Brevity=Wit Entry #4

October 26th, 2009 by Wordsman

This week on Brevity=Wit, in honor of the upcoming Halloween holiday, we will be taking a look at Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.”  Originally this poem had nothing to do with Halloween (it was first published in January and set, if you manage to read all the way to the second stanza, in December).  Because of a certain element of popular culture that was dear to me in my youth, however, I will always associate it with October 31st.

Now I’m sure we all remember the basic story in this poem: guy brooding in his study, raven flies in, says “Nevermore” a lot.  Right?  Nothing really happens.  And to tell us that nothing really happens, Poe requires over 6500 characters!  It’s monstrously inefficient.  The word “nevermore” alone is repeated eleven times.  I mean, come on!  You only have to say it once or twice before we get the idea.  Here’s what we would get if Mr. Poe was cut off before he had a chance to get bogged down in all his trochaic octameter:

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly”

He has time to set the scene, at least.  It’s midnight, the guy is tired, reading a bunch of books.  But that’s all we get.  There’s no way to know if he’s reading in order to distract himself from the soul-crushing despair of losing his lover or if he’s just cramming for tomorrow’s exam.  Maybe he’s a yes-man; all we get to see him do is nod.

It goes without saying, of course, that the title character does not get a chance to appear.

Here’s a version that manages to remain short while still including such key elements as, you know, actually mentioning the raven:

“One night I heard a knocking at my door—no, the window.  It was a raven that reminded me of my onetime lover Lenore.  It said, ‘Nevermore.'”

There you go.  You’ve got the raven, you’ve got the “nevermore.”  What else do you need, really?  Sure, it may lack the driving pattern of internal and external rhymes that makes each stanza surge forward and then pull gently back like a wave lapping on the shore, but is that really what’s important here?  It’s all about the raven, right?

Listen to me, you who read this: it behooves you that you heed this
Don’t be forced now to concede this; these are not some Language Courts
To be shorter is not better. Don’t begrudge every letter
These fool limits only fetter, and put me quite out of sorts
That my Raven might now Twitter puts me highly out of sorts
Quoth the author, “Eat my shorts”

Posted in Brevity=Wit | 1 Comment »

One Response

  1. Gramma F Says:

    What could you do with the Canterbury Tales?

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