By Eric Nicholson
Edgar Allan Poe wrote an essay, ‘The Philosophy of Composition’, in which he details the writing of his sensational poem ‘The Raven’. If we are to believe the account, he carefully planned the theme, the setting, the metre and every poetic effect – ‘each step with the precision of a mathematical problem’. He downplayed the role of intuition and accident but elevated Beauty to ‘the sole legitimate province of the poem’. Poe elaborates that the apprehension of Beauty ‘excites the soul’ and furthermore hitches it to its cousin, Melancholy. The third member of this abstract trio is Death! This Poe-esque trio is memorably summed up by his assertion, ‘the death of a beautiful woman is . . . the most poetical topic in the world’.
I am somewhat sceptical of his account of the creation of the poem simply because it was written in hindsight and we all know how unreliable memory is! Then there is the question of mixed motives in writing such an essay. Poe started as an Editor of literary magazines and knew all about self-promotion and publicity. Therefore I would suggest we can learn something valuable here but we should not understand the essay as a verbatim explanation of the poem’s genesis.
Now to the poem itself. Poe said about it that it ‘was the greatest poem ever written’ – more hyperbole completely in character!
The theme of ‘The Raven’ is really about our inability to escape from obsessive thoughts and feelings. In this sense it is universal; another requirement Poe discusses in his essay. Poe summed the theme up in the phrase, ‘mournful and never-ending remembrance’. In his essay he discusses the importance of the refrain, ‘Nevermore’ in terms of its ever deepening significance throughout the poem. Its meaning climaxes in despair when the lover asks if he will be reunited with Lenore in an afterlife. ‘Nevermore’ is the answer! To hammer in the nail even further, the lover’s soul is condemned to eternal existence in the Raven’s shadow in the last line, ‘And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/shall be lifted – nevermore!’
Poe was an emotional masochist so this ending is very appropriate. He took ‘delight in self-torture’ – a major motif of the Romantic and Gothic in literature.
Where the poem is undeniably effective is in oral readings; here the repetitions and rhythms of the narrative come over strongly. The rhythm is trochaic and the rhyme scheme A, B, C, B, B, B. Much of its effect comes from doublets such as ‘rapping, rapping,’ and alliteration such as, ‘Followed fast and followed faster. . .’
The poem can be enjoyed for its musical, dramatic and lyrical qualities – the mere sound of ‘on the Night’s Plutonian shore’ is a delight. The senses of vision, touch, sound and smell are invoked throughout, smell for example in ‘perfumed from an unseen censor.’ And who cannot see the raven sitting on the bust of Pallas!
In spite of some of my reservations – the Gothic macabre fascination with death for example – ‘The Raven’ is a tour de force and can still be greatly appreciated today.
Eric Nicholson is now retired. He worked as an ESOL teacher and also worked in other fields of education. Now, in his retirement he enjoys countryside conservation, writing and walking. Published in Neutrons Protons, Literary Orphans, and Heart, Eric also writes a blog which can be found here.
Image: John Tenniel, ‘The Raven’, public domain.