For this exercise, I chose to illuminate the poem “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe. I chose this poem because it’s one of my favourites and I’m planning to get a tattoo of a raven soon. When I started my illumination, I already had a specific image of a raven in mind, one that I’ve had saved in my email for a while. This poem is so visual, it seemed like a good choice to illustrate. I chose this specific image because it’s grittier than other drawings of the raven. It seems more real to me and with the way Poe describes the scene outside, it fits better in my opinion. With the snow falling and the darkness of midnight, the speaker appears frightened. I have always imagined the raven to be daunting and scary in a way, with unkempt feathers and dark eyes. Poe writes, “And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming.” I tried to highlight the eye, make it darker than the feathers. I think darkness is a frightening image because it is so unknown. For me, that’s what this poem is saying. The speaker continues to ask the raven questions, but “quoth the raven nevermore,” and the bird sits still while the speaker spirals out of control. I’m not great at drawing, but this image is simple enough, even for me. I wanted to put in a moon illustration as well to capture the time. It’s not exactly what I wanted, but like I said, I’m not very good.
I watched the video on medieval manuscript making and I was struck by the process. I drew this image in 5, maybe 10 minutes with shading. It was nothing compared to the dedication that went into medieval illuminations. There were multiple steps and it took such focus and a steady hand. That made me go back to my drawing and add some details. I re-read the poem and thought about Edgar Allen Poe as a person, who he was and what kind of illumination he would have liked. It turned into a post-modern expression rather than the simple illumination I had started with. I added text to the feathers and darkened the moon and the shading around the eye. I also added the face of Poe in a word bubble coming out of the raven’s mouth. I didn’t add colour because it doesn’t fit with this poem. I would imagine that most illustrations based on this use black, white, and grey. The setting and theme speak to those dark, neutral colours. Contemporary literature is not often accompanied by illumination, except for the book covers. This exercise showed me this is an important way to preserve text in a different way. Some people respond to images rather than words, but if they can still understand the beauty of “The Raven,” even without reading it, I would be happy.
As I write this, I’m looking at a printed picture my mother gave me that’s taped to my wall. It’s an illumination of Thomas Kinsella’s translation of “The Tain,” a 1st century Irish war epic. It looks like a raven or a black bird. The way it is drawn makes it appear like an ink blot does. The artist, Louis Le Brocquy, is praised for his illumination. Irish poet Aiden Dunn said, “The brush drawings merged seamlessly with the text; stark, fluent images, they expressed with great economy of means an epic breadth, evoking the movement of vast masses of people.” This is what I now understand better about illuminations, their ability to merge with the text so that it becomes a part of the text. It evokes feeling about the text just like the text itself does. It reminds me of our discussion about the manuscripts of “The Canterbury Tales.” The illuminations were not simply an add on, but they became part of the story, physically and textually. When an illumination is that strong, it becomes associated with the text to the “vast masses of people.” The image of a woman staring at a fig tree will be forever connected to “The Bell Jar.” And the drawing of a circle with a triangle in it and a straight line running through the centre will always be associated with Harry Potter. My point is that these illuminations are still relevant even if we don’t notice them right away. This exercise and reading on medieval illuminations has certainly given me a new appreciation for them. I can understand the historical significance as well.