Poe was a man whose intimate mental adventure will probably never be wholly understood. His melodramatic existence and the black legend he was abused with still haunt the image we have of him, as does the fact that he himself did not do much to dissipate but, what is more, collaborated –though not always willingly-, in the creation of the veil that shrouds him, confusing his onlookers. There always was a duality in him that affected his temper, his mind and his art, we still do not know if caused by alcohol, opium or a physical or mental disorder. In spite of this there is a sense of unity, a oneness of tone, structure, movement and ideas that, added to the originality and power of his writing, make him the doubtless father of Romanticism, curiously enough not in America or England but in France. Poe´s voice never suited the American or English readers much, finding him too “crude, noisy and tasteless”, as A. Burgess points out. The French poets Baudelaire and Mallarmé were the ones to persuade the world of his genius, including the United States in the long run, and French Symbolism relied on his poetic principles. Nevertheless we can situate him as a transcendentalist, though quite opposed to Emerson. Indeed, for him reason does go beyond itself through intuition and imagination but what lies beyond is not metaphysical truth, security or redemption but a moral-free beauty, set apart from nature, reigning over a land of estrangement, disturbing symbols, and ultimate destruction. This beauty –and the truth it carried for its own sake- was his aim, reaching it was his quest, and, of course, the path led him to Romantic agony. It may have seemed to Poe he was somewhat alone in this quest, though in fact he was not. That darker and more painful and fearful side of truth was to be perceived also by Hawthorne and Melville, who closely followed.
“The Raven” was and is Poe´s most famous poem. Written in the summer of 1844 -it had earlier versions that go back to 1842 but not till then did it have its final form- and printed several times that same year, undergoing some minor changes made by the poet, it is a masterpiece that shows Poe at the peak of his talent, at the same time reaching out toward popularity. Playfully ironical, the poem had a very favourable and laudatory prefatory paragraph signed as if it were by the editor of the American Review, where it was first set in print, but most probably written by Poe himself. Poe also wrote a lecture called “The Philosophy of Composition” explaining his theory of poem writing, in hope of getting some more money and publicity. This lecture was, on the other hand, part of his campaign for deliberate artistry, controlled and conscious application of technique, instead of the typical romantic effusions of poetry writing he said not to believe in at all. In this work he explains some of his poetic principles but it is very unlikely that “The Raven” was written according to the method of composition he describes as general, for it has been noted method and poem correspond with each other strictly, or, in other words, that this method can only produce that poem in particular. So, most probably the method was devised to suit the poem and the poet.
As to the work itself, the subject matter of the poem is the sadness and melancholy the poet feels at the loss of his beloved Lenore, his desire for relief from that suffering, and the questioning he subjects a raven to, who can only produce one repetitive answer, “nevermore”, driving the poet to despair as he discovers the truth of their eternal separation. It is a narrative poem and in it we can find, besides lyrical elements, others which refer to action and description, specially in the first part, previous to the bird´s entrance into the chamber. This simple story of how the raven introduces itself into the poet´s world to stay is used by Poe to develop this allegory of the search of the meaning of death, the possibility of an after life and the forceful negation that life gives.
Poe used some of the conventions of romanticism, as are: the focusing on the concerns of the individual self (we are told an intimate, subjective experience of the poet in the first person singular), the fascination with the mysterious and the irrational (most of the elements involved in the experience are unreal, and the atmosphere is gloomy and disturbing, nearly menacing, definitely fearsome, specially from the moment when the poet whispers the name of his beloved into the darkness and is answered by it: “And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore!” This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!” Merely this and nothing more”, lines 28-30) and the emphasis on emotion (emotions all of which tend to express uncertainty, all on the very edge of reason, as “wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming…”, line 25-26).
The topic of an afterlife is one of the capital interests of Poe, and it has been developed in many of his stories, specially in the supernatural ones, like “Morella” or “Ligeia”, but also in others, like the metaphysical one “The conversation of Eiros and Charmion”. The outcome is what is strikingly different, for in “The Raven” the possibility of an afterlife, an Eden (apparently spelled in an arbitrary way here –“Aidenn”- maybe simply distorted) where the poet and Lenore can meet again, is denied. Nor exists the possibility of meeting in this world. On the other hand the truth revealing character, here the bird, is present in many other stories, in different guises, as in “The shadow” or “Silence”, where Poe chose to present the devil himself in this position, not only laying truth bare to us but determining the course or events.
Symbolism weighs heavily in this poem but has been skilfully counteracted by its original structure and rhythm, resulting in an enchanting balance and musicality, that is one of the reasons for its success. Poe was very keen on originality (“My first object –as usual- was originality”, he says in “The Philosophy of Composition”), and knew well that he could not pretend it either in rhythm or metre “in each of the lines taken individually”. The originality resides in “their combination into stanza; nothing even remotely approaching this combination has ever been attempted”.
The poem is divided into eighteen stanzas, each having six verses, the first four alternating octameter acatalectic (eight feet, sixteen syllables) and heptameter catalectic (seven feet, one imperfect, having, in fact, an extra syllable), the fifth being again heptameter acatalectic and ending with a shorter tetrameter catalectic. The use of octameters is quite rare in English verse, but the alternation of long and slightly shorter verses occurs in the Ballad Stanza (four beats alternating with three beats) something that –besides other details I will later on mention- has led me to think Poe used a very interesting and definitely original variation of the folk song Ballad in this poem. The kind of metrical foot is trochaic, a strong syllable followed by a weak, also uncommon in English verse. As Poe himself says “The effect of this originality of combination is aided by other unusual, and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration”. The stanzas rhyme a-b-c-b-b-b, being “b” the same all through the poem. This must have been tremendously difficult to attain, and risky, too, but the result is amazingly effective. We also very often find internal or leonine rhyme, as in lines 9 and 10: “Eagerly I wished the morrow; -vainly I had sought to borrow from my books surcease of sorrow- sorrow for the lost Lenore”. Added to this is the extensive use of repetitive sound devices, such as:
*alliteration (“Deep into that darkness peering…doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before”, lines 25-26).
*assonance (“For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore –nameless here for evermore”, lines 11-12. Here all the “e” sounds could have been included too, being very similar. A powerful contrast occurs in the much darker words “For”, “Whom”, “Lenore” and “nevermore” situated in strategic positions surrounding the other, clearer words).
*onomatopoeia (“tapping” and “rapping”).
*or combinations of them (“silken, sad, uncertain rustling”, so beautifully suggesting the movements of the curtain).
Poe also used syntactical repetitions, with some variationsa:
*of words and structures (“Thrilled me – filled me”, line 14, “Followed fast and followed faster”, 64, or “Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling”, line 43 and “But the Raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling”, 67)
*of the refrain (“nevermore”), though producing “the variation of the application of the refrain, the refrain itself remaining, for the most part, unvaried”, as the author himself says, its alternative being only “nothing more”.
*and of every fifth verse, which systematically reproduces part of the fourth verse, usually with subtle and enriching shifts from its original literal meaning (“And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore!” This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”, lines 28-29).
*Finally, we also find a extended use of anaphora, the best example to be found in the last stanza: “And…and…and…and”, where also “still…still…” occurs.
This very extensive use of repetition obeys, from my point of view, to two main reasons. The first one is symbolism. Poe was very sensitive to the symbolic quality of words, in fact he was a symbolist even more than he was a transcendentalist. This quality, closely linked to the allegorical dimension of the poem, is of great importance to him and has to do with the second reason, the musical one. As has often been remarked, musicality is one of the characteristics of this poem, as of many others of Poe´s best ones, as “Ulalume” and “Annabel Lee” (where musicality is also mainly attained by the use of repetition). He was considered a musically gifted poet, who liked reading his poems aloud and had a voice of surpassing beauty. “He became wildly excited”, as Elmira Royster Shelton noted, when reading this particular poem out loud.
Simple strophic or stanzaic songs were much appreciated in the popular music of the 18th century and became varied in Romanticism, started by Schubert, Poe´s early contemporary, who was a master of song writing. In particular, the ballad stanza satisfies the music´s insistence on lyrical flourishes by repeating textual phrases and lines, being the refrain one of the many kinds of repetitions. The high- pitch-of-feeling style uses the technique of repetition to accommodate emotions which otherwise would be exhausted in only one saying. This happens mainly in the narrative ballad, a form of folk song. Repetition is also mnemonic, helping the singer or Bard to recite. In Poe´s case it helps the listener to fix concepts and the poem to reach its aim of being hypnotic and enthralling. Literary ballads developed from musical ones, mainly from broadsides. These were printings of ballads that included only the text, as the music was supposed to be well known. Before the existence of newspapers, broadsides were the chief source for spectacular news and had humorous purposes. They were widely cultivated in the 18th century, and after the publication of Thomas Percy´s compilation “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry” in 1767 very much imitated. Literary ballads had, and this is most striking, the supernatural among its subject matters, and elements of this kind (mainly including a mystical atmosphere imparted by the presence of magical appearances and apparatus) are the most common, besides romantic tragedies. It seems to me Poe combined these two subject matters in his poem, which is an original and elaborated variation of the literary ballad. To this he applied longer verses of unusual feet, nevertheless still retaining the original rhythm in the alternating long and short verses of the stanzaic ballad. As the verses are so long, the poet uses the caesura to pause in the middle of the verse. The result is a very effective and appealing structure, at the same time traditional, popular and novel.
However, there are some irregularities in the, on the other hand, very regular and balanced meter, that cannot but have been introduced on purpose, as they affect, though usually in a discreet manner, some very particular words. These are: “ebony” (line 43) and “ominous” (lines 70 and 71).
Two other irregularities affect longer fragments and to me have a much greater importance and significance. The first one is the disruptive line 66 (mark the symbolic quality of the number itself, twice the number of the devil, something that cannot have passed unheeded to a person interested in the supernatural as Poe) that says: “Of´Never – nevermore”. This stanza mentions the person who could have taught the Raven the word “nevermore”, “some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore – till the dirges of his Hope the melancholy burden bore of´Never – nevermore”. I believe this to be an autobiographical allusion, tinted with sarcasm (imagine Poe, in his dramatic vital distress, teaching a raven to say that word!!!), with which Poe foreshadows his doom, expressing it through the words he writes with capital letters: Disaster, Hope and Never. Curiously in this self-representation he calls himself a creator of songs, that in him become dirges, funeral songs or laments. The other important irregularity appears in the climax stanza, line 92, and affects one word, one that must be strongly stressed and compressed in order to avoid the irregularity, one that has also been written with a capital letter: “Heaven”. There lies the ultimate hope of the poet in meeting his beloved again, but the raven thwarts and vexes him, denying him all hope; him and, maybe, anybody else. It could both represent personal and individual or, by extension, universal deceit laid bare. In fact, I understand it as a denial of God, but I am not sure if a universal or merely a personal denial, or even if it is God who denies him. And this makes me wonder about Poe´s last words, “May God help my poor soul”.
There is another kind of irregularity in the poem, one that does not affect the meter but the position of the caesura. This is what really gives a swing to the rhythm, quickening or slowering the pace, the former by avoiding the caesura or enjambing the hemistiches, (“”Wretch,” I cried, “thy God has lent thee – by these angels he has sent thee /Respite – respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore; /Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”, lines 81-83). This irregularity happens more and more often as we reach the climax, the stanza previous to it being where the internal rhythm of the verse becomes widely disruptive, adding here all the elements of repetition mentioned before but in such a compressed way the former euphony becomes in fact nearly hurting cacophony. In the climax stanza itself rhythm is again attained (except for the irregularity of the word “Heaven” that I explained before and that now stands out much more in, so to say, calm waters), as if the poet stammered fearfully but in the end succeeded in putting forth clearly the one question that really mattered to him. This sole application of system would amply speak for Poe´s talent and control.
The structure of the poem is mentioned, though not explicitly described, in Poe´s “The Philosophy of Composition”, as the following: A first part including the first nine stanzas, situate the story and all its elements using a fantastic and lighter tone. It is the change of tone, which becomes suddenly serious, that decides the structure, for the following seven stanzas of the second part dramatically build up to the first climax, stanza 16. Another change of tone, now aggressive and violent, takes place, marking the third and last part of the poem, made of only two stanzas, and leading to another, second, climax, when the poet recognises himself doomed, forever condemned. These two climaxes mutually complement each other, as the knowledge and truth provided by the raven need two elements to be understood by –or enforced upon- the poet: revelation and persistence in time. What I find most interesting and disturbing is the fact that the end of the poem is left open (“And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting, on the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door”, lines 103-104), the dramatic situation being unresolved –it cannot be otherwise- and made perpetual.
In the first two stanzas the main features of the poem are exposed through symbolism, though not through imagery or metaphor, thus attempting to create a realist setting and atmosphere in which reality itself would be transformed, or better to say terribly elongated as to become deformed, unreal but still believed to be real. Poe was a master at this, as can be observed even in his most frightful horror stories, always taking place in bleak and dreary but carefully devised realistic environments. Here we find “midnight”, the symbol of the turning-of-the-tide moment, as we could say, when deep night starts, time for the supernatural and primitive, once free from the bondage of light and civilisation, to be traditionally unleashed; linked to this we have darkness, whom we know Poe strongly feared and from which the poet wants to be released by the morning (“I wished the morrow”). Here night and darkness symbolise the territory of the unknown. We also find books of “forgotten lore”, who knows, maybe old magic, that the poet is perusing, representing ancient, probably natural –meaning primitive- wisdom. At the same time the poet situates us in December, the last month of the year, also a turning point, and when the winter solstice takes place, the longest night of the year. If we connect these terms, December, darkness and old lore, we can come to its contrary, the religion of Sol, a pre-Roman native Italian cult that the Romans equated with Helios, and whose greatest festival took place at the time of the winter solstice, being regarded as the day of the rebirth of the god and of the renovation of life. So we discover that what the poet was really doing was searching for hope (“vainly I had sought to borrow from my books surcease of sorrow – sorrow for the lost Lenore”) and maybe some way of reviving his beloved. And he was doing this not through Christian faith, even though Lenore is repeatedly linked to angels (“maiden whom the angels name Lenore”), for, in fact, Lenore and the Raven are characters that have a more transcendental meaning. I believe there is more to this bird than what Poe mentions in his lecture (that he chose it because it could speak and its hue made a great contrast with the marble of Pallas´ bust) or implies from several expressions in the text, as making it come from a Plutonian (underworld) Shore or being send by the very devil (“Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore”, line 86).
Not only was there the pre-Roman Sol cult but in the Roman imperial times we find the mystery religions, those of Isis and Mithra. It is precisely in the Mithraic ceremonies that we find seven degrees of initiations, the first being represented by Corax (a Raven) and the fourth by Leo (a Lion), from where the name Lenora is derived. The Corax or lowest ranks were the servants of the community, and Poe says of him he was “a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore” (line 38). In spite of being a servant, as is made quite clear by the function he has, remaining by the poet and reminding him the one ultimate word “nevermore”, he is, in comparison with all other beings not initiated into the Mithraic cult –as the poet himself, I think-, stately. What is more, he is “perched upon a bust of Pallas, just above my chamber door” (line 41). Pallas Athena was the Greek goddess of wisdom and the arts. The cult of Mithra was Persian, it came from Asia Minor and was probably not introduced before the 2nd century AD. This means it came after the Hellenistic and the Roman cults. Parallel to the Mithraic cult came other Syrian cults, closely related to the Greek ones, and the height of their influence was in the 3rd century AD, when Sol, also a Syrian sun god, was on the verge of becoming the chief god of the Roman Empire. Even emperor Constantine the Great wavered between Sol and Christ, finally inclining himself for the latter. Thus the Mithraic Raven comes chronologically behind the Hellenistic Pallas, the rational is this way situated below the mysterious and emotional, both above the door, which can be interpreted as the way to the outer world, the opening into the universe. Pallas was first there, to remind the poet of a rational attitude, but the Raven comes afterwards to impose other principles, the principles of unreason. Of course, the Raven only appears in the 7th stanza, but already in the first one is the uncannyness of the visitor suggested, when the poet says to himself in a tranquillising way (and here we first discover his uneasiness): “´Tis some visiter,” I murmured, “tapping at my chamber door – Only this and nothing more”. At the same time we find here an element of light that will turn up again at the closing stanza of the poem, transformed by the things that happen in between: the shadow of the embers on the floor, that will later become the shadow of the Raven, produced by the lamplight over him. The embers and the Raven are thus symbolically linked, signifying or the hellish origin of the bird or the heathen character of the mithraic cult.
All of these suppositions may seem a bit far going or awkwardly absurd but if there ever was a learned man, a man that read everything that fell into his hands and had, besides, a particular interest for the mysteries ancient cultures had delved deep into, that man was Poe. On the other hand, Mithra was the god of soldiers, and we must not forget Poe attempted for a while a military career, ironically only for the sake of the money it would bring him.
The poem develops in a whirling crescendo from the first stanzas to the first climax, which, according to the author, is the only one and was written before anything else in order to be able to “graduate the stanzas which were to precede, so that none of them might surpass this in rhythmical effect” (“The Philosophy of Composition”). To this building up of emotion contribute all the elements which I have already explained, in an uncanny and at the same time wonderful accumulation of symbols and sounds.
Now comes what I consider the last and most important part of the poem. Another change of tone marks this division: the poet has stopped imploring and suddenly become very aggressive and commanding, a reaction to the Raven´s last answer. And we are unexpectedly given a hint that the Raven is, in fact, completely unreal, a symbol or emblem of what Poe called “Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance”. There is, in addition, the only metaphorical expression to be found in all the poem, in line 101, in the stanza previous to the last. Poe noted it himself in his lecture and it is “Take thy beak from out my heart and take thy form from off my door!”. It is, besides, the only verse made of one-syllable words, for not even when in line 56 he spoke of one word, referring to “nevermore”, has he used exclusively one-syllable ones. Thus, again, sound determines everything. Sound which in poetry is music. But the Raven admits no orders, it cannot be defied. It represents truth, painful and abiding, unrelenting truth. For that is its task, to reveal and remind.
But, apart from the memory of love, there is something else, in my opinion, the Raven stays to proclaim, though without ever mentioning it. A truth related to its mythraic roots and that has been progressively becoming evident as the poem advanced. The fact that the poet is an outsider not only from the dimension Lenore has gained by her death –and we do not know whether she already had it while living, but are led to think so because of the implications of Lenore´s name-, but from the world the Raven comes from, wherever this can be, and ultimately from his own house, where the bird has installed himself, and from universal reason and Christian hope, to which the Raven´s position over the door denies access. Accordingly I see a conflict in the poet´s mind, between Christian doctrine and the truth revealed by the mythraic Raven, who, as an animal after all, is also linked with nature. Not transcendental nature but the nature conceived or envisaged by some other writers sensitive to its uncanny darkness, full of forebodings. Writers like Charles Brockden Brown, the “father of American writing”, who exploited horror and terror in his novels, at the same time reflecting a thoughtful liberalism.
A conflict also between the dual forces that strove in Poe´s soul and that affected, as I said at the beginning of this text, his temper –gentleness and irritability, reflected in the poem by the sudden changes of tone-; his mind –on the one hand, in first part of the poem we find an idealist and visionary, evading into a world of eerie thoughts and fears, on the other hand, in the second and third parts the poet shows his power of ratiocination in the questions he asks the Raven- and his art –Poe was capable of writing both this poem, so full of rhythm, word appeal and suggestiveness, and its parallel lecture, describing the outlines of its creation in a completely different style, considering it as a mathematical problem-. A duality that was reflected in his life, too: his desire to succeed, to hit the right path, to love, that was constantly thwarted by destiny. Awareness of this, and the corresponding frustration, must have driven him apart.
I would be quite ready to affirm that the idea of what Eric Fromm called “separateness” is what underlies this poem and Poe´s whole life. Always must he have known his condition, not to say he felt doomed. And facts only corroborated it. That such a circumstance still allowed Poe to conceive and write about beauty, and do it so beautifully, is difficult to understand. But maybe Poe himself explained it to us in his fable “Silence”: the ultimate horror produced by the absence of sounds, the absence of words.
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