Edgar Allan Poe (essay date 1845)

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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 second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.”

I cannot think this the precise mode of procedure on the part of Godwin—and indeed what he himself acknowledges, is not altogether in accordance with Mr. Dickens' idea—but the author of “Caleb Williams” was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis—or one is suggested by an incident of the day—or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative—designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view—for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest—I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.

I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would—that is to say who could—detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say—but, perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers—poets in especial—prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought—at the true purposes seized only at the last moment—at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view—at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable—at the cautious selections and rejections—at the painful erasures and interpolations—in a word, at the wheels and pinions—the tackle for scene-shifting—the step-ladders and demon-traps—the cock's feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.

I am aware, on the other hand, that the case is by no means common, in which an author is at all in condition to retrace the steps by which his conclusions have been attained. In general, suggestions, having arisen pell-mell, are pursued and forgotten in a similar manner.

For my own part, I have neither sympathy with the repugnance alluded to, nor, at any time the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions; and, since the interest of an analysis, or reconstruction, such as I have considered a desideratum, is quite independent of any real or fancied interest in the thing analyzed, it will not be regarded as a breach of decorum on my part to show the modus operandi by which some one of my own works was put together. I select “The Raven,” as most generally known. It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.

Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem, per se, the circumstance—or say the necessity—which, in the first place, gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste.

We commence, then, with this intention.

The initial consideration was that of extent. If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus [other things being equal], no poet can afford to dispense with any thing that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones—that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such, only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating, the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least one half of the “Paradise Lost” is essentially prose—a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions—the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity, of effect.

It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art—the limit of a single sitting—and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as “Robinson Crusoe,” (demanding no unity) this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem. Within this limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit—in other words, to the excitement or elevation—again in other words, to the degree of the true poetical effect which it is capable of inducing; for it is clear that the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect:—this, with one proviso—that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.

Holding in view these considerations, as well as that degree of excitement which I deemed not above the popular, while not below the critical, taste, I reached at once what I conceived the proper length for my intended poem—a length of about one hundred lines. It is, in fact a hundred and eight.

My next thought concerned the choice of an impression, or effect, to be conveyed: and here I may as well observe that, throughout the construction, I kept steadily in view the design of rendering the work universally appreciable. I should be carried too far out of my immediate topic were I to demonstrate a point upon which I have repeatedly insisted, and which, with the poetical, stands not in the slightest need of demonstration—the point, I mean, that Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem. A few words, however, in elucidation of my real meaning, which some of my friends have evinced a disposition to misrepresent. That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure, is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect—they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul—not of intellect, or of heart—upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating “the beautiful.” Now I designate Beauty as the province of the poem, merely because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring from direct causes—that objects should be attained through means best adapted for their attainment—no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation alluded to is most readily attained in this poem. Now the object, Truth, or the satisfaction of the intellect, and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart, are, although attainable, to a certain extent, in poetry, far more readily attainable in prose. Truth, in fact, demands a precision, and Passion a homeliness (the truly passionate will comprehend me) which are absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty which, I maintain, is the excitement, or pleasurable elevation, of the soul. It by no means follows from any thing here said, that passion, or even truth, may not be introduced, and even profitably introduced, into a poem—for they may serve in elucidation, or aid the general effect, as do discords in music, by contrast—but the true artist will always contrive, first, to tone them into proper subservience to the predominant aim, and secondly, to enveil them, as far as possible, in that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the essence of the poem.

Regarding, then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation—and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.

The length, the province, and the tone, being thus determined, I betook myself to ordinary induction, with the view of obtaining some artistic piquancy which might serve me as a keynote in the construction of the poem—some pivot upon which the whole structure might turn. In carefully thinking over all the usual artistic effects—or more properly points, in the theatrical sense—I did not fail to perceive immediately that no one had been so universally employed as that of the refrain. The universality of its employment sufficed to assure me of its intrinsic value, and spared me the necessity of submitting it to analysis. I considered it, however, with regard to its susceptibility of improvement, and soon saw it to be in a primitive condition. As commonly used, the refrain, or burden, not only is limited to lyric verse, but depends for its impression upon the force of monotone—both in sound and thought. The pleasure is deduced solely from the sense of identity—of repetition. I resolved to diversify, and so heighten, the effect, by adhering, in general, to the monotone of sound, while I continually varied that of thought: that is to say, I determined to produce continuously novel effects, by the variation of the application of the refrain—the refrain itself remaining, for the most part, unvaried.

These points being settled, I next bethought me of the nature of my refrain. Since its application was to be repeatedly varied, it was clear that the refrain itself must be brief, for there would have been an insurmountable difficulty in frequent variations of application in any sentence of length. In proportion to the brevity of the sentence, would, of course, be the facility of the variation. This led me at once to a single word as the best refrain.

The question now arose as to the character of the word. Having made up my mind to a refrain, the division of the poem into stanzas was, of course, a corollary: the refrain forming the close of each stanza. That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt: and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant.

The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had predetermined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word “Nevermore.” In fact, it was the very first which presented itself.

The next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of the one word “Nevermore.” In observing the difficulty which I at once found in inventing a sufficiently plausible reason for its continuous repetition, I did not fail to perceive that this difficulty arose solely from the pre-assumption that the word was to be so continuously or monotonously spoken by a human being—I did not fail to perceive, in short, that the difficulty lay in the reconciliation of this monotony with the exercise of reason on the part of the creature repeating the word. Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech; and, very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.

I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven—the bird of ill omen—monotonously repeating the one word, “Nevermore,” at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone, and in length about one hundred lines. Now, never losing sight of the object supremeness, or perfection, at all points, I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death—was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

I had now to combine the two ideas, of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word “Nevermore.”—I had to combine these, bearing in mind my design of varying, at every turn, the application of the word repeated; but the only intelligible mode of such combination is that of imagining the Raven employing the word in answer to the queries of the lover. And here it was that I saw at once the opportunity afforded for the effect on which I had been depending—that is to say, the effect of the variation of application. I saw that I could make the first query propounded by the lover—the first query to which the Raven should reply “Nevermore”—that I could make this first query a commonplace one—the second less so—the third still less, and so on—until at length the lover, startled from his original nonchalance by the melancholy character of the word itself—by its frequent repetition—and by a consideration of the ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered it—is at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character—queries whose solution he has passionately at heart—propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture—propounds them not altogether because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which, reason assures him, is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote) but because he experiences a phrenzied pleasure in so modeling his questions as to receive from the expected “Nevermore” the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrow. Perceiving the opportunity thus afforded me—or, more strictly, thus forced upon me in the progress of the construction—I first established in mind the climax, or concluding query—that query to which “Nevermore” should be in the last place an answer—that in reply to which this word “Nevermore” should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair.

Here then the poem may be said to have its beginning—at the end, where all works of art should begin—for it was here, at this point of my preconsiderations, that I first put pen to paper in the composition of the stanza:

“Prophet,” said I, “thing of evil! prophet still if bird or devil!
By that heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore,
Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
                    Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

I composed this stanza, at this point, first that, by establishing the climax, I might the better vary and graduate, as regards seriousness and importance, the preceding queries of the lover—and, secondly, that I might definitely settle the rhythm, the metre, and the length and general arrangement of the stanza—as well as graduate the stanzas which were to precede, so that none of them might surpass this in rhythmical effect. Had I been able, in the subsequent composition, to construct more vigorous stanzas, I should, without scruple, have purposely enfeebled them, so as not to interfere with the climacteric effect.

And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected, in versification, is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite—and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing. The fact is, that originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.

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. Now, each of these lines, taken individually, has been employed before, and what originality the “Raven” has, is in their combination into stanza; nothing even remotely approaching this combination has ever been attempted. The effect of this originality of combination is aided by other unusual, and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration.

The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven—and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields—but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident:—it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.

I determined, then, to place the lover in his chamber—in a chamber rendered sacred to him by memories of her who had frequented it. The room is represented as richly furnished—this in mere pursuance of the ideas I have already explained on the subject of Beauty, as the sole true poetical thesis.

The locale being thus determined, I had now to introduce the bird—and the thought of introducing him through the window, was inevitable. The idea of making the lover suppose, in the first instance, that the flapping of the wings of the bird against the shutter, is a “tapping” at the door, originated in a wish to increase, by prolonging the reader's curiosity, and in a desire to admit the incidental effect arising from the lover's throwing open the door, finding all dark, and thence adopting the half-fancy that it was the spirit of his mistress that knocked.

I made the night tempestuous, first, to account for the Raven's seeking admission, and secondly, for the effect of contrast with the (physical) serenity within the chamber.

I made the bird alight on the bust of Pallas, also for the effect of contrast between the marble and the plumage—it being understood that the bust was absolutely suggested by the bird—the bust of Pallas being chosen, first, as most in keeping with the scholarship of the lover, and, secondly, for the sonorousness of the word, Pallas, itself.

About the middle of the poem, also, I have availed myself of the force of contrast, with a view of deepening the ultimate impression. For example, an air of the fantastic—approaching as nearly to the ludicrous as was admissible—is given to the Raven's entrance. He comes in “with many a flirt and flutter.”

Not the least obeisance made he—not a moment stopped or stayed he,
But with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door.

In the two stanzas which follow, the design is more obviously carried out:—

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore?”
                    Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door, 
                    With such name as “Nevermore.”

The effect of the dénouement being thus provided for, I immediately drop the fantastic for a tone of the most profound seriousness:—this tone commencing in the stanza directly following the one last quoted, with the line,

But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only, etc.

From this epoch the lover no longer jests—no longer sees any thing even of the fantastic in the Raven's demeanor. He speaks of him as a “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore,” and feels the “fiery eyes” burning into his “bosom's core.” This revolution of thought, or fancy, on the lover's part, is intended to induce a similar one on the part of the reader—to bring the mind into a proper frame for the dénouement—which is now brought about as rapidly and as directly as possible.

With the dénouement proper—with the Raven's reply, “Nevermore,” to the lover's final demand if he shall meet his mistress in another world—the poem, in its obvious phase, that of a simple narrative, may be said to have its completion. So far, every thing is within the limits of the accountable—of the real. A raven, having learned by rote the single word “Nevermore,” and having escaped from the custody of its owner, is driven at midnight, through the violence of a storm, to seek admission at a window from which a light still gleams—the chamber-window of a student, occupied half in poring over a volume, half in dreaming of a beloved mistress deceased. The casement being thrown open at the fluttering of the bird's wings, the bird itself perches on the most convenient seat out of the immediate reach of the student, who, amused by the incident and the oddity of the visitor's demeanor, demands of it, in jest and without looking for a reply, its name. The raven addressed, answers with its customary word, “Nevermore”—a word which finds immediate echo in the melancholy heart of the student, who, giving utterance aloud to certain thoughts suggested by the occasion, is again startled by the fowl's repetition of “Nevermore.” The student now guesses the state of the case, but is impelled, as I have before explained, by the human thirst for self-torture, and in part by superstition, to propound such queries to the bird as will bring him, the lover, the most of the luxury of sorrow, through the anticipated answer “Nevermore.” With the indulgence, to the extreme, of this self-torture, the narration, in what I have termed its first or obvious phase, has a natural termination, and so far there has been no overstepping of the limits of the real.

But in subjects so handled, however skilfully, or with however vivid an array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness, which repels the artistical eye. Two things are invariably required—first, some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, secondly, some amount of suggestiveness—some under-current, however indefinite, of meaning. It is this latter, in especial, which imparts to a work of art so much of that richness (to borrow from colloquy a forcible term) which we are too fond of confounding with the ideal. It is the excess of the suggested meaning—it is the rendering this the upper instead of the under-current of the theme—which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind) the so called poetry of the so called transcendentalists.

Holding these opinions, I added the two concluding stanzas of the poem—their suggestiveness being thus made to pervade all the narrative which has preceded them. The under-current of meaning is rendered first apparent in the lines—

“Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door.”
                    Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!”

It will be observed that the words, “from out my heart,” involve the first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer, “Nevermore,” dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematical—but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza, that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,
On the pallid bust of Pallas, just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
                    Shall be lifted—nevermore.


  1. Caleb Williams, a novel by the English writer and reformer William Godwin (1759-1836), appeared in 1794.


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“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.

John Phelps Fruit (essay date 1899)

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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 that, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world is the death of a beautiful woman, to be sung by the lips of a bereaved lover.

Under the stress of these convictions, Lenore seems to be the immediate precursor of The Raven.

If The Raven were written in the winter of 1843-44, in 1843 appeared also the “Pioneer version” of Lenore. The Raven was published in January, 1845; in the same year was published the final form of Lenore. May not the short verse of the “Pioneer version” of Lenore have been changed to the long, because of the long verse of The Raven? Who knows but the verse of the first draft of The Raven was short too? A suggestion has been made as to why the short verse of Lenore was made long. In any case, Lenore is the logical antecedent, in topic and treatment, of The Raven.

And thus we are brought to consider The Raven, that marvel of subtle conception, and of masterful skill in versification. Intuitively, we know its charm and own its spell: let us, discursively, seek to learn how its magic works.

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.

Conceive the physical and mental state suggested in these lines. He was nodding, nearly napping, already in that obscure route to Dream-Land. It was most natural he should be, for it was midnight, and dreary, and he was weak and weary; he had been doing heavy work—he pondered—in quaint and curious lore.

But this company of words, to wit, “midnight,” “dreary,” “weak,” “weary,” “nodded,” “napping,” are for the reader, and the simple ideo-motor power of them contributes to induce drowsiness. The hypnotist does little more than pronounce, monotonously, words that suggest sleep, depending upon their ideo-motor power for results.

Powerful as these words are individually, through suggestion, they come in the ascending order of their importance to the effect to be produced. And more wonderful, they come in a way that rocks the reader in rhythm, and lullabies him with concordances of sound and sense exquisite in sensation.

The purpose, however, of these lines is not to put the reader to sleep,—there is variety rich, for an antidote; but to have him incarnate, so to speak, that student, weak and weary, nodding, napping. There he sits, not a picture, but a veined human being, falling asleep with some curious thoughts, half-pondered, in his mind. He is flesh, he is weary; his blood flows as the lines are rhythmic.


                                                            Suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“'Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door:
                                        Only this and nothing more.”

Observe that the first half of the stanza is a record of his falling asleep, and the second half, his awaking out of that sleep. The word “suddenly” is used with rare appropriateness. Hold it in mind while you glance at the events of his awakening to rational consciousness.

He is first awake to a “tapping,” which means less noise than “rapping;” as consciousness returns it sounds like one “gently rapping;” the repetition of “rapping” recovers him his consciousness, so that he concluded that it is some one “tapping,” and nothing more. The expression, “only this and nothing more,” betrays a secret anxiety that interests us in him. What has he been reading? What is he vaguely expecting?

This man is become a nervous, quivering creature, talking to himself, with a thrilling experience to tell, could we hear it.

The student is the speaker in the first stanza, but the impression is that he is talking in a dream, so we feel that it is the poet who introduces him to our interest.

But from the first word of the second stanza, he is wide awake, and enchains us with his story as a traveller new-returned from Wonderland.

Hear him,

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore,
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore:
                                                            Nameless here for evermore.

The word “distinctly” promises what the reader craves.

Add “in the bleak December” to “midnight dreary,” and you have made way for the dying embers at their ghostly tricks upon the floor. That, so suggestively, describes a most distressing state of mind. His grief for the lost Lenore is inconsolable. No wonder, for she was the familiar of the angels; she was rare and radiant; they named her; for him to name her would be profanity. So poignant was his sorrow that he could find no respite from it, in pondering quaint and curious things; he “eagerly” wished for morning; in his despair he felt, naturally, something hauntingly imminent: the ghostly flickerings on the floor reveal most poetically his mental condition.

When we hear the word “remember,” and next, the word “December,” there is then musically emphasized to our attention “ember,” the causative word of the series,—causative of the shadows so symbolical.

In the same way think of “morrow,” and “borrow,” and “sorrow,” and “sorrow” repeated becomes a wail.

Seeing ghostly figures is agitating enough, but hearing therewith ghostly noises is racking. Listen,

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before.

“Rustling” is the chief onomatopoetic word, but see what further differentiation takes place in the addition of “sad,” and on top of that the word “uncertain;” “each” purple curtain—a ghostly company—“flaps shadowy sounds from visionary wings.” No apter word could describe the effect, in its process of taking place, than “thrilled;” and in its finished state, than “filled,”—filled with fantastic terrors.

If the reader will undertake to trace the sense-suggestions in their intricate interworkings in the first line, and then observe their unification by the rhythm, he will be “thrilled” with the means and the manner of execution.

Full of fright, he stood, and to still the beating of his heart, like some boy whistling to keep up his courage, he kept repeating,

“'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door,
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door:
                                        This it is and nothing more.”

These lines labor in the reading, suiting so well the stages of hesitation, deliberation, and decision, all in such marked contrast to the first lines of the stanza.

After the deliberation indicated in the repetend and the decision expressed in the refrain, it is time for action, so

“Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door:
                                        Darkness there and nothing more.

That is a smooth apology, but it is made behind a closed door to a “Sir” or “Madam” without. It portrays finely his trepidation. He was dead sure of opening to some one; but there was naught but darkness. He could not believe it,

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before.

His vision could pierce to nothing, but his imaginings ran riot with his senses. He listened,

But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore”:
                                                            Merely this and nothing more.

He stood there “long,” and looked and listened, but all was blank and void darkness.

But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,

so he called in a whisper, “Lenore?” What evil thing he was fearing was not there, nor was his good angel. The echo of his own heart's sorrow was all that was murmured back.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore;
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;
                                        'Tis the wind and nothing more.”

Turning back into his chamber, he was still more perplexed to hear a tapping at his window lattice. This time he concludes it is the wind, and is more prompt to explore the mystery.

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore.

A visitor through the window! Note his strange impoliteness.

Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door,
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door:
                                        Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

The whole incident is diverting; the current of his thought and feeling is for the while turned about.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,—
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore:
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!”
                                                                      Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

The bird is regarded as ominous though. He is “of the saintly days of yore;” he is the “ghostly grim and ancient Raven” from the “Night's Plutonian shore.” That darkness into which he had just been peering was to his soul Plutonian. His first “Nevermore” was rather startling.

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door,
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
                                        With such a name as “Nevermore.”
But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered, not a feather then he fluttered,
Till I scarcely more than muttered,—Other friends have flown before;
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.
                                        Then the bird said, “Nevermore.”

What had little meaning at first, soon came to bear a significant relevancy. He barely thought aloud that this visitor, stranger, would be gone to-morrow, as his friends and hopes had taken leave, but the Raven's answer aroused a new strain of feeling and speculation,—

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore:
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
                                                                                Of Never—nevermore.”

His interest becomes more serious.

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore,
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
                                        Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

This is a wholly different mind-state from “wondering,” “fearing,” “doubting.” But see how it changes,—

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er
                                        She shall press, ah, nevermore!

How naturally is the thought-connection between the Raven's “Nevermore” and the lover's lost Lenore made! It is quickly and intensely realized.

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!”
                                        Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

At the most propitious moment for his peace of mind, when he hears the footfalls of the angels, and is persuading himself that they bring him respite and nepenthe for his sorrow, the cup is dashed from his lips with a cruel “Nevermore.” The word becomes ominous to him,

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! prophet still, if a bird or devil!
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore:
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
                                        Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

There is no surcease of sorrow for him here, but what about it beyond this mortal weeping?

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us, by that God we both adore,
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore:
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore!”
                                        Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

What is left now but defiance to the confirmation of his own prophetic soul?

“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting:
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
                                        Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

In The Philosophy of Composition, Poe speaks some words on the two closing stanzas of The Raven.

“But in subjects so handled, however skilfully, or with however vivid an array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness, which repels the artistical eye. Two things are invariably required: first, some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, second, some amount of suggestiveness, some under-current, however indefinite, of meaning. It is this latter, in especial, which imparts to a work of art so much of that richness (to borrow from colloquy a forcible term) which we are too fond of confounding with the ideal. It is the excess of the suggested meaning—it is the rendering this the upper instead of the under current of the theme—which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind) the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists.

“Holding these opinions, I added the two concluding stanzas of the poem—their suggestiveness being thus made to pervade all the narrative which has preceded them. The under-current of meaning is rendered first apparent in the lines—

“Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
                                        Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

“It will be observed that the words, ‘from out my heart,’ involve the first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer, ‘Nevermore;’ dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematical—but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen:—

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor:
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
                                        Shall be lifted—nevermore!

True it is that The Raven is not an allegory, but that it is allegorical the careful reader must surmise long before he reaches the last two stanzas. And Poe's statement of the allegorical theme is not specific enough: it was more than a mournful remembrance, it was painful with fear and trembling, as if half-conscious that Nemesis was at hand. He might have sinned as Tamerlane: in unearthly pride.

It is in The Philosophy of Composition that the poet speaks of the interview between the student and the Raven, and how the “Nevermore” of the bird finds echo in his heart. He says: “The student now guesses the state of the case, but is impelled, as I have before explained, by the human thirst for self-torture, and in part by superstition, to propound such queries to the bird as will bring him, the lover, the most of the luxury of sorrow, through the anticipated answer ‘Nevermore.’”

It should be remembered that the lover is to be looked at as both the victim, so to put it, of the experiences, and as their raconteur. When we follow the flow of the human wondering, fearing, trembling, doubting, through the successive stanzas, we can see no intention to luxuriate in sorrow, but when we think of the lover celebrating them as his own experiences, then is he indulging in sorrow as a luxury. Not in the moments of suffering is sorrow a luxury, but in the after-moments of recalling and narrating.

With regard to the technique of the poem, it seems opportune to quote this from The Rationale of Verse. “Verse originates in the human enjoyment of equality, fitness. To this enjoyment, also, all the moods of verse—rhythm, metre, stanza, rhyme, alliteration, the refrain, and other analogous effects—are to be referred.”

Certainly The Raven is Poe's finest exemplification of “equality” and “fitness” in all the particulars of verse.

For “equality” in particular, he has this to say which has a significance applicable to The Raven. “The perception of pleasure in the equality of sounds is the principle of Music. Unpractised ears can appreciate only simple equalities, such as are found in ballad airs. While comparing one simple sound with another they are too much occupied to be capable of comparing the equality subsisting between these two simple sounds, taken conjointly, and two other similar simple sounds taken conjointly. Practised ears, on the other hand, appreciate both equalities at the same instant—although it is absurd to suppose that both are heard at the same instant. One is heard and appreciated from itself: the other is heard by memory; and the instant glides into and is confounded with the secondary appreciation. Highly cultivated musical taste in this manner enjoys not only these double equalities, all appreciated at once, but takes pleasurable cognizance, through memory, of equalities the members of which occur at intervals so great that the uncultivated taste loses them altogether. That this latter can properly estimate or decide on the merits of what is called scientific music is of course impossible. But scientific music has no claim to intrinsic excellence; it is fit for scientific ears alone. In its excess it is the triumph of the physique over the morale of music.”

This drawing of the line on what is “caviare to the general” may seem to smack of sour grapes, but who could write The Coliseum in 1833, and To M. L. S. in 1847, and To —— and To Helen in 1848, should be secure from the taunt.

Defiant disregard of authority, or better, his daring common sense, though rude in utterance in many instances,—common sense is generally rude to the conventional,—brought him to know his gift and how to exercise it.

It is doubtless true that Poe did not know enough, but he was wise about what he did know.

But there is one other passage to quote from The Rationale of Verse before recurring to the thought of the above extract. He has spoken of the essentialities of verse, then, “What follows may, strictly speaking, be regarded as embellishment, merely; but even in this embellishment, the rudimental sense of equality would have been the never-ceasing impulse. It would, for example, be simply in seeking farther administration to this sense that men would come, in time, to think of the refrain, or burden, where, at the closes of the several stanzas of a poem, one word or phrase is repeated; and of alliteration, in whose simplest form a consonant is repeated in the commencements of various words. This effect would be extended so as to embrace repetitions both of vowels and of consonants, in the bodies as well as in the beginnings of words; and, at a later period, would be made to infringe on the province of rhyme, by the introduction of general similarity of sound between whole feet occurring in the body of a line.”

What, now, has Poe accomplished as an artist? He has chosen, in The Raven, the simplest form of verse enjoyed by the unpractised ear as possessing all the essentialities of verse, and has introduced into this confined form all the “equalities” that he designates “embellishments.” The equalities of similarity which the “scientific” musician puts at intervals too great for the untrained ear to enjoy, are caught up and brought together for all to appreciate. This artistic feat cannot be despised; it challenges admiration.

There is pleasure in The Raven for the boor; there is melody for the connoisseur,—

                              Here, work enough to watch
                              The Master work, and catch
Hints of the proper craft, tricks of the tool's true play.

Principal Works

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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

Della Courson (essay date May 1900)

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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 been, however, that of the world differs much as to the literary value of “The Raven.”

The analysis of the poem, as given by the poet himself, while unusual, and giving the impression that his method of composition was elaborate, so far as structure is concerned, hardly goes so far as to explain why Poe declared it “the greatest poem ever written.”

To review his analysis briefly, he regards beauty as the one requirement of a poem; asserts that beauty in its intensest form is melancholy; therefore the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetic topic in the world. “I determined to produce continuously novel results by the application of the refrain … I made the night tempestuous for the effect of contrast with the serenity of the chamber. I determined to place the lover in his chamber, rendered sacred by the memory of her who had frequented it”; and so he proceeds to the closing stanzas, “it will be observed that the words ‘from out my heart’ involve the first metaphorical expression. They with the answer ‘Nevermore’ dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously related. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematic—but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza that the intention of making him emblematic of mournful and never-ending remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen.”

If Poe be truthful in his account of the poem's construction, it is certainly marvellously made, even though the close attention to minute detail detracts from the intensity of the thought. But we like to believe that, even if he is “three-fourths fudge” in his minor details, unconsciously to himself, his soul worked out an intensity of emotion which characterizes no other poem from an American pen.

Of all our poets none other has a life so teeming with interest; so brilliant in its intellect; so sad in its lack of moral foundation; so pitiful in its wreck. We view it with wonder; we are lost in admiration; but we must pity, yes, even condemn. His peculiar temperament presents a study in psychology, and it is a question whether this study can be best approached by the objective method; but we believe it will be safer, and undoubtedly more generous, to judge him so than by comparison, for he himself says:—

From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
Then in my childhood—in the dawn
Of a most stormy life was drawn
From every depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still;
From the torrent or the fountain,
From the red cliff of the mountain,
From the sun that round me rolled
In its autumn tint of gold—
From the lightning in the sky
As it passed me flying by—
From the thunder and the storm
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.

Perhaps it is to this “mystery that binds him still” that we may look for a true interpretation of “The Raven.”

That imagination was the predominant element of Poe's mind is generally conceded, but surely Griswold is not right when he asserts that in all the poet's productions no trace of conscience is to be found. His virtues were emotional rather than intellectual, and unknown perhaps to himself, the moral is not lacking in his poems. True, he has seemed in his essay, “The Poetic Principle,” to abjure truth, and deny that it is a requisite of poetry. He says: “The demands of truth are severe. She has no sympathy with the myrtles. All that which is so indispensable in song, is precisely all that with which she has nothing whatever to do.” He argues that it is a paradox to flaunt her in gems and flowers; that the presentation of truth requires severity, which is the converse of poetry. He divides the world of mind into the intellect, taste and the moral sense, claiming that the first concerns itself with truth, taste with the beautiful, and the moral with duty; that unless incidentally, taste has no concern whatever with either duty or truth. This is Poe's view. Better authorities in the realms of psychology tell us that consciousness has always three aspects—the intellectual, the emotional and the volitional; taste is simply one phase of the emotional self. These three aspects of mind are mutually dependent; intellect is simply the universal element, while feeling is the individual element of the same consciousness, and will the connecting link. One of these phases cannot undergo a change without a corresponding change in the others; for instance, the lack of moral tone proves the failure to grasp a knowledge of the import of right and wrong.

Language also proves to us that beauty and goodness are inseparable, for the former word is but a classical evolution of our Saxon “good.” Primarily from the Low Latin root benus, which means good, through the inflections of the Italian and French we get the English word “beauty.”

Now, if Poe was so very much in error as to his psychological analysis and its bearing on poetry, might he not equally have erred in reading his own mind and have been an unconscious exponent of the depths of his own soul?

“The Raven” is no fantastical production of a slightly disordered brain. The intensity of its feeling is evident in its effect. It electrified the literary world of America; and Mrs. Browning, than whom there can be no better authority, thus speaks of its reception in England: “This vivid writing, this power which is felt, has produced a sensation here in England. Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it.” If Poe could produce an emotion in others which was not the reflection of his own, then he is the exception.

Let us for a few moments review the metaphorical picture which he presents. The soul, weary and dreary and worn, turns for mental diversion to books; vainly sought to borrow from them surcease of sorrow,—sorrow for the lost innocence, so beautifully termed “the rare and radiant maiden.” All the ghostly reflections of the once promising past cast their shadows over him, and sad, uncertain memories, vague as yet, terrify him as nothing had before. But his terror is only increased by the continued knocking of that grim monster who knocks and knocks, and will not be denied. He tries to convince himself, at first, that this mental condition is but ordinary, and his courage revives; he flings the doors of his soul open, but as yet there comes to him only the whispered “Innocence.” But the unrest continues, and all his soul within him burning, once more he bids his guest come in. Then Remorse enters, and fixes itself firmly on his mind, “the bust of Pallas,” the emblem of intellect. Not yet intensely moved, with smiling sadness he greets the mysterious one, but the only reply he can extort is that terrible “Nevermore.” This one word clings to him with an intensity that is indescribable, though at first he hardly understands its meaning; it little relevancy bore. He comforts himself then with the hope that as friends had left, this creature, too, must leave him, and he tries to believe that his emotion is foolish,—simply the result of the “unmerciful Disaster,” which surely had pursued him through life. Then he decides philosophically to accept the inevitable, and to make himself comfortable as possible physically, “at ease reclining,” but he cannot banish the thought that whatever his attitude, innocence can never more be his. He tries artificial means to produce forgetfulness. This failing, his agony renders him frantic; he feels his utter powerlessness to conquer; and in sheer despair his soul cries out, “Is there, is there balm in Gilead? Tell me, tell me, I implore!” Where in American literature can be found another expression conveying such strong emotion? Perhaps Longfellow most nearly approaches it when he says of Robert of Sicily, “And the burden of his woe burst from him with resistless overflow”; or of Hiawatha:—

And his bursting heart within him
Uttered such a cry of anguish,
That the forest moaned and shuddered,—
That the very stars in heaven
Shook and trembled at his anguish.

But these are not hopeless griefs; they are not the cry of the lost soul for the infinite and unobtainable,—unobtainable through its own failure.

Now, his hopelessness produces positive insanity, and he madly shrieks,—

Be that word our sign of parting;
Take thy beak from out my heart.

But his guest takes no heed, and he sinks into passive melancholy as he realizes that his “soul from out that shadow shall be lifted nevermore.” What infinite pathos!

Rhetorically, poetry has been defined as that which arouses feeling and awakens the æsthetic emotions. Can there by anything else so laden with feeling as the soul's contemplation of the loss of the stamp of its Divine Creator? Can we find any other American poem so beautifully musical? And even if as musical as some might claim for Lowell's Vision of Sir Launfal, can it be denied that Poe's minor key stirs the soul to a depth to which Lowell's major can never reach?

Whether Poe intended it so or not, the Raven is emblematic of his life; his death was a fitting climax to the miserable whole. We so much wish that he could have ended his poem as well as his life with the sunshine of faith with which David sings, lamenting his past, “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow”; that he might have realized that none need to be prisoners of Giant Despair, but that as Longfellow, Tennyson and others have sung to us, we may make the mistakes, even vices of the past, stepping-stones to a nobler, better future; for all

                    Souls with sorrow laden may within the distant Aidenn
Clasp a rare and lovely maiden whom the angels name Lenore.

George H. Green (essay date 1932)

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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 undoubtedly is, the æsthetic problems presented by Poe's writings should be more easy of solution than those which are offered by the work of Longfellow or Tennyson. Indeed, a certain obvious character of the writings of these two last ensures that the majority of their readers, at least, will never realise that any essential æsthetic problem is presented.

Confronted by such stories as ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ ‘The Black Cat,’ ‘Berenice’ or ‘Ligeia,’ most readers, whether literary critics or not, will find themselves considering the problem—Why should any man choose to write about such subjects as these? They understand, or believe they understand, why poets should write of brooks and belfries, flowers and trees, and pleasant romances with happy endings; not realising that ‘The Brook’ and ‘A Psalm of Life’ present precisely the same problem as ‘Berenice’ or ‘The Purloined Letter.’ The bizarre subjects of Poe, that is to say, have served to make us realise a problem whose existence we overlook in the case of more ‘ordinary’ work.

It is important to be quite clear as to what the problem really is. Professor Livingston Lowes has recently traced, with the aid of Coleridge's notebooks, the origin of practically every allusion in ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ and has shown1 that the poem consists of a mass of materials gathered from varied sources, unified by what we must be content to speak of as ‘The Creative Spirit.’ Just here arise the problems already mentioned. Why, of all the available material, is some chosen and other rejected? Why is the material which is chosen fashioned into one particular form, and not another? The solution is not arrived at by speaking vaguely of the poet's ‘purpose’: if Coleridge's purpose is to tell a story of sin and penitence, we can only say that the same thing has been done by other men in other ways.

Explanations—not only those of critics, but those of the poets themselves—have served in the main merely to obscure the issue. Poe lays down as an æsthetic canon that the purpose of the writer is to produce a vivid single effect; and indeed it may be true that he always kept this aim consciously in mind. He held, too, that every other consideration should be sacrificed to this end. Nevertheless, the problem remains. Poe aimed constantly at a particular kind of effect, and generally by the use of material of a particular kind, worked out in ways peculiarly his own. If any one of the many aspects of Poe's work has been selected for discussion rather than others, it is this deliberate choice of subjects which to the majority of people are repellent. Poe might have chosen differently, but refused to do so: this is the general view of critics, which Stoddard has expressed in the couplet:—

He might have soared in the morning light,
But he built his nest with the birds of night!

Poe took pains to prove to his public—though more, as Hervey Allen surmises, to prove to himself—that his choice is not merely deliberate, but is also right; determined upon only after long consideration of alternatives. But, Poe being what he was, it would be clear to anyone who knew him sufficiently well that in the end his choice would be what it actually was, and that the meditation was nothing more than a means of justifying his choice to himself. For Poe, the highest beauty must present bizarre elements, and he seized with eagerness upon a statement of Bacon's, quoting it over and over again, because he found in it a definition of beauty which was merely one to which he was already committed. Krutch has realised, with a great deal of insight, that Poe's preoccupation with topics which are repellent to normal men and women must be correlated with the fact that the protagonists of his ideas are inhuman or non-human. To Poe's own contemporaries, there seemed something wrong and perverse about his work; something which led them to regard it, for reasons by no means clear to any of them, as immoral. Hence the legend, for which there was never any foundation of fact, that he was a past master in the arts of vice, was eagerly seized upon, since it seemed to explain much that could not be understood. To such men as Griswold Poe's conversations and writing appeared Satanic, and we must believe that the biographer, malignant and unscrupulous as he is in many ways, is not the mere cur in the cemetery that Baudelaire considered him. Griswold is not perverting his facts from sheer malice and envy, but because he believes that he knows things truer of Poe than the facts themselves can be. The moral of Griswold's memoir, and of other writings about Poe, is that biography cannot safely be entrusted either to the worshippers of a shrine which the new prophet violates or to beloved disciples. Mrs. Whitman's angel is Mr. Griswold's devil.

The æsthetic problem forces itself upon us in connection with the work of Poe even more strongly on account of his own apparent attempts to solve it. He wrote an essay on ‘The Poetic Principle’ in which he attempts to show us the ways in which he achieves the effects after which he strives, and another, ‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ in which, more specifically, he professes to detail the whole process of the composition of ‘The Raven.’ But, when he wrote these essays, he had already earned a well-deserved reputation through his capacity for hoaxing the public. ‘The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym’ had already been accepted for a time, in England at least, as a true account of an extraordinary adventure. ‘The Murder in the Rue Morgue’ carried with it such an appearance of fact that one writer thought it necessary to go to great pains to prove that there was no such street in Paris as the ‘Rue Morgue.’ ‘Hans Pfaal’ and ‘The Great Balloon Hoax’ imposed upon the credulity of the public, and there can be little doubt that Poe was pleased by the fact. Indeed, the whole question of Poe's love of hoaxing and mystification is a fit subject for detailed consideration, impossible here. What is relevant is that Poe's notorious talents in this field have led a great many people to suppose that his accounts of his aims and methods are merely further attempts to impose upon his readers, and to enjoy a laugh at their gullibility. The greater number of critics, since Gill, appear to have accepted this view, with the result that Poe's account of how he wrote ‘The Raven’ has been generally discredited. But the larger and more important question is that of why Poe feels it necessary to explain how ‘The Raven’ came to be written, and why he chooses to explain its composition in any particular way.

Gill, who is one of Poe's earliest biographers, puts forward a suggestion which deserves attention, not merely for its futility, but because it is a particularly naïve instance of the kind of ‘explanation’ so often given in similar cases. Gill says that he feels certain that Poe was merely exercising once more, in ‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ his capacity for gulling the public, and goes on to give his own ‘theory.’ This is nothing more than a statement of the circumstances in which he imagines that the poem was written; mistaking, as is so frequently the case, the occasion for the cause.

Whether Poe wrote sincerely or not when he penned his account of the writing of ‘The Raven,’ it is clear that he came to the poem as his hero Dupin came to the murder of Marie Roget or to the crime in the Rue Morgue. He saw something which had been effected by a series of events following each other, and was compelled to infer these events from their final result. But in working at the one as Dupin worked at the other, Poe makes an assumption which begs the whole question at issue.

The detective story is, as Poe realised, written backwards. The writer begins with a series of events, and passes on logically to a conclusion. This conclusion is, for the reader, the beginning of the story. The narrator passes back, step by step, from conclusion to premises. Apart from satisfactory treatment of narrative, all that the reader demands of the author is that there shall be a strict logical connection between the series of connected events. If we deal with a poem as the detective of fiction deals with a crime, we are making the assumption that the events which link the genesis of a poem—whatever that may be—and the poem itself are logically connected. Indeed, Poe found himself compelled, in the course of ‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ to assert that this was the case, and that artistic composition was, in essence, mathematical in character. The poem, Poe assumed and asserted, was wrought deliberately throughout, with an end in view. If we may believe this, and assume that ‘The Raven’ is throughout the result of a process of deliberation, then ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ is a credible account of the steps by which such deliberation might proceed. If, on the other hand, the assumption is wrong, then the essay becomes a mere exercise in logic, valuable for the light it throws on the workings of Poe's mind, but worthless as an account of the composition of ‘The Raven.’

Ingram, in his biography of Poe, quotes from a letter written by the poet:—

Your objection to the tinkling of the footfalls is far more pointed, and in the course of the composition occurred so forcibly to myself that I hesitated to use the term. I finally used it, because I saw that it had, in its first conception, been suggested to my mind by the sense of the supernatural with which it was, at the moment, filled. No human or physical foot could tinkle on a soft carpet, therefore the tinkling of feet would vividly convey the supernatural impression.

Nowhere in ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ is any ‘sense of the supernatural’ hinted at; nor the spontaneous occurrence to mind of appropriate epithets. The student, working at a problem in mathematics, or the Chevalier Dupin, accurately inferring the inevitable sequence of thoughts in the mind of his companion, is not ‘filled with a sense of the supernatural’; and the mind of each is working, not freely and spontaneously, but under the restraints imposed by the demands of logical thought. The admissions contained in the letter quoted by Ingram are sufficient evidence of the worthlessness of ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ as an account of the composition of ‘The Raven,’ though not necessarily of the accuracy of the opinion that the essay is a deliberate hoax on the part of Poe.

Two sources of material used by Poe in the composition of ‘The Raven’ can be stated with certainty, though neither of them is referred to in ‘The Philosophy of Composition.’ Poe had, some time before the poem was written, reviewed both Charles Dickens' Barnaby Rudge and Elizabeth Barrett's Lady Geraldine's Courtship. It is remarkable, to say the least, that though the opening paragraph of ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ mentions Charles Dickens and Barnaby Rudge, there is throughout the essay no reference to the raven which was Barnaby's pet. Yet we know, from Poe's own review of the novel, that the introduction of the raven into the story had impressed him a great deal, and that he considered Dickens had failed to make effective use of the bird. ‘The raven, too,’ he writes, ‘intensely amusing as it is, might have been made, more than we now see it, a portion of the conception of the fantastic Barnaby. Its croakings might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama. Its character might have performed, in regard to the idiot, much the same part as does, in music, the accompaniment in respect to the air.’ In ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ Poe writes: ‘The lover, startled from his original nonchalance by the melancholy character of the word itself, by its frequent repetition, and by a consideration of the ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered it, is at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character—queries whose solution he has passionately at heart—propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair that delights in self-torture—propounds them not altogether because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which reason assures him is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote), but because he experiences a frenzied pleasure in so modelling his questions as to receive from the expected “Nevermore” the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrow.’

In ‘The Raven’ we have the bird performing, in respect to the musings of the bereaved lover, much the same part as does, in music, the accompaniment in respect to the air. But this was, for Poe, precisely the rôle the raven should take in a drama: Poe saw the raven performing this particular part years before a line of ‘The Raven’ was written.

Some reference might here be made, once more, to Gill's theory of the origin of ‘The Raven,’ which Graham had no doubt was ‘in the main correct.’2 Gill points out that, just before the appearance of the poem, Virginia Poe was prostrated by a serious illness, in the course of which animation was apparently entirely suspended, and she lay ‘cold and breathless, apparently dead.’ He suggests that Poe, overcome by sorrow and remorse, picturing his wife as dead, felt that he had no hope of meeting her in the distant Aidenn of the future. Apart from the many assumptions, for which there is little or no evidence, necessitated by this hypothesis, we must realise that we have here, not an explanation of the composition of ‘The Raven,’ but merely an account of the circumstances in which it might have been composed. Already, as we have seen, the raven and the part it must play in any drama is in Poe's mind. Again, Poe's conception of the poem is very different from Gill's, for he asserts in the course of a controversy with ‘Outis’ (published under the title of ‘Mr. Longfellow and other Plagiarists’) that ‘the lover lives triumphantly in the expectation of meeting his Lenore in Aidenn,’ and goes on to state that the raven is merely the allegorical emblem of Mournful Remembrance, out of whose shadow the poet is ‘lifted nevermore.’ We must not, however, rely too much on what Poe wrote in the course of controversy for the rebuttal of what Gill says, since ‘Mr. Longfellow and other Plagiarists’ is a piece of special pleading, and since, like ‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ it was written some time after the poem; being merely another attempt to give a rational account of the stages of a process which was possibly, in the first instance, non-rational in character. The actual rebuttal of Gill must be made out from the poem itself, which is perhaps the only authentic document we possess from which we may learn anything of the actual facts of its composition.

Before passing to the account of the composition of ‘The Raven’ which Poe gives in the body of the poem itself, some reference should be made to Poe's review of Lady Geraldine's Courtship, by Elizabeth Barrett, who is referred to as the author of The Seraphim and Other poems. Ingram mentions that Buchanan Read, in conversation with Robert Browning, asserted that Poe had told him that the suggestion of ‘The Raven’ arose from a line of Miss Barrett's poem:

With a murmurous stir uncertain, in the air the purple curtain …

and certainly there is a close resemblance between this line and the first portion of the third stanza of ‘The Raven’:

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before

and this resemblance is something more than a mere similarity of form. Poe had already pictured heavily curtained rooms, and had dealt with curtains in ways which showed clearly that they had for him some deep significance. In ‘Ligeia,’ for instance, the bridal chamber is hung with heavy figured curtains, which move slowly to and fro as currents of air strike them. In ‘The Conqueror Worm’ the heavy curtain, which falls as the cosmic drama ends, is a ‘funeral pall.’ In ‘The Philosophy of Furniture’ Poe pays great attention to the curtains which he regards as an important part of the decoration of the ideal room: they are to be of crimson velvet, and the details of their suspension and looping are given at some length. More instances might be given, but there is little point in over-elaborating the proof that Poe had already found curtains significant, and had used them in order to achieve the effects at which he aimed, long before he read Lady Geraldine's Courtship. He had realised that for him the raven possessed peculiar significance before he came to write ‘The Raven’—perhaps, though there is apparently no evidence of this, before he read a word of Barnaby Rudge. Before he wrote ‘The Philosophy of Furniture’ he had written ‘The Assignation,’ ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ and The Fall of the House of Usher, in all of which he details bizarre rooms in which his heroes, strange projections of himself, appropriately live and meditate. In ‘The Raven,’ then, he brings together into a new synthesis things which already possess significance—a raven, a room, and curtains. Indeed, he does much more than this—but this at least he does. The effecting of this new synthesis is the creative act, or, perhaps more correctly, a stage of the creative act. Is it possible to describe it in greater detail?

Poe has made attempts, sincere or otherwise, to explain the genesis of ‘The Raven.’ One, at least, of his critics has made an attempt to give a different account. But there is, in addition to these, a further statement by Poe himself in the body of ‘The Raven.’ The first part of the twelfth stanza runs:—

Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
                    Meant in croaking ‘Nevermore.’

‘Linking fancy unto fancy, thinking …’ would be difficult to better as a description of reverie, day-dreaming, or ‘undirected thinking.’ We know that Poe was given to reveries, and there is reason to believe that in passive mental processes his stories and poems were incubated, however much they may have been worked over subsequently. However, though Poe tells us explicitly, in ‘The Raven,’ the reveries played a part in the poem's composition, we are not justified in immediately accepting this statement to the exclusion of the accounts he gives us elsewhere. In some way or other the matter must be put to the only test we are able to apply—Which of all the contrasting theories of the composition of ‘The Raven’ can be supported by the evidence of the poem itself?

Poe reaches the end of the first half of ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ before he has arrived at the conclusion that the topic of the poem he proposes to write shall be the death of a beautiful woman—‘the death, then, of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.’ It is astonishing, to say the least, that the man who had already written ‘The Sleeper,’3 ‘The Assignation,’ ‘Berenice,’ ‘Morella,’ ‘Eleonora,’ ‘Ligeia,’ and ‘The Oval Portrait,’ had nevertheless to assure himself by a long process of dialectics that ‘the death of a beautiful woman’ is the most suitable topic for his proposed poem. In truth the topic was already chosen, and Poe's argument, apparently so rigorously logical, is nothing more than a circuitous route to a goal decided upon in advance. Poe follows, indeed, though perhaps all unwittingly, that method of Godwin's to which he refers in the opening paragraph of ‘The Philosophy of Composition’—‘he first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.’ Paraphrasing this somewhat, we may say that Poe, finding himself involved in a web of preoccupations about beautiful dead women, cast about him for some means of accounting for the ways in which he had arrived at them. The preoccupation had to be æsthetically and logically justified.

The ‘beautiful, dead woman’ is mentioned for the first time in ‘The Raven,’ in the second stanza, when Poe speaks of ‘sorrow for the lost Lenore.’ In the fifth stanza, too, he describes himself as whispering the word ‘Lenore’ and hearing it repeated as an echo in the silent room. But in these five stanzas, as in others which follow, there is no hint of the process described as ‘linking fancy unto fancy.’ Rather, this section of the poem is the careful and deliberate, detailed description of the stage upon which the drama will presently unfold itself … and this drama is the confrontation of the poet with the raven. The first eleven stanzas deal with the setting of the stage: the drama proper begins with the twelfth. Before the twelfth stanza, that is to say, everything is prologue, a necessary introduction for the uninformed reader, and in all probability this prologue was not written till the greater part of the remainder had at least been drafted. Poe's own assertion is that the fifteenth stanza was the first he actually penned, and, though we cannot altogether trust his accounts of his life and work, it is nevertheless remarkable that his own assertion should agree so nearly with a conclusion reached by a train of argument entirely different from that presented in ‘The Philosophy of Composition.’

The situation with which Poe deals is one which is not unfamiliar to readers of his work. Roderick Usher4 spends his days in a room which is similar in essentials to the room in which Poe's heroes meditate; interesting himself in the rituals of forgotten churches and in books whose names are incantations, but held all the time by a nameless fear. Ægeus,5 too, abandons himself to reveries in a room of the same kind, haunted by mental states which he endeavours to analyse and understand. And in each case, seen—as a vision rather than a living person—in the background, is the beautiful woman who is to die: Madeline or Berenice.

What distinguished ‘The Raven’ from The Fall of the House of Usher and ‘Berenice’ is precisely—the Raven. The fear in the one instance and the vague horror of the other have in the poem given way to an actual concrete object—the ominous bird. And thus we see why it was that Barnaby Rudge appealed so strongly and immediately to Poe, why it was that the idiot boy's bird held his attention from the start. It visibly embodied something he had known and felt—making sharp and clear what had hitherto been vague. Yet it missed something: it should have been, Poe felt, more fearful, prophesying the inevitable. Its croakings should through repetition have become more and more convincing, their meaning more and more definite—as the white hairs on the breast of the black cat6 shaped themselves into the form of a gallows. The raven, too, as a feeder on carrion, is naturally associated with death, and this association is far more satisfactory than that which Poe has to establish in the story between the dead woman and the cat, by means of an event which strains a reader's credulity. Poe, indeed, as has already been noted, stated in the course of controversy that the bird symbolised for him ‘Mournful Remembrance.’ … It is far more likely that though he appreciated its real significance, in so far as he was profoundly thrilled and moved by it, he did not know what moved him or why he was stirred: had he known, and had he been able to express his knowledge in any other way, he would have been under no compulsion to write ‘The Raven.’ Part, at least, of the problem of the poem's genesis lies in the question of the real significance of the raven for Edgar Allan Poe.

The drama really begins in the twelfth stanza of ‘The Raven.’ The bird has entered the room, and perched himself on the bust of Pallas over the door. The lover has ‘wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door,’ and sits, whilst the fiery eyes of the bird burn in his ‘bosom's core’—trying to divine the riddle of the bird itself and its enigmatic utterance.

This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining, that the lamplight gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o'er,
                    She shall press, ah, nevermore!

The collocation of ‘violet’ and ‘velvet’ is not peculiar to ‘The Raven.’ It should be noted here that for Poe colours appear to have a great deal of meaning: evidence of this is to be found scattered through all his work, though especially in ‘The Philosophy of Furniture’ and ‘The Masque of the Red Death.’ In the latter story ‘violet’ and ‘velvet’ have been brought together with some effect. The violet room is the last but one of the series of fantastic halls in which Prince Prospero entertained his guests, and serves as the sole entrance to the room—the black room—in which the final catastrophe occurs. Poe dwells upon the bizarre décor of the black room, hung with black velvet: he speaks of its sable tapestries, its booming clock of ebony. Once he refers to it as ‘the hall of the velvet.’ In the climax of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ he speaks of the hurried passage of the two, the guest and the prince, from the ‘violet’ to the ‘velvet’ apartment … to the room in which Death, brought to bay, kills Prospero.

There is mention of the colour ‘violet’ in another connection in some of Poe's earlier work. In a preface to ‘Al Araaf,’ published in 1831, but omitted from later editions, the lines occur:

… dreamy gardens, where do lie
Dreamy maidens, all the day;
While the silver winds of Circassy
On violet couches faint away.

The invocation to Ligeia, in the maiden's song in ‘Al Araaf,’ contains the lines:

Arise! from your dreaming
          In violet bowers,
To duty beseeming
          These star-litten hours.

Thus, in poems written fourteen or more years earlier than the composition of ‘The Raven,’ Poe had given to ‘violet’ a significance which linked the colour to maidens reclining—to women, to sleep, and to dreaming. In the twelfth stanza of ‘The Raven,’ then, the sudden transition from the ‘velvet violet’ to thoughts of the dead Lenore is not so abrupt as it may seem in the first instance. The ‘fancy unto fancy linking’ is but the revival of trains of associated thoughts, linked together through past experience.

The poem ‘Lenore’ was published in 1844—earlier, that is to say, than ‘The Raven.’ In it appear the lines, describing the appearance of a dead woman:

… her, the fair and débonnaire, that now so lowly lies,
The life upon her yellow hair but not within her eyes—
The life still there, upon her hair—the death upon her eyes.

The collocation of ‘debonair’ with ‘fair’ appears in Milton's ‘L'Allegro.’ Though there appears to be no specific mention of this poem in any of Poe's essays, we know that Poe had read Milton closely and carefully, and much preferred the shorter works to the great epics: he suggests somewhere that Milton himself probably thought more of ‘Comus’ than of ‘Paradise Lost.’ It is in the highest degree unlikely that he did not know ‘L'Allegro’ well, or that he was not familiar with the well-known lines:—

Zephyr, with Aurora playing,
As he met her once a-maying;
There, on beds of violets blue,
And fresh-blown roses washed with dew,
Filled her with thee, a daughter fair,
So buxom, blithe and debonair.

In this single passage are linked together, not merely ‘debonair’ and ‘fair’—epithets which, for Poe, stand for the ‘lost Lenore’—but ‘violets’ also.

We have already, then, it seems, found a starting-point—conjectural but reasonably probable—from which the linking of fancies might proceed. We can indicate ways in which Poe's thought may have proceeded, and establish the probability that it really did proceed in this way by showing that it had formerly traversed such paths. If the chains of thought took their origin in Poe's musings over the raven, the principal links in the chain would be:—‘Black—velvet—violet—the dead Lenore’ … a sequence which is not likely to surprise anyone who has familiarised himself with the general character of the trains of thought which go to make up undirected thinking.7

The mention of ‘black—velvet—violet’ together suggests at once in the strongest possible manner the most usual association of velvet with these sombre colourings—that is to say, in funeral trappings. Let us remember that Poe has already given evidence of his interest in curtains, that in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ he has already made much of black velvet curtains, and that in ‘The Conqueror Worm’ the great curtain that hangs in front of the stage proves at the end to be a funeral pall. This itself is a striking association, and at once prompts the question as to what type of experience may lead a man to link together objects so apparently different—curtains and palls—so that these two may be thought of together. True, a link may be found in the fact that the two are made of similar material. But in the case of Poe, something further existed.

He was, as is fairly well known, the second child of his parents, who were travelling actors. The first child was sent, soon after his birth, to relatives at Baltimore, where he remained, so that Edgar Allan Poe never saw his brother till the two were youths. But Mrs. Poe declined to part with the second child, and it seems certain that he was taken to the theatre with her, and left in the care of someone whilst she was actually on the stage. The vague, colossal images of ‘The Conqueror Worm’ are entirely in agreement with the view that as a tiny child, a mere baby, Poe was familiar with the appearance of a stage as seen from the wings. There he saw the ‘vast forms that moved the scenery to and fro,’ and was impressed by the manner in which the curtain fell ‘with the rush of a storm.’ The death of his mother, too, occurred when he was still a tiny child: not long before his third birthday—and this occasion was, in all probability, his first contact with palls. The pall and the curtain, then, are two immediate and close associations, forged in early infancy, with the dead actress, his mother. Some of the infant's impressions and memories go to the making up of the picture of ‘Ligeia’—whose image, in all probability, led to his approval of Bacon's dictum, ‘There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.’8

In ‘The Raven’ the mention of the ‘Lost Lenore’ is followed by a transition, astonishingly abrupt, to other imagery so extraordinary in its character that, as we have already seen, at least one correspondent challenged the fitness of the language. It does not, on the surface, seem to grow out of what has preceded it, nor indeed to be related to it in any way whatsoever.

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor.

It is possible to trace out the associations to the majority of the allusions here in other works of Poe. Perhaps, however, in order not to make the argument wearisome, it will be sufficient to deal with the significance of a few only. Already, as we have seen, the previous stanza has forced on our attention the links existing in Poe's mind between curtains and the colour violet. Poe had already admitted to a friend that some part of the genesis of ‘The Raven’ was due to a line in Lady Geraldine's Courtship, a work which he had reviewed shortly before as a work by ‘Elizabeth Barrett, author of The Seraphim and other Poems.’ He had written, years earlier, of the beauty of Eleonora—the beauty of the seraphim: the image was one with which he was familiar, the seraphim standing, that is to say, for the ‘beautiful dead woman.’ What is equally important for our purpose is that Lady Geraldine's Courtship contains a reference to ‘Bells and Pomegranates,’ published a little earlier by Robert Browning. Poe thought highly of the Brownings, and Gill quotes a visitor to the Poes' home as noticing that their work was given a place of honour on a small pedestal, whilst the works of other poets were grouped together on the bookshelves.

Bells and pomegranates were the ornaments of the robe of the priest of Israel, which he wore when he went into the Holy of Holies, in which was the mercy-seat over which the seraphim hovered. ‘A golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, upon the hem of the robe round about. And it shall be upon Aaron to minister; and his sound shall be heard when he goeth in unto the holy place before the Lord, and when he cometh out, that he die not.’9

The poem, now generally known as ‘To One in Paradise,’ which was first published in 1835 as part of the tale ‘The Visionary’ (later re-titled ‘The Assignation’) and again republished separately as ‘To Ianthe in Heaven,’ opens thus:

Thou wert that all to me, love,
          For which my soul did pine:
A green isle in the sea, love,
          A fountain and a shrine

and the use of this word (not italicised in the original) recalls at once the passage in ‘Ligeia’: ‘When Ligeia's beauty passed into my spirit, there dwelling as in a shrine, I derived from many existences in the material world, a sentiment such as I always felt around, within me, by her large and luminous orbs. Something of this feeling Poe perhaps owed to the fact that he did reproduce in himself, to some extent, the ‘strange proportion’ of his mother's features—the lofty forehead and the large and brilliant eyes. But there is something of significance in the early title of this poem. Walter Savage Landor, regarding the name ‘Jane’ as hardly suited to romantic poetry, had borrowed from Ovid the name ‘Ianthe’ as a substitute, being the first English poet to use it, and had expressed considerable annoyance when Byron borrowed it from him. Poe had perhaps borrowed the name from Byron, or even directly from Landor, with whose work we may suppose him to have been acquainted. We know that Poe, disliking Mrs. Stanard's name, Jane, had preferred to write of her as ‘Helen’: in Landor's or Byron's work he found another substitute ready to hand. And thus we have the idea of the shrine—the Holy of Holies—the sanctuary—linked to Ligeia, his mother, and also to Mrs. Stanard, the beautiful woman who was the mother-substitute and romantic love of his adolescence, whose tragic sudden death was so great a blow to him: who was his ‘Helen’ and his ‘Irene.’

There emerges thus a mass of material which gives significance and meaning to Poe's verse. The room in which he confronts the raven assumes at once the character of the place in which the poet lives, and of a shrine as well. It becomes a holy of holies. And if rooms, in which a poet is to live and muse, are sanctuaries of the dead, we can understand something at least of the significance Poe attached to furnishings, since these must possess, not merely the meaning they have for ordinary people, but a symbolical one as well. The room of the visionary10 is one from which daylight is excluded: it is illumined by flaming censers, and its principal object is the heavily curtained portrait of the Marchesa Aphrodite. Roderick Usher's room is one in which he may read the services for the dead from the altar-books of a forgotten church. The room described in ‘The Philosophy of Furniture’ contains ‘a tall candelabrum, bearing a small antique lamp with highly perfumed oil.’ The ‘tufted floor’ of the room of ‘The Raven’ is foreshadowed by ‘the carpet—of Saxony material—quite half an inch thick.’ For pictures for such a room Poe suggests ‘chiefly landscapes of an imaginative cast—such as the fairy grottoes of Stanfield or the Lake of the Dismal Swamp of Chapman. There are, nevertheless, three or four female heads, of an ethereal beauty—portraits in the manner of Sully.’ In this picture is irresistibly suggested the linking of ‘Psyche’ with the ‘region of Weir’ in ‘Ulalume,’ the poem which Krutch surmises contains the whole secret of Poe!

The passage from the ‘violet velvet’ to the ‘unseen censer, swung by seraphim’ might seem at first to imply the transition from the place where the woman reclines and lives to the place where she lives in death—to the world, that is to say, beyond death. The study of this hidden world Poe termed ‘metaphysics.’ Poe's intense absorption in this world directed many of his activities and his thoughts. It explains the inspiration for ‘The Assignation’ which he found in the lines he twice quotes from Henry King's ‘Exequy’; and the fascination for him of stories of those who recover from death-like trances or come living from tombs, since these have lived through experiences he passionately wishes to understand. It explains, too, something of the underlying motive of those detective stories in which Dupin sets out to learn through ratiocination what has happened to dead women; of the romances of hypnotism in which men, already dead, are interrogated; or the dialogues in which shades, meeting in the underworld, speak of their experiences of dying and entombment. For all that dealt with death and the dead Poe had an intense and absorbing interest, shrinking from no detail: and some of his stories are, in part at least, an attempt to reconcile his intense love of beauty with interests which appear repellent to normal men and women.

Yet, though Poe is so strongly attracted by the experiences of the dead, there is no record of any attempt at self-destruction. On one occasion, indeed, towards the very end of his life, a friend expressed the fear that Poe meditated suicide, at a time when he was undoubtedly temporarily insane. But, in imagination, he died and was reunited with the dead. Death—like darkness—had very real terrors for Poe; and it may plausibly be argued that his intense desire to know every detail connected with it is an indication of the fact that it meant much more for him than for the majority of men and women. Yet, on occasion, he braved his very real terrors and spent some of the hours of darkness at the graves of Mrs. Stanard and Virginia. Towards the very end of his life, when he was happy in the mothering companionship of Annie Richmond, he was able to write of his own death without any feelings of terror or horror:

Thank Heaven! the crisis—
          The danger is past,
And the lingering illness
          Is over at last—
And the fever called ‘Living’
          Is conquered at last.(11)

We return to the word ‘tinkling,’ which seemed so inappropriate to Poe's correspondent, but to the poet—for reasons which, as he states them, seem inadequate—peculiarly fitting. The high priest of Israel passed into the Holy of Holies, the perilous place into which no other man might enter without meeting death: even the high priest himself could enter only on certain specified occasions and after proper precautionary ritual preparation. His emergence from the sanctuary, as a sign that the offerings had been accepted, was awaited eagerly by the crowd without, who had no other assurance that the priest was living and offering the sacrifice, except the tinkling sound of the bells upon his garment. In this fact is to be found the reason why, for Poe, the word ‘tinkling’ was so satisfactory. The ground of its peculiar fitness is not to be found in æsthetic or rational considerations … but in the fact that it implies his reunion with the dead woman whilst he lives.

It is not possible, in a single paper of this kind, to establish securely the fact that the ‘beautiful dead woman,’ whose beauty was marked by ‘strangeness in the proportion’ was not Virginia Poe—as Gill surmised. Nor is the ‘Lost Lenore’ either Mary Devereux, as Mordell insists, or Elmira Royster, as certain evidence goes to suggest. There are two women, who are contrasted with each other in ‘Ligeia,’ who are the archetypes of all the women of whom Poe writes: and, if his creations do not live, it is largely because these women never lived in his adult experience. His knowledge of them belongs to a body of infant memories, so that they are moving and speaking shapes, rather than persons; and his preoccupation with them is the expression of a mental set, wholly or partly unconscious, which may conveniently be termed ‘a wish for a return to the past.’ It is possible to regard this as a wish for a rebirth, as a desire for a return to infancy. In this connection it is interesting that Poe locates the reunion with the dead woman in ‘Aidenn,’ rather than in Heaven or Paradise.

It is a comparatively easy matter to show that a great deal of Poe's life followed this pattern. It is very difficult to believe that a man so gifted had not the intellectual capacity to take care of his own affairs, or the very limited measure of ability which is needed for a moderately successful conduct of practical life—but the fact remains that he did not look after such matters. His career in the army, his success for brief periods as an editor, appear to be proof that he could and did conduct life with success—but it must be remembered that in the one case the institution removed from him a burden of responsibility and initiative which the civilian has to shoulder for himself, and in the other case, Mrs. Clemm, his wife's mother, did exactly the same thing for him. Further evidence is to be found in the letters of appeal for assistance, and in the stories of his extraordinary ‘love’ affairs. It is very clear, from the letters which survive, and from the narratives of the women themselves, that the relation which Poe sought to establish was never a ‘romantic’ one, except in that extraordinary sense in which the relation between Ligeia and her lover was romantic.

The circumstances of Poe's life made harder for him than for most men any sort of successful adaptation to the life of his time. He had not been prepared by his early training to fight his way in the world, nor to be content with the kind of success that results from application to a profession or to business. ‘The desire for a return to infancy’ expresses the dislike for routine and application and struggle: it is a strategical retreat, which is very well symbolised by the retirement of the hero to a room which is a world out of the world. At the same time, we have his own admission that he wishes to stand at the highest pinnacle of the world's opinion. The writing of poetry was, in his case, a compromise, enabling him to live within a world of his own creation and to make a bid for fame.

The genesis of ‘The Raven’ is, then, to be discovered in the probably unwitting desire to return to infancy. The room itself, which is depicted in the poem, is at the same time the retreat from the world of the present, and also the womb and tomb sanctuary, the unknown world of ‘metaphysics’ whose gates are life and death. But to enter this world by either gate is to surrender the ego. Towards death or rebirth, then, there is the ambivalent attitude: it is desired, as the consummation of the reunion with the ‘beautiful dead woman,’ and dreaded, since it means the surrender of the highly-valued ego. Concomitant with the conflict of motives, with desire and dread, is the emotional state which Poe variously describes as terror, horror, or fear.

The compromise between the desire for reunion with the beautiful dead woman and for ego-preservation found expression in other poems. One example may be quoted:

And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride,
          In her sepulchre there by the sea.

The cry of the bird ‘Nevermore!’ is thus seen as an assurance of the preservation of the ego. The raven sits over the door, on the bust of Pallas Athene,12 symbolically barring egress from the room. The impression gained on reading the poem is that the bird's utterance is final, nevertheless, Poe himself declared, in the essay entitled ‘Mr. Longfellow and other Plagiarists,’ that the lover lives triumphantly on, assured of his reunion with the beloved Lenore in Aidenn. In all probability, then, Poe really did, through writing ‘The Raven,’ obtain some satisfaction, even if only a passing one, in the resolution of a mental conflict.

A brief essay of this kind, it is evident, can deal with only a few of the principal considerations which arise out of the poem's genesis. It can show, in the case of a few elements only, some part of the evidence which makes us believe that every element of a poem is rigorously determined; that nothing is haphazard, but is as it is because it could not be otherwise. It can deal with a small part only of the evidence which leads us to believe that the work of art is a particular type of compromise, arising from the effort to reconcile by means of a single synthesis the apparently incompatible elements of an inner conflict: perhaps, too, that the artist is a particular type of man.


  1. John Livingston Lowes: The Road to Xanadu. The material of this work was the subject of a series of lectures, delivered by Professor Livingston Lowes at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, in January 1926.

  2. Gill: Life of Edgar A. Poe (London: Chatto & Windus, 1878), p. 140.

  3. First published as ‘Irene.’

  4. See The Fall of the House of Usher.

  5. See ‘Berenice.’

  6. ‘The Black Cat.’

  7. The character of undirected thinking has been discussed in a number of places by Jung. An extremely detailed account of the ‘chains’ and their relation to his own reveries is given by Varendonck in The Psychology of the Daydream.

  8. Quoted by Poe in ‘Ligeia,’ as well as in other places. An examination of the portrait of Mrs. Poe makes it evident that the ‘strangeness in the proportion’ which Poe attributes to ‘Ligeia’ was to be found also in his mother.

  9. Exodus xxviii. vv. 34-35 (A.V.).

  10. ‘The Assignation.’

  11. ‘To Annie.’

  12. It is worth noting, in passing, how many of the attributes of Ligeia are those of Pallas Athene, rather than of Aphrodite!

Further Reading

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Gravely, Jr., William H. “Christopher North and the Genesis of ‘The Raven’.” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association of American] 66, no. 2 (March 1951): 149-61.

Considers a variety of obscure sources that may have inspired Poe's most famous poem.

Ingram, John H. The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe with Literary and Historical Commentary, New York, N.Y.: Haskell House Publishers, 1972, 122 p.

Reprint of a late nineteenth-century volume focusing on “The Raven”; includes critical commentary, translations, parodies, and discussions about the origins of the poem.

St. Armand, Barton Levi. “Poe's Emblematic Raven: A Pictorial Approach.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 22, no. 4 (1976): 191-210.

A treatment of Poe's use of emblem, symbol, and imagery in “The Raven.”

Smith, Dave. “Edgar Allan Poe and the Nightmare Ode.” Southern Humanities Review 29, no. 1 (winter 1995): 1-10.

Smith suggests that the poem has become an American classic because of its themes of alienation, dispossession, and loss of identity and sense of place.

Walker, I. M. Edgar Allan Poe: The Critical Heritage, New York, N.Y.: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986, 419 p.

Collection of nineteenth-century reviews, commentary, and introductions to Poe's works, including “The Raven.”

Additional coverage of Poe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writer; American Writers: The Classics; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 14; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 5, 11; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1640-1865; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 3, 59, 73, 74, 248, 254; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors, Poets; Exploring Poetry; Exploring Short Stories; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Mystery and Suspense Writers; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 1, 16, 55, 78, 94, 97, 117; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 1; Poetry for Students, Vols. 1, 3, 9; Poets: American and British; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, Vol. 4; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 2, 4, 7, 8, 16; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 1, 22, 34, 35, 54; Something About the Author, Vol. 23; Supernatural Fiction Writers; Twayne's United States Authors; World Literature Criticism; World Poets; Writers for Young Adults.

Andrew J. Green (essay date December 1942)

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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 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 directly from the supernatural or directly from a bottle of rum. For who of us, at fourteen, alone and at midnight, dared read the dreadful climax of The Fall of the House of Usher?

It is, nevertheless, as easy to believe that Poe wrote much as he says he did as that his exposition of his method is a cooked-up rationalization of an inscrutable creative event. For some such analysis as he describes either preceded the creation of the poem or attended it or followed it. If the latter, the poem by implication necessarily becomes the spontaneous creation of occult intuition found by an afterthought to be surprisingly rational. This is to borrow logic without understanding from heaven, or at any rate from “the misty mid region of Weir.” It is more reasonable to hold that a good poem must be thought out either in advance of creation or simultaneously with it. Art is the product of consistency, not consistency a product of art.

And quite beyond Poe's word for it, the mere craftsmanship of “The Raven” becomes at points discernible to close scrutiny. The less-poetic verses were wrought by the same hand and mind and in the same way as the splendid poetic ones. But construction creaks in the prosier places. Try even to memorize until tomorrow, for instance,

… the fact is, I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you,

and examine also these verses, in which the poet strikes a new low in English prose:

For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door,
Bird or beast. …

Or beast? Monkeys are clearly out of the question, and prairie dogs, cats, squirrels, chipmunks, and gophers, especially with such name as “Nevermore,” are hardly more eligible to sit upon the sculptured bust. In this phrase, which is merely a filler for the meter, craftsmanship itself—not to mention inspiration—failed the poet completely.

“The Raven” was not constructed by sheer ratiocination or, as by his neglect to mention the faculty Poe would have us believe, without the aid of the imagination playing excitedly upon sensuous, mental, and emotional experience. Like that almost perfectly constructed short story, The Cask of Amontillado, it was compounded of imagination and logic. If Poe lied in “The Poetic Principle,” it was chiefly by card-stacking. His lie is far closer to the truth than would be our downright affirmation of his mendacity.

Howard Mumford Jones (essay date spring 1955)

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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. Brooks, nothing made one feel so like a prodigal as contemplating the hirsute majesty of these sons of the American Muse.

Most of the bearded writers have fallen in our esteem either absolutely or because contemporary interest centers upon figures never appearing in that sacred row—Melville, for example, or Henry James. Indeed, one is tempted to work out some fantastic functional relation between the amount of facial hair and the poets' subsequent decline. Thus the heavily adorned Bryant now occupies a minor niche, and so does Longfellow, and so does Lowell. But the parallel is inexact. The hairy Whitman is still reprinted, whereas Oliver Wendell Holmes, who had only sideburns, has become merely the father of his son.

The truly embarrassing figure, however, is Edgar Allan Poe, who had a mere moustache and who, unlike his benevolent companions, seemed always to sneer. This tragic figure—our Berlioz, our Byron, our Fuseli—what is he now? He has been relegated to the source hunters and to the young: the source hunters are still turning up evidence of his liberal takings from other people's work, and the young still shudder at “The Cask of Amontillado.” But Poe the man of mystery, Poe the idol of Baudelaire, Poe the creator of the philosophy of the short story, Poe the demon-haunted, Poe the solitary, Poe the supreme stylist, Poe of “Ulalume” and “The Raven”—Poe, it seems, was really none of these things but a vulgarian, a journalist, a literary mechanic. If you want to realize his shallowness read “The Raven.”

Typical of contemporary judgment is Mr. W. H. Auden's critical introduction to selections from the prose and verse of Poe, published in the useful Rinehart editions. Mr. Auden evidently tries to be fair—he recalls, for example, the fine effect of “The Raven” and “The Bells” upon him in youth and he remembers that “The Pit and the Pendulum” was one of the first short stories he read. Clearly, however, “Black Beauty” or “Hans Brinker,” for neither of which one makes extravagant claims, is equally moving at that period of life. Mr. Auden, a modern, desires to correct our unfortunate juvenile tastes—in plain terms, if we must have Poe at all, he wants to substitute “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” and “Eureka” (taken together, they occupy over half his anthology) for that “inferior story,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” which he would omit, except that it would be “commercial suicide” to do so. I cannot, I confess, sustain the willing suspension of disbelief over the accumulated impossibilities of Pym's rather pointless career that I can for “The Cask of Amontillado.” Mr. Auden wants to avoid complacency, yet—“Poor Poe!” he exclaims on the very first page, “today in danger of becoming the life study of a few professors!” Mr. Auden is not hopeful about professors. Poe's “major stories” have in common mainly a “negative characteristic,” which is that “there is no place in any of them for the human individual,” or if not that, then the central character cannot change but “only experience.” I had thought that being condemned to “only experience” without the ability to change was one of the sources of Kafka's singular power, but apparently what is right for the author of The Trial is wrong for the author of “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

Then there are the minor stories and sketches. The serious ones are, as one might expect, outmoded—“slightly vulgar and comic” is Mr. Auden's phrase, unless you indulgently remember that in the first half of the nineteenth century American taste was low, indeed. As for the comic ones, why, “Poe is not as funny in them as in some of his criticism.” But in criticism, it seems, Poe “never developed to his full stature.” This is probable enough, and much the same thing has been said of Coleridge. But Poe has had to sustain a special misfortune, or rather a double one: he was one of the earliest “to suffer consciously the impact of the destruction of the traditional community and its values,” whatever that means; and he is “doomed to be used in school textbooks as a bait to interest the young in good literature, to be a respectable rival to the pulps.” Somehow I find it difficult to conceive a man thrust out of the traditional community by the destruction of that community, serving as a bait for the young in that most communal of all institutions, the school system; but as it is fashionable nowadays to express literary self-pity in terms Poe seldom employed (this, I take it, is what is meant by “the destruction of the traditional community and its values”), let me turn to the test case of that vulgar poem, “The Raven.”

But first let me say a word about Mr. Auden and the major stories. Of the horror stories and the tales of ratiocination Mr. Auden writes:

The problem in writing stories of this kind is to prevent the reader from ever being reminded of historical existence, for, if he once thinks of real people whose passions are interrupted by a need for lunch or whose beauty can be temporarily and mildly impaired by the common cold, the intensity and timelessness become immediately comic.

This is not all Mr. Auden has to tell us, and I do him injustice in isolating this passage from the totality of his remarks, but at any rate he makes this point. I think it is the wrong point to make, among other reasons because Mr. Auden's discussion of Poe's fiction turns upon a common contemporary idea—the “destructive passion of the lonely ego.” I rather doubt that Poe had a “lonely ego” in mind when he wrote.

But let us turn to the problem of the luncheon and the common cold. There is considerable evidence that James's governess in “The Turn of the Screw” ate lunch regularly, but surely the point of that stupendous story does not concern either her nasal passages or her digestion but the enigma of evil in the world, just as the point of “Ligeia” is not the “destructive passion of the lonely ego” but the enigma of the human will, and the point of “The Fall of the House of Usher” is not Roderick's health, literally understood, but the general truth that thin partitions divide madness from sanity. Poe, who had a great deal of the eighteenth century in him, was far more interested in general propositions about mankind (witness the tales of ratiocination) than he was in the “destructive passion of the lonely ego.” His style may be, as Mr. Auden rightly says, operatic, but the fundamental brainwork underlying his most emotional stories is rather more like that of Voltaire than it is like that of Mrs. Radcliffe. The thousand hardships Candide undergoes would kill a truly human individual, but most readers, untroubled by the common cold, are willing to accept the tacit premise that Candide is not a human individual but a puppet demonstrating a theorem. Poe's stories begin more like contes than they do like reality, even the “romantic” reality of, say, Balzac's “Passion in the Desert” or Mr. Robert Nathan's amusing The Bishop's Wife.

The conte does not pretend to be a slice of life, nor a mirror, nor any picture of a three-dimensional world in which imaginary people eat lunches and suffer the common cold. Rather, it is a sort of algebraic demonstration, in which the signs of operation are not X, Y, and Z but symbols having human names (sometimes no names at all); and just as nobody actually buys X bushels of potatoes for Y money and yet we arrive at useful truths by pretending there is a world of X, Y, and Z, so it is with the conte. The conte never embraces the workaday premise of a week-end potato sale at the A & P. Nobody ever traveled so far or had so many remarkable thoughts in actual life as did Zadig in the story, just as nobody ever plotted murder with the cold skill and macabre cunning of Montresor in “The Cask of Amontillado,” and nobody ever combined scientific curiosity and acute suffering as does the anonymous hero of “The Pit and the Pendulum.” It seems to me Poe's peculiar success lies in his ability to begin with the conte and to end with the tale—that is, to begin with algebraic anonymity and then, just before the climax, to return the situation, not into terms of the lonely ego, but into terms of generalized human significance.

Let me illustrate the point from three familiar stories. The first is this: Irritated by a thousand injuries culminating in insult, A decides to assassinate B, but in a manner at once consonant with B's amoral character and undiscoverable as against A. To do so he must prepare and carry out his plans with the precision of a machine. This he does, but at the climactic moment his enemy appeals to God. A suddenly discovers that the mercy of God has removed B from the torture A had planned, and likewise that he (A) is not a thinking machine but a fallible human being; and though he entombs the body of his enemy and conceals his crime for half a century, he must at length confess by narrating it. This is of course “The Cask of Amontillado,” B is Fortunato and A is Montresor. Both are, up to the last page, mere symbols, like Candide or Pangloss. But when Fortunato cries out to God, Montresor is forced to confess his own human nature in the key sentence: “My heart grew sick; on account of the dampness of the catacombs,” a statement that simultaneously endows him with weakness, pride, and hypocrisy. In short, the sense of tears in human things replaces algebra, and we are left, not with an equation, but with moral discourse.

Again: A man condemned to death passes into a state, half coma, half hallucination, during which his senses are extraordinarily acute, and in that condition undergoes the subtlest of tortures, one which combines confinement of body with agony of soul. Just when his situation reaches the limits of the endurable, he hears a hum of voices, a blast of trumpets, and a harsh grating sound as the walls of his prison fly back. A friendly arm rescues him from falling into the pit. But the friendly arm has a nation back of it—the nation of humanity, for it is the arm of a French general who, entering Toledo, has overthrown the Inquisition. The tale ends in humane significance. (The Inquisition is, of course, part of the algebra of the story.)

A third example: A nameless man visits the remote home of a former companion, who lives with a sister. The friend is obviously on the verge of insanity. The sister seems to die, the friend buries her alive, she escapes from the tomb, confronts her brother, and kills him by virtue of the shock he experiences. “From that chamber, and from that mansion,” says the anonymous “I,” “I fled aghast.” The house falls to ruin behind him. Looking back, we find the anonymous one has been throughout so wrapt in his own sensations and his own curiosity, he has done essentially nothing practical to aid his friend. It is not until the climax of the story that he is made to realize too late that sympathy is not enough, that he himself is partially responsible for the ruin he has chronicled. “Bending closely over him [Roderick Usher],” we read, “I at length drank in the hideous import of his words.” Why at length? Because Poe wishes to humanize his ending, to bring his demonstration of the rationale of insanity into contact with the “outside” world. “The Fall of the House of Usher,” though it is less like a conte than the other two, is nevertheless plotted as a demonstration that there are things in heaven and earth not dreamed of in our philosophy, but it ends, like a miracle of Our Lady, as a revelation of the true horror, which is spiritual sloth.


But let us get on to the poetry, concerning which Mr. Auden is quite forthright. Poe's best poems, he avers, are not the most typical or the most original of his verse. Mr. Auden omits “To Helen” (“Helen, thy beauty is to me”), which he thinks Landor could have written, but he prints “The City in the Sea,” which he thinks Tom Hood might have written. To my ear Hood could not possibly have achieved the prosodic dexterity of “The City in the Sea,” for his dexterity, great as it is, always inclines to regularity; and as for “To Helen” the classical Landor would never have permitted himself the ambiguous syntax, the singular mixture of styles, nor the metrical irregularities of that haunting lyric.

But this is to be captious, and Mr. Auden interests himself in the general faultiness of Poe's verse. Of this faultiness the great example is “The Raven,” concerning which Mr. Auden says that “the thematic interest and the prosodic interest, both of which are considerable, do not combine and are even often at odds.” The artificiality of the lover asking a series of questions to which a single answer is ever to be returned is Poe's problem, and though in “The Philosophy of Composition” Poe tells us how he worked out the elements of his theme, his effect, says Mr. Auden, “could still be ruined unless the narration of the story, as distinct from the questions, flowed naturally.” But Mr. Auden thinks it does not flow naturally because the meter, “with its frequent feminine rhymes, so rare in English, works against this.” He quotes:

Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door.

Here the meter “is responsible for the redundant alternatives of ‘stopped or stayed he’ and ‘lord or lady.’”

Ever since the Imagist movement we have grown suspicious of mere redundancy in verse; and if we assume that the primary responsibility of the poem (or at least one of its primary responsibilities) is to give us a “natural flow” of language suitable to the speaker and the situation, Mr. Auden has a very strong point. Indeed, from this standpoint Mr. Auden is kinder to the poem than he should be. “The Raven,” in the way of nature, has many more absurdities than “obeisance” and “lord or lady.” Not merely the meter, but the whole setting is wrong. The window, simultaneously guarded by a lattice and a shutter; the physical impossibility of the raven sitting on a “pallid” bust (obviously, then, with the light in front of both bird and bust) and yet casting a shadow on the floor; the unfortunate cushioned seat with its incredible “velvet-violet lining”; the seraphim whose footfalls “tinkle on the tufted floor”; and, for that matter, a bird with a “shorn and shaven crest”—these things pile absurdity upon absurdity, without entering upon perplexing technical problems of trochaic meter, feminine rhyme, repetend, anacrusis, and so forth. Moreover, the lost Lenore is not particularized as her companion in sorrow, “The Blessed Damozel,” is particularized. The damozel still has enough animal heat in her body to make the bar she leaned on, warm, but Lenore is the mere shadow of a shade. The prosodic interest is certainly considerable—so considerable that, as in fascination we watch Poe's juggling, we may forget the thematic material altogether. Or perhaps the meter is simply wrong for the poem, as the meter of Wordsworth's poor Susan poem is wrong. In that poem it is difficult to experience simultaneously sympathetic nostalgia for the country, and the jig-time movement of:

There's a thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years.

All this may or may not be true, but the difficulty is that when Mr. Auden, or I, or anybody else gets through demonstrating that Poe's poem simply will not do, “The Raven,” never flitting, stays right where it was—a minor masterpiece, if you like, but masterpiece nevertheless. If one of the tests of a masterpiece is that it ends development along the particular line of its success, then “The Raven” succeeds. I saw, said Rossetti, that Poe had done all that could be done with the sorrowing lover on earth; and so in “The Blessed Damozel” Rossetti translated the whole idea into another sphere. It is curious that, precisely as there has been no second “Raven,” so there has been no second “Damozel,” however varied or amusing the library of parodies in either case. Moreover, the general observation applies not only to the substance but to the meter of Poe. Nobody has tried to use his stanza for serious purposes since his time—not even Swinburne, who took over the Rubáiyàt quatrain for “Laus Veneris,” and whom no metrical difficulty could balk. If there is some mild debate about which way indebtedness flows between Poe and Thomas Holley Chivers, in the light of Poe's success “Isadore” sounds even funnier than it would sound any way:

As an egg, when broken, never
Can be mended, but must ever
Be the same crushed egg forever—
So shall this dark heart of mine!

Crushed eggs really brings us back to lunch and the world of the common cold.

Perhaps the meter and the theme are more harmonious than Mr. Auden realizes. But to demonstrate this we ought first to discover what “The Raven” is all about.

Obviously it is a poem about an Anonymous Young Man. Now the Anonymous Young Man is a standard nineteenth-century hero. He suffers a great deal, especially in the first half of that immortal epoch, so much, indeed, that I cannot recall any literary work in which he is truly happy. He paces the shores of the sounding sea in “Locksley Hall,” uttering a variety of morbid sentiments, and he goes mad in “Maud.” His odd goings-on are chronicled by Bulwer-Lytton, Dickens, and Disraeli. He turns up in Matthew Arnold, he turns up in Clough's “Dipsychus,” and he turns up as the thoughtful young man contemplating the harlot in Rossetti's “Jenny,” as William C. De Van has sympathetically demonstrated. He goes abroad, too, and writes the confession of a child of a century with the pen of de Musset, and becomes a stoic with De Vigny. As an Italian he laments the brevity of life with Leopardi, as an American he is sensitive in Hawthorne, as a German he haunts that literature from Tieck through Heinrich Heine. Sometimes he has a name, but essentially he is anonymous. Elderly critics might refer to him as a stereotype, but contemporary refinement likes to call him a persona—a mask through which the writer speaks as a poet, not as a man.

Whether stereotype or persona, the Anonymous Young Man is a signal to the reader. He is not an ordinary, middle-class young man, well adjusted to society, comfortable in his religious beliefs, persuaded of the bourgeois virtues, and modeling himself upon Benjamin Franklin. The Anonymous Young Man is sensitive, morbid, and accursed. He likes to prowl around at night. He likes to experiment with drugs, hypnotism, music. Sometimes, as in the case of Bulwer's Pelham, he manages to throw off his doom by embracing a radical philosophy (in this case Utilitarianism) but more commonly, like the modern Private Prewitt, his abnormality is so fixed, he embraces darkness like a bride. Unlike that unfortunate bugler, the Anonymous Young Man is much given to study, seeking in strange libraries some answer to the riddle of the painful earth. And always, always (again unlike Prewitt) he is confessional, not, I think, because of any “destructive passion of the lonely ego,” but mostly because he just likes to talk. When, therefore, a reader in the 1840's picked up a new poem called “The Raven,” he knew at once it was about the Anonymous Young Man:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

And as the detective story fan immediately asks himself, “What's the new gimmick in this one?” so the reader, when American taste was thus low in 1845, asked himself, “What is novel, what is strange about the Anonymous Young Man this time?” He read “The Raven” with certain expectations in mind. He expected the poet to establish a new variant in the psychology of the Anonymous Young Man.

Like almost everybody else who reads “The Philosophy of Composition” I am sceptical about it as an explanation of the origin of “The Raven.” If we are to believe Poe, he achieved this poem by sheer ratiocination, which clearly he did not. But this does not mean that “The Raven” lacks the fundamental brainwork that goes into the making of a good poem; and if we put aside Poe's pompous discussion of “Beauty,” and how the most beautiful of melancholy themes is the death of a beautiful woman, and how the true originality of his meter is not that it is octameter acatalectic, alternating with heptameter catalectic and terminating with tetrameter catalectic, but the stanza he has invented—if, I say, we put all this aside and look towards the end of his essay, we find something more valid. Here it is:

With the dénouement proper—with the Raven's reply, “Nevermore,” to the lover's final demand if he shall meet his mistress in another world—the poem, in its obvious phase, that of a simple narrative, may be said to have its completion. So far, everything is within the limits of the accountable—of the real. A raven, having learned by rote the single word “Nevermore,” and having escaped from the custody of its owner, is driven at midnight, through the violence of a storm, to seek admission at a window from which a light still gleams—the chamber-window of a student, occupied half in poring over a volume, half in dreaming of a beloved mistress deceased. The casement being thrown open at the fluttering of the bird's wings, the bird itself perches on the most convenient seat out of the immediate reach of the student, who, amused by the incident and the oddity of the visitor's demeanor, demands of it, in jest and without looking for a reply, its name. The raven addressed, answers with its customary word, “Nevermore,”—a word which finds immediate echo in the melancholy heart of the student, who, giving utterance aloud to certain thoughts suggested by the occasion, is again startled by the fowl's repetition of “Nevermore.” The student now guesses the state of the case, but is impelled … by the human thirst for self-torture and in part by superstition, to propound such queries to the bird as will bring him, the lover, the most of the luxury of sorrow, through the anticipated answer “Nevermore.”

Two things are invariably required—first, some account of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, secondly, some amount of suggestiveness—Some under-current, however indefinite, of meaning. It is this latter, in especial, which imparts to a work of art so much of that richness … which we are too fond of confounding with the ideal … I added the two concluding stanzas of the poem—their suggestiveness being thus made to pervade all the narrative which has preceded them … It will be observed that the words, ‘from out my heart,’ involve the first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer, “Nevermore,” dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematical—but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen.

I have italicized two passages not italicized by Poe—that about self-torture and that about some undercurrent of meaning.

Premising the discussion by the fact that in Poe's day the word “moral” (as in Wordsworth's “all my moral being”) was interchangeably used for “ethical” or “psychological” (sometimes it simultaneously meant both), we note Poe's insistence that the point of his poem is “to seek a moral” in what is narrated; i.e., to try to comprehend the ethicopsychic statement of “The Raven,” or, more simply, to understand that here is an exercise in the psychology of the Anonymous Young Man. Three relatively abnormal motives, he says, have been introduced: the human thirst for self-torture; superstition; and “some under-current, however indefinite, of meaning.” But “some under-current, however, indefinite of meaning” is a precise definition of surrealism; and in moving from the actual world to the “richness” implied by “the first metaphorical expression” in his production, Poe is, in a sense, reversing the movement of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In that story the hero escapes from a world in which haggard-eyed solitaries play music more eerie than the so-called “Last Waltz of Von Weber” and bury their sisters alive, into the world of the accountable, of the real. But “The Raven,” by contrary motion, moves out of an actual world in which, one stormy midnight, a trained raven finds shelter in a student's room, into a world in which seraphim swing censers, the demented hope for an answer from total darkness, a crazed young man asks unanswerable questions of a fowl, and, as a weird climax (suggestive of the “March to the Scaffold” in Berlioz's symphony) begs the bird to take its beak from out his (the student's) heart, albeit the bird is safely ensconced over the doorway. The bird is now transformed into as obscene a demonic symbol of utter cynicism as Faust anywhere meets on the Brocken, and is no longer an ordinary corvus corax. In plain terms the Anonymous Young Man is now completely out of his head, displaying some of the classic attributes of schizophrenia, which, according to definition, is marked by “loss of contact with environment, and disintegration of personality.” We are all too familiar with “The Raven”; but if we were not, we would catch the sheer, somnambulistic horror of its climax:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
                                        Shall be lifted—never more!

Here, too, are “redundant alternatives”—“still is sitting,” twice given; “shadow” likewise given twice; and here also the meter “with its frequent feminine rhymes, so rare in English,” yields us “seeming,” “streaming,” “dreaming”—surely no brilliant discoveries by themselves. And here likewise are the heavy, the virtually mechanical, the excessive alliteration and assonance, which characterize the whole poem. But here also, after 108 lines which clearly do not “flow naturally,” we have our Anonymous Young Man turned into a monomaniac living in a surrealist universe—the bust and the raven, the queer light, the weird, theatrical shadow,1 the hinted diablerie of the eyes of the dreaming bird, all very much like an invention of Salvador Dali! How does Poe manage this psychological transformation?

The process is that of hypnotizing both the Anonymous Young Man and the reader, and to this hypnosis the meter, together with the iteration of a few significant symbols inextricably caught up into the meter and coming relentlessly around with it, is the chief contributor. Obviously one such symbol is “tapping,” which, with its synonym appears eight times. Another such is “Lenore,” which also appears eight times. A third, a little more difficult to define, is the element of light in the poem, in its struggle with darkness and death, which begins as dying embers creating their own ghosts and ends, after an invitation to the raven to return to “the Night's Plutonian shore,” with the queer, unnatural lights of the last stanza—pallor on the bust, demonic eyes, streaming lamp-light, an impossible shadow, and the queer, climactic ghastliness of “my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor.” Finally, there are various hints at the kind of levitation one experiences in nightmares—the curtains that strangely rustle of themselves, the grotesque unwilled movement of the bird from the window to the door, the odd sensations of “wheeled a cushioned seat,” “upon the velvet sinking,” “divining, with my head at ease reclining,” the movement of the seraphim, the eventual uprush of the figure in the chair, and, of course, the floating of the shadow at the ominous end.

Essential to the hypnotic effect is repetition—the going over and over again of the same words, the same ideas, the same images in the same order. Mr. Auden's complaint about the “redundant alternatives” he cites gets at the matter, it seems to me, in the wrong way. The slow drag of the narrative, the pondering such trivia as the distinction between “stopped” and “stayed,” “rapping” and “tapping,” “rare and radiant,” “faintly” and “gently,” “soon again,” “flirt and flutter”—do these not simultaneously slow up the movement of events and create the queer, hypochondriacal kind of wrong-headed particularity characteristic of a mind in this situation? The nineteenth century, at least, thought so—witness Dr. Manette's recurrence to tapping on shoe leather in The Tale of Two Cities. The rhythmic repetition of a set of idées fixes, with sufficient variation cunningly to call attention to the monotony—is not this no small part of Poe's success in the poem?

In “The Raven” time stands still. We have but one indication of temporality—“a midnight dreary,” but all the actions of the Anonymous Young Man occur in a region beyond time. The sense of escaping temporal limitations begins with the frustration of the second stanza, where tomorrow never comes; passes into the fantastic heartbeats of the following unit, curiously echoed in the meter; transforms itself into the endless moment of staring into darkness; and then, so to speak, disappears with the entrance of the Raven, the fantastic dialog, and the final frozen instant when the Anonymous Young Man, instead of banishing the bird as he had hoped, finds it (like the albatross) translated out of ornithology into eternity. But this mounting crescendo towards an endless and horrible Now is possible only because of the metrical structure of the whole.

Some of the lines are, indeed, ridiculous (for example: “For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being”), and some of the images vulgar (“whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er”). One feels that the chamber, which Poe evidently got up in high romantic style, is mostly Biedermeier Gothic. But the important thing is not the bad coloring, the lapses in taste, or the high-flown language in which the Anonymous Young Man carries on his dialog with the Raven, the important thing is that “The Raven” overrides bad taste and absurdity largely by reason of its superb metrical structure—the monotony-in-variety that Poe managed to give his theme. Thus 54 lines rhyme with “nevermore”; of these 37 are on precisely five syllables (door, or adore, floor, Lenore, before, and the “plore” of implore and explore), but few readers not interested in metrical technique notice this, so cunningly is the metrical movement arranged to carry the terminal rhymes.

It would be curious to inquire into other elements of Poe's success—for example, the concealed but growing hyperaesthesia of the Anonymous Young Man, who begins with normal hearing and then harkens to seraphic footfalls, and who passes from a half somnolent state (if, indeed, the whole poem is not a nightmare) into the self-torture, as Poe calls it, of hysterical questionings. The meter holds together superbly the two elements that compel a willing suspension of disbelief until the poem is done—namely, the grotesque and the maniacal, and I do not see, once one has mastered the true theme of the piece, that the prosodic interest and the thematic interest are anywhere antithetic, but rather that they are one and indissoluble. I am sure Poe sincerely believed that in “The Raven” he was celebrating that most melancholy of themes, the death of a beautiful woman, but the saintly Lenore is never described, and all that we know about her is that she is with the angels. What is presented, and powerfully presented, is, however, the movement from sanity to monomania in the “soul” of the Anonymous Young Man of the period, and this is managed by prosodic devices so powerful that nobody has since dared to imitate them.


  1. Poe's explanation that he had in mind a “bracket candelabrum … high above the door and bust” reads to me like an explanation after the fact.

Joseph Jones (essay date May 1958)

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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 misrepresented his own mental processes, merely to gain prestige or notoriety; on the other, that he selected and marshaled his recollections of these processes, as on a stage, probably with much the same eye to a dramatic effect upon the reader but without wilful distortion or disarrangement. Is there any plausible ground at all for assuming that the main lines of development for “The Raven” were correctly described, and that the account has been merely oversystematized and streamlined? With Poe, we can never be sure. More information, however, about possible sources for “The Raven” might help us a little with this puzzling question.

British inspiration for “The Raven” has long been taken for granted. Poe read and reviewed (in 1841) Dickens's Barnaby Rudge, in which a pet raven figures prominently, and Lowell's couplet in A Fable for Critics has lent continuing sanction to Dickens as primary source:

There comes Poe, with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge,
Three fifths of him genius and two fifths sheer fudge.

Lowell must have meant by this merely to suggest that Poe's raven had become attached to him as a symbol, in the same way that Barnaby Rudge was associated with his pet raven Grip, not that Poe's raven is similar to Dickens's, for there is not much in Barnaby Rudge to suggest the sinister qualities in the bird that Poe gave to it. Grip appears bedraggled and melancholy but not malevolent. Still, we know that Poe read Dickens; and when, for example, A. H. Quinn says, “There is no doubt, however, that the bird was suggested by the raven in Dickens' Barnaby Rudge, especially since Poe called attention to the possible symbolic association between Barnaby and ‘Grip,’ of which Dickens had not made full use,” he is reporting the accepted derivation, to which he adds: “But as Stevenson remarked when he acknowledged his own indebtedness to Poe in the preface to Treasure Island, no one can have a corner in talking birds.”1

Poe states in “The Philosophy of Composition” that he had first thought of a parrot as “a non-reasoning creature capable of speech” but that the idea was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.” (The first printings of the poem did not capitalize “raven”: that was an afterthought of Poe's, also more in keeping with the intended tone.) With this in mind, the particular raven Grip, of Barnaby Rudge, was not altogether well suited to Poe's purposes. Grip talked quite miscellaneously and was a creature more to be loved than feared, as was Dickens's own raven named Grip and his successor; at worst he was capable of no more than sly mischief. Still, something of Grip may linger in the first impressions of the forlorn lover of “The Raven”: immediately after he admits the “ungainly fowl” he is amused by its quaintness and is ready to tolerate it as a distraction, only to lose sympathy as the “Nevermore” refrain displeases and finally infuriates him. At length he calls the raven “wretch,” “thing of evil,” “fiend,” and other names, suspects him of diabolical prophetic powers, and shrieks at him to get out. Pretty clearly, this creature is more than a harmless pet.

If we are to find a more suitable candidate than Grip for an ancestor to Poe's raven, he must be different in several particulars: he must be more ominous and mysterious than familiar; he must say the same thing over and over; what he thus repeats must have special significance to the central character of the piece; and he must become the object of the central character's fierce hatred. Of the central character himself, we require that he shall be already much agitated in mind and that his agitation shall be aggravated by the raven's repetitious croaking until an emotional climax is reached. The framework must be established around the bird: no raven, no climax.

These requirements are fairly met in an anonymous poem published in Fraser's for March, 1839, entitled “The Raven; or, The Power of Conscience. An Old Border Legend.”2 The text of this poem follows:


“There sits that old raven, accurs'd, on my wall;
          Some demon sure dwells in his throat!
I tremble to hear him on ‘Hildebrand’ call,
          With that hoarse and sepulchral note.
Attend me, young marksman, so brave and so bold!
          But bring me that old raven dead,
I'll fill thy deep pouch with broad pieces of gold,
          And young Edith shall sleep in thy bed.
But bring me the corse of that raven, I swear
          That, with many an acre beside,
I'll give thee that girl, so proud, and so fair,
          My beautiful niece, for thy bride.
For many a month, for many a year,
          I have sought that old raven to kill;
All my arrows have miss'd him, and so has my spear:
          He croaks of my dead brother still!
If thou lovest my niece, Sir Marksman, she's thine,
          When yon raven lies dead at my feet;
For whilst he has life, he's the torment of mine,
          So rid me of him, I entreat.”—
“An oracle speaks from the breast of that bird!
          A prophet is he, and a seer!
Young stranger! respect of that raven, each word,
          Though the heart of the guilty may fear!
Who injures that raven, so bold and so true,
          No hand of young Edith shall claim.
For years has he spoken the tale that he knew,
          When he croak'd forth my dead father's name!”—
“Away with that girl! to the high northern tower;
          She shall weep for her insolence there!
She shall feel the full weight of Earl Ethelbert's power,
          By the depth of her own wild despair.
By holy St. Cuthbert, she there shall abide,
          Till yon raven lies dead at my feet.
Young stranger, I'll conquer that bosom of pride;
          So kill me that bird, I entreat.”—
“My uncle! I'll go to thy turret so high
          But the scorn and the pride of this breast
Will last till that raven so ancient shall die,
          Or thou have one moment of rest.
For years will that raven still sit on thy wall,
          And fill thee with horror and shame;
For still will that raven most mournfully call
          My father, Sir Hildebrand's, name.
No marksman has skill yon raven to kill;
          Thou hast tried every weapon before:
Sir Hildebrand's name, that old raven still
          Croaks louder, proud earl! than before.”—
Then wroth grew the earl, and pale turn'd his cheek,
          For the raven flew over his head;
And flapping his wings, did in hoarse accents speak
          The name of “Sir Hildebrand” dead.
Again from his bow an arrow he sent,
          At the raven who circled him round;
Back, back it return'd, both blunted and spent,
          But the raven had never a wound!
Then forth from that raven's sepulchral throat
          A laugh of derision there came;
And still it return'd to its favourite note,
          And croak'd out “Sir Hildebrand's” name.
“Oh, send for a leech!” Earl Ethelbert cried;
          I am sad—I am sick—I am faint!”—
“No; send for a beadsman,” young Edith replied,
          “For no leech can remove thy complaint.
'Tis the work of a priest, and not of a leech,
          To cure this disease of thy mind;
The good Father Paul thy disorder may reach,
          Which no doctor on earth ere could find.
Young stranger, go seek the good Father Paul,
          And bid him come hither with speed;
For I see that the earl will confess to him all,
          And may Mercy atone for the deed!”—
“What deed dost thou mean?” cried the earl, white as death;
          “Oh, Edith, thou'rt growing insane!”
But his forehead was damp—short, short went his breath;
          And agony swell'd every vein.
He fell on the ground, whilst the raven high soar'd
          In a circle around the earl's head;
From his throat so sepulchral one word still he pour'd,
          The name of “Sir Hildebrand” dead!
“Oh, God! I shall die if that raven I hear!
          That name—how it thrills to my soul!
How it curdles my blood! I tremble with fear!
          With anguish I cannot control!”
“'Tis the name of thy brother,” said good Father Paul,
          Approaching with beads and with hood;
“Say, why dost thou tremble to hear a bird call
          On a brother so kind and so good?”—
“I slew him in battle, that brother so brave,
          As we fought 'gainst the foes of the cross:
His blood cries aloud from a far distant grave—
          Oh, how do I mourn for his loss!”
'Twas envy that made me my brave brother kill,
          For I hated his worth and his fame;
Oh, find out some way my conscience to still
          When I hear my lost Hildebrand's name!
To Edith I give all the wealth that I hold,
          To her I resign it this day;
I sicken at thought of titles and gold,—
          To thy cloister oh bear me away.
My brother! my brother! thy spirit can hear
          My bitter remorse—my despair!
Forgive me, my brother!—for sure thou art near—
          And bid yonder raven ‘forbear!’”
“Forbear, Master Ralph!” cried the monk to the bird;
          “Come hither, and sit on my hand!”
The raven laughed loud on hearing that word,
          But came to that word of command.—
“And dost thou forget when this raven was young,—
          When he dropped from his old mother's nest?
How we fed him, and taught him to speak a new tongue—
          That word that you now so detest?”—
“'Tis my Hildebrand's voice!” the sick earl exclaimed,
          As the monk threw his dark cowl away.
“Oh, brother! this heart is both joyed and ashamed,
          When I think of that far battle day.
And art thou not, then, in a far distant grave,
          My Hildebrand! say, dost thou live?
And didst thou not die of that deep wound I gave?
          And canst thou, my brother! forgive?”—
“Stand down, Master Ralph,” Sir Hildebrand cried,
          “I want both my arms to embrace,—
To hold to my heart one so closely allied;
          So, Ralph, to my brother give place!
I have witnessed with Edith for many a day,
          Disguised as the good Father Paul,
Thy anguish at hearing this old raven say
          That name that we taught him to call.
Let him croak on thy towers ‘Sir Hildebrand’ still,
          Whilst we sit below at our ease;
And teach him this young warrior's name if you will,—
          For perchance it may fair Edith please.
But wherefore that blush, lovely daughter of mine?
          Thou art loved, and thou lovest this youth.
Gallant knight, take her hand,—my daughter is thine;
          I have proved both thy valour and truth!
Now, Ralph, thou hast plenty of work on thy hands,—
          Sir Hildebrand's name ne'er will die.
Look, Ethelbert! brother! how solemn he stands,—
          How keen is the glance of his eye!
Perchance he is thinking what name we shall give
          To the next of Sir Hildebrand's race;
Thou shalt learn it in time, honest Ralph, if we live:
          So, brother! another embrace!”—

Differences suggest themselves immediately. Fraser's “The Raven” is a jingling piece of melodrama with the prescribed happy ending; it catapults out of distress instead of progressing farther into it. The action is distributed over past and present, with a first-lien on the future, and the verse has so much plot to handle that it can accomplish little else. We are shown the Earl Ethelbert at the height of his passion against the raven, making one more effort to destroy it, growing “wroth” and crying out for “a leech”: this state of mind, we are assured by context, has been brought about by the raven's repetitious croaking of “Sir Hildebrand.” The climax of emotion is then succeeded by a climax of situation, in which revelation is followed by quick resolution in stageplay fashion and the reunited brothers are deposited in each other's arms. In Poe, on the other hand, we are left at a high pitch but with a compulsion to submit: excruciating as it may be, the raven's message must be accepted, and Poe is right in declaring that the poem leaves us in symbolism. “A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale,” and the effect is both cumulative and, in its way, profound.

But these are more or less general differences between cheap poetry and elegant poetry. What about the bird? Without insisting upon Fraser's “The Raven” as the fountainhead of Poe's inspiration, we still may speculate on the probabilities. First, was Poe likely to have seen the poem? Assuredly he was; in his position as an American magazine editor he had not only the opportunity but the duty of reading the leading British periodicals. Next, is the date congruent? It is; there is evidence that Poe began thinking about “The Raven” early in the 1840's—precisely when, it seems impossible to say,3 but the Fraser's date would appear significant in this connection, especially inasmuch as Barnaby Rudge, with its much more pervasive and insistent though not entirely appropriate association of man and raven, followed in just under two years. Verbal echoes are not strongly obvious, though a few suggest themselves. What is most clearly circumstantial in Fraser's “The Raven” is the coincidence of intentions regarding the use of the raven as a device. He is, to begin with and throughout most of the poem, a bird of ill omen. He repeats, monotonously and exclusively, one utterance. This utterance has a sensational effect upon the mind of the central character, who conceives of the raven as something evil but at the same time fateful and prophetic; it is associated with the dead (i.e., in Fraser's the supposedly dead). The central character is in such a state of mind as to be ill both physically and mentally. In Poe's poem he is “weak and weary” with sorrow; in the Fraser's poem he is haunted by guilt and is near collapse. In each the raven serves as a means of concentrating and finally precipitating the emotional tension—on the one hand through the framing of a dreaded question, on the other through a confession of fratricide. The result in both instances is spectacular, as both authors no doubt intended. There seems to be enough resemblance to warrant a query.

If we should grant the possibility of Fraser's “The Raven” as an additional influence, what are the results for Poe? It is instantly obvious that his poem does not suffer by comparison. Nor does this hypothesis reflect adversely on “The Philosophy of Composition,” which links itself all but inexorably with considerations of “The Raven.” In fact, if we assume that Poe had already in his mind—consciously or otherwise—a partly developed germinal idea, the process of composition detailed in the essay may be viewed with perhaps a little less skepticism than if we must labor to convince ourselves that everything was hatched de novo as Poe went along. He began, then, let us suppose, with a distracted hero who in the course of events was rendered more distracted by the appearance of a raven which kept repeating something he could not bear to hear. The Fraser's poem would have given him this much at the outset. Whether Poe remembered this or sincerely thought he was contriving it we can never say with finality, but at least we are turned back to the primary purpose of the essay, which after all is to show us how a poem was put together. It is not the philosophy of invention but the philosophy of composition that Poe is concerned with; he is telling us what stages he went through (without reference to the length of time they took) when he composed a poem, which is not the same thing as saying that he invented characters, devices, and episodes. To be sure, he is not overscrupulous about leading us to imagine him a clever fellow, but at the same time we should be careful not to read into the essay the implication that Poe started meditating with absolutely nothing at all and came out shortly thereafter with “The Raven.” It is possible to argue, I think, that he went through a regular, somewhat rigid, process of putting into shape the materials that his mind provided him, whether from fancy or from memory. We have been properly reluctant to believe that “The Raven” grew miraculously from nothing, or next to nothing, in a very short time; but is that what Poe really meant to suggest? Supposing that we can furnish him with sufficient raw materials to start with, the act of shaping the poem is something other than legerdemain and the emphasis falls back where it belonged all the while: on composition.

If we are prepared, then, to accept into Poe's aviary one more raven named Ralph as a companion to Grip—a poetic one, let it be noted—a “hoarse and sepulchral” bird described variously as “oracle,” “prophet,” and “seer,” which fiendishly tantalizes an overwrought hero—we have provided ourselves with another link in a chain of circumstances which, to quote the author of “The Raven,” constitute “the properties of the literary histrio.” No one can have a corner in talking birds.


  1. A. H. Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe (New York, 1941), p. 440.

  2. Fraser's, XIX, 284-286 (March, 1839). Two other poems about ravens appear in the English New Monthly Magazine: “The Dying Raven” by “G” in 1828 (XXIII, 335), in which the raven utters a prophecy of sorts, and “The Raven” by Charles Hooton in 1846 (LXXVI, 359-364), a poem in several parts, in which the bird narrates the misfortunes and fall of a poor cottager, Ragged Robin.

  3. See Susan Archer Weiss, Home Life of Poe (New York, 1907), p. 185.

Francis F. Burch (essay date March 1963)

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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 publication of Poe's poem, the manuscript bears the notation “Rough sketch of a critique on Poe's Raven.” It is clearly a first draft, and although subsequent corrections and additions were made, the essay was apparently never expanded or perfected for publication. Nevertheless, the essential criticisms are clear. They are here synopsized according to stanza.1

Ingleby first remarks that the popularity of “The Raven” is not altogether undeserved and then indicates his critical approach. He says: “There is no grace comparable to emphatic rhythm for its power to weaken the allegiance of common sense; to lull the attention and abuse the judgment.” Accordingly, he wishes to “discriminate the meaning and sense of the phrases employed from their peculiarities of composition and their melody.”2

Stanza 1—A man who is “nodding” and “nearly napping” can scarcely be engaged in “pondering”; for where the nodding begins the pondering ends. Also, “tapping” is either “gentle rapping” or it is not; in either event it is not “like” it.

Stanza 2—It is physically impossible, and poetically false for “each separate dying ember” to fashion “its ghost upon the floor.” To imagine individual ghosts is objectless. Also, the phrase “vainly I sought” is natural enough if his attempt to ponder was so abortive that it became identical with the abandonment of his faculties to slumber.

Stanza 3—The introduction of the “silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain” is disturbing. Since there is no possible cause for the movement of the curtains at this point, the image should be relocated after the opening of the window in stanza seven.

Stanza 4—The phrase “hesitating then no longer” is clearly contradicted by what follows; for he does not go directly to the door but delays and addresses an imaginary figure.

Stanza 5—It is impossible to peer “deep into that darkness.” “Dare” is incorrect in the phrase “dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before”; for dreaming does not concern courage and will; we dream whether we wish to or not. (Ingleby suggests that this objection may be hypercritical as there may be a choice in daydreams.) “The silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token” is mere tautology. Thus “darkness” would be better than “stillness” in this phrase. The echo “Lenore!” is physically impossible and poetically false.

Stanza 6—This stanza makes better sense than the preceding but is not poetry.

Stanza 10—Effective.

Stanza 11—Effective.

Stanza 15—“Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee there ashore,” is a vile jingle. The entire stanza is foolish and inflated.

Stanza 16—This stanza has both sense and poetry, but contains a few slight blemishes. The oath “By that Heaven that bends above us, by that God we both adore,” is foolish and profane. Also what is “the distant Aidenn”?

Stanza 17—Effective.

Stanza 18—Effective.

In conclusion Ingleby praises the poem for its “fine melody,” its “energetic and emphatic music,” and for maintaining a “weird contrast … between the most opposite states, reminding us slightly of Byron's immortal description of Venice in ‘The Doge.’”

Whether or not one is willing to accept Ingleby's criticism, his remarks are important; for they were written by a contemporary of Poe. Secondly, Ingleby cannot be accused of failure to understand the subtleties of the English language, as have many of Poe's French admirers, nor is there any evidence of partisanship in the Poe dispute, as there is with many of Poe's American critics. His main complaints are based precisely upon verbal significance, and his criticism was prompted purely by his reaction to the literary qualities of the poem.


  1. The manuscript is five pages of 8 by 10 inch blue, unlined work paper. I have summarized Ingleby's opinions in accordance with his final manuscript changes.

  2. In view of this approach it is interesting to note that in 1850 Ingleby was preparing his lecture on “The Neology of Shakespeare.”

Irwin Porges (essay date 1963)

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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, they could look down at the gleaming river and glimpse the green of the woods and meadows. Here, in his study, the inspiration that had been born when he first encountered poor Barnaby Rudge and his pet raven Grip was slowly taking shape. As he pondered over the poem, many strange images passed through his mind. Somehow, the bust of Pallas which stood on a shelf above the doorway seemed to be interwoven with these images.

The analytical faculty that he displayed in his stories controlled his thoughts. But his mind was a rare combination of theory and order balanced by unrestrained flights into fantasy. In creating his new poem, he would plan—but without rigidity. First must come the single, unified impression or effect that he advocated. It could not be Truth, “the satisfaction of the intellect,” or Passion, “the excitement of the heart.” These are best attained in prose, not poetry. Without question, Beauty is the “atmosphere and essence of the poem.”

But a poem must have tone. What should be the tone of this poem? To Edgar, the answer was instantly apparent. No other tone was possible but that of sadness. “Melancholy is … the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.”

What of the structure of the poem? To his mind came a device often used in poetry and song—the refrain. Repeated at the end of every stanza, the refrain is enjoyed by the reader or listener because of its repetition—and the sense of identity that it gives. The refrain is bound to make an impression; the audience learns it quickly because of “the force of monotone—both in sound and thought.” Nevertheless, Edgar shook his head over it. The refrain is too simple—too primitive; it must be varied. The idea came to him. Of course! Use the monotone of sound—but vary the thought. And since the thought must be varied in the refrain, one further point was obvious: the refrain must be a single word; this would make it easier to vary the thought.

The analysis went on. He wanted a “non-reasoning” creature to repeat the refrain mechanically. The first thought, naturally, was of a parrot. But then Barnaby Rudge's croaking raven made a clamor in his mind. The black, ugly raven, the bird of ill-omen—this creature was far better than a parrot. The word he would repeat at the end of each stanza was “Nevermore!” and in a melancholy poem, what topic is the most melancholy of all? The answer sprang to his lips—death! All that remains to be answered is this question: When is the topic of death most poetical? Edgar gave the reply that he knew by heart; it came from the agony and fear that had grown inside him from the moment of his first tragedy:

When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.

He pictured the setting, with the Raven entering the room and perching above his chamber door on the bust of Pallas. The lover, seated alone and dreaming of his “lost Lenore,” at first asks the “ghastly grim and ancient Raven” a commonplace question: “Tell me what thy lordly name is …” The Raven answers, “Nevermore!” The lover believes he is merely hearing a bird “repeating a lesson learned by rote.”

The plot of the poem became clearer to Edgar. As the Raven continues to answer with the same “Nevermore,” the lover is excited by the repetition and the “melancholy character of the word itself,” and asks questions of a different nature. Now they are personal, passionate ones of his lost love; and he asks them not because he believes the bird is a prophet, but because the expected “Nevermore” brings him a “frenzied pleasure,” filling him with the “most delicious” and “most intolerable of sorrows.”

Through this careful planning, the most important point became apparent to Edgar. The last question asked by the lover, and the Raven's final answer, are the climax of the poem. The effect here must be of “the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair.” To leave the lover in this most complete state of sorrow, it was necessary to think of the last stanzas first—to plan them first.

“Here then,” said Edgar, “the poem may be said to have had its beginning, at the end where all works of art should begin. …”

Stanza by stanza, through the warm summer months and the fall of 1844, Edgar worked on The Raven, writing, polishing, and revising. It was to be the most perfectly planned and constructed poem ever created. The perfectionist poet weighed and tested each word, phrase and line, never satisfied—always changing, substituting, re-writing.

At the end of the year, The Raven was sold to the American Whig Review, but through special permission was first published in the Evening Mirror on January 29, 1845. In this issue, and in the Weekly Mirror of February 8th, Nathaniel Parker Willis prefaced the poem with a paragraph of praise seldom granted to an author. In referring to “the following remarkable poem by Edgar Poe,” he said,

In our opinion, it is the most effective single example of “fugitive poetry” ever published in this country; and unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conception, masterly ingenuity of versification, and consistent, sustaining of imaginative lift and “pokerishness.” It is one of these “dainties bred in a book” which we feed on. It will stick to the memory of everybody who reads it.

Beneath this paragraph appeared the title, The Raven, and the poem followed with its familiar opening stanza:

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.
“'Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
                    Only this, and nothing more.”

In the development of Edgar's plan, the student who had been poring over a volume and dreaming of his dead sweetheart watches the Raven flutter in and is amused by its actions and odd appearance. From a first question, which is asked in jest, the poem rises to a climax of self-torture and deep sorrow. The lover is painfully reminded of what he already knows—there is no hope of clasping a “rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore,” and he shrieks,

Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!

In the end, the Raven's shadow becomes the symbol of the permanency of the lover's sorrow:

And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
                    Shall be lifted—nevermore!

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

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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.”]


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 one has tried to elaborate the similarity between tale and poem into a new reading of the story, the object of the present essay.

It is our contention that there is sufficient similarity in mood, content, method and structure to reward a systematic comparison of the two. Such an examination will show no direct line of derivation,2 but it will enrich our understanding of both and in particular of the puzzling “Bartleby,” a work which seems no more destined to lend itself to a limited number of interpretations than does Hamlet.


A study of the parallels in Melville's tale and Poe's poem might begin with noting that both are narrated by scholars, or at least men of books. The narrator of “The Raven” has grown “weak and weary” pondering his “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” (ll. 1 & 2). Further, he has a bust in his study, as Poe wrote later, “the bust of Pallas being chosen first, as most in keeping with the scholarship of the lover.”3

Bartleby's employer, the lawyer, is apparently something less of a scholar, but as a Master in Chancery also had to do with the more scholarly, and sedentary, aspects of his profession.4 From the “cool tranquillity of a snug retreat” he went about his stated business as “a drawer-up of recondite documents,”5 a business which obviously involved research and which, in the nature of the law, must often have required the scholarly use of other documents even more recondite.

More significantly similar are the incidents involving busts. Following the relatively abrupt appearance of both title characters—Bartleby at a door, the Raven at a window—the Raven takes his ironic perch on a bust of the all-wise Athena. There this black bird, actually knowing nothing, repeats the “Nevermore” to which his questioner imputes such tragic prescience, while Pallas, pale symbol of a wisdom which supposedly knows all, can only remain silent. Bartleby assumes his similarly ironic position at the point in the tale when, in answer to his employer's question, “But what reasonable objection can you have to speak to me?” he silently fixes his gaze on a bust of the eloquent Cicero, father of Roman oratory.6

The word “reasonable” is an important key to one's understanding of the story, as well as to a further parallel between the two works. The core of Bartleby's unreasonableness, the focus of his irrationality, is, of course, his repeated statement, “I would prefer not to.” Although his refusals to cooperate with the story's narrator vary somewhat in form, they constitute a refrain of continuing and growing irrationality. His final speech, a model of lucidity on the surface (“I would prefer not to dine to-day. It would disagree with me; I am unused to dinners.”), is actually, to the Western mind at least, the absolute limit of unreasonable behavior expressed in terms of a terrible logicality: he wills his own death by starvation. The Raven, too, repeats his negative refrain endlessly and with no semblance of reason. We are, in fact, led to believe that this is all it can do; the word “Nevermore” is “its only stock and store” (l. 62).


Structurally the parallelism of question, or request, and answer between narrator and protagonist is the dominant characteristic of both works. To be sure, the simple, inexorable rhythms of the poem come as inevitably as drumbeats in march music, while the progression from one disappointed hope to the next is much more subtle in “Bartleby.” Nevertheless, at each stage of that progression, beginning with Bartleby's initial preference not to perform his duties in a normal manner, followed by subsequent negative decisions leading eventually to his preference no longer to exist, the mildly-spoken Bartleby's replies begin to produce an effect on the reader comparable to that of the Raven's single sonorous word.

As in “The Raven,” the tale in fact turns on Bartleby's response to all requests made to him, resulting in a cumulative effect of much the same gloomy foreboding which is more blatantly supplied by “The Raven” and its “species of despair which delights in self-torture, … the most delicious because the most intolerable.”7 Again, as in “The Raven,” the requests in “Bartleby” for action or information tend to increase in importance as they are denied. In the first such instance, his employer asks Bartleby to perform a perfectly ordinary task of copyreading, a necessary part of the scrivener's calling. This is followed by a request similarly inoffensive to the normal employee, that Bartleby go to the Post Office, and he is subsequently asked for routine assistance in other minor office tasks. Rebuffed in each instance by his clerk's steadfast preference not to comply, the by no means masterful Master then asks little further of him until the day following their unexpected Sunday encounter in the office. At that point Bartleby refuses all requests for information of a personal nature which might assist his well-meaning employer to understand him better, and finally even states that he “would prefer not to be a little reasonable.”8 By that time the entire office force has become addicted to the use of “prefer,” symbolic of the way Bartleby's singular behavior is obviously affecting them all.

So accustomed by then to accepting the strange, Bartlebian preferences is his employer that when, a few days later, Bartleby announces his decision to do no more copying, the Master seems almost eager to find grounds for excusing him in his supposed eye fatigue. Later, when the attorney's assumption that Bartleby will accept his generous payment and leave is confounded by the clerk's single-minded preference to do no such thing, the central focus of the story's action is once again found in the request and negative response.9 Despite his subsequent abandoning of both the premises and the persistent Bartleby who is occupying them, the lawyer is called back by the desperation of the next tenant to occupy them. Once again he poses a series of questions, this time suggesting occupations which he hopes Bartleby may choose to follow. All are met by the same wall-like negation with which the self-immured Bartleby has surrounded himself, as is the final somewhat desperate invitation to share his own quarters with the former scrivener, a relatively delayed recognition of “the bond of a common humanity.”

A final expression of Bartleby's negation remains, during the meeting in the tombs, where the lawyer, now acting wholly with the initiative of his own concern, previously restrained, seeks him out. Once more there is a refusal, this time the total refusal of life itself, signifying his acceptance of the final negation, death. Bartleby has indeed “quoth nevermore,” but he has changed the course of his protagonist's life by doing so. Having progressively identified himself more with Bartleby, that former circumspect inhabitant of a comfortable “hermitage,” as he called it, at last seems to recognize his tie with Bartleby and, through him, with all of misunderstood mankind.


No such breach in the innate alienation of the human condition can be said to occur in “The Raven,” although one might hope that the narrator at least sought out a friend better able to deal with the genus corvus than he. But the possibility of a divine origin of both strange visitors, a theological interpretation which both narrators and their readers are inclined at times to ascribe to the seemingly permanent presences visited upon them, is another point of similarity. Says the narrator to the Raven, “Thy God hath sent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee” (l. 81), while the lawyer describes his resignation at one point in these terms: “Gradually I slid into the persuasion that these troubles of mine, touching the scrivener, had been predestined from eternity, and Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence.”10

The development of mood of “The Raven,” which Poe said he intended to range from the fantastic at its beginning, “approaching as nearly to the ludicrous as was admissible” to a later “tone of the most profound seriousness,” is the same pattern which is followed by “Bartleby.”11 While the tale overall is one of melancholy, there are comic elements present, which “approach the ludicrous,” especially in the beginning, as in the description of Turkey and Nippers. Bartleby's own behavior soon begins to take on fantastic proportions and becomes ever more so. But as it does, the mood gradually becomes one “of most profound seriousness,” which, despite the comic touch of the grub-man (rather fantastically named Mr. Cutlets in Melville's original version), increases proportionately with Bartleby's growing negation of the world.

Both tale and poem share in the characteristic which Poe referred to as “a close circumscription of space,” an effect he described as having the force of a frame for a picture.12 “The Raven” takes place almost entirely within a lamp-lit chamber, while Bartleby plays out the remainder of his life largely within the confining walls of an office, itself confined by walls of other offices, which at the end he finally exchanges for the walls of the appropriately-named Tombs, en route to his grave. Such confinement, as Poe stated, does indeed have the effect of intensification and has provided the basis of at least one critic's interpretation of “Bartleby.”13

Finally, both the lawyer and the bereaved lover clearly have a penchant for self-torture. More apparent in the line of questioning followed by the lover in “The Raven,” who makes each succeeding answer echo still more of his sorrow, the Master in Chancery's questionings, like his actions, also reveal a strange reluctance truly to be rid of his torturer. For one versed in the law, any employee who should refuse to work or to quit the premises would pose, on the surface at least, a relatively simple problem and one easy to redress. That the lawyer did not call a constable seems to indicate that the clerk had already come to mean more to him than preserving the lack of involvement in life enjoyed by his former “eminently safe” self.


In reading “Bartleby” with, as it were, an eye on the Raven over the door, the climax of the poem and the final preference of the scrivener create much the same effect of providing the reader with a moral. The poem's closing lines, “And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor / Shall be lifted—nevermore!” bear out their author's contention that he had made his Raven “emblematical of Mournful and neverending Remembrance [sic].”14 By his revelation that Bartleby's prior life may have included the futility of work in a Dead Letter Office, and with his final equation of this singularly useless man's life with all of humanity, Melville, too, has transformed the pale clerk into something “emblematical” of all our lives, and has thereby given his readers cause for his mournful remembrance.

In both works reason has been somehow deepened by the tensions of its encounters with unreason. While we, like the narrators of both poem and tale, are unable fully to comprehend the irrational symbols by which we are confronted and find them incapable of manipulation in the ways of our conscious wills, still we are profoundly affected by learning of their existence and moved by our lack of a viable means of rational approach. Both narrators, like their readers, have been forced to accept evidence of a mysterious motivation seemingly beyond anything in their previous knowledge or experience, and both in the future must forever bear poignant memories by which they have been enlightened concerning that aspect of human condition, powerless as it is to change many things. Their reconciliation with the symbols of irrationality is more than resignation: it results in an awareness of the humanity they share with all men, and thus is their, and the reader's, alienation diminished by having known something of the puzzling behavior of both scrivener and bird.

“Bartleby” is, indeed, “a Poeish tale,” as its first reviewer found it, and some important aspects of its Poeishness are to be found in its parallels with “The Raven,” rather than with Poe's tales. In addition to the similarities of mood, method, structure and literary devices we have outlined are the major parallels of theme whereby both scholarly narrators find their lives forever changed by experiencing forms of the irrational which serve somehow to develop their involvement in humanity. In these ways does the “concentrated gloom” of Poe's best-known work help illuminate Melville's “wild, weird tale.”


  1. The first to link Poe and “Bartleby” was the anonymous reviewer in The Literary World for December 3, 1853, who called “Bartleby” “a Poeish tale,” quoted in Donald M. Fiene's “Chronological Development” in Bartleby the Scrivener: The Melville Annual, 1965, Howard P. Vincent, ed. (Kent, Ohio, 1966), p. 151. Three years later another anonymous reviewer said in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review that “Perhaps the admirers of Edgar Poe will see … an imitation of his concentrated gloom in the wild, weird tale, called ‘Bartleby,’” Vincent, op. cit., p. 152. More recently Edward Rosenbarry says of “Bartleby” only that “the relation between its narrator and its principal character [is] not unlike that in Poe's ‘The Raven,’” Melville and the Comic Spirit (Cambridge, 1955), p. 145. Harry Levin says no more in this regard than that “[Bartleby] sits there like the Raven, croaking a negative answer to all requests and queries,” The Power of Blackness: Hawthorne, Poe, Melville (New York, 1958). p. 178. Frank Davidson limits his comparison to noting that the Scrivener is “like the Raven,” in “‘Bartleby’: A Few Observations,” Emerson Society Quarterly, 27 (Second Quarter, 1962), 32. And, finally, although Marjorie Dew borrows from “The Raven” to add imagery to her title and to two subsequent statements in her text, she does not advance any further comparison (“The Attorney and the Scrivener: Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore,’” in Vincent, op. cit., pp. 94-103.).

  2. Although there is no conclusive evidence that Melville used “The Raven” as a source for “Bartleby,” it is certain that he knew about the poem which “From the instant of its appearance became the most widely known of all American poems”—Hervey Allen, Israfel, The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe, II (New York, 1927), p. 634. It is also true that both authors lived in New York City in the late 1840's, but though they had friends and acquaintances in common, the possibility of their actually having met remains a fascinating, but undocumented, conjecture. A friend, literary agent and adviser to both was Evert Duyckinck, as described in Allen, op. cit., p. 717, and Jay Leyda, The Melville Log, I (New York, 1951), p. 260. Another common acquaintance who lionized both at different times was the decidedly uncommon hostess, Anne C. Lynch, “the queen regnant of the literati, whose parlor was the most eagerly thronged, and which approached more nearly to the dignity of a genuine salon than any other,” Allen, op. cit., p. 637. And for a time they had the same publisher, Wiley & Putnam's.

  3. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he supposedly explicates his creation of “The Raven.” This essay is reprinted in Arthur H. Quinn & Edward H. O'Neill, The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allen Poe, II (New York, 1951), p. 985. Subsequent page numbers refer to this edition.

  4. Herbert F. Smith's “Melville's Master in Chancery and his Recalcitrant Clerk,” American Quarterly, XVII (Winter, 1965), 734-41, does an excellent job of analyzing both the significance of that position for the times and its implications for a new reading of the story.

  5. Raymond Weaver, ed., The Shorter Novels of Herman Melville (Greenwich, Conn., 1928), pp. 107, 115. Subsequent page references are to this edition.

  6. P. 133.

  7. “The Philosophy of Composition,” p. 983.

  8. P. 134.

  9. For the great significance of the word assumption, its relation to the chancery writ of assumpsit, and Melville's skill as a punster, see Smith, op. cit., p. 740.

  10. P. 143.

  11. “The Philosophy of Composition,” p. 985.

  12. “The Philosophy of Composition,” p. 984.

  13. Leo Marx's “Melville's Parable of the Walls,” Sewanee Review, LXI, 3 (Autumn, 1953), 603-627.

  14. “The Philosophy of Composition,” p. 987.

Daniel E. Lees (essay date winter 1970)

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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 perpetrator of a fratricide, by continually croaking the dead brother's name. This poem, then, thematically offers a claim as a possible inspirational source.

Yet the origins of a demoniac bird as a symbol of conscience are older than Fraser's “The Raven.” In an article dealing with this matter, William H. Gravely, Jr., suggests that Poe was influenced by an essay of John Wilson (“Christopher North”), a staff member and frequent contributor to Blackwood's Magazine.2 Wilson's Blackwood essays were collected and published by Carey and Hart, as Critical and Miscellaneous Essays by Christopher North, in Philadelphia in 1841, and Poe, as editor of Graham's Magazine, wrote a favorable review.3 One of the essays in the collection was entitled “A Glance over Selby's Ornithology” and included a sketch on the characteristics of ravens. The essay itself was originally published in Blackwood's for November, 1826. To the best of this writer's knowledge, no one has demonstrated that Poe saw Wilson's essay prior to its publication in Philadelphia; however, one extant piece of evidence suggests he may have read it in its issue of Blackwood's, either in the unbound state or bound in one of the annual, hardbound volumes then commonly handled by booksellers.4

In the ornithological essay, the sketch on ravens was immediately followed by one dealing with owls.5Blackwood's Volume XX included the months July through December, and the July issue—which would appear first in the hardbound volume—contained a long unsigned piece of narrative doggerel entitled “The Owl.”6 A merry owl happens upon a boy abducting his “Wife” and “children three” and “With noiseless wing” follows his family's shriekings to the lad's mansion. Here, the boy, wanting the pilfered owlets for pets, burns out their eyes and inadvertently kills them. The “Father Owl” agonized by their screams “tore his breast … And flew he knew not, recked not, where!” The bereaved bird, now with a “wild stare and deathly scowl,” takes to the forest to brood and screech at every passing traveller. One night years later the bird discovers his enemy—the boy, now grown—seducing a “Lady fair.” Startled by a screech, the young man quits his purpose, for he recognizes that “danger and death are nigh, / When drinks mine ear yon dismal cry.” More time passes, and the young man, now with looks “haggard, wild, and bad,” returns to the owl's tree bearing the bloody “corse” of his mistress. While digging a grave, the murderer hears “Once again that boding scream, / And saw again those wild eyes gleam.” Crying “Curse on the Fiend!” he flings his mattock at the owl and flees.

Morning brings friends to recover the lady's body, and the killer is punished by death—causing the owl to utter the words “Revenge is sweet!”

Although “The Owl” is artistically not comparable to Poe's poem, it nevertheless presents many striking metrical, thematic, and linguistic similarities. Metrically, the poem resembles Poe's “The Raven” in its use, though irregular, of the trochaic foot. Fraser's “The Raven” employs the anapestic foot in a ballad stanza.7

Thematically, the owl, a night bird with a haunting eye, functions as the power of conscience (to borrow the subtitle of the Fraser poem). Also, “The Owl” overtly presents Poe's favorite theme—the death of a beautiful woman. The Fraser piece lacks this element.

Linguistically, the two poems—Blackwood's and Poe's—contain obvious parallels. The word “raven” is used in “The Owl” metaphorically for the color black, as when the bird is unable to believe “that Evil's raven wing was spread.” The notorious “quoths” of Poe's bird are echoed in the Blackwood line ending “quoth he.” And the lines “One night, very very weary, / He sat in a hollow tree, / With his thoughts—ah! all so dreary” may be compared to the rhymes and rhythms in the opening of Poe's piece.

In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe relates his decision to use a raven rather than a parrot to utter the refrain. Yet it may be more than coincidental for the bird to come to rest on a bust of Pallas Athena: first, the owl is the traditional bird of wisdom for this goddess; secondly, Susan Archer Weiss states that Poe told her he originally had decided to use the nocturnal owl for his prophetic bird.8

“The Owl” is part of a poetic tradition, popular in the early nineteenth century, in which foreboding birds of all kinds figure prominently in verse having to do with crime, guilt, and death. Many such poems are to be found in the pages of Blackwood's, Fraser's, and The Westminster Review. Joseph Jones notes two “raven” poems in the New Monthly Magazine for 1828 and 1846. There is some likelihood, then, that Poe was familiar with “The Owl” and Fraser's “The Raven”; a comparison of the three poems reveals what a skillful poet could have done. By artfully transforming the melodramatic and overt elements in the earlier poems, by modulating some of the shrieking and croaking, by compressing the narrative to convert it from mere “story” to a device for plumbing psychological recesses, he could bring the tradition of the demoniac fowl sitting on high in mock judgment of man to its ultimate statement.9


  1. “‘The Raven’ and ‘The Raven’: Another Source of Poe's Poem,” AL [American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography], XXX (May 1958), 185-93. “The Raven,” it will be recalled, first appeared in 1845 and was reprinted many times during Poe's life, in various versions. Killis Campbell, The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (New York, 1962), p. 246, gives this list: “New York Evening Mirror, January 29, 1845; American Whig Review, February, 1845; New York Tribune, Feburary 4, 1845; Broadway Journal, February 8, 1845; Southern Literary Messenger, March, 1845; London Critic, June 14, 1845; Literary Emporium, 1845; 1845 [The Raven and Other Poems, Edgar A. Poe, New York]; Graham's Magazine, April, 1846 (in part); Philadelphia Saturday Courier, July 25, 1846; Griswold's Poets and Poetry of America (8th Edition), 1847; Southern Literary Messenger, January, 1848 (in part); Richmond Examiner, September 25, 1849. …”

  2. “Christopher North and the Genesis of ‘The Raven,’” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association of America], LXVI (Mar. 1951), 149-61.

  3. XX (Jan. 1842), 72.

  4. It seems much more likely that Poe had seen the bound annual. As a magazine editor he needed to know the British periodicals, and learned about them, as he says himself in Broadway Journal, I (1845), 349, by “poring over foreign files” (my italics). In Origins of Poe's Critical Theory (New York, 1925; reissued, 1965), pp. 3-45, Margaret Alterton, speaking of Poe's “prodigious” reading, says that “Magazine literature, both of America and of Europe, of his own day, and of periods preceding, fell under his eye.” Miss Alterton further shows the influence on Poe of many tales from Blackwood's before 1826; notably, she points out the kinship of Poe's Buried Alive to The Dead Alive which appeared in 1821 when Poe was twelve years old.

  5. Some of the observations made on the characteristics of owls may have influenced certain lines in the Poe poem. Consider, for example, the remark “The spectator, as in most cases of very solemn characters, feels himself at first strongly disposed to commit the gross indecorum of bursting out a-laughing in their face.” This calls up “But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling.” And owls, like ravens, were known for their penetrating gaze; as Wilson states “Why will an owl persist in his stare?”: Blackwood's Magazine, XX (Nov. 1826), 669-72.

  6. Blackwood's Magazine, XX (1826), 13-15.

  7. Notice the concluding stanza of “The Owl”:

    Night has fallen. What means that cry?
    It descends from the gibbet high—
    There sits on its top a lonely Owl,
    With a staring eye, and a dismal scowl;
    And he screams aloud, “Revenge is sweet!”
    His mortal foe is at his feet!
  8. The Home Life of Poe (New York, 1907), p. 185.

  9. I thank Professor Neal Houston of Stephen F. Austin State University and Professor David Hirsch of Brown University for assisting me in some of the technical aspects of this note.

J. R. Hammond (essay date 1981)

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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 on the symbolical importance of the raven in Dickens's novel:

The raven, too, intensely amusing as it is, might have been made, more than we now see it, a portion of the conception of the fantastic Barnaby. Its croakings might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama. Its character might have performed in regard to that of the idiot, much the same part as does, in music, the accompaniment in respect to the air. … Yet between them there might have been wrought an analogical resemblance, and although each might have existed apart they might have formed together a whole which would have been imperfect in the absence of either.

He seems to have brooded on the idea at intervals for a period of three or four years, discussing the concept with his friends as the poem painstakingly evolved through a series of drafts. It received its final form in the farmhouse in which Poe, Virginia and Mrs. Clemm were staying on the Bloomingdale Road, New York. The furnishings of this house, which was situated in those days in a semi-rural setting, actually included a ‘pallid bust of Pallas’ which has since become inseparably associated with Poe and as immortal as Holmes's Persian slipper or Alice's looking-glass. Writing in a fever of inspiration, confident that the poem would prove to be his popular masterpiece, he blended together the ingredients which, he sensed, would create a unique and unforgettable work of art: the antique, romantic furnishings of the room, the insistent refrain of the raven, the eternal theme of regret for the lost beloved and, fusing all into a cohesive whole, his skill in achieving an atmosphere of haunting melancholy.

That ‘The Raven’ has a direct relevance to the circumstances of his own life there can be no doubt. It combines two themes which were central to his emotional experience—the idea of the beautiful, dead, ‘lost Lenore’ and the lonely, bookish man who is confronted with his own inner self in the form of the raven. His wife Virginia was dying of tuberculosis and had been visibly ailing since the beginning of 1842. Brooding on this fact he seems to have realised that the ideal, romantic love he had visualised in youth had eluded him throughout his life and would continue to do so. Always, he sensed, he was doomed to be frustrated in his quest for a perfect emotional response; it was a dream which evaded his grasp each time he sought to achieve it. As the truth of this came home to him there must have been moods when despair almost overwhelmed his life. Writing to Poe apropos ‘The Raven’, his friend R. H. Horne commented shrewdly that in his view ‘the poet intends to represent a very painful condition of mind, as of an imagination that was liable to topple over into some delirium or an abyss of melancholy, from the continuity of one unvaried emotion’. Artistically and rhythmically ‘The Raven’ is an impressive piece of work—a haunting composition which has become one of the most quoted poems in the language, notable for its insistent metre and the unforgettable effect of its refrain—but it is much more than a technical accomplishment. Its logical presentation (it is almost alone in his poetry in telling a story) has tended to obscure the deep emotion with which it is written. It would be a remarkable poem by any standards, whoever had composed it: but as the work of Poe it is of intense psychological and emotional interest.

On its publication in January 1845 its success was instantaneous. It attracted more attention than anything he had written previously, even eclipsing ‘The Gold-Bug’. Writing to his friend F. W. Thomas some months later he claimed ‘The bird beat the bug all hollow’. It earned for him little financial reward but widespread critical and popular respect in the United States and England. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, to whom he dedicated his volume The Raven and Other Poems, wrote to him: ‘Your ‘Raven’ has produced a sensation, a ‘fit horror’ here in England. Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it and some by the music. I hear of persons haunted by the ‘Nevermore’, and one acquaintance of mine who has the misfortune of possessing a ‘bust of Pallas’ never can bear to look at it in the twilight’.

Leland S. Person (essay date autumn 1990)

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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 order to argue that the essay represents a significant “guide for critics”—indeed, “the ideal form for an ‘architectonic’ critic to aim at.”1 Although Burke does not go as far as Edward H. Davidson, who maintains that to appreciate the essay “one need not know the poem at all,” like many other critics, he does separate the essay from the poem.2 Since few critics consider the essay in a context that includes “The Raven,” the unfortunate result is that Poe's “Philosophy” is commonly disjoined from the “composition” that forms its pretext.

In this essay I should like to rejoin Poe's philosophy and his composition by examining the intriguing relationship between the essay and the poem. As early as 1850 George Washington Peck suggested that in “The Philosophy of Composition” Poe “carried his analysis to such an absurd minuteness, that it is a little surprising that there should be any [one] verdant enough not to perceive that he was ‘chaffing.’” Peck even compared the essay to Poe's “harmless hoaxes,” at the end of which the author “cries ‘sold!’ in our faces.”3 Much like “The Purloined Letter,” which Poe published just prior to “The Raven,” and which has been exhaustively analyzed for its intricate doublings of texts and authors, I think “The Philosophy of Composition” can be regarded, although in a different sense than Daniel Hoffman has suggested, as a “put-on”: ostensibly a critical essay that becomes another version of the work it purports to critique.4 By conflating the processes of reading and writing so that reading becomes rewriting, Poe subverts the very sort of scientific or mathematical certainty that he seems to be praising and illustrating in his essay. Put another way, he deconstructs not only his own “philosophy of composition,” but philosophy itself—making philosophy essentially synonymous with composition.5 Furthermore, the deconstruction to which Poe subjects “The Raven” in “The Philosophy of Composition” can also be observed in the poem itself. Reading the raven, no less than reading “The Raven,” means writing, or composing, a philosophy.


The “philosophy of composition” that Poe describes in his essay depends upon a perfect, logical relationship between authorial intention and what he calls “effect.” The intention to produce an effect is always matched immediately, he would have us believe, by the perfect word. In explaining his famous organic theory of poetry (as a “metre-making argument”), Ralph Waldo Emerson had written in “The Poet” that “the thought and the form are equal in the order of time, but in the order of genesis the thought is prior to the form.”6 Emerson was trying to resolve a paradox, of course. Thoughts must exist in some form in order to be thoughts at all; a thought without a form would not be a thought. Yet Emerson wishes to distinguish hierarchically between thoughts according to the propriety of their forms. To do this he posits a gap in the order of genesis between thought and form and so raises the possibility of alternative forms, as well as the possibility of better or worse, more natural or less natural, forms. But in Poe's philosophy of composition, the effect or form of a thought must somehow precede the thought itself. “Nothing is more clear,” he claims, “than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.”7

The denouement, or effect, must be in view before the intention to produce it and the plot that precedes it can be developed; the effect, as it were, produces the intention. Poe's claims are both tautological and ironic: tautological because he claims that every plot must be imagined, or written, before it can be written; ironic because, as he notes, “consequence, or causation,” is only an “air,” or illusion. In considering the essay a “put-on,” Daniel Hoffman says that “as critics, as analysts of literature, even, sometimes, as poets, we find it a convenient fiction to assume that this is indeed the way that poems are made.”8 In fact, in writing such an elaborate, step-by-step anatomy of his own compositional process, Poe parodies the critical or analytical process. It is not poems that are “composed” through the process Poe describes, after all, but critiques of poems—in other words, readings, rather than writings, of poems. Retrospectively discovering his intentions by deducing them from their effects—that is, from the words already elaborated to their denouement—“The Philosophy of Composition,” not “The Raven,” is Poe's true example of what he calls writing “backwards” (193).

Poe says in the essay that “The Raven” “may be said to have its beginning—at the end, where all works of art should begin” (202). But it is more likely that “The Philosophy of Composition” alone truly began at the end—at the end of the poem—ostensibly describing the beginnings of a process that is already over. Prescribing the parameters of the poem, as Poe does in the essay, really means describing rather than reconstructing the poem already written. Given that fact, he can claim without fear of contradiction that his “plot” possesses an “indispensable air of consequence, or causation.” He can also fulfill his intention “to render it manifest that no one point in [the poem's] composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem” (195).9 The essay cannot be wrong about the “points” in the poem's composition or about the poet's intentions simply because the poem's “effects” are already known. They precede the intentions that Poe “reconstructs.” The result, as a matter of course, is an “indispensable air of consequence, or causation,” if not causation itself.

If we take Poe at his word, however, his intentions in “The Philosophy of Composition” include debunking the common Romantic notion that poems are composed “by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition” (194)—and substituting a logical, mathematically precise model of the creative process. Interestingly, those intentions are at odds with the philosophy of Auguste Dupin in “The Purloined Letter,” for Dupin is intent upon revealing the limitations of mathematical reason and upon illustrating the virtues of a synthetic reason—that is, a reason that combines mathematical logic and poetic intuition.

As another of Poe's readers, however, Dupin can shed some light on “The Philosophy of Composition,” for his philosophy of reading resembles the philosophy of composition that Poe describes. Unlike the Prefect of Police, who is only a mathematician, Dupin is both a mathematician and a poet, and, like the schoolboy in his “even and odd” guessing game (and like Poe in “The Philosophy of Composition”) he can identify perfectly with his adversary, the Minister D—. As the schoolboy explains,

When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait and see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.10

With only a slight shift in context, the boy's remarks compose a philosophy of perfect reader response—the closing, or “defacing,” of the gap between expression and interpretation, writing and reading, and thus the elimination of indeterminate or multiple meanings in a text. In other words, the detective-reader can understand the writer's intentions by becoming the writer, by making his expression coincide with the writer's. He can read the text by rewriting, or re-expressing, it. Writing and reading are the same because they inscribe the same words, the same expression. Poe's explanation in “The Purloined Letter,” furthermore, resembles the one he gives in “The Philosophy of Composition”: like Dupin and the schoolboy, he studies the “effect” in order to understand the “intention” that produced it. To put it precisely, the writer (the boy's opponent) begins with an intention (to say either even or odd) and then produces an effect or expression (the intended even or odd); the reader (the boy) matches that expression (in effect, by writing it on or in himself) and then beholds the original thought or sentiment arise in his own mind or heart. And so in “The Philosophy of Composition”: as writer, Poe produces “The Raven”; as reader of the poem—that is, as the detective who would discover his own original intentions—he writes the essay, beginning with the “effect” or expression (the poem itself as already elaborated to its denouement), and so discovers the thoughts and sentiments that arose in his own heart and mind as he produced the poem. Through this process of reconstruction, the readerly and writerly become one and the same.

Given those alleged intentions and Poe's alleged “philosophy” of composition, it is ironic that the actual process of composition which he goes on to describe should be so illogical and intuitive. Again and again in the essay, Poe describes himself making decisions instantaneously, as if in a flash of inspiration—in other words, as if in a moment of “fine frenzy.” Contemplating the ideal length for a poem, he says that he “reached at once” the proper length of 100 lines (197). Seeking what he calls “some pivot upon which the whole structure might turn,” he perceived “immediately that no one had been so universally employed as that of the refrain.” Trying to decide on the proper refrain, he was led “at once” to the use of a single word (199). And searching for the perfect “character of the word” to embody the sonorous mood he wanted (199), he says that “it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word ‘Nevermore.’ In fact, it was the very first which presented itself” (200). The “next desideratum” being the “pretext for the continuous use of the one word ‘nevermore’,” Poe claims that the idea of a “non-reasoning creature capable of speech” arose in his mind “immediately” (200). Introducing the bird through the window was “inevitable,” he maintains (204); the bust of Pallas, furthermore, was “absolutely suggested by the bird” (205). Again and again, in other words, Poe belies his own scientific method. Like lightning arcing between earth and sky, the words of the poem “arc” between effect and intention—so immediately that it is impossible to tell in which direction they actually move. No wonder that “The Philosophy of Composition” possesses an “indispensable air of consequence, or causation.”

Having laid out in meticulous detail the ratiocinative process by which he composed “The Raven,” Poe undermines everything he has said at the end of the essay. He admits that “in subjects so handled, however skilfully, or with however vivid an array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness, which repels the artistical eye. Two things are invariably required—first, some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, secondly, some amount of suggestiveness—some under-current, however indefinite, of meaning” (207). In other words, in the final analysis poems such as “The Raven” resist precisely the sort of scientific reconstruction that Poe has just performed.

Having demystified the compositional process, Poe proceeds to remystify it and thus to transform the essay he is still in the process of composing into a parody. It is only the worst works of art, it turns out, that can be reconstructed; the meaning of the best works remains indeterminate. Poe goes on, in fact, to say that it is the “excess of the suggested meaning—it is the rendering this the upper instead of the under current of the theme—which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind) the so called poetry of the so called transcendentalists” (207-08). In order to prevent such flatness of prose—ironically, a flatness that Poe's essay would seem to confirm in the poem—he maintains that he added the two concluding stanzas of the poem. Their “suggestiveness,” he says, “being thus made to pervade all the narrative which has preceded them” (208).

Just as the concluding paragraphs of the essay re-mystify the process of composition, the concluding stanzas of the poem cast a spell of suggestiveness, or indeterminacy, back over the preceding stanzas. Poe thus belies his promise to reconstruct his intentions, to “render it manifest that no one point in [the poem's] composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.” The poem was not completed that way; its denouement was not kept constantly in view, because its denouement, he now admits in the essay, was added at the end, not the beginning, of the process. The final effect of the poem was not present at the beginning as an originating idea, and therefore Poe's intentions are present (and thus available for “reconstruction”) only at the end as well. As he himself coyly admits at the end of the essay, “it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza, that the intention of making [the raven] emblematical of Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen” (208).

Poe had also admitted that “the case is by no means common, in which an author is at all in condition to retrace the steps by which his conclusions have been attained” (195), but he does just that in the essay, which becomes a literal “retracing” of the poem—“step by step.” Indeed, in order to suggest that the essay possesses the same “air of consequence” as the poem, Poe even makes sure that reading each of them has the same consequence by having each of them reach the same conclusion. They end with the same words—literally, with the same stanza:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,
On the pallid bust of Pallas, just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
                    Shall be lifted—nevermore.


Before the final stanza Poe had maintained that “With the denouement proper—with the Raven's reply, ‘Nevermore,’ to the lover's final demand if he shall meet his mistress in another world—the poem, in its obvious phase, that of a simple narrative, may be said to have its completion” (206). But the effect of the essay's echoing of the poem is to eclipse that “other world” of transcendental meanings, with an infinitely regressive doubling. That is, the poem and the essay are “doubles,” and they exist together in a hermeneutic loop. They interpret or “read” each other, at least in the sense that interpretation, or reading, has become a reiteration, or echo—a rewriting. “The Philosophy of Composition” both parodies the creative process and doubles it. The essay become a kind of demonic double, or “spectre” in the path of our access to the poem. Much like the second William Wilson, it is the conscience of the poem and opposes through an act of pre-emption the free play of a writerly reading of the poem.


It may be simply a coincidence that the raven first appears in stanza seven of the poem and that Poe first mentions “The Raven” in the seventh paragraph of the essay, but, ironically, the essay does finally point us in the right direction for reading the poem, because the poem, too, is double and, like the essay, “about” itself—that is, about reading and writing the raven. Mutlu Konuk Blasing says that the “poem is ‘about’ the process of its own development, for its narrative content reduces to the operations of its form,” but there is a more obvious way in which the poem is about writing itself and thus about a “philosophy of composition.”11

As readers, for example, our relationship to “The Raven” parallels the student's relationship to the raven, which figures in the poem as a kind of primitive “speaking” text.12 At the most basic level, both the reader outside the text and the student inside it are trying to read “The Raven.” The raven, like the poem with which it is synonymous, utters a word whose meaning must be interpreted, although this is not to say that the raven is the author of the word “Nevermore.” The bird is really identical with the word it speaks, since it possesses no intentionality and no other words. Poe himself, in fact, explicitly links the student with the reader, maintaining that the “revolution of thought, or fancy, on the lover's part [near the end of the poem], is intended to induce a similar one on the part of the reader—to bring the mind into a proper frame for the denouement—which is now brought about as rapidly and as directly as possible” (206). David Halliburton calls the relationship between the bird and the student a “reciprocity,” but the relationship is not truly reciprocal, since the student controls the meaning of the bird's utterance—what Poe calls the “effect of the variation of application” (201).13

Furthermore, in the poem as in the essay Poe demonstrates that the student's attempt to “read” and understand the raven's word (or “philosophy”) involves him necessarily in an effort to rewrite, or “compose,” the raven. While the raven (“The Raven”) utters only a word—only itself—the student (the reader) manipulates the text in order to make it mean what he wants it to mean.14 The “effect” or meaning of the word “Nevermore,” like the meaning of the poem, varies according to the pretext of its utterance. As Poe himself almost perversely puts it, “Perceiving the opportunity thus afforded me—or, more strictly, thus forced upon me in the progress of the construction—I first established in mind the climax, or concluding query—that to which ‘Nevermore’ should be in the last place an answer—that in reply to which this word ‘Nevermore’ should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair” (202). What Poe found “forced” upon him was, first, the necessity of knowing the answer before he propounded the question (the answer “Nevermore” precedes and determines the query to which it is the answer) and, second, the importance of knowing the last question in his series before he asked the first. Questions and answers go around and around, each preceding the other in a microcosmic variation of the hermeneutic loop formed by the poem and the essay. The answer precedes the question in the order of composition, while the question precedes the answer in the order of reading.

Beginning in the first stanza, when the student concludes that the “tapping” he hears represents “some one gently rapping” and then “some visiter,” Poe foregrounds questions of interpretation, or reading, and emphasizes the subjectivity of the student's conclusions.15 Although the “text” that the student interprets is composed of a single word, he persistently imposes, or inscribes, meaning on what he sees and hears under the guise of ascribing it. His reading becomes writing. Since the student's investigation of the tapping, his “opening wide the door,” reveals only “Darkness there and nothing more,” his initial interpretation proceeds virtually without an object, and he is left in stanza 3 to stand “repeating” his conclusion (spoken in line 5) that the noise is made by “some visiter.” For “some visiter,” however, the student then substitutes “Lenore” in stanza 5. Based on nothing more than a tapping sound, the student has progressed through a series of putative interpretations (moving from “some one” to “some visiter” to “Lenore”)—all in the absence of a text and in the context of an “unbroken” silence and a stillness that “gave no token.” As the student himself seems to recognize,

And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”
                    Merely this and nothing more.

The student has read and interpreted this most primitive text (a sound that comprises even more primitive a text than the “A” in The Scarlet Letter) in the context of his own desire. Under the guise of interpretation he has projected his own obsession—the dead Lenore. Put another way, the essentially blank text (an unbroken silence or stillness that gives no sign even of itself) is written over by the student's own word “Lenore”—the “only word there spoken.”16 Ironically, as the speaker-writer of the poem in which he figures as a character, the student has done what Poe describes himself as doing in “The Philosophy of Composition.” He has concluded (before he has even encountered the raven) with “Lenore” and thus with the death of his beautiful woman. The raven follows this conclusion (in the poem, although not necessarily in the student's experience that precedes the poem) much as “The Raven” follows the effect Poe has decided to achieve (in the essay, although not necessarily in the writing of the poem).

In the next section of the poem (stanzas 7-12), the student interrogates the raven, which, like he himself in stanza 5, speaks “only / That one word”—“Nevermore.” In this section, too, Poe foregrounds the problem of interpretation in order to underscore the subjective character of the student's reasoning, and in the process he emphasizes the gap between word and meaning—text and interpretation. “Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,” says the student in response to the raven's first utterance of “Nevermore,” “Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore.” When the raven responds “Nevermore” to the student's muttered “‘Other friends have flown before—/ On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before,’” the student feels startled that the reply is “so aptly spoken.” This opening line of stanza 11 represents the turning point of the poem because on the student's presumption of “aptness” the rest of the poem depends. Out of coincidence—the accidental “aptness” of successive words—he creates meaning. Much as Poe will do in “The Philosophy of Composition,” he reasons backward from effect to cause. Behind effect (the word “Nevermore”) he discovers intentionality. Indeed, he speculates immediately that the raven's single utterance encodes the story of its “author,” the

                    unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
                    Of “Never-nevermore.”

The same hermeneutic process—text plus readerly context equals meaning—is repeated in the crucial last section of the poem, especially in stanzas 14-17 where the student tortures himself about Lenore. Climactically, in stanzas 16 and 17, “Nevermore” signifies his eternal separation from Lenore and his eternal hauntedness by the raven that will never leave his “loneliness unbroken.” Although J. Gerald Kennedy argues that the poem “enacts the struggle to escape solipsism through a recovered connection with the Other,” Poe seems to deny the possibility of such recovery by emphasizing the interpretive solipsism, as it were, of the student's composition of the poem.17 Each time, the meaning of the text (“Nevermore”) depends entirely upon the pretext of its utterance; the meaning, or “relevancy,” of the raven's “discourse,” therefore, is utterly arbitrary because utterly subject to the student's own interpretive and interpreting design. While he cannot alter the raven's discourse, he could easily alter and even invert its meaning, if he wished, for example, to promise himself a reunion with Lenore.

By placing the student in the position of reader as well as writer, Poe implies that a poem is also a kind of “stillness” that gives “no token” of itself until a word is spoken or written by the reader. The poem, like the raven, becomes an “echo” that “murmurs” the words read or written into it by the reader—“merely this and nothing more.” In this respect, too, Poe casts himself in a position very similar to the student's: both of them confront a raven. Like the poem, the raven utters or echoes the speech of someone behind itself. Neither the bird nor the poem possesses any intentionality of its own; each only represents the “effect” of another's speaking. Words have been inscribed in the raven, just as they have in “The Raven”; in both cases, the intentions of the inscriber are hidden and unknown. The student has no clearer idea about who trained the raven to speak than the reader of the poem has about the writer who wrote the poem. Moreover, the student, like the reader of the poem, must provide a context, or metalanguage, in which the raven's utterance will have any meaning at all, because by itself—that is, unheard or unread—the raven's (“The Raven”'s) word makes no sense. But the act of hearing or reading constitutes a reinscription, an echo of the words uttered or perceived on the printed page; the reader takes the place of the student just as the student takes the place of the raven. David Halliburton points out that the human speaker uses the word “nevermore” almost as often as the bird—“five times to the raven's six,” but in fact the student utters the word every time.18 As the speaker of the poem, the student describes himself in the act of writing the poem and so in the act of reinscribing the raven's words, but of course, when spoken, the raven's utterance also affects or completes the meaning of the student's words. Like Poe, the student begins with an “effect” (the word “Nevermore”) and by causing the bird to repeat that word in response to different statements, he actually creates the “intentions,” as it were, behind those words. That is, those intentions are simply the product, or effect, of what the student says: they answer a question he has posed. Iteration is reiteration, the poem makes clear, and the essay insists upon the larger point that reading “The Raven” (like understanding the raven) is an act of re-writing it, an “echo.” Reiteration is also iteration, however, because the reader, like the student, plays out his own identity theme and makes interpretation coincident with desire, even with “self-torture.” Poe says that the student “experiences a phrenzied pleasure in so modeling his questions as to receive from the expected ‘Nevermore’ the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrow” (202). As a critic, in other words, the student is guilty of the “affective fallacy”; in Poe's own terms, he confuses “effect” with “intentions.” Or, as the student himself admits in stanza 12,

Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this omimous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
                    Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

Not simply the effect of the raven's utterance, but its meaning derives from the subjective process of “linking fancy unto fancy.” Michael Williams has observed that “in ‘The Raven,’ as in Poe's works generally, [the ideal sign] is revealed as a function of interpretive desire.”19 The same thing can be said about “The Philosophy of Composition,” for in the process of reading and rewriting the poem in that essay, Poe makes it clear that the intention, or effect, of both reading and writing is an “air of consequence.” Poe notes at one point in the essay that the “next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of the one word ‘nevermore,’” but in fact the only “pretext,” at least for the raven's speech, is the poem or composition—actually a series of compositions—in which the word is inscribed. Pretext and text become the same.

In his analysis of Eureka Joseph Riddel notes that Poe distinguishes between the “created universe,” or “plot of God,” which is an “inimitable perfection,” and the “plots of man,” which are “secondary metaphors, discontinuous and indeed inadequate to the only original.” Furthermore, he says, the “‘plot’ of God would be a kind of poem; the ‘plots’ of men, interpretations.” Most importantly, Riddel argues that Poe's “strategy is to forget the origin—even the ‘creation,’ which could only have occurred once in all its completeness, and can never be repeated—and hence the ‘fall’ implied in God's plot; then to conceive of man's plots, in all their imperfections, as a metaphoric play evoking, by repetition, a God-like supplement to his machine.”20 Although “The Philosophy of Composition” does not pretend to be a philosophy in this sense, the relationship between “The Raven” and the essay (the poem and the interpretation, in Riddel's terms) does resemble that between God's “plot” and man's. Instead of feeling as if his interpretive plot were supplemental to the original, however, Poe enjoys the privilege of playing both God and man—of composing the original which he then interprets. Indeed, the essay is really closer to the origin of the poem than the poem itself, because Poe plays himself as creator in the act of “reconstructing” his creation. The “man” in “The Raven,” on the other hand, is the one who repeats or echoes his creator's word without knowing, much less forgetting, the origin of what he repeats. In that sense, Poe's interpretation becomes the original, while the original becomes the interpretation. So, too, Poe's “philosophy” is ultimately, originally, a “philosophy of composition”—that is, a “composition of philosophy,” a writing as much as a reading.


  1. Kenneth Burke, “The Principle of Composition,” Poetry 99 (1961) 49, 51. Burke credits Poe with recognizing the critic's responsibility to discover the principles, or philosophy, which every literary work embodies, but, he argues, Poe mistakenly tried to explain those principles “in terms of a purely ‘genetic’ (narrative, temporal) series” (51).

  2. Edward H. Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957) 66. Davidson considers the essay “more an attempt to outline Poe's view of what poetry should be and should do than … a forthright demonstration of how ‘The Raven’ came to be” (84). “The analysis or reconstruction is not the poem,” he concludes; “each is a separate exercise, one of the imagination, the other of the skeptical intellect” (66).

  3. Peck's essay from the American Whig Review (March 1850) is included in Edgar Allan Poe: The Critical Heritage, ed. I. M. Walker (London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986): 342-56; quotation from p. 350.

  4. Daniel Hoffman, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1972) 79. For Hoffman's analysis of the essay as a “put-on,” see pp. 82-96.

  5. Poe is increasingly viewed as a metafictionist, a writer about writing—in Joseph N. Riddel's terms, a writer who “abandons nature for the image,” whose “world becomes a text, or a library of multiple texts” (The ‘Crypt’ of Edgar Poe,” Boundary 2, 7 [Spring 1979] 120). Also see John T. Irwin, American Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance (1980: Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), and especially the excellent recent book by Michael J. S. Williams, A World of Words: Language and Displacement in the Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (Durham: Duke University Press, 1988).

  6. “The Poet,” The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Alfred R. Ferguson and Jean Ferguson Carr (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987) 224-25.

  7. “The Philosophy of Composition,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison, 17 vols. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1902) 14:193.

  8. Hoffman 94.

  9. John T. Irwin's characterization of narrative voice in Poe's tales could also apply to Poe himself as “narrator” of “The Philosophy of Composition”: Poe's “rule seems to be that the more incredible the story or the more indeterminate the experience to be evoked, then the more ‘scientifically’ exact the narrative and descriptive apparatus, so that, by defining its own boundaries in the clearest possible imagery, linguistic discourse defines as well the opposing limits of what lies beyond language and reason” (American Hieroglyphics 117).

  10. “The Purloined Letter,” Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969) 3:984-85.

  11. Mutlu Konuk Blasing, American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986) 27.

  12. Numerous critics have analyzed the raven as an emblem or symbol. Edward H. Davidson, for example, compares the bird to the scarlet letter and to Moby Dick as a symbol of the imaginative “reach toward a further understanding of the illusion of reality and the painful awareness of nothing on the ‘other side’ of reality” (Poe: A Critical Study 90, 91). David Ketterer says that the “raven represents the quest of the intellectual for knowledge” (The Rationale of Deception in Poe [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979] 169). Kent Ljungquist considers the bird a “daemonic agent, deriving some of its power from ancient associations” (The Grand and the Fair: Poe's Landscape Aesthetics and Pictorial Techniques [Potomac: Scripta Humanistica, 1984] 178). The most ingenious and exhaustive attempt to analyze the raven's allegorical meaning is Barton Levi St. Armand, “Poe's Emblematic Raven: A Pictorial Approach,” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 22 (1976): 191-210. My purpose in this essay is not to refute the claim that the raven stands for something outside the poem, but to underscore Poe's own emphasis on the dynamics of the poem-making process for which the raven offers the pretext.

  13. David Halliburton, Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological Approach (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973) 127.

  14. As Michael Williams notes, “The narrator is trapped in his inability to recognize the essential emptiness of the word, ‘Nevermore.’ What seems to be a potential incursion of meaning from a supernal realm is significant only in the context of the lover's narrative of loss” (7).

  15. “The Raven,” Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 1:364-69.

  16. Blasing assumes that the raven repeats the word “Lenore” in stanza 5, even though Poe writes that an “echo” murmured back the word (32). This assumption helps to warrant her case that the raven and Lenore are “coeveal opposites,” the raven embodying a “mechanical, pornographic reproduction of … language” and Lenore offering the pleasures of an “oral mother tongue, of memory and repetition.” Thus, she concludes that the raven's “Nevermore” both “echoes and drowns out” the student's “Lenore,” and thereby “prevents union with the poetic source, and thwarts the very life of poetry” (29).

  17. J. Gerald Kennedy, Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987) 68.

  18. Halliburton 126.

  19. Williams 7.

  20. Riddel 130-31.

E. Kate Stewart (essay date 1990)

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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 a tale by Samuel Warren, “The Bracelets”—in Blackwood's for January 1832—contains parallels to “The Raven” too striking to ignore.1 Poe's awareness of Warren's writings was acute, and that a good Gothic tale like “The Bracelets” should remain in his mind as he composed “The Raven” is probable. After all, that poem is actually a Gothic tale in verse, and to Poe the name of Blackwood's ever called forth implications of the crème de la crème of Gothic fiction. Moreover, Warren's writings repeatedly lured Poe's interest, so much so that in “How to Write a Blackwood Article” the Britisher's “Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician,” serialized in Maga (as Blackwood's was nicknamed) from 1830 through 1837, is held up as a model for the writing of excellent terror tales. Poe mentioned that work elsewhere, and he subsequently reviewed Warren's popular Ten Thousand a Year, suggesting along the way a more elaborate critique to follow. Such a screed he never produced; his distinguishing the worth from the dross in Ten Thousand a Year, however, demonstrates his close comprehension of Warren's methods. Poe must have found more dross than worth in this novel because he censured it for being “written in slipshod English” and as being “tedious.”2

Other commonalities between “The Raven” and “The Bracelets” make likely Poe's borrowing from Warren. The American's long retention of earlier reading has been established, but it is just as possible that he may have read “The Bracelets” at the very time during which “The Raven” began to take shape in his imagination.3 Internal resemblances warrant our close attention to Poe's adaptation of “The Bracelets” in composing his eerie verse narrative. Warren begins: “It was late in the evening of a gloomy and bitter day in December about the middle of the seventeenth century …” (39). Poe echoes this phraseology in the opening of “The Raven”: “Once upon a midnight dreary” (1); he continues: “It was in the bleak December” (7). Corresponding dismal beginnings establish melancholy tones in both works, and such tones exemplify the emotions of the protagonists as they pore over mysterious books.

Psychically, Warren's and Poe's characters are near kinsmen. Carl Koëcker, the central figure in “The Bracelets,” reads “various volumes of classic and metaphysic lore” (39), particularly texts in occult sciences—an especially treacherous avocation, we are informed, because of the Inquisition's being at its height. In “The Raven” the speaker peruses “forgotten lore” (2). Readers know nothing about the nature of these compelling volumes because they are given no particulars, but they readily comprehend the effects of such reading. More important, gloom and introspection fall upon Koëcker and Poe's speaker as a result of their abstruse readings.

Both protagonists enter stages of semi-sleep, Carl “almost fancying he had been dreaming” (40), he in “The Raven” repeating that he is “nearly napping” (3). Koëcker attributes his state to his mulling a morning lecture, on “pneumatological speculations,” attending a romantic opera, or fearing torture from the Inquisition because of his studying the Black Arts. Altogether, irrationality is common to both protagonists. The half-sleep is interrupted by persistent knockings at their doors. Carl hears “Rap, rap, rap!—Rap, rap, rap!” (40), signaling a late-night caller. “Rap” echoes on two subsequent occasions, repeating the same number of sounds each time. Similarly, Poe's speaker tells us: “While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, / As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door” (3-4). Either tapping or rapping appears again in lines 5, 21, 22, and 32. Both protagonists admit seemingly harmless visitors—Warren's old man and Poe's raven—who become psychic tormentors. Carl's small, but sinewy (40) visitor rather subtly resembles the raven. The elderly “Jew-peddlar” wears drab clothing (40) and has “sparkling black eyes” which “peered on the student with an expression of keen and searching inquisitiveness” (41). Later Warren says that Carl's guest sits “with his eyes fixed on the fire …” (41). Correspondingly, the narrator in “The Raven” muses: “Thus I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing / To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's / core; …” (73-74). The man suggests darkness and age—and so does Poe's mysterious bird. Physical appearances ultimately affect the characters little, however: the act of granting entrance to their respective guests intensifies the mental anguish in the speakers.

The unbidden guests' omniscience, to which both writers allude in describing their weird figures' eyes, accounts for much of the protagonists' anxieties. The old man mentions Carl's presence at the morning lecture and later comments on his interest in a bracelet. Realizing that the “Jew-peddlar” knows so much about him, Carl grows agitated. He reacts violently, shouting: “Devil! devil! devil! What want you with me? Why are you come hither?” (41). The raven's persistent “Nevermore” reveals his all-knowingness as well, especially as he responds to the query: “Tell this soul with sorrow laden if … / It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore” (93-95). When Poe's speaker realizes the bird's powers, he bursts out much like Carl: “Prophet! … thing of evil—prophet still, if bird or devil!—” (85).

As the narratives advance, the primary characters' mental stability becomes more and more questionable. Significantly, their speeches grow halting and disjointed. Koëcker's articulation weakens from his excitement over the bracelet shown him by the old man. With the departure of his elderly visitor, Carl regains his normal voice. The speaker in “The Raven,” however, never resumes control because his guest never leaves. Initially, he speaks calmly to the bird. Increasingly, he repeats words and phrases, grows violent, and, finally, “shrieks” at the raven. The poems closes with the narrator suspended in an unreality heightened by the presence of the ominous bird. The raven symbolizes the man's retreat into a fanciful world, a region of delusive imagination and hallucination resulting from grief over Lenore.

The haunting repetition of “Nevermore” is memorable in “The Raven.” Interestingly, the same sound in abbreviated form recurs in “The Bracelets.” After Koëcker has enthusiastically admired the jewelry, the demonic visitor slips the band up on Carl's wrist. When he cannot remove it, he asks the old man to do so. The answer is: “Off?—never!” (44). The second request elicits like response. Warren's protagonist shriekingly petitions a third time as the visitor leaves. Carl hears again and again: “Never, Carl; never, never!” (45) until the words fade.

Conversely, Koëcker's mental torment is less profound than the narrator's in “The Raven.” Carl's occult studies lead him to fear reprisal from the Inquisition, indeed to fear arrest at every turn. He believes that the old man is an agent of the Inquisition. Poe's speaker connects the eerie bird with Lenore. In both works, therefore, the characters associate their obsessions with their uninvited guests. The difference lies in the degree to which the idée fixe carries the protagonists into unreality. Koëcker awakens from his “singular and distressing dream” (53) and reenters the everyday world. Poe's protagonist does not.

Poe undoubtedly drew from Warren's story, yet he surpasses his model in creating setting and characterization. The backdrop in “The Raven” is emblematic; its bleakness mirrors the speaker's distraught mental state. He journeys into an emotional, not physical, world, and we observe him caught in a web of mental frenzy. All these circumstances partake of the greater Romanticism typical of early nineteenth-century literary culture. Because Poe subtly manages setting and characterization, the poem becomes a masterpiece of psychological symbolism—far above that demonstrated in “The Bracelets.”

A writer's genius is not diminished by the incorporation of literary borrowings into his own work. In fact Poe emphasizes the value of such inspiration and method. In “Peter Snook,” where he notes the importance of magazine fiction, he states: “There is no greater mistake than the supposition that a true originality is a mere matter of impulse or inspiration. To originate is carefully, patiently, and understandingly to combine” (H [The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe,] 14: 73). To combine effectively, though, a writer needs a sharp memory. Poe also recognized this fact, exploring in the November 1844 Democratic Review the mind's ability to recall knowledge. He notes that most people remember hardly 1/100th of their reading, but he adds: “There are minds which not only retain all receipts, but keep them at compound interest for ever.”4 Based on the evidence presented by Mabbott and others, we realize that Poe was blessed with one of those rare minds that could retain, increase, and combine. Poe himself felt that in “The Raven” he had achieved a masterpiece, and time has affirmed the poet's feeling.5 In the poem, numerous old bottles (i.e., Poe's sources) are filled with new wine of the author's creative genius.


  1. “The Bracelets,” Blackwood's, 31 (1832), 39-52 (cited by page within the text); “The Raven” is cited from the version in M [Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe,] 1: 350-374 (by line within the text).

  2. M 2: 340. Cf. Kenneth L. Daughrity, “Notes: Poe and Blackwood's,AL [American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, ], 2 (1930), 290-291. Poe's review of Warren, from Graham's Magazine for November, 1841, appears conveniently in H 10: 210-212. Howard Paul, “Recollections of Edgar Allen [sic] Poe,” Lambert's Monthly 1 (1890), 23; rpt. Munsey's 7 (1892), 554-558.

  3. Attempting to pinpoint when Poe began “The Raven,” Mabbott weighs evidence from several biographical accounts. Susan Weiss reports that Poe admitted that the poem “had lain for more than ten years … unfinished,” but that he radically altered it before its 1845 publication, changing words, lines, and even the basic plan of the work. Although some sources suggest an 1843 composition, the most “true” story states that Poe wrote “The Raven” at the farm of Mr. and Mrs. Patrick Henry Brennan in late 1844. Mabbott believes that the “metrical form” we have was written at this time. Given the span between 1832 and 1844, then, Poe would have had opportunity to draw from “The Bracelets.” For additional scholarship concerning Poe's use of Blackwood's, see the following: Margaret Alterton, Origins of Poe's Critical Theory (1925; rpt. New York, 1965); Michael Allen, Poe and the British Magazine Tradition (New York, 1969); Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “Poe, Blackwood's, and ‘The Murders AN&Q [American Notes and Queries] 12 (1974), 109-110; Kent P. Ljungquist, “Poe's ‘The Island of the Fay’; The Passing of Fairyland,” SSF [Studies in Short Fiction], 14 (1977), 265-271; Thomas Ollive Mabbott, “Edgar Allan Poe: Source of His Tale, ‘Xing a Paragrab’,” N&Q [Notes & Queries], 160 (1931), 100.

  4. Poe's comment from the Democratic Review is found in John Carl Miller's edition of Marginalia (Charlottesville, 1981), pp. 13-14.

  5. Maureen Cobb Mabbott, “Reading The Raven’,” UMSE [University of Mississippi Studies in English], n.s. 3 (1982), 96-101.

Key to Recurring References

H = The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison, 17 vols. (New York, 1902; rpt. New York, 1965, 1979).

M = Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott, 3 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1969-1978).

O = The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom, rev. ed. 2 vols. (New York, 1966).

Dennis W. Eddings (essay date 1990)

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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 absurdities of situation and poetics.1 These deficiencies pose a problem in light of Poe's critical standards and his incisive application of them in dissecting bad verse. He insists, for example, that the passion so prevalent in “The Raven” is “absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty” that is “the province of the poem …” (H [The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe,] 14: 198). Furthermore, implausibilities and infelicities of phrasing in the poem are of a kind with the excrescences Poe frequently remarked in his criticism.2

How, one wonders, can we reconcile obvious flaws in “The Raven” with Poe's critical dictates? Perhaps the lapses are deliberate, but, if so, to what end? Parody is an evident possibility, but of what and of whom? The answer to this last question, I suggest, enables us to reconcile Poe's critical standards with the poetic absurdities in “The Raven.” Although the narrative progression of the poem depicts the dead end of the uncontrolled Romantic imagination, the flaws are Poe's means of ridiculing the bad verse produced by that imagination. Thus what appears to be an aberrant element in “The Raven” is actually integral to its strategy, the vehicle by which form and language satirically reinforce the poem's theme.

This reading requires us to see “The Raven,” from one perspective, as a product of its narrator. True, the overall poem is obviously Poe's, for he created its form, setting, and language. We have learned, however, thanks largely to the studies of James W. Gargano, that the cock-eyed perceptions and purpled rhetoric in many of Poe's tales emanate from their narrators and not from Poe's daily life.3 As a dramatic monologue, “The Raven” is a kissing cousin to the tales, and a similar principle applies in all: the narrator tells us what has occurred and he does so in his own language and form. What is overwrought in language results from his overwrought state of mind; what is incongruous results from his inability to think congruently; what is flawed in form results from his failure to control the mode of his expression. “The Raven,” like many other satires, masquerades as a product of its narrator and its absurdities are the means of revealing the error of the narrator's ways. Seeing “The Raven” as a product of the student, we can appreciate fully the relationship between its serious narrative theme and reinforcing parody.

The narrative progression of “The Raven” graphically depicts the dead end of the uncontrolled Romantic imagination. The student who recounts his fate is a stereotype of the dark brooding Romantic youth Howard Mumford Jones identifies as the nineteenth-century hero-figure of the Anonymous Young Man (p. 133). We see his Romantic proclivities in the gloomy, Gothic decor of his room, in his reliance upon obscure lore as a means of escaping reality, and in his self-indulgent anguish over the lost Lenore. Most typically Romantic, however, aside from using himself as the subject of his poetry, is his insistence upon seeing everything in terms of his own angst, the external world being nothing more than a projection of his psyche. The three six-stanza sections of “The Raven” delineate that projection and, in the student's fate, its inherent insanity.

Preceding the raven's melodramatic entrance, the first section introduces us to the narrator's Romantic posturing and his insistence upon reading external phenomena as reflections of his own being. Seeking “surcease of sorrow” by poring over “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,” he nonetheless reads in terms that enhance that sorrow, indicative of the self-indulgent nature of his grief. Thus the “dying ember” casts its “ghost upon the floor”—not its gleam or reflection (and let us not ask how a “tufted floor” can reflect). The “uncertain rustling of each purple curtain” is “sad” (nor let us ask how rustling can be uncertain—a curtain either rustles or it remains still; the uncertainty is in the mind of the student). Furthermore, that rustling, innocent enough in its own right, thrills the narrator “with fantastic terrors never felt before.” This deliberate cultivation of terrifying sensation for its own sake is repeated when, looking into the darkness outside his room after the gentle tapping has broken through his ponderings, he dreams “dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.” There is more involved here than the perfervid lamentations of a sorrow-laden soul. Such overstatement and indulgence in sensation for its own sake point to the student's incipient madness and suggest it is grounded in his Romantic posturing.4

The next six stanzas bring out the narrator's progression from bemused witness to devout believer. When the raven enters, the student smiles at its “grim and stern decorum,” but when the bird responds “Nevermore” to the query as to its name, new possibilities arise. The student initially notes that the response “little meaning—little relevancy bore,” and then promptly proceeds to try to find that relevancy. Once again projecting his grief upon the world, he asserts that the raven speaks “That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.” The narrator thus imaginatively links his angst with the raven's utterance, making it relevant to his own predicament. Consequently, he ceases to be amused by the raven and returns to his ponderings by linking the raven with Lenore. Thus he finds what he enjoys far more than the heretofore comic raven provides—he finds a means of indulging in his anguish. He then murmurs in self-pity: “Other friends have flown before—/ On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.” The raven responds “Nevermore.” Immediately struck by the appropriateness of this remark, the student at first accounts for it by noting “what it utters is its only stock and store.” This, of course, is the rational explanation: “Nevermore” is the only word the raven can utter. The student, however, dismisses reason as quickly as it surfaces. Beguiled by linking his fate with the raven and enthralled with the imaginative vistas that link opens before him, he rushes forward to account for the reason “Nevermore” is all the raven can utter. That word, he speculates, has been “Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster / Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore / Of ‘Never—nevermore.’” At this point the student pulls together bird, former master and himself in a melancholy lament that simply flies in the face of reason. The pivotal point in “The Raven” occurs at this moment when rational explanation of the bird's “Nevermore” runs head-on into the student's insistence upon interpreting the external world as an extension of his own sorrowful being. Rejecting reason, ignoring the obvious fact that the raven's “Nevermore” is merely a conditioned response to any verbal stimulus, the student wheels his chair before the bird to discover what it meant in “croaking” that word. Linking his angst to the raven leads the student into an insane insistence that the bird's conditioned reflex has existential import.

The final six stanzas follow with inexorable logic. Committed to finding a meaning in the raven's “Nevermore,” the student does so in terms calculated to exacerbate his sorrow and the resulting sensations. He begins by perceiving the raven as a means of gaining “respite and nepenthe” from his memories of Lenore. The two questions he asks to gain that respite, however, are perversely couched in terms that will produce the opposite effect, given the predictability of the raven's “Nevermore.” Furthermore, those questions simultaneously confirm his imaginative view of the hopelessness of the human condition, thus intensifying his anguish.

His first question confirms his idea that existence is “Desolate,” a “desert land” that is a “home by Horror haunted.” Having described life in these words, he then asks, “Is there—is there balm in Gilead?” Is there some hope for human happiness beyond this life? The raven's response confirms his view by denying that hope, as the student knew it would. Now that the prophetic raven has established the validity of the student's negative perspective, the next question can settle his desire to maintain his anguish: “Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn, / It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—/ Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.” Again, the raven's predictable response allows the student to see life as hopeless, but it also lets him dismiss all thoughts of ever being reunited with Lenore. As a result, his deliberately cultivated anguish is all but complete. What remains is for him to transfer the focal point of his suffering from Lenore so he can concentrate it totally upon himself. He accomplishes this by imaginatively seeing himself as being cast into the abyss of despair. The raven's “Nevermore”—so predictable—has pierced him to the heart. The student is now so overwhelmed by the nightmare he has created that he surrenders to it:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
                    Shall be lifted—nevermore!

The image of this final stanza is significant. The raven dominates Pallas, reason, and throws its shadow over the student, symbolic of the student's abdication of reason and immersion in the black shade of the imagination. The student, a Romantic posturer to begin with, has opted to ignore the voice of rationality so he can pursue his imaginative perceptions and cultivate the delicious, horrifying sensations they arouse. Madness results. Intent upon exploring his sensations, the student subverts reason in order to allow his imagination full sway in that exploration. The consequence is his entrapment of self. Like many another Poe narrator, this one is a victim of his own imagination;5 despite the evidence to the contrary, he has insanely come to accept as gospel the croakings of a bird with dubious credentials.

The student's failure to control his Romantic imagination through the balancing power of reason leads him into chaos. He has fallen prey to the force Poe warns of in “Marginalia”: “The Imagination of Man is no Carathis, to explore with impunity its every cavern. Alas! the grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful; but like the Demons in whose company Afrasiab made his voyage down the Oxus, they must sleep, or they will devour us—they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish” (H 16: 167). Following in the footsteps of Roderick Usher and the narrators of “Ligeia,” “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” to name a few examples where Poe reveals the destructive potential of the uncontrolled imagination, the narrator of “The Raven” has allowed his imaginative speculation to get the better of him, and has perished. The shadow that overwhelms him at the end of the poem is not, finally, the shadow of the raven, but the shade of his own destructive, uncontrolled Romantic imagination.

The narrative progression of “The Raven” thus treats a theme frequently advanced by Poe. Imagination, unchecked by reason, leads to a dead end. It also has another result—it leads to bad poetry. The student's rejection of reason so he can indulge his imagination and the resulting sensations represents a type of Romantic posturing Poe found abhorrent. He had little use for self-indulgent Romanticism that exalted the inner light of the imagination over reason. He frequently attacked or satirized it in his tales and criticism.6 The motive for these attacks is in part esthetic—a self-indulgent, uncontrolled imagination leads to a self-indulgent, uncontrolled art. Robert Jacobs demonstrates how, during the 1840s, Poe had come to deplore “the aesthetic of the romantic period and the expressionistic purpose of much romantic art.”7 Poe's attitude toward the poetry produced by such an “inspirational aesthetic” enables him to make “The Raven” more than a depiction of the dead end of the uncontrolled Romantic imagination. By identifying the student with that diseased Romantic temperament, he can not only reveal its dead end; having the poem masquerade as a product of its narrator allows him to parody the bad poetry that such a temperament produces. The deliberate badness in “The Raven” thus becomes a means for ridiculing the verse of those who see art as all inspiration without recognizing the necessity of applying reason to that inspiration.8 Interpreting “The Raven” as a parody of the verse produced by the diseased Romanticism the student represents, we can recognize that the parody is not an aberrant element but an integral part of the poem.

We need not go far to find evidence that “The Raven” is indeed such a parody. In January of 1845, the same month in which “The Raven” first appeared in print in the New York Evening Mirror (M [Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe,] 1: 363), Poe reviewed Elizabeth Barrett's The Drama of Exile, and Other Poems, describing those poets later known as the Spasmodics:9

From the ruins of Shelley there sprang into existence, affronting the Heavens, a tottering and fantastic pagoda, in which the salient angles, tipped with mad jangling bells, were the idiosyncratic faults of the great original. … Young men innumerable, dazzled with the glare and bewildered with the bizarrerie of the divine lightning that flickered through the clouds of the Prometheus, had no trouble whatever in heaping up imitative vapors, but for the lightning, were content, perforce, with its spectrum, in which the bizarrerie appeared without the fire.

(H 12: 33)

I do not believe we stray in identifying the student with this school, “The Raven” exemplifying its defects. If Poe does not specifically identify Barrett with those “young men innumerable,” the link is still evident. As Jacobs indicates: “It was the school of the Spasmodics that Poe rightly condemned as licentious, and in spite of his admiration for Tennyson and Miss Barrett, he regretted that some of their verse belonged to what he had earlier called the ‘school of all Lawlessness’ that had magnified the errors of the great romantic poets” (p. 390). What is most interesting about this review in relation to “The Raven” is that Poe's analysis of Barrett's poetic faults is carried out in terms that reverberate with haunting familiarity in his own poem.

There is, for instance, Poe's catalog of Barrett's “multiplicity of inadmissable rhymes,” including “glory and doorway,” “taming and overcame him,” and “Eden and succeeding” (H 12: 27). Do we not detect echoes here of some of the more notorious rhymes in “The Raven,” including the progression of “lattice,” “that is,” and “thereat is,” or “evil” and “devil” and “undaunted” and “enchanted”? Poe also speaks of Barrett's being “not infrequently guilty of repeating herself,” citing as her “chief favorites” the repetition of “down” and “leaning” (H 12: 24-25). “The Raven” also abounds in repetition. Not counting the legitimate refrain, “Nevermore,” we must still contend with the recurring “door” (fourteen times) and the “nameless” Lenore (eight times). There is also repetition of phrases in the fourth and fifth lines of each stanza, as in “Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—/ Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore.” In addition, there is substitution of repetition for rhyme, as in “‘Wretch,’ I cried, ‘thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee … ’”

Perhaps even more revealing are Poe's remarks about Barrett's “deficiencies of rhythm,” for they are directed toward “Lady Geraldine's Courtship,” the very poem from which Poe took the form of “The Raven” (M 1: 356). Speaking of Barrett's trochees, he notes that “the natural rhythmical division, occurring at the close of the fourth trochee, should never be forced to occur, as Miss Barrett constantly forces it, in the middle of a word, or of an indivisible phrase” (H 12: 28). “The Raven,” however, contains many examples of such forcing, as in “So that now to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating” and “Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly.” As Poe notes, in such an occurrence “we must sacrifice, in perusal, either the sense or the rhythm” (H 12: 28). Are we not justified in applying Poe's comment in this regard, “Inefficient rhythm is inefficient poetical expression” (H 12: 29), to “The Raven”? Furthermore, the resonances of “Lady Geraldine's Courtship” found in “The Raven”—purple chamber, crimson carpet, perfumed air, window casement, “silken stirring,” “With a murmurous air uncertain, in the air the purple curtain,” and “Ever, evermore”—suggest Poe's sly pointing to Barrett's poem and his treatment of it as a clue to his parody. The process is identical with that Robert Regan delineates in his demonstrating how “The Masque of the Red Death” is a duplicitous plundering of Hawthorne, with the clue to that hoax being contained in Poe's second review of Twice-Told Tales.10

The Barrett review does draw our attention to many of the deficiencies in “The Raven,” suggesting Poe's awareness of those flaws and his deliberate incorporation of them into the poem to parody the bad poetry he describes elsewhere. Surely the parallels in terms of time of composition of the poem and the review and the congruence of technical concerns point in this direction. We should also remember that Poe dedicated the 1845 volume, The Raven and Other Poems, to Barrett, for that dedication calls our attention to the review and its applicability to “The Raven.” Although Poe calls Barrett “the noblest of her sex,” he also specifically refers to “The Drama of Exile.” Such direct reference to the poem appearing in the title of his review helps to steer readers to link it with “The Raven.”

Evidence, then, points strongly to “The Raven” as parody. Seeing it as such, we recognize that it is as much about art as about psychological disintegration. The student's fate reveals the dead end of the uncontrolled Romantic imagination, while the poem reflects the bad art that imagination creates. In the narrative of the poem and in the parody that reinforces that narrative, Poe insists that reason must prevail. Reason would have saved the student. The same reason would have allowed him to write a better poem. Poe's success in incorporating the parody in a meaningful relation with the narrative is a tribute to his poetic theory and practice. “The Raven,” in its unity of theme and supporting parodic structure, is an example of the proper poetics the student violates, for it reflects the application of reason to imaginative insight the student fails to achieve. Construing “The Raven” as parody does not oversimplify Poe's art. Rather, it helps us to comprehend how Poe's penchant for satire works hand in hand with his serious presentation of theme. Only when we recognize the interrelationship of the two do we appreciate the totality of Poe's work.


  1. For Ingleby, see Francis F. Burch, “Clement Mansfield Ingleby on Poe's ‘The Raven’: An Unpublished British Criticism,” AL [American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography], 35(1963), 81-83. Among other absurdities, Ingleby points out that “A man who is ‘nodding’ and ‘nearly napping’ can scarcely be engaged in ‘pondering’” and that “The phrase ‘hesitating then no longer’ is clearly contradicted by what follows; for he does not go directly to the door. …” Howard Mumford Jones, “Poe, ‘The Raven,’ and the Anonymous Young Man,” WHR [Western Humanities Review], 9(1955), 127-138, takes exception to W. H. Auden's negative comments on “The Raven,” arguing that its hypnotic effectiveness overrides its obvious absurdities, including meter and setting. Jesse Bier, The Rise and Fall of American Humor (New York, 1968), points to other problems, including anti-climax, in “The Raven” (p. 68).

  2. In addition to his review of Barrett, discussed at some length in my argument, see also, among many that could be mentioned, Poe's comments on Brainard (H 11: 15-24), Dawes (H 11: 131-147), Flaccus (H 11: 160-174), Channing (H 11: 174-190), and Amelia Welby (H 11: 275-281). This last, published in December 1844, also condemns passion in poetry and points to lapses that are suspiciously present in “The Raven,” such as the overuse of “o'er.” I point to comments made between 1840 and 1845, these being representative of Poe's views at the time of writing “The Raven.”

  3. See “‘The Black Cat’: Perverseness Reconsidered,” TSLL [Texas Studies in Language and Literature: A Journal of the Humanities], 2 (1960), 172-178; “The Question of Poe's Narrators,” CE [College English], 25 (1963), 177-181; “Poe's ‘Ligeia’: Dream and Destruction,” CE, 23 (1962), 337-342. G. R. Thompson, in “Poe's ‘Flawed’ Gothic: Absurdist Techniques in ‘Metzengerstein’ and the Courier Satires,” New Approaches to Poe: A Symposium, ed. Richard P. Benton (Hartford, 1970), pp. 38-58, argues that “The first-person narrators of ‘MS. Found in a Bottle,’ ‘Berenice,’ ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ ‘Morella,’ ‘Ligeia,’ ‘The Man of the Crowd,’ and ‘The Oval Portrait’ … are involved participants in the action; and their bizarre mental states are integral to the deceptively ironic, seriocomic, and satiric perspectives of the tales” (p. 54). So it is, I believe, with “The Raven.”

  4. The indulgence in sensation and the necessity of “getting it all down” is the focal point in Poe's satiric “How to Write a Blackwood Article.” The narrator of “The Raven” can be seen as Psyche Zenobia's brother, for he too revels in his sensations. Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV argues the same for the narrator of “The Fall of the House of Usher”: “Playful ‘Germanism’ in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe, ed. G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke (West Lafayette, 1981), pp. 355-374.

  5. An obvious parallel is the narrator of “MS. Found in a Bottle.” See the cogent remarks of Clark Griffith, “Caves and Cave Dwellers: The Study of a Romantic Image,” JEGP [Journal of English and Germanic Philology], 62 (1963), 551-568.

  6. See, for instance, Clark Griffith, “Poe's ‘Ligeia’ and the English Romantics,” UTQ, [University of Toronto Quarterly], 24 (1954), 8-25; and Kent Ljungquist, “Poe's ‘The Island of the Fay’: The Passing of Fairyland,” SSF [Studies in Short Fiction], 14 (1977), 265-271. For Poe's criticism, see n 3.

  7. Poe: Journalist & Critic (Baton Rouge, 1969), p. 382.

  8. Such, of course, is the thrust of “The Philosophy of Composition,” which shows the application of reason to the imagination in operation.

  9. Jacobs makes the connection clear on pp. 339-340 and 361-363.

  10. “Hawthorne's ‘Plagiary’: Poe's Duplicity,” NCF [Nineteenth Century Fiction; now published as Nineteenth Century Literature], 25 (1970), 281-298.

Key to Recurring References

H = The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison, 17 vols. (New York, 1902; rpt. New York, 1965, 1979).

M = Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott, 3 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1969-1978).

O = The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom, rev. ed. 2 vols. (New York, 1966).

Dennis Pahl (essay date spring 1996)

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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 Composition” (See Lloyd 48-81; “Seminar”; “Purveyor”).1 Why should this be?

No doubt one reason could be that “The Philosophy” has traditionally been discredited as but another of the many hoaxes Poe is supposed to have perpetrated against an unsuspecting readership—its overall purpose being less to reveal the true method of the composition of “The Raven” than to further enhance the reputation of the already famous poem (Hoffman 82-96; Wellek 160). Yet another reason may have to do with the prevailing belief that Poe's fictional works carry even more theoretical implications about language, as well as about related questions of desire, than does his own theory. In this regard, one need only consider how such Gothic works as “The Fall of the House of Usher” or The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym seem to offer themselves up as models for exploring the precise ways in which the unconscious, from a Lacanian perspective, operates according to the laws of the signifier (See Pahl, Architects 5-24; Irwin, American). Similarly, one might observe how the Dupin stories, otherwise known as the tales of ratiocination, are suggestive of how the art of detection becomes readily analogous to the act of literary interpretation; and here too can be witnessed the way in which the literary work, in an almost metacritical fashion, tells the story of the slipperiness of language, of the problematics of “reading” and “textuality” in the poststructuralist sense of those terms (See Derrida, “Purveyor”; Johnson).

This is not of course to suggest that “The Philosophy” has been dismissed as a text of little theoretical consequence. On the contrary, the French symbolist poets (Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry), as great admirers of Poe, found in the essay a strong confirmation for their own aesthetic method—a method emphasizing a kind of poetic “suggestiveness” that would range “beyond the limits of direct speech” (Buranelli 90; see also P. Quinn 53-65). Baudelaire was, moreover, quick to identify with the essay's privileging of the poet's hard work and analytical thinking over anything resembling intuitive inspiration. As Rosemary Lloyd, in her study of Baudelaire's literary criticism, points out: “In Poe, … Baudelaire discovers a poet who is always in control of his inspiration, striving, like the true dandy, to banish spontaneity and ‘simuler le sang-froid et las délibération’ by paying extremely close attention to every point of his poem, no matter how minor” (77). Like the French symbolists, the American New Critics, later on, were also drawn to Poe's essay. In it they recognized an affinity with their own theoretical views regarding the formal unity and totality of the literary work, which is to say, their belief that “the work of art is an integral and self-consuming fact, embodying ‘everything necessary for its understanding’” (Galloway 41; see also Foust 22-23).

But at the same time, one should understand that if any attention has indeed been granted to Poe's theoretical work, it has almost always been of an extremely limited nature, focusing as it has mainly on such isolated statements in “The Philosophy” that would seem to endorse whatever theoretical claims needed supporting (and in the process, one might add, committing what in their own language the New Critics would call “the heresy of paraphrase”). If, however, one were to look more closely at “The Philosophy” and thus begin to view it as a text meriting as much rhetorical scrutiny as the work itself applies to the poem its intention is to analyze, one might then begin to understand “The Philosophy” as but another kind of narrative, just as highly wrought and complex as other of Poe's works—fictive as well as poetic—with a story to tell that may be far different from the one we have otherwise come to know.

In what specific way, we might proceed to ask, does “The Philosophy” relate to the poem “The Raven,” besides in the most obvious way of being both a commentary on the poetic work as well as a theoretical statement concerning Poe's general conception of the poetic process? What story, that is, does “The Philosophy” tell with regard to the relation between its own theory (or theory in general) and the poetic discourse with which it is primarily concerned? How do the two discourses—the theoretical and the poetic—become mutually informing? Moreover, slightly shifting the angle of this inquiry, we might ask: what story does “The Philosophy” seem to tell about the many images or myths of Poe—advanced and cultivated by critics, biographers, and general readers alike—that have come down through the years? What, for instance, might it tell us about the usual opposing perceptions, or myths, of Poe as either the romantic artists par excellence or the ultimate rationalist, scientifically inclined toward creating a mathematical system of poetic effects?2 Given that such ideas about Poe are usually no more than reflections of his own writings, any proper understanding of Poe (if it is indeed possible to have a “proper” understanding) will thus have to come by way of attending precisely to his language and to the particular “stories” that language tells.


In one sense “The Philosophy of Composition” becomes Poe's attempt to manufacture an image of himself that would serve to counter, if not completely contradict, whatever romantic image is suggested by “The Raven.” In direct opposition to the poem's excessively romantic narrator, with his passionate desire to recover (at least in memory) the lost Lenore, as well as his seeming delight in self-torturing (and seemingly involuntary) remembrance, the persona of “The Philosophy” offers up instead a portrait of rational self-control. Taking the reader, “step by step” (364), through a detailed analysis of his poetic process, demonstrating how the poem follows a consistent pattern of cause and effect while also repeatedly emphasizing the combinatory power of language, Poe thus makes every effort to portray himself as the most sober and scientific craftsman. As he claims, he composes his poetry neither by “accident” (365) nor “by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition” (364). Rather his is a procedure so logical and exact that his poem, upon completion, has all “the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem” (364-65).3

While relating the history of his poem—its genesis as well as the stages of the poet's own thought processes—Poe lays down various rules and principles that are applicable not simply to the poem in question but to all poetic narrative in general (and here one begins to think of the theory as being equally relevant to Poe's short fiction as well).4 Perhaps most significant among the principles mentioned is a certain notion of limitation that has important implications for what Poe conceives of as a poem's desired effects. Thus Poe contends that a poem should be brief enough to be read “in a single sitting”—a requirement essential for achieving “totality, or unity, of effect” (366). While such a limitation suggests how the reader is actually supposed to experience a work of poetry, it likewise calls attention to the sense of unity Poe no doubt desires to have implemented within the work itself. Fixing as he does both the spatial and temporal coordinates of the poem, Poe attempts to bring the maximum amount of order and control into his poetic world. Shaped within these boundaries (boundaries that resemble nothing less than a set of rigid laws), the poem is intended to possess the sort of power and intensity characteristic of such a highly compressed form: “Within this limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit—in other words, to the excitement or elevation … to the degree of the true poetical effect which it is capable of inducing; for it is clear that the brevity [and all the other limits that Poe imposes] must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect …” (366).

Such aesthetic views are mirrored precisely in the manner in which Poe constructs his narrative settings. Addressing the issue of what constitutes the proper “locale” within a poetic narrative, he argues that “a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident …” (371). If such a notion of setting applies directly to “The Raven,” with its representation of the closed-off space of the scholar's chamber, no less so does it apply to many of Poe's other works, as for example the Gothic tales, whose settings so often consist of houses, rooms, crypts, basements, and pits. These sorts of private, “insulated” spaces are intended to have little if any relationship to the larger society around them; aesthetically sealed, ahistorical, they are worlds “Out of SPACE—out of TIME” (32), as Poe says in his poem “Dreamland.” Thus constituted, these settings may be said to stand in an analogous relationship not only to the poem's own self-enclosed structure but to what is supposed to be the ideal reader's experience of the poem: a perfectly unified experience that would involve reading the poem within the limited time of “a single sitting” and, presumably, within the limits of a confined space (perhaps a chamber not unlike that of the love-lorn scholar of “The Raven”).

Additional references to the idea of narrative limitation occur when Poe discusses the section of his poem which falls within the “limits of the accountable—of the real”; and also when he alludes to the moment when the poem is supposed to have reached its “natural termination” (373). In the context of the latter reference, there is a concern expressed early on in “The Philosophy” with how exactly one should proceed in composing a literary work—with what aim (or end) in mind. Here again Poe demonstrates an interest in maintaining the proper limits on his work, this time by arguing for a certain inevitability within any well-conceived narrative. As he states: “Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before anything can be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give the plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation …” (364). It is this need for absolute control over his material—to the point of having to know in advance what the outcome of his poem will be, or how the particular limits will be established—that suggests in Poe something of the scientist working within the confines of his literary laboratory. Conducting his experiments with poetic language, often working by trial and error (such as when choosing the appropriate kind of bird to recite the poem's refrain), he is all the while determined in his efforts to reach certain preconceived narrative conclusions. His logic of cause and effect, invoked throughout “The Philosophy,” becomes in itself another limit he imposes on his work.

We might say that it is Poe's own mind, or what is suggested in “The Philosophy” to be his poetic intentions, that becomes the actual source, the beginning point of “The Raven”; and it is the poem having “attained its ultimate point of completion” (364) that could be said to mark the other limit—the endpoint—of the poetic process. What Poe had (literally) in mind is of course that which he tries to represent through the writing of “The Philosophy,” an essay whose intention is in part to capture the origin of Poe's creative act. As an attempt to define in detail how the poem came into being, as well as to lay bare the logical foundations of the poem's rhetorical and thematic content, “The Philosophy” thus seems to constitute itself as a limit—each of its statements about tone, setting, subject matter, and what is called the “sole legitimate province of the poem” (366) serving as but a further limitation (a formal restriction, a law) imposed on the poetic work. Poe's essay, from this standpoint, might be argued to function as a kind of frame to “The Raven,” marking the poem's boundaries, setting its limits, enclosing it within Poe's own laws of poetic composition. So circumscribed, the poem would seem, finally, to manifest precisely the sort of wholeness, the sort of totality, that Poe insistently claims for it throughout “The Philosophy.”


But now the question must be posed: if “The Philosophy” does indeed argue strenuously for a way of perceiving the poem as well-circumscribed, contained within certain limits, enclosed, what other suggestions might there be within the essay, and within the poem itself, that would serve to compromise such notions, that would seriously put in doubt any such notion of a limited, well-confined poetic landscape? How might both works—the essay and the poem—conspire to tell a vastly different story, one concerning rather the violation of boundaries, the breaking of frames, the testing of limits?

Instructive for an understanding of how “The Philosophy” begins to subvert its own argument for the self-containment, the “circumscription,” of the literary work it analyzes—that is, for the sense of unity of “The Raven”—is the particular metaphor Poe uses to describe his aesthetics of limitation (an aesthetics which, it might be interesting to note, seems to correspond to the Kantian notion of the beautiful).5 Dismissive of the idea of having the scholar-lover encounter the raven in a natural setting, such as in the open air of “a forest, or the fields” (371), Poe argues for the necessity of an enclosed setting by comparing the outline of such a setting to a frame around a picture. Specifically, he says: “a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident:—it has the force of a frame to a picture.” It is the power and intensity of a concentrated scene—“not to be confounded with mere unity of place” (371)—that Poe deems essential for any rendering of “the beautiful” (366). Yet when he mentions “the force of a frame to a picture,” one wonders about the full implications of the term “force.” After all, it is a term referred to throughout “The Philosophy” with some insistence: “the refrain … depends for its impression upon the force of monotone” (367); “… such a close [referring to the refrain], to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis” (368); “Perceiving the opportunity thus afforded me—or, more strictly, thus forced upon me in the progress of the construction—I first established in mind the climax” (369); “The fact is, that originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition” (370); “About the middle of the poem, also, I have availed myself of the force of contrast, with a view of deepening the ultimate impression” (371); “It is this latter [the undercurrent of meaning] … which imparts to a work of art so much of that richness (to borrow from colloquy a forcible term) which we are too fond of confounding with the ideal” (373).

Certainly the notion of force, in these various contexts, is associated with the idea of power or effectiveness. But is it also possible that “force” carries with it the suggestion of a certain violence, of an exertion of pressure beyond normal limits? In other words, when Poe uses the phrase “the force of a frame to a picture,” just what kind and degree of force is meant? The essay's repeated insistence on “force,” and the very force of this insistence, may well suggest that the frame around the picture—and, analogously, the frame around the poem—exert an undue strain, a power too great to bear.6 Indeed, like the otherwise well-contained, “insulated” Usher mansion that finally explodes from its frame, or like the minds of many of Poe's narrators who can no longer contain their repressed guilt or their irrational thoughts (that is, can no longer “bring the mind into a proper frame” [372]), the enclosed space in/of “The Raven” may likewise be too constrained, too tightly bound not to give way finally to a kind of violent eruption, whose result can only be the violation of whatever boundaries, whatever formal constraints Poe seems to have set in place.

The scholar-lover's private chamber, his mind/skull, and the narrative poem itself with its “unity of effect”—each becomes analogous to the other as spaces that are self-contained, enclosed, structurally unified by their respective frames. Taking the poem-as-a-“whole” as our and Poe's essay's main concern, we must wonder to what extent the “I” that narrates the poem—that is chiefly responsible for giving the poem a sense of unity—can be relied upon as an authoritative voice grounding the poem. How much control over his language does the narrator have, and how well does he serve as a framing device for the past event he recounts? Does his poem, in other words, tell a tale of narrative unity or not? Though the raven's repeated recitation of the word “Nevermore” no doubt helps to organize the poem and to give a definite structure to the narrator's vision of a past that, though previously repressed, will now be present within his consciousness forevermore, the language issuing from the raven's mouth nevertheless cannot help but also point to the narrator's difficulty in arriving at a sense of fullness, of plenitude, with respect to his own self-presence or the coming-into-presence of that lost piece of his past embodied in “the sainted maiden” Lenore (36). Indeed, in some ways the poem's narrator suggests himself as a kind of literary critic trying to untangle the meaning of the text: the text being the word “Nevermore” and the raven its author whose intention—the source, the beginning point of meaning—is what he would most like to retrieve in all its fullness. But how possible is it for him to accomplish this task? What is the result of his confrontation with the raven's language? What does the poem, as an allegory of reading, suggest about Poe's theory of interpreting language and, moreover, about the possibility of recovering history through that language?

When the raven, perched on the bust of Pallas Athene, first utters the word he has “learned by rote” (372), the scholar-narrator understands this to be the bird's name, as the word appears to come in reply to the narrator's command, “Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!” The scholar, however, soon realizes that the raven's language means nothing in itself, but is rather, as he guesses, probably the only speech its “unhappy master” had taught it. Believing the raven is a sign of ill-boding, the scholar, notwithstanding the lack of intention in the bird's address, desires to attribute meaning to the curious utterance: “I betook myself to … thinking what this ominous bird of yore … / Meant in croaking ‘Nevermore.’” Trying in a sense to become the bird's new master, the scholar sits back in his cushioned seat “guessing” (35) at how the bird's language might relate to himself, that is, to his loss of Lenore; and in the process he effectively appropriates the raven's single word, saying: “On the cushion's velvet lining … / She shall press, ah, nevermore!” (36). The scholar may well be indulging in what Poe calls in the essay “the human thirst for self-torture” (373), but at the same time he is also giving a certain meaning to the bird's mysterious language: he is saying in effect what it means for himself. In a way that anticipates Saussurean linguistics, Poe would thus seem to be arguing that words, having no meaning in themselves, only gather meaning in relation to each other—in this case, in relation to the scholar's purposely manufactured lines for which the word “Nevermore” becomes a logical response (see Culler 72). Telling the bird (and himself) to “forget this lost Lenore,” the scholar knows in advance that the answer will be “Nevermore,” and so seems to be engaging in a dialogue as much with himself as with the raven.

The question then arises: who or what is it that holds mastery, the narrator who attempts to control the word's meaning through his various queries; or the word itself, which serves to focus and exert control over the narrator's thoughts? Does the narrator possess the language or does the language possess him? As the scholar begins to see his home as “of Horror haunted,” and as his language becomes more disjointed and unstable (“—tell me truly, I implore—/ Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!” [36]), it is apparent that he is no longer psychologically in control, that he has in fact fallen utterly under the spell of the raven's word and that the bird's language has now begun to manipulate him. Indeed, in the last two stanzas the raven is revealed not only as a literal bird within his chamber but as a metaphor for the scholar's own inner struggle, for his own mournful and ever-remembering self: “Take thy beak from out my heart …” (36). The ostensibly self-enclosed world of the scholar's chamber/mind is thus shown to be successfully penetrated by the raven, or rather by the raven's language: if, as Lacan argues, the unconscious is structured like language, we can say that what lies inside the scholar-narrator's mind is no different from what is outside, in the raven's speech (See Ecrits 161). As the demon-like bird sits on the bust of Pallas (a figure for the mind) in a state that resembles “dreaming” (34), the raven reflects the narrator's own dreamlike posture, with the latter's “head … at ease reclining” (36) on the cushion of his chair. The relationship between the narrator and the bird is summarized at the end. Whereas previously the room's lamplight shone over the narrator reading his books of “forgotten lore” (33), it now streams over the raven, throwing the bird's shadow on the floor: “And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor / Shall be lifted—nevermore!” (37). That the narrator's soul comes under the raven's shadow suggests not only that the scholar will never escape the haunting memory of his lost Lenore, but that he must now resign himself to the fact that the bird (as sign of his own otherness) will forever control him—so much so that in the final line he seems to have fallen precisely into the bird's position, uttering by rote the word that the raven has taught him to say.

Of course all this suggests a problematic retrieval of the scholar's past—which lives in his present as a never-ending memory, via the raven, of his lost Lenore. The narrator, split within himself, which is to say, grasping his identity only through the otherness of the raven, of its language, bespeaks not only his own and the poem's disunity but also his alienation from the seemingly recaptured memory of Lenore. Indeed, it is not simply his beloved's death that absents Lenore: the chain of signification in which the scholar locates her becomes itself an indication of Lenore's complicated status as a recoverable point within the scholar's history.7 That Lenore, first of all, is a “Never-ending” (373) memory immediately argues for her as a sign to be read over and over again, without end. Moreover, she is a sign that must be understood only through the mediation of other signs. The “shadow” in which the scholar finds himself is a sign of the raven (or of the raven's language), which in turn is a sign of Lenore, who is herself but a name, a sound conjured up in the scholar's romantic fancy by “angels.” Far from anything divine, from anything like a transcendental signified, Lenore turns out to be little more than a product of the scholar's library. For it is precisely in the “forgotten lore” (33) that the scholar has before him, within that scene of writing, where references are never-ending, that Lenore's “origin” is to be found. Inasmuch as Poe gives priority to sonorousness over meaning—trying in effect to detach the word's sound from its reference—Lenore's substance is her sound. We hear her name echoed in the word “Nevermore,” but even more importantly it seems to arise from “lore”—a further indication that the remembered past (the narrator's history) is always constructed in language, always textualized. (Her name also sends us back to one of Poe's previously published poems, “Lenore,” much of whose language anticipates “The Raven.”) Thus the seemingly endless chain of signification—additionally emphasized by the poem's explosive dissemination of rhymes and alliterations—points to “The Raven” as a text whose ground is forever shifting and whose structure of containment is but a fiction. Rather than supporting the argument of “The Philosophy” for the poem's sense of unity and totality, “The Raven” instead demonstrates the undermining of the otherwise fixed and permanent boundaries between what is outside (of the poem, of the scholar's chamber and mind) and what is inside.8


If “The Philosophy” seems to function as a frame to “The Raven,” it does so because it proposes to stand at a critical distance from the poem, analyzing the poem's rhetorical features and tracing the poem's history—much as a preface might do when introducing (framing) a literary work. As Poe argues, “The interest of an analysis … is quite independent of any real or fancied interest in the thing analyzed” (365). Indeed, in terms of its objective tone and analytical subject matter, it would seem that no work could be more unlike the poem of romantic melancholy that Poe writes (See Davidson 66-75). Part literary criticism, part anecdotal history, “The Philosophy” is, according to the author himself, Poe's “best specimen of analysis” (see A. Quinn 515); and in this respect it might be productively compared to the tales of ratiocination, where the art of analysis is put prominently on display. In fact, Poe makes precisely such an association between his analysis and narratives of detection when, in the beginning of his essay, he invokes two literary works where crime detection plays a significant role—Dickens's Barnaby Rudge and Godwin's Caleb Williams. What is important to recognize, however, is that Poe's understanding of analysis is never simply empirical in nature.9 Rather it always involves the way in which the poetic becomes implicated within the empirical. If the detective Dupin and his antagonist Minister D— in “The Purloined Letter” seem to possess extraordinary mental capabilities, this is because of their shared genius for combining traits of both the mathematician and the poet (305). Similarly questioning the boundaries between empirical thinking and imaginative thinking, the narrator of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” expresses a point of view that his associate Dupin will eventually demonstrate: that “the truly imaginative [are] never otherwise than analytic” (165). Given this notion of analysis, we might begin to wonder to what extent “The Philosophy” becomes no less a poetic text than it does a scientific one. We might ask, Where, in its orderly and logical progression of thoughts, in its scrupulously controlled analysis, does the essay reveal itself as otherwise—that is, as a text whose critical distance from the poem it analyzes comes dramatically into question? How does the frame that is “The Philosophy,” in exerting the force that it does, show itself as always already broken, as incapable of containing the poem it is ostensibly meant to master?

While seeming to offer from afar, in its own self-contained manner, a detailed history of the poem's composition, “The Philosophy” nevertheless ends up reproducing many of the poem's features—becoming as it were seduced by the very rhetoric it is supposed to analyze. As already mentioned, the poem itself takes on the aspect of criticism, with the scholar-narrator trying to master the raven's language in the same way as a critic might attempt to uncover the meaning of a literary text. So too in “The Philosophy” do we observe a narrator (Poe) trying to supply meaning to the language of “The Raven,” tracing the history of the poem's rhetoric (in the same way as the scholar muses upon the origins of the raven's speech). The essay's narrator, moreover, is shown to be as much a scholar as the poem's narrator: like the latter, he begins his narrative in a library of sorts, if not amid “forgotten lore” then before mystery novels by Dickens and Godwin. Such works of literature inspire one of the essay's central concerns, that of narrating the procedure of composition whereby Poe knows in advance the effect he wants to achieve, in this case, the effect of Beauty (as Poe writes, “When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect …”[366]). Similarly the “lore” in the poem, initially read in order to forget Lenore, ironically ends up stirring the scholar's memory of her, who becomes the ultimate signified of his poem, synonymous in his mind with transcendent Beauty (as Poe contends, “the death … of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world …” [369]; hence the dead woman is the thing most closely allied to Beauty).

In attempting to come to terms with the language of “The Raven”—specifically with the rhetorical effects Poe claims to have chosen in the most calculated way—the essay appears not to be aware of how it imitates certain aspects of the poem's rhetoric. Chief among the poem's rhetorical features are the scholar's remarks anticipating the raven's one-word response: queries for which the scholar already knows the answer in advance. There is of course no similar refrain that enters into Poe's critical essay, yet the structure of many of his deductions regarding his poetic laws (what he considers “legitimate” or “proper” [366] in poetry) is that of a dialogue with himself, that is, posing questions to which he already knows the answers. Thus Poe initiates his theoretical formulations with statements such as “Regarding, then, Beauty … my next question referred to the tone” (367); “The question now arose as to the character of the word” (368); etc. In a similar instance, like the scholar in the poem, Poe discovers the word “Nevermore” to have a powerful effect on him and so finds himself compelled to invent a “pretext for [its] continuous use” (368). Consistent with Poe's argument, the answer seems always to be waiting for the question, in the same way that the poetic effect, according to Poe, should always be known in advance (as Poe observes in the novel by Godwin, where the ending is alleged to have been written first). In one particularly uncanny moment in “The Philosophy” Poe unwittingly dramatizes his relationship to the poem's narrator by seeming to have an actual conversation, again asking himself questions whose answers he already knows and yet which appear to derive from a source (speaking in a raven-like monotone) outside himself:

I asked myself—“Of all the melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death—was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty. …”


Here, indeed, “The Philosophy” seems to have been successfully seduced by the rhetoric of “The Raven.” Yet the poem incorporates itself into the language of “The Philosophy” even more blatantly than this: for example when the essay quotes whole sections of the poem within its body and then allows the poem's last stanza to serve as the essay's own conclusion (the poem consequently framing the writing that is intended to frame it). Blurring the boundaries between the critical essay and the poem, where the latter becomes literally implicated within the other, Poe's “Philosophy” seems to repeat the poem in a manner similar to the mechanical way the raven recites “Nevermore.” The essay, instead of mastering “The Raven,” does exactly what the scholar does with respect to the bird: it articulates the very language of “The Raven,” as if having learned it from the poem by rote. Thus we might say, in the same way that the scholar comes under the shadow of the raven in the poem, Poe's “Philosophy” comes under the shadow of the poem “The Raven.”

The essay, then, does not at all follow the line of logic it presumes to follow. Like the poem itself, which, as Pierre Macherey argues, is “neither simple nor continuous” (24), the essay is split from within and is finally left, at the end, speaking in the voice of its other (the poem). Poe's statements in the last few paragraphs of “The Philosophy”—concerning what he calls the poem's “under-current … of meaning” (373)—may provide some insight into the disruptive nature of the essay's own poetics. Here Poe, seeming to contradict his argument for the unified space and enclosure of his poem, admits to pushing his poem beyond certain limits, beyond the point of the “dénouement proper,” where it has a “natural termination”:

With the dénouement proper … the poem, in its obvious phase, that of a simple narrative, may be said to have its completion. So far, every thing is within the limits of the accountable—of the real … and so far there has been no overstepping of the limits of the real.

But in subjects so handled … there is always a certain hardness or nakedness, which repels the artistical eye. Two things are invariably required—first, some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and secondly, some amount of suggestiveness—some under-current, however indefinite, of meaning. It is this latter, in especial, which imparts to a work of art so much of that richness (to borrow from colloquy a forcible term) which we are fond of confounding with the ideal.


In adding “two concluding stanzas” (373), Poe breaks from the “obvious phase” of the poem that is complete in itself and extends the poem beyond the “limits of the real.” If adding stanzas violates certain limits, so too does the adding of the quality of “richness” to the poem. This notion of “richness” does not at all denote a transcendental symbolism that might be associated with the French symbolist school of poetry or with the later American New Criticism; nor, for that matter, does it have any relation to the Emersonianism of Poe's own day—something for which Poe shows considerable scorn when referring to “the so called school of the so called transcendentalists” (373).10 On the contrary, Poe's notions of “richness” and “suggestiveness” have more to do with the unconscious of the text, that is, with those elements that lurk beneath the surface and constitute a more shadowy reality than that which operates on the level of the “obvious,” or within the “limits of the real.” It is at the moment, for example, when the raven first takes on a figurative status—becoming an emblem of the scholar's painful remembrance—that Poe claims to be applying his “under-current … of meaning.” If this “suggestiveness” that is introduced into the last couple of stanzas is, as Poe contends, finally “made to pervade all the narrative” (373), we might consider (now reversing the poem's role and allowing it to inform us critically about the essay) how a similar suggestiveness pervades the essay. Where, in other words, in “The Philosophy” do there exist similar undercurrents, ones that would radically question the obvious and disrupt the real?

Ironically enough, such undercurrents often occur within those statements concerning the degree of control Poe exerts over his poetry. Referring, for instance, to the “limit” pertaining to the proper length of a poem, Poe writes:

Within this limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit—in other words, to the excitement or elevation—again in other words, to the degree of the true poetical effect which it is capable of inducing; for it is clear that the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect:—this, with one proviso—that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.


While Poe addresses himself to the limits he wants to place on his poetry, his own rhetoric thus betrays a desire to exceed these limits. First, the disruptive syntax of the sentence, with its many dashes and qualifying phrases, serves to mock any notions of orderliness and control. And secondly, the seeming endlessness of the sentence—with its amplifying statements beginning with the phrases “in other words,” “again in other words,” “for it is clear,” and “this, with one proviso”—does nothing but contradict the very idea of limits. If the sentence signals anything, it is the state of “excitement” the poet-theorist himself (rather than the reader) is experiencing in the midst of his less than seamless, less than self-contained work of poetic theory. Like the poem's narrator who, in his “excited” state, “wildly propounds queries” (369), Poe the philosopher-critic, while trying to shed light on his poem and on the art of poetry, cannot help but reveal the disruptive underside of his supposedly controlled and well-composed critical narrative. Rather than the semblance of sober reflection, we find in “The Philosophy” a sense of “phrenzied pleasure” (369), a kind of ecstatic writing that tends often to erupt amidst the more “obvious” arguments concerning the poet as the embodiment of rational self-control.

We perhaps witness no better example of frenzied writing than at that precise moment when Poe, ironically, is refuting the idea that it is within a state of frenzy that most writers compose their works:

Most writers—poets in especial—prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought—at the true purposes seized only at the last moment—at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view—at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable—at the cautious selections and rejections—at the painful erasures and interpolations—in a word, at the wheels and pinions—the tackle for scene-shifting—the step-ladders and demon traps—the cock's feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.


Again Poe's accumulation of details in a sentence that seems endless calls attention to anything but a notion of limitation and containment. The numerous interpolated phrases punctuated by dashes, moreover, not only graphically reenact the imperfect, haphazard process of composition in its early stages (in direct correspondence with what Poe is saying here about the usually hidden scene of a writer's activity); they also point to a kind of fragmentation typical of an excited or frenzied state of mind.11 If Poe is performing here, in the manner in which he claims to perform when composing his poetry, his would appear to be the histrionics of hysteria: not unlike the “performance” of some of his more neurotic characters, such as the narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” whose fragmented sentence structure similarly reveals the less stable undercurrents running through his assertions of rationality and self-control; or the scholar in “The Raven,” whose disjointed language we have already noted. In this single passage of the essay, we see “The Philosophy” effectively de-compose itself, functioning not as the container, the frame, for “The Raven” but rather as a text whose “science” is decidedly contaminated by the very poetry from which it pretends to be coolly detached.

Implicating the poetic within the scientific—and, as was observed in “The Raven,” the theoretical within the poetic—Poe thus shows himself to elude any easy categorization as either man of science or visionary poet. Instead what his essay and poem, in their dialogical relationship, accomplish is to problematize both roles, in effect indicating the romantic delusion of trying to define “science/theory” and “poetry” as disciplines or genres wholly separate and distinct.12 As “philosopher,” then (if such a role can be assigned to him strictly by virtue of his essay's title), Poe does nothing less than ironically test the limits of his own philosophy, questioning its ground, locating its meaning always within its own otherness, within its own “under-current … of meaning.” Poe, in this sense, succeeds in producing not a unique or self-contained philosophy but rather a different philosophy, a philosophy, that is, of difference and one that consequently makes a difference.


Exactly what sort of difference “The Philosophy” makes within the context of nineteenth-century material culture may be determined, paradoxically, by way of Poe's own formalist, and seemingly ahistorical, practices.13 True to its contradictory form, to what “The Philosophy” does in terms of revealing its own undercurrents, its own differences, “history”—from which the poem presumes to purify itself—nevertheless comes back, in the way of undercurrents, to haunt Poe's writing. That is, history, in a state of repression, returns in the same way that Lenore is suggested to return: not as a full presence but, as earlier mentioned, as a “Never-ending Remembrance” (373), which is to say, something that cannot help but remain unfinished, ghostly. Much in the same way as Walter Benjamin views history, Poe sees the past as the site not of a solid foundation but of ruins: the past, in other words, can be glimpsed only indirectly, in the form of fragments (Marder 132; see also Cadava). If Lenore comes alive at all for Poe's scholar, she does so only through her absence, her death, or rather through the mediation of the raven's death-signifying word “Nevermore.” As Benjamin says in regard to the historical dimension of memory: “… only what has not been experienced explicitly and consciously, what has not happened to the subject as an experience, can become a component of the mémoire involontaire” (114). Indeed, only through the fragmented structure of free-floating signs (or images) can the scholar experience his lost Lenore: she, like history itself, becomes nothing more than an effect of never-ending reading. What the scholar reads, at the end, is the image of the raven, which “intensely excites” (365) in the same way as the poem itself is intended to; but like Benjamin's historical image, the raven decomposes—becomes, as Poe says, “emblematical” (373)—in the very moment it is seized. Just as its meaning is discovered, just as it becomes “present” and thus “is permitted distinctly to be seen” (373) within the present tense of the last stanza, it disappears in its figurality. Similarly, we can say that Poe's essay, in trying to recover the poem's own history, its genesis, succeeds only in reinventing that history. Inasmuch as the poem's origins become no more than an effect of the essay, the poem's past might be said to simultaneously flash up and disappear in the very moment of its (de)composition.

What, then, constitutes the historical undercurrents of Poe's writing? Unlike those critics who would see Poe's formalism as a sign of aristocratic disengagement from history (Pease 179-202), we might instead view it as indicative of Poe's full immersion in the ideology of nineteenth-century bourgeois culture. Despite Poe's more obvious tendencies to idealize the poetic process—for example, when he privileges aesthetics to the point of dismissing “as irrelevant to the poem per se, the circumstance—or say the necessity—which, in the first place, gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and critical taste” (365)—he nevertheless also attempts to demystify the romantic view of the poet as one who is utterly divorced from the world of work. By replacing the common idea of the poet as one who proceeds mainly through intuition with the notion of the poet as diligent worker, Poe helps to expose both the physical and mental labor that takes place behind the otherwise mystifying “scenes” of the writer's activity. Through a series of theatrical metaphors in which he addresses the “staging” of his poetic effects, he defines the writer as not only something of a pragmatist but one perhaps deeply entrenched in the Protestant ethic. He tries to explain, in almost moralistic terms, how the writer's work is often “painful” and despairing; indeed how the writer must perform all the unseen, arduous tasks (operating the “wheels and pinions” and “the tackle for scene-shifting”) of “the literary histrio” (365). Such strenuous labor does not come without the hope of monetary reward; and so it is not surprising that Poe, wishing to capitalize on the public taste, muses upon “how interesting” it might be to write a “magazine paper” (364) for popular and critical consumption. Given what we know of Poe's history of financial difficulties—what one biographer refers to as his “constant struggle for money” (Symons ix)—one may well assume that both self-promotion and needed funds, and not simply critical-aesthetic considerations, became important impetuses for composing “The Philosophy.”14

When the essay does try to present an ahistorical idealist perspective, it does so most effectively with regard to Poe's primary aesthetic goal: the creation of the effect of Beauty through a self-enclosed poetry, total unto itself. Poe's desire to keep his poetry as free as possible from the contamination of the socio-historical is suggested during his discussion of how a poem's length—in terms of time spent reading—affects its “unity of impression.” He warns: “if two sittings [instead of a single sitting] be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed” (365). Yet even here, despite the idealistic implications of trying to keep his writing perfectly secluded from worldly affairs, Poe's seemingly self-contained poetic worlds happen also to call attention to larger cultural issues. Specifically, they point to the typical bourgeois concerns with private ownership and with the security of possessions within well-circumscribed, privately owned space.

As Benjamin remarks with regard to the living-space of the middle-class person in early democratic states:

The private citizen who in the offices took reality into account, required of the interior that it should support him in his illusions. This necessity was all the more pressing since he had no intention of adding social preoccupations to his business ones. In the creation of his private environment he suppressed them both. From this sprang the phantasmagoria of the interior. This represented the universe for the private citizen. In it he assembled the distant in space and in time. His drawing-room was a box in the world-theatre.


As the preeminent poet of the interior, Poe constructs precisely such private environments; and Benjamin in fact is quick to cite Poe's works—particularly the detective stories and the essay “The Philosophy of Furniture”—as containing good illustrations of the middle-class penchant for “leaving traces” of one's life in the everyday objects in which one surrounded himself. “The criminals of the first detective novels,” Benjamin writes, “were neither gentleman nor apaches, but middle-class private citizens” (169). And so too, he might have added, were the detectives themselves. Dupin, though inclined to give the impression of a fallen aristocrat idling away in his darkened chambers, actually employs himself in the most arduous mental labor, absorbing into his mind all the objects in the chambers of his adversary (and double) Minister D—. His interest, ultimately, is to profit monetarily from analyzing these objects in such novel ways as to enable him to provide a solution to the mystery at hand. In Poe, the living-space, one's private chamber, is always analogous to the mind; and the mental space, far from representing a refuge from the contradictory aspects of the material world, simply mirrors back that world, its contradictions well intact.15

The chamber depicted in “The Philosophy of Furniture,” though ostensibly an example of Poe's notion of aristocratic fashion, suddenly becomes as phantasmagorical as any chamber in one of his Gothic stories: it is a room that exists nowhere but in Poe's “mind's eye,” envisioned there as somewhat dreamlike in atmosphere and perhaps more befitting one of the gloom-inspiring tales, with its setting “near midnight” (418).16 In accord with what constitutes, in Poe's mind, the perfectly artistically arranged setting, the chamber is richly furnished, with crimson and gold curtains, large paintings, “magnificently bound books” (420), and two adjacent windows (perhaps recalling the eyelike windows of the Usher mansion). Curiously serving as almost a necessary part of the “furnishings,” the proprietor of the chamber is imagined as lying on a sofa, fast asleep (reminiscent of one of Poe's living-dead). Of course if there is anything like a proprietor in this essay/story, it is none other than Poe (or the narrator) himself, whose sense of self-identity becomes inextricably bound both to the various objects in the chamber as well as to certain pseudo-aristocratic notions of fashion. Such bourgeois concerns with creating interiors wholly supportive of one's private illusions are readily observed as well in a work like “The Raven,” with its portrayal of a scene as phantasmagorical and as reflective of proprietary impulses as any in Poe. Indeed, here we find a scholar surrounded by his books, his purple curtains, and his artwork in the form of a bust of Pallas. Even the raven, with its ever-haunting presence, comes to reflect the scholar's attempt to take control of the outside world—what Benjamin calls “the distant in space and in time”—and so to refashion it as another possession within the artificial realm of his private room. For the scholar, appropriating the outside world of nature (the bird) takes the form of his trying to force upon it a meaning relevant to his innermost—and hence his most repressed—desires. This structure of ownership, it should be added, also carries over to the critical essay, where we see a desire on Poe's part to view his very poem as an objet d'art, to see it as a thing, once made, now standing by itself, self-contained: a kind of commodity fetish to be adored and analyzed from afar. Poe's repeated insistence, in the essay, on the poem's and his own “originality” (370) serves only to indicate both the ideology of possessive individualism within which he operates as well as his bourgeois fascination with “the new.”

Of the various objects that come to inhabit Poe's interior spaces, no doubt none holds a greater fascination for Poe than that of “the woman,” whom he fetishizes in both “The Raven” and “The Philosophy of Composition” as the very spirit of poetic discourse. That many of his fictional women are simultaneously mourned and idealized subsequent to their premature deaths (one thinks of Lenore, Morella, Berenice, Ligeia, etc.) should not in any way obscure the fact that Poe's romantic view seems fully to endorse the nineteenth-century idea of woman as passive creature incapable of doing more than furthering man's illusions of his control over the natural world. Woman becomes, in this sense, but another piece of furniture within the bourgeois setting, a part of the property over which man holds dominion. As Bram Dijkstra puts it, the women of this period suffered “ever-increasing enclosure … within the ornate walls of the middle-class household … and [an] ever-greater disenfranchisement from virtually all forms of intellectual and social choice—a pattern which had been developing for more than a century” (3). Woman so excluded would, from the artist's perspective, become less real: as “the essence of unearthly purity and sacrifice,” she would become “that perfect jewelbox for the safekeeping of the male soul” (13). And her death would signal her ultimate exclusion from worldly affairs; it would indeed be the apotheosis of her sacrifice (though it would most likely be preceded by her participation in a cult of invalidism—illness being for her “a sign of delicacy and breeding” and therefore something encouraged by those men who would feel dignified by the pseudo-aristocratic airs such illness engendered and who would also take pride in the consequent female dependency [27]).

In death as in life, Poe's women—and Lenore is a prime example—seem to take on the abstract, nonspeculative form of a commodity, holding little more than exchange value for the man. As Luce Irigaray notes about women's social position in general: “woman has value on the market by virtue of one single quality: that of being a product of man's ‘labor’ … On this basis, each one looks exactly like every other. They all have the same phantom-like reality” (175), as is often the situation with Poe's female characters. The woman Poe produces in “The Raven”—the dead beauty “whom the angels name Lenore” (33)—is suggested to be no more than a vehicle for Poe's execution of his poetic effects, a reflection of his own originality in literary composition. She becomes, that is, but a fetish-object mirroring back for Poe his own value as a controlled, rational, scientific (hence phallic) poet, the sort of value most obviously promoted within “The Philosophy.”

But as is the usual case with Poe, there is more to the story than that which falls within the limits of the obvious. For if Poe's writing seems to reveal a phallocentric attempt to draw distinct boundaries between the active male writer and the passive, fetishized woman—between the one who carries the pen(is) and the one who is penned (penetrated)—the differences or undercurrents within “The Raven” and “The Philosophy” would suggest an attempt at the same time to do quite the opposite. Like other of Poe's female characters who are made into art objects by their male narrators, Lenore evokes what Leland Person calls “a subversive or ‘subjectified’ double” (Aesthetic 25), that is, a woman who returns from the dead (or from a repressed state within the male consciousness) and effectively undermines the man's sense of stability. What ultimately destabilizes the male character, however, is not simply the sudden aggressive return made by the woman but rather the way such a return problematizes the matter of easily identifiable gender roles. That is to say, in the same way that Poe's writing implicates the discourse of poetry within that of science/theory, it likewise implicates the feminine within the masculine (and vice versa), and thus radically disrupts the logic and the “law” of what might otherwise be understood as Poe's phallic philosophy.

In “The Raven,” it is the bird itself that raises the problem of gender identity inasmuch as it becomes a substitute sign for Lenore, and yet it is also suggested to be male (“he”). When it perches on the bust of Pallas (goddess of wisdom), we are immediately alerted to the bird's association with the scholar—as though the raven is a figment of his imagination, having flown in and landed amidst the scholar's thoughts (now figured in feminine terms through Pallas).17 Such gender confusion is made evident early in the poem, when the scholar hears a tapping on his chamber door and subsequently makes his first comment to the strange visitor: “‘Sir,’ said I, ‘or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore …’” (34). With the poem's concluding stanzas, the bird with its “mien of lord or lady” (34) suddenly takes on, within Poe's psycho-poetics, a more aggressive, masculine role when its sexually suggestive beak is described as having penetrated the scholar (“Take thy beak from out my heart …”), thereby placing the scholar in the role traditionally reserved for the female.

To the degree that “The Philosophy” is an extension of the poem, or its double, we observe what has already been pointed out in terms of the unraveling of Poe's critical mastery, of the undermining of his “science” of writing: as the essay tries to force itself upon the poem, it becomes in turn seduced by the poem's own rhetoric. The seemingly passive poem, in taking command of the “masterly” essay, thus enacts a kind of reversal of gender roles. Ultimately, though, it is the differences, the undercurrents that are responsible for de-composing the masculine desire for control over the feminine principle of poetry. Poe's language, toward the end of his “Philosophy,” betrays the failure of a masculine poetics that attempts to confine itself to “the limits of the real.” As he says with regard to poetic subjects handled strictly on the level of the “obvious,” of the “real”: “But in subjects so handled, however skillfully, or with however vivid array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness, which repels the artistical eye” (373, emphasis mine). The ostensible need to stay within certain limits, within certain boundaries—a need described here in masculine terms—is finally rejected by Poe, whose literary work, as we have seen, engages in violating boundaries, in questioning assertions of mastery, in what might be called, in other words, “writing in the feminine” (Cixous 54).

Poe's “Philosophy” and its literary other, “The Raven,” then, do nothing less than contradict, or de-compose, the very ideology of possessive individualism and masculine control that they would otherwise seem to uphold. Read together—each text inextricably woven into the other, each a reading of the other—they tell, among other things, the story of a different history. For history, when it makes its return in Poe, does so not in a uniform way but in the form of the many contradictions that run, like undercurrents, through Poe's culture-bound poetics. Telling her-story as well as his-story, Poe's writing offers, to be sure, not only a different kind of history, but one that, accordingly, makes a difference.


  1. The few critics who have dealt more thoroughly with “The Philosophy”—that is to say, without simply reducing the essay to a hoax—include Burke, who reads the essay for its usefulness in understanding “the symbolic act” as well as the literary critic's relation to poetics (25-43); Macherey, whose brief though penetrating discussion argues that the essay is “a story rather than a theoretical analysis” (23) and one that places the poem in the “embarrassing contradiction” of being a “product both of a certain labor and of a passive contemplation” (25); and Person, who analyzes Poe's essay's relation to “The Raven” for the purpose of showing the doubling of the practices of reading and writing and how this doubling relates, in turn, to the play of cause and effect in both texts: “the poem and the essay are ‘doubles,’ and they exist together in a hermeneutic loop. They interpret or ‘read’ each other, at least in the sense that interpretation, or reading, has become a reiteration, or echo—a rewriting” (“Poe's Composition” 7). While Person points to some interesting parallels between the two texts, he nevertheless fails to address Poe's aesthetics of containment and limitation and, as a result, cannot show how this aesthetics ultimately tells the story of its own unraveling, its own de-composing—a story that, as we shall see, has cultural-material as well as aesthetic consequences. See also Pease, who briefly considers “The Philosophy,” seeing it as an example of Poe's aristocratic inclination to divorce himself from history and indulge in an empty formalism (180-84), an argument with which I take issue.

  2. See Wellek, whose discussion typifies the oscillating debate of whether to view Poe as a romantic idealist or as an enlightenment rationalist. Though he places Poe's writing within the tradition of Kant, Coleridge, and A. W. Schlegel, Wellek finally argues that Poe “centrally … rejected the dialectical and symbolist romantic creed and remained an 18th-century rationalist with occult leanings” (159). Contributing to the effort to romanticize Poe are the many discussions of his irrationality. Some, indeed, would see Poe's more “rational” critical writings as merely a defense against a more dominant insanity. Thus Silverman argues that Poe conceived “The Philosophy” as “a larger and more fortified hedge against his increasing irrationality” (296).

  3. “The Philosophy of Composition,” popularly known as “How I Wrote the Raven,” was published in Graham's Magazine, April 1846. All citations from this text as well as the other Poe texts mentioned, unless otherwise specified, refer to the edition by T. O. Mabbott.

  4. In his review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales (1842), Poe compares the ideal short story to his conception of poetry. Many of the principles he sets down for the short story—concerning originality, brevity, undercurrents of meaning, and single effect—are precisely the same as those he discusses in “The Philosophy.”

  5. Discussing the problem of the frame in Kant, Derrida states: “the presence of a limit is what gives form to the beautiful. … If art gives form by limiting, or even by framing, there can be a parergon of the beautiful. … But there cannot, it seems, be a parergon for the sublime” (The Truth 127). For an examination of how Poe subverts the requirements of the beautiful and ends up transgressing the frame within his fictional works, see Pahl, “Framing.”

  6. For Poe's various uses of “force,” see Halliburton 403-07. Without mentioning any of the violent implications of force that would undermine Poe's aesthetics of containment, specifically Poe's idea of unified poetic space, Halliburton—who focuses mainly on Poe's metaphysical essay Eureka—instead sees “force and unity” as “virtually synonymous terms” in Poe (404).

  7. For other studies of the way Poe problematizes self-presence through a language which questions its own ability to represent, see Carton, who writes: “[Poe's] narrators discover the inexpressibility of the most profound insights and experiences in the moment of their attainment” (18); Kennedy, who argues that “the attempt to resurrect the beloved by an act of inscription invariably ends by revealing the impotence of language. That ethereal presence which has been lost or transformed can never be textually recovered, for writing as a play of signs merely substitutes one absence for another” (76); Williams (5); and Pahl (Architects 3-56). Poe's art of combining—which he refers to throughout “The Philosophy”—is perhaps another indication of Poe's writing as a play of signs. Rather than a method of attaining the plenitude of experience through language, Poe's “combinations” point to the differential structure of language, that is, to meaning as something constantly in process and subject to the endless combinations of language.

  8. That “The Raven” takes flight, so to speak, outside itself, may be seen through the various other contexts in which it locates itself. The raven in Dickens's Barnaby Rudge, which Poe reviewed in 1842 and which he cites in “The Philosophy,” is no doubt a source for Poe's own image of the raven in the poem (and it should be noted that Poe's Dickens review may be considered a previous incarnation of “The Philosophy,” thus disrupting the essay's own seeming unity). The name Lenore, while referring to Poe's earlier poem “Lenore,” may likewise have another source in Gottfried Burger's influential eighteenth-century romantic poem, similarly titled “Lenore.” Poe's poem displaces itself in later works as well, notably through references to the “demon” bird and “never more” in Whitman's “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (183-84), and to “Nevermore” in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (465). Though other examples could be provided, these are enough to dramatize the point that Derrida constantly makes: that language is always referring us elsewhere, that anything like a closed or self-contained system of reference is purely myth.

  9. For a discussion of the ins and outs of “analysis” in Poe, specifically the problem of the inside/outside opposition and the question of doubling as they pertain to the detective fiction, see Irwin, Mystery.

  10. Elsewhere, such as in the Autography articles, Poe demonstrates similar contempt for Emerson's transcendentalism: “Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson belongs to a class of gentlemen with whom we have no patience whatever—the mystics for mysticism's sake” (359). For a convincing argument regarding Poe's materialist (as opposed to mystical) view of language, see Dayan.

  11. For Dayan, the dash in Poe “conveys the vicissitudes of form”; indeed it demonstrates the “protracted unfinishedness so much a part of every Poe plot” (57-58). In support of her materialist position on Poe, she goes on to argue that, inasmuch as this punctuation shows “how a composition is literally put together with words as particles of matter (an effect attained through a disintegration both graphic and semantic), the dash delimits to present the materiality or thing-ness of words” (58).

  12. Poe's upsetting of generic boundaries can be seen in many of his works, as for example when he crosses the Gothic tale of terror with the tale of ratiocination in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” or when he crosses the essay with the short story form in “The Philosophy of Furniture.” Poe's writings, some of his critical essays included, thus typify the American romance as Dryden defines it: “American romance illustrates in a remarkable way the principle of contamination that for Derrida marks the idea of genre. For even the individual texts generically identified as such by a subtitled designation, as in The Scarlet Letter: A Romance, seem at the same time to resist confining generic categories and to violate their formal purity by the blurring and crossing of borderlines” (ix-x).

  13. For an insightful formalist study, one that argues for self-containment within Poe's writing, see Dauber.

  14. Silverman says of Poe in 1846, the year of his essay's publication: “[Poe's] desperate lack of money came in part from his continued problems in working. Although ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ broadcast his complete control of the writing process, he was immobilized” (303).

  15. See Byer, who argues that even Poe's cityscapes become interiors for the dandies in his works: “Central to the dandy's posturing is the appropriation of the street with the intimacy and individuality of a private interior” (230). Poe's collapsing of the inside and the outside may also be seen in “The Raven,” where Lenore, outside in death, is appropriated by the scholar as a fetish-object within the interior world of his chamber.

  16. The citations from “The Philosophy of Furniture” refer to the collection of Poe writings edited by Galloway.

  17. It is worth noting that the name Pallas is itself suggestive of gender ambiguity, insofar as it may derive either from a foster-sister, whom Athene accidentally killed; or from a father, “a winged goatish giant, who later attempted to outrage her [Athene], and whose name she added to her own after stripping him of his skin to make the aegis, and of his wings for her own shoulders …” (Graves 44-45).

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Trans. Harry Zohn. London: New Left Books, 1973.

Buranelli, Vincent. Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Twayne, 1961.

Burger, Gottfried August. Lenore. Trans. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London: Ellis and Elvey, 1900.

Burke, Kenneth. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966.

Byer, Robert H. “Mysteries of the City: A Reading of Poe's ‘The Man of the Crowd.’” Ideology and Classic American Literature. Ed. Sacvan Bercovitch and Myra Jehlen. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Cadava, Eduardo. “Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History.” Diacritics 22.3-4 (1992): 84-114.

Carton, Evan. The Rhetoric of American Romance: Dialectic and Identity in Emerson, Dickinson, Poe, and Hawthorne. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985.

Cixous, Helene. “Castration or Decapitation?” Trans. Annette Kuhn. Signs 7 (1981): 41-55.

Culler, Jonathan. Ferdinand de Saussure. New York: Penguin, 1977.

Dauber, Kenneth. “The Problem of Poe.” Georgia Review 32.3 (1978): 645-57.

Davidson, Edward H. Poe: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1966.

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

Derrida, Jacques. “The Purveyor of Truth.” Trans. Willis Domingo et al. Yale French Studies 52 (1975): 31-113.

———. The Truth in Painting. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

Dryden, Edgar A. The Form of American Romance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage, 1987.

Foust, R. E. “Aesthetician of Simultaneity: E. A. Poe and Modern Literary Theory.” South Atlantic Review. (46.2 1981): 17-25.

Galloway, David. “Introduction.” The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings. Ed. David Galloway. Middlesex: Penguin, 1986.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. Vol. 1. Middlesex: Penguin, 1960. 2 vols.

Halliburton, David. Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973.

Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Garden City: Doubleday, 1972.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Irwin, John T. American Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance. New Haven: Yale UP, 1980.

———. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.

Johnson, Barbara. “The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida.” Yale French Studies 55-56 (1977): 457-505.

Kennedy, Gerald J. Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977.

———. “Seminar on the ‘Purloined Letter.’” Trans. Jeffrey Mehlman. Yale French Studies 48 (1972): 39-72.

Lloyd, Rosemary. Baudelaire's Literary Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Macherey, Pierre. A Theory of Literary Production. Trans. Geoffrey Wall. London: Routledge, 1978.

Marder, Elissa. “Flat Death: Snapshots of History.” Diacritics. 22.3-4 (1992): 128-44.

Pahl, Dennis. Architects of the Abyss: The Indeterminate Fictions of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1989.

———. “Framing Poe: Fictions of Self and Self-Containment.” Studies in the Humanities. 20.1 (June 1993): 1-11.

Pease, Donald. Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writing in Cultural Context. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987.

Person, Leland S., Jr. Aesthetic Headaches: Women and a Masculine Poetics in Poe, Melville, and Hawthorne. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1988.

———. “Poe's Composition of Philosophy: Reading and Writing ‘The Raven.’” Arizona Quarterly 46.3 (1990): 1-15.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Selected Poetry and Prose of Poe. Ed. T. O. Mabbott. New York: Modern Library, 1951.

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Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Symons, Julian. The Tell-Tale Heart: The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Middlesex Penguin, 1981.

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Williams, Michael J. S. A World of Words: Language and Displacement in the Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. Durham: Duke UP, 1988.

Daneen Wardrop (essay date 1998)

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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 mathematician in Poe, the algebraic poet in “The Philosophy of Composition” who dryly proffers the metrical scaffolding of “The Raven,” as if a computer had composed it. Such (purported) calculation is anathema to the American sense of individual passion and spontaneity and the romantic tradition of sublime poetic inspiration. Then, too, we may malign “The Raven” because we suspect it of old-fashioned allegorizing, because we balk at a line so broad as “‘Take thy beak from out my heart.’”1 To the extent, however, that the raven's beak can operate as a point or nub of a pen, and the heart as a convention of desire, the poem becomes a more postmodern allegory, integrating in this image the major elements of the desire à la lettre—the desire that initiates language. Indeed, “The Raven” can be seen as no less than the quintessential poem of desire in language, reenacting for us the entry of the subject into the signifying chain.2

The narrator of Poe's poem must gain his identity, as must all subjects, by interjecting himself into the chain of signification—that is, by experiencing the desire that makes signification inevitable, and thus entering into the symbolic realm of language.3 As Jacques Lacan describes it, the subject is “defined in his [or her] articulation by the signifier.”4 Lacanian desire is inseparable from signification; it must travel through the defiles of the signifier. Perhaps Lacan's most beguiling contribution remains his understanding of how we begin using language, claiming and being claimed by the signifier. He asserts significantly that “the moment in which desire becomes human is also that in which the child is born into language” (E [Ecrits: A Selection] 103). From the outset of “The Raven,” we know that we stand at the brink of such a moment, that we have entered the realm in which Lacanian desire—desire à la lettre—prompts such a birth. Edward Davidson divides the poem into halves of nine stanzas each and suggests that it becomes interiorized in the second half, where the narrator “loses hold of himself” and reality.5 An alternative division presents itself, however: a tripartite structure in which the six-stanza sections roughly correspond to three stages of linguistic development—a prelingual mode, the entry of desire and the signifier, and the attempt to resolve the Lacanian-style oedipal dilemma.


The first third of “The Raven” forms a quest for the pure signifier: the sign that stands only for itself, undeterred by the signified, heralding the desire for language. Surely it is no surprise that the pure signifier is “Nevermore,” but the poem takes its own good time—again, a full third—to arrive at it. The preparation for that signifier warrants our investigation. From the inception of the poem, the narrator's lack of a proper designation for his lost love signals to the reader that we start at the site of absent language.6 In the most crucial line of the first section, the narrator states that Lenore remains “[n]ameless here for evermore” (“R” [“The Raven”], 365; emphasis original). “Here”: we stand at an important moment, as the italicization shows. We begin at a place where language is unavailable to the narrator, a land of signifier perdition or purgatory where only one word is worth saying—“Lenore,” a word with “no” at its very center, a name given, not by the narrator himself in the symbolic mode where language is the father, but by the angels. “Lenore” can never be his word. Into this namelessness—a realm in which “the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token” (365)—the raven will drop his one brash signifier.

Another salient feature of the poem's first third is the effect of repetition, which informs our initial contact with “The Raven” and is perhaps even the first thing we notice. Such an attention Poe would have welcomed. The narrator's desire à la lettre starts in a place before desire, and Poe evokes this place with waves of repetitive sound. These waves are not unlike the chora described by Julia Kristeva, where “rupture and articulations (rhythm)” come before “evidence, verisimilitude, spatiality and temporality.”7 The subject exists at a site where he experiences the rhythms of needs but not yet the desire that gives birth to the signifier. Although repetition of course remains indigenous to the poem throughout, it is never so insistent as at the outset; in fact, here it interferes with meaning to the extent that it renders many of the lines nearly nonsensical. In the first verse alone we encounter the following: “nodded,” “napping,” “tapping,” “rapping,” “rapping,” “tapping” (“R,” 364-65). Mutlu Konuk Blasing calls the room in which the narrator works—and, indeed, Poe's very use of language in this section—a veritable “echo chamber.”8 The narrator himself divulges that, in order “to still the beating of [his] heart, [he] stood repeating” (365). He next reports the reiterated line and then immediately reports it again, so that he speaks redundantly, repeating the repetition:

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“'Tis some visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
                    This it is and nothing more.”


The beating of his heart may be indistinguishable from all the tapping and rapping that rattles through the first stanzas.

The repetition in tandem with the annoyingly persistent rhymes—rapping, tapping, beating, entreating, repeating—creates a din of sonic effects. Much fun has been made, at Poe's expense, of such effects here and in the similarly cacophonous “The Bells.” Being annoying, however, is not the same as being inept. Poe may have written “The Philosophy of Composition” in anticipation of just such unfair charges of ineptitude or banality. In that essay he asserts that the frequent repetition of the refrain forms a basic objective of the poet, aided by “some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration.”9 Poe pursues his effects, chasing sound and not content in this case: “[t]he pleasure,” he maintains, “is deduced solely from the sense of identity—of repetition,” a remark that refers to the use of the refrain but that could be applied to any of the poem's repetitions. Poe goes on to explain that he chooses first sound and then word: “The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had predetermined as the tone of the poem” (“PC” [“The Philosophy of Composition”], 17, 18). It is at this point that the algebraic Poe can help us, and we should take him seriously. The repetition, intentional and not ad hoc, forms a kind of prelingual rhythm into which desire and language might be introduced effectively.

We can find yet another, related, reason for the poem's compulsive rapping and tapping: repetition compulsion. Such behavior forms the concept from which Lacan launches the introduction of his definitive work, Ecrits, drawing an excerpt from his famous essay on “The Purloined Letter”: “Our inquiry has led us to the point of recognizing that the repetition automatism (Wiederholungszwang) finds its basis in what we have called the insistence of the signifying chain.”10 Freud understood repetition automatism as “the effort to find an irretrievably lost object” that manifests not as memory but as a movement of repetition—a notion that Lacan appropriates to his analysis of language formation. In an overview of Lacan's essay, John Muller and William Richardson note that “the theme of the entire Seminar [on ‘The Purloined Letter’] is that the automatism of repetition is accounted for by the primacy of the signifier over the subject.”11

The compulsive repetition in the first third of the poem brings us tantalizingly close to the signifier “Nevermore.” Though early on the narrator repeats several times the phrase “nothing more,” this clearly is not the pure signifier; it only prepares us for that declarative arrival at the end of the eighth stanza. One of the seemingly idiosyncratic features of the refrain is that it does not occur until the second third of the poem—an odd feature unless we understand the need to set the stage: Before we can apprehend that “it is the symbolic order which is constitutive for the subject,”12 we must experience the presymbolic state. We remain pre-oedipal in the first stanzas, experiencing a time prior to the articulation of desire as the narrator searches for a signifier.


The second section heralds the arrival of “Nevermore.” Whereas the first third of the poem uses rhythm and repetition, the second third introduces, with “Nevermore,” the inchoate articulation of syllables that stands on the verge of meaning, predicting entry into the symbolic mode. The sonority of the word dampens the chattering repetitions that precede it, and Poe chooses the word precisely for its monotonous quality (“PC,” 18). Hence, the term gains effect both from its delayed entry and from the contrast of its sound with the sounds in the previous verses. The narrator marvels to hear a word spoken, “to hear discourse so plainly”; and though ostensibly he marvels at the fact that a bird can speak, given the sonic effects Poe creates he must also marvel simply at the existence of discourse itself. That “Nevermore” stands as a pure signifier important only in its quality of “signifier-ness” is suggested when the narrator reports that the word carries “little meaning—little relevancy” (“R,” 366). The word attempts to offer us pure discourse, a representation of absence.

Much of the middle section, in fact, unfolds as an opportunity for the narrator to marvel at “[t]hat one word” (“R,” 367) given to him by the raven. Signification begins to enter this previously language-barren place, and we see the narrator's astonishment at the phenomenon. After all, marveling is warranted; the entry of the pure signifier may be the most telling event in the linguistic life of any human being. Poe is working ironically when he has the narrator say:

For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
                    With such name as “Nevermore.”


The irony inheres because the entry of “Nevermore”—the projected birth into language—happens to every human being capable of speech. Apprehending as new and singular an experience that forms a staple of development, the quintessential moment when desire becomes human, Poe's narrator reveals the depth of his amazement.

Repetition, again, informs the crucial position that “Nevermore” occupies in the poem's paradigm of language. We have already noticed the role of repetition compulsion in Freud's ideas of psychological development and Lacan's ideas of language acquisition. The child's earliest experience with such compulsion, found in what Freud called the Fort! Da! game, demonstrates for Lacan the vital link between repetition and linguistic being: “the conception of the signifying chain,” he claims, can be seen “as inaugurated by the primordial symbolization (made manifest in the game Fort! Da!, which Freud revealed as lying at the origin of the repetition compulsion); this chain develops in accordance with logical links whose grasp on that which is to be signified … operates through the effects of the signifier” (E, 215). Freud first observed the Fort! Da! game when his grandson repeatedly played a version of peek-a-boo by throwing a spool at the end of a string over the edge of his cot, then pulling the spool by the string back to himself. When the spool was out of sight he let out a sound, “o-o-o-o-o,” which Freud and the child's mother both interpreted as his attempt to say the German word fort, which means “gone.” Once he pulled the spool back to himself he would happily pronounce da, German for “here.” Freud reports that “[t]his, then, was the complete game—disappearance and return.”13 The boy would repeat his Fort! Da! game compulsively when out of the company of his mother, which Freud understood as a way to tolerate her absence.

In the Fort! Da! game, Lacan sees a paradigm for the rise of language, which he describes as a “presence made of absence.” In this way the beginnings of language and of desire are coeval: “These are the games of occultation which Freud, in a flash of genius, revealed to us so that we might recognize in them that the moment in which desire becomes human is also that in which the child is born into language” (E, 65, 103). Before language, the infant feels a wholeness and boundlessness, a union with the mother experienced as undifferentiated drives, but upon discerning the mother's absence, s/he becomes aware of lack and replaces the drives with desire. The child apprehends lack as the “want-to-be” (manque-à-être); because the child wants to be one with the mother, s/he knows a “want of being.”14 The moment of want-to-be, the desire for the absent mother, announces the need for language. Only with the signifier can the child move from unexpressed drives to the articulation of desire that language comprises. The Fort! Da! game marks the child's desire à la lettre—the entry into the Law of the Father that constitutes the symbolic mode of language.

Lacan recognizes the negating effect of the child's vocalization of the opposites fort and da:

[The child's] action thus negatives the field of forces of desire in order to become its own object to itself. And this object, being immediately embodied in the symbolic dyad of two elementary exclamations, announces in the subject the diachronic integration of the dichotomy of the phonemes, whose synchronic structure existing language offers to his assimilation; moreover, the child begins to become engaged in the system of the concrete discourse of the environment, by reproducing more or less approximately in his Fort! and in his Da! the vocables that he receives from it.

(E, 103)

Poe's signifier “Nevermore” owns exactly the dichotomous relationship between its parts “never” and “more” as Fort! Da!, and it in fact closely approximates the sense of the dichotomy Lacan describes. “Never” incorporates the idea of “gone” in an absolute and dramatic way, while “more” attempts to recall the absent figure back to presence. Poe's insistence that he selected “Nevermore” for its sound, especially prizing the long “o” as “the most sonorous vowel,” further suggests that the word bears for him the inchoative property—the play of barely-meaning phonemes—that Lacan found necessary to the Fort! Da! game (see “PC,” 18). One might go so far as to say that the quintessential site of “The Raven” is the Lacanian point of want-to-be, where a human being, through desire, stands poised to enter the signifying chain. Lacan's notion of desire begins with the kind of absent presence that the word “Nevermore” indicates. As the child does with Fort! Da! so does the narrator with “Nevermore”: repeating the phonemes that make absence bearable, both play out their want-to-be. Poe's refrain evidences the dynamic of the subject struggling to be born into the signifying chain.

Through the signifier “Nevermore” we can find a specific connection with the signifier of the purloined letter in the short story Lacan thought worthy of such concentrated attention—a connection that strengthens the resonance between nineteenth-century author and postmodern theorist. The “Nevermore” behaves like the purloined letter: it indicates the positioning of subjects. The signifier “Nevermore,” from the time it is spoken, defines the subject placement of the narrator; in Lacan's words, “the itinerary of a signifier” forms “the decisive orientation [of] the subject.”15 Like the signifier in “The Purloined Letter” that governs the placement of the subject, the signifier in “The Raven” casts the signifying nets by which the characters receive their identity. The “insistence of the signifying chain,” one of Lacan's major conceptions, inheres in its power to determine intersubjectivity, for which, Muller and Richardson note, the “pivot is the ‘pure signifier’ of the ‘purloined letter’ that accounts for the automatism of repetition.”16 In other words, upon the signifier turn the relationalities that establish intersubjectivities, or the ways subjects become positioned in regard to each other; also, the desire that demands language demands repetition because the very nature of the signifying chain is insistent.17 Poe offers as pure a signifier in “Nevermore” as he does in the “purloined letter.” The former proves more rarified and histrionic, perhaps, but altogether as useful, if not more so, for arranging the players in this oedipal game.

Of course, we must recognize that it is the raven and not the narrator who utters the initial “Nevermore”—the latter must learn it from the former; hence, the raven plays a fundamental role in starting the signifying chain that shapes the poem's complex relationalities. The principal players are the raven, the narrator, and Pallas Athena—one happy family whose intersubjectivities ineluctably enact the oedipal scenario.18 Poe devotes the middle third of “The Raven” to characterizing this family as their relative positions are determined by the signifier. While the “saintly days of yore” mentioned by the narrator ostensibly refer to times long past, perhaps medieval, they also may refer to days of pre-oedipal, blissful union with the mother (“R,” 366).

In the first stanza of the middle section of the poem, the narrator flings open the shutter to allow the fluttering raven ingress—the sounds of which may be the final gasps of the rhythmic, inarticulate chora giving over to the symbolic mode (the raven actually emerges from the shutter). With that action, we see the entrance of the paternal figure—the raven—who immediately perches atop the bust of Pallas. At this point in the poem, the gender of the raven remains indeterminate: the narrator imagines addressing the bird as either “Sir” or “Madam” and describes its “mien” as that of either “lord or lady” (“R,” 365, 366). As the middle section progresses, gender begins to solidify as the narrator intermittently refers to the raven as “he” and “it.” Interestingly, according to Lacan, one is not human, has no individuality, no identity—certainly no gender identity—until the advent of language. The signifier grants the subject his or her status as subject. Just so, with the first utterance of “Nevermore,” gender begins to make a difference (and a différance). The narrator ponders the signifier offered by the raven by noting “its answer” (366, emphasis added); he still registers the bird as “it,” but immediately after recording that the bird “spoke only / That one word,” he interprets it as an outpouring of “his [the raven's] soul” (367, emphasis added). Through the signifier the raven has become male, as the following line corroborates: “Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered” (367, emphasis added). More importantly, two lines below, the narrator observes, “‘On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before’” (367, emphasis original). Poe italicizes gender in this case, ostensibly as a way to emphasize that everyone sooner or later will desert the narrator but also as a way to solidify the narrator's sense of the raven's male identity.19

The male gender of the bird is significant because the raven operates as the father in a number of important ways. Literally, the raven embodies the conventional traits of a patriarchal authority figure in his “grave and stern decorum,” a fitting description given that the father's traditional role entails introducing the child to the patterns of social decorum. Similarly, the narrator describes the raven as “‘ghastly grim and ancient’” and, just to be sure the resonance is not missed, iterates almost comically that the raven is “‘sure no craven’” (“R,” 366). Further, the words “father” and “raven” share similar sounds, forming a kind of mnemonic image for each other. Even more compellingly, the term “raven” acts as a homonym, colloquial though it is, for “raving.”20 This raving performs exactly the kind of pronouncement of inchoate phonemes that the raven says with “Nevermore,” signaling entry into the symbolic domain of the father. The most significant attribute of the raven as father, moreover, remains his ability to say “Nevermore”—a word he utters in answer to the narrator's question concerning his name (366). Here we have it, then: the Name of the Father is Nevermore.

In Lacan's oedipal scenario, the father's place is occupied not by the father but by the Name-of-the-Father, which keeps us within the realm of desire and language rather than biology. Given the patterns of desire identified in “The Raven,” what better Name-of-the-Father could we find than Nevermore? The raven owns the pure signifier our narrator needs in order to be able to express his want-to-be—a want-to-be that pervades the poem, through profound images of lack, with the recognition of absence and the loss of oneness with the mother.

To further complicate matters, the father-raven who holds the key to the symbolic mode, relevant as he is, perches atop the statue of Pallas Athena. The bust, which largely has been ignored by twentieth-century critics but particularly spooked many nineteenth-century readers,21 works powerfully as the manifestation of the narrator's want-to-be, a want-to-be that prompts the desire for language. Pallas completes the critical triangle of characters in the poem's drama of language and desire; she becomes the objectified Lenore—a stone corpse that hauntingly faces the narrator, standing in for his lost love. As is the case with virtually all Poe's fictional treatments of women, the narrator wants Lenore near him, preferably in an uncertain alive/dead state, so that his despair can be prolonged indefinitely. Pallas makes the ideal corpse-woman—conveniently present yet luminously absent. Though some critics have argued that the representation of Pallas exemplifies the killing of women into art,22 it also can be interpreted as the objectification of the lost mother, the co-optation into the Fort! Da! game.

In an important way, we can see Pallas as the Lacanian spool that the narrator subjects himself to losing and finding over and over again. Pallas is not the mother but the reminder of the mother, an object the narrator might wish to make appear and disappear. The “Nevermore,” spoken by the raven and learned by the narrator, must occur in the presence of the bust of Pallas that marks the absence of the mother (for whom Lenore in her turn substitutes). The narrator's want-to-be takes the form of a Fort! Da! expression—that is, “Nevermore”—as he begins to realize that signification signals an end to his prior bliss and oneness. Because of Pallas and the absence/presence she figures, he instates the beginning of language that makes desire human. Indeed, Pallas seems to displace Lenore altogether once she is introduced.23 Pallas is the perfect reminder of the want-to-be, for desire ultimately is not the desire for love but rather the desire to be desired by the other (E, 58). Given this conception, even the desire for a living partner (as Lenore once was, we take it) can never be gratified fully, let alone the desire for the partner who, as in the present case, is dead. This desire that cannot be requited is finally the want-to-be that initiates signification; the poem exemplifies how any speaking subject, once desire is loosed, becomes caught in the signifying chain and remains ensnared forevermore.

In the first stanza of the poem's middle section, Poe carefully sets up the scenario of desire and language by introducing the pale bust in juxtaposition to the “ebony” bird: “I made the bird alight on the bust of Pallas,” he later explained, “for the effect of contrast between the marble and the plumage—it being understood that the bust was absolutely suggested by the bird” (“PC,” 22). That the two of them appear together in this stanza cannot then be dismissed as coincidental: We need both before we can announce the arrival of the signifier. Each necessitates the existence of the other; in fact, Poe seldom pictures them separately, the mention of bird often prompting the mention of Pallas: “Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door, / With such name as ‘Nevermore’” (“R,” 367).24 It is not a bad encapsulation of the dawning of the entire oedipal schema—for both the raven and Pallas are further required to implicate the narrator in this relational drama.

Bird, bust, and narrator—the triangulation poses a dilemma, more precisely a dilemma of longing and language: Name-of-the-Father, spooled mother, and uncertain “I.” The scene depicts the site of desire, of oedipal want-to-be. Lenore was simply a stand-in, and the grief the narrator feels is actually the grief for the absent mother whom the child desires because of her perceived phallus. By Lacan's lights, the child's want-to-be arises as the wanting to be the mother's phallus, which is of course what she lacks (E, 289). Lacan asserts that the phallus is “the signifier par excellence” of desire.25 He distinguishes between having and being the phallus: only the father (real, imaginary, or symbolic) can have the phallus, never the mother, but apparently she can be the phallus (or be perceived as such) (E, 289). The bust in “The Raven” presents an apt figure for the mother perceived as (though lacking) a penis—the bust is itself in the shape of a phallus, a shape accentuated by the fact that Pallas Athena traditionally wears a helmet. Pallas, as Lacan might have it, is the phallus. If in studying Hamlet he can read the name “Ophelia” as “O phallos,” then it is not difficult to imagine him reading “Pallas” as a similar jeu de mot.26


More interesting than wordplay in the current context, however, is the prominence of Pallas in the narrator's relinquishment of the prelingual drive for union with the mother in order to embrace the post-oedipal desire that marks the birth of language. This dynamic informs the third and last section of the poem. Whereas the middle section shows a bemused narrator who can continue “smiling” ruefully at his circumstance—bemused because he has not yet had to forfeit union with the mother—the last section dramatizes the traumatic experience of his attempted emergence into language. In the twelfth stanza, the last stanza of the middle section, the narrator, still dazed, “wheel[s] a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door”:

Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
                    Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

(“R,” 367)

The cushion, a maternal presence, marks a crucial transition. By its agency we wheel from static triangulation to the dynamic of language acquisition in the third section.

If there were any doubt that the female figure in “The Raven” is the mother (and not Lenore, simply an understudy), we find it dispelled in the thirteenth stanza, which heads up the last section, where Poe italicizes the word “She.” This “She” reminds the narrator of the mother figure, rather than Lenore, a reading supported by the introduction of the maternal presence in the stanza above, and even more by the description in this stanza of the “cushion's velvet lining.” The narrator lies not on the outside of the cushion, as is customary, but on the lining, the inside. The feminine implications of birth space prove paramount as well as graphic here: he reclines his head on the “velvet-violet lining” and laments separation from the maternal body, grieving that “She shall press, ah, nevermore!” (“R,” 368).27 The narrator's want-to-be emerges as he notices the absence of the press of her velvet-violet lining, and now he no longer smiles, as he had in the stanza before. Whereas he then attempted to confront the dilemma with humor, he now begins to register the loss of his previous ecstatic merger with the mother; in this last section, the lengthy and arduous labor of bringing language to birth begins in earnest.

What remains is for the narrator himself to try the signifier; indeed, the entire poem funnels to his turn at saying “Nevermore.” The final third opens with the silence of the narrator, who characterizes himself as “no syllable expressing” (“R,” 367), and the fact that he expresses no syllable or, as yet, even an inchoate phoneme, becomes the burden of the poem. Though implicated in the Fort! Da! game of spool throwing—reporting repeatedly on the appearance of the bust, wheeling cushions in—he has yet to seize the Name-of-the-Father for his own. He needs ultimately to quote the “Nevermore,” to orient himself within the chain of signification. Such quoting we expect as the climactic activity of “The Raven.”

But the signifying chain has already started sliding: In the eighth stanza, when the raven first utters the “Nevermore,” the word lights language and begins to orient the players to the world of the father. “Nevermore” starts a signifying chain reaction, so to speak. When the raven first announces the word, he claims his presence as proven by the existence of his name. When he says it the second time, the word threatens his absence, spoken as it is directly after the narrator expresses fear that he will leave, just as his “‘[h]opes have flown before’” (“R,” 367). These first two uses of the pure signifier indicate presence, then disappearance (again, Fort! Da!); as reiterations of “Nevermore” begin to point to different, even opposite, conditions, we see the signified becoming slippery in relation to the signifier. What was once pure signifier now begins to accrue meaning to itself. Lacan, in fact, understands signifiers as standing not for signifieds but for other signifiers. These signifiers for signifiers form a chain, the “rings of a necklace that is a ring in another necklace made of rings” (E, 153). That “Nevermore” is only (and powerfully) a signifier for other signifiers is made plain by the range of verbal possibilities, as the interpretive constructions of presence and disappearance exemplify.

“Nevermore” itself forms an oxymoron, simultaneously indicating both absence and desire—an antithetical combination of terms that others have noted with eloquence. J. Gerald Kennedy asserts, for example, that the compound word seems “on the one hand to manifest the desire to forget (the narrator will nevermore brood upon the lost Lenore) and on the other to serve (as it does for the speaker) as a nagging reminder of the irrevocability of death.” Most relevant for the present argument is Jonathan Elmer's view of the signifier “Nevermore” as both arbitrary and meaningful: the poem, he suggests, is “simultaneously the depiction of the subordination of meaning to the senseless and arbitrary structure of the signifier and the apotheosis of meaning as the successful incorporation of that senseless signifier into a position from which it is made to signify grief—over a lost meaning as much as a lost Lenore.”28

Poe plays with newfound possibilities for signification, remaining highly aware as he does so that he is playing. After finding the right sound for “Nevermore,” as Poe reports in “The Philosophy of Composition,” he proceeds to tinker with multiplicity of meaning:

And here it was that I saw at once the opportunity afforded for the effect on which I had been depending—that is to say, the effect of the variation of application. I saw that I could make the first query propounded by the lover—the first query to which the Raven should reply “Nevermore”—that I could make this first query a commonplace one—the second less so—the third still less, and so on—until at length the lover … [is] excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character—queries whose solution he has passionately at heart—propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture.

(“PC,” 19)

The narrator, who “experiences a phrenzied pleasure in so modeling his questions” that he might receive “from the expected ‘Nevermore’ the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrow” (“PC,” 19), understands that every signifier corresponds only to another signifier, and that the correspondence changes as relationalities change.

Possible meanings for “Nevermore” proliferate in the course of the poem. The following comprises a partial list of some of the most direct correspondences, in roughly the order they appear: the bird's name; the bird's status as guest, with perhaps a hint that he has overstayed his welcome; the bird's absence; a one-word language, or the (ontological) status of Lenore/mother; meaning, or the relevancy of the signified; scission from the mother; the (im)possibility of forgetting, or the difficulty of separating from the mother; the indeterminacy of truth, or the uncertainty that suffering will ever cease; life (or not) after death, or love (or not) after death, or the yearning to retain the mother and have language as well; departure (“‘sign of parting’” [“R,” 369]), or the possibility of writing; the non-closure of the process of grieving, or the inability of the son of the Name-of-the-Father to seize the word. Again, the list remains only partial. Elmer suggests that the potentialities of language that contribute to the pleasure also contribute to the pain of the narrator in his capacity as reader: “The pleasure here has to do with the formal qualities of language, that is, its ability to produce effects solely at the level of the signifier. But of course the narrator's pain has equally to do with the formal qualities of language, namely the fact that the signifier's incursion is experienced as irrevocably disarticulated from its signified.”29 The signifier's fluctuations call up the essential loss in language, that the signifier can never pin the signified.

There is nothing fixed or culminating about the “Nevermore”; it is a necklace that constitutes a growing web of identification by which the subject becomes human. In this web the narrator must situate himself by speaking the “Nevermore,” a feat he almost manages several times. David Halliburton remarks that though the poem leaves us with the impression that the raven alone articulates the “Nevermore,” actually the raven says the word six times and the narrator, five.30 However, the narrator typically reports or thinks the word rather than says it—a small but telling distinction that comes through in Poe's careful use of quotation marks.

In “The Raven,” the quotation marks trace the existence of signification. In stanza 8, the pure signifier first appears:

Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

(“R,” 366)

It is framed in quotation marks to show direct utterance, a pattern that all six of the raven's declarations will follow. (The original punctuation is retained in this and subsequent quotations to make the pattern clear.) The narrator's retellings of the word, though, take more varied forms. In the ninth stanza, for example, he mentions the word, but secondarily, as a recapitulation of what the raven has said:

With such name as “Nevermore.”

(“R,” 367)

The narrator makes a similar gesture at the end of stanza 12, when he again ponders the oddity of the raven's word, ponders what he

Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

(“R,” 367)

The narrator toys with the word, dangles and spins it, but never claims it as his own. The signifier remains attached to the raven's utterance; that is, the narrator says or thinks it but not from within his own orientation. He only dispatches. In two other instances (lines 78 and 108), he nudges at the word but does not say it at all: it is neither capitalized nor in quotation marks. The second of these instances comprises the final line of the poem, and we shall return to that lowercase nevermore momentarily.

The fifth instance in which the narrator broaches the saying of the “Nevermore” constitutes the closest he comes to uttering his own signifier, but he stutters and stumbles over it. Taylor Stoehr, in an insightful treatment of saying and quotation marks in Poe's “Ligeia,” sees as significant “the fact that the narrator reports his own exact words in quotation marks only once in the tale, at the very end when he stammers out [Ligeia's] name.”31 The following line at the end of the eleventh stanza of “The Raven” shows the narrator likewise stammering his own signifier:

Of ‘Never—nevermore.’

(“R,” 367)32

Here the narrator repeats the raven's expression but couches it within his own train of signifiers, seeking to claim the signifier—purloin it, if you will—from the raven. The marks within the marks trace the genesis of a speaking subject's own relation with language; ultimately, however, the narrator botches the gesture by stuttering—“‘Never—nevermore’”—a movement that not only mars the signifier but renders its meaning redundant.33 It is as if he mutilated his game of desiring peek-a-boo by saying “Fort! Fort! Da!” The narrator has not quite mastered the dichotomous swing yet, but he is close, very close. “The Raven” tantalizes us with the closeness—promising us the position of witness to the birth of language and issuing, finally, in a kind of false labor.

Hence we are left in the last two stanzas at the birth site of language, our expectations high but unfulfilled. Instead of confidently taking the Name-of-the-Father as his own, the narrator has ended up only taking the Name-of-the-Father in vain. In the antepenultimate stanza, he exhorts the bird to depart and demands particularly, “‘Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!’” (“R,” 369). What we might have anticipated as the narrator's legacy, the taking up of the writer's stylus (aptly figured, in light of Poe's style, by the black plume), becomes the legacy the narrator refuses altogether. The word that might have passed from father to son is denied by the narrator. The pungency of this scenario informs the otherwise rather overwrought line “‘Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!’” (369), which, given the workings of the narrator's desire à la lettre, renders the line a climax—and a stunning one at that, operating against all expectations.34

The last stanza of the poem leaves the narrator in the raven's shadow. Pallas is there, the Name-of-the-Father is there, and the narrator, who has failed to claim the signifier, exists merely as the wraith of a narrator. An electrifying stillness characterizes this scene: the dynamism we come to expect from the oedipal scenario has subsided to an excruciating passivity; all the kinetic workings of language formation have lapsed into a half-life of shadow and stillness. Every activity has been undertaken to facilitate the narrator's entry into language, and all that remains is for him to say the word. But he does not, or cannot. Instead, the stillness of the scene testifies to the stillbirth of language:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
          Shall be lifted—nevermore!

(“R,” 369)

The raven/father literally overshadows the narrator. Nothing moves; no one stirs. Again, the logical move—the only move—at this juncture is for the narrator to report his own declaration of the signifier, to take possession. And he almost does. It is the biggest joke in the poem—the last word is the “Nevermore,” but simply, and without the fanfare of capitalization or quotation: the nevermore. Poe leaves the narrator, silent, as a shade of the father.

Just as Poe's composition of death and absence is a kind of decomposition, so his birth of language is a kind of stillbirth.35 The signifier is always already stillborn in “The Raven.” The characters are all “still” there, both unmoving and soundless—the pun catching up in its two meanings the sense of the language scenario that can go no further because of the narrator's refusal or inability to say the word. What the raven says negates and reconstitutes the narrator along the signifying chain. He can attain positioning only by speaking the word himself, by breaking the stillness. He must relinquish primordial union, that jouissance with the mother, in order to gain the Name-of-the-Father, the “Law of desire,” so that he can articulate his want-to-be, but his attempt is faux. The narrator's desire à la lettre has taken us this far, to the ledge of the signifier. It is here that Poe leaves us—on the cusp of the quoting of the “Nevermore.”


  1. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven,” in Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, Belknap Press, 1969), 1:369. Hereafter, references to “The Raven” will be cited parenthetically as “R.”

  2. As countless commentators have observed, the French have preserved a linguistically sophisticated Poe for us until we were ready to reclaim him. American critics have been relatively quick to apply French theory to Poe's tales but have lagged in doing the same to his poems.

  3. I am grateful to those critics who have begun an exploration of language and desire in “The Raven”; they include J. Gerald Kennedy, Mutlu Konuk Blasing, Michael J. S. Williams, Jefferson Humphries, and especially Jonathan Elmer. Kennedy sees importance in the name “Lenore,” which “signifies the absence which afflicts [the narrator].” Blasing understands “Lenore” as representing a maternal, natural source language; basically, he offers a brief discussion of the poem as a Kristevan struggle between the maternal and paternal forces of language, between the names “Lenore” and “Nevermore.” Williams argues that the “Nevermore” is essentially empty, that though it “seems to be a potential incursion of meaning from a supernal realm [it] is significant only in the context of the lover's narrative of loss.” Humphries concludes his discussion of “Poe-eticity” (the title of chap. 2) by remarking that “raven is a name for the point at which signification breaks down and literariness, if it is to occur, will occur. It is the locus of the purely other, death, or whatever cipher one chooses to paste over its absence. It must be articulated in terms combining a tension of resemblance and difference, short of nothingness but sufficiently different so that the dialectic, or circuit, of signification is engaged, while it remains extraordinary, incongruous—in the extreme, grotesque.” See Kennedy, Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1987), 68; Blasing, American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1987), 28-30; Williams, A World of Words: Language and Displacement in the Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1988), 7; and Humphries, Metamorphoses of the Raven: Literary Overdeterminedness in France and the South since Poe (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1985), 59.

    Elmer explores, in greater detail, the trajectory of the signifier in “The Raven,” proposing that the poem offers up “the very type of the arbitrary signifier” and at the same time records “the narrator's gradual assimilation to meaning of the bird's initially senseless repetition of the word.” See Reading at the Social Limit: Affect, Mass Culture, and Edgar Allan Poe (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1995), 204-5. While I entertain intersections of disagreement with Elmer and the above critics, I nonetheless appreciate that their work opens up ways of thinking about “The Raven” as a twentieth-century text and acknowledges it as a sophisticated scenario of language.

  4. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), 303. All subsequent references will be designated within the text as E.

  5. Edward H. Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, Belknap Press, 1957), 87.

  6. There are other indications of a nonlinguistic state: Though the narrator is surrounded by books, they all contain “forgotten lore,” the erasure of words. As he turns each inked page, imaged as the “uncertain rustling of each purple curtain”—more veil than disclosure, more uncertainty than elucidation—the absence becomes more apparent (“R,” 364, 365).

  7. Julia Kristeva, The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986), 94.

  8. Blasing, American Poetry, 32.

  9. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition,” in Essays and Reviews, ed. G. R. Thompson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 17-21, esp. 21; hereafter cited parenthetically as “PC.”

  10. Jacques Lacan, “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,’” trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, Yale French Studies 48 (1972): 39. The quotation appears in the introduction to Ecrits in the French original, though it is omitted from the English translation; see Ecrits (Paris: Editions du seuil, 1966).

  11. John P. Muller and William J. Richardson, “Lacan's Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’: Overview,” chap. 3 in The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida and Psychoanalytic Reading, ed. Muller and Richardson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1988), 56, 68. The formulation of Freud's notion here comes from Muller and Richardson's paraphrase of Lacan's account.

  12. Lacan, “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,’” 40.

  13. Sigmund Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1964), 18:14-17, 15.

  14. John P. Muller and William J. Richardson, Lacan and Language: A Reader's Guide to “Ecrits” (New York: International Universities Press, 1982), 22.

  15. Lacan, “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,’” 40.

  16. Muller and Richardson, Purloined Poe, 62; quoting Lacan.

  17. Both Taylor Stoehr and Joseph Riddel comment that Poe's sense of reality is based on a kind of word reality. Stoehr notes that Poe “attempts a language that is absolutely literal. In his solipsistic world all reality will ultimately rest on words” (“‘Unspeakable Horror’ in Poe,” South Atlantic Quarterly 78 [1979]: 331). Similarly, Riddel observes that “the power of words is no more than a power to move other words. Words are already secondary, and they repeat only an original abysm that marks their distance from any first law.” Riddel further remarks that this “is a fable Poe obsessively retells, the wearying struggle to purify language through language, the poetic repetition of some idea of ‘absolute perfection’ or some idea of purity that in the same gesture reveals the mark of its own discontinuity with any original form, idea, truth, reality” (“The ‘Crypt’ of Edgar Poe,” boundary 2, 7 [spring 1979]: 122). Both of these critics' suggestions are extremely helpful: I fully agree that Poe tries to create a sort of word reality that is literal or pure; I also think his reality is best interpreted within a Lacanian framework.

  18. I prefer to use the phrase “oedipal scenario” rather than “oedipal dilemma” or “complex,” so as to distance and even ironize somewhat the usage of the phrase. First, I suspect that language acquisition does not work this way for women, though it may well for men and for the male narrator of “The Raven.” Second, and more important, I want to emphasize the linguistic, as opposed to biological, propensities that operate here. Lacan claims to work only in the realm of language, but sometimes biologism seems to creep in. For instance, he states that both male and female infants experience the want-to-be—especially as he distinguishes between the “phallus” and the “penis” (as symbol vs. sexual organ)—and yet integral to his formulations is the assertion that the mother does not have the phallus or the penis. This is just one example of his claimed distinction between metaphor and biologism blurring into essentialism. As a metaphor for language, the oedipal movements work well to reveal desire; where Lacan clearly works with the metaphorical is the ground on which I wish to stand.

  19. I should mention that the narrator refers to the raven as “it” again in line 62, presumably because the emergence of gender is difficult to apprehend all at once. In the final three lines of the poem, however, he twice uses masculine pronouns, making the bird's male gender strikingly clear (“R,” 367, 369).

  20. Humphries offers a useful discussion of the character of the word “raven”: It contains “rave” and hints of “ravage” and, backwards, reads “never.” Poe also chose “raven,” he posits, for its “exotic ugliness and its association in many folk traditions with ill fortune.” In addition, Mallarmé translated the word to the French, corbeau, which sustains a pun on corps beau (beautiful body, or beautiful corpse). The French corbeau means not only raven but also crow, a smaller, more common, less ominous bird (Metamorphoses of the Raven, 50-51). Hence, for French readers the corbeau has many overtones and slippages that the English word could never have. Mallarmé has Poe eating crow in several ways.

  21. Nineteenth-century audiences focused on Pallas as an uncanny element in the poem. Note, for example, the following account by an English Miss Barrett: “I hear of persons haunted by the Nevermore, and one acquaintance of mine, who has the misfortune of possessing a bust of Pallas, never can bear to look at it in the twilight” (in P. Pendleton Cook, “Edgar A. Poe,” in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Criticism since 1829, ed. Eric W. Carlson [Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1966], 23).

  22. See Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), 24-25. Gilbert and Gubar, noting Ann Douglas's study of the nineteenth-century cult of death, discuss women characters killing themselves into art. For a recent survey of scholarship concerning Poe's women, see Paula Kot, “Feminist ‘Re-Visioning’ of the Tales of Women,” in A Companion to Poe Studies, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 388-402. Kot describes the split between critics who see Poe as a misogynist, damned especially by his claim that the most poetical topic is a dead woman, and those who see him as commenting on his culture's representation of women. Kot notes that “[m]ore recently, critics argue that Poe did, indeed, know better, that he did not simply reinscribe conventional (repressive) attitudes toward women but that he critiqued these attitudes in his tales” (388).

  23. Actually, Lenore does appear again in the fourteenth and sixteenth (the antepenultimate) stanzas. In the fourteenth, however, the narrator has distanced Lenore (by referring to the self that remembers her in the second person): “thy memories of Lenore” (“R,” 368). In the antepenultimate, we seem to have the Lenore of the beginning, the Lenore whom the angels have named. It is perhaps significant, though, that Poe claims to have written this stanza first (“PC,” 20). Hence, it remains at least somewhat outside the dynamic progression of the oedipal drama that unfolds in the other stanzas.

  24. The emphatic reliance upon the three elements of bird, bust, and chamber door may anticipate the triadic elements (of bird, star, and lilac) in Whitman's “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.” (Whitman may use the elements for oedipal resonances, too.)

  25. Muller and Richardson, Lacan and Language, 280-81; paraphrasing Lacan.

  26. Jacques Lacan, “Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet,Yale French Studies 55-56 (1978): 20. Perhaps it is important that the raven perches atop the bust—that he, as phallus on phallus, has what she is only perceived to be; or perhaps Lacan would have it so.

  27. I am grateful to my colleague Mark Richardson for pointing out the consonance of “velvet-violet” with a crucial word in this context, “vulva.” Poe reported to his friend Mrs. Weiss that he considered the word “lining” a “blunder” but “was unwilling to sacrifice the whole stanza”; see Mabbott's note, Collected Works, 1:373. The “blunder” strikes me as one of those fortunate mistakes that reveals Poe's oedipal scenario; in any case, it is interesting that he felt he could not revise the one word without jettisoning the entire stanza.

  28. Kennedy, Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing, 69; Elmer, Reading at the Social Limit, 205. Also see Humphries, who argues for a temporal disjunction: “Never is a negative name of eternity, pointing to past and future. More is similarly limitless, but acts as a positive and temporally specific limitation, a contradiction, of this negative infinity (never). The tension between the words establishes a difference between the past (a hypothetically pure anteriority) and the present, and it is this dialectical difference that the poem's analepses enact”; see Metamorphoses of the Raven, 62.

  29. Elmer, Reading at the Social Limit, 206.

  30. David Halliburton, Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), 126.

  31. Stoehr, “‘Unspeakable Horror’ in Poe,” 321. Stoehr sees the narrator's quest in “Ligeia” as the quest for a name, the tale as a tale of Logos.

  32. The double quotation mark at the start of the line is added for clarity's sake, given that the quotation began in a previous line. The first printing of the poem, in the American Review: A Whig Journal of Politics, Literature, Art and Science 1 (February 1845): 143-45, presents line 66 as follows:

    That sad answer, “Nevermore!”

    (“R,” 369-70)

    This rendering involves the narrator in the saying of the signifier even less than the stuttered line, as again he only reports what the raven says. It should be noted that many variations of the poem exist, and that Poe continued to revise this much-reprinted poem for the rest of his life. Mabbott's edition (the one cited here) uses the version that appeared in the Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner of 25 September 1849, “the last authorized version published during Poe's lifetime” (“R,” 364).

  33. Although the stutter occurs near the end of the second section, the occurrence does blur somewhat the tripartite division that does not have the narrator (almost) speaking until the third section. This discrepancy may account additionally for the stutter.

  34. To the writer's activity—that of taking up the black plume—the raven/father replies with an enigmatic “Nevermore.” This may or may not suggest the person of John Allan, Poe's adoptive father, who seemed to say “no” to many of Poe's most heartfelt pursuits.

  35. Poe's uses of stillness are legion, not only in “The Raven” but in many of his poems.

William Freedman (essay date 1998)

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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 and fiction has arrived at the rather different conclusion that you have to study Poe to realize that in the end you cannot understand him—or, more precisely, that to understand him properly you must recognize that his poems and tales are perversely or meaningfully resistant to coherent interpretation. “The Raven,” which I will fix on here, has been read in this pointedly obscuring light, but for the most part only glancingly and selectively. Most such readings attend almost exclusively to the bird's “Nevermore” as a disconnected signifier emblematic of a habit of indeterminate speech that can be analyzed more fruitfully and fully in Poe's other writings, principally the fiction. There is room, I believe, for a closer look at both the utterance and the poem whose ostensible meanings it helps to empty or obscure.

The spirit of “charmed mistrust,” in Richard Wilbur's felicitous phrase, is afloat in the sea of Poe criticism generally, and it assumes a variety of forms, some more troubled than charmed. Although such dismissiveness is no longer fashionable, several earlier readings of “Ulalume” scorn it for what seems to Yvor Winters a form of deliberate obscurantism, to Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren cheap mystification. “[I]n Poe, obscurantism,” writes Winters in 1937, “has ceased to be merely an accident of inadequate understanding; it has become the explicit aim of writing and has begun the generation of a method. Poe's aesthetic is an aesthetic of obscurantism.” Winters means nothing praiseworthy by this. He is in effect agreeing with Brooks and Warren's observation that “Poe expected poetry to stand little analysis, and to affect only the person who gave it a ‘cursory glance,’ a superficial reading.”2 But a later generation of critics meliorates the accusation, turning “an aesthetic of obscurantism” into an enterprise of no worse than neutral, often of quite exalted, standing. For some, it is an entertaining expression of personal inclination or of a characterological dualism with implications for genre and effect. Uncertainty about Poe's meaning and intent, in this view, is encouraged by his cultivated penchant for impish hoaxing, mockery, and self-mockery. Like Swift, if less acidly, Poe often mocks what engages him; he loves to tease and mystify his readers. Some of his stories are therefore, as David Halliburton observes, part horror story, part burlesque. And the line between horror and laughter, as Daniel Hoffman remarks, often wavers as discomposingly as the line between terror and passion.3

More commonly and more admiringly, the absence of meaning is ascribed to the aesthetic of suggestive vagueness articulated in “The Poetic Principle.” Through the lens of Poe's romanticism, the domain of ideal or supernal beauty is indefinite, ineffable, beyond empirical knowledge—to be discerned only in “brief and indeterminate glimpses” (Complete Works, 14:274). As George Kelly points out, because Poe identifies vagueness as “the effect of the spiritual,” he finds spirituality in vagueness. Reading “Ulalume” in this iridescent light, Poe's recent biographer Kenneth Silverman perceives it as an effort “to escape referential language into some astral music.” And many have agreed with Joan Dayan that Poe “harp[s]” in his fiction “for the true indefiniteness, the unquenchable desire for beauty,” not primarily to intensify horror but to lift the prose on beauty's shoulders toward the ethereal realm of poetry.4

Indefiniteness and absence, then, the hollowness readers find with increasing regularity at the core of Poe's writing, may be a product of aesthetic theory as well as hoaxing. But, richly overdetermined, it may also and more darkly reflect a somber metaphysic or epistemology of the void. The roots of understanding's failure are, from this standpoint, both epistemological and linguistic, and while the two are difficult to disentangle, different readers offer different emphases. Making one of the earliest arguments of this kind in his 1925 In the American Grain, William Carlos Williams presciently identifies the linguistic cause of our confusion, remarking Poe's preoccupation with words as autotelic phenomena. Expanding on Williams's insight, Joseph Riddell argues that in Poe “an abyss has opened up between word and world” and that this chasm introduces “a new literature, a self-critical or self-annihilating textual performance—the poem/story and even the critical essay (as performance) that deconstructs itself.”5 For Dennis Pahl, the problem is more broadly epistemological. Poe, as Pahl reads him, inhabits a Nietzschean world where “[t]here are no ‘facts-in-themselves,’ for a sense must always be projected into them before they can be ‘facts.’” Thus while his tales “may be said to characterize truth-seeking in a decidedly violent manner,” the search is inevitably thwarted, undone by an “uncanny structural relation between subject and object, between inside and outside, between spectator and spectacle,” that keeps meaning and knowledge always out of reach. Similarly, Dayan reads Poe as the purveyor of a “rigorously indeterminate philosophy” and of fictions designed to demonstrate the limits of a finite intellect that “cannot know the essence of anything.”6

This view of Poe, in a variety of creative permutations, has become commonplace, almost consensual. As R. C. De Prospo observes in a broad survey of deconstructive readings, “Poe is by now so generally associated with the theoretical avant-garde” that critics as widely divergent as Michael Riffaterre and Michael Fried “can take for granted that Poe is one of the American writers most likely to inspire deconstruction.” De Prospo is right, and while some may sympathize with David Hirsch's complaint that little is added to our knowledge of Poe's obsession with thoughts of “death, nothingness, and annihilation” by “convert[ing] these observations into the terminology of ‘sign, referent, semiotic impasse, and writing locat[ing] its own activity,’” the best of these readings do justify themselves by a meticulous attention to Poe's language as the adroitly evasive instrument of that annihilation.7

Recent criticism of “The Raven” runs in this vein, but most, as I have indicated, tends to limit its attention to the contextualized and ultimately unreferring meaning of “Nevermore” as representative of a practice better exemplified elsewhere. The poem's brain, in other words, is selectively picked for what it tells us about the implicitly more important or more profitably deconstructed works of fiction. In this poem, “as in Poe's works generally,” notes Michael Williams, the “sign is revealed as a function of interpretive desire.” And this “concept of the intrinsically empty signifier, which, we shall see, recurs in Poe's tales, … shifts the site of meaning from the relation between word and world to that between reader and text.” Mutlu Konuk Blasing, who offers a relevant close reading of “The Raven,” nonetheless similarly moves to the generalized proposition that Poe's “emblems are birds that rob the poet's language of transcendent significance or of the possibility of such significance.” “In Ovid as in Poe,” she notes, “the black birds, ‘which imitate whatever noise they choose,’ represent failed poets, uninspired chatterers.” And Jefferson Humphries, whose chief concern is the influence and metamorphic permutations of Poe's raven in later poetry, observes that, in allegories of loss and translatedness, “birds, ravens for instance, … are always pure signifiers, unanchored in any signified, any original, and yet [like Lenore's melancholy survivor] incit[e] endless efforts to translate their significance.” The “plus beau jour” in a poem by Verlaine, for instance, is, “like the raven, like the grotesque in general, a pure signifier, ‘to the extent that it “is destined … to signify the annulment of what it signifies.””’8

More attentive to the raven than “The Raven” and concerned almost exclusively with the bird and its utterance as representative of the habit of meaning-annihilation in other works, Humphries's study is itself representative of most recent writing on “The Raven.” But there is reason, I believe, for further analysis of both the emblematic word and the poem it organizes. What I want to suggest is that the bird's unvarying reply has been deciphered only partially and that what it tells (or refuses to tell) us is as richly elaborated in the rest of Poe's poem as in any of the more generously analyzed tales.

Here, for closer examination, are the three imploring questions the student addresses to the raven. The first and most resonant is the request for its name:

“Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!”
                    Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”


The others, though similarly formulated, request information not about the raven but about the speaker himself. The student inquires next about the prospect of eventual solace:

“Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
                    Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”


And finally about whether he will rejoin his lost Lenore, fusing—as Poe impossibly wishes—the profane and the sacred, the sexual and the spiritual identities of the woman:

“By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
                    Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”


At first glance the raven's answer is a direct if predictable reply to the questions put to it by the first curious, then incrementally self-tormenting student. My name is Nevermore; no, you will nevermore find respite from your grief; and no, you will nevermore clasp your sainted maiden. But when the syntax of the questions is more rigorously parsed, the import of the bird's answers is less apparent. In fact, there may be no answers at all. The inquirer does not simply pose questions but implores the raven, “Tell me,” “Tell this soul,” or “tell me truly.” Given that formulation, the answering “Nevermore” is more a response to the request to be told than an answer to the question itself; the utterance, then, that purportedly provides the devastating reply to an ordered sequence of questions is at the same time or more precisely a refusal to reply. However we construe the raven—whether as objective truth or a projection of the questioner's darkening psyche—it offers no answer to the questions crucial to the inquirer's comfort and well being. In these exchanges, Poe moves beyond the relatively uncomplicated question of the speaker's state of mind or future prospects to questions of the meaningfulness, even the possibility, of response. To take annihilation one step further, answering “Nevermore” to the entreaty “Tell me what thy lordly name is” means offering not only an answer that is a refusal to answer but a “name” that, rejecting the demand for a name, insists on the condition of namelessness. Perhaps the only answer, then, is that there is none, as the “name” of the raven and perhaps of everything else that may be named is the refusal to provide one.

Poe's evocative play with naming and namelessness is further present in what seems an internal contradiction, perhaps even an authorial error. In stanza 2, the student recounts his futile efforts to find comfort:

Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
                    Nameless here for evermore.


Nameless here for evermore—only to be named twice more but three stanzas later and yet again twice more in the rest of the poem. That which will be nameless here for evermore, in other words, will be repeatedly named—a paradox that lends itself to several interpretive possibilities. For J. Gerald Kennedy, it is because “Lenore ‘signifies’ the absence which afflicts him” that the speaker perversely and self-punishingly cannot resist naming her. For Blasing, Lenore may not be the actual name of his beloved at all, but a “generic name for … the male speaker's anima-muse”; hence her real name does remain unspoken.10 But other possibilities are more evocative, more consistent with the poem's pervasive destabilization of truth and meaning. One is that time and eternity have lost all distinctness and all meaning. That which will never again occur will reoccur almost instantly and then repeatedly as eternal prohibition becomes temporal fulfillment. Viewed psychologically, the point or implication may be that time is a fundamentally subjective phenomenon: every despairing moment merely seems an eternity, and terms like “evermore” or, more critically, “Nevermore” lose their objective force and substance. Time and eternity, in this view, are absorbed into personal consciousness, become expressions not of substantive conditions but of private experience. They become, in short, localized expressions of the poem's progressive process of internalization, its conversion of the raven and of all else the poem describes from material fact to hypostatizations of the musing and speaking mind. Viewed more metaphysically, time and eternity become expressions of another equally pervasive process: that which, like the name that is no name and the answer that is none, resists the desire for clarity and distinction, for the definition of borders on which meaning and comprehensibility depend.

This unsettling of boundaries—the teasing interchangeability of the named with the nameless, of evermore with nevermore—might be seen as a relatively simple refusal of distinction, an insistence accordant with Poe's quest for unity among the smallest particles of a grand design in which all entities and concepts are ultimately inseparable, in which separability and distinction are merely deceptions that tempt reason and plague experience. But to name the nameless is to equate that name with namelessness, as Marlow's insistence that Kurtz's final utterance was not “The horror!” but “your name” is in a sense to name the Intended as the horror. Lenore is the lost or missing woman who, like truth itself as Nietzsche has it, is absent, sought after, and denied. For Nietzsche, as Derrida remarks, “Woman is but one name for that untruth of truth”; “Woman (truth) will not be pinned down.”11 Lost and beloved, she becomes, like truth or beauty, not only the unattainable but the unnameably unknown. That she is named almost simultaneously with being declared nameless is no simple contradiction. Insistently, perhaps defiantly, the poem here identifies that which is most eagerly sought and ostensibly identifiable as that which, even when named, remains nameless. Like the raven, the source of truth about what once was mythically possessed and known, the lost woman bears the name that is equivalent to namelessness. All that may be named is that which has no name.

The effect of these seeming contradictions is pervasively to transform “Nevermore” from an answer to specific questions into a voided state in which no answers are forthcoming or, indeed, possible; it is to translate that which is sought and eagerly longed for into a nominalized form of namelessness. The object of the quest, in other words, becomes that which cannot be identified and the vehicle of knowledge becomes that which can or will provide no answers. In this context, from the retrospective vantage of a second or later reading, other ambiguous reifications emerge. The student's first-stanza surmise in response to the rapping at his chamber door is “‘Tis some visiter … / Only this and nothing more’” (5-6). Or, as he rephrases it in stanza 3, “‘Some late visiter … / This it is and nothing more’” (17-18). At first glance, the meaning is plain: it is a visitor and no more than a visitor. But in the light, or darkness, of what follows, “nothing more” assumes an identity that hovers between the literal and the hypostatized, both pointing to the perpetuation of nothingness. As we learn, there is indeed a visitor at the door, a visitor whose message is simultaneously the denial of immediate desire and the refusal of all response. As a result there will be, for the inquiring student, nothing evermore. It is only a visitor, and all that follows will be nothing.

The idea is expanded and enriched in the succeeding stanza. Here the student, pining for his lost Lenore, opens wide the door and discovers “Darkness there and nothing more” (24). Again the meaning seems evident and unequivocal, yet proves to be neither. For presaged in this line is the darkness inherent in Lenore's namelessness or in the namelessness that is Lenore, the darkness that follows too from both personal despair and epistemological ignorance. In seeing darkness beyond his door, the student in effect has seen Lenore, that which must remain perpetually absent. And he has seen too the darkness that is both the ebony bird and the shadow that, as the final lines inform us, will shroud his soul forevermore. To say “Darkness there and nothing more” is not to say nothing at all is there, except insofar as “nothing at all” may be read in reified form as an ominous figure, the inescapable presence of the impenetrable unknown. The visitor who eventually brings nothingness in its wake is also Lenore: a vacancy equated with darkness and the raven but also with the woman and the perpetuation of utter absence and uncertainty. The absence of Lenore expands to an absence that shadows the human inability to know.

In the following stanzas, the surmised sources of the tapping shift from one increasingly concrete identity to another. In stanza 5 it is no longer darkness but an echo of the word “‘Lenore,’” “Merely this and nothing more” (30). In stanza 6 the ethereal echo becomes the more substantial wind “‘and nothing more!’” (36). And in the seventh stanza the progression culminates in the physical form of the raven, the embodiment of darkness who, the narrator records, “Perched, and sat, and nothing more” (42). What we begin to realize is that the contradictions and reifications we speak of, those that turn the absence of something into the luminous presence of nothing, are virtually unavoidable consequences of the use of language.12 The attempt to distinguish between “Darkness there and nothing more” and the presence of nothing at all traps us in a linguistic constriction that refuses the distinction we seek to make. There is virtually no way, it seems, to express absence that will not assert its presence or, alternatively, the presence or hypostatized status of that which denies either. Almost inevitably, the assertion of nonpresence or absence ascribes a kind of existential status to the void.13

The problem, in other words, is largely a problem of language, though in a way quite far removed from the positivist assertions of “The Philosophy of Composition.” There the problem of the poem is the answerable question of the proper subject, length, and terms of poetic expression, the fitting of language to the desired effect. But “The Raven” we read lacks the confident simplicity of “The Raven” whose composition Poe ostensibly recounts. Here the problem of language is the virtual impossibility of meaningful communication, one feature of which is the seeming inability of language to express absence without implying presence. The problem of language, however, is not simply a condition of existence for “The Raven”: it is one of the poem's principal subjects. For it is the play of language, finally, that pulls the student—and the poet—into the orbit of the shadow from which he will never be lifted. And with the entrance of the speaking bird the deferred referent of the early stanzas becomes the manifest subject.

In one of his first observations about the raven, the narrator expresses wonder at the plainness of its “discourse,” though he notes, as he marvels, that “its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore” (49, 50). The raven at this stage bears a curious resemblance to the Poe whom Emerson termed “the jingle man” and whom contemporaries as well as succeeding generations of critics variously praised and disparaged for his seemingly accessible but ultimately elusive and perhaps meaning-drained language. For Poe, of course, beauty rather than truth is the proper province of the poem, suggested rather than definite or imperious meaning the objective of the poet or artist. In its first appearance, therefore, the ghastly grim discourser perched on the bust of Pallas and uttering a seemingly unmeaning language seems to be Poe-as-ideal-poet in another of his countless autobiographical disguises. Wilbur writes:

It is not really surprising that some critics should think Poe meaningless, or that others should suppose his meaning intelligible only to monsters. Poe was not a wide-open and perspicuous writer; indeed, he was a secretive writer both by temperament and by conviction. He sprinkled his stories with sly references to himself and his personal history.14

The raven, I would suggest, is such a self-reference, one that heightens an already encouraged sense that ultimately the discourse between the student and the raven is an internal dialogue, that the clearly autobiographical student is joined by the covertly self-referring raven in a dialogue of the single soul. The manifest subject of this discourse is the lost beloved and the dashed hope of her recovery. But the more interesting exchange, suffusing both the personal and the psychological, concerns the nature of language and verbal art; the relationship between self and other, imagination and world; and the limits of human understanding.

Poe was clearly influenced by the theories of Coleridge, from whom he derived his pivotal view of literature as a mode of expression whose immediate object is pleasure, not truth. He shared and may likewise have been influenced by Coleridge's insistence that “images, however beautiful, … become proofs of original genius only as far as they are modified by a predominant passion; or by associated thoughts or images awakened by that passion; or when they have the effect of reducing multitude to unity”—an aim Poe would render as “unity of effect.” And he was almost certainly, even affectedly, familiar with a related Coleridgean edict, which found its way into his own aesthetic theory and creative work: the principle of the “reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.”15 The artist, for Poe, must be both poet and mathematician, a writer blessed equally with the seemingly discordant gifts of intuition and analysis. Genius, he declares, “is but the result of generally large mental power existing in a state of absolute proportion—so that no one faculty has undue predominance.”16 Arguing in Eureka for a unified field theory of metaphysics, art, morality, psychology, and nature, he maintains that the poet's task is to unite science with poetry, reason with imagination; and, true at least in this to his own theoretical strictures, he seeks in his words to shape seeming dissonances into a unified work of art governed by a dominant effect. For Coleridge, whose phrasing is more familiar but whose hypotheses are revealingly similar, “What is poetry? is so nearly the same question with, what is a poet? that the answer to the one is involved in the solution of the other.” And “[t]he poet, described in ideal perfection,” like Poe's artist or genius,

brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination. This power … reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order.17

The raven, even more than “The Raven,” is such a blend of oppositions, most of them suggestive, in their particular as well as their generic form, of the work of art as Poe, guided by Coleridge, conceived it; the bird thus bears not only the subtle marks of the poet but, like Keats's nightingale and Yeats's golden bird, the more conspicuous markings of the poem. As both bird and symbol, emissary of darkness and projection of the speaker's troubled mind, the raven assertively combines the concrete and the general, the image with the idea, and the individual with the representative. As a speaking bird it bears a weighty literary ancestry. And as one who speaks in this odd, obsessive, and tormenting fashion, it adds novelty and freshness to an old familiar object. But the oppositions are also more specific and more pointed. The bird is introduced as a “stately Raven of the saintly days of yore” (38) (again the old and familiar object), whose “mien of lord or lady” (40) links it with the noble elegance of conventional romance. And yet, in a seeming lapse that serves the pervasive oppositional purpose that makes the bird an emblem of the poem, it is but a few lines later an “ungainly fowl” (49), suggestive of more modern forms of literature or verse—romantic experimentalism perhaps. Like the form of literary utterance Poe associates with prose and the expression of truth, the bird “discourse[s] … plainly” (40). But equally like another, like the poetic as Poe views it and like his own affective practice, the raven speaks the single word “as if his soul in that one word he did outpour” (56). Like an inspiration alternately blessed and cursed, and like a visitor or visitation that represents welcomed relief from loneliness (82) yet also its feared perpetuation (100), the bird is perceived in rapid succession as an emissary of God and angels (80-81) and as a devil, tempter, or “‘thing of evil’” (85-86), as a “Prophet” (85) and yet a liar (99). As the source of the ominous intonement that seems to forecast and stand for tragic inevitability, the bird is tragic prophet and poetic seer. But the raven is also a liar, not simply because it speaks what the inquirer cannot abide but because it presumes, in one reading of its reply, to know what the other reading (“Nevermore” as refusal to answer) suggests it will not reveal. When the only truth is the darkness the raven incarnates, all pretense to substantive prophecy is falsehood.

As the blend of oppositions and as speaker of the single utterance that unifies and refines them, then, the raven is simultaneously poem and poet. More particularly, as most readers have noticed and as Poe reveals in his “Philosophy of Composition,” the bird is also a projection of the speaker who mirrors it if not as poem then as poet.18 That the student becomes engaged in an essentially creative or poetic enterprise is suggested first by the identity between the raven and the poem as a site of oppositions. But the activity is more explicitly identified in the twelfth and thirteenth stanzas. Here the speaker, like an opportunistic writer fixing on his subject, wheels “a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door,” and finds respite from his anguish by “linking / Fancy unto Fancy” (68, 69-70), considering what the bird means by croaking “Nevermore.” Like the artist in the stage of preparatory contemplation, the student recalls, “I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing.” “This and more I sat divining,” he goes on, “with my head at ease reclining / On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er” (73, 75-76). To us if not to Poe, though probably to him as well, the gloating lamplight evokes the poetic imagination that seeks to illuminate the blackened world of the raven, looking for relevance and meaning in the speech that, devoid of a limiting context, contains none. The raven as poem, or utterance on the way to becoming poem, provides temporary relief for the student/artist. But his playful contextualization of the raven's speech at the same time uncovers the threatening view of language that turns relief into torment, the search for understanding into the despair that is also the despair of knowing.

The problem of language is a kind of monadic image of the whole, a repetition among the instruments of construction of the destabilizing character of the construct. In one of its functions, the bird appears as reality or fate. Perched like truth or wisdom on the bust of Pallas, it is that which blindly and mercilessly resists the ambitions of the pleading will, insisting on what is and what must always be. In another sense, as Poe explains at the end of his “Philosophy of Composition,” the bird, perched on the bust of Pallas that is the externalization of the speaker's own mind, is “emblematical” of “Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance”—a projection of the poet's own despairing psyche. Poe claims in this passage that “it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza” that this meaning “is permitted distinctly to be seen.”19 But in fact the blurring of the distinction between interior and exterior, imagination and fact, begins with the “nearly napping” of line 3 that introduces the pervasive possibility of the experience as dream. Furthermore, much of the poem's setting and descriptive imagery, from its beginning, is translatable as reified spirit. In this reading, the chamber is the soul as the bust of Pallas is the mind, and the tapping at the chamber door, as stanza 6 strongly suggests, is the excited beating of the student's heart. The stanza's first line implies the intermingling of chamber and soul, the remainder that of the tapping and the heart:

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
                    'Tis the wind and nothing more!”


The bird that seems at first objective fact in resistant opposition to the subjective will dances ungraspably back and forth across the line of self and other. As its answer is at the same time a refusal to answer, so its identity, vacillating between stern reality and shadowy projection, is at once not-self and self, its message genuinely informative yet expressive of what is already known or despairingly averred. The poetic imagination's quest for something external to it tangles in the skein of its own projection. And at least until midpoem, where the student, grasping the rigidity of the bird's utterance, begins his imperious inquiry, fact and fancy will not separate; immortal truth will not distinguish itself from mortal dread. Assuming a variety of contrary and contradictory identities, the raven refuses all stable definition, all effort to ascertain or fix its nature. As such, it is the proper embodiment of woman and darkness as the vacuous unknown, the blackness whose only reply is the refusal of reply. As such, it is also the image of its single utterance, the word that, assuming every given meaning, finally has none.

To accept the word “Nevermore” as a name, in the first of its many repetitions, and to observe that it “little meaning—little relevancy bore” (50) is to express skepticism about the relationship between naming and meaning; it is to suggest that the word tells us nothing of the world. But even if we stop short of such expansion, we find the speaker dissatisfied. The word, as the raven has given it to him, has as yet no meaning. And when he realizes that “‘what it utters is its only stock and store’” (62), he understands that the burden of meaning has fallen on him. Every signification the word assumes from this point forward will be determined exclusively by the questions that precede it. In other words, the word itself—not just “Nevermore,” but any isolated utterance—carries no inherent meaning. It becomes meaningful only as a human mind ascribes context and interpretation.

On one level, of course, this is the absorption of reality into the subjective intelligence, the subordination of both language and the world to the creative mind. The raven that begins as the voice of the other, the irrevocable truth of reality or fact, becomes but an expression of the haunted projective imagination. Narrowly, the fateful word “Nevermore” acquires the despairing meanings attributed to it by the speaker's tortured memory; but meaning moves, like the expanding and contracting universe of Eureka, in irradiating rings. More broadly, reality itself has no meaning but that which the imagination assigns it or projects upon it. The fundamental question about the relationship between reality and mind, the outer and the inner worlds, is answered in the latter's favor. The world is darkness, a blackened bird that utters but a single word, barren until we provide a context in which to read it. Indeed, even the word may come from within, for the raven may be our own despair.

This involution has still wider, more fateful implications for art and knowledge. The question for Poe, in Edward Davidson's formulation, is “What might happen if the imagination not only rejected the world of sense and meaning but attempted to enter a range of expression and experience where the artist could make any word or sign mean anything he wanted, either a nothing or a completely abstract symbol?”20 The question, it seems, receives at least one answer in “The Raven,” where the word acquires meanings determined entirely by the framing questions. That the word is “Nevermore” and that it is both an obliterating answer and a refusal to answer effaces the very possibility of substantive response and extends the darkness. For it brings the word, the poet's grounding instrument of expression, to a triple denial: the word may mean whatever we choose to make it mean and is therefore inherently meaningless; the word as a rejection of questions and a refusal to respond signals the fundamental vacuity of language, its rejection of the task that literature, indeed all speech, wishfully assigns it; and the word as “Nevermore” is a denial of poetic hope and aspiration, of the poet's longing for the woman that is at once truth, his muse, and the celestial beauty to which, in Poe's view, all poetry aspires. As Wilbur remarks, “it is not easy for the poet to detach his soul from earthly things, and regain his lost imaginative power—his power to commune with that supernal beauty which is symbolized, in Poe, by the shadowy and angelic figures of Ligeia, and Helen, and Lenore.” Not merely difficult, I would suggest, but impossible (“Nevermore”). And not primarily because “his mortal body chains him to the physical and temporal and local,” but because the instrument of meaningful music melts in his hands.21

Yet as a Coleridgean fusion of contraries, as the speaker of a single repeated sound, the raven seems to figure the ultimate ideal of poetic unity: the dissolution of its component oppositions, indeed of all content, into a single ethereal utterance. Like the raven, the universe of Eureka, as Poe makes plain, is a metaphor for the work of art, and the expanding universe of that scientific treatise cum poem, having reached its outer limits, longs for a return to the originating condition of unity (Complete Works, 16:302, 306-8). In a phrase that fuses his own mourned and beloved mother with the deity and with the female objects of futile longing that haunt his writing, Poe refers to this primordial focus as the world's “lost parent.” It is from the “bosom” of this lost parent that the world irradiates or hurls outward, like a work of art from its thesis or ruling ideas (16:220, 306). Although the return to this ideal state and image is hindered by separateness and difference, the impulse toward unity is the “strongest of forces,” and it remains the beckoning ideal. The “diffusion from Unity,” Poe declares, “involves a tendency to return into Unity—a tendency,” like his own anguished longing, “ineradicable until satisfied” (16:234, 207). But the raven's ominous utterance, its reduction of all discourse and opposition to the ultimate unity of a single word, seems a mocking emblem of reunion with the summoning perfection that Lenore embodies. The ideal of perfect unity is here the dark reality of the world, the refusal of communication in an utterance that may mean anything and that intones in “Nevermore” the denial of its own accessibility. As in the universe of Eureka, where the return to the center is the final obliteration of all matter, the ultimate unity that is aesthetic paradise is synonymous with death—not the self-annihilating transcendence for which Moldenhauer argues,22 but the death of art as meaningful communication or the attainment of supernal beauty.

“The Raven” closes with a clouding exchange of identities, an erasure of distinction, and the descent of darkness. In the closing image the bird assumes the opening identity of the student: while the latter, who may have dreamed the entire sequence, was first discovered “nearly napping” (3), now it is the raven whose “eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming” (105). And in the final line, the student, whose identity has just been usurped by the raven, in turn internalizes the usurper; it is he who utters the fateful and terminal “nevermore.”23 What begins as separable reality becomes the expression of self and imagination as the only reality. And it is a reality that is none. The lamplight, again evoking the creative imagination, returns in the final stanza. But no longer does it illuminate the velvet violet lining of the cushion on which the poet perched birdlike in inquiring quest of his creation. Blackened by the opacity and resistance of the word, the lamplight becomes the instrument of darkness. It throws upon the floor not the animating light we associate with the poetic imagination but the shadow of the raven, the ultimate embodiment of the darkness at the door. It is from out this shadow, the obscure veil of language and the void it “speaks” for, that the soul of the poet and his art shall be lifted—nevermore. In a last ironic turn, as the final unity is annihilation, the last annihilation is fusion. The shadow that encompasses the raven, the darkness, and Lenore also merges the aesthetic with the metaphysical and psychological implications of the poem. The darkness that is hopeless mourning for the absent woman is also despair for the ultimate silence of the word and world. Woman/truth will not be discovered or pinned down.


  1. See Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews, ed. G. R. Thompson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 1101.

  2. Richard Wilbur, “Poe and the Art of Suggestion,” in Critical Essays on Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987), 160-71, esp. 160; Yvor Winters, “Edgar Allan Poe: A Crisis in the History of American Obscurantism,” in Maule's Curse: Seven Studies in the History of American Obscurantism: Hawthorne, Cooper, Melville, Poe, Emerson, Jones Very, Emily Dickinson, Henry James (Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1938), 93-122, esp. 106 (first published in American Literature 8 [1936-37]: 379-401); Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Poetry, 3rd ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960), 228-33, esp. 231.

  3. David Halliburton, Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), 228-37 passim; Daniel Hoffman, “Poe's Obsessive Themes,” in The Origins and Originality of American Culture, ed. Tibor Frank (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1984), 109. “Idealistic quest and parodic self-exposure,” writes Evan Carton in the same vein, “are interwoven almost seamlessly in Poe's fiction. Nearly any tale … manifests—or may be taken to manifest—both of these purposes,” and the two are often indistinguishable (The Rhetoric of American Romance: Dialectic and Identity in Emerson, Dickinson, Poe and Hawthorne [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1985], 132).

  4. George Kelly, “Poe's Theory of Beauty,” American Literature 27 (1956): 534; Kenneth Silverman, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1992), 336; Joan Dayan, “The Identity of Berenice, Poe's Idol of the Mind,” Studies in Romanticism 23 (1984): 507.

  5. William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain (Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1925), 220-24, esp. 221; Joseph N. Riddell, “The ‘Crypt’ of Edgar Poe,” boundary 2, vol. 7, no. 3 (spring 1979): 120, 124. Kenneth Dauber's essay “The Problem of Poe” (Georgia Review 32 [1978]: 645-57) is relevant here. For Dauber, Poe's “fiction is fiction, but one which, if we are to see it, must be seen as nothing more”; it is a realm given over to “a language self-constituted, never constituting anything beyond itself” (646, 652).

  6. Dennis Pahl, Architects of the Abyss: The Indeterminate Fictions of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1989), xv, xviii, quoting Friedrich Nietzche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Random House, 1967), 301; Joan Dayan, Fables of Mind: An Inquiry into Poe's Fiction (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 19, 24.

  7. R. C. De Prospo, “Deconstructive Poe(tics),” Diacritics 18 (fall 1988): 44; David H. Hirsch, “Poe and Postmodernism,” in A Companion to Poe Studies, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996), 420.

  8. Michael J. S. Williams, A World of Words: Language and Displacement in the Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1988), 7, 8; Mutlu Konuk Blasing, American Poetry—The Rhetoric of Its Forms (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1987), 26, 31; Jefferson Humphries, Metamorphoses of the Raven: Literary Overdeterminedness in France and the South since Poe (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1985), 6, 61, quoting Jacques Lacan from Shoshana Felman, “On Reading Poetry: Reflections on the Limits and Possibilities of Psychoanalytical Approaches,” in The Literary Freud: Mechanisms of Defense and the Poetic Will, ed. Joseph H. Smith (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1980), 137.

  9. All quotations from “The Raven,” referenced by line number, come from Works, 1:364-69.

  10. J. Gerald Kennedy, Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1987), 68; Blasing, American Poetry, 28.

  11. Jacques Derrida, Spurs/Eperons, trans. Barbara Harlow (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978), 51, 55.

  12. In “The Power of Words,” Poe's ruminations on language take a more positive turn: As Agathos claims that “the first word spoke into existence the first law,” and as he has spoken a “wild star … with a few passionate sentences—into birth,” words would appear to possess, for Poe, a divine power of physical summoning and generation. “[W]hile I thus spoke,” asks Agathos of his angelic companion, “did there not cross your mind some thought of the physical power of words? Is not every word an impulse on the air?” (Complete Works, 6:141, 143-44). All denials, in such a universe of language, are implicit affirmations, all negotiations conjurings.

  13. I say “almost inevitably” because one can think of dodges. “It was not a visitor after all,” for example, or “I opened wide the door / And couldn't see a thing.” Aside from the rather dubious poetic quality of these lines and the rhyming and rhythmic problems they create, one notices two things. One is that it is the use of abstract terms like “nothing” and “no one” that heightens the duality I speak of, though borderline nouns like “darkness” will do as well or better. The other is that even my deliberately drab examples barely escape with their univocality intact. One need only look again at “It was not a visitor” and “couldn't see a thing” to recognize the possibilities for reifying transformation.

  14. Richard Wilbur, “The House of Poe,” Library of Congress Anniversary Lecture, 4 May 1959, in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1970), 256.

  15. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross (1907; reprint, London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), 2:16, 12.

  16. Edgar Allan Poe, “Marginalia,” in The Literary Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Robert L. Hough (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1965), 58.

  17. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 2:12. For Coleridge's influence on Poe, see, for example, Robert D. Jacobs, Poe: Journalist and Critic (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1969), 36-50, 111-14, 234-37, 366-68; and Williams, World of Words, 1-16, 81-82—both of whom emphasize Poe's qualification of Coleridge's aesthetics.

  18. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition,” in Essays and Reviews, 25.

  19. Poe, “Philosophy of Composition,” 25.

  20. Edward Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, Belknap Press, 1966), 56.

  21. See Wilbur, “House of Poe,” 259, 258.

  22. Joseph J. Moldenhauer, “Murder as a Fine Art: Basic Connections between Poe's Aesthetics, Psychology, and Moral Vision,” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association of America] 83 (1968): 290.

  23. That he utters it once previously in line 78, also without enclosing quotation marks, does not, I think, invalidate the point. It only suggests what I have argued: that the identities are fluid and interchangeable throughout, and that the process of incorporation begins earlier.

Jorie Graham (essay date spring 2000)

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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 letter points to changes in the opening of stanza eleven, but subsequent revisions to that stanza are worth glancing at, as they seem to be born with instructive inevitability out of the revision this letter contains. The poem in question, Poe's “The Raven,” not only concerns itself with the issue of timelessness—there are few poetic occasions in which freedom is, formally, so limited—(further thematized by its famous refrain)—but the notion of “refrain” itself carries a double—two-facing—valence: a term for a subtractive-self-restraining action, yet also a term for additive repetition. “Burden,” critical to what sets the action of this stanza in motion, is also used, in music, to refer to a refrain.

So it is against the final “nevermore”'s injunction, devoid of an other side—site without option—unavailable to revision or alteration—that the variety of human strategies such a ferocious finality elicits unfolds. And one can see this page as a text filled with scrupulous and deeply moving amplitudes—a set of dance steps really—seeking all ways around that never more. An attempt to subtract not only from the absoluteness of its value, but even, paradoxically enough, to subtract finality from it by the very process of imbedding it in the aliveness of futurity.

First of all, this is a page of more. More words where there had been a stilled, set number. More implication where there had been a determined one. The “more” of substitution—(“startled at”)—which will not abandon, which in fact restates, its prior version—(“wondering at”). So that in the face of the apparent “never more” finality of a changed-to, chosen term, this page still allows a prior “never more” to ring. The rightness of one term (startled) is heard against the prior (always seemingly final) “rightness” of another station of mind (wondering). On this page (as opposed to in the finished poem) we are free to move from “wonder” to “startled.”

In doing so, we can feel ourselves move from a more strictly mental activity, to a reaction had primarily in the body, by the senses. Wonder takes place, for all its “bodily” awe, in what we feel to be mental space. It displaces one set of conceptions, receiving other, wider ones, ones with the potential to make cohere differing motions of thought. Even as a mental action, startling is born of suddenness, causes recoil, reactive change of expression, which the more internalized “wonder,” whose attributes include an observing scrutiny, a slow seepage of change over the spirit, doesn't. The speaker can still “wonder” at stillness broken (asking why or how, for example); but the speaker reports abruptly, with a sense of interruption, the suddenness of a voice so unexpectedly breaking the continuum of “stillness” (which is quite different in nature, more sepulchral and tactile, for instance, than silence). As a result, we are brought much further into the present tense occasion of the poem. The change moves the speaker from the position of narrator, to that of protagonist of the event. We move, in a sense, from the report of, to the very cry of, the occasion.

But how can stillness be broken? How the nevermore gotten around? By a constantly receding priority (and uttering) of visions and revisions: by a quotation (speech within speech); by a quotation which refers this “reply” to prior versions of itself, of which it is imagined to be a “stock” repetition; by a quote of a prior quote which sends us back to yet a prior speaker (some “unhappy master”) and his unknowably recessed fate—unmerciful Disaster; all of these “followings” accelerating not only under the speed of backward-looking, forward-facing transmission (“followed fast and followed faster”), but also under the general urgency of this letter carrying the revision or substitution. The multiple voices here (letter-writer, author, “prior” author, narrator of poem, speaker reported or quoted by narrator) create substitutions of “authority” which course in the opposite direction (desirous of endless opportunity for reformation and transformation) from the stilling nevermore.

So the page contains a spell—(the doubling-up inner rhymes breaking the lines into the stilling trochaic tetrameters of spell-casting)—placed inside a prayer. The formal devices of the poem, the elaborate inner music, its echoic symmetries, its strong, overly repeated rhymes, seek a stillness which, although it approximates a sepulchral stillness in that it nears its ideal of “perfection”—(wordlessness? Stillness unbroken?)—still slips from it and so has the marmoreal formal qualities while having, equally, the expressive qualities that adhere to the mutability of life.

“Wonder” moved in a direction which we must call, here, a deceleration: it moved towards the dumbstruck awe that can superficially mimic a transcendence of time and death, therefore it is the first impulse, but not a sufficiently complex one, not true transcendence.

Being able to start, to be started and startled, makes one (however much one can be both still—via echoic sound—and capable of accelerating past the mortal broken phrase) (via quotation and back-glancing forward motion) unable to be in anything other than syntax, in other words temporality: the state of “more.”

The concatenation of replies from stillness: apt speech still heard in the head as an echo, breakage of stillness by it, start of speech, startledness of narrator, sensation of doubt, call to doubt-less-ness, raising of voice into actual broken speech, memory of prior such utterances causally enchained to an original burden represented by an apparent forward acceleration in the remembering (backwards!) (faster and faster), creates a typical Poe “vortex.” That faster, (moving forwards), referring back to the disaster of the prior unhappy master creates the mental inswirl, the dizzying near to swooning, the spell, so signal of Poe's site of imagination.

The “till” we arrive at is both the most forward point in time and the furthermost backward point in the tracking of the ever-preceding source of the burden and the disaster to an original (startling) point or burden which all subsequent “songs” bear. It is in fact a storing up (store/bore) and a filling up of the present by the past. It is also a loading down of the present by all forms of precedence from which one cannot escape—not even by the fastest speaking or singing or writing of it. The accumulation of each precedence upon its borne offspring in fact is not only a conflagration (i.e. a startling), but also a dirge. It accumulates (forward-facing) as if it is Hope. But hope itself is an accumulation of all one cannot shed, but only constantly bear (carry), bear (make manifest and so leave this endless trail of the prior) and bear (give birth to) into the present moment, always creating only more instances on the verge of becoming “prior.”

As the supplanted version is, itself, one this one supercedes, so this one, too, will become, is becoming, the next one which will supplant it. (One is reminded of “disaster”'s source in the image/idea of a star: mostly echo of something no longer even there, and yet, Bright Star!, so very steadfast.) …

The only way out, (it turns out), is the never / more. Not the “Ah, Nevermore” swooned into by melancholy, but the second-order

till … that melancholy burden bore of ‘never—nevermore’

Poe altering, as with the first gesture of the stanza, this final one from a metaphorical use of “bore” to the distinctly literal and physical bore of ‘never—nevermore.’

In fact, the original revision (wonder/startle), bringing, as it does, the “representing” closer to its occasion, refiguring the speaker closer to the actual moment of active encounter (“startled”), inevitably jostles the rest of the stanza until subsequent revisions turn the generalized “the melancholy burden”, to the pointed-at (in other words sensorally “present”) “that melancholy burden” and the more rhetorical “Never—ah, Nevermore!”, into the much more subjective “that melancholy burden bore / of ‘never—nevermore’,” a phrase not only much more “spoken”, but also one that teases out the never from the rest of its phrase.

One could ultimately argue the word nevermore here is seen as being born out of the word never. The removal of the “ah”, and the exclamation mark, drives the melancholy down into the body. The burden borne by the body is, finally quite other than that borne by the mind. It is the part of one that does not conceive of the “nevermore” as a [terrifying] concept, but only bears it as its final burden, mute and uncomprehending. The body experiences never. The mind nevermore. “Ah” had no place in such a drama—it was theatrics. He removed it to free and reveal, as so often in Poe, the maelstrom of opposing forms of death.

Betsy Erkkila (essay date 2001)

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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 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 recent critics have turned with renewed attention to the historical and specifically Southern contexts of Poe's writing, there is still a tendency to pass over Poe's poems as sources of “purely lyric” expression. And yet, as I have been trying to suggest, whether they are read as forms of aesthetic resistance or as perverse symbolic enactments that ooze darkness and death over the American dream of progress, freedom, and light, Poe's poems are deeply embedded in the sociohistorical traumas of his time. This is particularly true of his most popular poem, “The Raven,” one that, in the words of Arthur Hobson Quinn, “made an impression probably not surpassed by any single piece of American poetry” (439). What does it mean, I want to ask, in the context of the heightening social, sexual, and racial struggles of the United States in the 1840s, for a dead white woman to come back as an “ominous” and ambiguously sexed black bird? While critics have tended to follow Poe in “The Philosophy of Composition” in interpreting the raven as an emblem “of Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance” (Works, 14:208), I want to suggest that the “ghastly” figure of the black bird “perched” upon “the pallid bust of Pallas” also evokes the fear of racial mixture and the sexual violation of the white woman by the black man that was at the center of antebellum debates about the future of the darker races in white America.1

In the July-August 1845 issue of the Democratic Review, which had published Poe's essay “The Power of Words” only a month before, John O'Sullivan declared that it was the “manifest destiny” of Anglo-Saxon America “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions” (5). Critical of those who opposed the annexation of Texas because it would lead to the increase and perpetuation of the institution of slavery in America, O'Sullivan argued that, on the contrary, the “Spanish-Indian-American populations of Mexico, Central America and South America” would provide a kind of national sewage system to “slough off” emancipated Negroes in order to leave the United States free and pure to realize its white Anglo-Saxon destiny: “Themselves already of mixed and confused blood,” writes O'Sullivan,

and free from the “prejudices” which among us so insuperably forbid the social amalgamation which can alone elevate the Negro race out of a virtually servile degradation even though legally free, the regions occupied by those populations must strongly attract the black race in that direction; and as soon as the destined hour of emancipation shall arrive, will relieve the question of one of its worst difficulties, if not absolutely the greatest.

(7; emphasis added)

In O'Sullivan's formulation, the United States will, in effect, expel the degraded and “servile” bodies of “the black race” in order to “relieve” the country of the prospect of “social amalgamation.”

Although “The Raven” was published before O'Sullivan's article, I want to suggest that the figure of Poe's “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous” black bird registers symbolically and more pessimistically some of the same national anxiety about “mixed and confused blood” that O'Sullivan expresses in his famous declaration of America's white Manifest Destiny. Moreover, I want to argue that in “The Raven,” as elsewhere in Poe's writings, the dead white woman and the ominous black presence are foundational to Poe's poetics, his attempt to achieve “that intense and pure elevation of the soul” that he associates with “Beauty” as “the sole legitimate province of the poem” (Works, 14:197). In fact, the poem's dramatic contrasts of black and white are productive of its scene of terror and the melancholy tone of sadness, which is Beauty's “highest manifestation” (Works, 14:198).

While “The Raven” is not explicitly about race, like Poe's use of the orangutan in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” to commit “excessively outré” acts of violence against two white women, his idea of using “a non-reasoning [black] creature capable of speech” in writing “a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste” (Works, 14:200, 196) evokes popular notions of blacks as parrots incapable of reason: its story of a dead white woman coming back in the form of an “ominous” black bird of prey who penetrates the heart and overtakes the mind and soul of the white speaker registers the simultaneous fear of and fascination with penetration, mixture, inversion, and reversal that emerges alongside of (and as part of) an increasingly aggressive nationalist insistence on sexual, social, and racial difference, white superiority, and Anglo-Saxon destiny. Perhaps better than other antebellum American writers, Poe reveals the linked processes of demonization, mixture, and reversal in the national imaginary.2 In “The Raven,” as in other Poe poems and tales, the expelled other of American national destiny—the dark, the corporeal, the sexual, the female, the animal, the mortal—returns as an obsessive set of fantasies about subversion, amalgamation, and dark apocalypse.3

Like O'Sullivan's essay on Manifest Destiny, “The Raven” is all about boundaries—and the horror of their dissolution. Associated with the name Helen and its derivatives Ellen, Elenore, Lenore—which mean, in Poe's terms, “light” and “bright” (Mabbott, 331)—Lenore is another of those “rare and radiant” maidens whose death enables both poetry and beauty. As Poe famously wrote in his scientific analysis of “The Raven” in “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846): “[T]he death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world” (Works, 14:201). In the poem, however, the “lost Lenore,” like Ligeia and Madeline Usher, refuses to stay dead. Although her radiant whiteness is at first set against the darkness of time, history, and the colors of the body, in the course of the poem she is confused with, and indeed replaced by, the darkly foreboding and sexually ambiguous black bird of prey. Expecting to find Lenore at his bedroom window, the protagonist opens the shutter to find, “with many a flirt and flutter,” an uppity black bird in human drag, which collapses the boundaries between animal and human, black and white, female and male, body and spirit, real and supernatural, dead and undead:

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
          Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

(Mabbott, 1:366)

While the raven's hypnotic croak—“Nevermore,” “Nevermore,” “Nevermore”—appears to have a “purely lyric” reference to the death of the “sainted maiden” and the futility of joining her in another world, the “ebony” bird's physical location on “a bust of Pallas” suggests a broader reference to the negation of whiteness: not only the death of white beauty and white art but also the death of white mind and an entire regime of classical and Enlightenment order, reason, and knowledge associated with Pallas Athena. Although Poe does not say so in “The Philosophy of Composition,” the black bird's physical presence in the bedroom “perched” on the “bust of Pallas,” a locale that is marked by the bereaved lover's obsessive repetition—“upon the sculptured bust,” “on the placid bust,” “on the pallid bust of Pallas”—also evokes the specter of sexual violation, racial mixture, and a reversal of the master-slave relation.4

At issue is not only the prospect of black domination but also, as in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and “Instinct vs Reason—A Black Cat,” the question of black intelligence. “Startled” by the apparent prescience and wisdom of the bird's “aptly spoken” reply, the speaker assumes that it is merely parroting the words of “some unhappy master”:

“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—”

(Mabbott, 1:367)

The speaker's words link the “croak” of the raven with the master-slave relation and an entire Western philosophical defense of white mastery. “There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white,” wrote David Hume in 1748 in a defense of the superiority of white, and especially English, civilization. “In Jamaica, indeed,” he writes, “they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but 'tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly” (Hume, 86; emphasis added). Edgar Allan Poe, or at least the sorrowful white scholar of “The Raven,” would “doubtless” agree.

If “The Raven” aspires toward “that pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure” through “the contemplation of the beautiful” (Works, 14:197), it is, paradoxically, a pleasure and a beauty that are achieved through the death of the female body and the cultural terror of the black body. This bodily terror is perhaps most startlingly figured in the fluid interpenetration of light and dark in the concluding passage of the poem:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
          Shall be lifted—nevermore!

(Mabbott, 1:369)

More than a “purely lyric” expression of “Mournful and Never-ending remembrance,” the demonic and shadowy figure of the black bird sitting “[o]n the pallid bust of Pallas” also projects some of the culture's deepest fears about the sexual violation of the white woman (or man) by the dark other, a possible reversal of the master-slave (or male-female) relation, and the apocalyptic specter of the end of Western wisdom and civilization in unreason, madness, and the bodily domination of black over white.

In “The Poetic Principle,” which was delivered as a lecture on several occasions in 1848 and 1849, Poe gives more explicit critical formulation to the racially inflected poetics of whiteness that frames his poems.5 Against “the heresy of The Didactic,” the notion that the object of poetry is truth or the inculcation of a moral, Poe asserts the absolute value of the “poem per se—this poem which is a poem and nothing more—this poem written solely for the poem's sake” (Works, 14:272). Recapitulating in slightly revised form many of the same notions of poetic purity that Poe had originally set forth in his 1842 review of Longfellow's Ballads and Other Poems, this foundational text in the history of modern aestheticism represents, at least in part, a historical response to the moral imperative and abolitionist politics of New England poetry.6

But while “The Poetic Principle” is shaped by national and race-centered debates about “true Beauty” and true Americanism, it also participates in and makes a distinctive contribution to broader philosophical and political contests about the meaning of the aesthetic. Against the Emersonian definition of the poem as “a meter-making argument” (Emerson, “The Poet,” 450) and the abolitionist emphasis on literature as a form of moral action, Poe follows Kant's Critique of Judgment (1790) in seeking to distinguish between the good, the true, and the beautiful.7 Focusing on the aesthetic subject rather than the aesthetic object, Poe argues that “a work of art” is to be judged “by the impression it makes, by the effect it produces” in creating “that pleasurable elevation or excitement, of the soul, which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment, and which is so easily distinguished from Truth, which is the satisfaction of the Reason, or from Passion, which is the excitement of the heart” (Works, 14:268, 275). He reiterates the notion of a tripartite division of the mind that he had originally set forth in his 1842 review of Longfellow:

Dividing the world of mind into its three most immediately obvious distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense. I place Taste in the middle, because it is just this position, which, in the mind, it occupies. … Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth, so Taste informs us of the Beautiful while the Moral Sense is regardful of Duty.

(Works, 14:272-73)

Drawing on eighteenth-century constructions of the individual mind and subject and the effort to discover what Burke had called “the logic of Taste” (11), Poe's attempt to carve out a separate space of pure pleasure and pure beauty might be read as a radical affirmation of human being and spirit in the face of the theoretical abstractions of Enlightenment rationalism, the dehumanizing technologies of modern science, and the increasingly mechanistic and self-alienating effects of the industrial marketplace. “An immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense of the Beautiful,” Poe writes. “It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us—but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above” (Works, 14:273). Whereas in the work of Alexander Baumgarten and other early philosophers of the aesthetic, the aesthetic was meant to designate perception through the body and the senses in opposition to abstract reason and immaterial thought, in Poe, as in Kant, the aesthetic represents an effort to climb out of the body to attain what Poe calls “but brief and indeterminate glimpses” of the beauty beyond.8

And yet, for all Poe's effort to lay claim to a separate space of pure beauty, pure art, and pure pleasure beyond empirical knowledge and the passions of the body, the subject he seeks to affirm and the pure space of beauty toward which he aspires continue to be shaped by the racial codes, hierarchies, and values of Western, and specifically Anglo-American, culture. Poe's emphasis on what he calls “radical and chasmal differences between the truthful and the poetical modes of inculcation” (Works, 14:272), his desire to distinguish and differentiate the aesthetic as a separate realm of activity, participates in, even as it seeks to surmount, an emergent scientific discourse of racial difference, purity, and distinction that grounds both modern “white” subjectivity and Western aestheticism. Thus, for example, in Kant's Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1764), his attempt to distinguish Beauty as a purely subjective and disinterested realm of aesthetic activity is grounded in his assertion of fundamental national and racial difference. In a section of Observations entitled “Of National Characteristics, so far as They Depend upon the Distinct Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime,” Kant writes that there is a “fundamental difference” between the black and white “races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color” (111). The aesthetic is, in effect, color-coded in Kant's cultural taxonomy: blacks are not only different from and inferior to whites; they are also incapable of experiencing or producing beauty. “The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling,” Kant writes in support of Hume's observation that “not a single [Negro] was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praise-worthy quality” (Kant, 110-11).

Poe's “Poetic Principle” is similarly grounded in the bodily presumption of white over black. In the passages he cites from Percy Bysshe Shelley, Thomas Moore, Thomas Hood, Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson, and Edward Coote Pinckney to exemplify his aesthetic theory, beauty and poetry are associated with whiteness, purity, love, and fair womanhood; blackness is associated with “muddy impurity,” corporeality, pain, horror, and the “stain” of mortality. And yet, as in Poe's “The Raven,” in which the whiteness of the marble bust of Pallas necessitates the blackness of the raven, and the desire for beauty and the beauty-effect are intensified by the physical presence and social horror of blackness, in Poe's aesthetic theory, as in Kant's, beauty paradoxically incorporates blackness as part of its own self-definition and its subjective “effect.”

In its most utopian form, Poe's theory of “Supernal Beauty” represents an attempt to unite a fractured nation and an increasingly atomized world on the common ground of culture. But while Poe seeks in “The Poetic Principle” to establish a kind of science of aesthetic value as a means of bridging the apparent division between the poet-critic, the popular press, and what he calls “the mass of mankind” (Works, 14:278), his desire to locate pure beauty “Anywhere, anywhere / Out of the world!” (Works, 14:286) is also linked with his lifelong ambition to establish an aristocracy of taste and intellect that will decide—against the debased judgment of the masses and the moral pieties of the New England literary establishment—what counts as true art. This is particularly evident in Poe's ongoing dream of founding his own magazine. In 1848 Poe wrote to Helen Whitman requesting her aid in financing the Stylus: “Would it not be ‘glorious,’” he asked, “to establish, in America, the sole unquestionable aristocracy—that of intellect—to secure its supremacy—to lead & to control it?” (Letters, 2:410). Here, as elsewhere in Poe's writing, culture becomes the ground at once of “unquestionable aristocracy” and social control. For Poe, no less than for Jefferson, this cultural aristocracy and its ideals of pure beauty cannot finally be separated from the question of race and the ongoing historical struggle over the color of American skin. Emerging out of the broader taxonomies of the Western Enlightenment, the aesthetic is itself a historically marked signifier that would continue to play a key role in national and international efforts to fix the boundary not only between races and nations but also between civilized and uncivilized, culture and its others.


  1. If slaves were emancipated, wrote Dew in 1832, “The whites would either gradually withdraw, and leave whole districts or settlements in their possession, in which case they would sink rapidly in the scale of civilization; or the blacks, by closer intercourse, would bring the whites down to their level” (“Abolition of Negro Slavery,” 57; emphasis added).

  2. Stallybrass and White's discussion of “the contradictory and unstable representation of low-Others” is relevant here. “A recurrent pattern emerges,” they observe as,

    the “top” attempts to reject and eliminate the “bottom” for reasons of prestige and status, only to discover, not only that it is in some way frequently dependent upon that low-Other (in the classic way that Hegel describes in the master-slave section of the Phenomenology), but also that the top includes that low symbolically, as a primary eroticized constituent of its own fantasy life. The result is a mobile, conflictual fusion of power, fear and desire in the construction of subjectivity: a psychological dependence upon precisely those Others which are being rigorously opposed and excluded at the social level. It is for this reason that what is socially peripheral is so frequently symbolically central.


  3. Poe makes recurrent use of animals in racially inflected contexts in his writings: the orangutan that is provoked to acts of “frightful mutilation” by its master's “use of a whip” in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (Mabbott, 2:547, 565); the “perverse” relation between black cat and master in “The Black Cat”; the ape that is worshiped and the “wild beasts” that periodically rise up against their masters in “Four Beasts in One—The Homo-Cameleopard”; the black cat capable of reason in “Instinct vs Reason—A Black Cat”; and the figure of the condor as ominous black bird of prey in the poems “Sonnet—To Science” and “The Conqueror Worm.” In these and other poems and tales, such as “The Haunted Palace,” Pym, “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Feather,” and “Hop-Frog,” Poe returns over and over to fantasies of revenge and reversal of the master-slave (or male-female) relation. See also Poe's 1836 review of Robert Bird's Sheppard Lee, in which he praises a sequence in which the ghost of the white man, Sheppard Lee, assumes the body of a black man, Nigger Tom: “In his character of Nigger Tom, Mr. Lee gives us some very excellent chapters upon abolition and the exciting effects of incendiary pamphlets and pictures, among our slaves in the South. This part of the narrative closes with a spirited picture of a negro insurrection, and with the hanging of Nigger Tom” (CW, 5:285).

  4. See also John F. Adams, who observes: “Classical mythology has Pallas, the embodiment of wisdom, as the raven's original master, a tradition Poe evidently drew upon in perching his raven on her white bust” (53).

  5. Poe delivered his lecture “The Poetic Principle” in Providence, Rhode Island, on 20 December 1848; in Richmond, Virginia, on 17 August and 24 September 1849; and in Norfolk, Virginia, on 14 and 17 September 1849 (Thomas and Jackson). The lecture was published posthumously in 1850.

  6. In response to Poe's lecture in Richmond on 17 August 1849, John M. Daniels in the Semi-Weekly Examiner praises Poe for exploding “the poetic ‘heresy of modern times’” by insisting that poetry should have no “end to accomplish beyond that of ministering to our sense of the beautiful.—We have in these days poets of humanity and poets of universal suffrage, poets whose mission is to break down the corn laws and poets to build up workhouses” (Thomas and Jackson, 827).

  7. Whereas earlier critics, including Woodberry, Campbell (The Mind of Poe), Stovall, and Laser, have emphasized the determining influence of Coleridge on Poe's aesthetic ideas, Omans argues convincingly that Poe's tripartite division of the mind derives not from Coleridge but from Kant's Critique of Judgment (1790): “Not only are Poe's three faculties, pure intellect, taste, and the moral sense, translations of Kant's German terms, Verstand, das Geschmacksurteil, and Vernunft, but also Poe, like Kant, places the faculty of taste between those of the intellect and moral sense and emphasizes its function as a ‘connecting link in the triple chain’” (128). For a discussion of Poe in relation to eighteenth-century moral sense philosophers, see Jacobs, Poe: Journalist and Critic, especially 3-34.

  8. Baumgarten's two-volume Aesthetica was published in Germany in 1750 and 1758. For a discussion of the historical emergence of the term aesthetic in Germany and England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, see Raymond Williams, 31-32. In The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Terry Eagleton argues: “Aesthetics is born as a discourse of the body” (13).

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Essays and Criticism