textual-biological correspondences

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Reading Derek Ratcliffe’s wonderful ornithological, corvi-cultural study, The Raven, returns me to a closing query of my previous entry: “What sort of animal meaning . . . does [the raven] present in Coleridge’s “The Raven”? Ratcliffe quotes one R. Bosworth Smith:

A bird whose literary history begins with Cain, with Noah, and with Elijah, and

who gave his name to the Midianite chieftain Oreb; whose every action and cry

was observed and noted down, alike by the descendents of Romulus and the ancestors of

Rolf the Ganger; who occurs in every second play of Shakespeare; who forms the subject

of the most eerie poem of Edgar Alan Poe, and enlivens the pages of the Roderick

Random of Smollett, of the Rookwood of Ainsworth, of the Barnaby Rudge of Dickens,

is a bird whose historical and literary pre-eminence is unapproached. (cited Ratcliffe 9)

Indeed the raven has served “to point many a moral and adorn many a tale,” in part because this bird has seemed to many to be “the bird most like ourselves” (D. Kennedy and A.B. Walker, “The Great Transformer”), a prophet, omen-bearer, watcher, and so forth. But how much do these age-old associations and allegorical uses relate to the bird’s own being and behavior, as an animetaphor that is as much an instigator as a product of cultural markings?

Back to Coleridge’s fabulous animal poem. Following the playful forgery-oriented opening, the text describes how,

Underneath an old oak tree

There was of swine a huge company

That grunted as they crunched the mast:

For that was ripe, and fell full fast.

Then they trotted away, for the wind grew high:

One acorn they left, and no more might you spy.

Next came a Raven, that liked not such folly:

He belonged, they did say, to the witch Melancholy!

Ratcliffe points to the raven’s associations with death and darkness, likely owed to its black plumage, vocal mimicry, intelligence, and “sepulchral voice” (10). No surprise, with or without kicking Edgar Alan Poe, that Coleridge’s speaker should pointedly mention the folk associations with “melancholy” and the supernatural. Indeed there’s little here to surprise. A herd of swine feasts on acorns beneath a bountiful oak. When the pigs depart, an opportunistic solitary raven sees an opportunity and visits the now vacated spot in search of remaining spoils. Ravens are of course opportunists, and their diet includes not just carrion but also, on occasion, various seeds and berries, including acorns. So there’s some ornithological verisimilitude afoot here, despite the folklorish associations (from which the narrator distances himself and the bird).

The speaker continues his tale of this lone scavenger:

Blacker was he than blackest jet,

Flew low in the rain, and his feathers not wet.

He picked up the acorn and buried it straight

By the side of a river both deep and great.

Coleridge knows his ravens (better, certainly, than I on this point); ravens do indeed make use of food caching: “Fat, fatty meat, egg, bones, bread, dates and dung are materials which have been seen to be hidden, usually in holes or beneath stones, but sometimes in small excavations dug by the birds themselves” (Ratcliffe 95). And if ever there was a bird likely to recall the location of that cache, it is the raven (see Ratcliffe 251).

Where then did the Raven Go?

He went high and low,

Over hill, over dale, did the black Raven go.

Many Autumns, many Springs

Travelled he with wandering wings:

Many summers, many Winters—

I can't tell half his adventures.

The narrator espies his own perceptual limit: his inability to “tell half” of what the raven has experienced (via its/his anthropomorphized “adventures”). Those “wandering wings” carry the bird beyond any human’s ken. Indeed those wings return a different raven, a descendant of the acorn-cache-maker and unwitting tree planter:

At length he came back, and with him a She
And the acorn was grown to a tall oak tree.

Hardly the same raven—whose lifespan would likely not exceed twelve years--and yet to the human fabulist it is that same “he.” It is a species or family line (raven crest) that returns, rather than an individual—eh? (That or a very fast-growing oak!)

But is all this literalism, all this reliance upon and reference to ornithology, beside the point, despite the fact that, up to this line, Coleridge’s animal poem seems to portray its raven subject quite accurately? Do such textual-biological correspondences figure in this text, as one part of its animetaphorical meaning? Or are they beyond it and extraneous to it? Let me close with an inspiring closing statement from Tim Morton’s Ecology without Nature: “Hanging out in the distance may be the surest way of relating to the nonhuman” (205). More to come.

Kurt Fosso

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