"The Raven" and the Writing Desk
Quaff, oh quaff
My youngest child, who is ten, was preparing to audition for a play last week and needed to choose a short monologue. One of the options they considered was Poe’s “The Raven,” so we read the poem out loud at dinner. Ultimately they decided it was too long to memorize, and chose Idris Elba’s “Canceling the Apocalypse” speech from Pacific Rim instead.
But reading “The Raven” out loud, something struck me about the second stanza. If you haven’t read “The Raven” in a while, or god forbid ever, go read it because it absolutely rips and that will be a better use of your time than the rest of this newsletter. But surely most people have read it? So it opens with the familiar:
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 visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door —
Only this and nothing more.”
The only thing I want you to notice here is that we’re one hundred percent in the Real World. There is not a word of this that I could reasonably call metaphorical or fanciful. It’s lyrical, but not allegorical. Let’s move on before I accidentally slip into Pirates of Penzance. The second stanza starts:
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
I want you to do something weird: if you’re alone (or just willing to act strange in public) I want you to read the line “And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor” out loud. If you’re not alone, it will probably be enough to mouth it silently but you gotta move your face like you’re really speaking the words. And pay attention to what the actual meat of your mouth is doing, particularly in the transitions between each word.
Because the thing that struck me about about the word “ghost” here is that the transition between “ghost” and “upon” is the first hard stop in the otherwise perfectly lubricated flow of this poem’s language. The end of each word in the line sets your mouth up perfectly for the beginning of the next word. And-each: your tongue is up by your teeth, your mouth is perfectly shaped to go from the “d” right into the “e.” Each-separate: Not quite as smooth but “ch” to ”s” only needs a slight broadening of the lips. They’re both up in the front of the mouth again. I don’t need to go through every one right? Dying-ember-wrought is practically one continuous sound. You get it.
Then we have “ghost-upon.” “Ghost” ends with a percussive little high-hat tap on the top teeth, but to get from there to “upon” we have to go alllll the way to the back of the throat and open everything up. It does not flow at all. The awkwardness of this transition actually makes me involuntarily say the word “ghost” about forty percent louder than any other word in the line.
And now that I’m barking it out, I can’t help but notice that “ghost” is a really weird word to use here at all. It’s the first word that isn’t a concrete description of the poem’s diegetic reality, for one thing. “Dying embers” is a common enough expression but it’s a real jump from there to the image of each dying ember having an actual ghost it could somehow be casting upon the floor. Imagine if the line was:
And each separate dying ember wrought its glow upon the floor.
“Glow” is exactly what I imagine a dying ember having, and “glow-upon” could not ripple more mellifluously from the palate. But that’s not what our goth Baltimorean dirtbag wanted. That “ghost” is the ghost of Edgar Allan reaching into your actual mouth from 180 years in the past and moving your tongue around, demanding you notice him.