The mind of Edgar Allan Poe… A place to visit, but one is well advised not to live there.
This is the caveat provided to my students in English 2 and English 4 when we approach “the original emo.” Certainly the man knew both how to turn a phrase and stun the sensibilities in record time, manifest in short, sharp shocks of fiction like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” Clearly his early history elicits both sympathy and shudder, as the orphaned son of vaudevillian actors and husband to his thirteen-year-old cousin. However, his lying dead in a Baltimore gutter at the age of 40 after years of philandering, chugging absinthe, and suffering from chronic depression should give even the most devout Poe fans cause to reconsider their loyalties.
Yet I must confess. Despite all his faults and failures, Edgar penned one piece that this teacher exalts in performing each year with as much enthusiasm and fervor as she can muster.
Let me preface by saying that good narrative poems are hard to come by these days. This is because they have to be 100% poem and 100% story—an actual plot nestled in poetic form, rife with imagery and metaphor, complemented with rhythm and rhyme. So few and far between are they that I turned toward the classics to compile my own Top Three favorites:
- THIRD – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride”
- SECOND – Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman”
- FIRST – Wait for it… Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”
The popularity of “The Raven” was the 1840s equivalent of going viral. Local newspapers and periodicals printed and re-printed it, selling enormous numbers of copies each time. For a while, Edgar Allan Poe became a household name. The rest, as they say, is history.
Between teaching narrative poems in English 2 and Transcendental Pessimism in English 4 on four campuses, I enjoy the distinct pleasure of reciting “The Raven” eight times a year. Do this every year for over ten years, and some of it starts to sink in. When I look up from the book and recite a stanza or two from memory, I feel just like Robin Williams’s Mr. Keating from “Dead Poets Society.”
With all due respect to the venerable James Earl Jones, my favorite spoken rendition of this classic comes from Christopher Walken. His voice lends the perfect nervous pitch. Click on this link, and see if you agree: “The Raven,” recited by Christopher Walken
Since my husband had not heard it in its entirety before, one night I read the poem aloud to him (because that is what English teachers do for fun). After I finished, he paused a second and casually remarked, “You know where he is, don’t you?”
The question seemed simple enough. “I assume he is in the house he once shared with Lenore.”
“Okay, but here’s another way of thinking about it,” he continued. “He is in a room surrounded by memories of a woman he can never forget, trapped with some demon bird whose sole job is to constantly remind him of how she will never be his again. Perhaps Lenore is not the one who is dead.”
Whoa. That was heavy. I’m not saying he is right, but like all good poetry, it gives you something to chew on.
If nothing else, at least now you know why Baltimore’s football team is called the Ravens.