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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It is always profitable to read about Poe’s life while reading his works because a clear line can be drawn from the events in his life, through his particular phobias and obsessions, and straight to the disturbing, supernatural poems and tales that he wrote. Some of the facts of his life are obscure to us today because the man he chose to be his literary executor and biographer, Rufus Griswold, is known to have hated Poe, and he made up malicious facts in his “official” biography after he died. We do know that Poe’s parents were actors; his mother was quite famous and his father a law student who joined the acting troupe when he married her. Poe was born in 1809 when they were playing the Boston Theatre. Some sources say that his parents had two more children and some say that his father deserted the family a year after Edgar’s birth, but it is agreed that by the time he was three, his father had left and his mother, coughing up blood, died before the child’s eyes. He was taken in by a wealthy couple in Virginia, John and Frances Allan, who raised him like a son. In 1824 he and Mr. Allan had a falling out: some sources portray Mr. Allan as stingy and others accept him as being rightly fed up with the huge amounts of money Poe had wasted drinking and gambling while away at the University of Virginia. Poe went away to the army, disowned and written out of Allan’s will, and soon after his discharge, Mrs. Allan died of consumption, the same disease that had...
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The action of the poem takes place in the study of a young man who is pondering "Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore." Thus, the poet both sets the scene and prepares the somber and uneasy mood of events to come. The room is described in some detail, most of it lush and romantic, from the shadows caused as "each dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor" to the "silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain." The principal object in the room is the bust of Pallas placed "just above my chamber door," upon which the raven perches.
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The poem is comprised of eighteen stanzas of six lines each, and most frequently employs a meter known as trochaic octameter, which refers to a line containing eight trochees—pairs of stressed and unstressed syllables. The first five lines of each stanza are all in trochaic octameter, with the final unstressed syllable missing in lines two, four, and five of each stanza. The sixth line of each stanza consists of three trochees and an extra final stressed syllable. An example of the fifth and sixth lines from the last stanza shows this pattern:
And my / soul from / out that /shadow / that lies /
floating / on the / floor
Shall be / lifted— / never / more!
Poe achieves variety in this rhythm by adding pauses, and he keeps the sound from becoming monotonous by making much use of consonance and assonance, or repetition of consonant and vowel sounds, respectively. In addition, Poe’s use of a regular rhyme scheme in which every stanza uses words that rhyme with “more” to conclude the second, fourth, fifth and sixth lines creates a very strong unifying effect for the poem. In his “The Philosophy of Composition," “Poe states that he consciously chose the or sound because of its “sonorous” quality. He also uses internal rhyme in lines one and three, rhyming the fourth and last trochees of the lines, and repeating the rhyme of the third line in the fourth trochee of line four....
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Probably the first aspect of "The Raven" to strike most readers is the phonetic devices employed by the poet to achieve what he calls "sonorous" effects. Certainly, these devices make the lines memorable. Few readers can forget the internal rhymes and alliterations of the opening lines: "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 someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door." The general rhyme scheme of the poem was devised so as to provide plenty of rhymes for the key syllable: "ore," found both in the name of the lost love, Lenore, and the bird's constant "Nevermore."
These sound patterns persist throughout the text with occasional variations, as in "On this home by Horror haunted" and "thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!" At first, the student tries to interpret the bird as a source of humor. But his failure to do so helps establish the prevailing tone of the poem. As the mood of the poem darkens (exactly in the middle of the text, as Poe intended), the choice of words becomes intense and more extreme. The young man starts out by referring to his visitor as "this ebony bird" but later calls it a "fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core." So, the diction of the poem reflects the growing misery in the heart of the unhappy lover.
In his essay, Poe makes much of...
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Compare and Contrast
1845: Henry David Thoreau took up residence at Walden Pond outside of Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau’s book about the experience has become a classic of American literature, urging people to look at nature to understand the universe.
Today: Most of what students know about the American philosophical movement known as “Transcendentalism” comes from reading Thoreau’s Walden.
1845: Margaret Fuller published Women in the Nineteenth Century. A former editor of the Dial, Fuller urged women to be more independent: “That her hand may be given with dignity, she must be able to stand alone.”
1920: After more than 50 years of struggle, women won the right to vote with the passage of the 19th amendment.
1982: The Equal Rights Amendment, which passed the Senate ten years earlier, failed to be ratified by enough states to make it law. The Amendment would have prevented the restriction of any citizen’s rights on account of their gender.
Today: Women’s average salaries are significantly smaller than men’s.
1845: The telegraph was first put into use between Washington and Baltimore. Once its success was established, the problem was financing the system of wires that could transport messages.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Critics have suggested that, by taking the bird as such an omen and by reacting to it as he does, the student actually loses his chance of seeing the lost Lenore. Is this reading justified by the text?
2. Are there any violations of the prevailing rhyme scheme of the poem? Can a reason be found for the poet's allowing such aberrations?
3. Could the entire poem be interpreted as a nightmare in the mind of the young lover, who, it must be remembered, admits that he was nearly asleep at the start of the text? What evidence can be adduced to support such an interpretation?
4. Was Poe's choice of a raven as the force that would push the student to despair a wise one? Was it a better choice, for instance, than another person would have been?
5. Does the division of the poem into stanzas, each with its final refrain, advance the theme and impact of the poem? Would some other design have been more effective? Why or why not?
6. Do the "sound effects" that appear throughout the text ever distract one's attention from the substance of the lines? Cite examples.
7. What are the three or four most striking figures of speech in the poem? How would each be categorized (metaphor, simile, and so on), and why is each so impressive?
8. Since much of the poem is quoted speech, do these passages seem too unrealistic, or do they sound like what such a person might say when in a frenzy of emotion?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Poe, as he often did, revised "The Raven" for book publication. Research these changes. Do they improve the poem?
2. Poe was always fearful of plagiarists of his own work, but a number of scholars have pointed out that "The Raven" was very strongly influenced by at least three authors; Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and an obscure American writer named Thomas Holly Chivers. Chivers was a friend of Poe's, but later claimed that Poe had plagiarized one of his poems in "The Raven." Does an examination of Chivers tend to indicate that Poe was guilty of plagiarism?
3. Most biographies of Poe note that he had a good education. Does a careful review of a couple of such studies, along with an attentive reading of some of his poems, support that view?
4. "The Raven" contains several allusions of a clearly literary-cultural nature. Which ones are they, and how do they enhance the effect of the poem?
5. Poe's influence on foreign literature has often been observed. Does a study of some of the more prominent poems by such foreign masters as Charles Baudelaire and Stephane Mallarme reveal these influences?
6. Poe has been called the real initiator of the Symbolist movement in poetry in American literature. Research that movement and its central symbols. How does Poe's work compare with that of the Symbolists?
7. Does Poe's explanation in "The Philosophy of Composition" of how he structured...
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Topics for Further Study
Write a short story in which a person who is under some emotional stress - grief, depression, heartache, etc. - cannot get rid of a bird or animal. How does this bird or animal come to be identified with the person's problem?
Do you think this bird really said "Nevermore," or was it the speaker's imagination?
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Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition" explains in detail how Poe created "The Raven." This essay, written the year after the poem was composed, sets forth a number of interesting principles of poetry to which Poe was devoted. Also, the short lament "Lenore," first written in 1831, expresses similar themes to those found in "The Raven," and the name of the dead girl is the same as that which Poe used in the later poem.
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What Do I Read Next?
The most complete and authoritative collection of Poe’s works is the one put out by the Library of America. Their Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry and Tales was published in 1984.
Because Poe’s life was so fascinating and so telling about his work, students often are interested in reading more about him. The 1992 biography Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy by Jeffrey Myers tells as much as anybody knows about Poe today.
Shirley Jackson is an American author best known for her short story “The Lottery,” but many critics believe that her best work was The Haunting, a novel that, like this poem, explores the line between the imagination and the supernatural.
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For Further Reference
Braddy, Haldeen. Glorious Incense: The Fulfillment of Edgar Allan Poe. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1953. This volume divides its study of Poe into sections, treating the works, the man as an artist, Poe's influence and fame in other countries, and lastly the life of Poe. Braddy attempts to separate the legends and myths from the provable truth.
Bradley, Sculley, et al. The American Tradition in Literature. Vol. 1. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1974. This anthology contains possible the fullest selection of Poe's works, and the introduction explains several of the most important themes and discusses how the man and his reputation differ.
Brooks, Cleanth, et al. American Literature: The Makers and The Making. Vol. 1. New York: St. Martin's, 1973. This anthology provides an insightful introduction to Poe and his work, as well as corrected texts of his most famous poems, stories, and essays—each with a brief introduction.
Buranelli, Vincent. Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Twayne, 1961. A shorter study of Poe that discusses the Romantic influences in the poems and the stories. There is a useful chronology of Poe's life.
Davidson, Edward H. Poe: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957. Davidson makes careful judgments about Poe's themes and accomplishments, and the sources of his inspiration.
Fagin, N. Bryllion. The Histrionic Mr. Poe....
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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.
May, Charles E. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Peeples, Scott. Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe, A to Z. New York: Facts On File, 2001.
Whalen, Terence. Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Auden, W. H., “Edgar Allan Poe,” in his Forewords and Afterwords, edited by Edward Mendelson, Random House, 1973, pp. 209-20.
Buranelli, Vincent, Edgar Allan Poe, Boston: Twayne, 1977.
Campbell, Killis, The Mind of Poe and Other Studies, New York: Russell and Russell, 1962.
Daniel, John Moncure, “Introduction to ‘The Raven,’” Richmond Examiner, September 25, 1849, reprinted in Edgar Allan Poe: The Critical Heritage, edited by I. M. Walker, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986, pp. 145-47.
Davidson, Edward H., Poe: A Critical Study, Cambridge, MA: Belkap, Harvard University Press, 1957.
Eliot, T. S., “From Poe to Valery,” lecture at the Library of Congress, November 19, 1948, reprinted in Valerie Eliot’s To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965, pp. 27-42.
Griswold, Rufus Wilmot, “Memoir of the Author,” in Critical Essays on Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Eric W. Carlson, G. K. Hall and Company, 1987, pp. 52-8.
Meyers, Jeffrey, Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy, New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1992.
Poe, Edgar Allan, “The Philosophy of Composition,” in Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. XXVII, April, 1846, reprinted in Literary Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Robert...
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