An Introduction, from Owl Eyes

Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

First published in 1845, “The Raven” launched Edgar Allan Poe into literary fame and remains his signature work to this day. The forlorn atmosphere, the raven’s cryptic message, and the sweeping formal beauty all make for an unforgettable poem.

“The Raven” is a classic tale of loss and grief. Our unnamed protagonist, a scholar, sits in his study on a bleak winter night. The man’s undying sorrow for his deceased lover, Lenore, appears to him in the form of a raven. The poem’s plot depends on the raven’s thoughtless refrain of “Nevermore,” a word which drives the man mad as he seeks meaning in his loss. Poe himself was no stranger to loss: over the course of his life, he faced the deaths of his mother, adoptive mother, brother and wife. Poe conveys the devastating psychological aftermath of such loss through the use of his tools as a poet.

On a formal level, “The Raven” is not only the work most exemplary of Poe’s style and writerly obsessions, but it is also the focus for his essay “The Philosophy of Composition.” For Poe, the writer’s sole project is to make the reader experience poetic beauty through the creation of a singular, powerful emotion. To this end, a poem should be brief, offer beauty instead of morals, and should be musical. In “The Raven” we find a testament to each of these goals. In a way, it is less about grief and loss and more about Poe’s desire to create a state of melancholy. 

As Poe attests in his essay, he was not struck by a sudden inspiration to pen an account of lost love. Rather, he developed “The Raven” through a series of calculated decisions. Having decided upon a hundred lines as the proper length and beauty as the proper effect, Poe chose melancholy as “the highest manifestation of Beauty” and “the most legitimate of poetical tones.” By his account, the story of the death of the beautiful Lenore came to him after the conceit of the raven’s refrain of “Nevermore”—a refrain chosen for its sonorous qualities. The story of Lenore, then, serves as a solution, a topic that is melancholy enough to match the raven’s dark refrain.

The music of “The Raven” deserves careful attention. The sounds and words make it clear that Poe wrote the poem with his ear and sought to produce beauty in it through the handling of rhyme and meter. To begin, the lines have an unmistakable propulsion, made possible by Poe’s strict control of meter. Let’s consider the poem’s first stanza:

     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 employs an unusual metrical scheme in this poem, known as trochaic octameter. Put plainly, each line contains eight beats; each beat consists of two syllables—the first one stressed, the second unstressed. The overall effect of Poe’s scheme creates a feeling of unrest. The octameter line really operates as two lines of tetrameter put together. As the poet Mary Oliver describes it, tetrameter—the four-beat line—“can release a felt agitation or restlessness, or gaiety.” It is a meter that pushes forward, not allowing one to take a breath. Try reading the first two lines out loud, making sure to emphasize the stressed syllables:

     Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

     Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,

The first line contains all 16 syllables of the octameter line, including a final unstressed syllable. This “fullness” makes the line seem to plunge right into the next, creating that sense of restlessness. 

Perhaps Poe’s most brilliant move is to end each stanza in a shortened line of tetrameter, or four stressed beats. As we arrive at the raven’s repetitive “Nevermore,” the final word in most of the poem’s stanzas, the propulsion falters. The restless meter carries us from line to line and then comes to a sudden halt. The effect is like sprinting over a cliff to find yourself suddenly suspended, unsupported, and seeking the next line. Poe’s chosen verse form beautifully conveys the experience of the protagonist, who searches restlessly for answers only to be met by the raven’s curt, dispiriting response. Poe’s only admitted goal with his verse structure was originality, which is commendable. However, it is even more impressive that his desire for originality produced a verse form that so directly contributes to the poem’s greater effect.

Poe’s control of sound in “The Raven” extends beyond meter with his use and manipulation of rhyme. He carefully chose the dominant, organizing rhyme of “-ore” for its somber, sonorous qualities in order to set the poem’s melancholic tone. The lines are full of instances of rich assonance, consonance, and internal rhyme. Consider the final stanza:

     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 lamplight 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 stanza’s first line unfurls a series of subtle internal rhymes representative of Poe at his finest. In the combination of “flitting,” “still,” and “sitting,” we find a repetition of short i sounds, as well as reiterations of l and t consonant sounds. In “flitting” and “still,” we find a rim rhyme: the “-lit” in “flitting” is reversed into “-til” in “still.” Not only does Poe offer instances of clear alliteration such as “pallid”/“Pallas” and “floating”/“floor,” he imbues the entire stanza with a signature set of consonant sounds that resurface repeatedly. Pay attention to the r, l, m, n, and s sounds. These recurring consonant cues create what Ezra Pound calls a “residue of sound”: the stanza develops a particular flavor. The reader finds her teeth and tongue forming the same shapes again and again. 

So what are we to make of all this music? In a sense, it means little to our understanding the poem but nevertheless gives us pleasure. Poe envelops us in his language because it is beautiful, and that is enough. In another sense, one could say that this beauty brings us into closer contact with the deep melancholy at the poem’s core. It is up for debate whether melancholy serves as a portal into beauty, as Poe suggests in his essays, or vice versa.

Understood in the light of Poe’s concerns as a writer, “The Raven” is not only a master class in formal control but also in innovation. We can find in each detail, each word and rhyme, traces of the poem’s overarching sorrowfulness. As the poem sweeps us away with its vivid imagery and lively musicality, keep in mind Poe’s singularity of purpose. “The Raven” invites us into a carefully architected atmosphere of melancholy through which Poe offers us glimpses of true poetic beauty and a timeless tale of the human desire for meaning.

References

Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1994.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy Of Composition.” Graham’s Magazine XXVIII, no. 4 (April 1846): 163-67. 

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Poetic Principle.” Sartain’s Union Magazine VII, no. 4 (October 1850): 231-39.

Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1954.