Study Guide

The Raven

by Edgar Allan Poe

The Raven Essay - The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe

The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe

Introduction

“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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

Tamerlane and Other Poems: By A Bostonian 1827

Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems 1829

Poems 1831

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

Criticism

Edgar Allan Poe (essay date 1845)

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...

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John Phelps Fruit (essay date 1899)

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...

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Della Courson (essay date May 1900)

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...

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George H. Green (essay date 1932)

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...

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Andrew J. Green (essay date December 1942)

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 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...

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Howard Mumford Jones (essay date spring 1955)

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....

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Joseph Jones (essay date May 1958)

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...

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Francis F. Burch (essay date March 1963)

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...

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Irwin Porges (essay date 1963)

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,...

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James L. Colwell and Gary Spitzer (essay date spring 1969)

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.”]

I

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...

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Daniel E. Lees (essay date winter 1970)

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...

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J. R. Hammond (essay date 1981)

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...

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Leland S. Person (essay date autumn 1990)

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...

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E. Kate Stewart (essay date 1990)

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...

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Dennis W. Eddings (essay date 1990)

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...

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Dennis Pahl (essay date spring 1996)

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...

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Daneen Wardrop (essay date 1998)

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...

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William Freedman (essay date 1998)

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...

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Jorie Graham (essay date spring 2000)

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...

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Betsy Erkkila (essay date 2001)

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...

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