Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he,
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door–
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door–
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then the ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore–
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
— an excerpt from the narrative poem “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. First published in 1845.
In North America and most of Europe, the raven is a bird that symbolizes ill-omen and doom. Due to its jet-black plumage, eerie call and carrion-eating tendencies, the raven and its smaller cousin, the crow*, have haunted the imaginations of mankind from time immemorial. American Gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe famously employed the bird as a harbinger of doom in his poem “The Raven,” an excerpt of which is offered above. The poem tells of a talking raven’s mysterious visit to a distraught lover, tracing the man’s slow descent into madness. The narrator — whom, it’s been suggested, represents Poe himself — mourns the loss of his dead love Lenore. The raven flies into the room through an open window and perches itself (permanently, as it turns out) upon a sculptural bust of Athena that rests above the door. It then proceeds to torment the narrator to the brink of madness simply by repeating the poetic refrain “nevermore” at the end of each stanza. For his part, the narrator engages in a curiously self-defeating game of “20 questions” with the raven, peppering the bird with questions to which — he’s fully aware — it can only answer “nevermore.” In true Gothic tradition, Poe’s “The Raven” is epic, highly theatrical, and steeped in a melancholia characteristic of that literary genre.
The crow, the raven’s smaller yet equally foreboding cousin, gets its moment in the spotlight in British film director Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film “The Birds”. A profoundly intelligent and resourceful bird, a flock of crows is called a murder because “…the group will sometimes kill a dying cow.” Hitchcock capitalized on the silhouette of the menacing crows — not to mention their violent reputation — in his classic horror film in which birds inexplicably attack humans. Oh sure, the idea of violent attack from a single budgerigar seems ludicrous. However, as one character in the film points out, birds significantly outnumber humans on this planet, and if they did group together to get rid of us…
Mrs. Bundy: Birds have been on this planet, Miss Daniels, since Archaeopteryx, a hundred and forty million years ago. Doesn’t it seem odd that they’d wait all that time to start a…a war against humanity.
Salesman: Your captain should have shot at them… Gulls are scavengers anyway. Most birds are. Get yourselves guns and wipe them off the face of the earth.
Mrs. Bundy: That would hardly be possible… Because there are eight thousand, six hundred and fifty species of birds in the world today, Mr. Carter. It is estimated that five billion, seven hundred and fifty million birds live in the United States alone. The five continents of the world…
Salesman: Kill ’em all. Get rid of them. Messy animals.
Mrs. Bundy: …probably contain more than a hundred billion birds.
Drunk: It’s the end of the world.
Sebastian Sholes: Those gulls must have been after the fish.
Mrs. Bundy: Of course.
Boy: Are the birds gonna eat us, Mommy?
Mrs. Bundy: [explaining that birds of different species never flock together] The very concept is unimaginable. Why, if that happened, we wouldn’t have a chance! How could we possibly hope to fight them?
Like the drunk guy said, “It’s the end of the world.”
*What’s the difference between a raven and a crow? Read more here to find out.