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Symbols of the Raven
You’ve likely heard of some of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, maybe even read a few for your English class: “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “Annabel Lee” or – what may have been his most famous – “The Raven”. If you’ve read any of these, all of them, or other works by Poe, then you’ll understand why critics classify Poe as a suspense or horror writer as his stories range from macabre murders to a fine-line balance between method-to-madness and lucid intelligence and reason as a character deals with both in some strange unfolding of events. At the time they were originally published, Poe’s works received many mixed reviews; many critics appreciated the fine detail and symbolism in the works, others were horrified with the detailed descriptions of intense, gruesome scenes from the works and quickly dismissed them as being “too scary”. While this is what Poe is recognized for, his style wasn’t limited to macabre or even “Gothic” as it’s sometimes described. Indeed, it could be argued that Poe’s writing is some of the most straightforward, uncensored, enlightening analyses of life to be found. A revolutionary way of looking at the world brought to literature, so new and misunderstood that many missed the intended meanings of the pieces. Edgar Allan Poe created a new type of literature: not Gothic, not supernatural, not murder or mystery stories, but the so far unforeseen.
Edgar Allan Poe was born in 1809, the third of three children of traveling actors, Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe and David Poe Jr. When he was one, his parents separated, Poe going with his mother and siblings until his mother died when he was two years old. He was adopted by John Allan and attended the University of Virginia and while he excelled as a student, he also gambled and drank and argued frequently with his foster father and eventually dropped out of school when Allan refused to sponsor him. When his first volume of poetry failed to sell well, he joined the army, attained the rank of sergeant major and applied for formal military training at West Point. It was during his military service and as he was waiting to be transferred that he lived with his aunt and cousin, Maria and Virginia. After his military service (which he also discontinued from a lack of funds) he married thirteen-year-old Virginia and again pursued writing as a career. He fell in and out with editors, critics, and other writers as he wrote poems, stories, and critiques of his own that ridiculed or argued against several popular pieces and challenged traditional styles and he quickly made both enemies and friends with his sharp tongue, cutting reviews and quick wit. The last decade of his life was when he published most of his works and some of the most popular, including the above mentioned “The Raven” and the three popular short-stories collectively known as The Dupin Tales. After being ill for five years, Virginia died from tuberculosis in 1847 and Poe fell into a deep depression and began drinking steadily and stopped writing as frequently, the most energetic period of his career over. He was traveling to visit some friends when he was found semi-conscious in a tavern in Baltimore, October 4, 1849 and he died several days later, on October 7 from undetermined causes, he was forty years old. His last poems, “Annabel Lee” and “The Bells” were published after his death and his legacy continued for many years afterward and it continues to inspire today. His life was racked with grief, broken relationships and often loneliness, but Poe was also very determined and intelligent and while his work was often dismissed, ridiculed, or was not received at all, he continued to write about, criticize, and analyze other pieces of literature and the world around him. His work and cutting reviews about the works of others of his time forever change the face of the evolving genre of American Literature.
Maybe his best-known work is “The Raven” and the oft-repeated line from the poem “Quoth the raven ‘Nevermore’”, and a carving of the famous bird decorates the stone marking Poe’s original resting place in Baltimore. The poem tells a strange story of a weary man reflecting on the loss of his sweetheart Lenore when he hears “a tapping at [his] chamber door”, upon answering no one is there, and then he hears the same tapping at his window and opens it to find a raven who speaks only one word: “Nevermore” and the strange conversation that follows. Many people recognize the raven itself as a symbol of ill-omen or bad luck and generally the poem is interpreted to be a story in verse about a young man who lost his love and is haunted by a raven who constantly says “Nevermore” and insists that he will never find rest from the grief of losing Lenore, but I believe that it goes deeper than that. I believe that one of the messages that Poe was trying to portray with “The Raven” (because there is no single idea that writers are trying to share when they tell a story) was about Life itself; specifically, his life, and all the “Nevermore’s” he’d experienced.
“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." /“
Poe sets the stage for the strange tale immediately. Already it is late and dark and our narrator is tired; as the hour is late and our narrator was “nearly napping” we’re brought to question whether he’s dreaming it all or if what we’re about to read is in fact real.
“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 name Lenore- / Nameless here for evermore. /“
Each ember dying could be interpreted as a symbol for loss of light, or more figuratively a loss of hope or love and it adds to the despair of the poem. We also learn that the narrator’s love has died, hence his loss of light.
“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." /”
Look at Poe’s word choice: “sad”, “uncertain”: he too is caught in this strange uncertainty of the mystery of someone rapping at his chamber door at night and questioning who it could be and why.
“Presently my soul 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 before; / But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness 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!"- /”
It is strange that after hearing the tapping no one is at the door, and when he wonders perhaps if since he misses Lenore her spirit might have aroused him (or something to this effect), he calls out. Notice how he asks it as a question, but it echoes back to him as an exclamation, leading us to wonder if the “echo” is really an echo or if another character is introduced. I want to point out that one of Poe’s common themes are duplicity or opposites within one like the loving and loathing nature of the main character in The Black Cat or “A Double Dupin” mentioned in The Purloined Letter, most common and recognized are the opposites of Death-Madness and Life-Reason that Poe often brings to life in his stories and he begins to introduce that here as the echo returns different than it was sent.
“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 a minute 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- /”
The familiar desperation Poe uses when contrasting two opposites, and Pallas or Athena is the Greek goddess of wisdom and some understand the raven perching on Pallas to be a symbol of the raven or ill-omen overshadowing wisdom and/or reason; also, the symbolism of both being above the door symbolizes a threshold, perhaps of the narrator’s life without Lenore and how he’ll move on from that. (Unrue 118)
“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." /”
The narrator is speaking to his visitor, he’s lonely. Much more surprising though is the fact that the raven answers and replies Nevermore.
“Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly, / Though its answer little meaning- little relevancy bore; /”
The bird calling itself Nevermore is nonsensical and could be dismissed, but the narrator will dwell on the idea.
“For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being / Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door- / Bird or beast upon 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 he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before." / Then the bird said, "Nevermore." /”
The narrator is trying to dismiss it. The name Nevermore doesn’t make sense and the bird is only a bird, not a person, so he tries to dismiss the reply as irrelevant and tells himself that the bird will move on as have his other hopes, again, back to the symbols of the dying embers, but the bird answers again: 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 fancy 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." /”
Even though he’s told himself that it is irrelevant, the bird still intrigues him and though there’s no reason to it, he supposes there is reason to the bird’s saying Nevermore and tries to understand what it is.
“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! /”
The imagery starting with “This and more I sat divining,” was growing more relaxing and almost home-like, then his thoughts wander again to the absence of Lenore and his thoughts turn to grief, watch how this affects his actions throughout the rest of the poem.
“Then methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer / Swung by Seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor. /”
The air feels thick to the narrator, he’s feeling overcome or suppressed and though he describes the sensation with the words censer, and Seraphim (angel) he acts uneasy about it.
“"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee- by these angels he hath sent thee / Respite- respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore! /”
Look at that: he refers to the Raven’s memories of Lenore, not his own. This could be an example of his duplicity in this piece. Remember the different echo? I’m not going to tell you exactly what it means for a couple of reasons: 1. I don’t know and 2. Many different ideas and messages can be derived from this, but here’s my understanding: The Raven is the Narrator. Physically they are two separate entities, but symbolically the Raven is the Narrator’s grief, bad-luck, etc.; essentially the raven represents his dark-side and the “Death Madness” that Poe so often wrote about. The Narrator is the hopeful side, the hopeful part of life and now he’s facing the dark side, both seeking relief, but something is wrong with the Narrator, he’s feeling weary and on-guard and we wonder if he won’t get that relief.
“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." /”
We are introduced to the horrible idea that maybe there is no relief for the grief of Lenore and maybe hope will die along with those other embers. Though the Narrator initially in this stanza dismisses the Raven as a “thing of evil” he continues to ask Ill-Omen questions, inquiring again after relief, begging to know if any is to be found, but again he is denied.
“"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." /”
Even though he still calls the bird evil, even though he has no reason to take the answer seriously, even though there is no rhyme or reason to be asking a raven these questions about hope and whether Lenore has gone to Aidenn (Heaven), if her spirit and hope lives on, he continues to ask just to be met with the answer “Nevermore”.
“"Be that word our sign in 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." /”
Tempest is another word for storm, Plutonian refers to the planet Pluto, cold and desolate, he wants the Raven to leave and for there to be no sign that he ever came. The Narrator suddenly wants to be alone, he feels attacked (“Take thy beak from out my heart”) and he wants to cast the hopelessness and Ill-Omen away, but he can’t shake the desolation and loss of light that the Raven symbolizes.
“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! “
The Narrator now views the Raven as a demon that keeps him in despair, that rejoices in haunting his dreams where he might dare to hope: The Narrator’s soul lies in a shadow upon the floor and he can’t be lifted, or he can hope “Nevermore”.
Given Poe’s history and how familiar he was with grief and hopelessness, this is an honest, straightforward look at dealing with grief and the hopelessness that seems to prevail and haunt those who have lost a loved one. Some believe that the poem was a way for Poe to grieve over the death of his wife Virginia, but “The Raven” was actually written and published two years before her death, and Poe often wrote about the death and loss of a beautiful young woman during Virginia’s illness before her death (The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue as an example); personally, I believe that the loss of Lenore was not a past event in the writer’s mind and in the symbolism of it all, but an impending doom that Poe knew was coming. It was a story of the grief he was already facing knowing he was going to lose his wife; The mourning that there isn’t enough time and the sorrow and Ill-omen that would engulf him once that hope of Lenore or Virginia, his hope, was gone. Poe died less than three years after Virginia’s passing, perfectly fitting the idea of the Narrator representing the Hope that Poe tries to cling to dying as he loses his optimism and gives up in his own fight in Life and dies as his hope did. Like I said before, many meanings could be applied to a story and each symbol may represent more than one thing, so this is just an idea, but an interesting idea. The following quote was spoken by Darlene Harbour Unrue about Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher, but could truly be applied to many of Poe’s works, including “The Raven” – “In the course of events described in the tale the narrator moves from a point of relative naivete to a point of certain knowledge. In confronting the horror of Death-Madness, he affirms the value of Life-Reason as does the author Poe.” (117). In “The Raven”, the horror of Death-Madness or the madness come upon the author after the loss of Lenore is contrasted with the hope and peace of Life-Reason that the narrator lost with Lenore’s death and Poe shows the reader to rejoice in life and hope because Life the experience as a hardship with Ill-Omen (the Raven) may steal it away.
Although this is Poe’s best known work, his straightforward message about the hardships of life and all the joys and terrors it entails can be found in many of his other stories and poems and perhaps the clearest example of this can be found in his poem “The Bells” that was published after Poe died and has been condensed and adapted to a song (click here to listen (Poe, Youtube)), I’ll be analyzing the condensed version you hear in the song.
“Hear the sledges with the bells-- / Silver bells! / What a world of merriment their melody foretells! / How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle / In the icy air of night! / All the heavens seem to twinkle / With a crystalline delight; /”
Again, the stage is set almost immediately. A sledge is another word for a sleigh, and a sleigh requires snow and the harnesses of sleigh horses are often lined with bells during Christmastime: a happy time. Right off the bat we’re given a happy winter evening of a sledge ride where you can enjoy the twinkling of the stars and listen to the cheerful jingle of the small silver sleigh bells.
“Keeping time, time, time, / With a sort of Runic rhyme, / From the tintinnabulation that so musically wells / From the bells, bells, bells, bells, / Bells, bells, bells -- / From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells! /”
The narrator wants it to be clear that this part of the poem is happy and cheerful and the youthful innocence and joy of Christmastime floods this stanza of the poem.
“Hear the mellow wedding bells / Golden bells! / What a world of happiness their harmony foretells! /”
This part of the poem will also be happy, but in a different way. The bells whose song he’s describing now are wedding bells and now the child-like joy portrayed with the sleigh bells is a thing of the past as we move on to the more mature joy of facing a new life with someone you love.
“Through the balmy air of night / How they ring out their delight! / Through the dances and the yells / And the rapture that impels / How it swells! / How it dwells / On the Future! / How it tells / From the swinging and the ringing / Of the molten golden bells / Of the bells, bells, bells, bells, / Bells, bells, bells -- / Of the rhyming and the chiming of the bells! /”
The attitude is festive and there is celebration as the couple’s family congratulate them and friends sing and dance to honor the marriage, and the joy is contagious and spreads to the couple’s view of their future together as they see only joy and hope sung of by the wedding bells.
“Hear the loud alarum bells-- / Brazen bells! / What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells! /”
Immediately the tone changes from joy and hope to one of alarum (alarm) with “brazen” bells and their song of terror and turbulency.
“Much too horrified to speak, / So, they can only shriek, for all the ears to know / How the danger ebbs and flows / Leaping higher, higher, higher / With a desperate desire, / In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire! / With the bells, bells, bells, bells, / Bells, bells, bells -- / With the clamor and the clanging of the bells! /”
We get a little more of the picture now. There’s a fire or more metaphorically a disaster to which the bells bring their attention. They are terrified, horrified, desperately seeking an escape from the fire.
“Hear the tolling of the bells -- / Iron bells! / What a world of solemn thought their monody compels! /”
The tone changes once more from alarm to one of “solemn thought”, or mournful reflection.
”For all the sound that floats / From the rust within our throats / And the people sit and groan in their muffled monotone / And the tolling, tolling, tolling, / Feels a glory in the rolling! / From the throbbing and the sobbing / Of the melancholy bells, / Oh, the bells, bells, bells, / Bells, bells, bells, bells -- / Oh, the moaning and the groaning of the bells! / Hear the sledges with the bells-- / Silver bells! / What a world of merriment their melody foretells! / How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, / In the icy air of night! / All the heavens seem to twinkle / With a crystalline delight; / Keeping time, time, time, / With a sort of Runic rhyme, / From the tintinnabulation that so musically wells / From the bells, bells, bells, bells, / Bells, bells, bells -- / From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells!”
Overall, I’ve always understood the poem as the times of life told in “the rolling and tolling of the bells”: small silver bells for childhood and innocence; golden wedding bells for adulthood and hope for the future; brazen alarm bells for disaster and despair when a life or loved one was lost and sad iron bells for a funeral. You can trace Poe’s life through the poem, innocence in childhood, hope when he found love (his light as we discovered in “The Raven”), alarm over his wife’s delicate health and the many troubles he faced in his career and the iron bells of the death of his hope (Virginia’s death and his loss of energy). Remember how we talked about Ill-Omen or Ill-Fortune haunting the narrator and Poe in “The Raven”? It applies again here as he suggests that the Cruelty of Life takes glory in having the bells roll out the death knell and a song of sorrow. In both pieces examined here and in many of his other works Poe mourns over Life the experience and how it brings us grief, he still rejoices in Life-Reason, in the sunshine, in learning, in light and hope, but he acknowledges that life isn’t always filled with these things and gives us the gruesome truth of horror and sorrow in his various short-stories like The Fall of the House of Usher, “Poe’s contribution to the development of the modern short story was significant. His tales were filled with strange events, but Poe insisted that they were expressions of reality. He believed that a story should work toward a single effect.” (Poe, review), the question is: “What effect was Poe working toward?” What story was he actually trying to tell? While young America wasn’t necessarily a stranger to horror and loss as it had seen both in the Revolutionary war, it was largely left alone in literature until Poe started using it. He forged a trail into the new frontier of American writing, not in tales of horror and insanity, but in truth about life and its hardships.
In conclusion, Edgar Allan Poe created a new type of literature. Not Gothic, not supernatural, not murder or mystery stories, but the unforeseen, the stories yet untold in the mind and in and of the lives we live. His various short stories and poems all branch out into different realms of literature: mysteries and the joys of puzzles and analysis in The Dupin Tales; suspense and crime in The Tell-tale Heart; the haunting of memories and fears of loss in his iconic "The Raven"; and one perspective of the sequence of life in "The Bells". These themes and methods of delivering these themes were relatively young and untapped types of writing in the 1800's when Poe started writing them, but what really ties them all together was that no one was expecting them; of course, there had to be a pioneer in these areas of literature eventually, but Poe's take was so unique, so perfectly balanced between mad insanity and reason, romance, metaphors, and simple facts we all know and what we take for granted. Poe discovered what many writers have yet to: the stories untold in themselves, the stories that you don’t see yet, the stories we can all tell.