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“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

I am going to try to write about this brilliant poem, I hope it will be entertaining enough. I majored in English, and concentrated on 19th and 20th Century American and British literature, mostly reading novels, some British poetry, not that much American poetry, as there were not many classes on it. Perhaps there are not considered to have been nearly as many great poets from America, as from England, but of course they have a much longer history.

“The Raven” may actually be our country’s most famous poem, though that is of course open to debate. It is not considered to be a deep poem about the human character. It is not a social commentary. It is not opaque or abstruse, though it is complex. But it is wonderfully dramatic and unique and haunting. So, at least when they used to teach the arts in school, and what was called the literary canon, virtually every student read, and probably heard read, “The Raven.”

It is unforgettable for its language and meter, at the very least. Of course, it sounds as if it is from another time, as it is meant to do. Its language is ornate and baroque. Some think that Poe was mostly about love of language, assonance in rhymes, where the repetition comes from the vowel sounds inside the words. “Once upon a midnight dreary/ While I pondered, weak and weary.” Everyone knows that line. There have been literate cartoons where the narrator reads parts of “The Raven,,” and then the seriousness of the poem is cheerfully mocked by the antics of the characters playing it out, but the audience still gets to hear the vivid descriptions.

But Poe’s poems and stories are about much more than their language. “The Raven” is one of the greatest poems to read aloud. It is dramatic, intense, and evocative. I will presume to say that I read poetry aloud very well, and have gotten compliments. It is fun to do. I took an Extension class at UCLA just for fun, from one of my former literature professors there, and we did read poetry. Mostly the professor would read it, but one day he asked someone to read Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” and I did, and got applause. I had an English teacher in high school, whom I didn’t get along with that well, but who asked me to read a few lines of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” one of the longest great poems ever written, and she liked it so much that she had me read the entire poem, taking up the entire class time, hooray. I have read “The Raven” aloud, but only to one person at a time. and it is wonderful to vocalize. The last day of the Extension class, everyone was invited to come if they wanted, to read a poem aloud. I had a busy week, and so I did not come, which I regret, because I could have read “The Raven.” The wonderful reading aloud quality which the poem has, is enough by itself to make it great, but there is much more.

I saw John Astin do a one-man show on Poe, and he read “The Raven.” He was pretty good, not great, not close to the level of Hal Holbrook’s “Mark Twain Tonight,” or a show my family all saw with Emlyn Williams doing Charles Dickens. I also saw an actor playing Ambrose Bierce, and that was also good. Astin’s show was enjoyable, I thought, but I can read “The Raven” better than he did, though you would have to take my word for it. 🙂 Okay, on to the actual poem. As most of you would know, it is a poem told by a narrator, who recounts an event in an unspecific past. “”Once upon a midnight dreary.” “Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December.” The narrator has been “poring over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.”

That line is not just for effect, we learn what he is looking to try to find. “Vainly I had sought to borrow/ From my books surcease of sorrow–Sorrow for the lost Lenore/ For that rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore/ Nameless here forevermore.”

He has lost a woman whom he, or the angels, call Lenore, but that is not her real name, nor will he say it. The theme of the tragedy of a lost love suffuses some of Poe’s major works, from “Annabel Lee,” to “Ulalume,” to the short story “Ligeia.” All are strange and desolate and haunting.

Poe lost his first wife Virginia Clemm, to tuberculosis, she died at the age of 24. She was married to Poe when she was 13 and he was 27. The actual nature of the marriage is not certain, some said that they viewed each other as brother and sister. In general, I do not much like the autobiographical interpretation of works of literature; I think they are too often used as shorthand for a deeper analysis of a work, or even an entire career.

Yes, Fitzgerald was an alcoholic, and yes he and Zelda had a difficult relationship, and yes, some of that shows up in the short stories and novels. But he, and any truly great writer, transcends that, to create works which of course have some of the writer’s background and perceptions from their experience in them, but are not nearly as clear, or even existent, as some might like to think. I like to read literature on its own terms, much like one can view visual art without needing to know what the painter was like as a person.. So knowing biographical background can help enhance, but can also mislead and greatly diminish, if one relies on it for quick “oh, that is because he or she had this experience” explanations.

All that said, of course the death of Virginia Clemm has to be part of the writing by Poe which expresses the loss of a great love, although do note that other great Romantic poets wrote about this as well. Focusing again on the poem, the narrator desperately searches for something that will help relieve his sorrow, “Respite–respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore.” We also learn, in his increasingly more desperate entreaties and demands to the raven, that he is hoping to learn if he will ever see her again. “Is there-is there balm in Gilead?” “Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if within the distant Aidenn/ It shall clasp a radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore/ Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.” Can he, will he, ever see her and be with her again?

The entity to whom the narrator addresses all this to, is a raven, who has first tapped his beak against the narrator’s chamber door, and then when let in, immediately flies in to perch upon a bust of the Pallas Athena, the sculpture of the Greek goddess of wisdom, sitting on a shelf in his apartment. Before he opens the window, he dares to think that somehow the entity gently tapping might somehow be the lost Lenore, perhaps brought back by his invoking her through his readings and his thoughts. But apparently it is not, though the mystery is always there as to what the raven is, or represents, if indeed he is more than a raven.

The narrator first finds the raven to be both quaint and drolly amusing, something to take him away from his brooding obsession and despair. He asks it what it its name is. The raven replies, “Nevermore.” The narrator tells himself lightly that no one has ever been named “Nevermore.” Then he thinks aloud that the raven will leave, as “other friends have flown before.” The raven says “Nevermore.”

He tries to rationalize, he thinks that it must be that the raven’s previous abode had a person whose life was so filled with loss and hopelessness, that he must have uttered the word many times, and the raven just learned it from him. What other explanation could there be which would not cause the rise in him of unknowingness, desperate hoping, and terror?

He senses a perfume in the air; he thinks that it must be sent by angels to give him some respite and provide nepenthe, the drug which was supposed to relieve sorrow in Greek mythology. He cries to the raven, and himself, “Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore.”/ Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.'”

Whatever the narrator asks the Raven, or muses aloud, the raven only utters one word, which to the narrator each time seems more portentous and agonizing. “Prophet!” said I, “Thing of evil!–Prophet still, if bird or devil!/ By that Heaven that bends above us–by that God we both adore/ Tell this soul with sorrow laden if within the distant Aidenn/ It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore/ Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign of parting! Bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting/ “Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore/ Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken/ Leave my loneliness unbroken! Quit the bust above my door! Take thy beak from out my heart and take thy form from off my door!”

Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

“And the raven, never flitting still is sitting, still is sitting/ On that 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 lamplight 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!”

“The Raven” was published in 1845. In 1853, the great American novelist Herman Melville wrote a story entitled “Bartleby the Scrivener.” It told of a quiet and rather shabby clerk who is hired by a decent man on Wall Street. Things are fine for a while, until Bartleby tells him in response to an ordinary request, “I would prefer not to.” And thereafter, he politely responds to every request he makes, with that same phrase. One of my prouder moments as an undergraduate student was asking the professor in a class where we were discussing the Melville short story, about the similarity between it and “The Raven”: the narrator asks questions to the other entity, who always replies in the exact same way, and each time the narrator gives the words more profound import. I scarcely thought that I could be the first person to have thought of it, and I am sure that it can be found in the criticism regarding that great period in American literary history.

“The Raven” can be lightly criticized for its baroque style or deliberately enhanced vocal quality. But that is trivial, compared to the fact that it is a brilliantly written poem with amazing rhyming, and a story and images which always stay with one. One could ask, is there really a raven? Is he a figment of the narrator’s tormented imagination? Does he stand for an image of the universe which throws our own most profound questions back at us to answer? Are we left with our own emotions, our desires and fears, which nothing can answer? I don’t think that Poe was philosophizing in his poem. But the power of the words and images, and the solipsism evoked, makes it remarkably more than a spooky horror tale, as indeed many of Poe’s best poems and stories are.

13 Responses

  1. “The Raven” is a beautiful and haunting poem, indeed. I agree it is best read aloud, perhaps on a cold, dark winter’s night. But with a nice fire, a cozy blanket and something warm to drink!

    Maybe one day you will write about Keats (who I believe is your favorite poet). I have recently been reading letters my grandmother wrote when she and my grandfather lived on Well Walk in Hampstead, just a few doors away from the house where long ago Keats and his brothers had once rented rooms. It was there that Keats’ brother Tom died from TB. My grandmother, who loved English literature, appreciated being surrounded by the rich artistic history of the area.

    • I would be intimidated to try to do justice to the incomparable poetry of Keats, books have been devoted to it. But maybe I could pick one poem,

      If you have never seen the movie “Bright Star,” I would recommend it, though it of course has a sad and moving ending. It is directed with taste by Jane Campion, and stars Ben Whishaw as Keats, and Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne. Your grandparents must have had great pleasure living so close to that history.

      • Our daughter, who is a freelance copy editor/proofreader, tells me that she will be working next on a biography of Keats from Knopf which was published in England to rave reviews. Text is being “translated” into “American English.” It will be out next spring.

        Roz in NJ/NYC

  2. Often parodied, rarely well..

    “Once upon a mid-day sunny, while I savored Nuts ‘N Honey,
    With my Tuscan Whole Milk, 1 gal, 128 fl. oz., I swore
    As I went on with my lapping, suddenly there came a tapping,
    As of some one gently rapping, rapping at the icebox door.
    ‘Bad condensor, that,’ I muttered, ‘vibrating the icebox door –
    Only this, and nothing more.’.. ”

  3. Hi Beata, I’ll ask my daughter for the exact title and author so you can make a note of it.

    Roz in NJ/NYC

    • Thank you!

      I was an archivist/librarian before I retired. I used to know about the best new books that were being published. Less so now.

      • Beata, I’m sure you loved your work.

        I do have some favorite authors whom I keep track of via their websites for their latest books. I also use the internet (best seller lists, etc) to find books that might interest me, When it comes to reading books, I’m a Luddite as I prefer a physical book (hard cover whenever possible) rather than an eBook. I also prefer to get my books from the library rather than buying them. One of the things I missed most during the pandemic lockdown was not be able to go into the library, browse the shelves, etc. It was pure joy after being fully vaccinated to finally go inside again this past May.

        Roz in NJ/NYC

  4. For both Beata and Roz, I would highly recommend a book by Daisy Hay, entitled “The Young Romantics” Hay is a brilliant professor of literature whose book is about the interactions among the major figures in English Romantic Poetry. It is a wonderful read, though I have not read all of it yet, doing a chapter at a time. Keats is of course described, though the focus in the first half is more on the Shelleys, Byron, and Leigh Hunt. It is written with very impressive research, insight, fairness and charm. Her subtext is that whereas we tend to think of the Romantic poets as more solitary figures communing with nature, there was a great deal of interaction and support among them as they wrote.

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