Saturday, February 26, 2011


I have always instinctively believed that "The Raven" was not, as is generally assumed, some sort of autobiographical expression of his private, tormented longings for his own "lost Lenore," or even, as he himself claimed in "The Philosophy of Composition," a mere mathematical exercise. Indeed, the poem strikes me as cryptic black comedy, with "Nevermore" as the punchline. It was only recently, however, that I unexpectedly stumbled upon the key to Poe's inside joke.

It centers around St. Expedite, the patron saint for those who wish to avoid procrastination, and obtain general financial success. Expedite is usually depicted as a Roman centurion crushing a crow beneath his foot. The dying crow is shown as saying "Cras," the Latin word for "tomorrow." In other words, Expedite vanquishes tomorrow in favor of today.Saint Expedite and The Raven"Cras" (which was later anglicized to "Caw") was a Roman pun, as it also stood for the sounds made by crows and ravens. Thus, these birds were seen as speaking of nothing but "tomorrow."

This is where we reach the night's Plutonian shore. The narrator of "The Raven" obsessively asks his feathered visitor when he will be reunited with his beloved, expecting to hear "Cras"--tomorrow. Instead, to his discomfiture, he gets the answer, "Nevermore."

This helps illustrate why this compulsion to read all of Poe's writings as mere psychological autobiography is so inexpressibly exasperating. The man was a mystic, a satirist, a practical jokester, a savant, an esoteric short, he was the last writer in the world who could be described in such shallow terms.

(Many thanks to the invaluable Pauline at Triple P and HoodooQ for guiding me in Expedite's direction.)

Sarah Helen Whitman posing as Pallas AthenaOne of the many oddities about the letters Sarah Helen Whitman said she received from Poe is the fact that, in her own correspondence to others, she herself echoed passages from these letters.

For example, in a letter to Mary Hewitt written not long after Poe's death, Whitman said:

"In the fall of 1848 I one day heard Mr. Poe talking about the intellectual women of New York to a gentleman of our city. Something that he said of you arrested my attention &, in reply to my questions, he drew a portrait of you which imprinted itself on my heart and caused my thoughts often to revert to you with feelings of unwonted sympathy & interest."

Similarly, one of the Poe letters to Whitman stated:

"I have already told you that some few casual words spoken of you--[not very kindly]--by Miss Lynch, were the first in which I have ever heard your name mentioned. She described you, in some measure, personally...enchained and riveted, my attention...A profound sympathy took immediate possession of my soul...your unknown heart seemed to pass into my bosom..."

In regards to Poe, Whitman wrote Hewitt:

"I can never forget the impressions I felt in reading a story of his for the first time about six or seven years ago. I experienced a sensation of such intense horror that I dared neither look at anything he had written or even utter his name...I now think that the conscious soul recoiled with an instinctive apprehension of the agonies it was destined to suffer through its strange union with his own--By degrees this terror took the character of fascination..."

From the "Poe letters":

"I dared not speak of you--much less see you. For years your name never passed my lips, while my soul drank in, with a delirious thirst, all that was uttered in my presence respecting you. The merest whisper that concerned you awoke in me a shuddering sixth sense, vaguely compounded of fear, ecstatic happiness, and a wild, inexplicable sentiment..."

So...Whitman wasn't merely a Transcendentalist, (one of the "Crazyites," as Poe called them,) a Fourierist (a group about whom he had even worse things to say,) a spiritualist, and a woman who spent most of her days in an ether fog (how did that affect her memories of Poe?) while dressing like an antebellum Stevie Nicks--she was either a plagiarist or, as I often suspect, something far worse. And she presented herself to history as Poe's soul mate?