Thursday, January 29, 2015

This Day in Literary History (‘The Raven’ Makes Poe A Household Name)

Jan. 29, 1845—“The Raven” first saw print in the New York Evening Mirror and was attributed to Edgar Allan Poe, a writer-editor of nomadic inclination and daemonic energy. It thrust its author squarely into the literary limelight, making him hot on the lecture circuit and enough wherewithal to buy out the owners of the Broadway Journal and achieve his dream of running his own magazine.

Unfortunately, Poe made little money off his newfound celebrity, and personal troubles led him to hit the road again, leading him to a squalid and controversial death four years later. While he anatomized the creation of his most popular poem in highly cerebral fashion after its publication, the mad descent of his love-haunted narrator has fed popular perceptions ever since that the verses resulted less from the critical acumen and more from the tortured psychology of the poet.

One of the first of Poe’s champions abroad, Charles Baudelaire, considered him a forerunner of the poete maudit, or “cursed poet,” a creator not undone by substance abuse and other personal problems but gifted beyond the ordinary precisely by these forces. Poe “did not drink like an ordinary toper,” Baudelaire wrote, “but like a savage, with an altogether American energy and fear of wasting a minute, as though he were accomplishing an act of murder, as though there was something inside him that he had to kill, ‘a worm that would not die.”

In a prior post, I discussed how James Russell Lowell began as a champion of Poe before the latter, in an arguably questionable and certainly career-damaging move, accused the Boston poet of plagiarism. What I did not realize at the time was how Lowell’s devastating counterpunch—that his accuser was “three-fifths genius and two-fifths fudge”—came about through an opening left by Poe himself.

In reviewing Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, Poe took notice of the importance of a talking raven to the plot, but complained that the novelist had missed the opportunity to capitalize on the creature by giving it a more symbolic purpose. Poe’s later use of the babbling bird led Lowell and his circle to carp (not unreasonably, given his own recent charge) that the dark creature was not entirely an original product of its creator’s imagination.

Poe’s brazen habit of taking to task the subject of his reviews was demonstrated further in the weeks before publication of “The Raven” when he wrote about Elizabeth Barrett's poem "Lady Geraldine's Courtship." No sooner had he taken her to task for want of originality (while, admittedly, praising her for delicacy of expression) that he borrowed her complicated rhyme and rhythm scheme for the poem taking shape in his head even then.

No aspect of the poem was an accident, Poe claimed in his “Philosophy of Composition”: It was all based on total control by the author. More than a few readers, I think, will be suspicious of the relentless logic with which he described its making. The whole thing sounds as preposterous as the lengthy ratiocination employed by his fictional detective Auguste Dupin to explain how he solved a crime.

I admit to not being a fan of Poe’s poetry. Too often, in their use (or overuse) of repetition, they seem only one step removed from doggerel. (It was not always so with him: A poem revised by Poe later that year, “To Helen,” is, in keeping with its subjects, beautiful precisely because of the classical restraint and symmetry of its meter—for instance, “the Glory that was Greece,/And the Grandeur that was Rome”).

But there is no gainsaying the fact that this very repetition, not to mention the practically swooning nature of some of the imagery (“Then methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer”), has made "The Raven" easy to memorize and compulsively fascinating when read aloud. In addition, if horror involves a character’s drastically altered psychology state, then “The Raven” is the Poe poem that most closely approximates his pioneering tales of the supernatural.

The poem has lent itself to visual as well as auditory dimensions, most notably in the 1963 Roger Corman film starring Vincent Price, which—if you’ll pardon the expression—took flight from Poe’s account of the nocturnal bird. More recently, its mordant refrain, "Nevermore," has provided the title for a new musical in New York City. The poem has also lent itself to countless parodies and puns (my favorite among the latter: William Safire’s 1993 collection of his New York Times Magazine “On Language” columns, Quoth the Maven).

A restless spirit in search of a place in the world, Poe lived at various points up and down the Eastern Seaboard: Richmond, Va., West Point, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. One of these places—where, actually, he died in 1849, following an Election Day incident hyped by a frenemy—was Baltimore. The city repaid him for briefly making it his home by naming their football team the Baltimore Ravens in the 1990s.

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