Recently, I bought some archival tape to re-attach the covers of some of these old bound newspaper volumes that I have stored, here. I had the idea to try it out on one of them, and I chose the 1850 volume of the Portland (Maine) "Transcript"--the very first of these that I purchased on Ebay, several years ago. The tape works fine; but as often happens, the minute I got into this volume, I started seeing additional pieces by Mathew. I found a travel letter (see today's earlier entry) signed "J.O.B.," the earliest I have ever seen this signature; one or two signed with his single asterisk that I'd missed; one signed with a double asterisk I'll have to look at (he signed those, if he was presenting his ideas along with his late wife, Abby's, or if it was co-authored with her). And scattered throughout this volume, are also excerpts from Edgar Allan Poe's correspondence, apparently presented by one of his strong advocates. I gather there were many critics, and this friend is defending him. Here is a snippet of Poe's explanations, in response to questions about "The Raven." Interesting that I should just stumble upon this today, as I did.
"What you say about the blundering criticism of the "Hartford Review man" is just. For the purposes of poetry it is quite sufficient that a thing is possible--or at least that the improbability be not offensively glaring. It is true that in more ways than one, as you say, the lamp might have thrown the bird's shadow on the floor--
"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,"
My conception was that of the bracket candelabrum affixed against the wall, high up above the door and bust--as is often seen in the English palaces, and even in some of the better houses of New York.
Your objection to the tinkling of the footfalls--
"Then, me thought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by angels whoses faint foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor."
is far more pointed, and in the course of composition occurred so forcibly to myself, that I hesitated to use the term. I finally used it because I saw that it had, in its first conception, been suggested to my mind by the sense of the supernatural with which it was, at the moment, filled. No human or physical foot could tinkle on a soft carpet--therefore the tinkling of foot would vividly convey the supernatural impression. This was the idea, and it is good within itself; but if it fails (as I fear it does) to make itself immediately and generally felt according to my intention, then in so much is it badly conveyed, or expressed."
Poe never wrote that poem, and this is entirely bullshit, from one end to the other. It's obvious to me--is it obvious, to you? Here's what really happened. Mathew Franklin Whittier--myself in the 19th century--had lost his soul-mate, Abby. She had tutored him on mysticism and the occult, being, herself, psychic and a deep student of these subjects, even as a young teenager. Mathew was studying the books that they had once read, together. He was trying very hard to believe in life after death, and the possibility of spirit contact, but he had always had a skeptical mind, and now he was struggling with his faith. Apparently, he thought maybe she was about to appear to him, when it turned out to be only a bird at the window. From this experience, "The Raven" dashed itself onto paper.* Excepting that the bird became a raven, being the symbol of death that he had learned, from his superstitious mother, in childhood; and that it didn't actually perch on the bust of Pallas; everything else in the poem is probably literal. He actually was studying an old book of the occult, or perhaps of Francis Quarles' poetry (as I suggested earlier), which had once belonged to Abby. He really hoped for a spirit contact, and for a brief instant, he thought perhaps he was having one. He really did have a bust of Pallas above his chamber door--it was a small replica of the bust found in Herculaneum, which resembled Abby. He kept it there as a symbol of her, and her guiding wisdom--his own personal "Palladium." But he couldn't defeat his skepticism--he couldn't banish the grand illusion of the finality of death.**
There was no intellectual weighing of poetic options. Mathew didn't write poetry like that. It poured out of him in fevered inspiration, complete with his keen sense of humor--which, of course, was very dark in this case, but nonetheless present. He was a good enough writer--especially in this, his preferred style--that he didn't have to think about the technical part of it. He was like guitar prodigy Eric Johnson, who has such complete mastery over his instrument, that he can express his inner promptings spontaneously.
This business of carefully thinking out the circumstances, and going back and forth about using a word, is nonsense. And Poe's reference to the "supernatural" as a sort of literary device--which we all know isn't real--is also nonsense. Abby lived the supernatural; and when she introduced Mathew to it, he gradually transitioned from mocking skeptic, to believer, to experiencer. In the early 1830's, we find him poking fun at her beliefs (as, for example, astrology); by the mid-1850's, he is ghost-writing an eloquent defense of Spiritualism, for the president of the Portland Association of Spiritualists.
Sigh...doesn't anybody believe me? Isn't this obvious to somebody?
Throughout his life, Mathew wrote on many occasions of having spirit contacts with Abby. This was literal, for him--and his hope that it might happen, during the months following her death, was also literal. Anything else that deviates from reality, in this poem--like a big bird flying in through the window and sitting on top of his bust of Pallas (which would have been far too small)--is symbolism. You know, Edgar, when one things stands for something else? It doesn't have to be believable if it's symbolic, because the legitimacy of the thing comes through its symbolism. (Idiot.) Seriously, this guy was a second-rate intellect, which is to say, a superficial one. It's all smoke-and-mirrors. As for whether an angel's footsteps "tinkle," the answer is, they probably do, and 503 of them--or perhaps 504, under certain circumstances--fit on the head of a pin. The more "pointed" question is, how did Poe know enough to steal "The Raven"? Yogi Baba Hari Dass answered that one: "Snakes know heart."
Incidentally, you can still buy one of these replicas of the Herculaneum Pallas, today. I commissioned one sculpted in white alabaster, for approximately $100 from a Greek sculptor. Including the base, it's about six inches tall, and it sits on a narrow shelf above my desk, where I key in these entries. The reason I wanted one, aside from it just being a fond whim, is that I felt I needed a physical copy as a backup, in case my use of a museum photograph was ever contested. Presumably, you could buy one of these in the 1840's, as well; and it's clear from Mathew's published travel letters, that he liked to visit artists and sculptors.
Let me leave you with this. Logically, a poem as good as "The Raven" cannot be written the way that Poe insists he wrote it. You cannot construct an inspired poem, a world classic, as though it were a backyard toolshed, board-by-board and nail-by-nail. It comes gushing out of you from some higher realm, or if you prefer, some higher part of your mind. No world-class poem has ever been pieced together as an intellectual exercise, the way that Poe is describing, here. Do you remember any of the poems that Poe wrote this way? I don't. Since gradeschool, the only two poems I ever remembered that were supposedly written by Poe, were "The Raven," and "Annabel Lee." Those turned out to be the two inspired poems that he stole from Mathew Franklin Whittier.
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
*Mathew began his literary career as a 15-year-old prodigy in 1827, so by the time this poem was probably written, in 1841/42, he had been writing and publishing for 14 years.
**I'm not making up any of this, by the way--I have evidence to support every single element. This entry would just get too unwieldy, if I tried to include it all, here.
Music opening this page: "Thief in the Night," by Eric Johnson, from the album, "Venus Isle"