Why a raven? To make the 'Nevermore!' believable


INASMUCH AS Baltimoreans, proud of their association with Edgar Allan Poe, have selected "Ravens" as the name for their new National Football League team, they have a right to know why Poe chose this dark and mournful bird as a symbol in his most famous poem.

In fact, he set forth his game plan in a fascinating essay, called "The Philosophy of Composition." In this the poet explains in painstaking detail, how he constructed "The Raven." He did not produce it spontaneously while in the throes of an alcoholic depression. To the contrary, if we are to believe what he wrote, he approached his work with the sober and calculated precision of any good football coach.

He explains that "Most writers -- poets in especial -- prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy -- an ecstatic intuition -- and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes."

Begin at the ending

"The Philosophy of Composition" is just that -- a peep behind the scenes. Poe tells us that the proper way to write a narrative is to decide in advance what kind of ending the writer seeks, or, in Poe's words, "Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen."

His goal in "The Raven" was to create an "effect," and to decide, point by point, how that effect could best be realized. "No one point in its composition is referrible [sic] either to accident or intuition. . . . The work proceeded step by step to its completion --with the precise and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

He wanted to create a "unity of impression," that is, a work that can be read and have its effect in one sitting. He decided that for such an effect he would limit his poem to "about one hundred lines" (he settled for 108) and have all the action in a single, gloomy room, thus observing the dramatic unities. Its theme would be beauty, "the atmosphere and essence of the poem." Incorporating beauty, he decided the tone must be one of sadness. "Melancholy is the most legitimate of all the poetical tones."

But why the raven? He explains that the effect he wanted could best be achieved by a refrain, in this case a single word that could be repeated after each verse. He wanted a word with a long "o" sound, which suggests melancholy. "Nevermore," conveyed the sense and sadness he sought. But it was unlikely that the effect could be attained by having a human being repeat the same word. So he selected the raven, "a bird of ill omen," and "capable of speech."

"The most poetical topic"

As for this combination of melancholy and beauty, death is the most melancholy subject and "the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world . . . and the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover."

In keeping with his rule, he wrote the climactic lines first: "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, I shall clasp the sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore -- Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore!"

Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

The ultimate melancholy

That "nevermore" achieves the ultimate final melancholy, the raven's revelation that not even in Heaven will the lover find his sainted maiden. ("Aidenn" is an archaic spelling of Eden.)

One of the myths about Poe is that he composed his horror stories and his poems in a drunken stupor. Some scholars believe that in this version of how he created "The Raven," he, after the fact, exaggerated his own cool precision. I prefer to think he was honest. Despite his apparent alcoholism, he was, when sober, a competent editor of several magazines.

"The Philosophy of Composition," is a masterpiece for the light it sheds in explaining the process of composition, as "The Raven" is a masterpiece of poetic creation; an ideal, as it were, for even a good football game.

Gwinn Owens, a retired Evening Sun editorial writer, wrote and produced a television documentary on Edgar Allan Poe.

Pub Date: 5/01/96

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