The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“The Raven” is a ballad of eighteen six-line stanzas with decidedly emphatic meter and rhymes. The ballad is a nightmarish narrative of a young man who, bereaved by the death of the woman he loved, compulsively constructs self-destructive meaning around a raven’s repetition of the word “Nevermore,” until he finally despairs of being reunited with his beloved Lenore in another world.
Narrated from the first-person point of view, the poem conveys, with dramatic immediacy, the speaker’s shift from weary, sorrowful composure to a state of nervous collapse as he recounts his strange experience with the mysterious ebony bird. The first seven stanzas establish the setting and the narrator’s melancholic, impressionable state of mind. Weak and worn out with grief, the speaker had sought distraction from his sorrow by reading curiously esoteric books. Awakened at midnight by a sound outside his chamber, he opens the door, expecting a visitor; he finds only darkness. Apprehensive, he whispers the name Lenore and closes the door. When the tapping persists, he opens a window, admitting a raven that perches upon a bust of Pallas (Athena).
In stanzas 8 to 11, the narrator, beguiled by the ludicrous image of the black bird in his room, playfully asks the raven its name, as if to reassure himself that it portends nothing ominous. He is startled, however, to hear the raven respond, saying, “Nevermore.” Although the word apparently has little...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“The Raven” is Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem, not only because of its immediate and continued popularity but also because Poe wrote “The Philosophy of Composition,” an essay reconstructing the step-by-step process of how he composed the poem as if it were a precise mathematical problem. Discounting the role of serendipity, romantic inspiration, or intuition, Poe accounted for every detail as the result of calculated effect. Although the essay may be a tour de force, informed readers of the poem—from the nineteenth century French poets Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Valéry to such twentieth century poets as Allen Tate and T. S. Eliot—have recognized the value of Poe’s essay in understanding the poem’s forms and poetic devices.
Poe’s analysis of the structure and texture of “The Raven” is too detailed to consider at length (and some of it must be taken with several grains of salt, allowing for considerable exaggeration on Poe’s part); however, his essay sheds light on three important aspects implicit in the poem’s form: its conception as a theatrical performance; the narrator’s anguished involvement in making meaning by obsessively asking increasingly self-lacerating questions; and the function of the maddening, incantatory rhythm and rhymes that help cast a mind-paralyzing spell over both the declaiming narrator and the reader.
Although the principles of brevity and unity of impression or...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Burluck, Michael L. Grim Phantasms: Fear in Poe’s Short Fiction. New York: Garland, 1993.
Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
Irwin, John T. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytical Detective Story. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Kennedy, J. Gerald. A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
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