illustrated portrait of American author of gothic fiction Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

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What is Poe's definition of 'perverse' in "The Raven" and "Annabel Lee"?

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With regard to poetry, words are used in a much fuller sense; that is, three components of words are considered:  sound, denotation, or the literal definition of the word, and connotation, those meanings which a word suggests.  These overtones of a word come from its etymology (history) and its associations, the way and the circumstances in which it has been used.  However, it is important to note that a word's usage may have been altered from the era in which the poem was written, so the reader must be careful to interpret meaning from the word's historical context, as well.

With respect to the word perverse, then, the denotations that are applicable to Poe's poetry are the following:

1. willfully determined or disposed to go counter to what is expected or desired. 2. characterized by or proceeding from such a determination. (American College Dictionary)

Interestingly, the connotations applicable to "The Raven" and "Annabel Lee" may derive from a short story of Poe himself, "The Imp of the Perverse."  In this title, perverse is a metaphor for the proclivity for doing the wrong thing in a situation solely for the reason that it is possible to do wrong.  Thus, the raven acts in a manner contrary to its nature; for, normally a wild bird would fly away, but as a symbol of death and a predator, the raven remains in order to torture the poem's speaker.  In "Annabel Lee," an act of perversion, contrary to what is expected, occurs in the third stanza as

The angels not half so happy in heaven,

Went envying her and me;--

Yes!  that was the reason...

That the wind came out of the cloud, chilling

And killing my Annabel Lee.

The examination of both denotation and connotation as well as the historical and poetic context of the word perverse in Edgar Allan Poe's two poems reveals its meaning as acting in a way counter to what is expected, and acting this way with the intention of wrongdoing.

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