Themes and Meanings
“The Raven” objectifies Poe’s belief that the artistic experiencing of a poem is an end in itself. As both poet and critic, Poe attacked two trends that he found equally disastrous: what he called “epic mania” (using the length of a poem as an index to its power and significance) and the “didactic heresy” (taking the explicit moral or philosophical meaning of a poem as its chief value).
Although Poe’s aesthetic theories, set forth in such essays as “The Poetic Principle” and “The Philosophy of Composition,” rely on a romantic theory of the imagination (as filtered through the writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the temperament of Poe), the gist of his art is targeted toward the poem as experience. According to Poe, the intellect craves truth (the sphere of philosophical, rational discourse), and the moral sense craves duty (the domain of didactic writing), whereas taste thirsts for beauty (quenched only by poetry with its musicality and, therefore, its indefinite pleasure, and by romance with its more definite pleasure). Hence, a poem, in providing an indefinite, pleasurable aesthetic experience, requires a sense of complexity (all means including rhythm and sound adapted to a predetermined end) and a suggestive undercurrent of meaning.
In speaking of “The Raven,” Poe declared that an intended undercurrent of meaning first becomes apparent in the metaphorical “Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!/ Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore!’” The raven thus becomes “emblematical of Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance.” Fortunately, the poem’s thematic significance transcends this limited intention.
The undeniable power of “The Raven” comes from the inexplicable, overwhelming sorrow at the heart of the poem, conveyed through the narrator’s theatrical passion, grief, and, finally, insane desperation. The reader, involved in the complicity of the poem’s design, sees the narrator as existing operatically, on a stage, outside the normal relations of space and time, and moving from the barely plausible to the realm of fantasy. The sensitive narrator’s apparent passivity and the pounding rhythm create the emotional logic of a dream, in which things happened to him that he cannot change, only experience. Yet he is paradoxically involved in promoting his own psychological disintegration by posing a crescendo of self-destroying questions whose answers were the illogical repetition of a single word, croaked by a non-reasoning creature. Through his compulsions, he participates in constructing the unendurable meaning of eternal loss and separation from the one object of his desire. The drama of this loss of sanity is unforgettable as the reader surrenders to the histrionic performance which is the poem.