Travels with a Donkey, Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson’s well-loved travel tale is threaded with longing for the love of a woman he was not sure he would ever meet again.
Here we meet the raven Grip belonging to the simple-minded hero of Charles Dickens's novel, Barnaby Rudge:
‘Halloa!’ cried a hoarse voice in his ear. ‘Halloa, halloa, halloa! Bow wow wow. What’s the matter here! Hal-loa!’
The speaker—who made the locksmith start as if he had been some supernatural agent—was a large raven, who had perched upon the top of the easy-chair, unseen by him and Edward, and listened with a polite attention and a most extraordinary appearance of comprehending every word, to all they had said up to this point; turning his head from one to the other, as if his office were to judge between them, and it were of the very last importance that he should not lose a word.
‘Look at him!’ said Varden, divided between admiration of the bird and a kind of fear of him. ‘Was there ever such a knowing imp as that! Oh he’s a dreadful fellow!’
The raven, with his head very much on one side, and his bright eye shining like a diamond, preserved a thoughtful silence for a few seconds, and then replied in a voice so hoarse and distant, that it seemed to come through his thick feathers rather than out of his mouth.
‘Halloa, halloa, halloa! What’s the matter here! Keep up your spirits. Never say die. Bow wow wow. I’m a devil, I’m a devil, I’m a devil. Hurrah!’—And then, as if exulting in his infernal character, he began to whistle.
‘I more than half believe he speaks the truth. Upon my word I do,’ said Varden. ‘Do you see how he looks at me, as if he knew what I was saying?’
To which the bird, balancing himself on tiptoe, as it were, and moving his body up and down in a sort of grave dance, rejoined, ‘I’m a devil, I’m a devil, I’m a devil,’ and flapped his wings against his sides as if he were bursting with laughter. Barnaby clapped his hands, and fairly rolled upon the ground in an ecstasy of delight.
Shortly after leaving Doughty Street for a new home in Devonshire Terrace near Regent’s Park, Charles Dickens acquired a raven called Grip, a chatty bird that gave him great delight. Grip slept in the stable on top of one of the horses and so intimidated Dickens’s Newfoundland that he was able to help himself to the dog’s dinner, unmolested. By day Grip roamed the house freely and Dickens could scrutinise his behaviour. He was working on his fifth novel, Barnaby Rudge, and wrote to his friend George Cattermole about the hero’s pet:
‘…my notion is to have [Barnaby] always in company with a pet raven, who is immeasurably more knowing than himself. To this end I have been studying my bird, and think I could make a very queer character of him.’
Dickens consulted his copy of Essays on Natural History by Waterton for details about ravens, but before he could get far the bird died, probably as a result of his strange habit of eating paint. Dickens was saddened but wrote a facetious account of the death in a letter to his painter friend Daniel Maclise:
‘You will be greatly shocked and grieved to hear that the Raven is no more. On the clock striking twelve he appeared slightly agitated, but soon recovered, walking twice or thrice along the coach-house, stopped to bark, staggered, exclaimed ‘Halloa old girl’ (his favourite expression) and died. He behaved throughout with a decent fortitude, equanimity, and self-possession, which cannot be too much admired…the children seem rather glad of it. He bit their ankles. But that was play.’
He had Grip stuffed, copying George IV who had done the same thing with his pet giraffe. Mounted in a glass case, Grip was now given pride of place in his office.
Dickens procrastinated greatly over Barnaby Rudge. He had been contracted to write the novel five years previously and finally started just eight days after completing The Old Curiosity Shop, a novel that had exhausted him. In order to write the death of Little Nell he had worked himself into a state of grief and pity, and as usual, was finding it hard to tear himself away from his old characters.
There were numerous distractions at home. His wife Catherine, was expecting their fourth child and suffering pregnancy-related illnesses that confined her to bed. Dickens’ sleep was frequently interrupted, and his father John had resumed his old nefarious ways in Devon, using his son’s name as a guarantor for his own debts. Dickens placed an advertisement in the leading newspapers announcing that ‘certain persons’ had been passing off his surname and obtaining credit, and that he would not be responsible for any debts incurred. He had long stopped talking to his father but this event created an even bigger rift and consumed much emotional energy. It is unsurprising then, as Dickens’s biographer Ackroyd points out, that this filial conflict found its way into the book; a son’s rebellion is a central theme.
Slowly the new book began to win him over. Barnaby Rudge is set during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780. These riots were incited by unscrupulous Protestant politicians to advance their own interests and oppose the efforts of King George III to reduce discrimination against his Catholic subjects. The story follows the lives of characters swept up in this bloody, and violent business. The simple-minded Barnaby Rudge, who is duped into joining the riot, is one of the most memorable characters – as is Grip, his beloved pet raven.
While reviewing his research, Dickens found the subject continued to fascinate him. He recognised parallels with his own times as The Chartists were on the verge of starting a similar civil rebellion. Dickens was sympathetic to the grievances of the working classes but loathed any form of violence. In Barnaby Rudge he makes it clear that he has no sympathy for the anti-Catholic rioters, characterising them as a mindless mob, incited by opportunists from the upper class.
He needed visual reference points and began to tramp through London, ‘searching for some pictures I wanted to build upon’ and seeking the oldest, ‘most wretched and distressful streets’ for images that would move him. He also visited prisons, seeking out men of ‘unsound mind’ who could serve as a model for Barnaby.
Soon after Grip’s death a friend found what Dickens called ‘an older and more gifted raven’ with a lot of chutzpah. This bird, called Sage, acquired stable language and would perch outside Dickens’s window and ‘drive imaginary horses with great skill, all day.’ Sage respected no one but the cook, to whom he became attached. One day Dickens found Sage in a lane half a mile away from the house, demonstrating his verbal virtuosity to a crowd. He said it took quite a number of people to overpower him and bring him home.
Grip, the raven in Barnaby Rudge, is an amalgam of both pets. As Dickens explained in the preface, ‘‘The raven in this story is a compound of two great originals, of whom I was, at different times, the proud possessor.’ It was his first historical novel, and his attempt to become a ‘serious’ novelist. He set out to emulate Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, so the novel is heavy on romantic plots and historical re-enactments.
The reception to the novel was lukewarm. Wilkie Collins said it was a poor book, weakly put together, and it is the least read of all his works.
What remains in the memory are the viscerally powerful scenes of the burning Newgate prison. Dickens lived vicariously alongside the storming rioters. Their radical anger and the billowing smoke created a scene that was utterly convincing. And, of course there is also Grip the raven, whose voice ‘is so hoarse and distant, that it seemed to come through his thick feathers rather than out of his mouth’, as he utters his unforgettable chant, ‘I’m a devil I’m a devil I’m a devil! No popery no popery!’
This was not the end of Dickens’s ravens. They were to make a lasting contribution to another literary work.
After Barnaby Rudge was published in 1841, Edgar Allan Poe, an admirer of Dickens’s work, sent him a review he had published in Philadelphia’s Saturday Evening Post. Poe was desperately poor and working as a literary critic, in his words, ‘the magazine prison house’, to make ends meet. In the review he observed how the raven, whose prophetic croakings could be heard throughout the book, worked like a musical accompaniment to Barnaby, the hero.
Each differs remarkably from the other. Yet between them there is a strong analogical resemblance; and, although each may exist apart, they form together a whole which would be imperfect, wanting either.
He added that the pairing revealed an ‘intuitive feeling for the forcible and the true, which is the sixth sense of the man of genius.’ In his letter to Dickens, Poe wrote that he found the raven ‘intensely amusing’ and felt he had needed a bigger role.
One year later, thirty-year-old Dickens made his first lecture tour of America and just before arriving in Philadelphia he received a note from Poe requesting a meeting. Dickens was already a famous writer and everyone’s darling, with The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop under his belt. Edgar Allan Poe was two years his senior, but although he had three works published (Tamerlane and Other Poems, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque), he was still struggling and little known. Back then, American readers were mostly interested in British writers and the only authors able to make a living from writing in the United States were Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. Six years earlier Poe had married his 13-year-old girlfriend Virginia Clemm. They were living with her mother and he was drinking heavily.
Dickens and Poe met twice. They talked at length about American literature and griped about international copyright laws. But they failed to develop much rapport, apparently unable to reach beyond initial formalities. Poe, never given to fancy dress, was said to have been put off by Dickens’s somewhat foppish dressing-gown which had ‘violet facings’. Dickens promised Poe he would try to have his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque published in England. True to his word, he spoke with a number of publishers when he returned to London, but they all refused to take on this new American writer.
Two years later Poe set out to write a poem ‘to suit at once the popular and the critical taste’. Grip had made an impression on him. He borrowed the idea of Dickens’s talking raven and paired it with a theme that recurs often in his work – the death of a beloved. Grief was a recurring theme in his own life, which was plagued by adversity. Both his parents had died before he reached the age of three. When he was in his teens the mother of a friend to whom he had looked for maternal warmth and support died too. This loss was extremely traumatic and the boy genius began to experience bouts of erratic behaviour and bleak moods that would recur for the rest of his life. At the time of writing ‘The Raven’, Poe was three years into witnessing his wife’s suffering from tuberculosis. It would claim her life two years later at twenty-four, the age at which his mother had died from the same disease.
‘The Raven’ describes a man’s torment over his lost love, Lenore. The unnamed man sits reading ‘forgotten lore’ by the fire on a cold December night in a bid to distract himself from his grief. When he investigates repeated tapping on his door and then his window, a raven flies into his room and perches on a bust above the door. He asks it increasingly desperate questions that are answered with the chant-like repetitive refrain: ‘Nevermore’. The bird seems to mock him.
Whether Tempter sent, or
whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on
this desert land enchanted –
On this home by Horror haunted
– tell me truly, I implore –
Is there – is there balm in Gilead?
-tell me – tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven
“Prophet” said I, “thing of evil –
prophet still if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above
us – by that God we both adore-
Tell this soul with sorrow laden
if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden
whom the angels name
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden
whom the angels name
Quoth the Raven
The poem ends with the narrator’s final announcement that his soul is trapped beneath the shadow of the raven and shall live ‘Nevermore’. It is not clear whether the bird is real, or a figment of the man’s increasing derangement.
An advance copy of ‘The Raven’ was published in the Evening Mirror with a recommendation from Nathaniel Parker Willis who wrote that it was a ‘remarkable’ piece.
In our opinion, it is the most effective single example of “fugitive poetry” ever published in this country, and unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conception, masterly ingenuity of versification… It will stick to the memory of everybody who reads it.
The critics showered the poem with superlatives which generated an immediate and almost overwhelming response from the public. Within three weeks, it was reprinted ten times. In January 1845 Poe became an international celebrity, virtually overnight. Elizabeth Barrett wrote to him: ‘Your ‘Raven’ has produced a sensation a fit o’horror, here in England. Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it and some by the music. I hear of persons haunted by ‘Nevermore’.’
To capitalise on the poem’s success, Poe wrote an essay, ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ about the process by which he composed ‘The Raven’. He wrote that ‘the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.’ It is an important document about his literary theory and process. He took to performing ‘The Raven’ at fashionable salon parties, turning down the lights and delivering it with dramatic flair.
Poe’s raven is ‘ghastly grim and ancient’, a far darker affair than Dickens’s chirpy and exuberant bird. But it did not escape people’s notice that it was inspired by Dickens. In the fifth chapter of Dickens’s novel, a noise is made by Grip and one of the characters asks, ‘What was that – him tapping at the door?’ Poe’s fellow poet James Russell Lowell teased him about this in his ‘Fable for Critics’:
Here comes Poe with his Raven, like Barnaby Rudge,
Three fifths of him genius, two fifths sheer fudge.
‘The Raven’ made Poe famous but it did not make him rich. In his time, copyright laws were virtually non-existent and endless copies and reissues were made that failed to earn him a cent. As he later ruefully observed, ‘I have made no money. I am as poor now as ever I was in my life – except in hope, which is by no means bankable.’
But the poem’s success opened doors to the most fashionable literary salons in New York, where he was now living. Women were especially drawn to this man of genius whose erratic behaviour was alluringly dangerous. One acquaintance, the New England author Margaret Fuller, said he seemed isolated and revelled in adopting Lord Byron’s aura of tragedy:
Several women loved him, but it seemed more with a passionate illusion, which he amused himself by inducing, than with sympathy…I think he really had no friends…He always seemed to me to be shrouded in an assumed character.
When Dickens travelled to America again, twenty-five years later, Poe was long dead having lost his life to suspected alcohol poisoning at the age of forty. Hearing that Poe’s mother-in-law Maria Clemm was ill and living off charity, Dickens visited her and then sent a substantial sum of money from England towards her care. She had loved Poe like her own flesh and blood son.
After Dickens died, Grip, still mounted on a branch in his glass shadow box, was ceremoniously brought into an auction room to chants of ‘I’m a devil, I’m a devil, I’m a devil’ and was sold to an antiquarian bookseller. Grip later passed through the hands of a succession of booksellers and collectors until he ended up in the Rare Books department of the Philadelphia Free Library, where he can still be seen today.
We are spoilt for choice here, as the haunting melodrama of ‘The Raven’ has inspired many musical homages. But there is something poetic about a penniless American writer borrowing from one of Britain’s greatest story tellers, which in turn inspired one of Britain’s great bands. ‘Nevermore’ appeared on Queen’s second studio album Queen II. The short ballad was written by Freddie Mercury.
If you are curious about other homages, you can listen to:
‘Nevermore’, a beautiful piece composed and played on violin by Edward W. Hardy. Some of the video was shot at Edgar Allan Poe’s Cottage.
Alan Parsons Project’s ‘The Raven’
Lou Reed’s ‘The Raven’. He wrote a whole album inspired by the poem.
Tristania’s ‘My Lost Lenore’
Grave Digger, ‘Raven’
It is possible that Grip’s influence extended to the Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London, who in the 1880s hit on the idea of importing a few tame ravens to guard the Tower. Three ravens of the Tower have been named in honour of Dickens’s raven, although these birds have acquired an extra ‘p’ in their name. A Gripp from the 1940s was one of the few ravens to survive the Luftwaffe’s bombing of the Tower during World War Two. Legend has it that if the birds leave the Tower of London, it will crumble into dust and great harm will befall the country.
But it is Poe’s ‘The Raven’ that has left the most enduring legacy. Paul Gaugin named the 1897 portrait of his young Tahitian wife ‘Nevermore’, adding a raven in the room with her. He had heard a recitation of ‘The Raven’ just before leaving for Tahiti. At the time of painting the portrait, he and his wife were mourning the death of their first child, and Gaugin the loss of his favourite daughter in Europe.
‘The Raven’ has struck a collective cultural chord that persists today where its influence pops up in all forms of popular culture. There was even a rendition on The Simpsons.
Poe’s pairing of a bird with a bereaved character has recurred as a powerful theme in literature. There is the iconic poem by Emily Dickinson, “Hope” is the thing with feathers. Taking Dickinson’s poem title as his cue is Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers (2015) about a grieving family who are visited by a crow, part trickster, part healer, that arrives on a whiff of ‘sweet furry stink’. At the time, the grieving father is writing a book about Ted Hughes called Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis, that alludes to Hughes’s famous Crow poems.
Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawke (2014) is a memoir about the restorative powers of a goshawk called Mabel for the author grieving the loss of her father. And in a similar vein, there is the Australian best seller Sam Bloom: Heartache & Birdsong by Samantha Bloom, Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive, about a woman paralysed in an accident whose recovery is helped by raising a baby magpie.
An interesting coincidence led me to discover this story. I had just seen a stuffed raven in a glass box in The Dickens House and Museum in Doughty Street. It had belonged to Bransby Williams (1870 – 1961), a popular Dickens character actor who, possibly inspired by Dickens’s love of these birds, had adopted one as a pet. I read a little about Dickens’s pet Grip from the explanatory notes alongside the stuffed bird but thought little of it.
After leaving the house, I walked around the neighbourhood, keen to discover the backstreets that would have been so familiar to Dickens. In Doughty Mews, a swift black shape swooped past my head and landed on the branch of a tree nearby. It looked just like the bird I’d seen in the glass box and seemed to scrutinise me for a minute or so before flying off. I realise now that it was a crow, not a raven; they are closely related and easily mistaken for each other. The raven’s beak is chunkier and curves at the top, whereas the bird in the tree has the more pointed beak of the crow. Nevertheless, its timely appearance in Doughty Mews made me curious to discover more about Grip; it was almost as if he wanted to make himself known to me.
The Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street London.
The Dickens Fellowship, founded in 1902, is a worldwide association of people who share an interest in the life and works of Charles Dickens.
The Charles Dickens Page features everything you wanted to know about the man.
A Libre Vox audio recording of Barnaby Rudge read by Mil Nicholson.
Or read the book online at Project Gutenberg.
The website for Philadelphia Free Library, Grip’s final resting place.
The caricaturist Daniel Maclise, close friend of the Dickens family, offered to draw a portrait of the Dickens’s children so that his wife Catherine would always have her children near her on their first trip to America in 1842. The drawing shows Charley, Katey, Mamie and Walter alongside Grip.
In this video, the Ravenmaster of the Tower of London tells stories about his ravens.
Read Poe’s poem ‘The Raven’ here.
A documentary about Poe’s Life.
A dramatisation of Poe’s poem.
It says a lot for the endurance of Poe’s work that there are so many readings of ‘The Raven’ on You Tube. Among them is this reading by Christopher Walken.
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens, Harper Collins, 1990
‘Grip, or, The Life, Death and Afterlife of Charles Dickens’s Raven’, London Overlooked, 2018
Hennessy, Una Pope, Charles Dickens 1812- 1870, Chatto & Windus, 1945
Meltzer, Milton. Edgar Allan Poe: A Biography, Twenty-First Century Books, 2003
Murray, Brian. Charles Dickens, Continuum, 1994
Skaife, Christopher. ‘Meet the Beloved Pet Ravens of Charles Dickens’, Literary Hub, October, 2018