One of the most famous poems in American literature started as something quite different. The eponymous talking bird who is featured in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” was originally cast as a multi-colored feathered cousin.
In an essay titled “The Philosophy of Composition” published in 1846 in Graham’s Magazine, Poe let some light in on his otherwise dark mindset. He described the creative process, particularly in the development of his most famous poem. “No one point in [The Raven’s] composition is referrible either to accident or intuition,” he wrote. “The work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.”
Describing his creative style as precise and rigid does not mean there wasn’t room for revision if warranted. Poe wrote that the bird he originally envisioned was not a raven. It was a parrot.
The choice was logical. He wanted the one-word refrain “nevermore” to be repeated throughout the poem. With the natural ability of speech, a parrot would have been able to do that. The problem, however, was the bird’s plumage. Poe intended the poem to be a melancholy piece. The multi-colored feathers of a parrot could ruin the effect. He turned, instead, to the pitch-black raven.
“Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone,” Poe explained in his piece in Graham’s. “I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, ‘Nevermore,’ at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…”
It was a good move. It is difficult to imagine the same foreboding tone if, “Nevermore” came from the beak of a parrot.
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…
Although he didn’t mention it, there would have been the additional concern that parrots can be known to wander off script. When Andrew Jackson’s parrot interrupted the former president’s funeral with repeated utterances of profanity, the household staff probably wished they only had to deal with “Nevermore.”
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