The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe
“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.
Tamerlane and Other Poems: By A Bostonian 1827
Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems 1829
The Raven and Other Poems 1845
Eureka: A Prose Poem 1848
The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe [17 vols; edited by James A. Harrison] (poetry and prose) 1902
Poe: Complete Poems [edited by Richard Wilbur] 1959
Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe
[3 vols; edited by Thomas Ollive Mabbott] (poetry and prose) 1969-78
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket (novel) 1838
Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (short stories) 1840
Tales (short stories) 1845
The Literati: Some Honest Opinions about Authorial Merits and Demerits, with Occasional Words of Personality (criticism) 1850
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SOURCE: Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Composition.” In Literary Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Robert L. Hough, pp. 20-32. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.
[In the following essay, which is believed to have been originally delivered as a lecture by Poe in 1845, the poet discusses the process of composition that resulted in “The Raven.”]
Charles Dickens, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of “Barnaby Rudge,” says—“By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his ‘Caleb Williams’ backwards?1 He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.”
I cannot think this the precise mode of procedure on the part of Godwin—and indeed what he himself acknowledges, is not altogether in accordance with Mr. Dickens' idea—but the author of “Caleb Williams” was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the...
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SOURCE: Fruit, John Phelps. “A Masterpiece: ‘The Raven.’” In The Mind and Art of Poe's Poetry, pp. 114-26. London, England: Harry R. Allenson, 1899.
[In the following essay, Fruit discusses the relationship between “The Raven” and “Lenore,” another poem published by Poe in 1845.]
Before 1845 Poe had settled in his own mind that the belief, that melancholy is inseparable from the higher manifestations of the beautiful, is omni-prevalent, and that the belief has a firm basis in nature and reason; and more, that rhythm and rime are, therewith, of essential and especial aid in attaining the finest effects of poesy.
He had also determined that, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world is the death of a beautiful woman, to be sung by the lips of a bereaved lover.
Under the stress of these convictions, Lenore seems to be the immediate precursor of The Raven.
If The Raven were written in the winter of 1843-44, in 1843 appeared also the “Pioneer version” of Lenore. The Raven was published in January, 1845; in the same year was published the final form of Lenore. May not the short verse of the “Pioneer version” of Lenore have been changed to the long, because of the long verse of The Raven? Who knows but the verse of the first draft of The Raven was short too? A...
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SOURCE: Courson, Della. “Poe and ‘The Raven.’” Education 20, no. 9 (May 1900): 566-70.
[In the following essay, Courson offers her perspective on the significance of Poe's commentary on the composition of “The Raven.”]
There is an amusing anecdote related of Poe. It is said that he and a friend were in the habit of exchanging confidences over their literary productions, and that Poe, having just finished “The Raven,” read it to the other for criticism. “Good,” was the verdict of his friend; “a very good poem, indeed.” “Good!” ejaculated Poe, in extreme disgust; “why, man, it is the best poem ever written.” Whatever Poe's opinion may have been, however, that of the world differs much as to the literary value of “The Raven.”
The analysis of the poem, as given by the poet himself, while unusual, and giving the impression that his method of composition was elaborate, so far as structure is concerned, hardly goes so far as to explain why Poe declared it “the greatest poem ever written.”
To review his analysis briefly, he regards beauty as the one requirement of a poem; asserts that beauty in its intensest form is melancholy; therefore the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetic topic in the world. “I determined to produce continuously novel results by the application of the refrain … I made the night...
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SOURCE: Green, George H. “The Composition of ‘The Raven.’” Aberystwyth Studies 12 (1932): 1-20.
[In the following essay, Green considers the life experiences that may have influenced Poe's writing of “The Raven,” and discusses whether or not Poe's essays “The Poetic Principle” and “The Philosophy of Composition” provide adequate explanations of the work from the poet's perspective.]
Poe has himself pointed out to us, in his tales of ratiocination, that the situation which presents a number of bizarre characters to us is really more simple of solution than another which has no outstanding characters. If the statement be true, as within limits it undoubtedly is, the æsthetic problems presented by Poe's writings should be more easy of solution than those which are offered by the work of Longfellow or Tennyson. Indeed, a certain obvious character of the writings of these two last ensures that the majority of their readers, at least, will never realise that any essential æsthetic problem is presented.
Confronted by such stories as ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ ‘The Black Cat,’ ‘Berenice’ or ‘Ligeia,’ most readers, whether literary critics or not, will find themselves considering the problem—Why should any man choose to write about such subjects as these? They understand, or believe they understand, why poets should write of brooks and belfries, flowers and...
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SOURCE: Green, Andrew J. “Essays in Miniature: ‘The Raven.’” College English 4, no. 3 (December 1942): 194-95.
[In the following excerpt, Green opines that Poe's essay, “The Poetic Principle,” offers a reasonable explanation of the genesis and development of “The Raven.”]
The widespread doubt concerning the veracity of Poe's account of the creation of “The Raven” probably arises less from critical application to “The Poetic Principle” than from a perpetuation of the conviction of our adolescence that the author of a poem and of short stories so compelling was a wild genius who drew his inspiration either directly from the supernatural or directly from a bottle of rum. For who of us, at fourteen, alone and at midnight, dared read the dreadful climax of The Fall of the House of Usher?
It is, nevertheless, as easy to believe that Poe wrote much as he says he did as that his exposition of his method is a cooked-up rationalization of an inscrutable creative event. For some such analysis as he describes either preceded the creation of the poem or attended it or followed it. If the latter, the poem by implication necessarily becomes the spontaneous creation of occult intuition found by an afterthought to be surprisingly rational. This is to borrow logic without understanding from heaven, or at any rate from “the misty...
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SOURCE: Jones, Howard Mumford. “Poe, ‘The Raven,’ and the Anonymous Young Man.” Western Humanities Review 9, no. 2 (spring 1955): 127-38.
[In the following essay, Jones explores the archetype of the “Anonymous Young Man” of nineteenth-century literature as it appears in “The Raven.”]
Mr. Van Wyck Brooks in an early book once referred disrespectfully to the “Yard of Poets” which used to adorn American schoolrooms. This was a series of photographs or engravings, in a single frame, of our nineteenth-century literary worthies, beginning with Bryant on the left and extending through Whitman on the right. Most of the poets wore beards and, said Mr. Brooks, nothing made one feel so like a prodigal as contemplating the hirsute majesty of these sons of the American Muse.
Most of the bearded writers have fallen in our esteem either absolutely or because contemporary interest centers upon figures never appearing in that sacred row—Melville, for example, or Henry James. Indeed, one is tempted to work out some fantastic functional relation between the amount of facial hair and the poets' subsequent decline. Thus the heavily adorned Bryant now occupies a minor niche, and so does Longfellow, and so does Lowell. But the parallel is inexact. The hairy Whitman is still reprinted, whereas Oliver Wendell Holmes, who had only sideburns, has become merely the father of his son....
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SOURCE: Jones, Joseph. “‘The Raven’ and ‘The Raven’: Another Source of Poe's Poem.” American Literature 30, no. 2 (May 1958): 185-93.
[In the following essay, Jones argues that “The Raven; or The Power of Conscience,” a poem that appeared in 1839, may have been an inspiration for Poe's similarly titled poem of 1945.]
Never will critics and scholars, very likely, be able to agree on the relative amounts of fact and fancy in “The Philosophy of Composition.” Most believe that at least some fancy is involved, perhaps with a conscious intention of mystifying the reader. On one side of the case we are obliged to assume that the author deliberately misrepresented his own mental processes, merely to gain prestige or notoriety; on the other, that he selected and marshaled his recollections of these processes, as on a stage, probably with much the same eye to a dramatic effect upon the reader but without wilful distortion or disarrangement. Is there any plausible ground at all for assuming that the main lines of development for “The Raven” were correctly described, and that the account has been merely oversystematized and streamlined? With Poe, we can never be sure. More information, however, about possible sources for “The Raven” might help us a little with this puzzling question.
British inspiration for “The Raven” has long been taken for granted. Poe read and...
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SOURCE: Burch, Francis F. “Clement Mansfield Ingleby on Poe's ‘The Raven’: An Unpublished British Criticism.” American Literature 35, no. 1 (March 1963): 81-3.
[In the following essay, Burch summarizes the points set forth by British literary critic Clement Mansfield Ingleby in a critical essay about “The Raven” that was dated 1850, but never published.]
The present note calls attention to a hitherto unpublished British criticism of “The Raven” preserved in the Folger Shakespeare Library and listed in the catalogue under Ms. N.a. 117. Written by the noted Shakespearean scholar and editor Clement Mansfield Ingleby about 1850, some five years after the publication of Poe's poem, the manuscript bears the notation “Rough sketch of a critique on Poe's Raven.” It is clearly a first draft, and although subsequent corrections and additions were made, the essay was apparently never expanded or perfected for publication. Nevertheless, the essential criticisms are clear. They are here synopsized according to stanza.1
Ingleby first remarks that the popularity of “The Raven” is not altogether undeserved and then indicates his critical approach. He says: “There is no grace comparable to emphatic rhythm for its power to weaken the allegiance of common sense; to lull the attention and abuse the judgment.” Accordingly, he wishes to “discriminate the meaning and...
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SOURCE: Porges, Irwin. “‘The Raven’ and the Peak of Tragedy.” In Edgar Allan Poe, pp. 156-59. Philadelphia, Pa.: Chilton Books, 1963.
[In the following excerpt, Porges offers a biographical context for the writing and publication of “The Raven.”]
This was to be known as “the house where The Raven was written.” Since the days when he swam in the James River and tramped the nearby woods, he had always loved the countryside. Now, for a while at least, Edgar and Virginia and his aunt were to live in a farmhouse owned by Patrick Brennan. The farm occupied 216 acres adjacent to the Hudson, and high in the garret, where he and his young wife stayed, they could look down at the gleaming river and glimpse the green of the woods and meadows. Here, in his study, the inspiration that had been born when he first encountered poor Barnaby Rudge and his pet raven Grip was slowly taking shape. As he pondered over the poem, many strange images passed through his mind. Somehow, the bust of Pallas which stood on a shelf above the doorway seemed to be interwoven with these images.
The analytical faculty that he displayed in his stories controlled his thoughts. But his mind was a rare combination of theory and order balanced by unrestrained flights into fantasy. In creating his new poem, he would plan—but without rigidity. First must come the single, unified impression or...
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SOURCE: Colwell, James L., and Gary Spitzer. “‘Bartleby’ and ‘The Raven’: Parallels of the Irrational.” Georgia Review 23, no. 1 (spring 1969): 37-43.
[In the following essay, Colwell and Spitzer offer a systematic comparison of parallels between Herman Melville's “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” and Poe's “The Raven.”]
Although Herman Melville's “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” has been likened to the work of Edgar Allan Poe, especially “The Raven,” no one has yet extended this extremely suggestive comparison.1 Despite what would seem to be an obvious opportunity, no one has tried to elaborate the similarity between tale and poem into a new reading of the story, the object of the present essay.
It is our contention that there is sufficient similarity in mood, content, method and structure to reward a systematic comparison of the two. Such an examination will show no direct line of derivation,2 but it will enrich our understanding of both and in particular of the puzzling “Bartleby,” a work which seems no more destined to lend itself to a limited number of interpretations than does Hamlet.
A study of the parallels in Melville's tale and Poe's poem might begin with noting that both are narrated by scholars, or at least men...
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SOURCE: Lees, Daniel E. “An Early Model for Poe's ‘The Raven.’” Papers on Language and Literature 6, no. 1 (winter 1970): 92-5.
[In the following essay, Lees suggests that the inspiration of Poe's poem, “The Raven,” may have come from a poem titled “The Owl,” published in 1826.]
One of the most convincing sources for Poe's “The Raven” is a poem that appeared anonymously in Fraser's Magazine for March, 1839. The poem, first noted by Joseph Jones, is titled “The Raven; or the Power of Conscience.”1 Besides bearing an obvious titular resemblance to Poe's poem, Fraser's raven serves as gadfly to the protagonist, a perpetrator of a fratricide, by continually croaking the dead brother's name. This poem, then, thematically offers a claim as a possible inspirational source.
Yet the origins of a demoniac bird as a symbol of conscience are older than Fraser's “The Raven.” In an article dealing with this matter, William H. Gravely, Jr., suggests that Poe was influenced by an essay of John Wilson (“Christopher North”), a staff member and frequent contributor to Blackwood's Magazine.2 Wilson's Blackwood essays were collected and published by Carey and Hart, as Critical and Miscellaneous Essays by Christopher North, in Philadelphia in 1841, and Poe, as editor of Graham's Magazine, wrote a favorable...
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SOURCE: Hammond, J. R. “The Poetry.” In An Edgar Allan Poe Companion, pp. 157-59. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1981.
[In the following excerpt, Hammond highlights the aspects of Poe's personal life that were reflected in the themes and tone of “The Raven,” and asserts that Poe's original inspiration for the poem originated with a book review of Barnaby Rudge that the poet wrote in 1841.]
‘The Raven’, the poem by which Poe is most renowned in the English-speaking world, owed its origins to a review of Barnaby Rudge which he composed for Graham's Magazine (February 1841). In the course of this review he commented significantly on the symbolical importance of the raven in Dickens's novel:
The raven, too, intensely amusing as it is, might have been made, more than we now see it, a portion of the conception of the fantastic Barnaby. Its croakings might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama. Its character might have performed in regard to that of the idiot, much the same part as does, in music, the accompaniment in respect to the air. … Yet between them there might have been wrought an analogical resemblance, and although each might have existed apart they might have formed together a whole which would have been imperfect in the absence of either.
He seems to have...
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SOURCE: Person, Leland S. “Poe's Composition of Philosophy: Reading and Writing ‘The Raven.’” Arizona Quarterly 46, no. 3 (autumn 1990): 1-15.
[In the following essay, Person offers a critical assessment of the relationship between Poe's famous poem and the essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he purports to explain the poem's creation.]
For most readers “The Philosophy of Composition” is less important as an account of how Poe actually wrote “The Raven” than as a statement of his general poetic theories. Kenneth Burke, for example, carefully distinguishes between Poe as the author of “The Raven” and Poe as critic of the poem, in order to argue that the essay represents a significant “guide for critics”—indeed, “the ideal form for an ‘architectonic’ critic to aim at.”1 Although Burke does not go as far as Edward H. Davidson, who maintains that to appreciate the essay “one need not know the poem at all,” like many other critics, he does separate the essay from the poem.2 Since few critics consider the essay in a context that includes “The Raven,” the unfortunate result is that Poe's “Philosophy” is commonly disjoined from the “composition” that forms its pretext.
In this essay I should like to rejoin Poe's philosophy and his composition by examining the intriguing relationship between the essay and...
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SOURCE: Stewart, E. Kate. “‘The Raven’ and ‘The Bracelets.’” In Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, edited by Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, pp. 189-93. Baltimore, Md.: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, Inc., 1990.
[In the following essay, Stewart suggests that “The Raven” may have been inspired by Samuel Warren's story “The Bracelets,” which appeared in 1832.]
Although a fair number of sources for Poe's most famous poem, “The Raven,” are cited in The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by the late doyen to all Poe scholars, Thomas Ollive Mabbott, evidence points to yet another addition to this compendium. I propose that a tale by Samuel Warren, “The Bracelets”—in Blackwood's for January 1832—contains parallels to “The Raven” too striking to ignore.1 Poe's awareness of Warren's writings was acute, and that a good Gothic tale like “The Bracelets” should remain in his mind as he composed “The Raven” is probable. After all, that poem is actually a Gothic tale in verse, and to Poe the name of Blackwood's ever called forth implications of the crème de la crème of Gothic fiction. Moreover, Warren's writings repeatedly lured Poe's interest, so much so that in “How to Write a Blackwood Article” the Britisher's “Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician,” serialized in Maga (as Blackwood's...
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SOURCE: Eddings, Dennis W. “Theme and Parody in ‘The Raven.’” In Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, edited by Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, pp. 209-17. Baltimore, Md.: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, Inc., 1990.
[In the following essay, Eddings analyzes “The Raven” as a work of satire and parody.]
“The Raven” is undoubtedly Poe's most famous poem, although its defects have not gone unnoticed. The impossibility of footfalls tinkling on a tufted floor is a commonplace, and the detailed remarks of Clement Mansfield Ingleby, Howard Mumford Jones, and Jesse Bier, among others, show that despite its hypnotic effectiveness, “The Raven” abounds in absurdities of situation and poetics.1 These deficiencies pose a problem in light of Poe's critical standards and his incisive application of them in dissecting bad verse. He insists, for example, that the passion so prevalent in “The Raven” is “absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty” that is “the province of the poem …” (H [The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe,] 14: 198). Furthermore, implausibilities and infelicities of phrasing in the poem are of a kind with the excrescences Poe frequently remarked in his criticism.2
How, one wonders, can we reconcile obvious flaws in “The Raven” with Poe's critical dictates? Perhaps the lapses are deliberate, but, if so, to what end?...
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SOURCE: Pahl, Dennis. “De-composing Poe's ‘Philosophy.’” Texas Studies in Language and Literature 38, no. 1 (spring 1996): 1-25.
[In the following essay, Pahl closely examines both “The Raven” and Poe's essay, “The Philosophy of Composition.”]
Given the way Poe's fictional works have so persistently attracted the serious attention of language-related theorists—from Charles Baudelaire in the nineteenth-century to Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida in the twentieth—it is somewhat surprising that few have ever bothered to examine closely Poe's own theory, especially as set forth in his most forcefully argued essay, “The Philosophy of Composition” (See Lloyd 48-81; “Seminar”; “Purveyor”).1 Why should this be?
No doubt one reason could be that “The Philosophy” has traditionally been discredited as but another of the many hoaxes Poe is supposed to have perpetrated against an unsuspecting readership—its overall purpose being less to reveal the true method of the composition of “The Raven” than to further enhance the reputation of the already famous poem (Hoffman 82-96; Wellek 160). Yet another reason may have to do with the prevailing belief that Poe's fictional works carry even more theoretical implications about language, as well as about related questions of desire, than does his own theory. In this regard, one need only consider...
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SOURCE: Wardrop, Daneen. “Quoting the Signifier ‘Nevermore’: Fort! Da!, Pallas, and Desire in Language.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 44, no. 4 (1998): 274-99.
[In the following essay, Wardrop offers a critical examination of symbols and language in “The Raven.”]
We twentieth-century American readers have long seen Edgar Allan Poe's “Raven” as glumly recounting one more variation on his reaction to the death of a beautiful woman. There has endured, however, a Poe who offers in the poem a dramatic and exciting scenario of the desire that occurs in language formation. Perhaps modern scorn partly can be traced to an overstrong focus on the mathematician in Poe, the algebraic poet in “The Philosophy of Composition” who dryly proffers the metrical scaffolding of “The Raven,” as if a computer had composed it. Such (purported) calculation is anathema to the American sense of individual passion and spontaneity and the romantic tradition of sublime poetic inspiration. Then, too, we may malign “The Raven” because we suspect it of old-fashioned allegorizing, because we balk at a line so broad as “‘Take thy beak from out my heart.’”1 To the extent, however, that the raven's beak can operate as a point or nub of a pen, and the heart as a convention of desire, the poem becomes a more postmodern allegory, integrating in this image the major elements of the...
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SOURCE: Freedman, William. “Poe's ‘Raven’: The Word That Is an Answer ‘Nevermore.’” Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism: History Theory, Interpretation 31, no. 1, 2 (1998): 23-31.
[In the following essay, Freedman conducts an analysis of structure and symbolism in “The Raven.”]
In an otherwise uninspired 1845 notice of “The Raven” and Other Poems, the anonymous reviewer for the Broadway Journal wisely observes that “the impression of a very studied effect is always uppermost after reading [Poe]. And you have to study him to understand him.”1 It seems a safe enough observation, but most recent criticism of Poe's poetry and fiction has arrived at the rather different conclusion that you have to study Poe to realize that in the end you cannot understand him—or, more precisely, that to understand him properly you must recognize that his poems and tales are perversely or meaningfully resistant to coherent interpretation. “The Raven,” which I will fix on here, has been read in this pointedly obscuring light, but for the most part only glancingly and selectively. Most such readings attend almost exclusively to the bird's “Nevermore” as a disconnected signifier emblematic of a habit of indeterminate speech that can be analyzed more fruitfully and fully in Poe's other writings, principally the fiction. There is room, I believe, for a closer look at both...
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SOURCE: Graham, Jorie. “Edgar Allan Poe's ‘The Raven.’” The Paris Review 42, no. 154 (spring 2000): 237-41.
[In the following essay, Graham presents a brief examination of Poe's use of voice and language structure to evoke mood, tone, and meaning in “The Raven.”]
What I have beside me is a “page,” by Edgar Allan Poe, for three, four, possibly more speakers. The most recessed of them, the “raven” itself, speaks the most radical truth regarding all that springs from any engagement with utterance (which is of course an engagement with temporality's inevitable ongoingness—be it syntactical or emotional): “nevermore.”
The letter points to changes in the opening of stanza eleven, but subsequent revisions to that stanza are worth glancing at, as they seem to be born with instructive inevitability out of the revision this letter contains. The poem in question, Poe's “The Raven,” not only concerns itself with the issue of timelessness—there are few poetic occasions in which freedom is, formally, so limited—(further thematized by its famous refrain)—but the notion of “refrain” itself carries a double—two-facing—valence: a term for a subtractive-self-restraining action, yet also a term for additive repetition. “Burden,” critical to what sets the action of this stanza in motion, is also used, in music, to refer to a refrain....
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SOURCE: Erkkila, Betsy. “The Poetics of Whiteness: Poe and the Racial Imaginary.” In Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy and Liliane Weissberg, pp. 60-7. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2001.
[In the following essay, Erkkila explores the racial overtones of Poe's use of black and white, dark and light, in “The Raven.”]
THE CROAK OF THE RAVEN AND THE POETIC PRINCIPLE
“The croak of the raven is conveniently supposed to be purely lyric,” wrote Hervey Allen in 1927 of the contemporary lack of concern with “what Mr. Poe had to say of democracy, science, and unimaginative literature” (xi). While recent critics have turned with renewed attention to the historical and specifically Southern contexts of Poe's writing, there is still a tendency to pass over Poe's poems as sources of “purely lyric” expression. And yet, as I have been trying to suggest, whether they are read as forms of aesthetic resistance or as perverse symbolic enactments that ooze darkness and death over the American dream of progress, freedom, and light, Poe's poems are deeply embedded in the sociohistorical traumas of his time. This is particularly true of his most popular poem, “The Raven,” one that, in the words of Arthur Hobson Quinn, “made an impression probably not surpassed by any single piece of American poetry” (439). What does it mean, I want to...
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Gravely, Jr., William H. “Christopher North and the Genesis of ‘The Raven’.” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association of American] 66, no. 2 (March 1951): 149-61.
Considers a variety of obscure sources that may have inspired Poe's most famous poem.
Ingram, John H. The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe with Literary and Historical Commentary, New York, N.Y.: Haskell House Publishers, 1972, 122 p.
Reprint of a late nineteenth-century volume focusing on “The Raven”; includes critical commentary, translations, parodies, and discussions about the origins of the poem.
St. Armand, Barton Levi. “Poe's Emblematic Raven: A Pictorial Approach.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 22, no. 4 (1976): 191-210.
A treatment of Poe's use of emblem, symbol, and imagery in “The Raven.”
Smith, Dave. “Edgar Allan Poe and the Nightmare Ode.” Southern Humanities Review 29, no. 1 (winter 1995): 1-10.
Smith suggests that the poem has become an American classic because of its themes of alienation, dispossession, and loss of identity and sense of place.
Walker, I. M. Edgar Allan Poe: The Critical Heritage, New York, N.Y.: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986, 419 p.
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