The Raven Themes Essay
“The Raven” Edgar Allan Poe
American poem of the nineteenth century.
The following entry provides criticism of Poe's poem “The Raven” from 1845 through 2000.
“The Raven” is the best known poem of Edgar Allan Poe, a major figure in American literature. The poem features a mysterious bird who speaks but one word, in ominous tones, to a grief-stricken young man mourning the death of his young lady love. “The Raven” garnered international attention for Poe upon its publication in The Raven and Other Poems (1845) and became one of the most famous American poems ever written.
Poe was born on January 19, 1809, to professional actors Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins and David Poe, Jr., members of a repertory company in Boston, Massachusetts. Orphaned by age three, Poe was placed into the care of John and Fanny Allan, who baptized him Edgar Allan Poe, but never legally adopted him. John Allan, a prosperous exporter from Richmond, Virginia, provided exemplary schooling for his foster son, including five years in England. However, during Poe's first year attending the University of Virginia, the two had a falling out over Poe's gambling habits and Allan refused to provide further financial support. Poe left home, enlisted in the army, and published his first collection, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827). A second volume, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, appeared in 1829. Neither collection received significant critical or popular attention. Following an honorable discharge from the army that year, Poe was admitted to the United States Military Academy at West Point. This academic experience would also be short-lived; after six months, Poe was dismissed for disobeying orders. He moved to New York City, where he published his third collection of verse Poems (1831), and subsequently to Baltimore, where he resided with his aunt, Mrs. Maria Clemm. His first short stories were published during the next few years, and he continued to live with his aunt and his young cousin Virginia, whom he later married. In 1835 Poe, his aunt and his cousin moved to Richmond, Virginia, where he had accepted an editorial position at The Southern Literary Messenger. This was the first of several literary journals Poe would oversee during the next decade; his critical and editorial essays of these years led him to prominence as a leading man of letters in America. While Poe's works of fiction and poetry gained popular and critical attention during the late 1830s and early 1840s, he continued to rely on his work as an editor and literary critic for financial security. With the publication of “The Raven” in 1845, Poe achieved his highest measure of popular attention. This was followed by what were perhaps his most fruitful years of writing. They were marked by popular and critical recognition, yet punctuated with economic hardship and illness. In 1845, Poe became the editor, and ultimately the owner, of the Broadway Journal, but by 1846 the venture lost money and Poe stopped its publication. His wife died of tuberculosis in 1847. During her illness, Poe turned to alcohol to assuage his grief, and continued to drink after her death. Nevertheless, he continued to write and lecture, and gradually seemed to recover his health. On a trip to New York, Poe stopped in Baltimore and several days later, on election day, October 3, was found half conscious and delirious outside a polling place. Poe died on October 7, 1849, at the age of forty.
Plot and Major Characters
“The Raven” features two primary entities: the narrator, a young man whose grief over the loss of his love, “Lenore,” is palpable from the poem's opening lines, and the raven, whose sudden and foreboding presence evokes a succession of emotions from the narrator, from curiosity and mild amusement at the bird's first laconic responses to anger and despair at the realization that his beloved Lenore is now lost to him forever. Each stanza of the poem ends with a rhythmic refrain of “nothing more”—a benign assessment by the narrator that there are reasonable explanations for the strange occurrences of the evening—and progresses to the repetitious and increasingly ominous response of “Nevermore!” from the otherwise silent bird. The intensity of emotion rises with each refrain, culminating in the narrator's own tortured admission that “nevermore” can he be free of the shadow of grief and sorrow brought by the night's unwelcome visitor. The physical setting of the poem—a dark, December night in a library-like room—as well as repeated references to classical statuary, velvet cushions, rustling draperies, and the rapid beating of one's heart in response to fear of the unknown, are all familiar motifs in Poe's fiction and poetry, as is the archetype of the “anonymous young man” mourning the death of a beautiful young woman.
In “The Raven,” Poe exploits several themes that are found throughout his creative works, including the tragic death of a beautiful woman at a young age, and the grief of the bereft young man whose affection for his lost love transcends the physical boundaries of death and life. The motif of the “devil-beast” as the harbinger of misery and sorrow, found here in the form of the raven, is another theme common to the creative works of Poe. In “The Raven,” the ebony bird stands as the embodiment of grief caused by loneliness and separation, referencing not only Poe's fascination with the imagery of young lovers wrenched from one another by death, but also the pain he experienced at a very young age with the untimely death of his mother. Yet another theme—one's helplessness upon being visited by a ghostly presence—pervades “The Raven.” Later critics, including Betsy Erkkila, have also examined motifs in the work—especially the virginal, alabaster-skinned woman idealized in death and the sinister black creature who appears in the dark of night—from the perspective of race and class issues in the United States during the generations preceding the Civil War.
Although “The Raven” has become one of the best known, most read, and most frequently parodied poems of American literature, it has not enjoyed uniformly generous critical acclaim throughout its history. Upon its publication, the poem generated excitement among readers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean for its dramatic imagery, emotional intensity, and metrical cadences. Literary critics focused attention, instead, on technical concerns of verse, such as parallelism, internal rhyme, and what were termed inconsistencies or absurdities in Poe's imagery, including his reference to angelic creatures whose “foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.” Critics of his day also speculated somewhat unkindly on the inspiration and genesis of the poem, focusing their attention on the works of others from whom Poe was accused of lifting ideas and images—most notably the Charles Dickens novel Barnaby Rudge, which featured a talking raven. Poe's subsequent attempt to explain the origin and creation of the poem, as recorded in his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846), is also a favorite subject of critical attention, both in his day and in the generations since. “The Raven” continues to be examined by scholars and literary theorists. Many seek to add nuances of interpretation to an already sizable body of analysis and critical commentary. Others study “The Raven” to discern its influence on subsequent literary movements and theories, including Surrealism and rationalism, as well as its impact on literary culture throughout the world. Regardless of the literary merits or faults ascribed to the poem or to the poet himself, “The Raven” is generally accepted as one of Poe's most characteristic works in theme, tone, and execution, and Poe is highly regarded for his inspired, original imagination and deft command of language.
“The Raven” objectifies Poe’s belief that the artistic experiencing of a poem is an end in itself. As both poet and critic, Poe attacked two trends that he found equally disastrous: what he called “epic mania” (using the length of a poem as an index to its power and significance) and the “didactic heresy” (taking the explicit moral or philosophical meaning of a poem as its chief value).
Although Poe’s aesthetic theories, set forth in such essays as “The Poetic Principle” and “The Philosophy of Composition,” rely on a romantic theory of the imagination (as filtered through the writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the temperament of Poe), the gist of his art is targeted toward the poem as experience. According to Poe, the intellect craves truth (the sphere of philosophical, rational discourse), and the moral sense craves duty (the domain of didactic writing), whereas taste thirsts for beauty (quenched only by poetry with its musicality and, therefore, its indefinite pleasure, and by romance with its more definite pleasure). Hence, a poem, in providing an indefinite, pleasurable aesthetic experience, requires a sense of complexity (all means including rhythm and sound adapted to a predetermined end) and a suggestive undercurrent of meaning.
In speaking of “The Raven,” Poe declared that an intended undercurrent of meaning first becomes apparent in the metaphorical “Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!/ Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore!’” The raven thus becomes “emblematical of Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance.” Fortunately, the poem’s thematic significance transcends this limited intention.
The undeniable power of “The Raven” comes from the inexplicable, overwhelming sorrow at the heart of the poem, conveyed through the narrator’s theatrical passion, grief, and, finally, insane desperation. The reader, involved in the complicity of the poem’s design, sees the narrator as existing operatically, on a stage, outside the normal relations of space and time, and moving from the barely plausible to the realm of fantasy. The sensitive narrator’s apparent passivity and the pounding rhythm create the emotional logic of a dream, in which things happened to him that he cannot change, only experience. Yet he is paradoxically involved in promoting his own psychological disintegration by posing a crescendo of self-destroying questions whose answers were the illogical repetition of a single word, croaked by a non-reasoning creature. Through his compulsions, he participates in constructing the unendurable meaning of eternal loss and separation from the one object of his desire. The drama of this loss of sanity is unforgettable as the reader surrenders to the histrionic performance which is the poem.