Hear Classic Readings of Poe’s “The Raven” by Vincent Price, James Earl Jones, Christopher Walken, Neil Gaiman & More

It can seem that the writ­ing of lit­er­a­ture and the the­o­ry of lit­er­a­ture occu­py sep­a­rate great hous­es, Game of Thrones-style, or even sep­a­rate coun­tries held apart by a great sea. Per­haps they war with each oth­er, per­haps they stu­dious­ly ignore each oth­er or oblique­ly inter­act at tour­na­ments with acronymic names like MLA and AWP. Like Thomas Pynchon’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the polit­i­cal right and left, schol­ars and writ­ers rep­re­sent oppos­ing poles, the hot­house and the street. That rare beast, the aca­d­e­m­ic poet, can seem like some­thing of a uni­corn, or drag­on.

…Or like the omi­nous talk­ing raven in Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous of poems.

The divide between the­o­ry and prac­tice is a recent devel­op­ment, a prod­uct of state bud­get­ing, polit­i­cal brinks­man­ship, the relent­less pub­lish­ing mills of acad­e­mia that force schol­ars to find a pigeon­hole and stay there.… In days past, poets and scholar/theorists fre­quent­ly occu­pied the same place at the same time—Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Samuel Tay­lor Coleridge, Per­cy Shel­ley, and, of course, Poe, whose peren­ni­al­ly pop­u­lar “The Raven” serves as a point-by-point illus­tra­tion for his the­o­ry of com­po­si­tion just as thor­ough­ly as Eliot’s great works bear out his notion of the “objec­tive cor­rel­a­tive.”

Poe’s object, the tit­u­lar crea­ture, is an “arche­typ­al sym­bol,” writes Dana Gioia, in a poem that aims for what its author calls a “uni­ty of effect.” In his 1846 essay “The Phi­los­o­phy of Com­po­si­tion,” Poe the poet/theorist tells us in great detail how “The Raven” sat­is­fies all of his oth­er cri­te­ria for lit­er­a­ture as well, such as achiev­ing its intent in a sin­gle sit­ting, using a repeat­ed refrain, and so on.

Should we have any doubt about how much Poe want­ed us to see the poem as the delib­er­ate out­come of a con­cep­tu­al scheme, we find him three years lat­er, in 1849, the year of his death, deliv­er­ing a lec­ture on the “Poet­ic Prin­ci­ple,” and con­clud­ing with a read­ing of “The Raven.”

John Mon­cure Daniel of the Rich­mond Semi-Week­ly Exam­in­er remarked after attend­ing one of these talks that “the atten­tion of many in this city is now direct­ed to this sin­gu­lar per­for­mance.” At that point, Poe, who hard­ly made a dime from “The Raven,” had to suf­fer the indig­ni­ty of hav­ing all of his work go out of print dur­ing his brief, unhap­py life­time. Mon­cure and the Exam­in­er there­by fur­nished read­ers “with the only cor­rect copy ever pub­lished,” pre­vi­ous appear­ances, it seems, hav­ing con­tained punc­tu­a­tion errors.

Nonethe­less, for all of Poe’s pedantry and penury, “The Raven“ ‘s first appear­ances made him semi-famous. His read­ings were a sen­sa­tion, and it’s a sure bet that his audi­ences came to hear him read the poem, not deliv­er a lec­ture on its prin­ci­ples. Oh, for some pro­to-Edi­son in the room with an ear­ly record­ing device. What would it be like to hear the mourn­ful, grief-strick­en, alco­holic genius—master of the macabre and inven­tor of the detec­tive story—intone the raven’s enig­mat­ic “Nev­er­more”?

While Poe’s speak­ing voice has reced­ed irre­triev­ably into his­to­ry, his poet­ic voice may live close to for­ev­er. So mes­mer­iz­ing are his meter and dic­tion that many great actors known espe­cial­ly for their voic­es have become pos­sessed by “The Raven.”

Like­ly when we think of the poem, what first comes to the mind’s ear is the voice of Vin­cent Price, or James Earl Jones, Christo­pher Lee, or Christo­pher Walken, all of whom have giv­en “The Raven” its due.

And so have many oth­er nota­bles, such as the great Stan Lee, Poe suc­ces­sor Neil Gaiman, orig­i­nal Gomez Addams actor John Astin, and ven­er­a­ble Beat poet/scholar Anne Wald­man (lis­ten here). You will find those recita­tions here at this round-up of notable “Raven” read­ings, and if this some­how doesn’t sati­ate you, then check out Lou Reed’s take on the poem, the Grate­ful Dead’s musi­cal trib­ute, “Raven Space,” or a read­ing in 100 dif­fer­ent celebri­ty impres­sions.

Final­ly, we would be remiss not to men­tion The Simp­sons’ James Earl Jones-nar­rat­ed par­o­dy, a wor­thy teach­ing tool for dis­tract­ed young visu­al learn­ers. Is it a shame that we now think of “The Raven” as a Hal­loween yarn fit for the Tree­house of Hor­ror or any num­ber of enjoy­able exer­cis­es in spooky oratory—rather than the the­o­ret­i­cal thought exper­i­ment its author seemed to intend? Does Poe rotis­serie in his grave as Homer snores in a wing­back chair? Prob­a­bly. But as the author told us him­self at length, the poem works! It still nev­er fails to excite our mor­bid curios­i­ty, enchant our goth­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty, and maybe send a chill or two down the spine. Maybe we nev­er real­ly need­ed Poe to explain it to us.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2017. We’re bring­ing it back for Hal­loween.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Gus­tave Doré’s Splen­did Illus­tra­tions of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (1884)

The Raven: a Pop-up Book Brings Edgar Allan Poe’s Clas­sic Super­nat­ur­al Poem to 3D Paper Life

A Read­ing of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” in 100 Celebri­ty Voic­es

Edgar Allan Poe’s the Raven: Watch an Award-Win­ning Short Film That Mod­ern­izes Poe’s Clas­sic Tale

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Stephen Sakellarios says:

    Regard­less of the ver­sion, Edgar Allan Poe did not write “The Raven.” My 14-year inde­pen­dent research study proves beyond a rea­son­able doubt that the poem was pub­lished anony­mous­ly in “Amer­i­can Review” by Math­ew Franklin Whit­ti­er, younger broth­er of poet John Green­leaf Whit­ti­er. It was based on a real-life inci­dent, express­ing his grief for his wife, Abby, who had in March of 1841. The poem is not a hor­ror poem, it was writ­ten to express Math­ew’s faith cri­sis. The only thing Poe had to do with it, is that he per­pe­trat­ed a scam by scoop­ing “Amer­i­can Review” by three days in the NY “Evening Mir­ror,” remov­ing Math­ew’s pseu­do­nym and stick­ing his name on it, instead. All the details are giv­en in my paper, “Evi­dence that Edgar Allan Poe Stole ‘The Raven’ from Math­ew Franklin Whit­ti­er,” which can be found by search­ing online with the title.

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