Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
- This article is about the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. For other meanings, see Raven (disambiguation).
"The Raven" is a narrative poem by Edgar Allan Poe. It was published for the first time on January 29, 1845 in the New York Evening Mirror . In overwrought language and images, it tells of the mysterious visit of a talking raven to a distraught lover. It is one of the best known American poems.
Its use of language, alliteration, internal rhymes, and archaic vocabulary, enhances the Gothic tenor of the piece and has led to numerous parodies. It is best remembered for its varied and repeated key line, "Quoth the Raven: 'Nevermore.'" It has a metrical construction that is mesmeric in quality, as shown in its famous opening lines:
- 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."
The basic meter of the poem is "trochaic octameter", that is, lines of 8 trochees (pairs of syllables, the first with strong stress, the second with weak). All 18 verses have the same form, as the narrator's night terrors increase.
The poem, like other works by Poe such as "The Black Cat", "The Imp of the Perverse " and "The Tell-Tale Heart", is a study of guilt or "perverseness" (in Poe's own words, "The human thirst for self-torture"). Although we are told in those stories that the narrators have killed someone, in "The Raven" we are only told that the narrator has lost his love, Lenore (imported from an earlier poem, "Lenore" (1831) which was itself a massive reworking of "A Paean "; both are also about the death of a young woman). His reaction to the loss has been colored by mysticism ("volume of forgotten lore"), and we know he is filled with fear at receiving a visitor (perhaps Lenore herself, "the whispered word 'Lenore'"), before he even sees the mysterious raven ("from the night's plutonian shore"--Pluto being the god of hades, implying that the Raven is from Hell), with its single word of judgment, "Nevermore."
"Guilt" should not be taken here in either the standard legal or moral senses. Poe's characters usually do not feel "guilt" because they did a "bad" thing--that is, the story is not didactic (in his essay "The Poetic Principle " Poe called didacticism the worst of "heresies"); there is no "moral to the story". Guilt, for Poe, is "perverse", and perverseness is the desire for self-destruction. It is completely indifferent to societal distinctions between right and wrong. "Guilt" is the inexplicable and inexorable desire to destroy oneself eo ipso.
"The Raven" is also an excellent example of arabesque writing as well as grotesque. In addition to the narrator's physical terror throughout the poem, there is a great deal of physichologically disturbing sequences and images Poe describes.
The Student (an often-used name for the narrator, since he is introduced as poring over "many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore") quickly learns what the bird will say in response to his questions, and he knows the answer will be negative ("Nevermore"). However, he asks questions, repeatedly, which would optimistically have a "positive" answer, "Is there balm in Gilead? Is Lenore in Aidenn (Heaven)?" To each question the Raven's predestined reply is "Nevermore", which only increases the narrator's anguish--there is no balm in Gilead, Lenore is not in Heaven etc, and these negative answers are instigated by the narrator himself, by his repeatedly questioning the bird, who acts only as he has been trained to act "by some unhappy master".
The themes of self-perpetuating anguish and self-destroying obsession over the death of a beautiful woman are in themselves the most poetic of topics, according to Poe (see his essay "The Philosophy of Composition"). The torture which the bird has brought to the narrator was already in the narrator's ruminating character--the bird only brought out what was inside. The raven itself is a mechanical process: deterministic, preordained, one word being the bird's "only stock and store." The Student throws himself against this process in a form of masochism, and lets it destroy him and consume him ("my soul from out that shadow shall be lifted--Nevermore!")
Why or how Lenore was lost, we do not know, but the narrator is torn between the desire to forget and the desire to remember. Death without cause is standard for Poe (See "Ligeia ", "Eleonora ", "Morella ", "Berenice ", "The Fall of the House of Usher", "The Oval Portrait, "Annabel Lee", "Lenore", "A Pćan ", "The Bells " and others). The female beauty dies without cause or explanation--or she dies because she was beautiful. In the end, the narrator clings to the memory, for that is all he has left. What the raven has taken from him so cruelly is his loneliness--but this cruelty he brought upon himself, for he cannot resist the urge to interrogate the raven. He is fascinated by this "No" machine--and constantly asks it questions hoping it will say "yes" (forevermore). Every time he asks the answer will be the same. The raven will stay.
Although the bird seems a hallucination, it is in fact real (whether hallucination or not), with real black feathers and a real croaking of the single word, "Nevermore." Ravens can be taught to speak. Poe's raven is thought to have been inspired by the raven Grip in Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens. Dickens' bird has many words and comic turns, including the popping of a champagne cork, but Poe felt that Dickens did not make enough of the bird's dramatic qualities.
Following its publication in the Evening Mirror, "The Raven" appeared in numerous periodicals across the country, including The American Review (February 1845), New York Tribune (February 4, 1845), Broadway Journal (vol. 1, February 8, 1845), Southern Literary Messenger, (vol 11, March, 1845), London Critic (June 14, 1845), Literary Emporium (vol 2, December, 1845), Saturday Courier , 16 (July 25, 1846), and the Richmond Examiner (September 25, 1849).
"The Raven" was also published independently in 1845 and has appeared in numerous anthologies, starting with Poets and Poetry of America in 1847.
Later works paired "The Raven" with premier illustrators. Notably, in 1858 "The Raven" appeared in a British Poe anthology with illustrations by John Tenniel, the "Alice in Wonderland" illustrator (The Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe: With Original Memoir, London: Sampson Low). "The Raven" was published independently with lavish woodcuts by Gustave Doré in 1884 (New York: Harper & Brothers). In 1875 a French edition with English and French text was published with lithographs by the famed Impressionist Edouard Manet and translation by the Symbolist Stephane Mallarmé .
The poem has been frequently parodied, a noteworthy example being the reworking of the poem in a Halloween edition of The Simpsons, read by James Earl Jones. (In fact, the Simpsons version is more or less true to the text of the poem except that the Raven, played by Bart Simpson, says "Eat my shorts!" instead of his original utterance. Indeed, Poe is actually credited as a writer on the episode.)
A song based on "The Raven" appears on the Grave Digger album The Grave Digger (2003). (there are more songs based on Edgar Allan Poe's works on this album)
Lord Buckley recorded a "hipsemantic" version of "The Raven" in 1956 ("It was a real drugged midnight... dreary.").
In 1998, Hannes Rall directed an animated movie of The Raven in German language (Der Rabe).
"The Raven" has also been the subject of constrained writing. Georges Perec's novel A Void, written entirely without the letter 'E' in French and subsequently translated into English by Gilbert Adair under the same constraint, contains a full-length "translation" of The Raven entitled A Crow.
References to The Raven
- Baltimore's professional football team, the Baltimore_Ravens, is named after the poem. The name was selected after a telephone poll of Baltimore residents.
- The Raven Society, founded 1904, is the University of Virginia's most important honor society, combining requirements of high-level scholarship, service, leadership, and - for the student members - "promise of further advancement in the intellectual field." New members have to supply a parody of the poem for initiation, which takes place in Poe's room where he lived when studying at the University, which is now under the curatorship of the Society. The Society also owns and takes care of several other Poe sites, including the grave of his mother in Richmond, Va.
- Here comes Poe with his Raven, like Barnaby Rudge,
- Three fifths of him genius, two fifths sheer fudge.
- —James Russell Lowell, "A Fable for Critics"
- A raven named Quoth is a minor character associated with Death in Terry Pratchett's fictional Discworld universe.
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