Critical Essay The Raven

The Raven: Edgar Allan Poe - Summary and Critical Analysis

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe is a narrative of a young man who is bereaved by the death of the woman he loved. He compulsorily constructs self-destructive meaning around a raven’s repetition of the word 'Nevermore', until he finally despairs of being reunited with his beloved Lenore in another world. Just because of the nightmarish effect, the poem cannot be called an elegy.

Edgar Allan Poe

In fact, “The Raven” is a ballad of eighteen six –line stanzas with decidedly emphatic meter and rhymes. Narrated from the first person point of view, the poem conveys, with dramatic immediacy, the speaker’s shift from weary, sorrowful composure to a state of nervous collapse as he recounts his strange experience with the mysterious ebony bird. The first seven stanzas establish the setting and the narrator’s melancholic, impressionable state of mind. Weak and worn out with grief, the speaker had sought distraction from his sorrow by reading curiously esoteric books. Awakened at midnight by a sound outside his chamber, he opens the door, expecting a visitor; he finds only darkness.

Apprehensive, he whispers the name Lenore and closes the door. When the tapping persists, he opens a window, admitting a raven that perches upon a bust of Pallas (Athena). In stanza 8 to 11, the narrator, beguiled by the ludicrous image of the blackbird in his room, playfully asks the raven its name, as if to reassure himself that it portends nothing ominous. He is startled, however, to hear the raven respond, saying, “Nevermore”. Although the word apparently has little relevance to any discoverable meaning, the narrator is sobered by the bird’s forlorn utterance. He assumes that the raven’s owner, having suffered unendurable disasters, taught the bird to imitate human speech in order to utter the one word most expressive of the owner’s sense of hopelessness.

In stanza 12 and 13, the narrator settles himself on a velvet cushion in front of the bird and whimsically ponders what the raven meant by repeating a word he inevitably associated with thoughts of the departed Lenore. At this point, the grieving lover, in anticipation of the raven’s maddening repetition of “Nevermore,” begins masochistically to frame increasingly painful questions.

Imagining a perfumed presence in the room, the narrator, in a state of growing agitation, asks the raven whether God had mercifully sent him to inducer in the poet forgetfulness of lost Lenore; the inevitable response causes the narrator to plead with the raven – now addressed as a prophet of evil sent by the “Temptor”- to tell him whether there is any healing in heaven for his grief. The raven’s predictable answer provokes the grieving lover, now almost in a state of maddened frenzy, to ask bluntly whether his soul would ever be reunited with Lenore in heaven. Receiving the horrific “Nevermore” in reply to his ultimate question, the distraught narrator demands that the raven, whether actual bird or fiend, leave his chambers and quit torturing his heart; the raven’s unendurable answer drives the bereaved love into a state of maddened despair. The raven becomes a permanent fixture in the room, a symbolic presence presiding over the narrator’s self-inflicted mental and spiritual collapse.

The physical setting of the poem reflects the inner personality or emotion of the central character. The poem begins at midnight in December…. the last moment of a spend day in the final month of the year. Internally and externally, it is a time of death and decay. Even the “dying” fireplace embers reflect the melancholic atmosphere. The setting is contained and claustrophobic; the single room adds to this effect. The narrator himself mirrors the time and locale. “Weak and weary”, he seems trapped in his richly furnished prison. He hopes for the morning – the return of light and life – but tonight all he can do is brood on his dead beloved, “the lost Lenore”, and feel the solid horror of his current situation. The story that now unfolds is simple, tarrying and tragic. “The Raven” divides its characters and imagery into two conflicting worlds of light and darkness. The contrasting worlds of light and darkness grandly acquire additional symbolic resonances: they also represent life and death, the speaker’s vain hope of an after- life with Lenore and the terrifying vision of eternal nothingness.

The nightmarish effect of the poem is reinforced by the relentless trochaic rhythm and the arrangement of the ballad stanzas into five lines or octameter followed by a refrain in tetrameter. This combination, along with emphatic alliteration, allows for strong internal and end rhymes, resulting in a mesmerizing syncopation of redundancies as inescapable as the sonorous refrain. This incantatory repetition creates an aural quality that helps force collaboration between the poem and the reader, a maddening regularity aptly conveying the speaker’s disintegrating reason, while contributing to the theatrical effect of the poem as histrionic performance.

“The Raven” Edgar Allan Poe

American poem of the nineteenth century.

The following entry provides criticism of Poe's poem “The Raven” from 1845 through 2000.

“The Raven” is the best known poem of Edgar Allan Poe, a major figure in American literature. The poem features a mysterious bird who speaks but one word, in ominous tones, to a grief-stricken young man mourning the death of his young lady love. “The Raven” garnered international attention for Poe upon its publication in The Raven and Other Poems (1845) and became one of the most famous American poems ever written.

Biographical Information

Poe was born on January 19, 1809, to professional actors Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins and David Poe, Jr., members of a repertory company in Boston, Massachusetts. Orphaned by age three, Poe was placed into the care of John and Fanny Allan, who baptized him Edgar Allan Poe, but never legally adopted him. John Allan, a prosperous exporter from Richmond, Virginia, provided exemplary schooling for his foster son, including five years in England. However, during Poe's first year attending the University of Virginia, the two had a falling out over Poe's gambling habits and Allan refused to provide further financial support. Poe left home, enlisted in the army, and published his first collection, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827). A second volume, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, appeared in 1829. Neither collection received significant critical or popular attention. Following an honorable discharge from the army that year, Poe was admitted to the United States Military Academy at West Point. This academic experience would also be short-lived; after six months, Poe was dismissed for disobeying orders. He moved to New York City, where he published his third collection of verse Poems (1831), and subsequently to Baltimore, where he resided with his aunt, Mrs. Maria Clemm. His first short stories were published during the next few years, and he continued to live with his aunt and his young cousin Virginia, whom he later married. In 1835 Poe, his aunt and his cousin moved to Richmond, Virginia, where he had accepted an editorial position at The Southern Literary Messenger. This was the first of several literary journals Poe would oversee during the next decade; his critical and editorial essays of these years led him to prominence as a leading man of letters in America. While Poe's works of fiction and poetry gained popular and critical attention during the late 1830s and early 1840s, he continued to rely on his work as an editor and literary critic for financial security. With the publication of “The Raven” in 1845, Poe achieved his highest measure of popular attention. This was followed by what were perhaps his most fruitful years of writing. They were marked by popular and critical recognition, yet punctuated with economic hardship and illness. In 1845, Poe became the editor, and ultimately the owner, of the Broadway Journal, but by 1846 the venture lost money and Poe stopped its publication. His wife died of tuberculosis in 1847. During her illness, Poe turned to alcohol to assuage his grief, and continued to drink after her death. Nevertheless, he continued to write and lecture, and gradually seemed to recover his health. On a trip to New York, Poe stopped in Baltimore and several days later, on election day, October 3, was found half conscious and delirious outside a polling place. Poe died on October 7, 1849, at the age of forty.

Plot and Major Characters

“The Raven” features two primary entities: the narrator, a young man whose grief over the loss of his love, “Lenore,” is palpable from the poem's opening lines, and the raven, whose sudden and foreboding presence evokes a succession of emotions from the narrator, from curiosity and mild amusement at the bird's first laconic responses to anger and despair at the realization that his beloved Lenore is now lost to him forever. Each stanza of the poem ends with a rhythmic refrain of “nothing more”—a benign assessment by the narrator that there are reasonable explanations for the strange occurrences of the evening—and progresses to the repetitious and increasingly ominous response of “Nevermore!” from the otherwise silent bird. The intensity of emotion rises with each refrain, culminating in the narrator's own tortured admission that “nevermore” can he be free of the shadow of grief and sorrow brought by the night's unwelcome visitor. The physical setting of the poem—a dark, December night in a library-like room—as well as repeated references to classical statuary, velvet cushions, rustling draperies, and the rapid beating of one's heart in response to fear of the unknown, are all familiar motifs in Poe's fiction and poetry, as is the archetype of the “anonymous young man” mourning the death of a beautiful young woman.

Major Themes

In “The Raven,” Poe exploits several themes that are found throughout his creative works, including the tragic death of a beautiful woman at a young age, and the grief of the bereft young man whose affection for his lost love transcends the physical boundaries of death and life. The motif of the “devil-beast” as the harbinger of misery and sorrow, found here in the form of the raven, is another theme common to the creative works of Poe. In “The Raven,” the ebony bird stands as the embodiment of grief caused by loneliness and separation, referencing not only Poe's fascination with the imagery of young lovers wrenched from one another by death, but also the pain he experienced at a very young age with the untimely death of his mother. Yet another theme—one's helplessness upon being visited by a ghostly presence—pervades “The Raven.” Later critics, including Betsy Erkkila, have also examined motifs in the work—especially the virginal, alabaster-skinned woman idealized in death and the sinister black creature who appears in the dark of night—from the perspective of race and class issues in the United States during the generations preceding the Civil War.

Critical Reception

Although “The Raven” has become one of the best known, most read, and most frequently parodied poems of American literature, it has not enjoyed uniformly generous critical acclaim throughout its history. Upon its publication, the poem generated excitement among readers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean for its dramatic imagery, emotional intensity, and metrical cadences. Literary critics focused attention, instead, on technical concerns of verse, such as parallelism, internal rhyme, and what were termed inconsistencies or absurdities in Poe's imagery, including his reference to angelic creatures whose “foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.” Critics of his day also speculated somewhat unkindly on the inspiration and genesis of the poem, focusing their attention on the works of others from whom Poe was accused of lifting ideas and images—most notably the Charles Dickens novel Barnaby Rudge, which featured a talking raven. Poe's subsequent attempt to explain the origin and creation of the poem, as recorded in his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846), is also a favorite subject of critical attention, both in his day and in the generations since. “The Raven” continues to be examined by scholars and literary theorists. Many seek to add nuances of interpretation to an already sizable body of analysis and critical commentary. Others study “The Raven” to discern its influence on subsequent literary movements and theories, including Surrealism and rationalism, as well as its impact on literary culture throughout the world. Regardless of the literary merits or faults ascribed to the poem or to the poet himself, “The Raven” is generally accepted as one of Poe's most characteristic works in theme, tone, and execution, and Poe is highly regarded for his inspired, original imagination and deft command of language.


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