Text: David Baguley, “Guiomar’s Poetics of Death and ‘The Raven’,” Poe Studies, December 1982, Vol. XV, No. 2, 15:38-40


[page 38:]

Guiomar’s Poetics of Death
and “The Raven”

The University of Western Ontario

Few groups of English-speaking critics are more thoroughly informed about critical developments in their field in France than Poe specialists.(1) The primary purpose of this article is to make a modest contribution to that longstanding tradition by bringing to the attention of Poe critics and readers a book of which I have found no mention in connection with Poe studies, namely Michael Guiomar’s Principes d‘urue esthetique de la mort.(2) Admittedly, even though this book does contain numerous references to the American writer, it does not deal directly with Poe and would thereby seem to merit no more than a mention among the “Fugitive Poe References.” However, as the frequent allusions to Marie Bonaparte, to Jean-Paul Weber, and, in particular, to Gaston Bachelard show, the author is working within a critical tradition which has taken a special interest in Poe. In any case, Guiomar’s incisive study of the aesthetics of death has, by the very nature of its topic, an immediate relevance to Poe’s works, as I wish to demonstrate by applying its principles more fully to a text the author cites only occasionally, Poe’s “The Raven.” An outline of the argument of the book is, however, a necessary preliminary.

In general terms, Guiomar’s primary aim is to study, in various artistic fields but principally in literature, music, and the cinema, the characteristic modes that the creative imagination engenders for the representation of the presence and the imminence of death. More precisely, he analyzes and categorizes a significant range of artistic forms representing the passage from life to death, the biological necessity of death, the personification of its destructive powers, the spatial and temporal configurations that characterize the indeterminate zone at the threshold of the beyond, adding a briefer survey, somewhat outside the scope of his topic, of the Macabre, Diabolic, Fantastic, Demonic, Infernal, and Apocalyptic images that convey the artist’s vision of the realm beyond death. There are sorties into depth psychology, but the study is principally in the lineage of Bachelard, exhaustively exploring a single theme: the promptings and structures of the imagination in its response to the phenomenon of the onset of death. In the course of his study, Guiomar demonstrates convincingly, I feel, that the artistic vision of death, death which is essentially de(con)struction, paradoxically follows most rigorously structured laws. “My thesis,” he summarizes, “is therefore to chart the territory of exchanges, balances, ambiguities between Life and Death, where they transmit their powers and their priorities” (p. 19).

In the brief first part of the book, Guiomar surveys the range of modes of existence of death in the work of art, extending, for example, from a physical presence that fulfills a social or ritual function to a level of transcendency which transposes death or affirms its universal negativity. [column 2:] The main argument of the book, however, emerges in Part II, which studies “the natural and immediate aesthetic categories of death.” Here the author shows that the imagination follows a rigorous sequence of phases that begins with refusal of the notion of death and ends with its hypnotized acceptance at the psychological threshold of the Beyond, the very point at which the fantastic and metaphysical categories (enumerated above) will intervene. The first of these phases, then, Diversion, is an attitude which corresponds to the Pascalian notion of divertissement, an “agnostic refusal of the Idea of Death” (p. 103), that commonly takes the form of eroticism and seeks to distract from or exorcise the fear of death. The Gepuscuular (le Crepuscu-laire) creates an initial atmosphere of transition and uncertainty in, for example, the twilight features of the clairoloscur; among other “prelusive forms,” such varied figures as the mask, the double, the mirror, the mist, the lake, and such generic forms as the (musical) nocturne convey a state of doubt and troubled expectancy. The Funereal (le Funeraire, as distinct from le Funebre which belongs to the rituals of death itself) signals a passive acceptance of death, a recognition of its biological inevitability, as in Shelley’s terse “and we are death,” an awareness that transforms each of us into a “living tomb.” If the Funereal is more of the order of internal recognition, the Lugubrious (le Lugubre) externalizes this state, transfigures the environment of the witness, and “puts our whole world into a state of Mourning” (p. 174). This category involves a “systematic aggravation” of the very foundations of the environment and becomes the immediate precursor either to the personification of death itself in the mode of the Macabre or, in the category of the Unwonted (I‘lnsolite), the final stage in the transitional degradation of the environment in which reality is “saturated,” immobilized, dissolved by the imminent presence of death at the very edge of the Hereafter where, as I have noted, the Fantastic takes over.

The second major development of Guiomar’s study occupies the third and final part of the book, entitled “The Threshold of the Beyond,” in which the author seeks to elaborate what he calls “a dynamology of the world of the Threshold” and to survey the events, figures, images, and tones that characterize the artistic representation of the frontier of death itself. There are chapters on “The Double,” “The Transcendence of Blood” (an analysis of images of fluidity and pulsation linked to associations of guilt and eroticism), on “The Lament” (“La Plainte haute”), and, here as elsewhere, on the remarkable convergent associations of these elements, rooted as they are “in the most subconscious reaches of the creative being and even of all men” (p. 393). The final chapters deal with “The Knock at the Door” (“La Porte heurtee”) featuring references, as one might expect, to such works as Don Giovanni, “The Raven,” and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; with “The Chilling Winds from Beyond” (“Les Courants d‘Air glacial de l‘Au-dela”), denoting the cold kiss of death and embracing, as it were, the thematics of images of breathing; and lastly, with “The Open Door,” that looks out beyond the Threshold of Death to the Apocalyptic or the Infernal and therefore out of the range of the book.

By analyzing, in this way, congruent images and their function in the “psychodynamics” of the imagination, Guiomar’s [page 39:] work is clearly in the spirit of Bachelard. When, for example, he comes to study the profound links between eroticism and remembrance in the double context of the imminence of death and the evocation of the mother’s body, there is an inevitable reference to Bachelard’s reading of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym in L‘Ean et les reves.3 There are other, more original references to Poe’s works, which are frequently cited to illustrate the various categories and themes defined in the book; Guiomar points to, for example, the chilling wind from the sea in “Annabel Lee” (pp. 247, 442); the silence of the Unwonted in “The Domain of Arnheim” and “Landor’s Cottage” (p. 240); the double in “William Wilson” (pp. 289, 298), the animal’s cry in “The Black Cat” transforming the Unwonted into the Lugubrious (p. 235); the association of blood, rhythm, and death in “The Tell-Tale Heart” (p. 354); more extensively, the varieties of the Fantastic evident in “King Pest” (pp. 274-275) with a further example of the chill wind of death (p. 435); the patent manifestation of death linked with the rhythms of dance and the sinister clock in “The Masque of the Red Death” (pp. 251, 271, 274); finally, the Lugubrious decor in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and in the Epstein film adaptation of the story (p. 312) as well as, in the same tale, the stagnant waters and their association with blood and death (pp. 348, 356), then the knock of death from the tomb (p. 432). But the main interest and value of the study reside in irs more general applicability, which I wish to demonstrate by going beyond Guiomar’s own occasional references to “The Raven” in order to apply his categories and insights more fully to a particular Poe text.


In the narrative development of “The Raven,” the protagonist-narrator is clearly, at the start, in an attitude of Diversion. Whether his reading is merely “in surcease of sorrow“ — a distraction from his thoughts on the loss of his loved one — or, as has been argued,4 an attempt to raise her ghost from the dead with the aid of the “forgotten lore,” he is rejecting the notion of death in accordance with Guiomar’s preliminary category. The setting is patently Gepuscular with the Clair-obscur effects from the lamp and from the “dying embers” in the surrounding darkness establishing what Guiomar calls an “ontological balance . . . between light and shadow” (p. 203). The temporal references to “a midnight dreary” in “the bleak December” confirm this Crepuscular atmosphere, partaking of the transitional and the vestibular, lending to the poem much of its suspense, and determining the kind of effect whereby time itself is immobilized into a state that is frequently conducive to the appearance of the sinister bird of night and to the imminence of death (p. 206).

The dramatic nature of the poem has the effect of concentrating into a single sequence a number of the usual phenomena of the Lugubrious, the Unwonted, and the Fantastic, along with characteristic features of the poetics of the Threshold itself, such as the knocking at the door (and window), the open door, the pregnant silence, the barely perceptible wind — “a silent force and a presence . . . a living silence, homologous with the unwonted Bestiary” (p. 244) — creating the typically “overcharged atmosphere of the Unwonted [which] evokes the emptiness of [column 2:] the Beyond” (pp. 439-440). The repetitions and the particular sonority of “The Raven” also relate to this process of “saturation” that Guiomar attributes to the Unwonted and to Poe’s poem.(5) Indeed, the scene at the door, with the echo and the theatricality of the whole event, is remarkably consistent with the characteristic division of the self that occurs, according to the French critic (p. 224), “at the threshold of imminent transformations” in the category of the Unwonted. Other elements of the prelusive atmosphere of the poem, notably the “rustling” of the curtains, belong to the decor of the Lugubrious (p. 189). One could even find a reasonable justification for the problematic “tinkling” footfalls of line 80 by reference to a note by Guiomar on the frequent “metallization” of the phenomena of the Unwonted.6 Finally, there is an equally feasible set of relations that could be established between a particular element of the decor, the purple curtains (line 13), an explicit reference to the beating of the narrator’s heart (line 15), and the overall pulsating rhythm of the poem, for, as Guiomar argues, all pulsation is a “metamorphosis of Blood” and belongs to the poetics of the Threshold, where blood is “omnipresent,” not the literal blood of wounds, but the “thematized” blood of “the fantasies evoked by the approach of Death” (p. 327). Indeed, in a similar vein (so to speak), one senses that perhaps the “tell-tale heart” of Poe’s poem is related to a further reference of this kind: to the cushion’s “velvet-violet lining” that “She shall press, ah, nevermore! ” (lines 77-78) . If one would care or dare to entertain the notion of a profound association between the cushion, the maternal womb, and the lost Lenore — who seems to make a significant spectral appearance in the very next lines where the air “grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer“ — Guiomar’s general comments on blood, death, and the mother provide an interesting gloss on this particular incident of the poem as a moment of (lost) reprieve or resurrection:

The appearance of the phenomenon of Blood at the Threshold of Death would seem therefore to have a profound source, one which subconsciously is the very opposite of the apparent reasons. Far from deriving its origin from a form of masochism that stains with blood the whole environment, it could be a deep defence against an essential Fear, a kind of “homeopathy,’ replacing the blood that threatens by the blood of the mother s womb and thereby transforming the terrifying world of emptiness nearby into a world of security (p. 417)

The appearance of the raven, the most dramatic event of the poem, and the subsequent behavior of the bird illustrate the complex interrelatedness of Guiomar’s categories. The creature draws upon features of two distinct types that the critic defines: the “Lugubrious bestiary” which includes the more noisy and ostentatious forms like the crows of ancient portents, jackals, hyenas, vultures, and howling dogs; and the “Unwonted bestiary” to which belong the silent prowlers who “loom up unexpectedly through the unknown fissures in our home” (pp. 234-235). To the former group pertain “the cry, the complaint, the phenomenon dressed in black, the attack upon our perception”; to the latter, “the varieties of silence, the ambiguities of shadow and light, the secret invasion of the very centre of our perception” (p 237). In fact, Guiomar cites Poe’s bird as an intermediary form and points to the raven’s power of language as the decisive factor, just as earlier he cites the Lugubrious aspect of the “loquacious ravens” in [page 40:] the work of the Austrian poet Lenau (p. 177). The protagonist’s mocking interrogation of the raven can furthermore be said to derive from a common attitude of initial rejection of the Fantastic (p. 273), and the bird’s statuary pose and riveted gaze are a natural part of its Lugubrious presence and of the Macabre message that it bears from the Beyond (p. 188). Thus the association between the narrator and the bird completes a process that Guiomar describes, in general terms, at the end of his study, whereby the object or being of the Unwonted is promoted to a status of “absolute independence in relation to the living, visible world, to the extent that it becomes ruled, possessed, haunted by Death and is fashioned by the witness himself into a personified power, into a living being, namely the Macabre” (p. 250). The raven, then, becomes a parodic version of the mythical messenger of renewal and salvation (p. 456), a harbinger, not of Apocalyptical regeneration, but of irretrievable, even Diabolical or Infernal destruction.(7)

It is possible, of course, to produce a perfectly plausible interpretation of “The Raven” without any reference to the notion of Death.(8) But Guiomar’s study offers a suggestive framework of interpretation within which Poe’s poem, as we have seen, may be usefully glossed both in its general outline and in many of its details.(9) Poe’s own description of the genesis of the poem clearly leaves no room for such generalized schematics. With its emphasis on conscious intention and effect, “The Philosophy of Composition” is, in a sense, a very modern text,(10) likely ro appeal not only to such punctilious literary craftsmen as Ricardou,(11) but also, by its emphasis on the performative use of language, to the literary pragmatician. However, in the process of systematically rejecting the romantic myth of inspiration, Poe’s essay also precludes all consideration of the generative force of the kind of (arche)typical imaginative determinants with which Guiomar’s book deals. Whether or not one is impressed by their inner logic or, like Guiomar (p. 77) and Bachelard, convinced of their primacy over the conscious effort of formal elaboration of the work of art, one can but acknowledge their evident importance as operative factors in the lasting appeal of such works as “The Raven.”



1 - See, in particular, the studies by Patrick F. Quinn: The French Face of Edgar Poe (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1957); Poe and France: The Last Twenty Years (Baltimore, Maryland: Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1970) “Poe in Europe. Recent French Criticism,” Poe Studies, 11 (;978), 17-20. See also: Claude Richard, “Poe Studies in Europe: France,” Poe Newsletter, 2 (1969), 20 23; T. H. Goetz, “Addenda: Fugitive References, Poe and France,” Poe Studies, 9 (1976), 51-52; and the collection of articles edited by Jean Alexander, Affidavits of Genisus. Edgar Allan Poe and the French Critics, 1847-1924 (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1971), reviewed by Maurice Levy in Poe Studies, 7 (1974), 54-55.

2 - (Parts: Jose Corti, 1967). Page references included in the text of this article are to Guiomar’s book. All translations are my own and I have respected the author’s liberal use of capital letters to refer to the categories that he defines.

3 - Guiomar, pp. 410-411. For an analysis of Bachelard’s interpretation of the story, see Quinn, The French Face of Edgar Poe, pp. 189-192.

4 - Byrd Howell Granger, “Devil Lore in ‘The Raven,‘” Poe Studies, 5 (1972), 53. [column 2:]

5 - The regular repetition of Never More [sic], which was however chosen according to the poet’s own assertion for its sonorous quality rather than for the idea, creates in an analogous manner [to the technique of “The Masque of the Red Death”] an Unwonted saturation that is superimposed, as is often the case with E. Poe, upon fantastic elements [un fantastique] already in place” (p. 209).

6 - See the detailed note and reference to Bachelard p. 199. On the problem of line 80 of the poem, see John J. Teunissen and Evelyn J. Hinz, “Quaint and Curious Backgrounds for Poe’s “Raven“,” Southern Humanities Review, 7 (1973), 416-417.

7 - See Granger, “Devil Lore in ‘The Raven,‘” p. 54.

8 - As do Teunissen and Hinz, who believe the poem concerns sexual infidelity.

9 - 1n an initial overview of his study (p. 105), Guiomar presents evidence of the existence of two “almost obligatory” trajectories of the imagination. First, after the preliminary Crepuscular stage, there follow the Funereal, the Unwonted, the “purely” Fantastic, then the Apocalyptic. Second, again a*er the Crepuscular, come Diversion, the Lugubrious, the Macabre and related categories of the Diabolic and of the “primary” (that is, anthro” and zoomorphic) Fantastic, then finally the Infernal. Poe’s poem clearly adheres to the latter course.

10 - See Claude Richard’s extensive discussion in Edgar Allan Poe: Journaliste et Critique (Paris: Librairie C. Klincksieck, 1979).

11 - On Ricardou’s view of Poe, see Quinn, Poe and France, and Richard, “Poe Studies in Europe.”


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]