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Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most highly regarded authors in American history and a master of suspense and horror. One of Poe’s most well-known works is the poem “The Raven” written in 1845. A careful analysis of all its parts will reveal the many hidden easter eggs that make this poem so effective at sending shivers down any reader’s spine. Understanding the historical context and author identity behind this piece will aid in the dissection of the language/structure, symbols, and thematic characteristics used. Most importantly, the reader will gain a newfound understanding of the frailty of the human mind, especially when facing the tragic universal experience of loss and grief.
As always, with any piece of literature, it is of utmost importance to understand the historical context of the piece and be aware of key aspects of the author’s identity. After all, Edgar Allan Poe’s writings are often a twisted version of the struggles he went through in his life. Poe was born on January 19th, 1890 in Boston, Massachusetts (Poe’s Biography: Edgar Allan Poe Museum). Sadly, by the young age of two, his father had abandoned the family and his mother passed away, which led him to be taken in as a foster child to the Allan family (Biography, 2012). His writing journey began at the time he was about 13 years old when there’s multiple evidence that he was writing poetry and working to improve (Poe’s Biography: Edgar Allan Poe Museum). He eventually went to university but fell into so much debt that he had to drop out and enlist in West Point (Biography, 2012). Afterward, he took up writing full time and married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia. They were deeply in love and Poe was extremely heartbroken when she passed away at the age of 24 due to tuberculosis, the same disease that took his mother’s life (Biography, 2012). He continued to work as one of the harshest literary critics for a variety of different newspapers and literary magazines of the time. Unfortunately, like many other artists, he barely made a living during his lifetime through his own creative pieces. “The Raven” was first published in 1845 in a New York City weekly newspaper called the New York Evening Mirror and although it was his breakthrough in society and managed to gain him quite a bit of notoriety, he never gained much monetary success and continued to live in poverty whilst struggling with alcoholism and depression (Poe’s Biography: Edgar Allan Poe Museum). He died at the age of 40 after a week of going missing and was found in a bar in Baltimore with clothes that didn’t belong to him (Biography, 2012). He was taken to a hospital but died a few days later in a delirium, leaving everyone unsure of what killed him (Biography, 2012).
Equally as mysterious and unsettling as its author, “The Raven” can be broken down into eighteen stanzas of six lines each that all follow the same patterns. There is a clear rhyming scheme that runs throughout the entirety of the poem following the pattern 1-2-3-2-2-2. Within this pattern, there is also a connection between lines 1 and 3 which will always include an internal rhyme at nearly the same spots (Genius, 2002). It is through the use of these rhyming patterns that Poe was able to dictate the rhythm and pace required for the suspenseful nature of this poetic story. For example, in stanza one, the pattern is first set,
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, (1)
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, (2)
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, (3)
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. (2)
“ ‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door- (2)
Only this, and nothing more.” (Lines 1-6) (2)
The use of alliteration in this poem is also worth noting because it utilizes natural rhythmic patterns as an advantage to emphasize specific words that will trigger a suspenseful response from the reader (Genius, 2002). This is also perfectly depicted in stanza one because the words “dreary” and “weary” clue the reader into the mental state of the narrator and brings up the question of what could be behind the door. As mentioned previously, all of these patterns in structure and language are consistent in the entirety of the poem and, of course, only serve to emphasize the symbols that were skillfully picked by the author.
One of the most prevalent symbols throughout the poem is the infamous Raven. In literature, ravens are most well-known for their roles as messengers (Hallqvist). In this case, the Raven is the bearer of a harsh truth that forces the narrator to devolve into madness. Thus, the bird’s mere placement upon the symbolic bust of Athena, goddess of wisdom and reason, suggests that it is above logical thought (Hallqvist). In fact, the narrator’s struggle between rationality and irrationality is introduced long before the physical appearance of the Raven. During six out of the seven first stanzas, the narrator ends each time with the words “nothing more”, symbolizing his tiresome struggle to rationalize the things his grief-stricken mind has conjured up. It is in stanza eight, after the Raven has appeared, that the narrator begins a downward spiral towards irrationality represented with the reappearing words, “Nevermore.” At first, it is all fun and games. He is amused by the bird and pretends the Raven is a messenger from “the Night’s Plutonian shore!”, a symbol for the god of the underworld (Hallqvist). Though it begins as a distraction, he soon forgets to remain rational and is haunted by the words of a bird whom he initially said its answers had little meaning. He realizes he can’t escape the painful memories of his lost love and is so consumed by grief that he turns to the Raven for relief. He inquires about “nepenthe” and “balm in Gilead”, both symbols of his desperation to forget and be relieved of his memories (Hallqvist). It is his despair to alleviate the pain he feels over the loss of his love that drove him over the edge and led us to one of the most central themes of this poetic story.
The poem “The Raven” has a variety of different themes, though they are all equally somber. One of the most important aspects of the human experience that Poe was able to tap into through this hauntingly psychological poem are the major themes of loss and grief. The poem fully encompasses the tragic universal experience of losing a loved one and the struggle to deal with painful memories of those whom we cherished. Poe also emphasizes themes of madness and despair through this conjunction of how these relate to grief. Oftentimes rationality is thrown out the window when we are in pain, similar to our narrator in this poem. He continues to ask questions to which he already knows the answer, and, much to his dismay, the Raven says the only word it can, “Nevermore.” Consumed by grief he descends into madness and this is yet another portrayal that the narrator is the definition of crazy, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. As human beings, we are constantly looking for answers for things we cannot explain and can often become blinded by the thoughts in our heads. Death and grief are often two of the most isolating and depressing experiences one can experience and Poe forces the reader to face them head-on, though only temporarily.
It is crystal clear why Edgar Allan Poe remains one of the most highly regarded authors in American history. After all, he is unequaled in the suspense and horror genres. His poem “The Raven” is a famous example of just how effective he is at sending shivers down anyone’s spine through his careful use of language/structure, symbols, and psychological themes. As readers, we were able to gain a newfound understanding of the frailty of the human mind when faced with universal struggles, such as grief, by studying his identity as an author and dissecting all the “goodies” he left for us to uncover. “The Raven” brilliantly depicts the weak state of the narrator’s mind and provides a taste of what madness might feel like. Certainly, it brings an interesting perspective to the ongoing discussion revolving around mental health today and the varying ways in which our brains cope with emotional pain. There is no doubt that when reading “The Raven” one will find itself questioning the human psyche and, perhaps, recalling painful memories of those we once lost.