On our last post, we left off with our uneasy narrator going to the window to verify that the sound he has been hearing is not, in fact, a ghost.
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;
Not the least obeisance made he; not an instant 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.
Continuing to use alliteration (“stepped a stately…” and “perched… Pallas”), Poe adds an additional device to the mix: ironic environment. The bird has perched upon a bust of Pallas—that is, Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom. The poet (Poe) has made sure to provide the narrator (a character in the poem, not to be confused with the poet) with this specific decoration for his front room. Now a bust might well be a fitting ornament for a scholar, so it fits as a natural decoration. But as a decoration, it could be any bust—Athena or Homer or Caesar or Mozart—while as a poetic device, it has to be the goddess of wisdom, as a contrast to our narrator’s frame of mind.
Our narrator’s state of mind will be further explored as the poem develops. For the nonce, he is nearly giddy with relief that the bird is no ghost:
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.”
I love that descriptor—“Plutonian shore.” As in, the night is not simply dark, but is the very border of the underworld, the land of the dead.
Anyway, our narrator has decided to talk to the raven, and ask the bird its name. Well, sure; I also talk to animals when I’m in a mood. They never answer. But this one does, which in fact surprises the narrator:
Much I marveled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no sublunary being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chambered door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chambered door,
. With such name as “Nevermore.”
Being brought up in today’s education system, we are like to miss the impact of the word “sublunary.” The simple meaning is, “beneath the orbit of the moon.” But it evokes the old Ptolemaic system (you know, which imagined the Earth as the center of the universe), wherein the orbit of the moon marked the boundary between the perfect and eternal above it, and the imperfect and decaying beneath. On this level, sublunary carries the connotation “mortal,” while simultaneously highlighting our narrator’s mood. He, another mortal beneath the moon, longs for his beloved Lenore, now beyond it. On the whole, this is much more powerful than simply asking, “whoever heard of an animal having a name like that?”
But back to the bird’s answer. Our narrator, while astonished at the bird’s clear speech, nevertheless decides that it is meaningless. He had asked the bird its name, and “nevermore” cannot be a name, so surely the word is a meaningless accident. Of course, the reader picks up on what the narrator has (by design of the poet) missed: “nevermore” could be the bird’s response to the demand for information, as in, “no, I won’t tell you.”
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 farther 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.”
. Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
Our melancholy narrator indulges in a little self-pity, noting that whatever hopes he has are sure to fly away. But in doing so, it turns the bird’s answer from a meaningless word to an actual answer in conversation. Which—at this point—was not planned.
Wondering 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 so, when Hope he would adjure
Stern Despair returned, instead of the sweet Hope he dared adjure—
. That sad answer, “Nevermore.”
Our narrator has concluded that “nevermore” must be the only word the bird knows. (Hang on to that knowledge—it’s important later!) But why would that be the case? Well, being in a melancholy mood, it pleases him to think that maybe the bird’s former master was an equally miserable sot. Meanwhile—
But that Raven still beguiling all my sad soul 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.”
The alliteration on that line (“grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt”) is so brazen that it must seem as if the poet is playing a game. But behold! The narrator (who is not the poet) is at this very point also indulging in a little game, imagining what the bird could mean with its answer, and how it possibly could have learned it. The playfulness of the alliteration resonates with the playful notion of the narrator—a perfect instance of structure supporting content.
But the narrator’s melancholy shall quickly overwhelm this moment of playfulness:
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!
“She” is of course Lenore. He cannot escape the recollection of her death. He becomes aware of where is head is—on the cushion that once supported her head. Suddenly the bird’s stare is an accusing stare, burning into him…
But for his response to that, we shall leave for the next post.