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  • The Genesis of Poe's "The Raven"
  • Jorge Luis Borges
    Translated by Sergio Waisman (bio)

In its installment of April 1846—the first year of the war with Mexico, the year the polygamous heresiarch Brigham Young and his wagons made the journey across the Mississippi—Philadelphia's Graham's Magazine published a two-column article by its correspondent Mr. Poe, entitled "The Philosophy of Composition." In the article, Edgar Allan Poe sought to explain the morphology of his already glorious poem "The Raven." Various translators—from the Venezuelan Pérez Bonalde to Carlos Obligado—have connected that poem to the Hispanic literary tradition. It behooves us, however, to set aside their knowledge and proceed to the glacial revelations of its own creator.

He starts by alleging that phonetic motives indicated to him the use of the melancholic refrain nevermore (nunca más). He then states his need to justify, in a plausible manner, the periodic repetition of that word. How to reconcile such monotony, that "eternal return," with the exercise of reason? An irrational being, able to articulate the precious adverb, was the evident solution. A parrot was the first candidate, but immediately a raven replaced it, more decorous and gloomy. Its feathers, in turn, recommended erecting a marble bust, as a contrast to its ingenuousness and that darkness. It would be the bust of Minerva, of Pallas: because of the Greek euphony of the name, and to correspond with the books and the studious spirit of the narrator. From there to everything else. . . I will not reproduce the fine reconstruction undertaken by Poe; suffice it for me to recall just a few of the steps here.

It is pointless to add that this long retrospective process has earned the incredulity of critics, when they were not mocking it, that is, or outraged by it. That the interlocutor of muses, that the poet scribe of some dark god, should be but the mere weaver of reason! Lucidity instead of inspiration, comprehensible intelligence and not genius: such disenchantment for the contemporaries of Hugo, and even for those of Breton and Dalí! There was no shortage of those who refused to take Poe's declarations seriously: these were [End Page 140] no more, they said, than some maneuver to use the notoriety of the poem, one of those cunning second parts "that were never good." The conjecture is plausible, but let us be careful not to confuse "lucrative" and "bad," "opportune and worthy of condemnation". . . Another critic, more intelligent and lethal, could have denounced in those pages a Romantic vindication of the ordinary procedures of Classicism, a most inspired anathema against inspiration. (Therein lies Valéry's lifelong task.) Others, barely believing, feared that the central mystery of poetic creation had been profaned by Poe, and they rejected the entire article. One might guess that I do not share those opinions. If I did, I would not articulate my comments here, I would not so impertinently suppose that merely stating my support was sufficient to validate them. I—naively perhaps—believe in Poe's explanations. Discounting some possible bit of charlatanism, I think that the mental process that he puts forth corresponds, more or less, to the true process of his creation. I am certain that this is how intelligence proceeds: through regrets, through obstacles, through eliminations. The complexity of the operations described does not trouble me; I suspect the actual elaboration must have been even more complex, and much more chaotic and faltering. As far as I understand it, Poe limited himself to supplying a logical, ideal outline from the many possible and perplex paths of creation. Without a doubt, the complete process was irrecoverable, not to mention tedious.

This does not mean that the arcane mystery of poetic creation—of that poetic creation—was revealed by Poe. In the steps examined, the conclusion the writer derives from each premise is, of course, logical; but it is not necessarily the only one. For example, the need for an irrational being capable of articulating an adverb led Poe to a raven, after first having considered a parrot; he could just as well have arrived at a lunatic, a solution which would have...


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pp. 140-143
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