Season of ‘The Raven’

Every year near Halloween, I force my kids to listen to a quiet, thorough family reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” They generally complain but my older kids understand and appreciate the poem more with each passing year.

Minnesotans are as likely to see ravens in portions of lake country as the loons we so revere, yet at best, most folks ignore them. But for millenia, ravens have been the subject of folklore, art, and literature. In Norse mythology (Vikings anyone?) the god Odin had two pet ravens that flew the world, delivering information back to their master.

Ravens are the largest member of the corvidae family, which includes all sorts of charismatic species, from the blue jay to the Stellar’s jay and Clark’s nutcracker of the American West to magpies and crows. As a family, they’re regarded as some of those most intelligent creatures in the animal kingdom. Researchers have shown that ravens in particular have problem-solving abilities, and – per Poe’s famous poem – can mimic human speech.

Some people confuse ravens with crows, which strikes me as odd. Obsidian black and as large as a hawk, ravens (Corvus corax) are nearly double in weight and instead of cawing, deliver a distinctive croak. They’re meaner, more belligerent than crows. If a murder of crows represent the avian equivalent of a biker gang, then ravens are the Hell’s Angels, often traveling solo or in pairs.

When we see ravens, it’s usually over a pile of fish entrails after shore lunch, a gut pile in the woods, or maybe jockeying over a roadkill deer with a bald eagle. Our national symbol shoulder-to-shoulder with a creature about which Poe asked, “bird or devil?”… The duality of the universe? I give you eagles and ravens.

Years ago, one particularly nasty raven almost brought my then 22-year-old girlfriend to tears following a camping trip.

In was spring 1994, and my now-wife, Annette – gamely trying to show her boyfriend that she could handle the outdoors lifestyle miles from civilization – tolerated cold weather, a monsoon-like rainstorm, and a black bear shuffling through camp. She’d never roughed it wilderness-style before, but handled the trip like a champ.

On our exit day, however, after a strenuous morning’s canoe paddle and loading our gear, we paused at a stop sign at the wilderness border.

A lone raven, mantling over the carcass of some unfortunate critter, didn’t flare when my 1991 Dodge halted just feet away. After more than two decades, my memory is a little cloudy, but I remember the bird with a cigarette dangling from his beak and wearing a red bandana.

Just off the passenger-side door, the battle-scarred brute looked as large as a turkey and mean as a snake. The raven stone-cold stared at Annette and released a deep, raspy croak. He wasn’t budging from the rotting flesh at his feet.

My future bride had reached her tipping point with surly creatures. Annette turned to me and with a catch in her throat, said, “Take me home, mister!”

Why do I admire ravens? In Poe’s poem, and throughout human mythology (in both hemispheres), ravens are tricksters and instigators – sort of like journalists.

With its taunting, Poe’s Raven compounds and accelerates the miserable, bereaved narrator’s crisis of mind within a mere 1,100 words.

Presumably no dummy, the unnamed narrator owns a white bust of Pallas Athena, a symbol of wisdom, where the raven boldly perches. Yet with one consistent word, the dark bird reminds our narrator that he can’t escape his memories. Nevermore.

This Halloween season, devote 10 minutes to reading this classic. Dim the lights and slowly recite the poem aloud. Yes, the narrator’s experience with the Raven occurs in December, but his descent into madness serves up well during these longer nights of chill winds and leafless, creaking trees.

And just maybe the world’s largest corvid will pay a visit to your chamber door.

The Raven

By Edgar Allan Poe 

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—

Only this and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;

And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.

Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow

From my 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 silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;

So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating

“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—

Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—

This it is and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,

“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;

But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,

And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,

That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—

Darkness there and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,

And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”

This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—

Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,

Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.

“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;

Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—

Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—

’Tis the wind and nothing more!”

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;

Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;

But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—

Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—

Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,

By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,

“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,

Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—

Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”

 Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

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

Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;

For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being

Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—

Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,

With such name as “Nevermore.”

But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only

That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.

Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—

Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—

On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”

Then the bird said “Nevermore.”

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 that melancholy burden bore

Of ‘Never—nevermore’.”

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,

Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;

Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking

Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—

What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore

Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing

To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;

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

On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,

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

She shall press, ah, nevermore!

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

Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.

“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee

Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;

Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”

Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—

Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,

Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—

On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—

Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”

Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!

By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—

Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,

It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—

Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”

Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—

“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!

Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!

Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!

Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”

Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

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’s 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!

Gustave Doré’s illustration of the final lines of the poem accompanies the phrase “And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/Shall be lifted – nevermore!” Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Gustave Doré’s illustration of the final lines of the poem accompanies the phrase “And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/Shall be lifted – nevermore!” Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Categories: Rob Drieslein

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