Text: J. R. Thompson (?), “The Raven — By Edgar A Poe” Southern Literary Messenger, (Richmond, VA), vol. XXV, Nov. 1857, pp. 331-335


[page 331:]


Of all the works of this brilliant but eccentric genius, none is more remarkable and characteristic than his short poem of “The Raven.” The first perusal leaves no distinct understanding of its meaning, but fascinates the reader with a strange and thrilling interest. It produces on him a vague impression of fate, of mystery, of hopeless sorrow. It sounds like the utterance of a full heart, poured out-not for the sake of telling its sad story to a sympathizing ear — but because he is mastered by his emotions, and cannot help giving vent to them. It is not like the chorus of the old plays, introduced for the purpose of narrating to the audience all the events which resulted in the drama about to be performed. It more resembles the soliloquies of Hamlet, in which he betrays his struggling thoughts and feelings, and in which (with occasional glimpses of the tragic horror in the back ground) he reveals the workings of his soul, stirred to its inmost depth by his terrible forebodings.

But no man, with a spark of imagination, or poetic sympathy, ever stopped at one reading of the Raven. Over and over again he reads, until, like one who looks long and attentively at a finished picture, he discerns feature after feature (seen at first dimly and confusedly) coming out in its proper relation to the rest; and, combining them together, he takes in, at last, the full meaning and expression of the artist. Even so does the poem, by little and little, develope [[develop]] the past suffering of the speaker — his deep dejection, almost despair — his solitary vigil in the dismal wintry midnight — the vain endeavor to obtain —

“From his books surcease of sorrow, sorrow for the lost Lenore,

For the rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels name Lenore,

Nameless here for evermore,”

and the gloomy reverie into which he lapses, full of bitter memories of the past, of anxious longings to penetrate the future. He is startled by a sudden rapping at his chamber door, which, coming [column 2:] “in the dead waste and middle of the of the night,” sounds an alarm to his nerves, already strung to a high pitch of excitement: he subdues the superstitious feeling, opens wide his door, and invites his supposed visitor to enter, but instead of a visitor, he finds before him

“Darkness there, and nothing more.”

The thought of the supernatural instantly recurs with redoubled force — can it be that his grief has called back from another world the soul of her whom he laments, and that this is the signal of her presence? Half in hope, and half in fear, he peers long and anxiously into the “void obscure,” and, at last, himself breaks the silence by whispering her name. It is echoed back to him, and again all is darkness and silence. Agitated and bewildered, he returns into his chamber — the rapping is repeated, and this time he discovers that it proceeds from his window. Once more summoning his courage to explore the mystery, he flings open the shutter, and “The Raven” enters his room. The demeanor of the bird is strange — he is stately and solemn, but composed — he perches upon a bust of Pallas above the door, and gazes at his host, whose attention is soon riveted upon him. The mind of the man, feverish and disordered, is prepared to receive him as a messenger from the Spirit Land. The bird, sometimes of his own accord, sometimes when spoken to, repeats the single word, “Nevermore;” which is always interpreted by the questioner as responsive to the cravings of his soul for that knowledge which lies beyond the grave. He even frames his inquiries in such a way (although unconsciously) that the ever-recurring and melancholy word shall be a fit reply to them: as one in a dream sometimes lays a train for the development of an event, which, nevertheless, strikes him with surprise, or seems to do so, upon its occurrence. Thus proceeds the wild and exciting dialogue, the feelings of the man growing more intense, and his fancy more distempered, every [page 332:] moment: while the bird preserves his air of grave and solemn mystery, and utters his oracular word. At length these replies, which seem to deny all sympathy, to destroy all hope, to extinguish forever the light beyond the waves of Time”the star on Life’s tremulous ocean”drive the poor sufferer to despair and frenzy. The bird becomes in his eyes a demon, a tormentor. In vain he assails the messenger of darkness and evil with epithets of hate and rage-in vain commands his departure. Unmoved and passionless, the black minister of Fate remains, gazing, with fiery eyes, upon his victim, and repeating to his ear the fatal sentence of his perdition —

“And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,

On the pallid bust of Pallas, just above my chamber door;

And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,

And the lamp light o’er’ him streaming throws his shadow on the floor,

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor,

Shall be lifted — nevermore!”

Such is the picture painted in the Raven: a man, distracted by grief, disordered by long watching, and wild imaginings, wrought upon by strange and weird appearances, believes himself in communion with a supernatural being, seeks to discover his fate (and that of another dearer than himself) in the world to come, receives an answer which consigns him to despair, and sinks under the cold, relentless torture, which the fiend inflicts upon him.

Fancies as wild and as tormenting are not unfrequent, when fever fires the brain. But the poet has not merely depicted a wild and tormenting delusion. By a strong and sustained effort he has conceived this delusion as occurring to another, and has described it, in the person of the victim, with all the force and fidelity of actual consciousness and belief. We see and hear him, from step to step of his progress — nay, we see and hear as he does, we feel as he feels, we are caught up from our firm footing on the earth and carried along with him [column 2:] into regions of shadow and mystery, and made to share his emotions, as the dread secrets of futurity are revealed to him. To have imagined such a poem is, of itself, a proof of no ordinary genius: but to have executed it so perfectly, affords the more valuable evidence of a vigor and perseverance, commensurate with the power of invention. We say of vigor and perseverance. The former quality makes itself felt in the vivid ideas, a nd nervous diction, of the poem. The latter is to be traced in the management of the subject, in the gradual action of the drama, the struggle of the solitary against his phantasies, the ebb and flow of his feelings, till the stormy tide suddenly rises to its height, and prostrates the barrier of Reason — while the reality of the tale is illustrated in all its course by- the natural (and seemingly casual) introduction of the familiar objects in and about the chamber. For instance, he throws himself into a chair, after the Raven’s entrance, and plunges into troubled speculation.

“This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining

On the cushion’s velvet lining, that the lamplight gloated o’er,

But whose velvet violet lining, with the lamp light gloating o’er

She shall press — ah! nevermore!

It is to be traced also in the skilful composition of the verse: in the admirable choice of words, at once melodious and expressive — sometimes quaint and unlooked for, but always most appropriate: in the rhythm and cadence of the lines, swelling and sinking like great waves, gently, but with majesty and power: in the artful repetition of the idea presented in the fourth line of each stanza, bringing it out again in the fifth line, varied and relieved by new epithets: in the frequent recurrence of harmonious rhymes, flowing in and out among the words, like streams of music: and in the consummate art, which causes each stanza to fill up the measure of its meaning, as well as its verse, with the same melancholy burden of “Nevermore,” making “the sound an echo to the sense,” and bearing us along with growing presentiments [page 333:] of ill-fate, to the sorrowful catastrophe. The day is gone by, when the affectation of easy writing was in fashion. The truth is now universally admitted, that in Poetry, as in all other human pursuits, what is rare and valuable is seldom to be obtained without patient labor. We impute it, therefore, a s praise to our author, that he bestowed time and pains upon his work; and that, after he had planned a poem, which few minds beside his own could have conceived, he clothed it in a style and language, whose force and affluence have seldom, if ever, been surpassed.

After what we have said, we shall not be suspected of any design to depreciate the merit of the poem, in alluding to certain productions, which appear to us to have suggested to Mr. Poe the ideas, both of the action and the versification of the Raven. We say suggested: and it is nothing more than suggestion. To compare the figure, which the Raven makes on his first appearance, with the part he plays in the poem, would be to liken the feats of a bottle conjuror to the magic of Prospero. And while we think there can be no doubt that the stanza was derived from the source to be presently mentioned, it has become, in his hands, an instrument of far greater power and expression. There are indeed some rhymes, and almost whole lines, borrowed from the original. These, it is probable, had dwelt upon his ear in reading, and recurred to him when engaged in his own work, without his being aw are that they were supplied by memory, instead of invention. Such self-deceptions are common enough; and Sir Walter Scott says somewhere, that he is often at a loss to determine whether the thoughts and words which occur to him, are really his own, or are the fruits of his reading, unconsciously remembered. The germ of the character and adventure of the Raven, will be found in one of the Noctes Ambrosianœ of Blackwood’ s Magazine, published in No. XLI., March 1829, (Vol. III. of Mackenzie’s Edition, pp. 244, 225.)

Christopher North and Tickler have [column 2:] commenced the evening symposium by themselves, when they are suddenly joined by the Ettrick Shepherd, who comes in with one of those extravagant stories, graphic in description, racy and humorous in style, but utterly impossible in fact, which are so often put into his mouth in their famous dialogues. Upon this occasion, he describes how, for a “bate” (bet) of twenty guineas, he has beaten a cockney bagman from the Forest to Edinburgh, the bagman driving a blooded mare, and the Shepherd on foot — skating along the highway, which is covered with ice! His tale ended, the Shepherd makes acquaintance with the Editor’s Raven, as follows —

North. Well, if I did not know you, my dear James, to be a matter-of-fact man, I should absolutely begin to entertain some, doubt of your veracity.

Shepherd. What the deevil’s that hingin’ frae the roof?

North. Why, the chandelier.

Shepherd. The shandleer? It’s a cage, wi’ an outlandish bird in ‘t. A pawrot, I declare! Pretty Poll! Pretty Poll! Pretty Poll!

Parrot. Go to the devil and shake yourself.

Shepherd. Heaven preserve us! Heard you ever the likes o’ that? A bird cursin’! What sort o’ an education must the cretur hae had? Poor beast, do you ken what you’re sayin’?

Parrot. Much cry and little wool, as the devil said when he was shearing the Hog.

Shepherd. You’re gettin’ personal, Sir, or Madam, for I dinna pretend to ken your sex.

North. That everybody does, James, who has any thing to do with Blackwood’s Magazine.

Shepherd. True enough, sir. If it wad but keep a gude tongue in its head — it’s really a bonny cretur. What plumage! What’ll you hae, Polly, for soopert?

Parrot. Molly, put the kettle on,

Molly, put the kettle on,

Molly, put the kettle on,

And I shall have some punch.

Shepherd. That’s fearsome. Yet, whisht! [page 334:] What ither vice was that speakin’? A gruff vice? There again! whisht!

Voice. The devil he came to our town,

And rode away wi’ the excise man.

Shepherd. This room’s no canny. I’m off. (Rising to go.) Mercy me! A Raven hoppin’ aneath the side-board! Look at him, how he turns his great, big, broad head to the ae side, and keeps regardin’ me wi’ an evil eye! Satan!

North. My familiar, James.

Shepherd. Whence came he?

North. One gloomy night I heard him croaking in the garden.

Shepherd. You did wrong, sir, — it was ‘ash to let him in; wha ever heard o’ a real Raven in a suburban garden? It’s some demon pretendin’ to be a Raven!

  * * * * * * *  

Raven. The deil sat girnin’ in a neuk,

Riving sticks to roast the Duke.

Shepherd. Oh, ho! you are fond of picking up Jacobite relics.

Raven. Ho! blood — blood — blood — blood — blood!

Shepherd. What do you mean, you sinner?

Raven. Burke him! Burke him! Burke him! Ho — ho — ho! Blood — blood — blood.

  * * * * * * *  

The cry “Burke him,” is an allusion to some horrible murders which had been recently committed by a wretch named Burke, and his wife, in Edinburgh, for the purpose of selling the bodies for dissection — and accords well with the truculent demand of the bird for blood — blood!

We come now to the verse of the Poem. The prototype of this, unless there be some older specimen unknown to us, is the “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” by Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It is a long story, wherein a young poet, named Bertram, who has more genius than he has stock in the three per cents, is invited to the house of a young lady, beautiful, rich, and high-born, and is there treated by her with great kindness and distinction. Very innocently and ignorantly, the poet falls in love with the [column 2:] lady, but does not know what is the matter with him, till he overhears a conversation, in which the Lady Geraldine declares that she will marry no one who is not noble, and wealthy, and of a birth that she will not blush to remember. Straightway he rushes into her presence, reproaches her bitterly for her pride and arrogance, and, instead of listening to what she has to say in her turn, drops down in an apoplexy. He comes to himself in his own chamber, to which the servants have carried him, and writes to an absent friend, describing all that has happened to him, and announcing his determination to depart the next morning. This resolution, however, he is induced to re-consider by the Lady Geraldine herself, who comes to visit him, and explain her words in favor of the poet himself to wit: that,

“Very rich he is in virtues; very noble — noble certes;

And I shall not blush in knowing. that men call him humbly born.”

From the “Conclusion” of the poem, we quote some stanzas, which the preceding sketch of the story will enable our readers to understand, and in which they will hardly fail to recognize the notes of the Raven: —

“Soh! how still the Lady standeth! ’tis a dream, a dream of mercies!

’Twixt the purple lattice-curtains, how she standeth still and pale!

’Tis a vision, sure, of mercies, sent to soften his self-curses,

Sent to sleep a lovely quiet, o’er the tossing of his wail.

* * * * *

With a rustling stir, uncertain, in the air, the purple curtain,

Swelletlh in and swelleth out around her motionless pale brows;

While the gliding of the river sends a rip pling noise forever,

Through the open casement, whitened by the moonlight’s slant repose.

* * * * *

Ever, evermore the while in a slow silence she kept smiling — [page 335:]

And approached him, slowly, slowly, in a gliding, measured pace,

With her two white hands extended, as if praying one offended,

And a look of supplication, gazing earnest ill his face.

* * * * *

Ever, evermore the while in a slow silence she kept smiling,

But the tears ran over lightly from her eyes, and tenderly;

‘Dost thou, Bertram, truly love me woman far above me,

Found more worthy of thy poet-heart, than such a one as I?’ ”

Besides the obvious resemblance which pervades the poems, in the rhythm of the verses, and the recurrence of the rhymes, one cannot overlook the identity, we might almost say, of the lines italicised above, and the following ones from the Raven: [column 2:]

And the silken, sad, uncertain, rustling of each purple curtain,

Thrilled me, filled me, with fantastic terrors never felt before.

* * * * *

Then this ebony bird, beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,

By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.”

* * * * *

But if our countryman is indebted to Professor Wilson for the thought, and to Mrs. Browning for the vehicle, it must be admitted that he has developed and glorified the one, and that he has invigorated and polished the other, to a degree that makes them almost wholly his own. The raw material is wrought into a new and most elegant fabric: the bare grain which was sown has sprung up into a golden and luxuriant harvest.




Although the article is unsigned, it may reasonably be attributed to John R. Thompson, the editor of the magazine at the time. When this article was originally printed, the word “develope’ was sometimes given as the now obsolete spelling of “develop.”



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