The Raven (American History Through Literature)
Edgar Allan Poe's (1809849) "The Raven" (1845) is a repetitive poem about repetition. And as Poe's most famous poem, perhaps the most famous poem in American literature, it has been endlessly repeatedeprinted, rewritten, rehearsed, and recited, the image of the raven recycled as an emblem of gothic horror and Baltimorean civic pride. Even in Poe's lifetime the poem was widely parodiedn at least fifteen different published works between 1845 and 1849, the year of Poe's death (Poe, Complete Poems, p. 352)nd "The Raven" has come to more or less define Poe's image in popular culture, from The Simpsons to the lyrics of Lou Reed. Students often wonder what the raven (and therefore "The Raven") means, but any attempt to answer that question must also address the question of what all that repetition means.
Within the poem, the repetition means simply that the speaker is obsessed with "the lost Lenore." Once he realizes that the raven will reliably repeat "nevermore" in response to anything he says to it, he turns the encounter into a perverse game in which the word "nevermore" reminds him of the grief, what Poe called "Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance," that will occupy him forever. The narrator transforms the bird into both an instrument of self-torture and a symbol of his personal mourning. The poem performs those functions as well through repetition. It is impossible to escape the insistent rhymesnternal, external, they are everywherehe thudding trochaic octameter (lines of eight stressed/unstressed "beats": ONCE uPON a MIDnight DREARy, WHILE i PONdered WEAK and WEARy), the simple verbal repetitions ("followed fast and followed faster" [l. 64]; "Is therei>is there balm in Gilead?ell meell me, I implore!" [l. 89]), or the alliteration ("this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore" [l. 71]), all of which, like the ecstatic pain of grief, both excites and torments the reader.
MOURNING, REPETITION, AND IMITATION
While the fame of "The Raven" is largely a result of its uniqueness, an awareness of what makes the poem typical might help the reader better understand the poem's place in nineteenth-century American culture. Specifically the performance of grief as a repetition compulsion is firmly rooted in mid-nineteenth-century mourning ritual. As Ann Douglas and Karen Halttunen have shown, the rural cemetery movement, the appearance of mourning guidebooks, the unwritten codes involving dress and comportment, and an outpouring of sentimental poems about loss marked a new set of expectations for bereavement. Halttunen quotes one mourning manual that delivers its message in the form of a catechism: "Why is that mother robed in mourning? It is the outward token of a mourning which the heart alone can feel" (p. 136). Paradoxically the unique experience of grief had to be shown through formal devices such as special clothing, tokens such as wreaths woven from the hair of the deceased, and graveyard visitsepeated by individual mourners and imitated by other mourners. The repetitious raven, likewise, is an objective correlative symbol that perfectly evokes the emotion it representsor grief and the poem, with its insistence on the speaker's
Ralph Waldo Emerson once referred to Poe as "the jingle man," alluding to what many have regarded as the cheap musicality of Poe's poetry. But "The Raven's" theme is equally the stuff of pop music. The poet Dave Smith, analyzing the poem's appeal, makes a fundamental point: "We have loved and lost, felt heartbreak, felt ourselves abandoned. This is a basic country-western song and it sells more than we may want to think about" (p. 8). In fact thinking about it will only get the reader so far. The poem probably owed much of its popularity to the fact that most people who read and heard it knew they did not have to think about it in order to "get" it. Like any good pop song, the power of "The Raven" comes through its manipulation ofot its defiance ofonventions, both stylistic and thematic. Poe's later explanation that the death of a beautiful woman is "unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world" (Essays and Reviews, p. 19) puts a sexist spin on a tenet that his contemporaries seem to have shared: that bereavement begets poetry and that writing and reading such poetry is itself a ritual of mourning. The Poetical Works of Alice and Phoebe Cary (1865), for instance, contains twenty poems by Alice (1820871) and nine by Phoebe (1824871) under the heading "Poems of Grief and Consolation," and many other poems in the collection deal with death and loss as well. Mary Louise Kete identifies the "three signal concerns of the sentimental mode" as "lost homes, lost families, and broken bonds" (p. 17), an assertion supported by her reading of a mid-nineteenth-century manuscript book alongside the more celebrated poems of Lydia Sigourney and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. One striking convention of nineteenth-century mourning poems is the focus on an image that, like the raven, triggers memories of the deceased or an awareness of the mourner's loss (a portrait in Alice Cary's "Lost Lilies"; a "cross of snow" in a Longfellow poem by that name). Poe's black bird, arriving like a mourner to the speaker's never-ending wake, does not merely trigger but participates in the scene of mourning with its uncanny "speaking" ability, pushing this convention to the limit (and for many later readers, beyond the limit) at which it can be taken seriously. Alice Cary's poem "Most Beloved," for instance, also catalogs natural images that she associates with an unnamed lost beloved, concluding:
All things, my darling, all things seem
In some strange way to speak of thee;
Nothing is half so much a dream,
Nothing so much reality.
The speaker of her poem "A Wintry Waste" expresses hope that her son will return:
But fancy only half deceives
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
boughs go over the window-pane
And drag on the lonely eaves, in vain,br />That waste is all I see.
(Ll. 20, 279)
These poems reinforce the point that although Poe was ringing changesffectively, to be suren a conventional theme, not even the fact that his poem ends in despair rather than consolation is particularly unusual.
In his variorum edition of Poe's poems, Thomas Ollive Mabbott noted direct sources for "The Raven," the most significant of which is Elizabeth Barrett's (1806861) "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" (1844), also written in trochaic octameter and featuring a refrain that includes the word "evermore." As Eliza Richards has argued, Poe's poetic voice in "The Raven" and elsewhere draws heavily and self-consciously from Barrett and other women poets he knew, read, and reviewed, even as he seeks to displace the woman author: "Rather than rejecting the feminine, Poe becomes an expert in the field, out-feminizing the feminine in a masculine rendition that inverts female poetic practice and thus exoticizes the banal performativity of the female poet" (p. 8). In fact when "The Raven" appeared in the American Review in February 1845, an introduction (possibly written by Poe) apologized for the poem's "deep quaint strain of the sentiment" before praising the technical skill of the author, identified as "Quarles." The same headnote points to "the curious introduction of some ludicrous touches amidst the serious and impressive, as was doubtless intended by the author" (Poe, Complete Poems, p. 360). Poe, then, is tweaking and (if the American Review is correct) deliberately exaggerating well-established conventions of sentimental verse, responding not only to Barrett, one of his favorite poets, but also to a set of expectations associated with popular women writers (but employed by both women and men). Poe had hinted in a review of Barrett that she had imitated Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Locksley Hall" (1842) in writing "Lady Geraldine's Courtship." The resemblance between those two poems is no stronger than the resemblance between "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" and "The Raven," suggesting to Mabbott that Poe was "acknowledging his debt to Barrett" in calling attention to her poem's debt to Tennyson. Like his more extended discussions of plagiarism, though, this reference to the imitation by one of his favorite poets of another of his favorite poets conveys Poe's skepticism of claims to literary originality generally and his awareness of the value of emulation, a term that suggests admiring, as opposed to exploitative, imitation. "Of course," Poe would write the following year, "I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or the metre of the 'Raven'" (Essays and Reviews, p. 21).
LITERARY PRODUCTION AND REPRODUCTION
For all its reliance on a culture of mourning generally and "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" specifically, "The Raven" is nonetheless a striking, memorable poem, and it enjoyed immediate popularity. A few days before it appeared in the American Review, to whom he had sold it, Poe arranged with his friend Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806867) to publish the poem, revealing the name of its author, in the New York Evening Mirror to boost its circulation and interest. In contrast with the academic tone of the American Review's headnote, Willis's introduction promised a blockbuster, "the most effective single example of 'fugitive poetry' ever published in this country, and unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conception, masterly ingenuity of versification, and consistent sustaining of imaginative lift and 'pokerishness.' [spookiness] . . . It will stick to the memory of everybody who reads it" (Poe, Complete Poems, p. 361). Willis not only correctly predicted the poem's popularity but also spurred it on, initiating, even before it had been printed once, the career of "The Raven" as one of the most widely reprinted poems of its time. Mabbott lists twenty variant texts over which Poe had some control; these represent only a fraction of the reprintings, most unauthorized, in periodicals. Meredith McGill has termed the publishing environment in which "The Raven" flourished a "culture of reprinting," emphasizing the ways writers such as Poe used the lack of copyright protection to their benefit even as they rallied in print for legislation protecting intellectual property. Poe neither expected nor received direct payments for the "countless" (according to Mabbott) reprintings of "The Raven"; as a magazine editor, he was in the habit of reprinting other poets' works, as well as his own, freely.
Not so much despite but because of the unwritten rules of reprint culture, Poe enjoyed a huge (albeit unsustained) career boost from "The Raven": by the end of 1845 he had published his first collection of poetry in fourteen years as well as a new collection of tales and found himself a desirable guest at New York literary salons. Poe wanted the poem to be reprinted freely in order to spread his fame: "'The Raven' has had a great 'run,'" he boasted, "but I wrote it for the express purpose of runningust as I did 'The Gold-Bug.' . . . the bird beat the bug, though, all hollow" (Letters 2:287). The bird also drew audiences in parlors, literary salons and lecture halls, where Poe performed the poemepeatedly, like a human jukeboxs he sought literary respectability, subscribers for his never-realized magazine project, and after Virgina Clemm Poe's death in 1847, a new wife.
While Poe could not possibly regulate the reproduction of "The Raven," its success held out the promise of control over his own career not only because it brought him fame but also because it demonstrated his writerly discipline. As his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales (1837) and his own analysis of "The Raven" in "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846) make clear, Poe's aesthetics are grounded in the principle of authorial control: the reason poems and tales should be brief and conceptually unified is to ensure that readers remain under the spell of the writer. "The Philosophy of Composition" particularly trades inspiration (which is unpredictable) for method and the control that comes with it. And Poe saw signs of the "control revolution" (James Beniger's term) all around him: publishing was central to the transformation of everyday life brought about by mass production and consumer culture. Machine-made paper, stereotyped plates, and steam presses made possible an explosion of print, which in turn disseminated the information and ideas that drove the new economy. The rapid increase in the importance of publishing is reflected in P. T. Barnum's statement that "there was only one liquid that a man could use in excessive quantities without being swallowed up by it, and that was printer's ink" (Harris, p. 195).
In stories and sketches, such as "The Man That Was Used Up" (1850), "The Business-Man" (1843), and "Some Words with a Mummy" (1845), Poe satirizes believers in "the rapid march of mechanical invention" (as the man who was used up refers to it) and other forms of progress (which, the mummy tells us, never progresses). At the same time, though, he wanted to show that he could play the modern literary-publishing game as well asr better thannyone, that he could produce a "Raven" or a "Gold-Bug" at will. Like train schedules, assembly line tasks, and advertising slogans, Poe's pseudo-aesthetic in "The Philosophy of Composition" dependss does "The Raven"n a kind of predictable, repeatable set of questions of answers. Although Poe never did repeat the success of "The Raven," he did apparently write the poem "for the purpose of running," which is to say reproducing itself in print. The repetition of the raven (and "The Raven") mirrors that strategy of never-ending republication, recitation, and parody.
See also Death; "The Fall of the House of Usher"; Gothic Fiction; Lyric Poetry; "The Philosophy of Composition"; Popular Poetry
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