Monday, July 24, 2017
The Dark Literary History of the Raven by Frank F. Gibson 1904
"Among us mortals, omens drear
Fright and perplex."—Keats.
[There are] creatures which are, or have been in earlier days, regarded as ominous of bad fortune. First of all there is the Raven. From the earliest ages the raven has been regarded as one of the "fatall birds,"
"Such as by nature men abhorre and hate."
No doubt its solitary habits, its grim plumage, its harsh voice, and its uncleanliness have been the cause of this general aversion. Noah, we are told, sent out a raven, which went forth to and fro until the waters were dried up. The reason plainly was that there were numerous putrefying carcasses on which it could feed. The dove, which was subsequently sent out, returned to the Ark because she "found no rest for the sole of her foot."
Probably from that very day the raven has been a pariah among birds, while the dove has always been a type of constancy, love, and gentleness. The raven has become
"The fittest bird for murder's track."
The dove is
"The very blessed spirit of peace."
But was it not the raven,
"Swift-winged and strong,"
which Noah selected, in preference to all other birds, to send forth from the Ark on its lonely voyage of discovery, and was it not the raven which God Himself chose to minister tenderly to the needs of His prophet in the wilderness? As a fact of natural history, devotion and constancy are very strong points in the character of ravens, while bickering and quarrelsomeness run riot in every dove-cote over the most trivial matters.
It is in the manner of feeding that the raven appears at its worst, stripping carcasses and devouring the young of other creatures, whereas the dove is very strictly clean in its choice of food. The jetlike blackness of the raven's plumage is another feature which has told strongly against it, while the soft, pale plumage of the dove, contrasted with the sooty garment of the larger bird, is one of the favourite themes of poets—as if, indeed, it were "the coat that made the man." The lonely situation of the raven's place of abode has also been a strong factor in determining its character. Writers have not been slow in laying hold of this habit for the purpose of illustration. When Isaiah wished to depict the utter desolation which was to fall upon Idumea he exclaimed:
"The owl and the raven shall dwell in it."
The raven is frequently associated with night as typifying evil. Edgar Allan Poe addresses it as coming from
"The night's plutonian shore."
Aldrich describes night as
"a stealthy raven
Wrapt to the eyes in his black wings."
And, generally speaking, its character is unwholesome and repugnant.
"The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out."
"The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge."
"The obscene ravens, clamorous o'er the dead."
"The raven was screeching, the leaves fast fell,
The sun gazed cheerlessly down on the sight."
These passages serve to show what have been regarded as the habits and nature of the bird. For evidence respecting its character as a bird of ill omen we can go to numerous writers. Edgar Allen Poe, in his magnificent play upon words, "The Raven," says:
"I betook myself to linking
Fancy into fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore,
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous
bird of yore
Meant in croaking 'Never more.'"
Shakespeare more than once mentions the raven as a bird of ill omen. In Macbeth, for example, we find the reference:
"The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under our battlements."
And in Othello we have the lines:
"It comes o'er my memory
As doth the raven o'er the infected house,
Boding to all."
Ben Jonson, in his unfinished play, The Sad Shepherd, writes:
"Now o'erhead sat a raven,
On a sere bough a grown great bird, and hoarse!
Who, all the while the deer was breaking up,
So croaked and cried for it, as all the huntsmen,
Especially old Scathlock, thought it ominous;
Swore it was Mother Maudlin."
Dryden similarly writes:
"Besides, a raven from a withered oak
Left of their lodging was observed to croak.
That omen liked him not."
Even Dr. Watts joins in the general denunciation of the unfortunate fowl:
"Unlucky birds of hateful name—
Ravens and crows."
And Butler, writing of these two birds in a similar strain, asks—
"Is it not ominous in all countries
When crows and ravens croak on trees?"
If I were to answer this question, I should be compelled to acknowledge that in all ages, so far as we can ascertain, crows and ravens have indeed been birds of ill omen. Even if we go back to the century preceding Christ's birth, we find Virgil writing of
"The hoarse raven on the blasted bough,"
"By croaking from the left, presaged the coming blow."
And this ancient belief in the raven's gift of augury was just as prevalent in the earlier days of Grecian predominance.
The ancients attached very grave importance to the auguries of birds, and their note and manner of flight were studiously observed and used in the art of soothsaying. Spenser refers to this art in the words:
"And tryed time yet taught me greater thinges:
The soothe of byrdes by beating of their winges."
Mrs. Browning, in Prometheus Bound, also mentions the ancient auguries:
"And defined as plain
The wayside omens,—flights of crook-clawed birds,—
Showed which are, by their nature, fortunate,
And which not so."
Jonson, at some length, in The Masque of Augurs, deals with this special branch of "the tuneful art of augury":
"Apollo (singing). Then forth and show the several
Your birds have made, or what the wing
Or voice in augury doth bring,
Which hand the crow cried on, how high
The vulture or the heme did fly;
What wing the swan made, and the dove,
The stork, and which did get above;
Show all the birds of food or prey,
The night-crow, swallow, or the kite,
Let these have neither right,
Chorus. Nor part,
In this night's art.
Apollo (after the auguries are interpreted). The signs are
lucky all, and right,
There hath not been a voice, or flight,
Of ill presage—
Linus. The bird that brings
Her augury alone to kings,
The dove, hath flown.—
Orpheus. And to thy [King James I.] peace,
Fortune and the Fates increase.
Branchus. Minerva's hernshaw, and her owl,
Do both proclaim, thou shalt control
The course of things.
Idmon. As now they be
With tumult carried,
Apollo. And live free
From hatred, faction, or the fear
To blast the olive thou dost wear."
I need hardly say that in those ancient days of prevalent credulity the raven, the owl, and the crow were made the subjects of many weird legends. None of these, I think, is quainter than how the raven, or as another rendering has it, the crow, was transformed from swan-like whiteness to the very extreme, the most funereal black. It was on account of his "chattering tongue," or his desire to be the first bringer of evil news, as Ovid informs us, that the raven lost his pristine beauty, and was allowed no longer to perch among white birds. "This bird was formerly of a silver hue," says the ancient writer (translated by Henry T. Riley, M.A.), "with snow-white feathers, so that he equalled the doves, entirely without spot; nor would he give place to the geese that were to save the Capitol by their watchful voice, nor to the swan haunting the streams. His tongue was the cause of his disgrace; his chattering tongue being the cause, that the colour which was white is now the reverse." Or, as Addison renders the same passage in verse:
"The raven once in snowy plumes was drest,
White as the whitest dove's unsully'd breast,
Fair as the guardian of the Capitol,
Soft as the swan, a large and lovely fowl;
His tongue, his prating tongue had changed him quite
To sooty blackness from the purest white."
The raven, bird of Phoebus, having discovered that Larissasn Coronis, than whom "there was no one more beauteous in all Haemonia," had been unfaithful to his master, winged his way to the god and informed him of his mistress's infidelity.
"On hearing the crime of his mistress his laurel fell down; and at the same moment his usual looks, his plectrum, and his colour, forsook the god. And as his mind was now burning with swelling rage, he took up his wonted arms, and levelled his bow bent from the extremities, and pierced with an unerring shaft, that bosom that had been so often pressed to his own breast. Wounded, she uttered a groan, and, drawing the steel from out of the wound, she bathed her white limbs with purple blood; and . . . poured forth her life together with her blood. A deadly coldness took possession of her body deprived of life.
"The lover, too late, alas! repents of his cruel vengeance, and blames himself that he listened to the bird, and that he was so infuriated. He hates the bird, through which he was forced to know of the crime, and the cause of his sorrow; he hates, too, the string, the bow, and his hand; and together with his hand, those rash weapons, the arrows. He cherishes her fallen to the ground, and by late resources endeavours to conquer her destiny; and in vain he practises his physical arts. . . . And he forbade the raven, expecting for himself the reward of his tongue that told no untruth, to perch any longer among the white birds."
So that is how the raven became black! But the awe and reverence with which the ancients regarded it in time changed to loathing and detestation. Its mission, as a prophet by which evil things might be averted, no longer obtained, and it became simply an "unclean fowl" whose associations were loathsome and deadly.
"While o'er those caitiffs where they lie,
The wolf shall snarl, the ravens cry."
Even in resting, it evinced a preference for decay.
"O'erhead sat a raven
On a sere bough."—Jonson.
"Or raven on a Hasted oak."—Scott.
"He passes now the doddered oak,
Ye heard the startled raven croak."—Scott.
"A raven from a withered oak."—Dryden.
As the ensign of the devastating Danes, it struck terror into the bold hearts of our forefathers,
"When Denmark's raven soared on high,
Triumphant through Northumbrian sky,
Till hovering near, her fatal croak
Bade Reged's Britons dread the yoke,
And the broad shadow of her wing
Blackened each cataract and spring."—Scott.
Its very eyes have been likened to living coals or flashes of fire.
"Thus I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's
core."—E. A. Poe.
"And aloft upon the ridge-pole
Kahgahgee, the King of Ravens,
Sat with fiery eyes."—Longfellow.
"Why, any time of night, you may see his eyes in my dark room, shining like two sparks. And every night, and all night too, he's broad awake."—Dickens.
In addition to being universally regarded as uncanny, and mostly branded as a "thing of evil," the raven has not escaped being directly associated with the Realms of Darkness. Edgar Allan Poe had no doubt that its origin was distinctly "evil," and it would seem that his secret opinion of the immortal "Raven" was that it also consisted both of "fiend" and "devil."
But Charles Dickens is in no way dubious respecting the origin of the equally immortal "Grip." He tells us that the bird "asserted his brimstone birth and parentage with great distinctness," and Grip, "as if exulting in his infernal character," persistently declared, whenever he had the opportunity, "I'm a devil, I'm a devil!"
There is, perhaps, scarcely need to say that the character of the raven has been stigmatised without the least justification. Apart from its universal association with evil augury, it has always been regarded as a cruel parent, turning its young out of their nest before they have learned to provide for their own sustenance; whereas, no bird existing is more solicitous concerning the welfare of its young than is the raven.