29 January 1845, Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” was published in the “New York Evening Mirror” for the first time, making the Bostonian Romantic a national celebrity overnight.
“Hey," said Shadow. "Huginn or Muninn, or whoever you are." The bird turned, head tipped, suspiciously, on one side, and it stared at him with bright eyes. "Say 'Nevermore,' " said Shadow. "Fuck you," said the raven. It said nothing else as they went through the woodland together. (Neil Gaiman, “American Gods”)
|Cover for "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe as illustrated by Gustave Dore, 1884|
When the Welsh poet Aneirin wrote his Y Gododdin, an elegy to the fall of the Brytonic Old North at some time between the 7th and the 10th century CE, a transvaluation of values in terms of ravens had taken place long since from the shamanistic trickster spirit of old to the kenning for battle in northwestern Europe. Nearly every stanza of Y Gododdin has a reference to the birds along the lines of “Sooner than to a nuptial feast; / Thou hast become a meal for ravens”, “And the head of Dyvnwal Vrych by ravens devoured”, “And on his white bosom the sable raven is perched” and whatnot. They remained a messenger, though, once to the gods, Apollo and Odin, to name a few, and from the Middle Ages onwards they became the bearers of ill news. Not only from the battlefields where they had feasted but from the places of execution as well, a well-laid table for the ravens, hence the German term “Galgenvogel”, gallows’ bird, or “Unglücksrabe”, literally a raven of ill luck, for a very unlucky person.
|Édouard Manet - Le Corbeau – frontispiece of the French edition translated by Stéphane Mallarmé (1875)|
Poe wanted a mundane and non-reasoning creature capable of speech to deliver the bad news and could hardly take a parrot, after all. While the non-reasoning qualities of ravens are quite debatable after today’s level of awareness of the intelligence of corvids, the motif of the “Unglücksrabe” is quite stringent with the earlier features of ill omen attributed to the bird. And while the raven of Dicken’s Barnaby Rudge could utter “nobody”, Elizabeth Barrett Browning rhymed “Ever, evermore the while in a slow silence she kept smiling” in her poem “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” and lost “Lenore” alludes not only to Poe’s earlier poem of the same name but to the back then well-known pre-Gothic ballad of the same name by the German poet Gottfried August Bürger from 1773, that was a favourite not only of Shelley and Coleridge as well but still inspired Stoker to the quote “die Todten Reiten schnell ("The dead travel fast")” fifty years after the “Raven was published” in New York.
|Ary Scheffer (1795 -1858): Lénore. Les morts vont vite (“Lenore. Die Toten reiten schnell“)|
The long poem became Poe’s literary breakthrough in the United States and was published in every major magazine on the East Coast during the year of 1845 and made Edgar a poet everybody knew, a national celebrity even though he complained that his success still had no perceptible influence on his meagre income. He died four years later, still penniless, while the “Raven” and his other works quickly found a grateful audience in Europe and Poe became a post mortem luminary, first there and later, again, in the United States while his raven still croaks his famous word over Poe’s posterity among his epigones in fantastic literature and movies.
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