Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

The Raven

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."

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 forevermore.

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."

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?"
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—
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, "are 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."

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
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 that placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther 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."

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 sad 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."

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!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh, quaff this kind of 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."

"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."

"Be that word our sign of 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."

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!
--Edgar Allan Poe

OK! Here's the one you've all been waiting for. The quintessential Halloween poem...THE RAVEN. I've been resisting posting this one for months, just so I could have it to post today. I hope you appreciate it.

There is good reason for this poem to be almost universally highly regarded, and one of the most famous American poems ever. Poe uses nearly all of the poetic devices I've been talking about with the finesse of an expert.
  • The rhythm and meter of the poem is nigh on perfect--with not a syllable out of place except once or twice to produce a jarring effect. The way he alternates between ending the lines on a stressed or unstressed syllable helps with the feelings of empty darkness and suspense--there's a void at the end of some lines that makes you want to hurry and read the next.
  • The rhyme scheme is ABCBBB, but there's lots of internal rhyme as well. My favorite example is in the lines "Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice;/ Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
  • He uses alliteration frequently as well, carefully choosing the sound to be repeated for maximum effect. Sought, Surcease and Sorrow make a ghostly whispering while Grim, unGainly, Ghastly, Gaunt makes a gagging revulsion.
  • He has plenty of classical allusions which pack more connotations of meaning into the relatively small space he has to work with than mere description alone. By having the bird perch on the pallid bust of Pallas, he implies that the bird is associated with classical wisdom, but wisdom offers no life or health or hope to this man.
  • The visual imagery is striking with its contrasts--The black bird on the white bust, or the December tempest outside compared to the plush comfort inside. At the same time, these opposites are equated to each other--he constantly asks the raven for wisdom, and the velvet cushion just makes him remember how lonely he is.

These examples and many others that I don't have room to list are not there by accident. Poe wrote a whole essay on the hard work involved in composing poetry with The Raven as his case in point. Though he may have exaggerated just how calculated every step was, he certainly thought about all these things during the composition and editing of the poem.

I also think it's interesting that in that essay (The Philosophy of Composition), he says that "the death... of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world." I thought that matched nicely with my poem, Farewell My Love, written because having one's fiance die was the most tragic thing I could think of.

One more thing that not many people point out, that stood out to me in today's re-reading are the questions the man asks the Raven. He has already decided that it only knows the one word, but then asks questions like, "Will I ever see her again?" and is outraged at the expected answer. This man is making himself miserable on purpose.

This poem is perfectly suited as a read-aloud, and many people have done so to great effect. Poe himself did it--At one literary salon, a guest noted, "to hear [Poe] repeat the Raven... is an event in one's life." It was recalled, "He would turn down the lamps till the room was almost dark, then standing in the center of the apartment he would recite... in the most melodious of voices... So marvelous was his power as a reader that the auditors would be afraid to draw breath lest the enchanted spell be broken."

Finally, I thought it was appropriate that last night's Simpson's Treehouse of Horror was the episode had this clip in it.


  1. I wanted to post a picture of Quoth the Raven with the Death of Rats, but I couldn't find a good one...alas!

  2. The Simpsons clip seems to have been removed.

    Have you seen this one?

    What Troubled Poe's Raven
    John Bennett

    Could Poe walk again tomorrow, heavy with dyspeptic sorrow,
    While the darkness seemed to borrow darkness from the night before,
    From the hollow gloom abysmal, floating downward, grimly dismal,
    Like a pagan curse baptismal from the bust above the door,
    He would hear the Raven croaking from the dusk above the door,
    "Never, never, nevermore!"

    And, too angry to be civil, "Raven," Poe would cry "or devil,
    Tell me why you will persist in haunting Death's Plutonian shore?"
    Then would croak the Raven gladly, "I will tell you why so sadly,
    I so mournfully and madly, haunt you, taunt you, o'er and o'er,
    Why eternally I haunt you, daunt you, taunt you o'er and o'er,
    Only this, and nothing more.

    "Forty-eight long years I've pondered, forty-eight long years I've wondered,
    How a poet ever blundered into a mistake so sore.
    How could lamplight from your table ever in the world be able,
    From below, to throw my sable shadow 'streaming on the floor,'
    When I perched up here on Pallas, high above your chamber-door?
    Tell me that, if nothing more!"

    Then, like some wan, weeping willow, Poe would bend above his pillow,
    Seeking surcease in the billow where mad recollections drown,
    And in tearful tones replying, he would groan "There's no denying
    Either I was blindly lying, or the world was upside down -
    Say, by Joe! - it was just midnight, so the world was upside down -
    Aye, the world was upside down!"

  3. I really like the picture of the raven in this post. Is there any way I could get a copy of the original, or do you know where I could find it? Thanks.

  4. It's in the first page of results in a google image search for raven.