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Art and Images in Psychiatry
August 4, 2008

Edgar Allan Poe: The Raven

Author Affiliations
 

C. HARRISJAMESMD

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2008;65(8):868-869. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.65.8.868

[Virginia Poe's life] was despaired of . . . she recovered partially and I again hoped. . . . Each time [she relapsed] I felt all the agonies of her death—and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly & clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity . . . it was the horrible never ending oscillation between hope & despair. . . . —Poe to George Eveleth, January 4, 18481(p347)

In June 1875, a poster, brightly lettered in red with a black raven at its center, announced the folio edition of Stéphane Mallarmé's French translation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven.2,3Édouard Manet designed the poster, the cover design of the book, and its ex libris (thumbnail), The Flying Raven. His 4 full-page lithographic illustrations of critical turning points in the poem that appear alongside the text are among his best-known drawings. The Ravenwas one of the first in a new genre of grand illustrated books. French writer Charles Baudelaire's translations of Poe's stories made Poe famous in France, and Mallarmé hoped to have similar success in translating Poe's poems.4Mallarmé and Manet first met in Paris in 1873 and soon became fast friends. That friendship was bolstered in 1874 when Mallarmé rose to Manet's defense after his art was criticized and rejected by the Salon jury. Thus Mallarmé became Manet's most staunch defender; they lived near one another and met almost daily.

Édouard Manet (1832-1883), French. The Raven in Flightex libris, 1875. Brush transfer lithograph, 10¼ ×13⅜ in (26 ×34 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. Gift of W. G. Russell Allen, 32.466.1. Photograph © 2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Édouard Manet (1832-1883), French. The Raven in Flightex libris, 1875. Brush transfer lithograph, 10¼ ×13⅜ in (26 ×34 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. Gift of W. G. Russell Allen, 32.466.1. Photograph © 2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In 1876, the year following their collaboration on The Raven, Manet painted his friend's portrait (cover). Mallarmé, at age 34 years, appears in thoughtful reverie with a cigar held loosely between the fingers of his right hand, which rests on a book. He sits on a flowered couch before a Japanese wall hanging with the merest suggestion of painted butterflies and flowers. Mallarmé's rapt contemplation, the rising smoke from the cigar (“though the ash be loath to part from its glowing kiss of fire”), and the delicate Japanese designs produce an atmosphere that blends sensuality and reflectivity, creating a sense of his artistic refinement.5The dreaminess of the painting is reminiscent of Mallarmé's poem “Afternoon of a Faun,” which Manet also illustrated that year and that so inspired Claude Debussy. But it is not the portrait of a commercially successful poet. Their book collaboration on The Ravenwas not a financial success. Mallarmé wrote that year to Richard Lesclide, their publisher, asking how many copies were left, and offered to purchase back unsold copies.

Édouard Manet (1832-1883), French. Portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé, 1876. Oil on canvas, 10⅝ × 14⅛ in (27 × 36 cm). Museé d’Orsay, Paris, France. Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York, NY.

Édouard Manet (1832-1883), French. Portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé, 1876. Oil on canvas, 10⅝ × 14⅛ in (27 × 36 cm). Museé d’Orsay, Paris, France. Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York, NY.

Yet when The Ravenfirst appeared in America on January 29, 1845, in The Evening Mirror(New York) in advance of journal publication, it was an overnight sensation. It was published in the February 1845 issue of The American Review(Poe was paid $9 for the poem6) and republished widely in other journals and newspapers. A contemporary reviewer wrote, “In power and originality of versification the whole is no less remarkable than it is, psychologically, a wonder.”6(p195)Written during the years that Poe was continually agonizing (epigraph) over the exacerbations and remissions of his wife's terminal tuberculosis, it is a powerful examination of the psychology of bereavement. (The Ravenis performed by John Astin at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACUxJ6fq2IY.)

Critics praised Manet's illustrations of The Raven. The Paris Journalnoted his use of black and white media to depict the sinister bird and the interplay of abrupt silhouettes and threatening shadows.6Manet had successfully transformed Poe's nightmarish, atmospheric poem into visual art in 4 lithographic plates (Figures 1, 2, 3, and 4) that illustrated key events in the poem.2,3Sitting at the desk, in Once upon a midnight dreary(“while I pondered, weak and weary”), the man turns his head to listen, evoking a sense of foreboding. With the raven's entry, in Open here I flung the shutter, the man's left hand with his fingers widely spread reveals an inner tension. The raven, in Perched upon a bust of Pallas(Athena, the goddess of wisdom), begins the confrontation between them. Finally, in That shadow that lies floating on the floor(“my soul . . . Shall be lifted nevermore!”), the empty chair facing the shadow suggests that the man's soul has been swallowed by profound grief. Step by step, Poe draws the reader or listener into the mental journey of the bereaved: seeking self-distraction (“from my books surcease of sorrow”); murmuring the name of the deceased; imagining that she is not dead; hoping for a reunion after death, then despairing of it; realizing with mounting anxiety that the raven must be a messenger of death (“And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming”); falling deeper into rumination, self-torture, and hopelessness—and finally realizing that she is permanently gone.

Figure 1. 
Édouard Manet (1832-1883), French. Under the Lamp (“Once upon a midnight dreary”), 1875. Brush transfer lithograph, 149/16 × 21⅝ in (37 × 55 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of W. G. Russell Allen, 32.466.2. Photograph © 2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Édouard Manet (1832-1883), French. Under the Lamp (“Once upon a midnight dreary”), 1875. Brush transfer lithograph, 149/16 × 21⅝ in (37 × 55 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of W. G. Russell Allen, 32.466.2. Photograph © 2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Figure 2. 
Édouard Manet (1832-1883), French. At the Window (“Open here I flung the shutter”), 1875. Brush transfer lithograph, 21⅝ × 149/16 in (55 × 37 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of W. G. Russell Allen, 32.466.3. Photograph © 2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Édouard Manet (1832-1883), French. At the Window (“Open here I flung the shutter”), 1875. Brush transfer lithograph, 21⅝ × 149/16 in (55 × 37 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of W. G. Russell Allen, 32.466.3. Photograph © 2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Figure 3. 
Édouard Manet (1832-1883), French. The Raven on the Bust (“Perched upon a bust of Pallas”), 1875. Brush transfer lithograph, 21⅝ × 149/16 in (55 × 37 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of W. G. Russell Allen, 32.466.4. Photograph © 2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Édouard Manet (1832-1883), French. The Raven on the Bust (“Perched upon a bust of Pallas”), 1875. Brush transfer lithograph, 21⅝ × 149/16 in (55 × 37 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of W. G. Russell Allen, 32.466.4. Photograph © 2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Figure 4. 
Édouard Manet (1832-1883), French. The Chair (“That shadow that lies floating on the floor”), 1875. Brush transfer lithograph, 219/16 × 1415/16 in (54.7 × 38 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of W. G. Russell Allen, 32.466.5. Photograph © 2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Provenance/ownership history: Possibly Sarah Whitman from folio edition sent to her by Stéphane Mallarmé.

Édouard Manet (1832-1883), French. The Chair (“That shadow that lies floating on the floor”), 1875. Brush transfer lithograph, 219/16 × 1415/16 in (54.7 × 38 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of W. G. Russell Allen, 32.466.5. Photograph © 2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Provenance/ownership history: Possibly Sarah Whitman from folio edition sent to her by Stéphane Mallarmé.

In April 1846, Poe published his “Philosophy of Composition,” an essay that deeply influenced Mallarmé, in Graham’smagazine where Poe had previously worked.7In it, using The Ravenas his example, he wrote that his first consideration in poetic composition was deciding on the overall effect of the poem. To achieve unity of effect, he felt, required that the poem be short enough to be read in 1 sitting. Poe believed that contemplation of beauty was the province of the poem and that brevity and intensity were required to elicit it. Melancholy, for him, was the “most legitimate” poetic tone. Thus the tone of The Ravenwould be melancholic, continually underscored by a 1-word refrain, “Nevermore,” a word chosen based on its sound, “sonorous and susceptible to protracted emphasis.”7(p18)The effect is amplified by choosing the raven, a bird of ill omen, to deliver the refrain. For his topic Poe wrote, “the death . . . of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” Told from “the lips . . . of a bereaved lover,”7(p19)it is best suited to achieve the desired effect. Melancholy, for Poe, was a species of despair that delighted in self-torture. For the place, he chose a stormy night with the bereaved in an enclosed space. The rhythm and meter, chosen to amplify the effect, was suggested to him by a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Barrett (later Browning), “Lady Geraldine's Courtship.” Poe's last line of the last stanza clarifies that the poem is a “mournful and never ending remembrance.”

Poe's insistence on this tightly rational approach to composition in describing how he wrote The Ravensuggests his need to control the emotions and thoughts this particular poem elicited in him. In 1842, as a complication of her tuberculosis, his wife, Virginia Poe, whom he deeply loved, burst a blood vessel in a lung while singing. Her illness waxed and waned until her death in 1847, 2 years after The Ravenwas written. Her illness brought back memories of the deaths of Poe's mother (in his early childhood); brother; foster mother; Jane Stith Stanard, his friend's mother, who inspired him; and others he cared for. The fluctuating course of Virginia's illness was especially stressful for Poe (epigraph). His January 4, 1848, letter to George Eveleth signified his mental state 1 year after her death, close to its first anniversary, and 3 years after The Ravenwas published. Poe wrote:

[I]t was the horrible never ending oscillation between hope & despair . . . which I could notlonger have endured without total loss of reason. In the death of what was my life, then, I received a new but—oh God! How melancholy an existence.

Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore in 1849. The exact cause of the delirium that preceded his death continues to be debated. It was not until November 1875, following a 10-year fund-raising effort, that a monument to Poe designed by architect George A. Frederick was unveiled in Baltimore. Baltimorean Sara Rice invited Mallarmé to compose a sonnet in Poe's honor for the occasion. No mournful remembrance, Mallarmé's memorial poem is a tribute to Poe's genius.

The sonnet, “Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe (The Tomb of Edgar Poe)” is Mallarmé's most lasting contribution to Poe's fame. His poem begins: “Such as at last into Himself eternity Transforms him. . . . ”8(p95)Mallarmé asserts that eternity has transformed Poe after death into who he truly is; his essence will live on as his contributions are recognized and fixed, which did not happen during his lifetime. The poet chastises those who slandered Poe's reputation when he was alive and asks that this memorial be a reminder in stone to limit further blasphemy in the years to come. He asks his readers and listeners, each of us, in our imagination, to adorn Poe's “dazzling tomb” and carve on it an imaginary frieze as a tribute to his eternal genius.

Thanks to John Astin and Richard Macksey for discussion and review of the commentary.

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