Philadelphia has landmarks galore. The most unusual is this stuffed bird recently declared a “Literary Landmark” by a national library association. Certainly no bird in history contributed more to literature then this chatty raven who inspired the prose of both Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe. Perched on a log, preserved with arsenic, frozen inside his shadow box he stands as a strange piece of history. Though he has been dead since 1841, his legacy is longer then most people’s, much less other animals.
When Grip died in 1841, Dickens had the bird mounted. After Dickens death, Grip was sold at auction. The mounted raven was eventually purchased by Philadelphia’s Col. Richard Gimbel, a collector of all things Poe. In 1971, Gimbel’s Poe collection was donated to the Free Library on Logan Circle where Grip holds a place of honor in the third-floor Rare Book Department. The Gimbel collection also includes the only known copy of The Raven in Poe’s hand, manuscripts of Annabel Lee and Murders in the Rue Morgue and first editions of all Poe’s works.
Dickens wrote an amusing tongue-in-cheek account of Grip’s death in a letter to a friend. Grip’s last words, according to the author, included instructions for disposal of his property. “
“Mr. Dear Maclise
You will be greatly shocked and grieved to hear that the Raven is no more”¦ On the clock striking twelve he appeared slightly agitated, but he soon recovered, walked twice or thrice along the coach-house, stopped to bark, staggered, exclaimed “Halloa old girl!” (his favorite expression) and died.”
So wrote Charles Dickens to Daniel Maclise on March 12th 1841, adding
“The children seem rather glad of it. He bit their ankles but that was play”¦”
Dickens’ overblown letter has a humorous tone, but his pet raven Grip, and its death from eating lead paint chips, was quite real. This was not the first raven Dickens had owned as a pet, but it was his most beloved and when it died he had it professionally taxidermied and mounted (having one’s pet stuffed having became all the rage in England after George IV had his pet giraffe stuffed). Despite the ankle biting, it seemed Dickens children loved Grip as well. They begged their father to put the talkative pet raven into the newest story he was working on. An obliging father, Dickens did just that.
So says the talkative raven Grip in Barnaby Rudge, Dickens’ (somewhat less esteemed) historical novel about the “no-popery” riots of 1780. While Dickens may have made his children happy, there was one young man who was left unsatisfied. The young critic wrote that although he liked the book,
“[the raven’s] croaking might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama.”
But there was something about the raven character that stuck with the young critic. That and a single line from the book that read “What was that ““ him tapping at the door?”
Edgar Allen Poe was seriously struggling. He had quietly published a few books of poetry (one credited simply to “a Bostonian”) which no one read, he was broke, his young wife had recently died and his creative writing prospects didn’t look too good. To make ends meet Poe was working as a literary critic, moving back and forth between Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City and making literary enemies all along the way. He was also drinking”¦ a lot. He did however have a new poem. He called it “The Raven.”
It almost didn’t get published. It was rejected from the first journal he submitted it to, but Poe hit gold with the Evening Mirror. Edited by Poe’s friend Nathaniel Parker Willis, who had often encouraged Poe to “be less destructive in his criticism and concentrate on his poetry” the paper published an advance copy of the poem with the glowing recommendation that it was “unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conception, masterly ingenuity of versification”¦ It will stick to the memory of everybody who reads it.“ Willis was right, and within a few months the poem was published in numerous journals, and was a high society sensation. Poe had had his big break.
Poe was gaining great popularity from his poem but along with it he was also receiving some very harsh criticism, on not just his work but his character. He was suffering retribution from those he had offended as a literary critic, as well as regularly being accused of plagiarism. Writer James Russell Lowell, a contemporary of Poe’s, clearly saw the debt owed to Dickens and wrote what he called “A Fable for Critics” in it he says
“Here comes Poe with his Raven, like Barnaby Rudge, / Three fifths of him genius, two fifths sheer fudge.”
That was the least of it. T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and Emerson all dismissed him referring to Poe as “a jingle man.” In addition, Poe was still struggling for money. Despite the poems popularity he was only paid nine dollars for its publication. He was also still drinking heavily. He did enjoy performing readings of the Raven at fancy salon parties. He would turn down all the lights and recite the poem with great drama. The women were thrilled and everyone called him “the Raven.” Like the Miwok myth, Poe was the Raven, and the Raven was Poe.
It would only be 4 years after publishing “The Raven” and gaining worldwide fame that Poe was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore, and died shortly thereafter. Even after his death, Poe was subject to insult. An obituary attibuted to “Ludwig” was published in the Times stating “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” The Raven, however, could not be so easily killed. The poem went on to be published in innumerable books, influence countless writers and is easily one of, if not, the most famous poem ever written.
Today, Grip the Raven, who inspired both Dickens and Poe can still be seen, proud as ever, in the Philadelphia Rare Book Department. If a single raven can inspire two classic works, and a conspiracy of ravens can help humans hunt down a caribou, perhaps people will begin to see ravens not as a dark and ghoulish creature but as the intelligent, elegant and playful human-like bird they are? Perhaps we will disown the dim and arrogant eagle and adopt the clever, adaptable raven as our appropriate national symbol? The answer is most assuredly”¦ Quoth the Raven”¦Nevermore.