The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe – A Classic

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe – An Analysis

What makes “The Raven” so great?

It has been my experience that everyone in the English speaking world is familiar with Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, The Raven. Most folks hear the poem long before they are required to read it in their High School English class. It has permeated into our society, even appearing in parody on one of the The Simpson’s Tree House of Horror Halloween specials. But why is it that even one hundred and sixty some odd years after its publication do we all know and love it?

In case you are new to the English speaking world, here is the ‘story’ the poem tells:

On a dark and stormy night the narrator has all but fallen asleep over some books he had been reading in his library trying, in vain, to distract him from the sorrow he was feeling over his deceased lady love, Lenore. He awakes to hear a knocking on the door, opens it up wide and in flies a raven which quite promptly sits upon a statue stationed directly over the door. The narrator expresses an array of emotions about the bird and entertains him for a moment by speaking to it as if it were visiting royalty. He is shocked to learn that the raven can speak and quickly imagines how such a thing could have become possible. In his moment of happiness he suddenly remembers how sad he was before the bird came and how sad he will be once it leaves, so he falls into a sudden depression. Knowing the bird can speak only the word “Nevermore” he asks it a series of increasingly depressing and leading questions where the answer will always be “nevermore.” He tries to insult the raven into leaving not once but twice and of course it being a bird seeking refuge from a storm outside is not likely to leave, assuming of course that it could even understand him. Feeling totally depressed and utterly defeated by the raven the narrator slumps down into a chair and resides himself to life of misery.

Not really an uplifting tale, it doesn’t spread a massage of hope or the triumphant of human nature. Some may say it tells a tale of undying devotion, but I don’t think so. Truth be told, it sortta glorifies the descent into madness and manic depression over the death of a loved one. I am not suggesting that grief is not real and that everyone handles it differently, but Edgar Allan Poe himself was not capable of falling in love with a woman unless she was happily married and sortta creeped out by him or on her death bed.

I suppose one can say that The Raven touches us all because it speaks so deeply and intimately of death and mourning, an event that will not leave a single person without having experienced, but that alone cannot be the reason. There are scads of poems that speak of death, grief, and madness and do so at varying levels of intensity.

In truth, I don’t know that the content of the story is what makes the poem so memorable but rather the poetic structure in which it was written. There are a lot of English Literature words that I could use to explain how the poem gets its pulsating and driving tone, but I don’t think using them would help. To appreciate the poem and experience the musical tonality that it has one must listen to it being read aloud, preferably by someone who has, if not a knack for that sort of thing, is at least familiar enough with the poem not to stumble over the archaic words sprinkled throughout it.

I guess why the poem is so memorable is because of the sixteen syllable musical beat that drives the reader on. It is slow and steady and rises and falls with the telling of the tale, propelling one line of text into the next. It is written in 18 stanzas (little paragraphs). The first and third line of each stanza is broken into two halves and rhymes with itself, but not with any other line in the stanza. The second, fourth, fifth, and sixth line all end in rhyme. The third and fourth lines are written in two halves that each rhyme with one another while the second and fifth lines do not have the rhyme at the line’s half way point. Sounds a bit confusing, not really, look at this:

1 Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
2 Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
3 While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
4 As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
5 ” ‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door;
6 Only this, and nothing more.”

Line one, “dreary” and “weary” rhyme.
Line two, nothing rhymes but rather tumbles forward.
Line three, “napping” and “tapping” rhyme.
Line four, “Rapping” rhymes back to line three and ends in the word “door” which carries onto the next line.
Line five, the first half rhymes with nothing, “tapping” hints back a line, and end in “door” which propels the reader onto the last line.
Line six, the more “more” rhymes back to lines four and five.

This basic formula is repeated for the rest of the poem, and once the reader has established the rhythm in their head, the story just simply unwinds itself, like a cart rolling downhill.

If you doubt the lyrical nature of this poem, instead of reading the poem aloud, try humming the words. It may sound a little like Bugs Bunny stalking up on Elmer Fudd, but that is not necessarily a bad thing, the Warner Brother cartoon classics were all set to classical music.

One little bit of The Raven trivia for ya: Edgar had originally intended for the bird to be a parrot and not a raven. He opted for the later because of its symbolic nature and dark feathers.
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The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe - An Analysis
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The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe - An Analysis
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I guess why the poem is so memorable is because of the sixteen syllable musical beat that drives the reader on. It is slow and steady and rises and falls with the telling of the tale, propelling one line of text into the next. It is written in 18 stanzas (little paragraphs).
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Theresa Bane

Theresa Bane

QrT – Theresa Bane Vampirologist and one of Jim Butcher’s Asylum Inmates.
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  • Maybe someone could use this to help introduce Poe to the media generation?

  • Hey, I thought I would be the first to respond but not fast enough. Anyway I think Theresa Bane is right on the money. Plus the shirt is sharp.

  • I was reading the wiki entry for The Raven not too long ago due to Simpsons halloween episode featuring it. I hadn’t realized it was a complete reproduction, just assuming that it had been altered here or there. The history of the poem is pretty interesting, especially the fact that while it was popular right off the bat, it never made Poe any money. ‘As he later lamented, “I have made no money. I am as poor now as ever I was in my life—except in hope, which is by no means bankable.”‘ It’s kinda like the IP pirating of the day.

  • Amanda

    I think a small (well, sizable) part of the appeal of the poem is its content. Madness, grief, and other certain emotions associated with death are somewhat taboo in many cultures. People do not experience them often, but when they do, it seems so all consuming. I think something of the cadence of the poem speaks to the drawing in that happens when one is winding down into despair at the loss of something dear.