Friday, March 18, 2005

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 some one 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 sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow -- sorrow for the lost Lenore --
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named 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 heart grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, 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 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.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard 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 marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning -- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door --
Bird or beast above the sculptured bust above his chamber 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 further then he uttered -- not a feather then he fluttered --
Till I scarcely more than muttered "Other friends have flown before --
On the morrow will he leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
Then the bird said, "Nevermore."

Startled 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 till his songs one burden bore --
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of 'Never-nevermore.'"

But the 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, 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 violet 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 has sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe from the memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh 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 named Lenore --
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named 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 that lie thy soul hath 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's 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.
Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe composed The Raven in 1844. The first publication date was February of 1845 in his Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe and it is still as satisfying and entertaining to read today as it must have been 157 years ago. That's probably the most important thing about this poem and why it had stood the test of time.

However, one scholar relates that Poe was completely misunderstood. What Mr. Poe meant to focus on was the sadness of the lover, while almost everyone else was caught up in his terror. Even though he intended as to get across as grief and its symptoms, readers became embroiled in Poe's bizarre and unearthly ideas. He went on to explain himself in his The Philosophy of Composition. Mr Bob Blair at The Poet's Corner relates his opinion about Poe and his Philosophy of Composition:

    Poe became famous with the publication of The Raven and later claimed it was all intentional. In 1846 he published an essay, The Philosophy of Composition which details the supposed care with which he crafted a poem that was bound to succeed. I don't believe him. The Raven is just as likely -- I would say much more likely -- to have been the serendipitous result of the right poet, in the right mood, writing for what chanced to be the right audience.
I thought it might make for better enjoyment of reading The Raven so here are some passages. In his Composition Poe writes:
    I select 'The Raven' as most generally known. It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition- that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem...

    The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had pre-determined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word "Nevermore." In fact it was the very first which presented itself....

    Of course I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of the "Raven." The former is trochaic- the latter is octametre acatalectic, alternating with heptametre catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrametre catalectic. Less pedantically the feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short, the first line of the stanza consists of eight of these feet, the second of seven and a half (in effect two-thirds), the third of eight, the fourth of seven and a half, the fifth the same, the sixth three and a half. Now, each of these lines taken individually has been employed before, and what originality the "Raven" has, is in their combination into stanza; nothing even remotely approaching this has ever been attempted. The effect of this originality of combination is aided by other unusual and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration...

    I had now to combine the two ideas of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word "Nevermore." I had to combine these, bearing in mind my design of varying at every turn the application of the word repeated, but the only intelligible mode of such combination is that of imagining the Raven employing the word in answer to the queries of the lover. And here it was that I saw at once the opportunity afforded for the effect on which I had been depending, that is to say, the effect of the variation of application. I saw that I could make the first query propounded by the lover- the first query to which the Raven should reply "Nevermore"- that I could make this first query a commonplace one, the second less so, the third still less, and so on, until at length the lover, startled from his original nonchalance by the melancholy character of the word itself, by its frequent repetition, and by a consideration of the ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered it, is at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character- queries whose solution he has passionately at heart- propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture- propounds them not altogether because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which reason assures him is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote), but because he experiences a frenzied pleasure in so modelling his questions as to receive from the expected "Nevermore" the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrows.

He goes to on account what many thought as to whom Poe's "the lost Lenore" was. Blair believes that Poe was referring to the impending death of his wife Virginia who was terminally ill with tuberculosis at the time, she died three years later in 1847. While others mention that Lenore is 'not based on a person but linked to literary heroines by their shared name. Poe's "Lenore" is a lament for the same woman.' Taking a closer look at the imagery behind many of the words Poe used there is evidence along that line of thought as well. Here are a few explanations and definitions for comparison of some of the lines and words used:
  • flirt: quick movement.
  • mien: manner.
  • Pallas: Minerva, the goddess of wisdom.
  • Plutonian: that region belonging to the Greek god of the underworld
  • gloated o'er: possibly "reflecting" as well as the more common meaning.
  • tufted: carpeted with a fluffy soft threaded material
  • nepenthe: a drink made by the gods to relieve human grief.
  • is there balm in Gilead?: "Behold the voice of the cry of the daughter of my people because of them that dwell in a far country: Is not the Lord in Zion? is not her king in her? Why have they provoked me to anger with their graven images, and with strange vanities? The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; astonishment hath taken hold on me. Is there no balm in Gilead? is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?" (Jeremiah 8.19-22).
  • Aidenn: Biblical Eden, in which the garden paradise of Adam and Eve was found.
Scattered with frightful images yet, richly sensuous with musical phrases, the rhyme builds against the background of the increasingly distraught reactions of the narrator; scheme and metre along with the way the different line lengths are balanced are crafted from polysyllables that , rather than sounding pretentious work together astonishingly well. This lends the poem marvelously to parody, and several excellent ones have been written. You may want to read BaronCarlos's The Server for his adroit rendition of Poe's Raven, there is also Abort, Retry, Ignore and a few others have been collected on line at

Poe's best known stories are of ratiocination, in particular The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter which initiated the modern detective story. Poe influenced such authors of distinction as Algernon Charles Swinburne, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Conan Doyle, and the French symbolists. He admired Shakespeare and Alexander Pope. Yet much of the influence of his work has been attributed to the influence of the occult on Romanticism along with the mergence of his own fevered dreams. By creating the plausible out of the implausible with an atmosphere of unrestrained objectivity his work became a uinque combination of his own detailed style and phantasy. Being such a dramatic storyteller it created a wide audience that Poe enjoyed during his lifetime.

    The outstanding fact in Poe's character is a strange duality. The wide divergence of contemporary judgments on the man seems almost to point to the coexistence of two persons in him. With those he loved he was gentle and devoted. Others, who were the butt of his sharp criticism, found him irritable and self-centred and went so far as to accuse him of lack of principle. Was it, it has been asked, a double of the man rising from harrowing nightmares or from the haggard inner vision of dark crimes or from appalling graveyard fantasies that loomed in Poe's unstable being?

    The Wondering Minstrels

So much of his work deals with sadness and terror in the ordinary life settings, many found him to be a great man of letters, as well as a pleasant friend with an enjoyable sense of humor. Poe had a keen wit and frequently commented on the art of writing among his contemporaries. He even apologized to visitors for not keeping a pet raven. Very revealing is the duality of his nature and his infamous ability to present an environment by focusing on the minutest details, it overshadows many of his other works. He was just as capable of writing angelic poetry with suggestions of sumptuous beauty on the one hand, while on the other he could put to paper scenes of unrelenting morbidity or compose a problem of gruesome psychology in a hard and dry style. Undoubtedly, Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven numbers among the best known poems in the American literature.


Selected Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

Blair, Bob

Public Domain text of the poem taken from the Poet's Corner

Public Domain text for Poe's Philosophy of Composition

The Wondering Minstrels

No comments: