Let us never make the mistake of rejecting finely-crafted poetry as “artificial.” For, modern/post-modern protestations about “authentic” and un-distilled self-expression to the contrary, the traditional art of poetry has always employed a great deal of planned creation. Even the Romantic Wordsworth, with his “spontaneous overflow of emotion, recollected in tranquility” sought to place particular words and evoke carefully-selected images to convey his mind to his readers. Part of the art of poetry is to make sure that these carefully-selected images appear native (natural) to the poem itself, as opposed to being forced in.
One of the masters of this art was Edgar Allan Poe, and I highly recommend The Raven as a place to start in learning about poetic imagery. No doubt you have read it (if not, check it out now); but it is one of those poems that is like to reveal new delights upon additional readings. I would like to call attention to and celebrate some of those delights here.
In an essay, Poe stated that his goal with the Raven was to create an image of perfect melancholy. But upon our first reading, we do not know this in advance. Yet as soon as we step foot into the poem, we begin to feel it—
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.”
Structurally, the meter is slow, ponderous, and there is a resonant quality in the “-or” rhyme that will continue to echo throughout the poem. Meanwhile the content presents us with an immediately despondent image: the man is up late reading books that nobody else reads anymore. The book, an instrument of joining people together in story, has become a symbol of one man’s isolation.
In this isolated state, he hears a visitor (actually, the tapping is the sound of a raven beating its wings on the window, but we don’t know that yet). But does the narrator invite the visitor in to relieve his isolation? Not at all; in fact he does not stir. His words suggest the idea that maybe if he just ignores the visitor, he’ll go away—and so the next stanza ignores the tapping entirely:
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 tried 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 forevermore.
An ember from the dying fire did not “cast a shadow;” it “wrought its ghost.” Amazing what that simple word choice does. Then he explains why he is up late, reading: he is trying to dispel his sorrow for his dead beloved (by reading books nobody else reads, remember, indicating that perhaps he isn’t entirely committed to this). But Poe is subtle enough to avoid saying, “my Lenore is dead, and I am sad.” No, first he gives us the ghost clue, then presents the weight of a sorrow that won’t be dispelled, than mentions his lost Lenore, whom the angels speak to, but nobody here, not anymore.
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 visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
. This it is and nothing more.”
Why is he so scared? Well, consider it: it’s the dead of the night and he’s thinking about his dead girlfriend—obviously the tapping sound is a ghost! Meanwhile notice how the absence of a pause after the internal rhyme (beating) speeds us through the line; the up-tick in speed mirrors the increase in anxiety in the narrator.
Before moving on to the next stanza, I’d also like to call attention to the alliteration on the first line (“silken sad uncertain”). Throughout the poem, Poe throws in a bit of alliteration—totally artificial, and yet feeling totally natural. “Sad” and “uncertain” are words native to the poem’s atmosphere. And neither is it strange that they are applied to an inanimate object: the curtain is rustling, and the narrator wonders, what can it be? Of course a curtain cannot be sad—but the narrator is projecting his own emotional state upon his surroundings (as we commonly do in such moods in real life). Now in our first reading, we are not likely to consider this point of the narrator’s psychology, of course; but we don’t have to in order to feel the impact of the words. “Sad” and “uncertain” simply imprint upon our mood, evoking stock responses, and help us to enter into the mood the poet is trying to create.
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “Or Madame, 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.
Yep, definitely a ghost.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness 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.
Now while our friend contemplates the darkness, let us contemplate the effects of Poe’s structure. Notice how the meter, typically identified as trochaic (/~), starts each line with a stressed beat, and ends with an unstressed beat (as in weary, December, curtain, longer, and fearing)—except for the –or rhymes. As a result, each stanza begins with a certain rhythm, but then ends in a hard stop, a felt pause—so instead of rushing to the next stanza we absorb what we’ve just read. When the narrator opened the door and found only darkness, we pause as he looks around. When the narrator hears nothing but his own whisper, we too have paused to listen for a sound.
The sound comes. This time, it is at the window:
Then into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon I heard again 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!”
And nothing more from me at the present. Tomorrow we shall continue with the poem, as the titular character makes its entrance.