Gustave Dore, Wikimedia Commons
Gustave Dore, Wikimedia Commons

9 Mournful Facts About Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Raven"

Gustave Dore, Wikimedia Commons
Gustave Dore, Wikimedia Commons

“Once upon a midnight dreary” begins "The Raven," setting the mood for one of the most recognizable poems written in English. Edgar Allan Poe’s spooky raven enters the narrator’s house, perches on a bust above his chamber door, and repeats only one word, “nevermore.” The narrator soon learns the raven has come to stay and that he’ll never be free of longing for his lost love, Lenore.

1. AS POE WAS WRITING THE POEM, HIS WIFE WAS DEATHLY ILL. 

When Poe was writing "The Raven," his wife, Virginia, was suffering from tuberculosis. It was a weird marriage—Virginia was Poe’s first cousin and only 13 years old when they married—but there’s no doubt that Poe loved her deeply. Having lost his mother, brother, and foster mother to tuberculosis, he knew the toll the disease would take. "The Raven" is a poem written by a man who’d lost many loved ones, and was soon expecting to lose one more.

2. HE CLAIMED HE WROTE THE POEM “BACKWARDS.”

In his essay "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe describes his procedure for writing "The Raven." Every component of the poem, he said, was logically chosen for effect. For example, he selected the word “nevermore” because “the long o as the most sonorous vowel in connection with r as the most producible consonant.” When he got down to writing, he started with the climax stanza, which begins "'Prophet!' said I, 'thing of evil!—prophet still if bird or devil!,'” and built the rest of the poem around it. However, some say Poe was exaggerating about his poetic process and most likely wrote the essay to capitalize on the poem’s runaway success.

3. POE CHOSE A RAVEN BECAUSE IT COULD TALK.

When Poe was writing the poem, he said he first considered another talking bird, the parrot. Some sources say he also tried out an owl before settling on the raven. In "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe wrote that the raven, as “the bird of ill-omen,” was “infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.”

4. HE ALSO BORROWED A TALKING RAVEN FROM A DICKENS NOVEL.

Poe was inspired by Grip, the raven from Charles Dickens's Barnaby Rudge. In Poe's review of the novel, you can almost see him thinking through the possibilities of a talking raven in fiction: “The raven, too, intensely amusing as it is, might have been made more than we now see it,” he wrote. “Its croakings might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama.”

There are also similarities between the poem and the novel. In Barnaby Rudge, one character says, “What was that? Him tapping at the door?” and another replies, “'Tis some one knocking softly at the shutter. Who can it be!'” This is similar to Poe’s lines, “While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, / As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.” The raven enters the house after the narrator flings open the shutter.

5. THE METER MIGHT COME FROM AN ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING POEM.

It’s widely thought that the complex poetic meter of "The Raven" comes from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem "Lady Geraldine's Courtship." Poe even dedicated his book The Raven and Other Poems to Browning, writing, “To Miss Elizabeth Barrett Browning, of England, I dedicate this volume, with the most enthusiastic admiration and with the most sincere esteem."

6. "THE RAVEN" WAS AN IMMEDIATE HIT.

After Graham's Magazine rejected the poem, Poe published it in The American Review under the pseudonym “Quarles.” In January 1845, it came out in The New York Mirror under Poe’s real name. Around the country, it was reprinted, reviewed, and otherwise immortalized. It soon became so ubiquitous, it was used in advertising.

And then there were the parodies. Within a month after "The Raven" came out, there was a parody poem, "The Owl," written by “Sarles.” Others soon followed, including "The Whippoorwill," "The Turkey," "The Gazelle," and "The Parrot." You can read many of them here. Abraham Lincoln found one parody, "The Polecat," so hilarious that he decided to look up "The Raven." He ended up memorizing the poem.

7. "THE RAVEN" MADE POE INTO A CELEBRITY …

Poe was soon so recognizable that children followed him in the street, flapping their arms and cawing. Then he’d turn around and say, “nevermore!” and they would run away, shrieking. Trying to capitalize off this fame, he gave lectures that included dramatic readings of the poem. They were apparently something to see. His lecture was “a rhapsody of the most intense brilliancy … He kept us entranced for two hours and a half,” said one attendee. Yet another said that Poe would turn down the lamps and recite “those wonderful lines in the most melodious of voice.” Another said, “To hear him repeat 'The Raven,' which he does very quietly, is an event in one’s life.”

8. … BUT HE WAS STILL DIRT POOR.

Because of copyright laws, publications didn’t have to pay Poe to reprint his poem. As a result, "The Raven" made him very little money. He was so poor that he wore his one coat buttoned up to his chin to hide his raggedy shirt. He was struggling just to feed his family, keep the house warm, and care for the ailing Virginia. In 1846, a friend wrote about their pitiful circumstances: “[Virginia] lay on the straw bed, wrapped in her husband's great-coat, with a large tortoise-shell cat on her bosom. … The coat and the cat were the sufferer's only means of warmth.” She died in January 1847. Poe followed two years later.

9. WE STILL LOVE "THE RAVEN" TODAY.

"The Raven" is probably the only poem that has an NFL team named after it (the Baltimore Ravens). Between cartoons, music, movies, and paintings, there are seemingly endless (okay, at least 10) versions of the poem. Online, you can hear "The Raven" read by James Earl Jones, Christopher Walken, and Christopher Lee, among others.

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By Benjamin D. Maxham, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
11 Simple Facts About Henry David Thoreau
By Benjamin D. Maxham, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Benjamin D. Maxham, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In his book Walden, Henry David Thoreau declared his love of nature, simplicity, and independence. Although most people know about Thoreau’s time in Walden Woods, as well as his Transcendentalism, abolitionist views, and writing on civil disobedience, there’s a lot more to uncover about him. In honor of his birthday (he would’ve turned 201 years old today), here are 11 things you might not have known about Henry David Thoreau.

1. WE’RE PROBABLY MISPRONOUNCING HIS NAME.

Born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817, David Henry Thoreau switched his first and middle names after graduating from Harvard. His legal name, though, was always David Henry. Although most people today pronounce Thoreau’s surname with the emphasis on the second syllable, he most likely pronounced it “THOR-oh.” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s son, Edward, wrote that the accent in Thoreau’s name was on the first syllable, and other friends called him “Mr. Thorough.”

2. HE INVENTED A MACHINE TO IMPROVE PENCILS.

In the 1820s, Thoreau’s father started manufacturing black-lead pencils. Between teaching students, surveying land, and working as a handyman, Thoreau made money by working for his family’s pencil business. After researching German techniques for making pencils, he invented a grinding machine that made better quality plumbago (a mixture of the lead, graphite, and clay inside a pencil). After his father died, Thoreau ran the family’s pencil company.

3. HE ACCIDENTALLY BURNED HUNDREDS OF ACRES OF WOODS.

In 1844, a year before moving into a house in Walden Woods, the 26-year-old Thoreau was cooking fish he had caught with a friend in the woods outside Concord. The grass around the fire ignited, and the flames burned between 100 and 300 acres of land, thanks to strong winds. Even years later, his neighbors disparagingly called him a rascal and a woods burner. In an 1850 journal entry, Thoreau described how the earth was “uncommonly dry”—there hadn’t been much rain—and how the fire “spread rapidly.” Although he initially felt guilty, he wrote that he soon realized that fire is natural, and lightning could have sparked a fire in the woods just as easily as his cooking accident did.

4. HIS HOUSE AT WALDEN POND LATER BECAME A PIGSTY.

After Thoreau left the home he built in Walden Woods in 1847, the structure went through multiple iterations. He sold the house to Emerson (it was on land that Emerson already owned), and Emerson sold it to his gardener. The gardener never moved in, so the house was empty until a farmer named James Clark bought it in 1849. Clark moved it to his nearby farm and used it to store grain. In 1868, the roof of the building was removed from the base and used to cover a pigsty. In 1875, the rest of the structure was used as a shed before its timber was used to fix Clark’s barn. Today, you can see replicas of Thoreau’s house near Walden Pond in Massachusetts.

5. HE AND HIS BROTHER WERE CAUGHT IN A LOVE TRIANGLE.

In 1839, Thoreau wrote in his journal about how he fell in love with Ellen Sewall, an 18-year-old from Cape Cod. In 1840, Thoreau’s older brother John proposed marriage to Sewall but was rejected. So, like any good brother, Thoreau wrote a letter to Sewall, proposing that she marry him instead. Sewall rejected him too, probably due to her family disapproving of the Thoreau family’s liberal views on Christianity.

Despite the aforementioned marriage proposal, some historians and biographers speculate that Thoreau was gay. He never married, reportedly preferred celibacy, and his journals reveal references to male bodies but no female ones.

6. DESPITE POPULAR MISCONCEPTION, HE WASN’T A LONER.

Historians have debunked the misconception that Thoreau was a selfish hermit who lived alone so he could stay away from other people. Rather than being a loner, Thoreau was an individualist who was close to his family members and lived with Emerson’s family (on and off) for years. To build his cabin in the woods, he got help from his friends including Emerson and Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May Alcott. During his stay in the woods, he frequently entertained guests, visited friends, and walked to the (nearby) town of Concord. At his funeral at Concord’s First Parish Church, a large group of friends attended to mourn and celebrate his life.

7. HE WAS A MINIMALIST.

Long before tiny houses were trendy, Thoreau wrote about the benefits of living a simple, minimalist lifestyle. In Walden, he wrote about giving up the luxuries of everyday life in order to quiet the mind and have time for thinking. “My greatest skill has been to want but little,” he wrote. Thoreau also related his love of simplicity to the craft of writing: “It is the fault of some excellent writers ... that they express themselves with too great fullness and detail. They give the most faithful, natural, and lifelike account of their sensations, mental and physical, but they lack moderation and sententiousness.”

8. HE TOOK COPIOUS NOTES.

Although he was a minimalist, Thoreau wrote an abundance of notes and ideas in his journals, essays, and letters. He jotted down his observations of nature, writing in detail about everything from how plant seeds spread across the land to the changing temperature of Walden Pond to animal behavior. In addition to his plethora of notes and environmental data, Thoreau also collected hundreds of plant specimens and birds’ eggs.

9. HE WAS PRAISED FOR HIS ORIGINALITY.

In 1862, newspapers widely reported the news of Thoreau’s death. Obituaries for the 44-year-old writer appeared in The Boston Transcript, The Boston Daily Advertiser, The Liberator, The Boston Journal, The New-York Daily Tribune, and The Salem Observer. The obituaries describe Thoreau as an “eccentric author” and “one of the most original thinkers our country has produced.”

10. HE DONATED HIS COLLECTIONS TO THE BOSTON SOCIETY OF NATURAL HISTORY.

After Thoreau’s death, the Boston Society of Natural History got a huge gift. Thoreau, a member, gave the society his collections of plants, Indian antiquities, and birds’ eggs and nests. The plants were pressed and numbered—there were more than 1000 species—and the Native American antiquities included stone weapons that Thoreau had found while walking in Concord.

11. DON HENLEY OF THE EAGLES IS A HUGE FAN.

As a big fan of both Thoreau and Transcendentalism, musician Don Henley of the Eagles started The Walden Woods Project in 1990 to stop 68 acres of Walden Woods from being turned into offices and condominiums. The project succeeded in saving the woods, and today The Walden Woods Project is a nonprofit organization that conserves Walden Woods, preserves Thoreau’s legacy, and manages an archive of Thoreau’s books, maps, letters, and manuscripts. In an interview with Preservation Magazine, Henley described the importance of preserving Walden Woods: “The pond and the woods that inspired the writing of Walden are historically significant not only because they were the setting for a great American classic, but also because Walden Woods was Henry David Thoreau's living laboratory, where he formulated his theory of forest succession, a precursor to contemporary ecological science.”

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Quentin Blake, courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2018
Matilda Illustrator Quentin Blake Is Auctioning Items From His Personal Collection of Drawings
Quentin Blake, courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2018
Quentin Blake, courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2018

When you think of Roald Dahl's classic books, chances are you're actually imagining Quentin Blake's work. Blake is the award-winning illustrator behind the signature imagery in beloved books like The BFG, Matilda, and The Twits. Now, Blake is auctioning off some of his drawings from his private collection through Christie's, giving the public a chance to own art intimately connected with these canonical children's books.

The illustrations on offer were completed by Blake over a period of some 40 years. They include preliminary studies, alternative versions of illustrations that made it into books like The Twits and The Enormous Crocodile (Blake's first collaboration with Dahl), and other related art. In addition to illustrations he drew for Dahl, there's artwork he created for his own books, for other authors, for hospitals (like the watercolor above, an alternative version of a drawing he made for the Rosie Birth Centre at Addenbrooke's Hospital, in Cambridge, UK), and for public exhibitions.

Below are just a few of the pieces available, currently ranging in starting bids from around $600 to more than $15,000.

A watercolor image of a witch dressed in black
"The Grand High Witch," 
an alternative illustration of the character from The Witches created for Blake's 2016 Roald Dahl Centenary Portraits project
Quentin Blake

A watercolor of a father with his arm around his son, holding a kite
"Danny and His Father," an alternative illustration of the characters from Danny the Champion of the World that Blake produced for his Roald Dahl Centenary Portraits
Quentin Blake

Four illustrations showing the BFG with his ears in different positions
“The BFG showing how he flaps his ears,” a preliminary drawing for the 1982 edition of The BFG
Quentin Blake

A watercolor of the BFG holding Sophie in the palm of his hand
“Sophie and the BFG,” an alternative illustration of the characters from The BFG created for the Roald Dahl Centenary Portraits
Quentin Blake

Take a look at the rest here before the auction ends on July 12. Proceeds from the auction will go to three nonprofits: The House of Illustration, Roald Dahl's Marvellous Children's Charity, and Survival International.

All images courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2018

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