Once upon a midnight dreary

photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

What a great opening line, and for a poem no less!

Once upon: a classic fairy-tale starter, used by generations of storytellers to immediately ready our minds for an adventure.

Midnight: the archetypal time of night for the gates between our world and the world to open, for mischief to commence. It’s a strangely transitional time, marking the end of one day and the beginning of another…perhaps hopeful, perhaps not.

There’s an inky darkness implied in ‘midnight’, and the hour that follows it has long been considered the ‘witching hour’, or ‘devil’s hour’ (along with the hour between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m.). In Western Christian tradition these hours were considered a peak time for supernatural activity, and in 1535 the Catholic Church went so far as to ban activity between 3 a.m. – 4 a.m.. The Middle Ages were a time of raging fear and superstition about witchcraft and all things diabolical.

Apparently our bodies experience a peak in melatonin levels around 3 a.m., which also corresponds to the time when people have reported the most apparitions (and probably explains why so many of us wake up around that time to go to the bathroom 😉). Before we wake in the middle of the night, we’re typically in REM sleep, during which we may experience more sleep disturbances like nightmares and terrors, and oddly enough it’s also the time period when symptoms of illness get worse and there’s a concomitant rise in white blood cells to fight the infections.

See, this is why I think we should all stay up until 4 am watching creepy movies – might as well enjoy the ambience.

Dreary: this word is so expressive within just six letters. It conveys listlessness, discouragement, depression, gloom.

And so the tone of one of the most famous poems in history, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, is set. The narrator only reveals himself through his actions. He’s ‘weak and weary’, mourning the loss of his love. At midnight he’s, strangely, pondering volumes of forgotten lore; there’s a suggestion of forbidden knowledge – perhaps he’s going to try to bring her back through unnatural means.

His gloomy thoughts are interrupted by a rapping sound, which he thinks is at his door, but he finally opens the door to find only darkness and vague whispers of his amour’s name, Lenore. At length he realizes that the rapping emits from his window, and when he opens that, a raven flies in to perch itself on top of a bust of the Greek goddess Pallas Athene, symbolizing wisdom…and warfare.

For some reason which makes sense only to a depressed brain in the middle of the night, the narrator then begins to plague the bird with a variety of questions, hoping, for some reason, that the raven can give him the answers he seeks. When the raven only manages to croak the word “nevermore” each time, the grieved man becomes increasingly angry with it, but in the end, leaves it sitting there to torment him with its uselessness.

At least that’s the way it comes across to me. It’s been analyzed many times. Poe himself said it wasn’t an allegory, although the story is so odd that you have to wonder if he wrote it from some amount of experience.

Poe lost his father at only a year old from abandonment, and then his mother died the following year from consumption, aka tuberculosis. He was taken in and raised by John and Frances Allan, who seem to have been acquaintances of his mother when she was an actress. Frances was a beautiful socialite in Richmond, Virginia, John Allan a wealthy merchant. They weren’t able to have children themselves, and after Eliza Poe’s death the couple fostered little Edgar, who apparently had lots of precocious charm. Unfortunately, that choice split the Poe family up, as Edgar’s older brother was sent to live with his paternal grandparents in Baltimore while the baby sister became the ward of another family in Richmond.

Edgar was treated well, for the most part; his new family gave him his permanent name, but never formally adopted him. He loved his new mother, but she was sickly and complaining, and the marriage was troubled. John Allan fathered at least three illegitimate children out of seemingly numerous affairs, and regularly threatened to toss Edgar out whenever he misbehaved, as well as denying him enough money for a proper education.

Poe enrolled in the army for a while, flunked out of West Point, and amassed some gambling debts. He ended his relationship with his foster father and pursued a career in writing. When he was 27 he married his 13-year-old cousin, something that would later become illegal, and she died of tuberculosis only 11 years later.

Surrounded by so much turmoil, uncertainty and death, it’s easy enough to see how the adult Edgar would channel it into his writing. He’d become a master of the macabre, and The Raven was a success, if not so much financially, at the very least making him a household name. The poem has been hugely influential through the decades, as all of Poe’s best works have been.

In 1963 Roger Corman, the successful director and producer who became known as “the Pope of Pop Cinema” for his B-grade but very popular films, decided to have fun with Poe’s poem, and produced one of my favourite comedy-horror movies by the same name. Don’t expect anything highbrow from it; the movie is just gothic, melodramatic fun. It features the inimitable Vincent Price as Dr. Craven, a widowed and grieving sorcerer visited one night by the eponymous bird, who turns out to actually be a rather inept sorcerer, Dr. Adolphus Bedlo, trapped in bird form by another sorcerer, the evil Dr. Scarabus.

Advertising poster for the film The Raven (1963), directed and produced by Roger Corman.
By Reynold Brown – The Raven. Wrong Side of the Art. Retrieved on 2013-02-21. See The art of Reynold Brown. for additional film posters by Brown., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4727190

Craven eventually breaks the spell on Bedlo and is persuaded to go with Bedlo to Scarabus’ dark and foreboding castle – Bedlo to get revenge and Craven to look for his wife’s ghost. They’re accompanied by Craven’s lovely daughter Estelle, and Bedlo’s handsome son Rexford (played by a very young and earnest Jack Nicholson). Of course mayhem ensues as the gleeful Scarabus (played to the hilt by Boris Karloff) draws Bedlo (Peter Lorre in the opposite of his sinister other movie roles) and Craven into a wild sorcerers’ duel.

I won’t give away the rest of the plot. Apparently Peter Lorre liked to ad lib a lot, which confused Vincent Price and Boris Karloff. In an early scene where Price as Craven is lamenting the loss of his wife and asks Lorre/Bedlo “shall I ever see the rare and radiant Lenore again?”, Lorre responded with “How the hell should I know?”

Both Karloff and Price hated some of their gear for the special effects, and apparently Peter Lorre and Jack Nicholson didn’t get along at all, but as viewers we get to ignore all of that and just enjoy one of the earliest funny horror movies that had no other purpose than to entertain.

Vincent Price was the perfect actor to portray Dr. Erasmus Craven, bringing his impeccable horror-film chops and paradoxical capacity for comedy to the role of the beleaguered but determined sorcerer. He was tall and good-looking in a rather gothic way, with a face that could be convincingly mild but often gave a sense of something hiding behind the genial façade. An accomplished actor, his breakout role was in Laura, made in 1944 – it’s one of my all-time favourite mystery movies, so beautifully stylish and a classic of the genre. He also played the sophisticated, contemptuous Baka the Master Builder in The Ten Commandments.

But his initial forays into horror films showed an affinity for those roles, and arguably his most enduring legacy is the character of the ironic, outwardly-charming but internally nasty villain he played to perfection in so many films. He was my favourite host for the PBS series Mystery in the 1980s, and perhaps most famously added his haunting voice to Michael Jackson’s greatest musical hit, Thriller. In his spare time he loved to ride roller coasters, was an art collector and also a gourmet cook who published several cookbooks. All in all, he seems like he had a great time using his many talents.

You can watch The Raven, and a whole host of other mid-century horror movies, many of them with Vincent Price, the master of horror, on Tubi https://tubitv.com/movies/305023/the-raven

The full text of the poem is given below. Aside from a rather irritatingly sing-song rhyming patter, Poe’s use of language to convey mood is masterful, and all of his works have so much atmosphere that they were naturals for Hollywood’s gothic horror classics. If you’ve missed out on reading Poe’s works so far, cry “Nevermore!” and start in time for Halloween.

The 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.”

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 blest 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 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 my sad 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 in 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!

By Edgar Allan Poe, 1845

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