November 9, 2011

Grip—An Avian Muse to Dickens and Poe

I was writing A Charles Dickens Devotional when I found some fascinating, lesser-known stories about Dickens’ the man. One of the most interesting involves his pet raven named Grip. There are several versions of the story. This is one of them--

Dickens loved birds. He had several as pets, but Grip was his favorite. Grip proved to be a bird of character, or maybe I should say a character of a bird. He mimicked the voices of the author and his children and pecked at just about anything he could find, especially carriage linings and the children's ankles. The big, coal-black bird stole things, like shiny coins and pieces of cheese, and buried them in the Dickens’ garden. Charles Dickens enjoyed Grip's antics so much, and he talked about them so often, that some of his friends called him “raven mad.” He even included Grip as a character in his novel Barnaby Rudge (1841):

‘What hast 
got in that basket, lazy hound?' 

'Grip, Grip, Grip--Grip the clever, Grip the wicked, Grip the 
knowing--Grip, Grip, Grip,' cried the raven, whom Barnaby had shut 
up on the approach of this stern personage. 'I'm a devil I'm a 
devil I'm a devil, Never say die Hurrah Bow wow wow, Polly put the 
kettle on we'll all have tea.' 

'Take the vermin out, scoundrel,' said the gentleman, 'and let me 
see him.'

Barnaby, thus condescendingly addressed, produced his bird, but not 
without much fear and trembling, and set him down upon the ground; 
which he had no sooner done than Grip drew fifty corks at least, 
and then began to dance; at the same time eyeing the gentleman with 
surprising insolence of manner, and screwing his head so much on 
one side that he appeared desirous of screwing it off upon the spot . . . 

'Bring him along,' said the gentleman, pointing to the house. But 
Grip, who had watched the action, anticipated his master, by 
hopping on before them;--constantly flapping his wings, and 
screaming 'cook!' meanwhile, as a hint perhaps that there was 
company coming, and a small collation would be acceptable.

When American author Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote at the same time as Dickens, read Barnaby Rudge, Grip became the inspiration for his famous poem, “The Raven.”

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 napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visiter," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door --
Only this, and nothing more."

Grip lived a long and healthy life with Charles Dickens until the bird became ill after ingesting some lead paint chips. Dickens took his feathered companion to a veterinarian who prescribed castor oil, but alas “quoth the raven” after living with the Dickens' family for 36 years, Grip succumbed and was “nevermore.”

In a letter to a friend, Dickens wrote a tongue-in-cheek eulogy to the bird, and then he had a taxidermist stuff its remains, preserve them with arsenic, and mount Grip in a shadow box. In 1971, a Poe collector donated Grip to the Philadelphia Free Library where he is displayed near the Rare Books Collection.

(For more wayside stories about well-known authors, check out:
Real life plot twists of famous authors.

If you enjoy reading Charles Dickens then you'll love my book, A Charles Dickens Devotional, written for Thomas Nelson Publishing, available mid-December. Click here for ordering information and to read a sample online.