Whitman’s precursor as a poet, and indeed as the first renowned literary figure of North America, was Edgar Allan Poe. He is now seen as a somewhat eccentric figure, known best for his tales of mystery. These are pretty remarkable, and his ability to convey suspense, horror and monomania, which can lead into each other but are also each of them powerful literary devices in their own right, is quite distinctive.
I am here concerned however only with his poetry, which is also pretty remarkable. Perhaps because of my affection for extravagant rhythms, I find some of his poetry bears constant rereading. Amongst a few favourites, most memorable to me, perhaps because of the wonderful comic horror film of the thirties of that name, starring Boris Karloff and Vincent Prices, is The Raven. As the rival magicians sit at either side of a long table shooting fireballs and other dangerous devices at each other, Peter Lorre, a less effective wizard transformed into a raven, flies between them.
The poem itself is not about magicians, but presents the musings of one of the less sinister of Poe’s solitaries, who is interrupted by a raven knocking at his window. I do not think anything is added to the poem by assuming that the raven stands for some psychological intrusion, for the disturbance to the narrator is entertaining enough in itself. Unfortunately the poem is too long to be quoted in full, but I will select some stanzas that give an idea of the story, such as it is –