Art in Poe’s The Raven (part 3)

In the first two parts of this post, we have noticed a great deal of artistry in word choice, and noted how the meter has supported the content of the work. But alas, even so enjoyable a poem as The Raven is not perfect, and in this next stanza we find some metrical difficulties:

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by angels whose faint foot-falls 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;
Let me quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
.            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Perfumed from an unseen censer,” would naturally be stressed ~/~~/~/~, but Poe seems to have imagined it to be /~/~/~/~; that is, the first line in every other stanza has 8 beats divided into two 4-beat phrases, but here reading the poem naturally would give us only 7 beats, suggesting that Poe himself pronounced his line differently. Does Poe really say the word perfume as PERfume instead of perFUME? Proabably not; but he is so absorbed in his regular meter that he has done some little violence to natural speech patterns. Ah, well, we can’t be perfect all the time, I suppose. Or in the second line either, it seems: “faint foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor” would naturally be pronounced (that is, if found outside this particular poem) as //~/~~~/~/. But, then, in English speech 3 unstressed syllables in a row do end up being altered, so “on” would get a bit of stress—though not so much stress as ON, except for the ponderous meter.

This should serve as a reminder of the difficulty of composing in meter: when the poet has the meter in their head, they quite easily conform words to the meter that would not ordinarily fit. Here, in the middle of the poem, the reader may do the same; but if this happened at the beginning of the poem, the reader would not develop the sense of rhythm the poet intended. So we must be the more careful there.

Fortunately, this does not ruin the poem for me; I remain enchanted by the content. Our narrator, amused by the bird, imagines that God has offered him some relief from his pain (nepenthe is a pain-killer, like unto opium). So he announces that he will accept it—Except he has already established that the raven has only a one-word vocabulary, so he fully expects to be gain-said by the bird! In the mood he is in, he would rather continue to ache for his love than to move on.

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if 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!”

“Prophet!” he exclaims—and we have to recognize that he is playing a game with himself. He believes that the raven only knows the one word; he fully expects it to make this answer to each of his next questions. And since he plans on making his next questions painful—for he is in a mood to torment himself—he associates the bird with the devil (and while he’s at it, throws in a bit of word play in the second line).

I must confess, the first time I read this poem (I was a child), I totally missed this. But I don’t feel so foolish, since I believe the same thing happens to many other people who read this the first time. After all, why would he be tormenting himself like this? Yet Poe devoted a whole stanza to establishing that “doubtless, what it utters is its only stock and store,” so this must be the case. And it really is not so strange: for I realize that I, in certain dark moods, naturally do this to myself (only I don’t have a talking bird to help me out). Poe knows this of humanity, that we are wont to cause ourselves suffering.

“Is there balm in Gilead?” Those familiar enough with the Bible (which would be just about all of Poe’s original readership) will recognize that this is a famous rhetorical question (the answer is yes), meant to remind people that there is healing available. “Tell me, bird,” asks the narrator, “there is peace for me yet, isn’t there?” No, says the bird; not for you. And stung by this response (as he knew he would be stung), the narrator decides to—up the ante further, by invoking an oath:

“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.”

The distant Aidenn (Eden) is the heavenly paradise. “Tell me, bird—before God, tell me the truth—will I embrace my beloved in paradise?” Note the use of repetition in this and the previous stanzas: is this a cheap means of filling up the stanza, or is this the way our character would actually speak? I think Poe has it right here: the narrator’s repetition is natural to an anxious and unsettled mind, and it increases the tension in the poem. Which is amazing, that it can be tense, when we, too, already know the bird’s answer: nevermore.

“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 the lie thy soul has 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.”

As noted in the first part, the excellence of the meter here is how it governs the tempo. The feminine rhymes (meaning, those that end with /~ ) in the first lines gives a particular speed, and then when the feminine rhymes in the third line continue into the fourth, it speeds us further still. And then the –or rhyme hits the breaks. Wait, what did the bird say? He’s not really going to stay there forever, is he?

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 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 bird does not leave, and a momentary self-indulgence becomes a permanent depression. And imagine! If the bird was telling the truth about never leaving, then it must have been telling the truth about the other stuff also, right? Damn.

By the way, I love the “pallid bust of Pallas” here. It’s a marble bust, so of course its grey-white—but Poe renders it “pallid,” pale unto death, so we get the wisdom/madness contrast, light/dark contrast, and life/death contrasts simultaneously. That’s some dense art right there.

Which brings me back to the point that opened up the first part of this post: is the artificial element of a poem necessarily bad? And I think after reading The Raven, I must declare, Certainly not! Here, manifold artificial elements, including the crafted premise, selective framing of the setting, pedantic references, playful alliteration (recurring in the same areas of each stanza), a repeated –or sound, and a ponderous poetic structure combine to create an experience of melancholy that is more powerful than the same scene written in prose. (And Poe, by the way, is also a celebrated master of prose.) It’s the artificial that make the story interesting (for really, just listening to someone mope is usually no fun at all), that makes us pay attention, and that makes us remember long after the poem has finished.

Good poetry involves good craftsmanship (Greek, poeima). I might ask if you agree, but some joker is likely to reply with the comment, Nevermore!

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One response

  1. […] But for his response to that, we shall leave for the next post. […]

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