Thursday, January 29, 2009

“Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe”

Raven, a large, black crow-like bird found in wilderness areas in the Northern Hemisphere. The raven is a scavenger, feeding on carrion, small birds and rodents, birds’ eggs, insects, fruits, and seeds.

The raven is a large, black crow-like scavenger.

Ravens mate for life. They usually nest in dense forests or on rocky coasts. The nest, built in trees or on cliffs, is made of sticks and lined with fur, moss, and lichens: The female lays four to seven greenish eggs with brown spots. Both parents feed the young.

The common raven, found throughout Asia, Europe, and North Africa, grows more than 24 inches (60 cm) in length. Its glossy black plumage has a bluish sheen. The American raven, a little smaller than the common raven, nests from British Columbia southward to Nicaragua. The northern raven grows as large as the common raven. It lives in Greenland, Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington. It has been found in the Appalachians as far south as Georgia. The white-necked raven grows about 20 inches (50 cm) long. Its neck feathers have white bases. It is found from the Great Plains southward to Nicaragua.

Ravens belong to the genus Corvus of the crow family, Corvidae. The common raven is C. corax; American, C. corax sinuatus; northern, C. corax principalis; white-necked, C. cryptoleucus.

(The preceding is from, “Raven,” 22 April 2008.)

According to today’s edition of Writer’s Almanac, it was on this date, January 29, in 1845 that Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” was first published in the New York Evening Mirror. People of a certain age will remember it. [Note. The poem, I mean, not the date when it was first published! --RWP]

People who are not of a certain age, let me enlighten you:

The Raven
by Edgar Allan Poe

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one 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 named Lenore --
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling 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 at my chamber door --
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; --
This it is, and nothing more,’

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
‘Sir,’ said I, ‘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 darkness 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 the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
‘Surely,’ said I, ‘surely that is something 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 marvelled this ungainly fowl 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 above the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as ‘Nevermore.’

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further 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 at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
‘Doubtless,’ said I, ‘what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom 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 sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon 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 fiery 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 on the tufted floor.
‘Wretch,’ I cried, ‘thy God hath 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 home 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 that Heaven that bends above us -- by that God we both adore --
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore --
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named 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’s 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!

Friends, after much contemplation, it is my considered opinion that the reason so many photographs from nineteenth-century America contain serious-looking people with unsmiling faces, vacant eyes, and hollow gazes is that as innocent children they were forced by stern and unrelenting schoolmasters to memorize that poem.

So if you say “Raven,” people of a certain age remember this image:

And people who are not of a certain age remember this one:

Before bringing this post to a close, I would like to state for the record that I definitely have one bone to pick with that raven in Poe’s poem. There is a balm in Gilead.


  1. I had to resort to Webster's for the definition of nepenthe. Tsk, tsk! I must not have been required to memorize The Raven and it's been many, many years since I've read it in its entirety. I am intrigued by Poe's internal rhyming.

    Since I am 'of a certain age' I recognize Edgar, but have no clue as to the identity of the young lady.

  2. The young lady would be Raven Symone...of the Disney Channel's "That's So Raven" fame...I remember her from her time on The Cosby Show in her younger years as well...

  3. I've always liked this poem.

    But you forgot one association. Most people probably think of the Baltimore Ravens football team first . . . the only football team in America named after a poem. (Poe died in Baltimore.)

  4. Pat - I had to resort to Webster's for the definition of nepenthe also.

    Angela - You are correct, the young lady not only would be, but is, Raven Symone.

    Ruth, I think saying that the Baltimore Ravens are named after a poem is like saying that the Phoenix Cardinals are named after a high-ranking member of the Roman Catholic clergy. The teams, the poem, and member of the clergy are all named after birds! But you're right, I did forget about them.