Text: James A. Harrison, “Chapter 09,” Complete Works of E. A. Poe , Vol. 01: Biography (1902), 1:200-227


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[page 200:]

CHAPTER IX.

1845.

“THE RAVEN.”

MEANWHILE, it is necessary to retrace our steps and recall a date the most memorable in Poe’s history, the 29th of January, 1845. Hitherto he had been a local, an American, writer: henceforth whatever he wrote was to be the world’s possession. The medium of this marvellous expansion was “The Raven,” first published in Willis’s “Evening Mirror” from advanced sheets of the “American Whig Review.”

It was introduced by Willis in the following note “We are permitted to copy (in advance of publication), from the second number of the c American Review,’ the following remarkable poem by Edgar Poe. In our opinion, it is the most effective single example or ‘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. . . . It is one of those ‘I dainties bred in a book,’ which we feed on. It will stick to the memory of everybody who reads it.”

A few days later “The Raven” appeared in the February number of this magazine and gave both it and “The Evening Mirror” a wonderful “send off.” The poem floated over the Atlantic — as the three Parisian romances of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” and [page 214:] “The Purloined Letter” had done — and called forth the enthusiastic admiration of Miss Barrett and Robert Browning. One “Quarks” commented pseudonymously on the poem in “The Review,” but the mystification was soon apparent, and the authorship attributed to the proper source.

“Quarles” had commented as follows — and Quarles is a thinly-veiled Poe: — “The following lines from a correspondent, besides the deep quaint strain of the sentiment, and the curious introduction of some ludicrous touches amidst the serious and impres. sive, as was doubtless intended by the author, — appear to us one of the most felicitous specimens of unique rhyming which has for some time met our eye. The resources of English rhythm for varieties of melody, measure, and sound, producing corresponding diversities of effect, have been thoroughly studied, much more perceived, by very few poets in the language. While the classic tongues, especially the Greek, possess, by power of accent, several advantages for versification over our own, chiefly through greater abundance of spondaic feet, we have other and very great advantages of sound by the modem usage of rhyme. Alliteration is nearly the only effect of that kind which the ancients had in common with us. It will be seen that much of the melody of ‘The Raven’ arises from alliteration, and the studious use of similar sounds in unusual places. In regard to its measure, it may be noted that, if all the verses were like the second, they might properly be placed merely in short lines, producing a not uncommon form; but the presence in all the others of one line — mostly the second in the verse — which flows continuously with only an aspirate pause in the middle, — like that before the short line [page 215:] in the Sapphic Adonic, while the fifth has at the middle pause no similarity of sound with any part beside, gives the versification an entirely different effect. We could wish the capacities of our noble language, in prosody, were better understood.”

Technically, Poe afterwards, in the “Outis” controversy, explained the verse of “The Raven” as “trochaic octameter acatalectic, alternating with heptameter catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrameter catalectic.”

In “The Philosophy of Composition” he lifts the lid from the cauldron where glowed the constituent elements of his wonderful poem-philtre and reveals to us its mechanism: the poem was to be about one hundred lines long, made up of equal proportions of Beauty and Quaintness intermingled with Melancholy. A strange and thrilling refrain was to impress this combination on the reader by means of long sonorous o’s and r’s swelling on the ear and the memory in anthem-like ululations, reverberations of waves on the shore, clothed, the whole, in rhythms whose luxuriance of alliterations, susurrus of honeyed vowels and liquids and rise and fall of Eolian cadences would attune the very soul to melody and make the poem as sweet as the dissolving notes of Apollo’s lute. The refrain was to be uttered by a Raven: — I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill-amen — monotonously repeating the one word, ‘Nevermore,’ at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone, and in length about one hundred lines. Now, never losing sight of the object supremeness or perfection, at all points, I asked myself — ‘Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the univerial understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?‘’ [page 216:] Death — was the obvious reply. ‘And when,’ I said, ‘is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?’ From what I have already explained at some length, the answer here also is obvious — ‘When it most closely allies itself to Beauty; the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world — and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such a topic are those of a bereaved lover.’

“I had now to combine the two ideas, of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word ‘Nevermore.’ ”

How masterfully this is done the most cursory reading of the poem will show until, as the poet says, the Raven becomes in the last stanza ” emblematical of Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance,” embalmed in a stanzaic form “each of whose lines, taken individually, has been employed before,” but “what originality ‘The Raven’ has is in their combination into stanzas; nothing even remotely approaching this combination has ever been attempted. The effect of this originality of combination is aided by other unusual and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration.”

The lame efforts of “Outis” to trace the quaint repetition, in the last two lines of many of the stanzas, to a palpable imitation of the manner of Coleridge, in several of the stanzas of “The Ancient Mariner,” Produced by running two lines into one, thus:

“For all averred, I had killed the bird that made the breese to blow,

‘Ah, wretch!’ said they, ‘the bird to slay, that made the breeze to blow!’ ” [page 217:]

remain lame; and equally futile are the attempts to trace magic rhythms of “The Raven” into the recesses of “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship.” Mrs. Browning herself was familiar with the American poem and never accused Poe of stealing her metres.(1)

Of the genesis and evolution of the poem until it appeared in print little or nothing authentic is known. It was one of Poe’s surprises, and we cannot trace its growth as we can that of — “The Bells” or “Lenore,” from the germ to the perfect flower. In print it went through six stages, all immediately under Poe’s eye — “The Evening Mirror,” “The American Review,” “The Broadway Journal” for February 8, 1845, the poet’s edition of 1845; the “Southern Literary Messenger;” and there is a copy of the 1845 edition owned by the Century Association which contains a few of Poe’s MS. notes.

The nearest approximation to authenticity in the accounts of an earlier origin for “The Raven” is that given by Mr. Rosenbach, in “The Baltimore American” for February 26, 1887: “I read ‘The Raven’ long before it was published, and was in George R. Graham’s office when the poem was offered to him. Poe said that his wife and Mrs. Clemm were starving, and that he was in very pressing need of the money. I carried him $15 contributed by Mr. Graham, Mr. Godey, Mr. McMichael, and others, who condemned the poem, but gave the money as a charity.”(2)

As the poem appeared January 29, 1845, it is evident it must have been composed some weeks before, [page 218:] which would place its composition somewhere within the year 1844.

The following newspaper clipping (newspaper not named) sent the writer by John P. Poe, Esq., of Baltimore, the poet’s relative, throws interesting light on this obscure subject and affords a variant reading for one of the lines in the famous “Raven”: —

“Judge George Shea, formerly of the Marine Court of New York, has a letter written to his father by Edgar Allan Poe.

“The letter from Poe is written on a glazed paper without lines, the penmanship is clear and legible, the ink is unfaded, and this is the way the letter read, punctuation and capitalization being followed:

DEAR SHEA, — Lest I should have made same mistake in the hurry I transcribe the whole alteration. Instead of the whole stanza commencing “Wondering at the stillness broken” &c substituting this:

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,

“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store

Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster

Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore —

Till the dirges of his Hope the melancholy burden bore,

‘Nevermore — oh, Nevermore!’ ”

At the close of the stanza preceding this, instead of “Quoth the raven Nevermore,” substitute cr Then the bird said a Nevermore.’ ” Truly yours, POE.

“On the back of the letter is the address, ‘J. Augustus Shea, Esq.,’ and the words,’ To be delivered as soon as he comes in.’

“John Augustus Shea in his time was a literary man of ability and industry. His son, judge Shea, speaking of the Poe letter, said: [page 219:]

“ ‘While at West Point my father and Edgar Allan Poe, who was then a cadet, were the closest associates, and it is probable that in his company Poe received his first poetic impulses, for it was at that time he first began writing verses. Poe left West Point before the time of graduation, and soon after published a volume of poems, now a very rare book, a copy of which was sold in Boston not long since for several hundred dollars. The friendship between the two men continued until Shea’s death. Poe often consulted with Shea about the publication of his poems. It was in this way that he committed to Shea the publication, anonymously, of the “Raven” which made its first appearance in the February number of the “American Review,” 1845, under the nom de plume of “Quarles.”

“It was at this time that the letter from Poe to Shea, given at the beginning of this article, was written and left at Shea’s house during his absence. As you will see it is without date. For a short time among those who knew that Shea caused the poem to be published he wait regarded as the author, an inference not at all improbable to those who read his “Address to the Ocean,” his lines to “The Mountain Pine of Scotland,” or The O‘Kavenaugh.”’

“Judge Shea himself knew Poe personally, and in the forties was often in his company. Judge Shea said only the other day: ‘Poe was one of the best elocutionists I have ever heard. It was my good fortune to be present when Poe and my father read and recited to each other. I remember distinctly Poe’s rendering of “Florence Vane” and “Annabel Lee,” and more than once his own “Raven.” His reading of the “Raven” left upon the mind a very different impression from that which it inspires in [page 220:] print. It was a weird, rapturous invocation as to an actual presence.

“ ‘Poe was among the first of the authors that took to reading and lecturing as a professional occupation. I heard him in the society library in New York in March, 1845, on “The Poets and Principles of Poetry.” But he was at his best in smaller circles of intimate friends. He told me that he recalled me in my early childhood, but I have no recollection of meeting him at West Point. The autograph letter from him to my father was found among my father’s papers after his death. In the summer of 1848 the letter was given to Miss Adelaide Burkle of Oswego, now the wife of Major General John P. Hatch, formerly commandant at West Point and afterward the distinguished military commander at Charleston. Mrs. Hatch retained the letter until 1889, when she gave it to my children as a souvenir properly due to them as showing the relations between Poe and their grandfather. The portraits of Poe represent him with a moustache. I do not recall that he wore one when I saw him. He had a graceful walk, a beautiful olive complexion, was strikingly handsome, but he had a weak chin.’ ”

Additional light is thrown on this period by the following extract from a private letter to the author:

“I wrote you that I did not have any personal acquaintance with Mr. Poe. I employed him to write for the ‘Messenger’ at his own price, $3 a printed page. He sent me two or three articles entirely un worthy of him, and the magazine. Still, they were published and paid for.

“I have, however, one pleasant thing of him to tell you. When he had published his ‘Raven’ in the [page 221:] ‘American Whig Review,’ he was dissatisfied and wrote me a very kind and diplomatic letter, requesting me to suspend the well-known rule of the ‘Messenger’ against republications, to take out the middle dividing line of its pages and let the poem appear in full, in the beautiful typography of the ‘Messenger.’ I complied with his request. One of his biographers, speaking of his writings, says he never altered his final compositions; that he neither dotted an i nor crossed a t. If this were true, it would only show with what care Mr. Poe prepared his revised versions for the press. But my recollection was that one of the reasons he assigned for wishing me to republish ‘The Raven’ was, that he desired to make some alterations. Therefore I collated the versions of the ‘Whig Review’ and the Messenger,’ and there were alterations — not many; but in my judgment every one was an improvement.

Yours very truly,  
“B. B. MINOR.”

Dr. B. B. Minor is the venerable, still living editor of “The Southern Literary Messenger,” who purchased that magazine and edited it from 1843 to 1847 . His testimony gives witness to a sixth “state” of “The Raven” hitherto overlooked by commentators, and confirms the statement that Poe never revised without improving: non tetigit quod non ornavit, an aphorism which he himself iterates to satiety.

Poe’s theory of the death of a beautiful woman being the most poetical of all themes was repeatedly exemplified by him not only in “The Raven,” but in “Annabel Lee,” “Lenore,” “The Sleeper,” “Ulalume,” and “To One in Paradise”; a theme which haunted him as did the themes of Death, Decay, [page 222:] “the worm that dieth not,” and the dethroned reason. The “bleak December” of “The Raven” seems a subtle allusion to the death-month of his mother, who died in that month at Richmond, while “Ulalume,” with its “sere October,” prophetically names his own death-month.

Poe’s manner of reciting “The Raven” soon attracted attention and he was frequently called upon to repeat it.

“The other afternoon,” writes a correspondent of the Louisville “Courier-Journal” (March 8, 1885), “I asked a lady who knew him to tell me all about Poe; to recall for my benefit the memories of hours passed in his society, and to allow me a sight of her souvenirs. The favor denied others was granted me, and in a few moments we were sitting where the wintry sunlight filtered through the curtains, talking of him; while close at hand was a parcel containing his letters, a portrait, and some ‘Marginalia,’ all tied together with a faded blue ribbon. There was something inexpressibly touching in her veneration for his memory; friendship for him was too sacred a thing to parade before a curious public. Before opening the parcel she spoke of ‘The Raven’ and described Poe’s manner of rendering that poem; he would turn down the lamps till the room was almost dark, then standing in the centre of the apartment he would recite those wonderful lines in the most melodious of voices; gradually becoming more and more enthused with his new creation, he forgot time, spectators, his personal identity, as the wild hopes and repressed longings of his heart found vent in the impassioned words of the poem. To the listeners came the sounds of falling rain and waving branches; the Raven flipped his [page 223:] dusky wings above the bust of Pallas, and the lovely face of Lenore appeared to rise before them. So marvellous was his power as a reader that the auditors would be afraid to draw breath lest the enchanted spell be broken.

“He was a distinguished-looking man; his complexion was very odd, at times overcast with as ‘intellectual pallor,’ and again his cheeks were rosier than a child’s; the eyes were marvellous: such orbs, perhaps, as shone in the head of the Lady Ligeia, whilst his mouth wore the sneering expression visible in all portraits of him.

“He was noted for his perfect taste, and was the only person who could render his own poems effectively. He gave lectures and public and private readings; the public readings were given in the ball-room of the Exchange Hotel [Richmond]. He would allow this lady to put some favorite pieces on the programme, and before beginning any of these he would turn towards her seat in the room and preface the reading with a profound bow. One of these favorite pieces was Shelley’s ‘A Name is too often Profaned.’ He would render it exquisitely, blending language with expression, as the music with the words of song.”

Poe himself preferred “The Sleeper,” one of his boyish poems, to “The Raven.”

The following interesting account of the environment within which “The Raven” was written appeared in a recent New York “Mail and Express”:

“In spite of the oft-repeated story that Edgar Allan Poe composed his masterpiece ‘The Raven,’ in the Poe cottage, at Fordham, the most indisputable [page 224:] tradition proves that the poem was written while Poe was spending the summer at the homestead of Patrick Brennan, father of Deputy-Commissioner Thos. S. Brennan, of the Department of Charities and Correction,” said General James R. G’ Beirne, a brother-inlaw of the Commissioner, to a party of friends a few nights ago.

“Edgar Allan Poe,” continued General G’ Beirne, Ird Spent the summers of 1843 and 1844 at the homestead of my father-in-law. I have frequently heard the story from my wife’s lips, who was about ten years old when she became acquainted with the great poet. In those days, more than half a century ago, Patrick Brennan owned a farm of 216 acres, extending from a point about 200 feet west of Central Park to the Hudson River. It was a picturesque spot, and the neighboring territory was considered a sort of summer-resort whither a number of persons migrated in the hot weather.” Near where the homestead stood, on Eighty-fourth Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway, there is at present building a factory which will bear a tablet commemorative of Poe’s composition of “The Raven“’ near that spot.]

“In the summer of 1843, Poe went to the home of Mr. Brennan, tufting with him his invalid wife, Virginia, and her mother, Mrs. Clemm. If Poe’s biographies, which paint him as a dissipated man, are true, then they must refer to his younger days, for Mrs. Brennan invariably denied these charges when they were made in her presence.

“During two years she knew him intimately and never saw him affected by liquor or do ought that evinced the wild impetuous nature with which he has [page 225:] been accredited. He was the gentlest of husbands and devoted to his invalid wife. Frequently when she was weaker than usual, he carried her tenderly from her room to the dinner-table and satisfied every whim.

“Mrs, Brennan was noted for her kindheartedness and sympathetic nature, and once I heard her say that Poe read ‘The Raven’ to her one evening before he sent it to the’ Mirror.’

“It was Poe’s custom to wander away from the house in pleasant weather to ‘Mount Tom,’ an immense rock, which may still be seen in Riverside Park, where he would sit alone for hours, gazing out upon the Hudson.

“Other days he would roam through the surrounding woods, and, returning in the afternoon, sit in the big room, as it used to be called, by a window and work unceasingly with pen and paper, until the evening shadows.

“No doubt it was upon such an evening, when sitting later than usual by the window, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before,’ until every one else had retired, and the moon hidden her light behind a cloud, that he ‘heard the tapping, as of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.’ He starts and listens for a moment and then forces open the door, anticipating some midnight visitor — ‘but darkness there and nothing more.’ For awhile he peers out into the darkness, but he can see no one and returns to his chair.

“Then again he hears ‘the rapping somewhat louder than before.’ This time the sound apparently comes from the window and he flings open the shutter, I when with many a flirt and flutter, in there steps a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.’ [page 226:]

“Above the door opening into the hallway, there stood the ‘pallid bust of Pallas.’ It was a little plaster cast and occupied a shelf nailed to the door casing, immediately behind the bust, and occupying the space between the top casing and the ceiling; a number of little panes of smoky glass took the place of the partition.

“This bust of Minerva was either removed or broken by one of the Brennan tenants after the family had moved to the city, and no trace of it can be found at the present time.

“Poe was extremely fond of children, and Mrs. O‘Beirne used to tell of lying on the floor at his feet and arranging his manuscript. She did n‘t under stand why he turned the written side toward the floor, and she would reverse it and arrange the pages according to the number upon them.

“Mrs. Brennan was never vexed with Poe except on one occasion, when he scratched his name on the mantelpiece in his room. It was a very quaint and old-fashioned affair, with carved fruit and vines and leaves, and Mrs. Brennan always kept it carefully painted. On the day in question Poe was leaning against the mantelpiece, apparently in meditation. Without thinking, he traced his name on the black mantel, and when Mrs. Brennan called his attention to what he was doing he smiled and asked her pardon.

“It seems strange that people will persist in saying that ‘The Raven’ was written at the Poe cottage in Fordham, while it is well known that the author did not move to Fordham until 1846, and the poem appeared in the New York ‘Mirror,’ in January, 1845, and was copied the following month in the ‘Review.’ [page 227:]

“The mantel upon which Poe scratched his name now adorns the library fireplace of Mr. William Hemstreet, at 133 a Bergen Street, Brooklyn, who bought it when the Brennan homestead was demolished, about twelve years ago.

“Mrs. Manley, a daughter of Patrick Brennan, has the lock from Poe’s chamber door. It is to old-fashioned affair and fully six inches long and five wide. Mrs. Manley took it as a souvenir when the Brennan home was taken down.

“The present occupant of the Poe cottage at Fordham makes the assertion that the poem was composed at the latter place, and exhibits to the credulous sightseers the ‘very window’ where Poe wrote his immortal verses.”[[(1)]]

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 217:]

1.  See Vol. VII. of this edition for the Poe-Chivers controversy and for a further discussion of “The Raven.”

2.  Woodberry, Poems, p. 157.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 227:]

1.  The author is indebted to Dr. William Hand Browne, of Baltimore, for this account.


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Notes:

The mantel from the Brennan farmhouse is now in the Butler Library of Columbia University.


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[S:0 - CWEAP, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Complete Works of E. A. Poe (Vol. 01 - Biography) (J. A. Harrison) (Chapter 09)