Nevermore, or When the Corvus
Talked Through Poe & His Poem
Emissaries of rebirth from the great beyond, or omens of bad things to come in ancient traditions, crows have soared over our imaginations for ages. Scientists are baffled by their social skills, cognitive abilities, and use of tools. Old Aesop may have been onto something after all.
As January 19th marks Edgar Allan Poe’s 206th birthday, and The Raven’s first print 170 years ago this month, we review research being done about the black bird that feasts on carrion and whose collective nouns convey the finality of sudden death and sorrow of lost souls.
Before Claude Lévi-Strauss called the raven a mediator, antiquity took care of inscribing the winged creature into an assortment of narratives and roles, including it in all holy books, from the Talmud to the Bible to the Qur’an, Greek-Roman mythologies and Hindu cosmology.
Old Germanic and English texts also assigned the species a prominent role, and so did Pacific tribes and Native Americans. Which may confer oversized meaning to their annual winter arrival at Waterloo, England, for example, or instances of mass deaths, as it just happened in India.
But before going any further, let’s get the distinction between crows and ravens out of the way. Crows are smaller and live only eight years, to raven’s average 30-year lifespan. Crows, which caw-caw, also live closer to humans; ravens’ croaks are heard mostly in the wild.
A crow’s wing is blunt, and its tail, fan-shaped, while ravens have pointed wings and wedge-shaped tails. All else may not be easily noted because the birds are commonly sighted in parks and cemeteries, where people go to fulfill a function or when they’re, well, dead.
WHO IS BIRD-BRAINED NOW?
We should all be weary of studies comparing the intelligence of radically different species, say primates vs. cetacean, for instance. Mainly because for a long time, we’ve considered cognitive intelligence and social skills to be our monopoly and of a few other animals only.
Also, we still don’t know enough about how other species really experience the world, contrarian claims notwithstanding. Most of us simply can’t see reality from a perspective other than our own. It’s called anthropomorphism and we can’t seem to shake it off.
But a study about animal ability to make analogies, conducted by University of Iowa Edward Wasserman, along with another on social skills, by University of Vienna Jorg Massen, found that corvidae have a previously unknown astounding capacity to make sophisticated choices.
They were able to relate symbols on a set of cards with abstract concepts of sameness and difference, outperforming other species. And they play complex roles within their social group, too, through behavior and vocalizations, just like humans, apes, and cetaceans do.
SMARTER THAN YOUR FIRST GRADER
These tests may seem deceptively simple to the lay person, but are based on sound research, which means that one day we may look back and comment with our animal companion on how far off we all were back then, before it corrects our manners. Right now, though, some crows can already recognize faces and use tools.
Remember the expression, ‘necessity is the mother of invention?’ It’s related to The Crow and the Pitcher, the 2nd century fable by Aesop, and its moral subtext, as interpreted by the 17th century English illustrator Francis Barlow.
It’s about how a crow managed to drink from a pitcher, despite the fact that the water inside it was beyond the length of its beak. It succeeded by adding stones to the pitcher to raise the water level, which was pretty clever but considered, well, a fable. Till now.
What you may not know is that Auckland University researchers put the fable to the test, so to speak, and crows did manage to reach the same results, showing similar mastery with tools to achieve a goal. In this case, instead of water, the reward was a piece of meat.
CORVUS & THE ALIEN BRAIN
Such problem-solving ability is comparable with that of your 7-year-old nephew (we know your own kids are way smarter), but so what? Well, considering that a common ancestor to humans and birds predated the dinosaurs, some 300 million years ago, it is indeed a big deal.
In fact, never mind how mysterious our own brain is, and we should know it: understanding crows’ ability to reason, given their completely different physiology and scale, may help multiply the possibilities of finding intelligent life in the universe.
That’s because instead of being conditioned to searching within known parameters, mirroring mammals’ neurobiology, we’ll be using a wider palette of options. In other words, our quest to find intelligent life elsewhere may start at your local ravine, where ravens roam.
Other studies in England suggest that they can plan in advance, make nests out of coat hangers they steal from Tokyo homes, or recognize the facial features of someone who was hostile to them, and pass along this knowledge to others, as they did at Washington’s Freeway Park.
A TAPPING AT HIS CHAMBER’S DOOR
While American critics generally dismissed Poe‘s talents, and his constant literary efforts were greeted with little accolade during his life, he became well known in Europe – thanks to French poet Charles Baudelaire, who translated and championed his works – way before fame followed his 1849 death in the U.S.
Poe did get some recognition for The Raven, published on Jan. 29, 1845, as its supernatural setting and theme of poetic grief catered to the age’s sensibility. But he also became the archetype of the romantic, destitute genius, and part of his allure is due to the elusive account of his demise.
Found delirious in the streets of Baltimore, the unrecognizable writer who languished unconscious for four days on a hospital bed, until dying at 40, would become proportionally more influential to other writers than a celebrated author per se. Movies made from his works didn’t help his cause either.
Still, his famous poem, and some of his short stories, are singed on American popular literature taste, and continue to intrigue new generations. His morbid tales and intricate detective stories gave foundation to the then emerging Gothic movement, which is still referred to, with derision, as a minor branch of Romanticism.
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!