Text: E. Kate Stewart, “ ‘The Raven’ and ‘The Bracelets’,” Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990, pp. 189-193 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 189, unnumbered:]



Although a fair number of sources for Poe’s most famous poem, “The Raven,” are cited in The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by the late doyen to all Poe scholars, Thomas Ollive Mabbott, evidence points to yet another addition to this compendium. I propose that a tale by Samuel Warren, “The Bracelets” — in Blackwood’s for January 1832 — contains parallels to “The Raven” too striking to ignore.(1) Poe’s awareness of Warren’s writings was acute, and that a good Gothic tale like “The Bracelets” should remain in his mind as he composed “The Raven” is probable. After all, that poem is actually a Gothic tale in verse, and to Poe the name of Blackwood’s ever called forth implications of the crème de la crème of Gothic fiction. Moreover, Warren’s writings repeatedly lured Poe’s interest, so much so that in “How to Write a Blackwood Article” the Britisher’s “Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician,” serialized in Maga (as Blackwood’s was nicknamed) from 1830 through 1837, is held up as a model for the writing of excellent terror tales. Poe mentioned that work elsewhere, and he subsequently reviewed Warren’s popular Ten Thousand a Year, suggesting along the way a more elaborate critique to follow. Such a screed he never produced; his distinguishing the worth from the dross in Ten Thousand a Year, however, demonstrates his close comprehension of Warren’s methods. Poe must have found more dross than worth in this novel because he censured it for being “written in slipshod English” and as being “tedious.”(2)

Other commonalities between “The Raven” and “The Bracelets” make likely Poe’s borrowing from Warren. The American’s long retention of earlier reading has been established, but it is just as possible that he may have read “The Bracelets” at the very time during which “The Raven” began to take shape in his imagination.(3) Internal resemblances warrant our close attention to Poe’s adaptation of “The Bracelets” in composing his eerie verse narrative. Warren begins: “It was late in the evening of a gloomy and bitter day in December about the middle of the seventeenth century . . .” (p. 39). Poe echoes this phraseology in the opening of “The Raven”: “Once upon a midnight dreary” (l. 1); he continues: “It was in the bleak December” (l. 7). Corresponding dismal beginnings establish melancholy tones in both works, and such tones exemplify the emotions of the protagonists as they pore over mysterious books.

Psychically, Warren’s and Poe’s characters are near kinsmen. Carl Koëcker, the central figure in “The Bracelets,” reads “various volumes [page 190:] of classic and metaphysic lore” (p. 39), particularly texts in occult sciences — an especially treacherous avocation, we are informed, because of the Inquisition’s being at its height. In “The Raven” the speaker peruses “forgotten lore” (l. 2). Readers know nothing about the nature of these compelling volumes because they are given no particulars, but they readily comprehend the effects of such reading. More important, gloom and introspection fall upon Koecker and Poe’s speaker as a result of their abstruse readings.

Both protagonists enter stages of semi-sleep, Carl “almost fancying he had been dreaming” (p. 40), he in “The Raven” repeating that he is “nearly napping” (l. 3). Koëcker attributes his state to his mulling a morning lecture, on “pneumatological speculations,” attending a romantic opera, or fearing torture from the Inquisition because of his studying the Black Arts. Altogether, irrationality is common to both protagonists. The half-sleep is interrupted by persistent knockings at their doors. Carl hears “Rap, rap, rap! — Rap, rap, rap!” (p. 40), signaling a late-night caller. “Rap” echoes on two subsequent occasions, repeating the same number of sounds each time. Similarly, Poe’s speaker tells us: “While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, / As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door” (ll. 3-4). Either tapping or rapping appears again in lines 5, 21, 22, and 32. Both protagonists admit seemingly harmless visitors — Warren’s old man and Poe’s raven — who become psychic tormentors. Carl’s small, but sinewy (p. 40) visitor rather subtly resembles the raven. The elderly “Jew-peddlar” wears drab clothing (p. 40) and has “sparkling black eyes” which “peered on the student with an expression of keen and searching inquisitiveness” (p. 41). Later Warren says that Carl’s guest sits “with his eyes fixed on the fire . . .” (p. 41). Correspondingly, the narrator in “The Raven” muses: “Thus I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing / To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s / core; . . .” (ll. 73-74). The man suggests darkness and age — and so does Poe’s mysterious bird. Physical appearances ultimately affect the characters little, however: the act of granting entrance to their respective guests intensifies the mental anguish in the speakers.

The unbidden guests’ omniscience, to which both writers allude in describing their weird figures’ eyes, accounts for much of the protagonists’ anxieties. The old man mentions Carl’s presence at the morning lecture and later comments on his interest in a bracelet. Realizing that the “Jew-peddlar” knows so much about him, Carl grows agitated. He reacts violently, shouting: “Devil! devil! devil! What want you with me? Why are you come hither?” (p. 41). The raven’s persistent “Nevermore” reveals his all-knowingness as well, especially as he responds to the query: “Tell this soul with sorrow laden if . . . / [page 191:] It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore” (ll. 93-95). When Poe’s speaker realizes the bird’s powers, he bursts out much like Carl: “Prophet! . . . thing of evil — prophet still, if bird or devil! —” (p. 85).

As the narratives advance, the primary characters’ mental stability becomes more and more questionable. Significantly, their speeches grow halting and disjointed. Koëcker’s articulation weakens from his excitement over the bracelet shown him by the old man. With the departure of his elderly visitor, Carl regains his normal voice. The speaker in “The Raven,” however, never resumes control because his guest never leaves. Initially, he speaks calmly to the bird. Increasingly, he repeats words and phrases, grows violent, and, finally, “shrieks” at the raven. The poems closes with the narrator suspended in an unreality heightened by the presence of the ominous bird. The raven symbolizes the man’s retreat into a fanciful world, a region of delusive imagination and hallucination resulting from grief over Lenore.

The haunting repetition of “Nevermore” is memorable in “The Raven.” Interestingly, the same sound in abbreviated form recurs in “The Bracelets.” After Koëcker has enthusiastically admired the jewelry, the demonic visitor slips the band up on Carl’s wrist. When he cannot remove it, he asks the old man to do so. The answer is: “Off? — never!” (p. 44). The second request elicits like response. Warren’s protagonist shriekingly petitions a third time as the visitor leaves. Carl hears again and again: “Never, Carl; never, never!” (p. 45) until the words fade.

Conversely, Koëcker’s mental torment is less profound than the narrator’s in “The Raven.” Carl’s occult studies lead him to fear reprisal from the Inquisition, indeed to fear arrest at every turn. He believes that the old man is an agent of the Inquisition. Poe’s speaker connects the eerie bird with Lenore. In both works, therefore, the characters associate their obsessions with their uninvited guests. The difference lies in the degree to which the idée fixe carries the protagonists into unreality. Koëcker awakens from his “singular and distressing dream” (p. 53) and reenters the everyday world. Poe’s protagonist does not.

Poe undoubtedly drew from Warren’s story, yet he surpasses his model in creating setting and characterization. The backdrop in “The Raven” is emblematic; its bleakness mirrors the speaker’s distraught mental state. He journeys into an emotional, not physical, world, and we observe him caught in a web of mental frenzy. All these circumstances partake of the greater Romanticism typical of early nineteenth-century literary culture. Because Poe subtly manages setting and characterization, the poem becomes a masterpiece of psychological symbolism — far above that demonstrated in “The Bracelets.” [page 192:]

A writer’s genius is not diminished by the incorporation of literary borrowings into his own work. In fact Poe emphasizes the value of such inspiration and method. In “Peter Snook,” where he notes the importance of magazine fiction, he states: “There is no greater mistake than the supposition that a true originality is a mere matter of impulse or inspiration. To originate is carefully, patiently, and understandingly to combine” (H14: 73). To combine effectively, though, a writer needs a sharp memory. Poe also recognized this fact, exploring in the November 1844 Democratic Review the mind’s ability to recall knowledge. He notes that most people remember hardly 1/100th of their reading, but he adds: “There are minds which not only retain all receipts, but keep them at compound interest for ever.”(4) Based on the evidence presented by Mabbott and others, we realize that Poe was blessed with one of those rare minds that could retain, increase, and combine. Poe himself felt that in “The Raven” he had achieved a masterpiece, and time has affirmed the poet’s feeling.(5) In the poem, numerous old bottles (i.e., Poe’s sources) are filled with new wine of the author’s creative genius.

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1.  “The Bracelets,” Blackwood’s, 31(1832), 39-52 (cited by page within the text); “The Raven” is cited from the version in M1: 350-374 (by line within the text).

2.  M2: 340. Cf. Kenneth L. Daughrity, “Notes: Poe and Blackwood’s,” AL, 2(1930), 290-291. Poe’s review of Warren, from Graham’s Magazine for November, 1841, appears conveniently in 1110: 210-212. Howard Paul, “Recollections of Edgar Allen [sic] Poe,” Lambert’s Monthly 1(1890), 23; rpt. Munsey’s 7(1892), 554-558.

3.  Attempting to pinpoint when Poe began “The Raven,” Mabbott weighs evidence from several biographical accounts. Susan Weiss reports that Poe admitted that the poem “had lain for more than ten years . . . unfinished,” but that he radically altered it before its 1845 publication, changing words, lines, and even the basic plan of the work. Although some sources suggest an 1843 composition, the most “true” story states that Poe wrote “The Raven” at the farm of Mr. and Mrs. Patrick Henry Brennan in late 1844. Mabbott believes that the “metrical form” we have was written at this time. Given the span between 1832 and 1844, then, Poe would have had opportunity to draw from “The Bracelets.” For additional scholarship concerning Poe’s use of Blackwood’s, see the following: Margaret Alterton, Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory (1925; rpt. New York, 1965); Michael Allen, Poe and the British Magazine Tradition (New York, 1969); Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “Poe, Blackwood’s, and ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’” [page 193:] AN&Q, 12(1974), 109-110; Kent P. Ljungquist, “Poe’s ‘The Island of the Fay’; The Passing of Fairyland,” SSF, 14(1977), 265-271; Thomas Ollive Mabbott, “Edgar Allan Poe: Source of His Tale, ‘X-ing a Paragrab’,” N&Q, 160(1931), 100.

4.  Poe’s comment from the Democratic Review is found in John Carl Miller’s edition of Marginalia (Charlottesville, 1981), pp. 1314.

5.  Maureen Cobb Mabbott, “Reading The Raven’,” UMSE, n.s. 3(1982), 96-101.





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