December Ravens & December Recitation: The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe (1845)

Helping out a friend in cold weather

Raven stories:
     The raven is a mystical bird among indigenous peoples across the northern world. In Southeast Alaska where I live, Raven is the central figure of creation mythologies and Tlingit society divided back in the mists of time into two moieties; eagle and raven, with complex cultural conventions between the two. In the United Kingdom, six ravens live in the Tower of London , as ravens have for hundreds of years, kept there by the “Raven Master” and a vital job it is to England, for the Tower and the Realm itself will fall if the ravens were to abandon the Tower. Two ravens kept eyes on the Viking world for Odin.

Ravens are able to mimic humans words if they want to, which may be the origin of so many Gods and heroes from cultures all over the world being able to speak with time. It’s a theme we still go for today. In ‘The Hobbit” Dwarves and ravens could speak to each other.  J.R.R. Tolkien had an ancient raven (Roac) carry messages between the Thorin Oakenshild and his cousin Dain Ironfoot before the battle of the five armies.

Ravens have huge brains compared to small mammals, crows, or other birds even big birds like herons and eagles. They’re eloquent speakers with a bilateral series of bones forming a half-moon shape that ride in a sheath back from the base of their tongues past their lower jaws and wraps impossibly far around the ear up the back of  their skulls on either side all the way to the top of their heads.
Not just smart, they’re tough. Up in interior Alaska, far from anything man-made, when it’s 40 below zero, when nothing moves and it’s so still you can hear your heart beat, you might be surprised by a whush, whush, whush, of a raven flying by, jet black with a fine, narrow strip of white condensed breath behind its beak.

When the mercury drops to single digits, which isn’t often down here on the Panhandle, a particular raven sits on a particular branch outside my front window. “Hey man, it’s cold out here.” is his message. I take a quarter pound of meat, fish, Christmas turkey or whatever, out back, lean over the deck rail where he can see what’s in my hand from that branch. Make a raven call. Put it on a board on the top of a wood pile, then go inside. The raven flies to a tree in the back yard. Scopes things out. Lands on the shed roof. Looks around. Hops down to the wood pile. Loads up and flies away. One day when I wasn’t paying attention, I went to walk the dog down the street. The raven flew off his branch and landed fifty feet in front of us. Wanda the dog thought he would make a great chew toy but we kept kept walking.  When we got close the raven flew off to our right, circled around us on the left, flew in front again and landed with his big wings splayed out as before. The dog and I kept walking. The raven did it again. And again. And again. After the fourth time I decided that level of initiative should be rewarded. Wecut the walk short, went back to the house, put a piece of meat out for the bird who was watching from the roof next door.  The dog and me went back to our walk. The bird took the food and went to his next duty station. I’m assuming he was hungry but ravens sometimes stash food for later. Other times they’ll fly off to let a relative know there’s meal over there.

And now a favorite poem. I like to get through this beautifully constructed poem on a day before winter solstice, or after the holiday, so as not to bring the melancholy into Christmas season. For kids learning poetry, it’s more fun for them to count the syllables on their fingers as you go than to try to interest them in trochaic octameter.

The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary
over many a quaint and curious volume of long forgotten lore.
as I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door.”
only this, and nothing more.

Ah distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December,
and each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
eagerly I wished the morrow, vainly I had sought to borrow
from my books surcease of sorrow, sorrow for the lost Lenore,
for the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore,
nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain, rustle of each purple curtain
thrilled me, filled me, with fantastic terrors never felt before.
So that now to still the beating, of my heart I stood repeating,
“‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance to my chamber door.
Some late visitor entreating entrance to my chamber door.
This it is, and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger, hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” I said, “or madam, truly your forgiveness I implore,
but the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
and so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
that I scarce was sure I heard you,” here I opened wide the door,
darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing.
doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.
but the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
and the only word there spoken, was the whispered word, ‘Lenore?’
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, ‘Lenore!’
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into my chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
soon again I heard a tapping, somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is, someone at my window lattice;
let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore.
Let my heart be still a moment, and this mystery explore.”
‘Tis the wind, and nothing more!”

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
in there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore.
not the least obeisance made he, not a minute stopped or stayed he,
but with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door,
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door,
Perched and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
by the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,”I said, “art sure no craven
Ghastly grim, and ancient Raven, wandering from the Nightly shore,
tell me what thy lordly name is on the night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

Much I  marveled this ungainly foul to hear discourse so plainly,
though its answer little meaning–little relevancy bore.
for we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door–
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
with such a name as, ‘Nevermore.”

But the Raven sitting lonely, on the placid bust spoke only,
that one word, as if in that one word his soul he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered–not a feather then he fluttered–
Till I scarcely more than muttered, “Other friends have flown before–
on the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said, “Nevermore.”

Startled by the stillness broken, by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store.
caught by some unhappy master who unmerciful Disaster
followed fast and followed faster, till his songs one burden bore,
till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore,
Of ‘Never–nevermore.'”

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
straight I wheeled a cushined seat in front of bird, and bust, and door;
then unto the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking,
fancy unto fancy thinking, what this ominous bird of yore,
what this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore,
Meant in croaking, “Nevermore.”

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing,
To the fowl whose firey eyes now burned into my bosom’s core.
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining,
on the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er.
But whose velvet-violet lining, with the lamp-light gloating o’er.
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer,
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled upon the tufted floor
“Wretch!” I cried, “Thy God has lent thee–by these angels He has sent thee.
Respite–respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore,
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore,
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “Thing of evil! Prophet still if bird or devil,
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted,
on this land by Horror haunted–tell me truly I implore,
Is there, is there Balm in Gilead, tell me–tell me–I implore,
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “Thing of evil! Prophet still if bird or devil,
by the Heaven that bends above us, by the God we both adore,
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
it shall clasp a sacred maiden, whom the angels name Lenore,
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore,
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked upstarting,
Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
leave my loneliness unbroken–quit the bust above my door!
take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

And the Raven never flitting–still is sitting–still is sitting.
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door.
and his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,
and the lamp-light o’er him streaming, throws his shadow on the floor,
and my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor,
shall be lifted–nevermore!



Wanda and a raven keeping an eye on each other