I don't have television service, but I do very nicely with YouTube. Sometimes I watch the mediums working with audiences, or one-on-one; sometimes I watch animation short films, or else I'll find a comedy routine. Mr. Bean is brilliant--having been a humorist in the 19th century, I have to acknowledge genius in that field when I see it--though he has a mean streak. For example, his mime-inspired routine of discovering an invisible drum kit is a must-see, though he has to cap it off by throwing an invisible cat into the audience. (It seems as though mean people find some supposed social legitimacy for it by hating cats.)
So last night during dinner I watched him being interviewed by Conan O'Brien on "Late Night" (I see, this morning, that the video has already been blocked by NBC, so I must have just caught it.) Then I turned to the Smothers Brothers, and they were singing "To Dream the Impossible Dream" from "Man of La Mancha." Of course, Dick gives us a very nice speech on the inspirational meaning of the song, and then puts Tommy on the spot, asking what it means to him! And true to form, Tommy hilariously fakes his way through it.
I was suddenly reminded of Edgar Allan Poe's essay, "The Philosophy of Composition" in which Poe explains how he wrote "The Raven," and what it means.
I can't believe that generation after generation of astute, erudite, highly-credentialed professors haven't questioned this thing. I said it recently and I'll say it, again--when a student writes this sort of BS on his essay exam, the professor scrawls a big red "F" over it. But because of Poe's reputation, apparently they all bow-and-scrape before this masterpiece.
I thought I'd transcribe Tommy's speech, and then juxtapose it with an excerpt from Poe's essay:
Dick: "This song has a message for every single person here tonight. In fact, this song has a message for every single living person in the entire world! Tom, what is the message that this song sends to you?"
Tommy: (blank look) "I'm sorry, I wasn't paying attention--I didn't know there was going to be a message."
Dick: "You weren't paying attention, you didn't know there was going to be a message? That is the most perfect answer! It's perfect, because that's the reason we don't all receive life's messages at precisely the same time! We don't know there's anything out there, we're not listening. But when we do listen, when we do focus, on life's messages, we generally get them. Like the one in this song is simple, isn't it. It's just, 'Fight for what you believe in.' Simple message, yet, very difficult to do, sometimes. Fight for what you believe in. But if you believe in something strong enough, and it could help make this world a better place, and it is important to you, then no matter what the odds, no matter what the possible outcome, if you stand straight, and tall, and fight for your convictions, then you'll be the winner, no matter what the results. Because you'll be the winner in life, because you tried, you did your best. You gave it your all. And you know what, this world would be a better place, if more people would do just that."
Tommy: "That's beautiful, I..."
Dick: (points) "Starting with you, tonight! And on this stage. Focus in on the Impossible Dream, and tell everyone here, tonight, what it means to you."
Tommy: (blank look, pause, then dramatic guitar chord) "The Impossible Dream. And what does it mean to me? What does the Impossible Dream mean to each of us? (pause) I'm asking you, what does this mean? Is there such a thing as an impossible dream? We all dream! We all have the most outrageous dreams, so an impossible dream is probably very possible. It's probably very common, but in this case, I think (devilish glance at Dick) what my brother means is, when the dream has been dreamt (shrugs), the dreamt dream...what do you, after the dream's been dreamt, what...the question is, do you...can you take that dream into reality? And make this dream become a reality. And if it seems difficult and all but impossible to accomplish, go back to sleep! (laughter) Dream another dream!"
And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected in versification is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite, and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing. The fact is that originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.
Of course I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of the “Raven.” The former is trochaic—the latter is octametre acatalectic, alternating with heptametre catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrametre catalectic. Less pedantically the feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short, the first line of the stanza consists of eight of these feet, the second of seven and a half (in effect two-thirds), the third of eight, the fourth of seven and a half, the fifth the same, the sixth three and a half. Now, each of these lines taken individually has been employed before, and what originality the “Raven” has, is in their combination into stanza; nothing even remotely approaching this has ever been attempted. The effect of this originality of combination is aided by other unusual and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration.
The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven—and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields—but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident—it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.
I determined, then, to place the lover in his chamber—in a chamber rendered sacred to him by memories of her who had frequented it. The room is represented as richly furnished—this in mere pursuance of the ideas I have already explained on the subject of Beauty, as the sole true poetical thesis.
The locale being thus determined, I had now to introduce the bird—and the thought of introducing him through the window was inevitable. The idea of making the lover suppose, in the first instance, that the flapping of the wings of the bird against the shutter, is a “tapping” at the door, originated in a wish to increase, by prolonging, the reader’s curiosity, and in a desire to admit the incidental effect arising from the lover’s throwing open the door, finding all dark, and thence adopting the half-fancy that it was the spirit of his mistress that knocked.
I made the night tempestuous, first to account for the Raven’s seeking admission, and secondly, for the effect of contrast with the (physical) serenity within the chamber.
I made the bird alight on the bust of Pallas, also for the effect of contrast between the marble and the plumage—it being understood that the bust was absolutely suggested by the bird—the bust of Pallas being chosen, first, as most in keeping with the scholarship of the lover, and secondly, for the sonorousness of the word, Pallas, itself.
Let's just briefly go through the points Poe has addressed, and I'll tell you, as near as I can determine, from my historical studies and from my own intuition and past-life impressions, what the real background for the poem was. I'll bring in some substantiating evidence, but I don't have room for everything, as presented in my book. Rest assured I have it.
Poe's first object may be originality, but he claimed a poem he didn't write a single word of, as his own, through political slight-of-hand. That means he's a shameless, flaming hypocrite, because no other would do such a thing, and then write such a thing. Originality is precisely a result of both impulse and intuition. He's dead wrong on this--and he would be, because he doesn't understand real originality, at all.
Indeed the rhythm and metre were known by Mathew, as by Poe. But this was Mathew's go-to style, while it was not Poe's. I have one prior example, and many that come after. Keep in mind that Mathew worked very hard to obtain an education. He had the same home influences that John Greenleaf Whittier had, as well as having John Greenleaf, himself (who was five years older) as an influence. Then, he was tutored by Abby Poyen, his future wife, who was a brilliant child prodigy in poetry. He had deeply studied the art and the science of poetry from the best, both directly and by reading. He tells us so in his introduction, when he (perhaps) parodies Poe's first compilation which had been published in Boston the previous year. Here, Mathew is signing for the first time as "Trismegistus" in February of 1828, at age 15:
I am an insatiable reader of true poetry; that is to say, I read whatever is published at the present day, and think myself all the while very profitably occupied. It constitutes as large a proportion of our literary atmosphere, as oxygen does of common air. No man can live in modern times without breathing in modern poetry, and no man can breathe it in without feeling its effects.
Later in this essay, Mathew lampoons precisely that tendency which Poe tries to turn into a literary virtue--patching a poem together out of "parts," the way one would build a car, sans inner inspiration:
In fine, as the art under discussion has become, from whatever cause, a part of education, for both sexes and every age--superceding certain old-fashioned accomplishments of less value, I have thought myself well employed in drawing up a system of rules for the benefit of new beginners, accompanying my abstract directions with such examples as were most readily at hand. For, notwithstanding the old adage, "poeta nascitur," or in other words, if I understand what Horace meant to have said, that we are all born poets, and have only to help ourselves to immortality, by publishing whatever is given us to say; yet genius itself sometimes profits by instruction, though it seems, in these latter days to succeed marvellously well without.
* * * * * *
2. The second requisite is to become familiar with poetical technicalities. There are certain words and phrases in this as in most other branches of study, of true stamp and approved weight, which will be a sure passport to favor, at least with those readers, who admire the school most popular now. Such are--pure, gentle, clustering, feathery, stealthy, sunny, silvery, stilly, and the rest of this fine family, with all their connections among the verbs, nouns, and adverbs. These may be reserved by the poet when he begins business--as stock on hand, to be thrown in at every blank place, and especially at the beginning and end of paragraphs, as counters to tell by. Like the good old story of "Grouse in the gunroom," (which a servant in the play swears, he could not hear his master tell without laughing, because he had laughed at it for twenty years before) these words apply equally to all occasions, and suffer the less by repetition, from being repeated so much.
Poe's elaborate explanation notwithstanding, there was no question of how to bring the lover and the Raven together. The entire thing came to Mathew in a flash, as an allegory for his own tortured experience of grief. His mother had been superstitious, and had taught the boys that a raven was a symbol, or omen, of death. John Greenleaf Whittier, himself, wrote an early poem with this same title, "The Raven," which Mathew dutifully published in the May 15, 1830 New York "Constellation" for him, as junior editor. Shall I quote a few lines from the opening? It simply tells us that this was a known symbol within the Whittier household. John Greenleaf Whittier was embarrassed by these early poems and tried to hide them in later years, so chances are even scholars aren't familiar with this one:
By John G. Whittier
Thou of the evil eye,
And the dark pinion, given to the wind,
When the storm cometh, like a host behind,
Sweeping the sunless sky—
Evil and lonely bird!
In the dark places of the desert earth,
Where the strange [?] of the wild have birth,
Thy fearful voice is heard;—
A hoarse unwelcome scream,
Waking unearthly echoes by the rude,
Fall of the cataract—in the groaning wood,
And where the sluggard stream
Creeps through the ghostly fen,
Veiled from the sunlight and uncheered by mirth,
Whence the damp vapors of disease steal forth
Poisoning the hearts of men.
Mathew would read, write and study in his room late at night. I have several examples where he puts himself in that setting and situation. He had a collection of old books (in 1832, he brags of having an old original volume of Francis Quarles' poetry, and quotes from it). At this time, while actively grieving, he would have been studying the "black market metaphysical books" that psychic Candace Zellner saw Mathew and Abby studying together, when she contacted Abby for me in 2010. This much of the poem was literal.
Presumably you know that "The Raven" was first published under the pseudonym, "---- Quarles," even though Poe didn't use pseudonyms like this. Mathew did, including as one-offs. This was Mathew's peculiar habit, and it appears to have been a rare practice among authors, who would typically stick with one or two pseudonyms.
The Raven would not, of course, have entered through the door (except in Mathew's subsequent parody, "The Vulture," where he bursts in). It would fly in at the window. I doubt the room was richly furnished. I would have to go back to the poem, itself, to see where Poe picks up this impression...
Perhaps it's the "purple curtain." I remembered seeing this covering the unsightly walls in Mathew and Abby's first apartment in Portland, Maine. It was made of silk. This would have been material from Abby's own upper-class background, which perhaps she made into curtains. Then there is a "velvet cushion." I don't think velvet cushions were all that uncommon, but again, Abby had brought certain items with her from her wealthy upbringing; or, Mathew also bought some of these things at auctions, to try to make her feel at home.* But the whole place wouldn't have been lavish--just some items like this, for her sake. Presumably, Mathew mentions them specifically because they had been Abby's. And, do you see how much deeper my understanding of Mathew's back-story is, than Poe's lame explanations? I hadn't put this together before--you are seeing me realize it, in real time, here in this blog as I proofread.
Every poet in the world would make the night "tempestuous." Mathew did so because his mind was tempestuous. And I will briefly share with you a past-life memory which came to me in full waking consciousness. My researcher had written me, asking whether I had any memories of Abby's memorial service. This is in 2009, I believe (I could check). I was writing her that I did not, when the scene started unfolding in my mind, and I wrote it out stream-of-consciousness. The details have checked out as being plausible. But one thing I remembered, was reading the epitaph on Abby's tombstone (which I already knew at this point)--"Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord." What I remembered was struggling with this, back and forth, back and forth, in a terrible inner battle. The skeptic in me (and I wouldn't have proof that Mathew was skeptical of the things Abby taught him, for many years), would reason thusly: "If she's dead, what does it matter whether she is 'blessed,' or not?"
Now we come to the "bust of Pallas." When Abby tutored Mathew, giving him the benefit of her own upper-class private education, she emphasized ancient Greece. References to the philosophers, myths and culture of ancient Greece abound in Mathew's writings--while almost nothing of ancient Rome is found, there. In B.P. Shillaber's series about "Blifkins the Martyr," which was based on stories Mathew had told him privately about his disastrous, family-arranged second marriage, there is a very clear allegory which tells the discerning reader the following. Apparently, Mathew owned a literal bust of Pallas (I, also, have one on the shelf above where I am typing, today--not a coincidence, I paid a sculptor in Greece for it). It would have been a replica of the one discovered in Herculaneum, which fascinated Mathew because it looked somewhat like Abby. And indeed, it does resemble her portrait. This is precisely what Mathew tells us in "Blifkins"--or rather, what Blifkins told Shillaber--that it somewhat reminded him of her. Except, in "Blifkins the Martyr," his reported visitation dream of being with Abby on a ship, is changed to the "widow Thompson." But Blifkins is portrayerd by Shillaber as ridiculously attempting to communicate telepathically with the bust of Pallas above the chamber door. It is written as though this is Shillaber's chamber; but perhaps originally Shillaber was visiting at Mathew's flat. In any case, it's a very clear, albeit coded, reference. Mathew confided these things to Shillaber, that he had had a visitation dream of Abby, that he had a bust of Pallas from Herculaneum, that it reminded him somewhat of Abby, and that he was trying to communicate with her telepathically. Shillaber, not quite believing it, and finding it comic, created this mild parody of his friend's foolishness in which Blifkins is trying to telepathically communicate with the bust, itself.
We don't know how the local historian I wrote to recently might have joked with his colleagues about my candid e-mail, but I would guess it was along similar lines.
Do you want to see this evidence first-hand? I can tell you how to do it in four clicks. 1) Go to www.archive.org. 2) key in "Partingtonian Patchwork." 3) Search, within that book, for the name "Thompson." 4) Choose, among the options, page 62. Or, just go directly to page 62.
Normally, I don't like to share images from my book, preferring not to give everything away, but in this case, I think it's pertinent. This is the bust of Pallas found at Herculaneum (which discoveries would have been known to Mathew), compared with the only historical portrait I have identified, beyond a reasonable doubt, as Abby, at age 20.
So Mathew probably owned a copy of the bust, and he identified it with Abby. Historically, the "Palladium" was that statue of Pallas, or Athena--the goddess of wisdom--which stood guard over the city of Troy. Abby's teachings, which included the subject of life after death, and high mysticism, stood guard over Mathew's reason. He put them at the forefront--i.e., "over the chamber door," or guarding the door to his mind. Whether he literally kept such a bust over his door, we don't know--but Shillaber's story suggests he might have, as a symbolic gesture.
The Raven represented death, as his mother had taught the boys when he was young. This stark reality was fighting a desperate inner battle with the wisdom that Abby had taught him. And wisdom seemed to be losing, because he could not defeat the appearance that death had triumphed. This is the symbolic meaning of the Raven entering and perching upon the head of Pallas--seemingly in victory over her--and over his reason.
Compared with this understanding--which is obvious, to me--Poe's explanation sounds like Tommy Smothers discoursing on the Impossible Dream.
Mathew's response to "The Philosophy of Composition," which was published in the April 1846 edition of Graham's Magazine, was to publish a story which takes place in "Libbeyville," in the Dec. 5, 1846 Portland Transcript--where he knew Poe would see it. Normally, Mathew was writing about "Ethan Spike" of "Hornby," during this period, for the Boston Chronotype--but that was a radical anti-slavery paper that Poe was less likely to read. It is the only time that Mathew set an "Ethan Spike" spin-off in Libbeyville. This very small town becomes incorporated, and suddenly, "a latent spirit of ambition and pride, which, in the language of Dea. Daniel Libbey, 'had hitherto lain dormouse, began to manifest and mightily exalt itself.'"
Mathew's works, written under various pseudonyms, very often appeared together on the page; and sometimes, pieces by other authors that he had clearly requested, also appeared above and/or below them, as if in secret support, or to add additional meanings. Mathew knew these editors personally, and it seems he was able to request these juxtapositions. Directly below this story of "Libbeyville," is the following quote by Francis Quarles:
Self-Knowledge.—As thou art a moral man, esteem not thyself as thou art, but as thou art esteemed; as thou art a Christian, esteem thyself as thou art, not as thou art esteemed; thy pence in both rises and falls as the market goes. The market of a moral man is a wild opinion. The market of a Christian is a good conscience. [Quarles**
Mathew hated hypocrisy above all other failings. He was almost certainly responding to the third paragraph of Poe's essay quoted above. Mathew was an esoteric Christian, as was Abby. Poe was not. Mathew is answering Poe: "You may be a moral man, at least by reputation, but you ain't no Christian."
I was just revising my first book, where I had not picked up on just how on-target the "Libbeyville" sketch is, and I realized something else I'd missed. Poe worked for the "New Evening Mirror" as a critic, where "The Raven" first appeared--not under "---- Quarles," but under his own name. I can't imagine why historians haven't seen through this trickery. Mathew, meeting with Poe, had made copies of two or three of his works at Poe's request (I remembered the meeting under hypnosis, years before I had studied any of this). Mathew submitted "The Raven" under "---- Quarles" to the "American Review"--but Poe caught wind of it, and being destitute at the time, had the idea to try to publish it first under his own name. He took his copy to George Graham, editor of Graham's Magazine, where he had once worked as an editor. Graham, although fully aware of its quality (he was no dummy), refused to publish it because he recognized that it wasn't in Poe's handwriting. Poe then prevailed on the editor of the "New Evening Mirror," where he worked, to publish it for him, convincing him to do so because he already had a copy of it (which, perchance, by this time he had copied over in his own hand). Thus, it came out under Poe's name before it was printed under "---- Quarles."
Mathew's hands were tied. He had been pushed by his family into an arranged second marriage. He was still grieving Abby, but he was kind-hearted enough not to want to hurt his second wife by letting her know how much he was missing his first. So he couldn't defend himself against the theft, publicly. Poe subsequently published at least two other pieces which I suspect that he plagiarized from Mathew--"Annabel Lee" (originally written to "Abigail P----"), and, if my intuition serves, the sketch "Some Words with a Mummy." Mathew could have tried to defend himself against that one, but he knew that such a charge would lead back to the two poems.
Do I need to elaborate any further on this? It's obvious. If Poe missed the deeper significance of "The Raven"--which he clearly did--then he's an erudite fool. And no erudite fool wrote "The Raven."
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
*I get the feeling, now, that Abby secretly felt some of these second-hand items were tacky, but because Mathew bought them for her out of love, she suffered them without saying anything. There is a hilarious story, apparently co-authored by both, which tells of the great fuss made over a high-backed antique chair, until, at the grand unveiling, it is discovered to be a toilet with the contents still inside. Entitled "THE MYSTERIOUS ---- ----" (mischievously hinting not so much at the chair, but at its contents), the Dec. 24. 1842 story bears the signature "By a Down Easter," being published in the Christmas editon of the Portland "Transcript" about a year and a half after Abby's death. Mathew had already remarried a woman of his family's choosing in March of that year, so he couldn't openly indicate its joint authorship, though I would say that having it published was a secret Christmas tribute to his late wife (which relationship he was still actively reliving). Mathew does appear to have used the signature "Down East" a few years later.
**The editor inadvertently truncated the quote, which renders it confusing and takes the teeth out of it--I've reproduced the original, here.
Music opening this page: "Won't Get Fooled Again," by The Who,
from the album, "Who's Next"