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Sorrow, Mourning, and Self-Torment

An analysis of Edgar Alan Poe’s “The Raven”

By Heini Reinert

Raven

‘Once upon a midnight dreary’ on January 29, 1845, the immensely famous epic poem ‘The Raven’ was written and published for the first time in the New York Evening Mirror and was immediately well received by critics and pastime readers alike. Since then the popularity of this classic has all but diminished, as it frequently pays a visit to the odd English class or horror-forum and even to this date keeps spawning countless parodies and homages, spanning everything from guest appearances in The Simpsons, Mad Magazine and Batman to constrained writing exercises, computer terminological versions, an adaptation pertaining to Fermat’s Last Theorem1 and numerous musical interpretations.2

The reasons for the poem’s ever-growing popularity and appertaining analyses are as many as would be expected from one such singular, yet seemingly all-encompassing piece of prose writing and indeed it caused Poe himself to opt for writing one such interpretation, albeit one that foremost focuses on a description of his own favoured method of authorship. The Philosophy of Composition therefore is a must for every Poe admirer, which is the reason I will mostly rely on it for this analysis.

Compositional Form

Since Poe believed that ‘the initial consideration [is] that of extent’, with that consideration I will also commence this analysis. ‘The Raven’ is a hundred and eight lines long spread out over eighteen stanzas with five lines in each.3 According to Poe this length has been specifically chosen so that the poem could be read in one sitting and thusly achieve the best possible effect whilst still holding the reader’s attention. The rhythm of the poem is trochaic – i.e. the feet are one long syllable and one short – and each stanza alternates between various metric styles.4

The tail rhymes consequently land on the second, the fourth and the fifth of each stanza, with the refrain also being a tail rhyme to the others. It should be noted out of interest that all of the tail rhymes in the entire poem end with the letters ‘–ore’, which I consider quite a feat to achieve in and of itself. In addition to these tail rhymes all of the lines, bar the refrain, include at least two internal rhymes and usually even more than that. On close inspection almost every thinkable poetic phenomena can be found, for instance numerous examples of alliteration, (‘Doubting, Dreaming Dreams no mortals ever Dared to Dream before’)

assonance (‘It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore –‘)

and repetition. (‘From my books surcease of sorrow – sorrow for the lost Lenore –‘)

The stanzas must be said to be consistent to the extreme, something that was, and still is, very rare and unusual even for Poe. Though it could be argued that the metre is not consistent, since it varies within the stanza, still I consider it consistent since it varies consistently throughout the stanzas. Poe states that every one of these compositional aspects has been consciously implemented in order to strive toward originality. A curiosity of composition, that cannot be seen when reading the poem, is that Poe wrote it backwards, starting with the climax and then working in the events leading up to it subsequently.

The main theme of the poem is Beauty illustrated through the sub-themes Melancholy and the Loss of a loved one. The justification of this by Poe is:

That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure, is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful […] the tone of its highest manifestation– and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.

In the poem Poe presents us with continual contrasts; between the joy of beauty ‘for the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore‘ and the sadness caused by losing it, as Lenore becomes ‘Nameless here for evermore’, the contrast between the warmth of ‘each separate dying ember’ and the storm raging outside in the cold and ‘bleak December’ and the contrast between the optimism of once again clasping ‘a sainted maiden’ within ‘the distant Aidenn’5 with the overwhelming of the foul fowls denial of this burning wish with its ‘Nevermore!’

Textual Implementations

Intertextuality deserves a mention, in fact there is so much that it potentially deserves an entire and exclusive essay in its own right, but I will try to cover the basics.

The raven itself is a bird shrouded in folklore, myth and superstition. As a trickster that steals and releases the sun to the natives of northwest North America, it also created the world according to the people of Pugent Sound. Some believe it to be an ill omen, while yet others hold that it carries the souls of the dead to the underworld and in Norse mythology it symbolizes the Thought and Memory (Hugin and Munin) of Odin the Allfather. Poe chose it for these reasons and because it is a creature with the ability to speak and can therefore (mindlessly) repeat the one-word refrain over and over again, without challenging the suspension of disbelief, accentuating the protagonist’s self-torment to its outmost degree.

The bust of the Greek goddess of wisdom, Pallas Athena, upon the chamber door represents the protagonist’s academic background and intellectual inclinations. Chosen ‘for the sonorousness of the word, Pallas, itself’, it also serves as a contrast to The Raven’s black plumage with its ‘pallid’ colour and as an additional way of contrasting the dual nature between the harsh scholarly logic and knowledge of the loss of a beloved (Pallas) and the self-loathing and un-tamed emotions (The Raven) this rationale causes in said protagonist.

Balm of Gilead and Nepenthe are hypertextual of The Bible Genesis chapter thirty-seven and Homer’s Iliad book No. four respectively. The Balm being a healing compound, carried by the same merchants to whom Joseph was sold as a slave by his brethren, and Nepenthe a drug or potion that would make one forget all sorrows.6 The protagonist believes that these will help him process the terrible loss, but alas it is to be – nevermore!

Pluto is the Roman God of the underworld and the protagonist believes The Raven to be from ‘The Night’s Plutonian Shore’, in other words a messenger from the afterlife, who will hopefully bring news about his deceased Lenore. Likewise the Seraphims, the highest choir of angels, represent the protagonist’s belief that The Raven is from the beyond.

And last but not least the character of Lenore herself, whose name means Light, is a meta- or sister textuality7 to Poe’s previous poem “Lenore”, (1841) where she also is dead.

Summarising Interpretation

The poem spans over a short period of time ‘in the bleak December’ where the narrator, whom we also recognise as the protagonist, has locked himself in his chamber with book upon book in an attempt to “intellectualise” himself out of his sorrow for his lost love, (and possibly wife) who has died previously. This room is his intellectual refuge, whence he considers himself safe from the ill weather outside, in this case symbolising his raging, uncontrollable and uncivilised emotions, which he as an orderly, academic man doesn’t want to confront.

However while he is busy in the endeavour of distracting his conscious mind from all of his inner daemons with his ‘quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore’ he starts to nod off, only to be awakened by a knocking at first thought to stem from the door. He deduces that it must be a late night visitor come to see him and quickly apologises for drowsing, but as he opens up the door he sees only darkness and nothing more. (I’d be spooked.) He sits down again and hears the knock again.

This time, fully awake, he has no problem in hearing from whence it came and proceeds to open the window. In flies a raven seeking refuge from the storm. After the initial shock he becomes amused by The Raven, which has situated itself upon a bust of Pallas, also representing his conscious and rational mind. He pulls out a chair and jokingly asks The Raven its name. Surprisingly it answers him with the word ‘nevermore.’ This triggers something in the protagonist and he now commences asking The Raven less and less commonplace queries

‘until at length the lover, startled from his original nonchalance by the melancholy character of the word itself–by its frequent repetition–and by a consideration of the ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered it–is at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character–queries whose solution he has passionately at heart–propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture–propounds them not altogether because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which, reason assures him, is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote), but because he experiences a frenzied pleasure in so modelling his questions as to receive from the expected “Nevermore” the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrow.’ (Directly cited from The Philosophy of Composition.)

At long last this culminates in the protagonist, who by now is convinced that The Raven is some sort of fiend sent to torment him, demanding that the bird should leave him alone in his sorrow and grief and take its beak from out his heart. But as the bird can only answer the one word it has ever been taught, the futility of it all is deeply tragic and nevermore shall his soul be lifted from out the bird’s shadow.

Since The Raven represents the protagonist’s inclination toward self-lamentation, the fact that it seeks refuge from the weather indicates that the protagonist himself tries to suppress his true emotions of outwardly directed anger and grief and as a result turns upon himself causing depression and melancholy. This clouds his otherwise so rational mind. It casts a shadow on and from the bust of Pallas, depression disguising itself as logic and rationality, making him want to forget his Lenore (quaff the Nepenthe!) altogether instead of remembering the joyous moments he must have had with her. Perhaps he even blames himself for her death with his clouded logic.

Many readers interpret the end that his soul shall never be lifted from the bird’s shadow again as an indication of his death, and as with all such interpretations there’s no definitive answer. I beg to differ though, as it seems far too easy. Assuming that The Raven does symbolise his self-lamenting inwardly based depression, his soul would be lifted if he died. The Raven describes a horrible state from whence there is no escape whatsoever – nevermore.

Epilogue

Three years after writing this poem Poe attempted suicide and in 1849 he died in a series of truly outlandish events. (Amongst other things wearing someone else’s clothes.) In the light of the fact that most of the people Poe held dear in his lifetime either abandoned him or died, it would be impossible not to consider that Poe must have been writing from own experience and even go so far as to extrapolate from this that the protagonist is, in fact, Poe himself. Both Poe’s mother and his wife, Virginia, died of tuberculosis. And Poe began drinking heavily after Virginia had started coughing up blood for the first time on January 20, 1842. I only hope his soul has been lifted from the shadow on the floor. And although he led a hard life, I hope he could have found consolidation in the fact that so many people enjoy the fruit of his career, just like Athens was named after Pallas Athena because the Athenians enjoyed the fruits of the Olive Tree she had given them.


1 Which I will not include because there isn’t room in the margin.

2 Including one by yours truly.

3 Six if you count the refrain.

4 Which I won’t elaborate on because I promised someone, that this analysis wouldn’t get too nerdy, although I do suspect that bridge has been maliciously incinerated a long time ago.

5 Don’t worry it won’t bite. It’s just an archaic way or writing “Eden” or “paradise”.

6 Ne-penthos translates directly from Greek to not-sorrow or no-sorrow.

7 Cf. Ann Jefferson. http://www.setur.fo/documents/20020911131457.pdf

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