Edgar Allan Poe's (1809849) "The Raven" (1845) is a repetitive poem about repetition. And as Poe's most famous poem, perhaps the most famous poem in American literature, it has been endlessly repeatedeprinted, rewritten, rehearsed, and recited, the image of the raven recycled as an emblem of gothic horror and Baltimorean civic pride. Even in Poe's lifetime the poem was widely parodiedn at least fifteen different published works between 1845 and 1849, the year of Poe's death (Poe, Complete Poems, p. 352)nd "The Raven" has come to more or less define Poe's image in popular culture, from The Simpsons to the lyrics of Lou Reed. Students often wonder what the raven (and therefore "The Raven") means, but any attempt to answer that question must also address the question of what all that repetition means.
Within the poem, the repetition means simply that the speaker is obsessed with "the lost Lenore." Once he realizes that the raven will reliably repeat "nevermore" in response to anything he says to it, he turns the encounter into a perverse game in which the word "nevermore" reminds him of the grief, what Poe called "Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance," that will occupy him forever. The narrator transforms the bird into both an instrument of self-torture and a symbol of his personal mourning. The poem performs those functions as well through repetition. It is impossible to escape the insistent rhymesnternal, external, they are everywherehe thudding trochaic octameter (lines of eight stressed/unstressed "beats": ONCE uPON a MIDnight DREARy, WHILE i PONdered WEAK and WEARy), the simple verbal repetitions ("followed fast and followed faster" [l. 64]; "Is therei>is there balm in Gilead?ell meell me, I implore!" [l. 89]), or the alliteration ("this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore" [l. 71]), all of which, like the ecstatic pain of grief, both excites and torments the reader.
MOURNING, REPETITION, AND IMITATION
While the fame of "The Raven" is largely a result of its uniqueness, an awareness of what makes the poem typical might help the reader better understand the poem's place in nineteenth-century American culture. Specifically the performance of grief as a repetition compulsion is firmly rooted in mid-nineteenth-century mourning ritual. As Ann Douglas and Karen Halttunen have shown, the rural cemetery movement, the appearance of mourning guidebooks, the unwritten codes involving dress and comportment, and an outpouring of sentimental poems about loss marked a new set of expectations for bereavement. Halttunen quotes one mourning manual that delivers its message in the form of a catechism: "Why is that mother robed in mourning? It is the outward token of a mourning which the heart alone can feel" (p. 136). Paradoxically the unique experience of grief had to be shown through formal devices such as special clothing, tokens such as wreaths woven from the hair of the deceased, and graveyard visitsepeated by individual mourners and imitated by other mourners. The repetitious raven, likewise, is an objective correlative symbol that perfectly evokes the emotion it representsor grief and the poem, with its insistence on the speaker'ssincerity and solitude, struck the right note within a culture of sincerity that insisted on stereotyped outward signs of "inner" experience.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once referred to Poe as "the jingle man," alluding to what many have regarded as the cheap musicality of Poe's poetry. But "The Raven's" theme is equally the stuff of pop music. The poet Dave Smith, analyzing the poem's appeal, makes a fundamental point: "We have loved and lost, felt heartbreak, felt ourselves abandoned. This is a basic country-western song and it sells more than we may want to think about" (p. 8). In fact thinking about it will only get the reader so far. The poem probably owed much of its popularity to the fact that most people who read and heard it...
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