Text: William Fearing Gill, “The Rationale of ‘The Raven’,” Papyrus Leaves, 1880, pp. 394-403


[page 394:]



TO the constituency so graphically described by Powell in his “Living Authors” the genius of Poe was forced to address itself or remain silent for ever. That he met its cold, hard, unsympathetic reception with the fierce disdain that found its outlet in his scathing criticisms of the typical men of the time is not to be wondered at, nor is it less surprising that he should shrink from laying bare the secrets of his soul to those so incapable of comprehending their depths.

When, therefore, in his silent vigils, enthralled by the imaginative ecstasy which often possessed and overpowered him, he conceived and wrought out this marvellous inspiration, what wonder is it that his delicate sensibility should prompt him to conceal from the rude gaze of his material audience the secret springs of his inner consciousness, by printing his weird fancies over an assumed name, and hedging its origin about with the impenetrable veil of fiction?

Had “The Raven” been, as he described it in his paper, “The Philosophy of Composition,” a product of art simply, and not of inspiration, his ambition for fame would infallibly have led him not only to claim the poem openly, from the [page 395:] outset, but to have preluded it with the descriptive analysis, using the verse as an illustration of the alleged philosophy of the composition. It is, on the contrary, a most suggestive fact that “The Raven” was the only important composition of Poe’s ever printed by him over a nom-de-plume. To his intimates Poe frequently spoke of the exalted state, which he defined as ecstasy, in which he wrote his poems of imagination. From one of his nearest friends, who knew him in prosperity and adversity, in sickness and health, I learn that none of Poe’s romances were more fictitious than his romances about himself and his writings, and his accepted analysis of “The Raven” is confessedly as thorough a specimen of plausible fabrication as is his familiar story of “The Facts in the Case of Monsieur de Valdemar.” Like all persons of a morbidly sensitive temperament, he resented the slightest approach from the world at large, and from practical people in particular, to the inner citadel of his soul, and he knew well how to use his invincible weapons of defence.

Many admirers of the poet’s genius will doubtless prefer that the origin of the inspiration of “The Raven” shall remain enshrouded in the chiaro-oscuro of the mystic suggestiveness of the verse.

But in a much wider circle there unquestionably exists a pardonable desire to learn the true source of this wonderful poem, that, written in any age, in any language, would have given to its author a world-wide fame.

Basing the opinions which we venture to advance here upon the result of a process of psychological introversion, which conclusion is confirmed by several of Poe’s most intimate [page 396:] acquaintances now living, strengthened by a chain of conclusive circumstantial evidence, we have arrived at a theory of the origin of the poem that has received the approval of Mr. George R. Graham and others of Poe’s friends.

A letter received from Mr. Graham May 1, 1877, in this connection will be read with interest, from the writer’s near and friendly intimacy with the poet:


“DEAR SIR From my near acquaintance with Edgar A. Poe at the time ‘The Raven’ was written I have no doubt that your theory as to the source of the inspiration of ‘The Raven’ is in the main correct. It was his foible to mislead and mystify his readers.

“His published analysis of ‘The Raven’ is a good specimen of his capability in this kind of fiction.

“Your impression that the poet was accessible to fear is entirely correct. He was singularly sensitive to outside influences, more so than most imaginative men.

“His organization, as I have always said, was extremely delicate and fine. Hence his impressibility and subjection at times to influences which would not have a feather’s weight with ordinary men.

“Even when absorbed in writing I noticed that a sudden breath of air, a noise unheard by others around him, would startle him.

“He disliked the dark, and was rarely out at night when I knew him. On one occasion he said to me: ‘I believe that demons take advantage of the night to mislead the unwary — although you know,’ he added, ‘I don’t believe in them.’

“The mysteries of his inner life were never revealed to any one, but his intimates well understood that to mystify his hearer was a strong element of his mind.

“Yours very truly,  

“NEW YORK, May 1, 1877”

It is a singular fact that Poe’s reading of “The Raven” [page 397:] in private was totally at variance with the reading of it as a mere composition.

Had it been constructed as described by him in his essay on composition, his reading would, unquestionably, have been in accordance with this description, for Poe was too good an elocutionist to fail to adequately voice his conceptions.

As a mere composition, it is impossible to give to the reading of the poem a tithe of the vraisemblance which attaches to it, when rendered according to the theory of its foundation upon an actual experience of the poet.

But for Poe’s evident intent to conceal his authorship of the poem there would be but little expectation of finding any clue to the source of its inspiration. But the fact of the deliberate and exceptional concealment evidences conclusively enough that there was, in the poet’s own experience, some basis of fact whereon his imaginative structure was erected.

That some of the most exquisite imaginative fabrics ever constructed have been wrought from the suggestions afforded by some special experience, or by a chance incident or circumstance, there are many familiar examples to demonstrate.

Beethoven’s beautiful “Moonlight Sonata” was suggested by a romantic incident during the composer’s sojourn at Bonn. Mrs. Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was a special inspiration which came to her after witnessing a romantic moonlight march of the troops during the war of the American rebellion.

In seeking for the clue to “The Raven” we find, in recalling the situation of the poet at this time, that he was living at Bloomingdale, New York. [page 398:]

While at this place, and previous to the appearance of “The Raven,” his child-wife, Virginia, for whom he had come to feel a deeper affection than that of fraternal love, was prostrated by a serious illness, which had previously affected her, and for weeks her life hung by a thread. Animation was at times, indeed, seemingly suspended, and on one dreary December night the poet was agonized to find her cold and breathless, apparently dead.

In his lonely, silent vigils, in what was, to all intents and purposes, the presence of death, many strange imageries and much bitter self-accusation naturally possessed him. Although latterly devoted to his wife, he had caused her pain in the first years of his married life by his romantic admiration of other women;* and an exaggerated sense of wrong done to his lost loved one, through his neglect, not unnaturally came to him at this time, exciting the most irrational remorse, and completely surcharging his mind with the imaginative reveries “that no mortal ever dared to dream before.” In picturing to himself his wife as departed, his remorse also forbade him any hope of meeting her in the distant Aidenn of the future.

With the added factor of some fugitive bird, or domestic pet (the Poes always kept them), breaking in upon his wild reveries with some slight interruption which the poet’s distorted fancy exaggerated into some supernatural visitant, an adequate basis for his masterpiece is found. [page 399:]

That this suggestion of the possible origin of “The Raven” is at least plausible, an analysis of the construction of the poem, coupled with the peculiar characteristics of the poet, will perhaps evidence.

Like many persons of an imaginative, nervous temperament, Poe was susceptible, in certain moods, to a positive sense of the supernatural. This sense he has defined in his letters, describing visions suggesting singular fancies.

In his normal state, he did not possess the element of fear; but when his mind was abnormally overwrought to the extent that it frequently was, he was susceptible to impressions that at other times would have affected him very differently.

We find this dread of the supernatural barely hinted at in the first verse, wherein his weariness and loneliness are principally depicted.

The second verse simply describes his isolation and his sorrow for his lost love. The train of thought, inspired by his breathing his hopeless sorrow, is quickly followed by the self-accusation of his remorse for his past; and the vision of an accusing fate dawns upon him, as he recalls the strange sharp sound that interrupted his loneliness.

He is, in fact, beside himself with fear, and, as a person in such a state would be likely to do, he endeavors to allay his imaginative terrors by ascribing them to some commonplace cause;

“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door

Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door:

This it is, and nothing more.”

He nerves himself up to the effort required to throw off [page 400:] his supernatural terror, and opens the door to discover the cause of the noise. He finds nothing but the darkness. His fears, not having been dispelled, as they would have been had lie, at this time, discovered some practical cause for the interruption, are, naturally, confirmed, and new visions are inspired, and the supposed mysterious visitant takes the haunting form of the spirit of his lost one.

In an ecstasy of dread and excitement, he returns to his lonely watch, only to be again interrupted by a similar noise at the window.

To his delight and surprise, his mysterious visitor takes the welcome form of a truant bird, or some other pet, that had escaped and returned after the house was closed for the night.

His supernatural dread immediately gives place to a sense of relief at the material presence of his dumb visitor, and, pacified for the moment, his imaginative fears take flight, and he sits down and holds a merry colloquy with his guest, glad of any opportunity of occupying himself and taking his mind off from the morbid imaginings that had possessed it. But under all this would be blithesome colloquy with his visitor, his fancy will revert to the hopeless dread that has overpowered him, and, like the haunted criminal in M. M. Erckmann and Chatrian’s drama of “The Bells,” his imagination coins but one word in answer to his every query; and as Matthias Kant, in the play, is pursued everywhere by the weird jingle of the bells, so the mocking “Nevermore!” seemed to hover in the air, sounding the knell of his lost hopes.

The refrain is not, however, to my mind, invested with [page 401:] any supernatural suggestiveness in the earlier portions of the poem. Were it so, the poet would have indicated it in the verse. On the contrary, he writes:

“Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,

Though its answer little meaning, little relevancy, bore,”

clearly indicating that his impression was simply one of surprise, not, at first, of fear.

This idea is confirmed in the opening line of the twelfth stanza of the poem:

“But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,”

which clearly evidences that, up to this point, the impression produced by the appearance of the bird, had not excited any other emotions than the very natural effects of surprise and amusement. But immediately after this, the poet permits himself to do a very hazardous thing for his peace of mind, for he betook himself “to linking fancy unto fancy,” until, at the end of the next stanza, we find him just where he was at the beginning, the lighter train of thought suggested by the entrance of his visitor, having merged itself in the reminiscences of his lost Lenore, with whom, for the first time in the course of the interview, it occurs to him to connect the bird.

Nothing, it seems to us, is at once so natural and ingenious as the manner of the leading up, in the verse, to this necessary connection of the bird with the subject of the poet’s imageries.

The careless, blithesome opening line of the twelfth stanza, already quoted, is in such bold contrast to the sad closing line of the next stanza, that it seems inexplicable that these [page 402:] opposing ideas could have been so congruously reconciled by so simple a device as the deft placing of the “cushioned seat” with its “violet velvet lining,”

From this point, the atmosphere of the scene changes and becomes merged in the supernatural, the changes of the atmosphere being clearly indicated by the lines:

“Then methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer

Swung by seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor.”

The bird, no longer a bird to the distorted vision of the poet, assumes to his gaze the shape, first, of an angel, then of an avenging demon.

In one moment of rhapsody, he grasps with frantic joy at the fitful hope of “Nepenthe” for his remorse, only to be cast down to the depths of despair by the reaction which succeeds this still-born hope.

Invested by the poet’s fancy with the spirit of prophecy, the bird from that moment assumes to him the form of a Nemesis, and replies to his plaints with the oracular solemnity of a remorseless fate. There are no bounds to the mental anguish depicted in the stanza beginning:

“Be that word our sign of parting,”

and no limit to the abject despair portrayed in the following, the closing, stanza.

In voicing his imaginary conception inverse, it is not singular that Poe should have selected the raven as typical of his fateful visitor; for the raven has for ages past been renowned as the symbol of ill-omen, and for the purposes of the narration of the story, a talking bird was indispensable. What other than the raven could have been effectively employed?

The refrain “Nevermore!” was not less obviously selected as suggestive, both in sense and sound, of the poet’s fateful fancy.

It will, I think, be conceded that the spontaneity which is an all-pervading characteristic of such of the poems as are known to have been inspired by some actual person, such as “To Helen,” “Annabel Lee,” and “For Annie,” exists not less palpably in “The Raven,” Like these others, it sings itself, to a strange melody, it is true, but not less naturally or truly, and with an exalted beauty of rhythm that seems born of a special inspiration.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 398:]

*  Mrs. Weiss states that he had frequently had sentimental attachments for intellectual women, sometimes nothing more than a distant adoration the poet never speaking to the lady — “as a devotee might worship the Madonna.”





[S:0 - PL, 1880] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - The Rationale of The Raven (William Fearing Gill, 1880)