Grip the raven. What does that sentence tell you to do?
That sentence indicates that whoever I’m talking to should “grip the raven.” It’s an understood or implied “you,” and an imperative sentence. Get your hands on the raven. Which raven I mean is in the photo below–it’s this raven. I mean “you.” Grip it. Grip it now.
This is the stuffed and mounted raven that was owned by Charles Dickens named Grip. Yes. You read that correctly. (Victorians sometimes did this: stuffed a dead but beloved pet. They also made hair jewelry from the hair of dead–human–loved ones. I know. It’s so cringe-worthy.)
Grip was also the raven that was immortalized in Barnaby Rudge, published by Dickens in 1841. That book was reviewed by Edgar Allen Poe. And we all know about his raven in “The Raven.”
However, I’m not an American literature expert, so I didn’t really know that until I started poking around about Barnaby Rudge, a novel not often taught in British literature classes (to my knowledge), and a novel often considered one of Dickens’s less worthy efforts. (We’ll see. I’m teaching that novel in the spring term, 2012.)
The Grip you see here is the actual bird that Dickens owned, now part of the Gimbel Collection at the Free Library in Philadelphia. It was part of a large collection of Poe materials owned by Colonel Richard Gimbel (who also acquired a lot of Dickens realia and manuscripts and whatnot) which was all bequeathed to the library in 1970. Read more here.
In 1999, a librarian at the Free Library of Philadelphia, Cornelia King, explained why this connection exists:
It’s no accident. Poe was a master writer. In my bones, I know he knew of what he did.
And like an infomercial (but, in this case, about writing and literature), I beg you to hang in there with this post because: wait, there’s more!
Poe reviewed a volume of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems in the early 1840s for the same magazine where his review of Barnaby Rudge appeared, Graham’s Magazine (hugely important in American lit circles). The rhythm in “The Raven” is very like Barrett Browning’s in “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” (I confess, I don’t do a lot of scansion, but with a quick review of both–I can see a similarity).
Poe dedicated “The Raven” to Barrett Browning. She was flattered and thought him clever. Robert Browning loved the rhythm (and EBB did, too–not such a shock). She then mimics “The Raven” somewhat in her poem from the late 1850s about Napoleon III, ending most stanzas in that ode with: “Emperor Evermore.” That she was thinking about Poe when she was writing that poem seems like a colossal stretch (I haven’t found any letters which suggest she was), but what I like to think is that Poe was part of her history, Dickens was part of Poe’s, as she was part of his, too–both of them–and that because they were all invested in the same business, they were bound to sample each other and other artists, occasionally, to remix a bit here and there. To what degree this string of linkage was on purpose is a mystery unless each confessed to such influence in a letter, note, marginalia. But there are some things that are useful to say on such an occasion:
Writers read other writers and pick up a few tips now and again. These strategies or ideas or inspirations may be implicit or explicit. Writers may or may not be aware of what they are doing always. Inspiration at 3 am may be more like a remembrance of something lovely seen/heard/read before. Writers dip into the storehouse of knowledge when they write; they participate in a knowledge commons of a kind; and they collect the things that matter to them, ideas, words, phrases, rhythms, rhymes… then they write.
EBB often wrote with or against other writers (Byron, Dickens, Tennyson). It’s not strange that such a thing existed in literary production. It’s the kind of thing, though, that isn’t always apparent. It comes, for me, with time and as I expand what I know and how I know it.
I know what it is when I see it, though. It’s a collision of ideas when the ideas need to collide at a time when I need the result of that collision… boom. Best accept the collision or stand aside because here it’s coming.
I needed to know about Grip right now. I needed to laugh at the missing comma. I needed to find something fascinating to get me excited about Barnaby Rudge (it’s a novel about the Gordon Riots in 1780 for heaven’s sake). I needed to remember the way writers work and how writing works in mysterious ways for me.
I’ve been reading a long time now. I’ve been writing for a long time, too. And writing a lot lately. It makes total sense that such collisions come into my view as I wander around in English studies, in writing history, in British literature, in basic writing pedagogy, and across disciplines even (including geography). And this might be the best part of being a writer: being open to these sorts of collisions. “Chance favors the connected mind,” Steven Johnson says and writes. I like that. I believe in networks, and the commons, and being connected.
But I like to also think chance favors the open mind. Joseph Campbell wrote about openness a long time ago when he wrote about heroes with 1,000 faces (1948 or so). Heroes are champions “not of things become but of things becoming,” and that “myth is the penultimate; the ultimate is openness.” I think writers (indeed all of us) melt into a kind of commons, a source, (The Force in Star Wars–if that’s not too far-fetched for “you”–I mean, of course, the “you” who is gripping the raven while you read) from which we come, and to where we go, when we are open.
Openness is indeed the ultimate. It is the place we are in the 21st century. At the very least, it is where I am in the 21st century, and that may be enough.