Romantic Circles Blog

Outlandish Dwelling: “The Raven,” Part Last

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Returning from the flurry of the start of the semester, I want to consider the close of Coleridge’s “The Raven” (much as Tim has now brought to a close his wonderful readings of “The Rime”).  When we last left our bird, he’d returned to the oak—now “grown a tall oak tree”—and brought along with him a “She.”  The pair built themselves “a nest in the topmost bough, / And young ones they had, and were happy enow.”  But avian tragedy ensues in full, dramatic measure:

But soon came a Woodman in leathern guise,
His brow, like a pent-house, hung over his eyes.
He’d an axe in his hand, not a word he spoke,
But with many a hem! and a sturdy stroke,
At length he brought down the poor Raven’s own oak.
His young ones were killed; for they could not depart,
And their mother did die of a broken heart.

Many a reader of Thoreau’s Walden will halt (“Pause, Dweller!”) at the text’s mention of the Woodman’s brow, pendulous “like a pent-house.” Coleridge may have adapted this simile of a slant-roofed forehead from Dryden’s description of “pent-house eye-brows” (King Arthur III.i.30).  But the relation to dwelling, in this context of a woodman cutting down a tree that will be transformed into a ship, suggests more than appearance.  The Woodman uncannily conveys lean-to houseness with him in his human bearing and attitudes: human ecology (conceptualized dwelling, houseness, the [un]heimlich) trumps and destroys an avian ecosystem and its dwellers.  The Woodman’s “guise” moreover suggests something less than authentic, as if he were playing a role as an actor or agent of transformative dwelling: my dwelling from yours.  So the poem’s vision of eco-nomy seems to go.  The Raven’s “own oak,” dwelt in but not of course “owned” in human terms of commerce and property rights, is “brought down,” and the young birds, unable yet to fly, are “killed” by the Woodman’s action.  This scene is obviously conveyed with a good deal of anthropomorphism.  Even the word “own” smacks of human possession.  And then there’s the sentimental mother raven’s death from “a broken heart.”  Pathetic fallacy, anyone?

Yet I can’t help but recall a memory from my youth.  Goose hunting one early morning on a reedy lake in Washington state (USA), I listened to a lone goose forlornly calling as he or she circled and circled round our boat.  My father and I both surmised that the bird was calling for its missing mate, who likely had been shot down by some other hunter.  Was that goose’s heart “broken”?  Who can say?  That it called and called, and that its vocalizations conveyed a sense of mournful loss—well, those were my burdensome impressions then (and, however sentimental and erroneous, no doubt later played a part in my becoming a vegetarian).  Emotional suffering is not the sole domain of humankind.

Now comes the transformation, perhaps along the lines of what Ashton Nichols heralds as “urbanature,” whereby nature is converted not into Hegelian-Emersonian culture but into that nature forged by human animals as another—“green” or not-so-green--portion of the world.  Beavers use trees to make dams; humans use them to build houses and ships (and poems):

The boughs from the trunk the woodman did sever;
And they floated it down on the course of the river.
They sawed it in planks, and its bark they did strip,
And with this tree and others they made a good ship.

Now for the ironic close, whereby human mastery is thwarted.  Poetic justice or just bad luck?  Or is this finale best read allegorically, for instance regarding late eighteenth-century British politics?  Certainly the poem (composed circa 1798) alludes to many a past shipwreck, and also eerily foreshadows, at least to my eyes, the wreck of John Wordsworth’s ship in 1805:

The ship, it was launched; but in sight of the land
Such a storm there did rise as no ship would withstand.
It bulged on a rock, and the waves rush’d in fast;
Round and round flew the Raven, and cawed to the blast.
He heard the last shriek of the perishing souls–
See! see! o’er the topmast the mad water rolls!

Right glad was the Raven, and off he went fleet,

And Death riding home on a cloud he did meet,
And he thank’d him again and again for this treat:

They had taken his all, and REVENGE IT WAS SWEET

All the mariners drown in the shipwreck, and the ship itself vanishes beneath the waves.  With this disaster comes the poem’s anthropomorphic, almost surreal, zinger: the raven feels “right glad” and indeed grateful for this shipwreck--so much so that he repeatedly thanks a home-bound, dwelling-aimed “Death” on his pale cloud.  “They,” human landlubbers and mariners alike, “had taken his all,” his young ones and wife, and so “revenge” tasted “sweet.”  A bird feel (and taste) revenge? Surely this point is where the poem slips off the rails of all verisimilitude, if it ever rode them at all.  And of course all along the poem has operated as a fable with stock figures: “Woodman,” “Raven,” “Oak,” etc.  Yet if Coleridge and Wordsworth could elsewhere ponder emotional-neuronal connections and correspondences between humans and animals (notably birds) regarding joy or happiness, why not less appealing emotions, as well?  Who is to say that revenge has no animal analog or source?  Outlandish as this fable becomes in terms of the distraught Raven’s tracking of the oak’s journey and material transformation, and of the bird’s own grief and anger—outlandish as these things are, they give me pause.  For that out-land of distinction, of distance, is a “natural” separation we rely on very much: our difference from birds and all animals, even the most “intelligent” of animals.  There’s much here to ponder, “though inland far we be.”

Like Coleridge’s “Rime,” his “Raven” risks being too simply reduced to an eco-morality tale, where destructive human actions are justly decried.  The poem soon becomes a plea for habitat preservation--or to be destroyed at our peril. But of course the poem doesn’t make this moral so easy, anymore than does “The Rime.”  The bird does not quite exact his revenge (he doesn’t cause the storm), but he fully enjoys the ship’s and mariners’ destruction.  Morality play then becomes revenge play. Revenge seems to be a feeling that is outlandishly our own: a form of feeling policed and cathartically controlled since at least Homer’s Iliad.  Revenge is socially toxic, transforming men into beasts (of war), and it is thus also quintessentially “human.”  Along with grief and sex, the feeling of vengeance is one of the key driving forces behind art—at least behind ancient-heroic art.  In Coleridge’s forged fable vengeance is not like an animal emotion, it IS one.  The fable arguably views all emotions as natural, with the difference between animal and human a matter more of degree than kind, however much we may prefer to see it differently.  Our houses, our furniture and culture, come from other animals’ dwellings or dwelling places, as parts of a larger, global transformation not of nature into culture so much as of dwelling into dwelling, with a dash of the unheimlich, of an unhomely, uncanny sense of loss and lurking revenge, to discomfort us under our roofs and penthouse brows.  (More to come.)

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