Criticism on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven"

"The Raven" was first published in the New York Evening Mirror on January 29, 1845. In literary criticism the poem has become virtually inseparable from Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition," which was published a year after the poem was written. Poe's discussion on "The Raven" in this essay is thought by some to be "the best extant criticism of the poem" (Ketterer, 168), and by others to be "an artificial deception, a hoax upon critics and public alike" (Quinn, p. 440). Perhaps Edward Davidson summed it up best when he said that "The Philosophy of Composition" "cast a little light and much confusion on the poem" (Kesterson, 115).

I have chosen to present some of what I found to be the most interesting thoughts on this poem, in order to provide others with insight into the meaning of "The Raven".


UNIVERSAL THEMES

One thing we can be sure of is that Poe did not deceive us regarding his thoughts on universal themes such as melancholy and poetry, symbolized in "The Raven" by death and beauty. According to Quinn, "He had been talking and writing about it all his thinking life, and his first poem ... is based on the tragedy which springs from the sorrow which comes to a lover on the death of the woman he loves" (441).

Hand in hand with melancholy is the theme of universal disparity. See below for comments on the meaning of the poem itself.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote:

"I had gone so far as the conception of a Raven—the bird of ill omen—monotonously repeating the one word, "Nevermore," at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone, and in length about one hundred lines. Now, never losing sight of the object supremeness, or perfection, at all points, I asked myself—"Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?" Death—was the obvious reply. "And when," I said, is the most melancholy of topics most poetical?" From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious—"When it most closely allies itself to beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such a topic are those of a bereaved lover.

". . . I determined to produce continuously novel effects, by the variation of the application to the refrain—the refrain itself remaining, for the most part, unvaried."

From "The Philosophy of Composition," which was first published in Graham's Magazine, April, 1846.


THE STUDENT

The state of the student's mind in "The Raven" is generally agreed upon—he hovers on the edge of sanity, and asks the raven questions for which he knows (yet does not want to know) the answers, but which he cannot stop himself from asking.

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.

Ketterer believes that, ironically, Lenore might have made an appearance had the student not rationalized the phenomenon of the raven. There was the perfume from "an unseen censer," and a "sad, uncertain rustling." The student, "filled with 'fantastic terrors never felt before,'" could have perceived her, if she had revealed herself.


THE RAVEN

Ketterer believes that the Raven represents the quest of the intellectual for knowledge (169); he equates it with the volumes of forgotten lore, and suggests that the "shorn and shaven" bird is intended to ridicule the student's reliance on knowledge. It is therefore ironic that the student mocks the raven's appearance, because in doing so, he is mocking himself (170).

"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!"

We read in Kesterson (117) that the student is reacting not only with mockery to that which he cannot understand—the unearthly presence of the raven in his chamber—but also with relief, because he had feared the ghost of Lenore at his door.

In Quinn, it is noted that Poe claimed to chose a raven because he needed a "non-reasoning creature, capable of speech" (441). In "The Philosophy of Composition" (above), Poe implies that he chose the raven because it is a bird of ill omen. I believe there is truth to both of these, although from what I have read of Poe, I think he would argue either for one or the other, depending on the mood he was in.


THE POEM

"In ['The Raven'] are the uses of pictorialism to suggest the inner workings of a disturbed consciousness and also the religious necessity, the drive of a consciousness toward understanding" (Kesterson, 115)

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door

In Kesterson (118), Edward Davidson concludes that the poem is "a set of stages in the process of self-knowledge or the power of human consciousness to be aware not only of its being but even of its non-being." In the poem, the student is mourning Lenore's death, but does not really understand death. As the poem progresses, he begins to question both life and death, and the Raven's answers to these questions are actually from the student's own subconscious mind, which he soon loses as a result of these queries.

Davidson maintains that "the poem is a symbolic destruction of the mind by the impact of reality upon it." and adds that it raises the question "what is the relation between reality and the mind's ideas about reality?" (119). He adds that "imagination ... is neither entirely of the mind nor of the sensible world" (119). Davidson concludes that "'The Raven' is a virtual admission of universal disparity: the imagination is lost in the shadow that lies upon the floor, while the inanimate objects, bird and bust, stare out in triumphant rigidity."


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