"The Raven" teaches us to stay sad

Whereas most colleges have freshman comp, at Brandeis we had what they called University Writing Seminar, a small class taught by a grad student where our writing muscles were flexed around some central semester-long theme.  Mine was on change and revolution.  In the piece below, we had been asked to do some sort of literary analysis through the lens of change of a popular song or poem of our choosing.  This piece is actually pretty good, and I owe a lot of thanks to Mr. Mirarchi for helping me properly structure such a complex analysis.

The Quest for the Truth about Sorrow in Edgar Allen Poe’s "The Raven"

Character change is a common theme of poetry and song. When a writer examines a particular change in a character’s life, he finds a veritable breeding ground of emotional conflict and introspective feelings upon which to base a narrative or exposition. From the time of its publication in 1845, "The Raven", perhaps Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous work, has suffered and enjoyed a great variety of interpretations. The impression that "The Raven" gives to any reader is one of gloom, definitely, but the fact that a momentous change is occurring in the narrator’s life does not escape the reader’s attention.

At the beginning of the poem, the narrator is mourning his beloved Lenore, attempting to distract himself from his sorrow by reading books in his chamber. The important fact to remember is that this man is seeking relief from his sorrow. He is actively contesting the situation with which he has been presented, and this unwillingness is a very human condition. Obviously, this man is in pain, struggling with many conflicting emotions regarding Lenore’s death, but he is not willing to accept them. This state is an unfortunate but not very uncommon condition. His state makes him ripe for the Raven’s lesson.

The Raven comes to teach the narrator that when an object of true, unadulterated beauty, such as Lenore, is taken from the earth, the sorrow that results is the fee and the punishment for this loss, and those affected are not allowed to sidestep this debt. The narrator is not supposed to nor allowed to “get over” Lenore, as he would any other loss. Poe systematically shows that the narrator learns this dismal lesson through the Raven’s intentional annihilation of the narrator’s faith.

In order to understand the lesson that the Raven teaches the narrator, one must examine the change that the Raven brings upon him. The poem can be seen as having several stages, and these stages represent the narrator’s education in the ways of beauty and sorrow. The first stage is the narrator’s “natural” state, that is, his state at the beginning of the poem. “...I pondered, weak and weary...” “...I nodded, nearly napping...” “Eagerly I wished the morrow...” Poe uses phrases like these to establish the fundamental humanity and down-to-earthness that allows the reader to identify with the narrator, and provides an important contrast with the otherworldliness and inhumanity of the Raven.

The Raven’s initial appearance yields the second step to the narrator’s enlightenment. “Not the least obeisance made he;...with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door...” With these words, Poe communicates the Raven’s royal demeanor, which the narrator first greets with a smile. However, four stanzas later, the narrator is speaking in fear of the Raven’s “fiery eyes,” and this growing respect of the Raven’s otherworldly disposition is the narrator’s third step toward the realization of his lesson. The narrator must fear the Raven enough to take seriously what the Raven brings him, and this fear and respect can be considered the first fundamental change that the Raven brings upon the narrator.

The next three steps taken by the narrator are the three questions he asks the bird. These questions are especially significant (more to the establishment of the narrator’s character than to the story) because the narrator asks them even though he knows that the only word that the Raven can say is “Nevermore.” The reasons behind these questions are explored in an essay Poe wrote in 1850 called “The Philosophy of Composition.” In this analysis of "The Raven", Poe returns again and again to his theories of “the human thirst for self-torture” and “the luxury of sorrow” (Poe 6), evidence of which can be found throughout Poe’s work.

Whether these impulses are inherent in all humans is never completely explained by Poe, but the narrator in "The Raven" certainly feels these impulses, at least subconsciously, and acts upon them as he makes these masochistic queries. Poe theorizes that the narrator is intentionally increasing these negative feelings by asking questions to which there can only be negative answers. Poe’s opinions regarding the dark motivations of the mourning soul are not easily accepted by the typical Judeo-Christian American, but his philosophy should nevertheless be understood in order to receive the full meaning of his work.

The questions themselves have some significance also. The narrator’s first question is to the effect of “Have you come to bring me solace from my grief?” Here, the narrator is still seeking “to borrow surcease of sorrow” just like in the first stanza; he has not yet begun to change in any fundamentally emotional way. His emotional state is so wretched that, despite the Raven’s mysterious appearance and otherworldly characteristics, the narrator still hopes that he has brought him relief. The narrator doesn’t seem to consider any kind of harmful end to which this black bird may be leading; this man looks to it only as a potential source of solace.  Once again, the narrator, not satisfied with his current situation, attempts to return to his predetermined equilibrium of faith and hope.  The Raven answers, “Nevermore,” denying the narrator any chance that this bird may be an immediate solution to his grief.
His second question is “Will I ever find a solution to my sorrow?” This question is merely an extension of the first one, but it is still necessary in this line of questioning. The impulse to hope for better circumstances in the future is a very human instinct, and in this vulnerable, bereaved state, the narrator is at his most human. The Raven also answers this question with “Nevermore,” killing the narrator’s hope for himself in one fell swoop.

This is the Raven’s first significant accomplishment. The man was quick to assume that the bird was bringing him comfort, but the Raven’s denial of this does not come as a surprise to either the reader or the narrator, surely; the narrator’s question was a foolish one made in desperation and haste. But this second question took some forethought and presence of mind. This question determines the course of the narrator’s life from this point forward; the Raven’s answer to question two still dooms the narrator to a life of sorrow regardless of Lenore’s fate, which isn’t uncovered until question three.

The third and most important question asks “Is Lenore in Paradise?” His climax question (which Poe actually wrote before the rest of the poem (Poe 4)) is the most significant and hurtful to the narrator, as his entire grief system is based upon Lenore’s ascent to “Aidenn” (“...an Arabic word for Eden or paradise” (Nilsson 3)). The Raven again responds in the negative, destroying any hope the narrator might have had for his beloved.

This final question drives home the Raven’s lesson, that this man is not supposed to get over Lenore’s death. The Raven also uncovers his plan to remain in this man’s chambers as a reminder of this encounter, and of the education that the narrator has received. By the end of the questioning, the Raven has identified itself as an enemy, destroyed the narrator’s hope for his psychological state, and perished any optimism regarding Lenore’s final destination. This triumvirate of faith (immediate, anticipated, and projected) is intentionally targeted by the Raven in order to drive home the point that the narrator does not deserve faith, nay is forbidden it, in his voyage through sorrow.

Poe’s use of literary devices to communicate the narrator’s change is evident from the first line of the poem. Throughout the composition, Poe makes extensive use of alliteration and internal rhyme (“...midnight dreary...weak and weary...”) to show the narrator’s quick mind and clever spirit, despite his state of woe. What is vexing, however, is that the narrator’s use of such tricks does not change with the advance of the poem, so no direct correlation can be drawn between these devices and the narrator’s change.

However, certain inferences can be made regarding the placement of these devices, especially that the sonorous syllable “or” is used repeatedly internally as well as externally to foreshadow the Raven’s refrain, as if the narrator, as he writes the story, is remembering the Raven’s effects. Even in the early stages of the poem, each stanza ends with words such as “more,” and “evermore.” Even Poe’s choice of the name of the lost beauty follows this pattern. “Lenore” is a name that has an inner light in the midst of this darkness, but it bears a close resemblance to the Raven’s declared name, “Nevermore.” The similarity is not a coincidence, for it accents the great contrast as well as the relationship between the object of pure beauty and the dark teacher of sorrow.

The reader may wonder at the ability of a grieving man with a raven in his room to write such an eloquent and descriptive poetic masterpiece, but this feat may be chalked up to the effects of the Raven, and to the changes that the man has gone through since his encounter. When the time comes for the narrator to write this poem, he has come to grips with the fact that there is no release from the blackness that he feels for Lenore, and he has let go of all faith and hope that he once felt about his situation. Instead, he pours these feelings directly onto the page as he relates the circumstances leading to his change.  In other words, the poem itself can be considered as evidence of the narrator’s transformation.

Although the entire poem is often considered a metaphor, Poe uses only one such device in his poem on line 101: “Take thy beak from out my heart...” The lack of metaphors is surprising, as most other writers would see this situation as the prime opportunity to let their metaphorical glands secrete, and all but overflow the verses with overly-artistic language. Poe, however, seems to go to great lengths to keep the language in his poem artistic, but concrete, making every word contribute directly to the setting or story. Symbolism plays a major part in this story, but Poe makes no attempts to enlighten the reader as to the meaning behind his symbols. The poem’s open-endedness allows the reader to draw his own conclusions, and this shows the profound relationship between Poe and his reader.

Poe’s foremost symbol in this poem is the Raven himself. If the Raven has come to teach this man about beauty and sorrow, then he most likely is a symbol of either Death or Sorrow incarnate, some authority who would have the credentials to teach this melancholy lesson. But this authority would have to be one benevolent enough to concern itself with the change of one man. The Raven educates the narrator by skillfully and artistically removing his faith. This process is done neither diplomatically nor with any regard to the pains of the process. The Raven considers only the goal in his quest to destroy this man’s hope.

Looking at this symbolic Raven from the standpoint of character change within this poem, he defies traditional explanations of Evil or Harbinger of Misfortune. Poe’s intent was for this raven to teach the narrator a crucial lesson, but any animal capable of communication could have accomplished this. The form of a raven, however, brings an unquestionable quality of darkness and despondency to the poem, the very quality that has made this piece famous.

When the Raven perches on the bust of Pallas in the seventh stanza, many interpretations are possible (Pallas was the Greek goddess of Wisdom, and her name appealed to Poe (Poe 5)). Most likely, the symbol is meant to represent Sorrow’s triumph over wisdom, for the narrator’s wisdom was undoubtedly a powerful barrier against the Raven’s gloomy lesson. The manner in which Poe delivers his lesson makes this chronicle of change unique.
While prevailingly accepted at the quintessential tale of despair, "The Raven" is also a chronicle of a young lover’s voyage to a great, if melancholy, lesson about beauty and sorrow. Poe was quick to recognize the possibilities for dank description and gloomy settings in a narrative about one man’s realization that the loss of true beauty is a great loss indeed.

Nilsson, Christoffer. “The Poe Decoder - ‘The Raven’.” “The Poe Decoder.” <http://www.poedecoder.com/essays/raven>
Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Philosophy of Composition.” Ed. Christoffer Nilsson. “The Poe Decoder.” <http://www.poedecoder.com/Qrisse/works/philosophy.html>.

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