EPISODE 17: RAVEN

 

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.”

There is no poem about the death of a loved one more iconic than Edgar Allan Poe’s: The Raven.

In it, the raven represents one of death’s messengers. The bird visits the narrator during his deepest moment of grief, and he hopes it will to tell him that one day he will be reunited with his beloved Lenore.

Of course, all that faith is shattered when the bird replies the word “nevermore” to every inquiry.

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 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.”

The narrator grows more and more distraught as the poem continues. Not understanding that what the Raven is really talking about, is the great mystery that surrounds death. The terrible unknowingness of what comes after life.

What Poe didn’t know while writing this poem, is that his own death would be wrapped up in mystery. His passing would be overshadowed by unanswered questions, and articles pertaining to his last weeks would be inconsistent. Even his obituary was filled with lies and slander.

Welcome to the strange story of Edgar Allan Poe.

INTRO

Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19th, 1809 in Boston, Mass to David and Elizabeth Poe, a pair of travelling actors.

The middle of three children, Edgar would soon find himself and his siblings orphaned after their father abandoned the family and their mother died of tuberculosis.

Each of the children were sent to a different relative, likely to take the financial pressure off of one foster family.

When he was three, Edgar went to live with his godparents John and Francis Allan in Virginia.

Though he was never formally adopted by his foster parents — something that seemed to wound him greatly — he did take the name “Allan” as a middle name.

Edgar’s foster mother was a deeply religious woman who insisted the young boy attend church with her multiple times per week.
The Allan family were well to do and would be considered upper class by today’s standards.

The death of his mother and abandonment from his father, are what had afforded him countless opportunities in education and social activities, but it was the pain from these events that held him back from thriving in his new life.

As a child he struggled with periods of depression and loneliness, and often butted heads with his foster father John.

When Edgar was seventeen years old, he left his home in Richmond to study at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Upon his arrival he realized he was a few hundred dollars short of the required tuition. Whether John wouldn’t give the required funds to him, or Edgar was too proud to ask the man he resented for it we will never know.

Seemingly out of nowhere, he decided to turn too gambling in order to make up the difference. A plan that rarely works out for anyone, Edgar would return home a few months later two thousand dollars in debt.

Not only did he arrive home to disappointed parents, a young woman he had hoped to marry one day was now engaged to someone else.

Feelings of inadequacy and abandonment followed Edgar. He felt adrift, watching his peers succeed in areas he could not.

At the age of eighteen, he enlisted in the army and for the first time, felt structure and support in his daily life. He thrived, and quickly gained rank and became a Sergeant Major.

Unfortunately this success wouldn’t last and he was court-marshalled for dereliction of duty. Dereliction is when a soldier refuses to, or is too incapacitated, to perform their duties.

Full of shame for once again letting those around him down, Edgar decided it was in his best interest to move too Baltimore to live with his aunt Maria Clemm, and his young cousin Virginia.

It felt like a fresh start that he so desperately needed.

Though he was still in debt and struggling with poverty, Edgar found Baltimore to be an inspiring place and it rekindled his love of writing, something he had shown promise in and a natural affinity for throughout his life.

In fact before he had joined the army, he had stopped briefly in Boston and published a book of poetry under the Pseudonym “A Bostonian.” This body of work, called Tamerlane and Other Poems, sold in a Christie’s auction for over six hundred thousand dollars in 2009 to an anonymous collector.

Its while in Baltimore that Edgar moved from writing just poetry to experimenting with short stories that quickly graced the inside of magazines and other periodicals. One of these stories, Berenice, was so terrifying to readers, that the magazine who published it received as many complaints as they did praise for the young talent.

It is essentially Berenice’s craftsmanship that gave birth to the writer we all recognize as Edgar Allan Poe, master of gothic fiction.

A job offer from the publication “Southern Literary Messenger” came shortly after the publication of Berenice, and Edgar moved back to Virginia where the magazine was located.

The messenger was run by a strong-willed and opinionated man called Thomas White. As an editor, Thomas saw the budding talent that was Edgar, but the two often butted heads over his lack of direction and commitment to his work. The young writer struggled to maintain a schedule and often did things on his own terms, something that didn’t sit well with someone as particular as Thomas.

So, like it had so many times before, depression and loneliness crept back into Edgar’s life.

Because he had thrived in Baltimore, but couldn’t return there yet, he decided to bring Baltimore to him in the form of his aunt and cousin. Maria and Virginia moved to Richmond, and just a year later, when he was twenty-seven and she was just thirteen, Edgar and Virginia married.

We can all agree (I hope), that this relationship was highly inappropriate if not outright predatory and abusive.

What confuses the situation (and why most people use the term inappropriate instead of pedophilic), is that Edgar often called Virginia “sissy” as a nickname for sister, and he called Maria “Muddy,” for mother.

Some Edgar Allan Poe historians and experts speculate that the marriage was not intimate but rather a way for Edgar to secure some form of legal and binding family unit, something that was extremely important to him.

Though, in some of his works, there are lines that do elude to some sort of physical relationship between the two, and it’s something we can never truly know for sure.

Scholars also claim that during this time that the trio were together in Richmond was the happiest and most “together” Edgar had ever been, mainly due to being around Virginia.

To me it feels like a heavy thing to place on the shoulders of a child, that is the happiness of a grown man, and it would be interesting to know what she would say about it had her life taken a different turn.

In 1837, the unusual family left Richmond and moved to Philadelphia. Whether this was because he quit Southern Literary Messenger or was fired has remains a mystery, but the tension between him and Thomas points to the latter.

It’s in Philadelphia where Edgar wrote some of his most famous works; The Tell-Tale Heart, The Black Cat and The Murders in the Rue Morgue to name but a few.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue can actually be credited as the first modern detective story and even influenced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his most famous character Sherlock Holmes.

In fact, the acclaimed mystery writer had this to say about Edgar: “each of his stories is the root from which a whole literature has developed. Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”

The Murders in the Rue Morgue was published by Graham’s Magazine of which Edgar was the editor in 1841. Though he wasn’t yet the household name he would become, he was extremely famous in the literary world at this point.

During his time at Graham’s, he spent his time publishing many scathing reviews of other works. Essentially nobody was safe from his critical eye and harsh tongue.

Naturally, these led to many different spats and rivalries, but the one that would have the most damaging effect was with his Graham’s successor Rufus Griswold, a man we will hear more about in just a little bit.

In 1845, while living in New York, Edgar wrote what can easily be considered his Magnus Opus: The Raven.

Today, The Raven is the most famous poem in the world. Its lines are expertly crafted, and its message is relatable to humans from any time period and any place.

It’s this poem that seemed to finally break him out of the cycle of poverty and he became the first writer in the USA to live off of his earnings, but like most moments of his life, happiness    wouldn’t last very long.

It’s important to note that even though he was able to write full time, he was in no way “wealthy.” In total, his writing only earned him about $100,000 in today’s money.

Unfortunately, what should’ve been one of the best periods of his life, was filled with pain and worry. His wife Virginia had become sick with tuberculosis. She died at age twenty-four, the same age his birth mother was when she had died of the illness all those years before.

Virginia’s death crippled Edgar emotionally, and those who knew him said he never quite recovered from the loss.

Lost once again, he found himself back in Richmond, where he reunited with the first girl he loved, Elmira.

Elmira, who was now a wealthy widow, had never forgotten the feelings the pair shared and despite her family’s protests, she accepted his marriage proposal in 1849.

Edgar of course wanted to share this new life with his aunt Maria and planned a trip to New York fetch her, as she had stayed there after the death of her daughter.

He decided that on his way, he would stop in Philadelphia to conduct some small business and  catch up with some friends and clients.

Friends of the couple claimed that Elmira was nervous about the entire situation. Edgar was recovering from an illness, likely Cholera, and he hadn’t fully regained his strength.

Nevertheless, he was committed to bringing his only surviving family member home with him, so on September 27th, 1849 at 4am, he boarded a ship destined for Baltimore.

This is where things take their darkest turn yet for Edgar. He seemingly vanishes until October 3rd, 1849, when he was found delirious in a bar called Gunner’s Hall in Baltimore.

Not only did he appear to be heavily intoxicated, he was wearing clothes that later his friends all agreed did not belong to him.

The confused and distraught Edgar was Brough to Washington University Hospital where he remained half unconscious and completely confused until October 7th, when he died.

The doctor listed “phrenetis” and the cause of death which is inflammation of the brain, but it was also a term they would sometimes use when they didn’t really understand what actually caused the death of the person.

Nobody really knows what killed Edgar, but the most accepted theory these days is that he was the victim of a practice known as cooping.

Cooping was an insidious form of voter fraud during this era.

People would be kidnapped, drugged or forced to drink massive quantities of alcohol, disguised and made to vote several times for their kidnappers preferred candidate.

When people resisted or tried to fight back they would be beaten and sometimes even killed.

The reason why cooping makes sense in Edgar’s case, is that October 3rd was election day and Gunner’s Hall was being used as a polling station. That paired with his intoxication, possible head injury and unusual clothing, it’s hard to think what else it could’ve been.

This was a man who was already weakened by illness, depression, and may have struggled with some substance abuse during his life. He would’ve seemed the ideal person for cooping.

To make matters worse, on October 9th, 1849, a damning obituary appeared in the New York Daily Tribune, written by none other than Edgar’s longtime rival: Rufus Griswold.

“EDGAR ALLAN POE is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. The poet was well known, personally or by reputation, in all this country; he had readers in England, and in several of the states of Continental Europe; but he had few or no friends; and the regrets for his death will be suggested principally by the consideration that in him literary art has lost one of its most brilliant but erratic stars.”

The obituary goes on painting Edgar as nothing more than a mad man and drunkard. It also contained various lies and embellishments. This obituary is actually considered to be the perfect example of how fake news permeates culture.

For over one hundred years, many of the things Rufus wrote have been repeated as fact, and when paired with the circumstances of his death, you can see how easy it was to pass it off as the truth.

The tension between the pair had been brewing for years, but it was actually somewhat unknown to Edgar. According to his friends, he viewed the rivalry as a light-hearted sparring match, not realizing the true depth of Rufus’s rage towards him.

In one instance Edgar had created a character who “would lose his intelligence the more he read anything written by Rufus”. As a writer myself It’s easy to see how hurtful and embarrassing that could be.

And, if the obituary wasn’t bad enough, Maria, Edgar’s former mother-in-law, who was at this point desperate for money as she had no living provider, signed the rights of some of Edgar’s work to Rufus. Presumably, the same way he did, she thought the rivalry was more of a game and didn’t realize until much later the damage she had done.

Though Rufus may have made some serious and lasting blows to his foe’s reputation, it’s Edgar who really gets the last laugh.

While his books, poems and other stories are still selling thousands of copies a year to this day, Rufus is only known in relation to his enemy outshining him —a fate fitting a man consumed only by revenge, which is ironically something only Edgar Allan Poe himself could dream up.

Edgar Allan Poe’s legacy is everlasting. His image is almost as iconic as his work. It appears in countless tv shows, movies and even other books. One of the most recent examples is the role his legacy takes on in Netflix’s Wednesday series.

His poems and stories are studied in university classrooms around the world, expertly teaching countless generations how to turn grief and death into works of art.

People find all sorts of ways to honour the man. One of the most interesting is the Poe Toaster, a phantom graveside visitor.

Between 1949 and 2009, a mysterious figure would visit the grave of Edgar Allan Poe on his birthday and leave three red roses and a bottle of cognac.

Always visiting between the hours of 12am and 6 am, the man would perform his drinking ritual wearing all black except for a white scarf that obscured his face.

You all know that I love a good death ritual, so this story really intrigued me.

The on thing most people wonder about is the choice of drink. Why cognac? It never appears in any of Edgar’s works. However, cognac was a popular liquor during his lifetime, so its possible that he drank it, or perhaps it was just what the toaster had on hand.

Roses do appear in his works, but I don’t believe that’s why he chose them. Anyone who works with the spirits of the dead will tell you that offerings often represent the relationship between the living and the dead. I suspect it has more to do with how the toaster feels about Edgar.

In the Victorian language of flowers, red roses often symbolize honour, sacrifice, immortal love and respect.

Three roses means “I love you.”

Though, each rose could be symbolic of the three bodies interred at the site.

In 1999 a note was left that stated the Toaster had passed away, and his sons would be carrying on the tradition.

Unfortunately for us (and Edgar), they didn’t seem to take the ritual as seriously as their mysterious father, which is why it abruptly ended in 2009 without notice.

In 2016 the Maryland Historical Society decided to revive the tradition and held auditions for the next toaster. Whether that has continued on beyond that year is unknown.

I suggest, if you ever find yourself in the area, that you drop by with a red rose. Not only for Edgar, but also for the man who seemed to love him so much.

This has been the Memento Mori Oracle Podcast, I’m your host Claire Goodchild. Keep listening to hear the full version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, read by one of my favourite voice actors Peter. You can find out how to hire him for your own projects in the show notes.

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 name 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 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 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 upon 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 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 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 fancy 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 hath 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 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’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!

SHOW NOTES:

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