The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe, around 1849

Poe wrote his most famous poem in 1844, around the time he moved from Philadelphia to New York. He seems to have first offered it to his friend and former employer, George Rex Graham, editor of Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature and Art. Graham turned it down, but felt so bad about rejecting it, he paid Poe $15 as an apology. It’s easy to feel Poe might have started to have doubts about the poem when his friend basically paid him not to publish it, which may be why, when he then placed it with The American Review (for which he was paid somewhere between five and ten dollars — less than for its non-appearance in Graham’s), he used the pseudonym “Quarles”, a reference to Francis Quarles (1592–1644), whose most famous work, Emblems, is a series of poetic meditations on scripture. (Poe later wrote that he wanted the raven in his poem to be “emblematical of Mournful and never ending Remembrance”.) The tale of The Raven’s first publication took a further twist when Poe then placed it with a different paper, The Evening Mirror, this time under his own name, which came out before The American Review, at the end of January 1845.

The Raven was an immediate success, being reprinted in countless journals and newspapers for decades after (for which Poe mostly wasn’t paid). And not only reprinted, but parodied. Because of its characteristic rhythm and rhyming scheme, and the comic potential of its central situation (a maudlin poet addressing an obdurate, monosyllabic interlocutor), Poe’s Raven was repurposed for a variety of ends, from straightforward comedy to political satire (Britain’s Lord Dunraven must have rued the day it was written), as well as more serious pastiches, including tributes to Poe himself, sequels, “channelled” poems dictated by Poe from the afterlife, fake precursors, and poems that used the style of The Raven as a framework for imparting a moral (“The Owl”, for instance, is a pro-temperance version). The best of these imitations, though, are pure comedy, such as “The Parrot”, “The Pole Cat” (praised by Abraham Lincoln), and “Chateaux D’Espagne” (whose narrator becomes infatuated with an actress in the titular play). (I became so sidetracked looking into parodies and pastiches of The Raven whilst doing this research, that I ended up adding a whole new section to my website dedicated to them.) In effect, The Raven was a nineteenth century meme, taken up and played with because it was so instantly recognisable and adaptable.

Detail of an illustration by Manet for The Raven

Poe did receive some benefit from the poem’s success. In June 1845, his first book in five years, Tales, was published by Wiley and Putnam, followed by The Raven and Other Poems in November. And, in April the following year, he had an essay published (by a no doubt still contrite George Rex Graham), “The Philosophy of Composition”, about how he wrote the poem.

The Philosophy of Composition” is a peculiar piece of puffery, in which Poe attempts to convince his reader that pretty much everything about The Raven was derived by logic, not poetic inspiration. If we’re to believe him, the first thing Poe decided upon was the length of the poem, before he even knew what it was going to be about. That length — about a hundred lines, he decided — was the best length for a poem, as it could be read in a single sitting, while being long enough to make a strong impression. Next, he chose the effect he wanted to make on his reader, selecting “beauty”, whose highest manifestation, he says, is melancholy. And the death of a beautiful woman, of course, is the purest expression of such melancholy. Working from there, he step-by-step outlined the scheme of his poem. Realising he wanted a refrain, for instance, he chose the word “Nevermore” because of its containing “the most sonorous vowel” (a long “o”), and “the most producible consonant” (the letter “r”, apparently). And who would speak this refrain? Not a human, as it is so repetitive. A speaking beast, then. Which beast? Poe would have us believe he briefly considered a parrot before settling on a raven. The rest followed with — or so he seems to imply — nothing but logic, until he arrived at his finished paean to “Mournful and never ending Remembrance”.

It’s tempting to take “The Philosophy of Composition” as a sort of humble bragging (“Oh, it all seemed perfectly logical to me”), or perhaps even a hoax (after all, some of his tales began as hoaxes), but I can’t help feeling Poe himself was the main person he was trying to convince. His young wife Virginia showed the first signs of consumption in 1842; she died in 1847. The death of a beautiful woman can’t help but have been on his mind. Perhaps he didn’t want to admit what he knew was going to happen, and had to make his poem a thing of the intellect, not of the emotions, so he could deal with it. He was clearly a man of both strong intellect and troubled emotions, and the two can’t have avoided being in conflict within him to some degree. But, by attempting to convince his readership that The Raven was the result not of intense feeling but cold ratiocination, he was surely undermining its most poetic qualities, making it sound like it had been created by some versifying algorithm, something its tight rhythm and rhyming scheme already suggested to some. Emerson called Poe “the jingle man” for this very reason, and Yeats later dismissed The Raven as “insincere and vulgar… a rhythmical trick”.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

A poet who took a different critical tack was Elizabeth Barrett Barrett (later Browning), to whom Poe dedicated his 1845 collection. Poe had reviewed Elizabeth Barrett Barrett’s Poems in 1844, making a point of criticising it in detail — as a compliment, oddly enough, because he started the review saying how women poets tended to be praised in sugary terms and not taken as seriously as their male counterparts, who were assumed to be able to take harder knocks. One poem he singled out for praise was “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship”, whose line:

“With a murmurous stir uncertain, in the air, the purple curtain…”

many critics found echoed in The Raven’s:

“And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain…”

In her letters, Elizabeth Barrett said The Raven had “produced a sensation—a ‘fit horror’ here in England”, but to her future husband Robert Browning she wrote, after reading Poe’s “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”:

“…you shall… decide whether the outrageous compliment to me [i.e., the dedication of The Raven and Other Poems] or the experiment on M. Vandeleur [sic] goes furthest to prove him mad.”

In another letter, to a different correspondent, she wrote:

“As to The Raven… There is certainly a power but it does not appear to me the natural expression of a sane intellect in whatever mood…”

It is, then, a poem that seems at once overly clever and in the grip of unstable emotion.

The reason Poe’s poem attracts the “jingle man” type of criticism is that we expect poetry to be about emotion, sensation, nuance, and so on, but The Raven feels so tightly controlled, so narrowly confined by its rhythm and its rhyming scheme — by its cleverness — we’re left feeling emotion has been sacrificed for showy-off technique. In “The Philosophy of Composition”, Poe seems to take pains to point out how not in the grip of any personal emotion he was. But, I’d say this reliance on cleverness isn’t a limitation of the poem. Rather, it’s what the poem is about. The poetry of The Raven is what escapes this strict matrix of rhythm and rhyme — what comes through despite the control and cleverness, and in contrast to it.

The Raven is about the trap of being stuck in intellect, unable to grieve. It’s about a poet suffering from cleverness when he ought to be feeling feelings. The raven, emerging from the storm (i.e., the roil of emotions the narrator thinks he has shut out by holing himself up in his study), represents the thing that cannot be confronted with mere cleverness: the dark emotion, eyeing him beadily from the corner of the room, relentless in its insistence. It speaks one word, because it is emotion, not thought, and that one word has all the meaning it needs to convey. It’s a word that speaks of deep and unfaceable loss. And still the narrator can’t accept it, but has to interrogate the one-worded beast, and arrive at the emotion through a long and avoidant path, turning the expression of personal grief into a ritual of self-torture. After which, the raven remains (still is sitting), unassuaged and unbanished, like that other bird of Romantic poetry, the albatross around the neck of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.

The Raven is easily parodied and can seem overblown, melodramatic, nothing but a “jingle” or a “rhythmical trick”, but at the same time it’s about a pitiable and very human situation: a lone man hiding from the storm of his own overpowering emotions, obsessively talking himself into a confrontation with the one ineluctable fact that he cannot face: the death of his beloved.

It’s a favourite with the more grandiloquent kind of actor, the sort who make it big in a certain type of old horror film: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Basil Rathbone, Christopher Walken. (James Earl Jones does a good version, too.) It doesn’t quite fit in with the other long fantasy poems I’ve covered in this blog — The Hashish Eater, Goblin Market, Childe Roland and so on — as it isn’t strictly fantasy, but at the same time, it doesn’t quite not fit in. (It certainly echoes Wilde’s The Sphinx, for instance.) Perhaps its divisiveness — the way it seems to be so unpoetic whilst clinging so tightly to poetic form — underlines its archetypal power as a poem about the limits of intellect, the confrontation with difficult emotion, and so, ultimately, the need for poetry.

The Wise Friend by Ramsey Campbell

Patrick Semple, the narrator of Ramsey Campbell’s new novel, is a divorced English Literature teacher/lecturer whose aunt, Thelma Turnbill, was a painter working in a mixed surrealist/mystical vein, somewhat in the mode of Leonora Carrington. Patrick’s fifteen-year-old son becomes interested in Thelma and her work when Patrick shares her journal with him, in which she left some cryptic notes about rural locations she’d got a weird sort of inspiration for her paintings from. Patrick and Roy visit one — the wood behind the house where Thelma used to live — but Roy later starts visiting them all in turn, and not with his father, but his new girlfriend Bella, whom he met at an exhibition featuring Thelma’s work. Patrick starts to worry about his son’s involvement with the occult elements that began to preoccupy his aunt towards the end of her life, and as he investigates what may be driving Roy and (even more) Bella in their quest, he starts to realise he has to find a way to stop them.

coverThe title of this novel, The Wise Friend, made me think of Campbell’s 2012 novel of faerie horror, The Kind Folk, at first because of the propitiatory air of the title — the “Kind Folk” being anything but kind, just as the “Wise Friend”, you can tell, is going to turn out to be something other than a friend. The two books share other elements, though, too: both feature trips to a series of weird rural locations, both feature a cryptically-worded journal, and both are about the relationship between a father and son.

Exploring that relationship between a parent and a child is a perennial Campbell theme — in particular, looking at how being a parent means walking a line that can stray from protection into control. Patrick’s aunt, Thelma, with whom he often stayed, was a lot more lenient than his mother. She allowed him, for instance, to read Hunter Thompson’s Leaving Las Vegas, which shocks his mother when she finds out, because it’s about drugs. Once he’s a parent himself, Patrick is keen to make sure his son Roy knows about the dangers of drugs, but nevertheless encourages (at first) his son’s interest in Thelma’s art, something Patrick’s mother didn’t do.

But if this is a novel about that difficult line between parental protection and stifling control, then the most stifled child of all is the titular “Wise Friend”, a being created to be entirely of use to others, and to have no agency of its own, but who is determined to win that freedom, and with a vengeance.

And perhaps it’s a novel about loss, too. Patrick, after all, has lost his wife through divorce, and his aunt through her death, and perhaps the thought of losing his son, even if it’s just because Roy has quite naturally become more keen on spending time with Bella, his first girlfriend, is one loss too many. Is Patrick’s interference in Roy and Bella’s relationship inappropriate control or necessary protection? It’s one of the great strengths of Campbell’s supernatural fiction that the supernatural and the psychological are so tightly interwoven that his protagonists are usually helpless to convince anyone they’re not just having a breakdown, or (perhaps, in Patrick’s case) some sort of midlife crisis.

The Wise Friend is classic Campbell, an understated but sometimes hallucinatorily spooky exploration of the folkish occult, the dark edges of creativity, and the subtle power of the themes that weave through family generations. It’s amazing how Campbell continues to find fresh lodes of horror to mine, along with a continued inspiration in themes that have been present in his work from (or near) the beginning.

How does he do it? Perhaps Campbell’s own words can explain it best:

“Yet the mind of the mage is not restful, nor shall it sleep…”

You can read more about Campbell’s latest novel at the publisher’s site, Flame Tree Press. It’s out on April 23rd.

Green Mansions by W H Hudson

I can’t remember where I first heard about W H Hudson’s 1904 novel Green Mansions, but I kept finding it being mentioned as beloved of a number of early twentieth century writers that I like (though I’ve forgotten which ones, apart from Joseph Conrad and David Lindsay). Anyway, it eventually gained enough readerly pull that I just had to read it.

The book’s narrator (apart from a framing-device preface) is Abel Guevez de Argensola, a young Venezuelan forced to flee his home country when his parents’ political affinities clash with those of a new regime. Heading into the jungles of neighbouring Guyana, he at first follows rumours of gold until he settles with a tribe close to the Parahuari Mountains (buying his way into their affections with the gift of a silver tinderbox and his skill with a home-made guitar), and decides to spend some time far from the dangers and hassles of civilisation.

Close by his new home, he discovers a region of jungle completely unexploited by human beings, and begins to spend his days there, at first simply appreciating the strange and wonderful sights of nature, but soon becoming aware of another sentient presence that is not only aware of him, but seems to be leading him, with musical bursts of a bird-like but human-sounding language, to even more strange and beautiful sights.

The tribe he’s taken up with warn him to stay away from this area of jungle, as it’s the home of a “Daughter of the Didi”, who can catch darts fired at her, and throw them back with deadly accuracy. Abel ignores the warning, and soon meets the young woman who has been following his explorations of her region of jungle, the bird-like Rima:

“To induce her to walk soberly at my side or sit down and enter into conversation with me seemed about as impracticable as to tame the fiery-hearted little humming-bird that flashes into sight, remains suspended motionless for a few seconds before your face, then, quick as lightning, vanishes again.”

Rima lives in harmony with all the creatures of the jungle, and in fact seems to embody, for Abel, all the beauties and wonders he has come to find in the jungle itself:

“When I look at you I see them all—all and more, a thousand times, for I see Rima herself. And when I listen to Rima’s voice, talking in a language I cannot understand, I hear the wind whispering in the leaves, the gurgling running water, the bee among the flowers, the organ-bird singing far, far away in the shadows of the trees. I hear them all, and more, for I hear Rima.”

She almost comes to seem superhuman to him:

“She herself was so near to the supernatural that it seemed brought near me; indefinable feelings, which had been latent in me, stirred into life, and following the direction of her divine, lustrous eyes, fixed on the blue sky above, I seemed to see there another being like herself, a Rima glorified, leaning her pale, spiritual face to catch the winged words uttered by her child on earth.”

In a way, Green Mansions has similarities to Wuthering Heights, as both are stories of intense love where human feelings seep out and charge the landscape with that air of the supernatural, until it seems haunted by the presence of the loved one. But Rima is a very different creature from Heathcliff — almost his opposite, in that she’s a flighty, scintillant human humming bird, and Heatchliff is a walking Gothic castle.

Rima, it turns out, isn’t entirely the jungle dryad she at first seems. She is actually a human girl, living in a small hut with her “grandfather” Nuflo (in fact, an old man who took on the orphaned Rima’s care, in part out of a need to change his life and make some amends for his criminal past). And, when she starts to feel a return of Abel’s love for her, her initial reaction is panic. She doesn’t understand what she’s feeling, and for the first time insists on being taken to the land where her mother came from, to find her own people, who, she hopes, can explain these new feelings to her in her own bird-like language.

William Henry Hudson was born in Argentina in 1841. He spent his early years studying the flora and fauna of South America, before settling in England in 1874, where he made his name as an ornithologist, naturalist, and writer. His Times obituary in 1922 called him “unsurpassed as an English writer on Nature”, and Ford Madox Ford called Green Mansions “Anglo-Saxondom’s only rendering of hopeless, of aching passion”.

Rima, in Green Mansions, seems to embody Hudson’s own initiation into a relationship with the natural world, a world full of unique and wondrous living things:

“To each of us, as to every kind of animal, even to small birds and insects, and to every kind of plant, there is given something peculiar—a fragrance, a melody, a special instinct, an art, a knowledge, which no other has.”

Through his relationship with her, and with the jungle world she inhabits:

“I was changed, and this change—so great, so complete—was proof that the old artificial life had not been and could not be the real one, in harmony with my deeper and truer nature.”

Rima went on to have a funny cultural afterlife. In 1924, she was depicted on a bas-relief designed by Eric Gill and carved by Jacob Epstein, placed in the Hudson Memorial Bird Sanctuary in Hyde Park. The figure’s nudity caused something of a scandal (after all, she’s not nude in the book, but wears a scintillant gown of carefully-gathered spider-silk), with Arthur Conan Doyle and E F Benson, among others, petitioning for its removal. (It’s still there today, though.) In 1959, Rima was played by Audrey Hepburn in a film of Green Mansions, opposite Anthony Perkins as Abel. The film changed the book’s ending, but was a financial disaster. And, in 1974, Rima starred in a 7-issue run of Rima the Jungle Girl from DC Comics, where she’s depicted as a sort of female Tarzan.

Hudson’s other books include the future-set pastoral utopia A Crystal Age (1887), and the memoir Idle Days in Patagonia (1893), that I like to think influenced the title of Lord Dunsany’s 1910 short story “Idle Days on the Yann”.