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.