(The following is a post by Kitty Bell, Intern, European Division.)
Published in 1845, American writer and literary critic Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “The Raven,” soon found its way into the literary life of France. The author Alexandre Dumas (1802-70) even claimed in a letter that Poe (1809-49) had been to France for a brief stay. However, Poe never actually visited that country, although he did attend boarding school in England—where he learned French and acquired a fondness for French names. While Dumas’s story turned out to be false, it is evidence of early French interest in Poe.
It was actually the French poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), who introduced Poe to France and the rest of Europe, through his discovery of the American’s works in 1847. Baudelaire considered Poe a kindred spirit and translated most of his writings into French. In fact, Baudelaire described Poe as a “sacred soul,” as well as one with a “spiritual and angelic nature.” (Kevin J. Hayes, ed., “Edgar Allan Poe in Context.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013: 43.)
Poe’s use of symbolism to portray complex psychological experiences appealed to artists on both sides of the Atlantic. For instance, the Symbolist artists sought to express individual emotional experience through the subtle and suggestive use of highly symbolized language. Poe deliberately chose the raven image in his poem by that same name, because in many cultures the raven is associated with death. The bird’s famous quote, “nevermore,” refers to the fact that the narrator will never again see, nor be able to forget the dead Lenore. The famous French illustrator, Gustave Doré (1832-83), aptly illuminated the poem’s connection between the raven and death. Poe’s writings equally enthralled a follower of Baudelaire, the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-98). Mallarmé began to translate some of Poe’s works as early as the 1860s, and then collaborated with his friend and artist Édouard Manet (1832-83), to create the illustrated translation, “Le Corbeau,” published in 1875. Mallarmé echoed Baudelaire’s sentiments toward Poe, referring to him as “the purest among the spirits…made of stars, made of lightning.” (Hayes: 44.)
French interest in Poe continued throughout the 19th century. Toward the end of his life, the artist Gustave Doré (1833-83) created a series of engravings for a simultaneous British and American publication of “The Raven.” While this work was in the original English, the inclusion of illustrations by a French artist highlighted the connection between Poe and France.
Baudelaire’s “spiritual and angelic” (Hayes: 43) Poe was the perfect muse for the symbolist poets, who sought to move away from realism and turn toward spiritualism and dreams. Mallarmé, attracted by Poe’s spiritual qualities, translated “The Raven.” The collaborative effort between the then relatively unknown Mallarmé and the controversial Manet—known for his paintings that shocked his contemporaries—was a commercial failure. However, literary and artistic circles welcomed the publication. The critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary (1830-88) praised Mallarmé’s method of translation, which he believed kept the integrity of Poe’s words. Mallarmé highlighted this faithfulness by placing the original English text on the page opposite the French translation. Castagnary also praised the illustrations, noting that Manet had visually managed to capture Poe’s imagination.
Manet’s lithograph illustrations display an almost abstract quality. Scholars have argued that Manet may have inserted himself into the first full-page illustration by including a top hat and cane—for which he was known. Throughout “Le Corbeau,” Manet focuses on the narrator’s isolation as he navigates through his grief.
Gustave Doré’s engravings for “The Raven” take a different approach. Rather than highlighting the tension between the raven and the narrator, Doré chooses to emphasize the loss of his love, Lenore. In the publication’s preface, Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833-1908), observes that the narrator struggles with the “loss of an idealized and beautiful woman.” (Edgar Allan Poe, Gustave Doré, Edmund Clarence Stedman, and Elihu Vedder, The Raven. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1884: 10.) Doré illustrates this by including images of Lenore throughout. In the very first stanza, Doré inserts an image of a ghostly woman beside the weary narrator.
The illustrations for the final stanzas further exemplify how differently the two artists interpreted “The Raven.” Doré’s raven sits on the head of Pallas Athena and is surrounded by what appears to be a halo with faces of Lenore. The image of the raven, combined with the impressions of women, emphasizes the idea of mourning. Manet, on the other hand, focuses on the tension between the raven and the narrator. In hazy, brush-like strokes, Manet creates the raven’s shadow, thus generating an atmosphere of gloom.
While Poe’s fellow Americans were reluctant to praise him, the Frenchman Baudelaire made it his mission to make Poe “a great man in France.” (Patrick F. Quinn, “The French Face of Edgar Poe.” Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1957: 72.) Even though Poe died before its full expression, there is evidence that he was somewhat aware of the high esteem in which French poets held him. In a letter dated 1846, Poe wrote that he had heard that “some of the Parisian papers had been speaking about my ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’” a short story published in 1841. (Quinn: 72.) Soon after his death, the literary community of France would do more than “mention” Poe. Through French literary figures and artists, Poe’s unearthly and mystical vision came to life.
Baudelaire, Charles, Claude Pichois and Jean Ziegler. “Correspondence,” Vols. 1, 2. Paris: Gallimard, 1973.
Hayes, Kevin J., ed. “Edgar Allan Poe in Context.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Poe, Edgar Allan, Gustave Doré, Edmund Clarence Stedman, and Elihu Vedder. “The Raven.” New York: Harper & Brothers, 1884. Pdf.
Poe, Edgar Allan, Stéphane Mallarmé, Édouard Manet, Richard Lesclide, and Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection. “Le corbeau = The raven: poëme.” Paris: R. Lesclide, 1875.
Quinn, Patrick F. “The French Face of Edgar Poe.” Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1957.