William Cullen Bryant
When spring, to woods and wastes around,
Brought bloom and joy again,
The murdered traveller's bones were found,
Far down a narrow glen.
The fragrant birch, above him, hung
Her tassels in the sky;
And many a vernal blossom sprung,
And nodded careless by.
The red-bird warbled, as he wrought
His hanging nest o'erhead,
And fearless, near the fatal spot,
Her young the partridge led.
But there was weeping far away,
And gentle eyes, for him,
With watching many an anxious day,
Were sorrowful and dim.
They little knew, who loved him so,
The fearful death he met,
When shouting o'er the desert snow,
Excerpted from Killer Verse by edited by Harold Schechter and Kurt Brown. Copyright © 2011 by edited by Harold Schechter and Kurt Brown. Excerpted by permission of Everyman's Library, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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