Today I was actually moved to tears by a poem. To be honest I am moved to tears on a tediously regular basis (often to do with sloe gin on my cornflakes), but in this case, I was surprised. It was when I read Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ out loud for the first time.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Poe virgin, I know his work, especially The Raven, not least because I was brought up reading Joan Aiken’s ‘Mortimer the Raven’ series, but I have studied Romantic and Victorian poetry from secondary school through to a Master’s degree and never once studied Poe in any meaningful way. It was through Rossetti that I actually sat down and read The Raven out loud (I find I understand a poem quicker if I do that) at which point the crying started.
Rossetti loved the poem very much. His brother William wrote that as a young man, Rossetti found the poem ‘a deep well of delight’ which is a very interesting point to remember. Holman Hunt spoke of how Rossetti would recite the poem in their shared studio in the genesis of The Brotherhood and when he and Rossetti were listing their ‘Immortals’ Poe was on the list. It’s hardly surprising that the young Rossetti would turn his hand to illustrating this beloved poem….
|The Raven (1846) D G Rossetti|
The Raven was published in the New York Evening Mirror in February 1845. In June 1846, Rossetti produced the above illustration, making him one of the first people to produce an illustration of the work. His picture shows a mad flurry of melodrama, with the tiny seraphim skittling across the bottom of the image, swinging their censers around the narrator’s ankles. Behind him appears the ghostly form of Lenore, the departed beloved of the narrator on whose memory he is brooding. She appears to be menaced by deathly figures, who are drawing her into the shadows. On the bust of Pallas Athena on the left of the image perches the Raven, no doubt ‘quoth-ing’.
|The Nightmare (1781) John Henry Fuseli|
Rossetti seems to be strongly influenced by the gothic, Romantic art of the previous era, where spirits and melodrama happen with action and hurly-burly, with the actual forms of the supernatural forces bringing events to a climax. Rossetti’s narrator is at the whim of external forces who are driving him into madness.
|The Raven (1848-55) D G Rossetti|
|The Raven (1848) D G Rossetti|
Other illustrations date from 1848 to the mid 1850s. The figure of Lenore is gone from the images, but the figures of the seraphim are still present, now grown to human size. In the 1848-1855 sketch, I think the seraphim who faces the narrator is very reminiscent of the figures in How They Met Themselves and gives a hint to a possible internal explanation of events. The Raven is a mere smudge in the second image, and not much better defined in the more developed sketch. It could be argued that the unfinished nature of the works explains this, but another explanation is that the raven, like the seraphim, does not exist. The raven is no more in the room than the choir of angels, but is instead is a symbol of the narrator’s madness, externalised as a symptom of his declining sanity.
The Raven is an interesting choice for Poe. Possibly based on Grip the Raven (great name) in Barnaby Rudge, Poe chose him because he had the capacity to mimic speech, like a parrot. Grip was present to lighten the mood, occasionally by doing little turns, riding a unicycle and playing an accordion (okay, I may have made that bit up). For a while in The Raven, the bird amuses the narrator, who realises that the bird has only the capacity to say one word, 'Nevermore', which is both his name and his answer to any question. Knowing this, the narrator asks more and more questions, knowing how it will end.
What does this say about Rossetti? Could his love of this poem be put down to a ‘goth’ phase when he was a teenager. We've all been there…
|On Bournemouth Beach in 1991 with Cheryl and Sarah, in normal summer attire...|
|The Blessed Damozel D G Rossetti|
For some, the poem and picture The Blessed Damozel is a comforting response to The Raven, as the darling departed looks down from heaven at her lover from whom she feels eternally separated. The gentleman who reclines below her looks quite relaxed about the situation (damn him) rather than going slowly round the bed in a library. However, how about Rossetti’s response to his own Lenore?
|Beata Beatrix (1863-70) D G Rossetti|
It could be said that Rossetti was trapped in the library beneath the shadow of his raven from 1862 onward. Certainly, he was unable to remember
without considerable pain, and his wallowing in her death is apparent in Beata Beatrix. It’s easy to see Elizabeth and Rossetti’s response to her death, in The Raven: his madness, his breakdowns, his table-turning, seeing the spirit of Elizabeth, return to him in animals. You have to wonder if the menagerie was Rossetti’s way of searching for Elizabeth ’s reincarnated spirit – you also have to wonder if his inability to care for them properly and their inevitable deaths were just another revisit of Elizabeth ’s death. Certainly his overt grief at the demise of Top the Wombat (left) is a comedic mirroring of his utter bleakness in the face of Elizabeth ’s death. Elizabeth
What both Poe and Rossetti knew was that the greatest dangers, the things that will drive you mad and destroy you, are not external, but inside you, just waiting to have the fuse lit. For Poe, Nevermore the Raven may not even exist, and certainly isn't a prophet of doom or messenger of the afterlife. The narrator unravels himself before us, rapidly, uncontrollably, and that is what is so upsetting and frightening. Fanny Cornforth felt that Beata Beatrix was the reason for Rossetti’s madness, constantly confronting him with the night
died, but it was really just his Raven. Like the questions he asked of Fanny when she acted as a medium for him - Was Elizabeth at peace? Was she happy? Would they be together in heaven? - he already had his answer in his head, loud and clear. Elizabeth