Autobiographical Strands in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," "Ligeia," and "William Wilson"

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Given the outlandish disorder that pervaded Edgar Allan Poe's personal life, it is by no means surprising to find that autobiographical elements appear prominently in both his verse and his fiction. At the broadest level, the tragedies that afflicted Poe, his volatile character, and the idiosyncrasies of his life-style plainly left their imprint upon his works in the salience of the macabre, the irrational, and the bizarre. When we come to the task of interpreting Poe's poetry and prose in light of his life, we achieve the greatest point by focusing on a particular period in Poe's career and relating it to a few, representative pieces. In what follows, we shall first recount Poe's childhood and early adulthood to the time of his dismissal from West Point, emphasizing certain formative events in his development. We shall then relate these influences to three of Poe's most noteworthy works, his classic poem "The Raven," and two short stories that he authored in the late 1830s, "Ligeia" and "William Wilson." Early in Poe's life, family instability began to affect both his material and emotional circumstances. Poe was the biological son of Elizabeth Arnold and David Poe, both underemployed actors, and his father's alcoholism apparently contributed to his abandonment of family when the future writer was but four years old. In the company of his mother, Poe moved from the place of his birth, Boston, to Richmond, Virginia, but, shortly thereafter Elizabeth Arnold died. Poe was separated from his brothers and sisters and placed in the care of a childless couple, Frances and John Allan, the latter being a fairly well-to-do businessman.

Although a hard task-master and tight in his control over the family's purse strings, Poe's stepfather recognized the value of education, and after John Allan relocated his family to London in search of commercial opportunities, he financed young Edgar's schooling at a series of prestigious boarding academies. While at school, Poe was an excellent student, but he experienced social ostracism from his peers. As G.R. Thompson observes, "he was not accepted as an equal; he was taunted about being the son of actors and about his unconventional position in the Allan household," as a stepchild.1 Consequently, although he was a gifted student, Poe began to think of himself as an outcast. When Poe was fifteen years old, the mother of a close school friend, Jane Stith Stanard died of a brain tumor. More so than Elizabeth Poe or Mrs. Allan, he looked upon this woman as his idealized mother, both highly intelligent and beautiful, and her untimely death cast the fledgling writer into a deep depression, as he was reported to visit Mrs. Stanard's grave on numerous occasions.

During Poe's adolescence, his father's firm experienced a decline. Eventually it was dissolved and John Allan took increasingly to extramarital affairs and to the bottle. Fortunately, Poe's fortunes underwent an abrupt snap-back when his stepfather inherited a large sum of money, and Poe was able to ready himself for entrance into the University of Virginia. At the same time, he began to call upon his first love, the fifteen-year-old Sarah Elmira Royster. Whether the two were engaged before Edgar left for college is uncertain; that Poe was serious about his courtship of Sarah, however, is by now well-established.2

While at college, Poe began to engage in the self-destructive behavior that would manifest itself in a variety of forms throughout his life, compiling gambling debts of over two thousand dollars, a staggering sum at the time. Poe's drinking and gambling led to estrangement from his stepfather and the end of tuition payments to the university....

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Worse, when Poe returned to Richmond, he immediately inquired about Sarah Royster. First told by her parents that Sarah was abroad, Poe eventually found that she had become engaged in his absence.

Poe was unable to place his relationship with John Allan on an even keel: the two argued about money, and the drinking and sexual patterns of both Poe and his father were a constant source of dispute. The headstrong Poe left his family home and adopted the first of several pseudonyms, calling himself Henri Le Rennet and taking quarters above a tavern. Poe then enlisted in the army under the fictitious name of Edgar A. Perry. It was while in the army that Poe published his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, By a Bostonian. But the exaltation of his literary triumph was quickly diminished, for in February, 1829, Poe's stepmother, Frances Allen, died prematurely, the third "mother figure" in Poe's life to suffer an untimely death.

The death of Frances Allen set the stage for a reconciliation between Poe and his stepfather, and through the intercession of the elder Allan, Poe gained a commission at West Point. But while at the military academy, Poe again ran up gambling debts, and then began to withdraw from social contact altogether, remaining in his room where he engaged in increasingly frequent bouts with the bottle. Poe missed roll calls and refused to attend classes or church, and ultimately, he was court martialed, leaving the Point in March, 1831.

In "The Raven," the indelible mark of its author's own experiences in early life is readily discernible. To begin, Poe's most famous verse piece revolves around a lost love, the scholar's idealized Lenore, whom death has taken and whom he will see "nevermore." When we first "see" the student-narrator of "The Raven," he is engaged in the study of antiquated knowledge as a means of diverting his mind from the memory of the "rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels name Lenore." Clearly there is a resonance here between Poe's own extensive career as student and the death of Jane Stanard.

Poe himself would comment upon "The Raven" as being driven by "the human thirst for self-torture," as the student deliberately progresses to the most exquisite "luxury of sorrow."3 In this regard we observe that although the raven supplies the one-word answers, it is the student who chooses the questions, and when he inquires about when the shadow of the bird and his mournful message will be lifted from his heart, he knows in advance that the reply will be "nevermore." "As the action proceeds, the young man becomes more and more incapable of giving any direction to his existence or even knowing the meaning of life in any way," Edward Davidson observes, adding that the student's situation is unusual insofar as "he has the power of watching himself move toward meaninglessness, and even to enjoy the spectacle."4 As in Poe's own life, then, the student's emotional torment is largely self-inflicted, akin to Poe's frequent visits to the grave of his friend's mother.

On the other hand, the "raven" has a part in the student's psychic descent as well, and here we observe that the "ebony bird" is closely associated in the poem with reason, perching upon a bust of the goddess of reason, Pallas Athena, when the narrator allows him to enter his quarters. David Ketterer has interpreted the action of "The Raven" as revolving around the student's over-dependence upon ratiocination asserting that, "because of his reliance on the intellect, the student . . . loses an opportunity to regain his lost Lenore."5 When we read at the very center of the poem that "methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer / Swung by seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor," we anticipate encountering the dead Lenore in some form, either in the flesh or as a wraith. Yet Lenore does not appear, and the reason seems to be that the narrator's faith in knowledge overcomes the power of his will to conjure up his beloved. Clearly, the raven can be viewed as a manifestation of the narrator's mind specifically of his rational faculties, and hence, the narrator develops a veiled sense of guilt over his own inability to raise Lenore from the dead, his imaginative powers being stifled by his reason. Again, the multiple tragedies that afflicted Poe during his student years, while he was engaged in the study of antiquated "lore" surface in this work.

Composed by Poe several years before the publication of "The Raven," his short story "Ligeia" also exhibits distinct autobiographical influences. Structurally, "Ligeia" is divided into two equal halves. The narrator-husband, like Poe himself, experiences an abrupt turnabout as his Ligeia's death and chance fortune necessitate his undertaking a completely new chapter in his life. After Ligeia's premature death, he leaves Germany and travels to England where he marries Lady Rowena Trevanion. Although Ligeia ultimately takes on Rowena's corporeal body, the narrator draws repeated contrasts between the ethereal beauty of the raven-haired Ligeia and the superficial charms of his second wife. While the widowed narrator's new-found riches enable him to purchase an abbey in England and to acquire a titled bride, the latter only becomes a prison, while Lady Rowena serves principally as a foil to Ligeia and a momento mori of all that his first wife's death has taken from him. As his marriage to Lady Rowena devolves, the narrator becomes increasingly preoccupied with the imaginative re-creation of Ligeia and he relates: "Ligeia, the beloved, the august, the entombed. I reveled in recollections of her purity, of her wisdom, of her lofty, ethereal nature, or her passionate, her idolatrous love." Above all, the narrator is haunted by the question of what lies behind Ligeia's extraordinary eyes.6

Quite obviously, the narrator's longing for the resurrection of his first wife mirrors Poe's felt loss of both his three mothers, and his ill-fated love for Sarah Royston. David Hoffman has observed that while the narrator of "Ligeia" possesses strong emotions for his wife before and after her early death, "Ligeia herself is associated, in the narrator's mind, with knowledge," and he also notes that Ligeia is a mother-figure for the narrator.7 Hoffman has made the broadest connections between Poe's life and the tale.

It seems impossible to doubt that the prototypes of these experiences in the tale were the death of Eddie's mother, his guilty transference of love to Mrs. Allan, then later to various childhood sweethearts and at last to poor Virginia Clemm. (who would eventually become Poe's wife).8

Here we observe that, for Poe, Ligeia was that ethereal, idealized female figure, both lover and mother, who figuratively embodies all of the women whom Poe saw buried during his youth and Sarah Royston as well. In the end, the narrator attempts to will Ligeia back to life, but the outcome is a horrifying abomination as Ligeia's spirit fuses with that of the narrator's second dead wife. Hence, even when will overcomes "rational" reality, the outcome is both untenable and tragic.

Written about the same time as "Ligeia," "William Wilson" displays several noteworthy autobiographical strands. Like Poe did in his own life, the narrator employs a pseudonym, confiding at the very outset of the tale "Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson," and, like Poe, he harbors a strong sense of guilt, explaining that his reason for using this name is that: "The fair page lying before me need not be sullied with my real appellation." As we learn in the course of the story, the narrator's character parallels Poe's own psychological makeup. He is a sensitive, instable character "addicted to the wildest caprices," including gambling, strong drink, and the use of opium. These excesses are grounded in Wilson's early upbringing, particularly in an excessive freedom and accompanying willfulness. Of his own childhood, the narrator says that, "my voice was a household law, and at an age when few children have abandoned their leading-strings, I was felt to the guidance of my own will." It is apparent that William Wilson developed that same headstrong drive to self-destruction that Poe himself followed to a tragic conclusion.

Like Poe in England and the United States, the narrator William Wilson attends a series of three different schools, Dr. Barnsby's Academy for Boys, Eton, and Oxford, and the general trajectory is that of moral dissolution, as he engages in greater and greater acts of turpitude, culminating in a rigged card game. At the work's conclusion, the narrator Wilson literally wills his own death, or that of his soul, when he stabs his double with a rapier. Clearly, William Wilson "willfully" contributes to his own self-destruction, and, in this, he bears a strong resemblance to both Poe and to the student-narrator of "The Raven." Upon seeing his image reflected in a mirror after the death of his double, the narrator realizes that he "lives by the anarchy of his own private godlike will that is his only mirror and manifestation."9 While we have no reliable means of affirming that a similar revelation took place in Poe's life during his youth, we certainly get the sense that Poe thought of himself in much the same way as William Wilson, as a self-exiled individual whose own will grew beyond natural human proportions and led him to the pits of despair and self-destruction.

Notes 1 G. R. Thompson, "Edgar Allen Poe," Antebellum Writers in New York and the South, ed. Joel Myerson (Detroit: Gale Research, 1979), p. 251. 2 Ibid., p. 252. 3 Edgar Allan Poe cited in Thompson, p. 282. 4 Edward H. Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), p. 103. 5 David Ketterer, The Rationale of Deception in Poe (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University, 1979), p. 168. 6 Joan Dayan, Fables of the Mind: An Inquiry into Poe's Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 179. 7 Daniel Hoffman, Poe (New York: Avon Books, 1959), pp. 242, 246. 8 Ibid., p. 252. 9 Davidson, pp. 200-201.

Bibliography Chase, Lewis. Poe and His Poetry. London: George Harrap, 1969.

Davidson, Edward H. Poe: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957.

Dayan, Joan. Fables of the Mind: An Inquiry into Poe's Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Hoffman, Daniel. Poe. New York: Avon Books, 1959.

Ketterer, David. The Rationale of Deception in Poe. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University, 1979.

Thompson, G.R. "Edgar Alien Poe," Antebellum Writers in New York and the South. Ed. Joel Myerson. Detroit: Gale Research, 1979, pp.249-297.

Winwar, Frances. The Haunted Palace; The Life of Edgar Alien Poe. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959.

Themes of "The Raven"

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First published in 1845, "The Raven" is undoubtedly Poe’s most famous and widely read work. It was received with critical acclaim when published, giving Poe the fame which had mostly eluded him previously.

Whilst the Poem is written in the Gothic horror tradition, one of its central themes is that of beauty. It was Poe’s belief that beauty and grief are only slightly removed from each other, with both having the capacity to move a man to tears. The subject of a beautiful woman meeting an untimely death recurs frequently in Poe’s work. In "The Raven" the narrator is seen trying to find relief – “surcease of sorrow” - from his grief at the death of his love, Lenore. We are reminded several times of her beauty, though we are not told the circumstances of her death.

This theme was particularly close to Poe, being a reflection of his life experience. Poe’s life was shaped by the early death of several women close to him – his mother, Elizabeth died (aged 24) when he was just 3 and his adoptive mother, Frances Allan, when he was twenty, both of tuberculosis. At the time Poe was working on "The Raven," his young wife Virginia was also very ill with the disease.

A second important, and related, theme is that of despair. The despair the narrator feels at the beginning of the poem, where he “vainly” seeks “surcease of sorrow – sorrow for the lost Lenore,” is only magnified by the events of the poem, so that by the final stanza he realizes his spirits “shall be lifted nevermore.” Whilst the narrator hopes initially that the Raven’s unexpected visit will give him some respite and distraction from his grief, the bird’s repeated refrain of “nevermore” only confirms and reinforces his despair.

Related to this theme is the idea of destiny and the inevitability of fate. In Poe’s own life of tragedy he seemed at times destined for a sorrow from which there was little escape – periods of good fortune were soon eclipsed by personal tragedy. In "The Raven" the narrator is unable to change his destiny. Despite his increasing awareness that the Raven will always answer “nevermore” he continues to ask questions about his future with increasing desperation. From mundane questions about the bird’s name he progresses eventually to questions about his chances of future happiness. The raven’s “nevermore” fills him with despair, leaving him unable to lift his soul “from out that shadow.”

The improbability of a bird being able to answer rationally is obvious even to the disturbed narrator, who is initially certain that “what it utters is only stock and store.” However, the bird is perched on the bust of Pallas – the Greek goddess of wisdom, symbolizing some knowledge or intelligence in what is said. The bird is also undisturbed by the man’s angry attempts to get it to leave – when he shrieks “take thy form from off my door,” the Raven simply replies “Nevermore.” Whilst the narrator chooses what questions to ask the bird, he seems to have little control over its choice to remain.

A final, permeating theme is that of horror. This horror is most obviously symbolized by the Raven. The appearance of the “grim and ancient Raven” has long been used a symbol of ill omen. The fact that this bird, which should not be capable of speech, let alone reasoned reply, adds to the horror of the scene. Whilst the narrator recognizes that the word is a stock reply, he is chilled by the way the Raven responds at appropriate points.

The mental state of the narrator himself also builds the feeling of horror. In the opening stanzas he appears sane and logical, recounting some event – “Ah, distinctly I remember.” Whilst his sorrow is evident, he appears to be in control. The first sounds of tapping change this – he tries to dismiss them but, when they continue accompanied by the rustling of the chamber curtains, he is scared, filled “with fantastic terrors never felt before.” Still, he seems to master his fear, smiling at the entrance of the Raven, and recognizing that his chorus bears “little relevancy.”

As the Raven’s visit lengthens, we feel the narrator losing control of his sanity, growing more and more uncomfortable with the bird’s presence and placing increasing store in his “Nevermore,” till his at the bird to leave – “Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door.” As the poem ends we find the narrator unable to recover – his spirits “shall be lifted nevermore.” The continuing presence of the raven is a constant torment and reminder of his grief, and a source of horror for the reader.

Poe’s choice of language and setting also reinforce the theme of horror. The poem is peppered with words of darkness and fear – “dreary,” “dying,” “terrors” and so on. The storm raging outside the chamber echoes the tempest of the narrator’s emotions – the chamber itself offering him no protection – placing him, figuratively perhaps, in the eye of the storm.

Poe’s intricate crafting of "The Raven" has ensured its longevity as a popular poem. The layering of its themes adds to this appeal.

Poe: Storyteller and Poet

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Edgar Allen Poe was virtually ignored by his contemporaries until the publication of “The Raven” in 1845. The poem enjoyed the status of being an overnight sensation for its popular appeal, while simultaneously stirring the simmering caldron of critical controversy. Interestingly, Poe’s early reputation in America rested on his bitingly aggressive and self-serving critical reviews and his gruesome fictional tales, while his reputation abroad was built almost entirely on his poetry. Although “The Raven” won Poe instant celebrity status from a broad audience, many of Poe’s critical peers did not judge the poem solely on its textual merits. Instead they elected to assess “The Raven” on the basis of Poe’s reputation for public drunkenness and literary feuds, in addition to his contrived craftsmanship and the thematic and structural resemblances in the poem to earlier works, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” Charles Dickens’s “Barnaby Rudge,” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

“The Raven” combines Poe’s literary talents as both storyteller and poet. The narrator of the poem is a young male student who is grieving over the death of his beloved Lenore but who wrestles with the thought of divesting himself of her precious memory, even at the expense of his own sanity. Thus, immediately, sadness and sorrow emerge as the ruling motifs of the chilling and chaotic tale, fashioned into a 108-line, 18-verse poem. The poem is comprised of a two-part structure. In the first half of the poem, stanzas one through nine, the young lover wrestles with his anguish by immersing himself in studious pursuits. But by stanza ten, and throughout the remainder of the poem, he yields to the emotional trauma of his loss and slips into the abyss of madness.

The poem opens with an overwhelming sense of melancholy as the morose young man and first-person narrator is poised at the threshold of memory. As he sits before a fireplace of “dying ember[s] on “a midnight dreary” in “bleak December,” the young man’s ambivalence fills the air with the tension of past and present. In a half stupor, napping and dreaming, he pores “Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,” while longing for his lost and beloved companion Lenore.

The landscape of the tale quickly broadens with fear and uncertainty as the young man’s sad reverie is abruptly interrupted by what he believes to be someone insistently tapping at his chamber door. Though he assumes “Tis some visitor” at the door, he is thrilled at the thought that his beloved Lenore might have returned to him. The sound of “the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain,” amplifies his anticipation as he decides to explore the mysterious tapping, but to no avail. No one is at the door. Momentarily he settles himself by claiming “ ‘Tis the wind and nothing more!”

However, fueled by desperation, he continues to explore the mysterious sound. He flings open the window shutter to find a magnificent bird of ill-omen, “a stately raven of the saintly days of yore” who, uncharacteristically, steps into his room and with an air of condescension, symbolically perches up high on a bust of Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Lured by the serious demeanor of the mysterious ebony bird, the young man decides to play along with what he deems to be the raven’s mischievous tactics and asks his “lordly name.” Unprepared for an articulate response, the young man is stunned when the raven responds: “Nevermore.” A dramatic turn occurs at this point as the raven, rather than the young man, assumes a command position.

Though logic tells the young man that the raven’s “Nevermore” is merely a rote response, he is beyond reason. Having experienced a turbulent shift in his emotions, from dreamy melancholy to irrational hope, by the second half of the poem, the young man is precariously perched on the brink of insanity. As though the raven can divine the source of the young man’s grief over the lost Lenore and the desperate hope that he will once again “clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—,” the raven continues to utter only the solitary word “Nevermore.” The young man’s spirit sags over the finality of Lenore’s death, yet he proceeds to indulge in sweet torture by his rhetorical interrogation of the stoic raven, as if his desperate questioning keeps her precious memories alive.

Ironically the raven continues to hold a position of prominence over the young man. It is empowered physically by the lofty perch it assumes on the bust above the young man’s head and psychologically by the power of its senseless response, which sends the emotionally worn, weak, and weary young man from a delicate state of sanity, spinning toward the realms of madness. Because he needs to cling to the memories of his lost Lenore, the young man experiences inner turmoil as he tries to face the thought of life without her. Finally, he chooses the torture of past memories over the pain of present emptiness.

Edgar Allen Poe succeeded in his goal of writing a poetic tale that would win popular approval from a broad audience and critical acclaim from his literary peers. Not only is his theme of love and loss emotionally engaging in the empathy it illicits from readers, it also produces a chilling fascination in the self-knowledge the young man gains as he enters a world reordered by the profound terror of his mind. Though Poe was not original in his theme, he was quite unique in the way he structured the poem and cunning in the way he calculated its effects. His distinction is that he achieved stunning originality by fashioning rhyme, meter, and rhythm into a unique stanzaic combination and poetic structure. Although several of his critics accused him of plagiarism, Poe actually used the traditional tenets of prosody, the same theory and principles of versification that define rhythm, meter, and stanza, and rhyme of poets like Barrett Browning, Dickens, and Coleridge.

William Butler Yeats was a poet and literary peer who denounced Poe’s achievement and wrote: “Analyse ‘The Raven’ and you find that its subject is a commonplace and its execution a rhythmical trick. Its rhythm never lives for a moment, never once moves with an emotional life. The whole thing seems to me insincere and vulgar.” And T. S. Eliot commented in a November 1948 lecture: “An irresponsibility towards the meaning of words is not infrequent with Poe. . . . Several words in the poem seem to be inserted either merely to fill out the line to the required measure or for the sake of rhyme.” But more favorable critical assessments of “The Raven” have continued to lift to poem beyond the grasp of critical strangulation. In his 1992 work, biographer Jeffrey Meyers recalled the sensation the poem created in 1848: “Surpassing the popularity of any previous American poem, ‘The Raven’ was reprinted throughout the country and inspired a great number of imitations and parodies.”

In “The Raven,” Poe displays technical craftsmanship as he creates a contrived ambiguity amid highly visible rhetorical strategies, such as alliteration, playful internal rhyme, varied meter, and inconsistent medial caesuras. Given the probing quality of Poe’s mind and his penchant for analytical assessments of literature, he needed to explain his own poetic vision and prosodic methodology. In his 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe eagerly discusses the origins of “The Raven” and readily acknowledges that the poem was a contrived experiment. His goal was to achieve “novel effects,” and he succeeded in that goal.

In the first and third lines of each stanza, Poe often employs internal rhyme, like the “parting,” “upstarting,” “token,” “spoken,” “flitting,” “sitting,” “seeming,” and “dreaming” in the final two stanzas of the poem, and he often inserts a break in the line (a caesura), to gain diversity of rhythmical effect and connect what could be two separate lines. End rhyme is also a consistent feature in the poem and is visible in lines two and four, like “shore,” “door,” and “floor” above. In his end rhyme, Poe captures the rhythmic quality and richness of “the long “O” and rolling “R” that contribute to the hypnotic effects of the refrain “Nevermore,” which is subtly varied in each verse. As a complement to these strategies, Poe intensifies the novel effects of language by employing rhetorical strategies like the repetition of initial consonants and similar vowel sounds in the alliteration of “weak and weary” in stanza one and the “flirt and flutter” of stanza seven. The repetition of polyptoton, or words in close proximity that stemfrom the same root, is evident in “dreaming dreams . . . dream” of stanza five and “Tempter . . . tempest” of stanza fifteen.

In addition to the rhetorical strategies evident in “The Raven,” and to his goals related to tone, symbol, beauty, and suspense, Poe had specific intentions regarding the metrical structure or prosody of the poem. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” he defines his calculated approach for ingenious versification:

Of course, I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of the “Raven.” The former is trochaic—the latter is octameter acatalectic, alternating with heptameter catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrameter catalectic. Less pedantically the feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short: the first line of the stanza consists of eight of these feet—the second of seven and a half (in effect two-thirds)—the third of eight—the fourth of seven and a half—the fifth the same—the sixth three and a half.

Simply put, the sing-song, rocking horse rhythms produced by the trochaic meter can be seen in the opening line where each of the eight feet (octameter) contains an accented and an unaccented syllable: “Once up / on a / midnight/ dreary, / while I / pondered / weak and / weary.”

It is clear that Poe accomplished both his dramatic and metrical goals in composing a highly original stanzaic arrangement in “The Raven.” Counter to the charges of triviality leveled at him by his contemporaries, Poe emerged as the strongest single poetic influence born out of pre-Civil War America. He not only addressed the central question of nineteenth-century romantic symbolism, that of reality over illusion or the power of the imagination, he transported Romantic symbolism to new heights. The reality of Edgar Allan Poe as poet is that the critical recognition of the poem’s technical merits has increased over time, and the poem has outlived its most harsh critics.

Source: B. J. Bolden, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997. B. J. Bolden is an Assistant Professor of English at Chicago State University, Chicago, IL. She is the managing editor of Warland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas at Chicago State University and the author of Urban Rage in Bronzville: Social Commentary in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks 1945-1960.

Universal and Timeless Appeal of "The Raven"

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From the moment of its first publication in the New York Evening Mirror on January 29, 1845, “The Raven” has been a famous poem. It caused an immediate national sensation and was widely reprinted, discussed, parodied, and performed— catapulting its penurious and dejected thirty-six-year-old author into celebrity. The poem was soon translated into many European languages, most notably by the French Symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme, who insisted on using prose because French could not recreate the original’s verbal magic. By 1885 one American critic could plausibly call Poe’s work “the most popular lyric poem in the world.” Even today, “The Raven” still remains one of the few poems millions of Americans can quote from memory. Despite the poem’s enduring fame and extraordinary influence, however, leading critics have rarely found much to say in its favor. They have objected to its gothic atmosphere, ornate musicality, horror-tale narrative, and even its meter. And yet, a century and a half after its first appearance, the poem survives with its popularity undiminished.

What is the secret of “The Raven’s” uniquely powerful appeal? The question may be unanswerable in any final sense, but we can begin to understand the poem’s strange authority by isolating at least four key elements: its compelling narrative structure, darkly evocative atmosphere, hypnotic verbal music, and archetypal symbolism. Although none of these elements was original to “The Raven,” their masterful combination created a strikingly original and singularly arresting poem.

The key to understanding “The Raven” is to read it as a narrative poem. It is a narrative of haunting lyricality, to be sure, but its central impulse is to tell a memorable story. The hypnotic swing of the trochaic meter, the insistent chime of the internal rhymes, and its unforgettable refrain of “Nevermore” provide each stanza with a song-like intensity, but the poem’s structure remains undeviatingly narrative. Stanza by stanza, “The Raven” moves sequentially through the situation it describes. Any reader familiar with short stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Fall of the House of Usher” will recognize Poe’s innovative narrative method. By imbuing a simple, linear story with brooding atmosphere of intricately arranged details, Poe perfected a style that allowed every moment to reinforce the tale’s ultimate effect.

The time and setting of “The Raven” are as much a part of the story as the actions that take place. (In Poe’s work the physical setting often refleets the inner personality or emotion of the central character.) The poem begins at midnight in December—the last moment of a spent day in the final month of the year. Internally and externally, it is a time of death and decay. Even the “dying” fireplace embers reflect the moribund atmosphere. The setting is contained and claustrophobic—a single room. The narrator himself mirrors the time and locale. “Weak and weary,” he seems trapped in his richly furnished prison. He hopes for the morning—the return of light and life—but tonight all he can do is brood on his dead love, “the lost Lenore,” and feel the tangible horror of his current situation.

The story that now unfolds is simple, terrifying, and tragic. The narrator hears a mysterious tapping at his chamber door. He thinks at first it is a late night visitor, but opening the door, he finds only “Darkness there, and nothing more.” (This initial glimpse into black nothingness will prove prophetic of his ultimate fate.) Half afraid, half wishful, the speaker whispers the name of his dead lover. Irrationally he hopes the visitor is her ghost. There comes no reply, however, except the echo of his own voice. Soon the tapping resumes—now at his window. Opening the shutter, he finds a Raven. (Poe capitalizes the bird to suggest it is no ordinary raven.) The bird flutters in and immediately perches on the bust of Pallas Athena, the classical goddess of wisdom.

By now Poe has already established the basic symbolic framework of the poem, which—characteristically for him—is both structurally simple and elaborately detailed. “The Raven” divides its characters and imagery into two conflicting worlds of light and darkness. Virtually every detail in the poem reflects one world or the other. Lenore, who is repeatedly described as “radiant” epitomizes the world of light—along with angels she has now joined. Other images of light include the white bust of Pallas and the lamplight that illumines the speaker’s chamber, his haven from the outer darkness. The Raven, however, represents the seemingly larger and more powerful forces of darkness on this black December midnight. His shadow, the final image of the poem, demonstrates his power to darken the weak and dying light of the speaker’s refuge. The ebony bird’s ironic perch on the bust of Pallas also underscores the inability of reason and learning (further symbolized by the narrator’s unconsoling books) to combat the powers of blackness and despair. The contrasting worlds of light and darkness gradually acquire additional symbolic resonances: they also represent life and death—the speaker’s vain hope of an afterlife with Lenore and the terrifying vision of eternal nothingness.

The movement of “The Raven’s” plot reinforces the poem’s essentially symbolic nature, and all of Poe’s idiosyncratic linguistic genius endows the story with supernatural significance. The narrative situation is, of course, not implausible in strictly naturalistic terms. The speaker may simply have encountered an escaped pet whose previous owner had taught the bird to repeat the word “nevermore.” Poe’s language, however, gradually convinces us that a purely rational explanation will not suffice, however neatly it fits the external facts. The conflicting worlds of light and darkness suggest their transcendent counterparts—heaven and hell. In contrast to the heavenly and angelic Lenore, the Raven is repeatedly and explicitly characterized in demonic terms. This imperious and implacable visitor has come from the land of death, “the Night’s Plutonian shore.” He seems—at least to the agitated narrator—a devil sent to claim the speaker for the underworld. The speaker’s dawning awareness of his hellish doom is reflected in the poem’s changing refrain, which begins as “nothing more” and “evermore,” but darkens once the bird speaks his prophetic “nevermore.” By the poem’s last line, the narrator has accepted the bird’s dire prophecy. Echoing his shadowy tormentor, he declares his soul “Shall be lifted—nevermore!”

Indeed, the conclusion of “The Raven” stands as one of the most harrowing moments in American poetry—a vision of psychological, emotional, and spiritual paralysis and despair. The gothic decor and high rhetoric do not disguise the emotional authenticity of the final tableau. As Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarme, and the other Symbolists understood, “The Raven” is the signature work of un poete maudit, “a cursed poet.” They honored Poe as a brilliant artist who was destroyed by his very gifts of heightened perception. Like its author, the poem’s protagonist is an aesthete and intellectual whose mental gifts provide no protection against tragedy. The depth of his love for the lost Lenore only makes his suffering more intense and enduring.

“The Raven” has a singular claim in nineteenth-century American literary history. Poe left a detailed (if also often unconvincing) account of the poem’s genesis. Elated by its trans-Atlantic acclaim, Poe published “The Philosophy of Composition” in April of 1846, which purports to “explain step by step” the process by which he wrote “The Raven.” Inspiration or chance, Poe claimed, played no part in the poem’s composition. “The Raven” emerged from a deliberate and conscious process that progressed “with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.” Hardly anyone has taken Poe’s rational view of poetic composition at face value, but psychological critics have justifiably viewed its arguments as a classic case of compensation. An obsessive and emotionally wounded poet, Poe preferred to present himself as controlled, deliberate, and logical. Even if we accept the basic premise of Poe’s claim that he created the poem systematically from abstract goals, we are entitled to comment that only an author full of raging emotions would insist on the necessity for such complete artistic control.

“The Raven” is not a tragedy in the conventional sense, but the drama of the poem possesses a genuinely tragic element. The speaker does not turn away from the horrifying void. He tries to act reasonably in a situation where reason provides no defense. Even if the protagonist does not rise fully to the heroic demands of tragedy by struggling against his fate, neither does he try to escape it. He steadfastly faces his tormentor, a demonic emblem (to quote Poe’s own italicized description from “The Philosophy of Composition”) of "Mournful and Neverending Remembrance.” Trapped and doomed, the protagonist nonetheless articulates what it is like to endure the limits of psychological suffering. Whether Poe himself fully shared those agonies we cannot say, but however rational the composition of “The Raven” truly was, the wellsprings of human pain and loss feeding it were vastly deep and authentic. As Walt Whitman wrote of his own work, “Who touches this touches a man.” Few poems have touched so many readers so deeply as “The Raven.”

Dana Gioia, in an essay for the Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997. Dana Gioia is a poet and critic. His books include The Gods of Winter, 1991, and Can Poetry Matter?

Edgar Allen Poe and the Nightmare Ode

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“The Raven,” unequivocally the most famous of Poe’s small body of poetry, may be among our most famous bad poems. Americans are fond of saying we do not read and do not care for poetry. It may be so. Yet Americans commonly recognize Poe’s bird as subject of a poem by a weird guy who drank himself to death. Written and published in 1845, in print steadily for 148 years, the stanzas of ”The Raven” are sonic flashcards. We may not know Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, or Eliot. But we do know Poe. We know “The Raven.”

A poem that might have been designed by Benjamin Franklin “The Raven” purports to be explained by Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition.” Poe wrote his essay for crowds smitten by his bird. Interestingly, he does not justify poetry with morality, as Emerson and Whitman would. He pretends to expose the poet’s trade. Some recent criticism has seen “The Raven” as a parody of Romantic poems of personal discovery. Perhaps, what Poe leaves unsaid peels, layer by layer, toward two questions answerable only by speculation. The first asks why “The Raven” has for fifteen generations commanded the imaginations of people who have often enough known it to be a bad poem. The second question asks if Poe is a Southern writer. They are related questions.

That “The Raven” is a bad poem is unacceptable to many readers, and Poe people are not swayed much by rational argument. Were they, the plot alone would convict Poe. A man sits late in a storm; he laments a lost lady love; a bird not ordinarily abroad at night, and especially not in severe weather, seeks entrance to the human dwelling; admitted, the bird betrays no fright, no panic, its attitude entirely focused on its host—an invited guest; the bird, then, enters into a ventriloquial dialectic with the host and is domesticated to become an inner voice; we might say it is the voice of the innerground as opposed to underground, which word means much to the American spirit with its reasons to run, to hide, to contain itself. Action then ceases.

Poe knew this one-man backlot production for the smoker it was. His embrace of gothic machinery includes a terrified, obsessed man, an inhospitable, allegorical midnight in December, a “gifted” animal, extreme emotional states, heavy breathing of both cadence and melodramatic signifers (grim, gaunt), the supernatural presence of inexplicables (perfume, Pallas, bird), all to portray a psychic battle in the mind. Poe assembles a version of saloon theater for the mind’s ear. But his poem’s form emerges from the unbuckled ways of the ode, the loosened metrics of which Poe knew in the work of Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. Poe’s editorial slush pile was full of their imitators. Odes attracted people because, as Gilbert Highet has said, they “soar and dive and veer as the wind catches their wing.” The capacity for passion, personal experience, ambitious public utterance, and a celebrative finish defines the ode. The boosterism, self-infatuation, and lyceum podiums of nineteenth-century America made Poe and the ode a natural match. . . .

Poe was attracted to the ode because, as English Romantics had used it, a classical rigor was maintained while a daring shift had begun which would result in lyric, singular, interior expression. . . .

That the language strategies Poe employs, largely yoked under the braided tropes of reiteration and interrogation, are distantly related to the Pindaric tradition of triadic movement which desires aesthetic completion as well as to the Horat-ian tradition of monody seems obvious enough. . . .

Poe wanted a rhythmic trance he felt was conducive to an impression of beauty but wanted the trance to dispossess the reader from tranquil stability. He relies on the catalectic, or broken pattern, a missing syllable that “bumps” our progression. Poe exploits a ballad half-line, with its comfortable lyric expectations, its mnemonic power, and its narrative momentum to tell a virtually plotless story, a story entirely interior and psychological. He has telescoped the ballad line into the ode’s stanzaic regularity, controlling tropes, public address, and mixed dictions to accomplish what appears a personal complaint, not the ode’s meditational tone for imponderables such as art, beauty, life, and death. The tale served by his machinery is the dispossessing myth of lost love, which Poe routinely furnishes with classical allusions to establish eternal resonance.

Our affection for Poe’s bird must be, in some measure, due to his adaptations, clunky and ju-ryrigged as they appear. Poe thought his work daring, and it is, in the presentation of the nightmare of absent consolation, or belonging-to. “The Raven” reverberates not with the usual flight-to-vision, return-enlightened celebration, but with the pyschic thrill of confronting despair, isolation, and the utter futility of lovely words. The nightmare vision made the poem an allegory of the darkest self in terror. . . .

Poe finds himself alone in the time and season of human intercourse at its lowest ebb; a time, indeed, when we remind ourselves that we had better change our ways, or else—as Dickens’ Scrooge learns. A knock at his door should bring Poe a human visitor, if any, an emissary from the community; yet there is darkness, and then the Raven, the predator. And a predator who seems to know Poe is doomed to an absence of civil intercourse, a silence, and words which echo without effect. Poe understands and declares that even the bird will leave him, as all others have done, as hope has done. With this, Poe’s poem has arrived at nightmare, the living isolation from fellowship that popular horror movies have turned into the ghoulish marches of the living dead. If Poe’s bird seems deadly, the incan-tatory rhythms which evoked the birdspell are the forbidding stanzas which clank forth and enchant us as if the bird were enacting some chthonic ritual. The bird, in fact, makes no move after arrival. It does not threaten, seems entirely content, is a creature not unfamiliar to odes. Yet how different from, say, a nightingale so sweetly caged by a form which for Poe permits the witness to come close to his creature and yet keep safe, a glimpsed but not engaged threat. Still, having summoned the raven, Poe cannot so easily deny or repress it: he tells us the bird sits in the forever of that last stanza, a curse neither expiated nor escaped. . . .

This is a basic country-western song and it sells more than we may want to think about. Yet few country-western songs last in admiration or consciousness as “The Raven” does. Poe’s addition of the nearly voiceless but intimidating bird employs Gothic machinery to touch unresolved fears of what’s under the bed or behind the door. But Poe’s bird has the power of knowledge—it knows us— and this makes the world a more slippery place than we had thought. It exposes our inside. That is a problem for Poe, and for all of us, because he knows that the inside without connection to an outside is an emptiness, a desert. No self can supply love’s support, community sustenance, or the hope we once drew from an outside system. Poe’s terrible fable sticks with us because no matter what our intellects conceive, our hearts believe we are alien, each of us, and there is a god-bird that knows it, too. . . .

Poe loved women who died, often violently, diseased. His mother went first; he was two and an orphan. He was taken in and raised as ward of John Allan and his wife Frances, a sickly woman who would die on him, but first there would be Jane Stanard, on whom he had a fourteen-year-old’s crush. She was thirty-one when she died insane. Poe suffered the death of three women before he finished being a moody teenaged boy. . . .

Poe felt he had second-class treatment from his foster family. He felt himself orphaned. At eighteen he went to the University of Virginia, where he was undercapitalized and made to feel his inferior circumstance. He was pushed outside that society, too. Returned to Richmond, he found himself an outsider, and he embarked on one of his secret journeys. Wandering, turning up, writing, editing, trying to establish a domestic community, then wandering off—this was the pattern of Poe’s life. In every relationship and in every circumstance, he was the outsider, the orphan. . . .

He was an artist, a truth-teller—nothing is more obsessive in his tales than that need. His truth was a nightmare.

If we read “The Raven,” despite its absence of specific local details, as an “awareness” of the life of America in 1845, we see that Poe has conjectured the nightmare of the individual cut off from history, abandoned by family, place, and community love. . . .

This story is still the nightmare. Having seen it, Poe celebrates the sensibility or imagination that suffers and knows simultaneously, ultimately the figure of the artist. This figure will sit in the lost garden, knowing its lostness, without explanation, but aware that the change is hopeless and continuous. This poem will, in its late variations, become our outlaw song of the renegade, the cowboy in black, the rebel without a cause. “The Raven” is the drama of nightmare awakening in the American poetic consciousness where there is no history which is not dispossession, little reality to the American promise, and nothing of consequence to place trust in except the song, the ode of celebration. . . . “The Raven” is the croaking and anguished nightmare ode of allegiance, and we have been finding ourselves in it ever since Poe began hearing “Nevermore.”

Source: Dave Smith, "Edgar Allan Poe and the Nightmare Ode," in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 29, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 4-10.


Critical Overview


The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe