Category Archives: Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849)

The Raven (video)

Enjoy The Raven on YouTube.

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If you like this poem, you may enjoy this discussion of its structure and artistry.

Leave a comment below about what you thought of this interpretation (and yes, I know what words I missed), or make a suggestion for what other poems you would like to hear performed.

Or check out some of my other videos if you like.

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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!

Art in Poe’s The Raven (part 2)

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.

Art in Poe’s The Raven (part 1)

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.

The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

The Raven

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.”

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 for evermore.

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.”

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.

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.

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!”

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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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!

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.”

“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!” 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.”

“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.”

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!

Learn about how Poe’s artistry in this poem by clicking here.