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edgar_allan_poeThere is something of the madman in every man. There is something of the sadist in every sinner. Is there something of ecstasy in every elegy?

So it was with Edgar Allan Poe—and he called it Beauty.

It often takes a poet—a poet like Poe—to exhume the mysterious depravity of people. As churchgoers lean into Lent in the last clawing crawl to spring, it is fitting to cling to the gloom. The darkest hour is the one before daybreak, promising that the soul that lies floating in the shadow on the floor, shall be lifted—forevermore! There is nothing like the poetry of the shadows to call for an uplifting from the floor into newness of light and life; unless, of course, the shadows are preferred to the dawn. Of this poetry and this perversity, there is nothing like “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe.

“You will be greatly shocked and grieved,” Charles Dickens wrote to a friend in 1841, “to hear that the Raven is no more!” His pet raven, Grip, had died. At the behest of his children, Dickens wrote poor Grip in his most recent book, Barnaby Rudge, maintaining in its pages Grip’s name and his loquacious powers of imitating human speech. In 1842, Edgar Allan Poe shook hands with Charles Dickens in Philadelphia, and spoke about Barnaby Rudge, which Poe had recently reviewed with the criticism that Dickens should have given the raven a prophetic presence in the story. In 1845, a prophetic raven was penned into existence, this time by the American author. The creation spawned reproach itself, as some judged Mr. Poe as lying in the shadow of Mr. Dickens, as may be derived from James R. Lowell’s journalistic jingle:

Here comes Poe with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge,
Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge.

170 years later, however, nearly everyone knows Poe’s raven, and nearly no one knows Dickens’—or even Barnaby Rudge’s, for that matter. Grip the raven is forgotten; another raven holds the world in its grip: the raven named Nevermore. As Poe purposefully reincarnated Dickens’ merry raven into his macabre ravings, so too do people purposefully reincarnate the relentless madness of Poe’s raven into their own ravings—making them beautiful in their terror.

The tale of “The Raven” is as heavy and strangling as purple velvet drapes, told in mesmerizing, liturgical rhythms with a tempo like a racing heart. “Once upon a midnight dreary,” a forlorn student lingers over books of forgotten lore, trying to forget his lost Lenore. He is startled to hear a tapping at his chamber door. Imagining what guest might be calling at such an hour, he opens the door only to find nothing more than darkness. The tapping resumes at his window. He flings wide the pane to reveal the mystery of this uncanny disturbance, and a stately, solemn raven enters his room, perching upon a bust of Pallas. Amused by this strange appearance, the scholar begins to speak lightheartedly to the bird and is surprised to receive a response to his question:

Tell me what thy lordly name is on Night’s Plutonian shore!
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

Concluding that the creature must have been trained to utter this one word, “Nevermore,” the student draws his chair before it with a playful fascination and continues his questioning—which very quickly ceases to be playful. It is here that depression and despondency take a turn towards the depraved and the demoniac. The nameless narrator asks the contrary raven questions to which a contrary answer is devastating. Though the scholar perceives very clearly that the unreasoning bird only speaks a contradiction, he intentionally frames his questions to receive that contradiction together with the sadness and torment caused by the denial. Each “Nevermore” is one more nail in a psychosomatic coffin. The man revels in his ravings through the raven. Thus he stands for fallen humanity as he sits before the “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore” prompting the croak of “Nevermore” again and again, driving himself to a distraction that is desired. It is a scene of self-torture over acknowledged evils. Personal pain is too often the result of personal creation. Too often people fashion their own demons, persisting in madness—even basking in it. Evil is a thing of false attraction and fierce addiction, making sinners a strange breed of sadists. Man desires the good; but too, too often he knowingly identifies evil as a good—even as a god.

In his dialogue with the raven, the forlorn lover becomes the architect of his own damnation, choosing despair and madness with artistic purpose. He intentionally drapes a pall over his life, and even the afterlife, in his grief over the lost Lenore. He is a fatalist; a brooder who savors sorrow with a mental masochism until that sorrow becomes a malevolent reality, forever denying the chance of happiness or salvation. The bust becomes an immortal mockery of wisdom and an icon of lost love. The raven becomes Odin’s Hugin and Munin—Thought and Memory—chained forevermore to the chamber door with his prophetic, relentless, romantic “Nevermore.”

In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe writes that, despite its desolation, the province of “The Raven” is Beauty:

That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect—they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul—not of intellect, or of the heart—upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the “beautiful.”

There is a great tradition in human history, however, to mistake the pleasures of elevating the soul in the contemplation of beauty for the pleasures of entombing the soul in the contemplation of perceived beauty. Immediate pleasurable effects are not always to be trusted. Though the poem is beautiful, it has about it the beauty which evil uses as a veil. Lent is a time to dethrone the raven from off the chamber door—to deny those things that make men mad with their denials, refusing to succumb to the fascination of evil or capitulate before woe.

The more voice sin is granted, the more it commands the sinner. The more evil is obsessed over, the more it projects itself and dominates consciousness in a maddening plunge of preoccupation and self-propagation. “Take thy beak from out my heart” is not so much the cry of a victim, but of a suicide. “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe is a psychological study in the purposeful application of morbid meaning, by which is occasioned further descent into the depths of despair—which decent is, by many, desired.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of Crisis Magazine (February 2015).

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4 replies to this post
  1. Sean, a great reflection. You drove me to go back and re-read The Raven, which I haven’t read since high school over 40 years ago (if, indeed, I really read it then). Your essay reminds me of JRR Tolkien’s concern for CS Lewis while the latter was writing ‘Screwtape.’ Tolkien felt this exercise of looking so closely at evil would be spiritually taxing. Indeed, CSL later wrote,

    “Though it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude, it was not fun, or not for long. The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp. The world into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst and itch.”

    Indeed, Dante’s Gates of Hell are not locked. We all run the danger of condemning ourselves while claiming that “we like it.”

  2. Well then… there can be beauty about beautiful things.

    So, though this is of course a weak rendering (and a weak excuse for posting as a comment), still here’s…

    With but two words

    On the shores of Holy Pal’stine, week by week and day by day,
    “London?” ask’d the Saraceness when a ship had there its stay.
    “London?” long in vain she beggéd, never tired, never shay*,
    ’til last sh’ aboard was taken by a boate’s rudder’s lay.

    [“shy”, pronounced very British]

    She the sailship’s deck now entered, and away she was not held.
    Sea and Heaven. “London?” asked she, homeland with her face repelled,
    Searchéd, and the helpful sailor’s outward-strechéd hand beheld,
    to the shores looked then, where ev’ning Sun still shone, though night yet swelled.

    “Gilbert?” asks the Saraceness in the giant city’s crowd,
    And the masses laugh and tease her. But then they to mercy bowed.
    “Thousand Gilberts are in London!” Yet untired she looks out.
    “Fresh thyself with drought and dinner!” Tears, though, fill her up, about.

    “Gilbert!” “Nought but Gilbert? Knowést none of other words then? None?”
    “Gilbert!” “Look, that will be erstwhile Pilgrim Becket…” “do speak on”…
    “Whom, dark tanned, in slavish chainés of hot desert’s shining sun…
    whos’ bonds were in secret cutten, ‘n Emir’s daughter ‘s got it done…”

    “Pilgrim Gilbert Becket!” whirs it, booms it on the Thames’s strand.
    Lo! there comes he out to meet her, guided there by People’s hand,
    ov’r the threshold bears he her who is, at last, at journey’s end:
    With but two words Love is wand’ring faithfully through sea and land.

    (Conrad Ferdinand Meyer)

  3. Imrahil: Since you seek to evoke the legend of Saint Thomas Becket’s ancestry (notably plagiarized in The Black Rose), I feel impelled to respond in kind..

    Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
    Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
    The last temptation is the greatest treason:
    To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

    There is an alternate history story in which Poe survives his drunkenness and goes on to become a General for the Confederacy in the ACW (“No Spot Of Ground”). His men give him two ravens, named ( you guessed) Hugin and Munin. He is portrayed as still a hopeless Romantic, but now, he KNOWS he is a hopeless Romantic.

  4. Hugin and Munin? Great…

    In fact I had not known that this was about St. Thomas Becket’s parents when I decided, for the fun of it, to translate that poem, though I’ve looked it up since (and did notice the identity of the surname, before; but then there must be thousand Beckets in England, too). I only knew it as one of the two most beautiful poems in my eyes in my native tongue.

    The other one is (even) more difficult to translate (to me that is) and it is here:

    John Maynard

    Who is John Maynard?

    “John Maynard was for our ship at helm,
    abode until he drove onto firm realm.
    ’tis he who has saved us, he wears the crown,
    he died for us so that we might not drown,
    John Maynard.”

    The Swallow is traversing Erie Lake,
    Foam sprays ‘cross the bow like of snow the flake
    from Detroit she’s flying to Buffalo,
    the hearts are, in any case, glad with glow,
    and all passengers, all who the journey took,
    in the twilight already to the firm shore look,
    and for chit-chat ev’ryone to John Maynard’s ear
    says: “How far is it still, o helmsman dear?”
    He looks to the shore, then he’s looking around:
    “thirty minutes, I figure, or so I found.”

    The hearts are, in any case, glad with glow,
    then out of the machine deck a cry’s heard, so:
    “Fire!”, that was it what sounded there,
    and smoke from the windows, upwards the stair,
    smoke first, and than flames most blazing, oh!
    and it’s twenty minutes to Buffalo.

    And the passengers of ev’ry diffrent sort,
    at the bowsprit they’re standing, though room is short,
    at the bowsprit afront there’s yet air and light,
    at the helm, though, smoke is thight,
    and a moan is heard: “Where are we? – woe!”
    and it’s fifteen minutes to Buffalo.

    The draftwind grows, but the smokecloud will stay,
    the captain looks where the helm once lay.
    He no longer sees where his helmsman is,
    but through megaphone, he’s asking this:
    “Yet there, John Maynard?”
    – “Yes, lord. I am.” [note that this is originally *just* like that^^]
    “To the beach! the surge right into!
    – “that’s where I will aim.” [should rhyme, though it doesn’t]
    “And the ship’s people’s cheering: “Abide! Hello!”
    And it’s ten minutes now still to Buffalo.

    “Yet there, John Maynard” And for answer we’re told
    why dying voice: “oh yes lord, I’ll hold!”.
    And into the surge, be it cliff, be it stone,
    right into the middle the Swallow he’s thrown.
    If rescue’s to come, then it’ll come only so:
    Rescue: the beach of Buffalo.

    The ship: broken. The fire no more on.
    Rescued all people. Just missing one!

    All the bells are chiming, we hear their sound
    rise to heaven from churches and chapels around,
    a ringing and chiming, else the city’s still,
    there’s one service only she will fulfil:
    ten thousand are foll’wing, and more are here:
    and no eye ‘n the procession that doesn’t shead a tear.

    They’re sinking the coffin in flowers’ wave
    with flowers they’re covering the grave,
    and in golden letters to marble stone
    the city’s writing thanks of her own:

    “Here lies John Maynard. In smoke and fire,
    he held fast the helm when the straits were dire.
    ’tis he who has saved us, he wears the crown,
    he died for us so that we might not drown,

    John Maynard.”

    (Theodor Fontane)

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