Our  Halloween poem comes from a time two centuries after the Scottish witches, below, were first evoked. Janet Little (1759–1813), known to her readers as “the Scotch milkmaid,” wrote in literary Scots, a northern dialect of English — as did her contemporary and mentor, Robert Burns (familiar to many from perhaps his best-known lyric, Auld Lang Syne). According to critic Amy Dunbar, Little’s nickname was a conscious choice:

A milkmaid was especially likely to capture readers’ attention, as she would be pictured as fresh-faced from her outdoor work, picturesquely attired in cap and apron (which would be reasonably clean), and likely to be scribbling while perched on her milking stool. Such images appealed to 18th-century readers, for whom country matters were invested with sentimental and patriotic feeling.

Born at Nether Bogside near Ecclefechan in Dumfriesshire, the daughter of a hired farm laborer who was “not in circumstances to afford her more than a common education,” Janet Little became a domestic servant…. Picturesquely labeled a milkmaid, Little superintended Loudoun Castle’s dairy, a position of considerable responsibility and prestige. But this arduous labor brought certain rewards, [since] “The financial value of women’s work was far greater on a dairy farm than in any other branch of agriculture, since the prosperity of such a farm depended almost entirely on their results.” When Mrs. Henri left Loudoun Castle for France in 1792, Little married John Richmond, an elderly laborer at the castle who survived her by six years. Little’s collection of poems of 1792, The Poetical Works of Janet Little, The Scotch Milkmaid, is dedicated to the only daughter of the fifth earl, the Right Honourable Flora, countess of Loudoun, then 12 years old. Little is said to have cleared about £50 through this publication, a very respectable showing, and the subscription list, to which Burns contributed, is impressive in its length and social clout.

The poem below was offered this week by the Academy of American Poets, the only female voice in their stars for Halloween. We hope the music of her spooky tale is an apt companion to whatever you’re doing this Halloween eve.

Little Halloween

Some folk in courts for pleasure sue,
An’ some ransack the theatre:
The airy nymph is won by few;
She’s of so coy a nature.
She shuns the great bedaub’d with lace,
Intent on rural jokin
An’ spite o’ breeding, deigns to grace
A merry Airshire rockin,
Sometimes at night.

At Halloween, when fairy sprites
Perform their mystic gambols,
When ilka witch her neebour greets,
On their nocturnal rambles;
When elves at midnight-hour are seen,
Near hollow caverns sportin,
Then lads an’ lasses aft convene,
In hopes to ken their fortune,
By freets that night.

At Jennet Reid’s not long ago,
Was held an annual meeting,
Of lasses fair an’ fine also,
With charms the most inviting:
Though it was wat, an’ wondrous mirk,
It stopp’d nae kind intention;
Some sprightly youths, frae Loudon-kirk,
Did haste to the convention,
Wi’ glee that night.

The nuts upon a clean hearthstane,
Were plac’d by ane anither,
An’ some gat lads, an’ some gat nane,
Just as they bleez’d the gither.
Some sullen cooffs refuse to burn;
Bad luck can ne’er be mended;
But or they a’ had got a turn,
The pokeful nits was ended
Owre soon that night.

A candle on a stick was hung,
An’ ti’d up to the kipple:
Ilk lad an’ lass, baith auld an’ young,
Did try to catch the apple;
Which aft, in spite o’ a’ their care,
Their furious jaws escaped;
They touch’d it ay, but did nae mair,
Though greedily they gaped,
Fu’ wide that night.

The dishes then, by joint advice,
Were plac’d upon the floor;
Some stammer’d on the toom ane thrice,
In that unlucky hour.
Poor Mall maun to the garret go,
Nae rays o’ comfort meeting;
Because sae aft she’s answered no,
She’ll spend her days in greeting,
An’ ilka night.

Poor James sat trembling for his fate;
He lang had dree’d the worst o’t;
Though they had tugg’d and rugg’d till yet,
To touch the dish he durst not.
The empty bowl, before his eyes,
Replete with ills appeared;
No man nor maid could make him rise,
The consequence he feared
Sae much that night.

Wi’ heartsome glee the minutes past,
Each act to mirth conspired:
The cushion game perform’d at last,
Was most of all admired.
From Janet’s bed a bolster came,
Nor lad nor lass was missing;
But ilka ane wha caught the same,
Was pleas’d wil routh o’ kissing,
Fu’ sweet that night.

Soon as they heard the forward clock
Proclaim ’twas nine, they started,
An’ ilka lass took up her rock;
Reluctantly they parted,
In hopes to meet some other time,
Exempt from false aspersion;
Nor will they count it any crime,
To hae sic like diversion
Some future night.

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  • Marinela October 31, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    Nice poem 🙂
    Happy Halloween 🙂

  • Emily Wilkes October 30, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    This Halloween tale of fairy sprites put a whole new, feminine spin on Halloween poetry. It’s not all about blood, gore and monsters.