Following the Raven, Edgar Allan Poe in London

This plaque next to a shop-front in Stoke Newington Church Street was unveiled in 2011 by Steven Berkoff for the Edgar Allan Poe Society and the Flicker Club which specialises in showing films from short story adaptations. Berkoff was performing in his adaptations of The Fall of the House of Usher and A Tell Tale Heart that year. The latter was released as a film in 2019.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He came from an acting family on his mother’s side. His father, David Poe Jnr was going to study law but instead joined the acting company because he’d fallen in love with Edgar’s mother, Elizabeth.  Edgar was the middle of three children, William and Rosalie were his siblings. David Poe did not make the grade as an actor and had a drink problem. He left the family in 1810 before Rosalie was born. Edgar’s mother got sick and could no longer work. Several benefit performances were held for her and the children but in December 1811 she died of tuberculosis. His father is thought to have died soon afterwards. During her illness Elizabeth stayed with the Usher family and was visited by the wives of the couples who would later take in Edgar and his sister (William was looked after by their father’s parents). Edgar went to live with John and Francis Allan. John had emigrated from Scotland in his late teens and was established as a merchant in Richmond, Virginia. The couple had no children of their own and had the child baptised Edgar Allan Poe.

In 1815 the Allan family visited Britain. John wanted to open up a branch of the business here and planned to stay maximum five years. They arrived in Liverpool, went to Scotland to visit John’s family, then came to London in 1816. They rented rooms in Bloomsbury at No 47 Southampton Row for a year, then they moved to No 39 on the same street. Edgar was sent to a boarding school in Chelsea run two ladies named Dubourg. The following year he came to Stoke Newington to Reverend Dr John Bransby’s Manor House School. Bransby was also a lecturer at the St Marys Church of England parish church. Stoke Newington at the time would have been a reasonably prosperous and sober environment. It had been a non-conformist hotbed since 1600s with Quakers and Presbyterians settling there. In 1700s the Methodists arrived. There were lots of small schools like the one Poe attended, run by the master, with his wife and family living in.

Edgar Allan Poe c 1845 public domain

In 1820 the Allans returned to Virginia. Francis Allan did not like the British weather, she was often il. John Allan’s planned five year attempt to establish an office in London did not work out and it was time to go home.

By 1839 Poe was contributing to and editing Burtons Gentlemen’s Magazine which was sold to found Grahams Magazine. In 1841 the magazine published his critiques for the serial version and the book, Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens. Much of the action takes place in Chigwell, then a village north-east of London which Dickens visited many times. In the book he called a pub there the Maypole but he was describing the real-life Kings Head. Poe’s article on the book was lively and went to some lengths to show the gore and the terror of Dicken’s story about murder and rioting. One character in it is a raven called Grip that speaks when the hero, Barnaby, who has suffered a trauma, can’t express himself. Grip taps on the window to get Barnaby’s attention. Poe liked the raven but thought Dickens should have given it more of a symbolic and prophetic purpose.

Kings Head, Chigwell

Perhaps Dickens didn’t feel that ravens were prophetic, he just liked them as intelligent birds. Dickens had a pet raven called Grip that could talk. When it died he had it stuffed and after his own death the stuffed bird was bought at auction by an American admirer of Edgar Allan Poe. He bequeathed Grip to the Free Library Philadelphia where she is still on display. Poe’s The Raven was written in 1845. His raven taps on the window as well but it does not have the wide vocabulary of Grip, one word, “Nevermore”, punctuates the Gothic poem. There is an air of foreboding in Poe’s raven.

The poem was translated into French in 1875 by Stephane Mallarmé. One person who knew it was Paul Gauguin (1848-1903).  His painting Nevermore, created in February 1897 during his second visit to Tahiti is in the Courtauld, London. There is a reclining nude woman in the foreground. We can see she is aware of something behind her. Maybe she heard a noise. People are talking outside the open window or, is it the raven on the windowsill that she can hear? There is feeling of loss of innocence emphasised by her feet that have obviously never been forced into shoes, and her face, listening, suspicious, perhaps resentful. The Courtauld has a great website Official Website of The Courtauld Institute of Art

In a letter to his Parisian agent, Gauguin says of it, “I wished to suggest by means of a simple nude a certain long-lost barbarian luxury. The whole is drowned in colours which are deliberately sombre and sad…Man’s imagination alone has enriched the dwelling with his fantasy. As a title, Nevermore ; not the raven of Edgar Poe, but the bird of the devil that is keeping watch. It is badly painted…but no matter, I think it’s a good canvas”.

Nevermore by Paul Gauguin, public domain P.1932.SC.163

About the author: Gail Jones