An Analysis of Poe’s Work
“Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quote from the Raven, “Nevermore.”
The above quote from “The Raven” may well been seen as prophetic. With the publishing of this poem in 1845, Poe’s life would be forever connected to these dark, clever birds. He was quickly himself dubbed “the Raven” by his contemporaries, and there’s some evidence suggesting he may have even reveled in his new nickname. Regardless of how he felt about it, though, the corvid was certainly deeply entrenched in his life, becoming&emdash;and remaining&emdash;a symbol of his tortured life and writings.
But why ravens?
Poe, in an article for Graham’s Magazine, explained that he first considered using a parrot – an obvious choice, when thinking of a speaking bird – but he quickly changed his mind, feeling a raven was a much more appropriate selection.
Ravens are known nearly worldwide as creatures of ill omen. A group of these large crested birds is known as a “murder”. Because they were so often found on European battlefields, feasting on the corpses of the fallen, ravens have many connections to gods and goddesses of war, particularly in Celtic and Norse mythologies. It’s difficult to know how much Native American folklore Poe may have known, but here in the New World, ravens were tricksters, wise and crafty, far from infallible. Modern studies show them to be highly intelligent, social, bold creatures. They guide wolves to prey, sharing in the feasting after the hunt, and have been known to stay close to single wolves held captive by Man. Sometimes, they have been known to mimic human language.
So perhaps the question should be, ‘Why wouldn’t Poe choose to use a raven?’
And yet there’s more to the story…
At the time The Raven was published, Poe was accused of plagiarism, supposedly stealing from the work of none other than Charles Dickens. Dickens and his family owned several pet ravens, the first of which, a beloved bird by the name of Grip, died in 1841, and was immediately immortalized in Barnaby Rudge. Poe reviewed this novel, voicing his opinion that Dickens failed to make full use of the bird by not allowing it to be “prophetically heard.”
The fact that Poe’s raven dramatically achieves this goal gives credence to the accusation. Enough so that Grip’s well-preserved body was eventually purchased by an ardent Poe aficionado and eventually donated, along with an extensive collection of miscellany, to the Philadelphia Free Library in 1970, where Grip continues to spend his afterlife.
Truth is a multifaceted thing, and in this case it seems likely that no single reason lies at the root of Poe’s decision to place a raven on Pallas’ bust. And somehow, it seems fitting that there should be some mystery lurking in that eternally tapping, mocking bird.
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!