Parodying 'The Raven', by Edgar Allan Poe
‘The Raven’, by Edgar Allan Poe, has a distinctive style which has won it a place at the heart of the canon of American literature. That same style has also led to it being one of the most parodied of American poems. Anyone of a certain generation will have seen the poem taken up by The Simpsons in the early 1990s, with Homer as the protagonist, Bart as ‘The Raven’, while Poe’s words are provided by the voice of guest James Earl Jones. Parodies of the poem, however, are no modern invention, but appeared widely in the years following its initial publication.
One of the more famous is the 1845 poem by ‘Sarles’, called ‘The Owl’. Here, the sleeping man is disturbed, as in the original, but in this instance the sufferer cannot determine whether he is being woken by the snoring of a fellow lodger in his rooms, or whether the culprit is an owl.
Much I marvelled this ungainly bird to hear discourse so plainly,
Though ‘tis true his answer sounded like my neighbor’s snore;
As the poem continues, he is discomfited by the owl’s silence and pours out a drink to help him relax into a more sociable relationship, but the owl only knocks the drink from the table, replying – predictably enough – nevermore.
“What? A temperance owl by thunder! Well, indeed, ‘tis no great wonder;
He has doubtless just come from out the ‘Tabernacle’ door”
‘The Owl’ shares with many other parodies of ‘The Raven’ one key feature, in that it replaces the bird in question with another. Not all follow this format, as Philip Pendleton Cooke’s parody, ‘The Gazelle’, obviously looks elsewhere in the animal kingdom. But one can find several examples – ‘The Craven’ does not use one in the title but sees an eagle sat on the bust of Pallas above the chamber door, while other parodies include ‘The Whippoorwill’, ‘The Turkey’, ‘The Parrot’ and ‘The Vulture’. The last of these leans heavily into mimicking Poe’s heavy use of assonance and consonance:
Once upon a midnight chilling, as I held my feet unwilling
O'er a tub of scalding water, at a heat of ninety-four;
Nervously a toe in dipping, dripping, slipping, then out-skipping,
Suddenly there came a ripping, whipping, at my chambers door.
"Tis the second floor," I mutter'd, "flipping at my chambers door—
Wants a light—and nothing more!"
The parodies were still coming years after Poe’s death – ‘The Parrot’ was not published until 1856, and turns the highly romantic style of the original to telling the fairly prosaic story of a man bumping into a sailor, only to be sworn at when he apologises.
Vexed at this, my soul grew stronger: hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "now really, truly, your forgiveness I implore!
But, in fact, my sense was napping—" then the sailor answered, rapping
Out his dreadful oaths and awful imprecations by the score,—
Answered he, "Come, hold your jaw!"
Once the issue is made up, the sailor produces a parrot that entrances the narrator, and he buys it. The parrot, however, is somewhat more verbose than Poe’s Raven, and the things he chooses to share are not to the taste of his family.
Scarcely to my friends I'd shown it, when (my mother's dreadful groan!—it
Haunts me even now!) the parrot from his perch began to pour
Forth the most tremendous speeches, such as Mr. Ainsworth teaches—
Us were uttered by highway men and rapparees of yore!—
By the wicked, furious, tearing, riding rapparees of yore;
But which now are heard no more.
And my father, straight uprising, spake his mind—It was surprising,
That this favourite son, who'd never, never so transgressed before,
Should have brought a horrid, screaming—nay, e'en worse than that—blaspheming
Bird within that pure home circle—bird well learned in wicked lore!
While he spake, the parrot, doubtless thinking it a horrid bore,
Cried out "Cuckoo!" barked, and swore.
And since then what it has cost me,—all the wealth and friends it's lost me,
All the trouble, care, and sorrow, cankering my bosom's core,
Can't be mentioned in these verses; till, at length, my heartfelt curses
Gave I to this cruel parrot, who quite coolly scanned me o'er,
Wicked, wretched, cruel parrot, quite coolly scanned me o'er,
Laughed, drew several corks, and swore.
"Parrot!" said I, "bird of evil! parrot still, or bird or devil!
By the piper who the Israelitish leader played before,
I will stand this chaff no longer! We will see now which is stronger.
Come, now, off!— Thy cage is open—free thou art, and there's the door!
Off at once, and I'll forgive thee;— take the hint, and leave my door."
But the parrot only swore.
The tendency to take Poe’s grandiose theme and language and undercut it for comic effect continues through to contemporary times. From ‘The Parrot’, we might find ourselves at the popular Simpsons parody, voiced by James Earl Jones, in which Homer is tormented by an avian Bart, as Lisa reads the poem to her brother on one Halloween. Along with that famous version, we might also note parodies by Calvin Hobbes, the Muppets, and the Looney Toons, all of which combine to demonstrate an ongoing cultural resonance in Poe’s work.
Peter Templeton is Honorary Fellow of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University.