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A Short Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’

A summary of a classic poem

‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’ This was the riddle posed by the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s 1865 book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Probably the most famous solution proposed to this riddle (for the riddle has never been answered with a definitive solution) is: ‘Because Poe wrote on both.’ ‘The Raven’ is undoubtedly Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem. It was first published under Poe’s name in January 1845, and has been popular ever since. It is the only literary work to inspire the name of a sporting team (the American Football team the Baltimore Ravens). According to Poe himself, in a later work of literary analysis, if he hadn’t had a change of heart we might well be reading a poem called, not ‘The Raven’, but ‘The Parrot’. The poem is so famous, so widely anthologised, that perhaps a closer analysis of its features and language is necessary to strip away some of our preconceptions about it. First, here is the 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 visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.’

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
‘’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.’

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
‘Sir,’ said I, ‘or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you’—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, ‘Lenore?’
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, ‘Lenore!’—
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
‘Surely,’ said I, ‘surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
’Tis the wind and nothing more!’

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
‘Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,’ I said, ‘art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!’
Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore.’

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as ‘Nevermore.’

But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered ‘Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.’
Then the bird said ‘Nevermore.’

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
‘Doubtless,’ said I, ‘what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of “Never—nevermore”.’

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking ‘Nevermore.’

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
‘Wretch,’ I cried, ‘thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!’
Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore.’

‘Prophet!’ said I, ‘thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!’
Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore.’

‘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—
Clasp a rare and radiant 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 the 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 lamp-light 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!

First, a brief summary of ‘The Raven’. The unnamed narrator (we can call him a narrator as ‘The Raven’ just about qualifies as a narrative poem) sits up late one December night, mourning the loss of his beloved, Lenore, when a raven appears at the window and speaks the repeated single word, ‘Nevermore’. The narrator starts to view the raven as some sort of prophet. Throughout the poem, the narrator sits and ponders the meaning of the raven, and asks it questions, such as whether he will be see his beloved Lenore again in heaven, but the bird simply responds enigmatically each time, ‘Nevermore’. In the end, the narrator demands that the raven leave him alone, but it replies once again, ‘Nevermore.’

Poe credited two chief literary works in the genesis and composition of ‘The Raven’: he got the idea of the raven from Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge (whose title character has a pet raven, Grip – the same name of Dickens’s own pet raven in real life), and he borrowed the metre for his poem from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘Lady Geraldine’s Courtship’. Here is a stanza from Barrett Browning’s poem:

Dear my friend and fellow-student, I would lean my spirit o’er you:
Down the purple of this chamber, tears should scarcely run at will:
I am humbled who was humble! Friend,—I bow my head before you!
You should lead me to my peasants!—but their faces are too still.

The metre of this poem, and of Poe’s ‘The Raven’, is relatively rare in English-language verse: trochaic octameter. (Trochaic because the stress falls on the first syllable in each foot, so ‘Dear my friend and fellow student’, and ‘Once upon a midnight dreary’; octameter because there are eight feet in each line, so ‘Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary’. But Poe added something to this rhythm, by including internal rhyme in each stanza of ‘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 visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

So although each stanza of ‘The Raven’ is rhymed abcbbb, with the ‘ore’ rhyme being constant throughout the poem, the a and c rhymes are complemented by a mid-line rhyme: dreary/weary, napping/tapping. This makes ‘The Raven’ the perfect poem for reading aloud on a dark, wintry night – but it also arguably underscores the poem’s focus on speech, and on the talking raven that provides the refrain, and final word, of many of the poem’s stanzas. ‘Nevermore’ rhymes with the dead beloved of the poem’s narrator, Lenore, but it is also an inherently ‘poetic’ turn of phrase to end a poem (or successive stanzas of a poem): compare Hardy’s ‘never again’, or Edward Thomas’s, or Tennyson’s ‘the days that are no more’. The word ‘Nevermore’, like ‘never again’ and ‘no more’, evokes finality, something gone from us that will not be regained: time, our youth, a lost lover. Whether Lenore in ‘The Raven’ is the narrator’s dead beloved – perhaps even his wife – is not spelt out in the poem, leaving us not so much to analyse as to speculate upon that point. But the broader point remains: a door has closed that will not be opened again.

As we mentioned at the beginning of this analysis, there is reason to believe that Poe originally planned to have a parrot, rather than a raven, utter the refrain ‘Nevermore’ in the poem. In his ‘Philosophy of Composition’, he wrote that in his mind there ‘arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech; and very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech.’ Whether Poe was merely retrospectively having us on, or whether he was being genuine here, the parrot does seem the natural choice for a bird capable of mimicking human speech, and Poe implies that he soon dropped the idea of writing a poem called ‘The Parrot’. Ravens are closely associated with omens and with the dead: it had to be ‘The Raven’.

Image: John Tenniel, ‘The Raven’, public domain.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on June 13, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Many years ago, my mum had me make a recording reading “The Raven.” And I did the best I could as far as enunciating and pausing, etc. She was teaching art in K-8, and for the older grades she played the tape and they were always silent/enraptured listening and then they were to make a drawing of the Raven, or anything from their imagination inspired by the poem. Usually she did it around Halloween and she got some really interesting illustrations/interpretations.

  2. I read that Poe did not earn but a paltry sum for this famous work due to the lack of copyright laws. It is sad how much trauma he suffered throughout his life.

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