Acceptance and Subtle Autobiography in “The Raven”
As the account of his life goes, Edgar Allan Poe was a notoriously dark and depressed man who was always in search of love. When he finally found a marital relationship with his first cousin, she passed away, making his life even more tragic and empty. He often wrote about his despair over his lost love, and used it to inspire many great works. Some may consider Poe to have pioneered the horror genre. His most famous piece of work, The Raven, played an important role in giving birth to this new type of entertainment. The Raven is about a man, heartbroken over his recently deceased lover, who gets a visit from a mysterious raven. The poem documents the speaker’s feelings and curiosities about this raven who, quite shockingly, can speak. However, the Raven can only speak one word, which allows the speaker to drive himself mad. Through the use of symbolism and allusion in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, Poe illustrates that an inability to accept the past will inevitably lead to the self-destruction of one’s future.
Poe uses symbolism to show the consequences that come from the rejection or acceptance of finality. In the poem, the Raven is used to reflect the speaker’s denial of the past and to show the self-destruction that comes along with it. Upon interacting with the Raven, the speaker quickly learns that the only thing it says is “nevermore.” However, he goes on to “implore–is there–is there balm in Gilead?” to which the Raven replies “Nevermore.” He is asking the Raven if there is hope in his future. Although he has already learned that the Raven will only ever reply with “nevermore,” he still asks it questions that he wants to have a positive answer, failing to accept the Raven’s pattern of answer. As if that was not enough of a lesson to him, almost immediately after, he asks the Raven to “tell this soul sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn, it shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the Angels name Lenore” to which the Raven predictably answers “nevermore.” The speaker allows this to infuriate and depress him further. The speaker’s refusal to accept the certainty of the Raven’s answer leads him to engage in this self-torturous activity. The Raven reflects his incapacity to accept certainties learned from the past and this is supported by the way the Raven first appears.
The poem starts with the speaker perusing over some literature when he hears a tapping on the door. Initially he ignores the tapping, but then it happens again, which frightens him. He assumes that its a visitor and goes to open the door but is met only with darkness. He then calls out to his deceased beloved Lenore, with the slight hope that it was she who was tapping on the door. When he goes back inside, he hears the tapping now by the window. He flings it open and “in there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore. Not the least obeisance made he.” The Raven forcefully and unwantedly enters his home, only after when he foolishly calls out for his dead Lenore. This further suggests that the Raven is a symbol of his denying of the past. All of the speakers depression is due to the self-destructive activity of rejecting the fact of the past. Only when he accepts that his Lenore will never be with him again is he relieved of some of his sorrows. The speaker is pondering the nature of the Raven while sitting on a velvet cushion, which reminds him of Lenore. It leads him to the realization that “she shall press, ah, nevermore!” Once the speaker admits to himself the finality or “nevermore” of Lenore’s death, the air is then mysteriously filled with a sweet perfume that “God hath lent thee–by these angels he hath sent thee respite–respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore.” The speaker believes that God has sent him a cure to his sorrows as symbolized by nepenthe, an opioid. Only when he accepts that Lenore will be there “nevermore,” is he relieved of his pain. However, the relief does not last long because he then proceeds to ask the Raven questions regarding his future happiness and his reunion with Lenore in heaven to which the speaker knows it will answer “nevermore.”
Poe uses allusion to express the subjugation that an incapacity to accept the past has over reason and the eternal hell that comes from succumbing to it. The Raven is described to be very forcible as evidenced in the way he enters the speaker’s house. When the Raven first enters, he “perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door–perched, and sat, and nothing more.” Pallas is the Roman goddess of wisdom and reason. The fact that the Raven, a symbol of the refusal to accept the past, is perching atop it, is a metaphor for the overwhelming power that living in the past has over logic and reason. Examples of this are when the speaker does unreasonable things like calling out to his dead Lenore or asking the Raven questions that he wants a positive answer to. The speaker comments on the Raven’s confident and dominating nature when he says “‘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!’” He is saying that although the bird looks weak, he is definitely not a coward. From that the speaker assumes that the Raven is from the “Night’s Plutonian shore,” which is the Roman version of the River Styx, the river leading to the underworld. He is suggesting that the Raven, being from hell, is a sort of evil, and thus that the mindset of living in the past is an evil. This is supported when, in the last stanza, the poem switches to the present tense, revealing that the Raven has never left the bust in the speaker’s home. He says that “[the Raven’s] 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!” The switching of the poem to the present tense suggests that the Raven, or the mindset of living in the past, has control over the speaker. It is the mindset that chooses to stay, and not the speaker who chooses to allow it. The shadow that the Raven casts on the floor has locked the speaker’s soul in it, meaning that his soul has been possessed by the darkness that comes from a rejection of the past. The fact that the Raven is from hell suggests that being locked in this state is actually a perpetual and inescapable hell.
Through the use of symbolism and allusion, Poe exposes how a rejection of the past can turn into an overwhelming power that takes over one’s life, essentially making it a sort of eternal hell. Being that he used the tragic loss of his love to inspire his work, this is most likely a similar fate experienced by Poe himself. In fact, his death may be linked to the kind heartbreak-driven loss of self-control suggested in this poem.
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