Back To CourseEnglish 102: American Literature
13 chapters | 130 lessons | 11 flashcard sets
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Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.
Honestly, if you haven't at least heard of Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven,' then you have likely been living under a rock. This famous poem, which was written in 1845, making him extremely popular even in his own time, has been referenced and parodied countless times over the 150 years since it was written. Even during Poe's time people were reciting the poem, almost like we would sing along to some LMFAO. We might just sing the lyrics at first, but eventually we'd start creating our own, playing off the original.
So how popular is Poe? Like I said, countless allusions to and parodies of Poe's 'The Raven' exist today. His raven and lyrics have made it into books, movies, television shows, magazines, cartoons, and even professional wrestling. Yes, professional wrestling. Have you heard of Scott Levy, also known as The Raven? Or did you know that Poe was from Baltimore? Guess where they got the name for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. Poe's raven shows up in multiple Stephen King novels. The Joker in 1989's Batman quotes the narrator of the poem. The Gilmore Girls, Calvin & Hobbs, and Mad Magazine pay homage to the Dark Romantic poet. Even The Simpsons, on their first ever 'Treehouse of Horror' episode, provides us with their version of 'The Raven,' complete with a lovesick Homer and Bart-headed raven.
Even if you are familiar with the haunting black bird and his taunting 'Nevermore,' you may not know the poem itself. The poem begins after midnight on a cold December evening. A man, the narrator, sits alone by the fire dozing off as he reads a book, hoping to forget about Lenore, his lost love.
While he sits, he hears a knocking at the door. He gets up to answer, apologizing in the process, only to open the door and find absolutely nothing there. With it being after midnight, he's a little creeped out, so he tries to tell himself that it's just the wind hitting the window. When he goes to the window to remedy the problem, however, what should swoop in, but the Raven.
Unlike a normal bird that would probably fly around the room scared, the Raven just perches itself on a statue of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, above the door. Rather unnaturally, the narrator begins to talk to it, asking for its name. And while you wouldn't expect a raven to be able to answer, he does respond with, 'Nevermore.'
Of course, this is alarming for a couple of reasons. One, the Raven is actually talking. Two, the only thing he ever says has such a foreboding connotation that the narrator can't help but be unnerved. In fact, he is so rattled that he just keeps asking questions to which the Raven continues to respond with the same answer. And sadly, that is the last answer the narrator wants to hear. By the end of the poem, the narrator has lost his mind, giving in to the sorrow of losing his lost love Lenore and knowing that she will return 'nevermore.'
In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe wrote an essay called 'The Philosophy of Composition' where he explains his writing method and how intentional each part of the writing process must be, something he called the unity of effect. Additionally, Poe believed, that 'the most poetical topic in the world' was 'the death...of a beautiful woman,' which is no doubt why he chose to develop our narrator's madness as he is faced with the reality that his long lost love Lenore is gone forever. According to an essay, Poe wrote 'The Raven' in hopes of appealing to both critics and commoners, and the result is a spooky poem chock-full of symbolism and literary effects.
A symbol is something that represents something else. In literature a symbol can be subtle or obvious. In 'The Raven' the symbol is obvious. Poe himself meant the Raven to symbolize 'mournful, never-ending remembrance.' Our narrator's sorrow for his lost, perfect maiden Lenore is the driving force behind his conversation with the Raven. In turn, the Raven, even through his limited vocabulary, forces the narrator to face the reality that Lenore will return 'nevermore,' a fact that the narrator does not want to acknowledge. As a result, by the poem's conclusion the Raven has the eyes 'of a demon's' and its shadow hangs over the narrator's soul. For the poem's speaker, the Raven has moved beyond mournful, never-ending remembrance to an embodiment of evil.
Poetic devices are the techniques a poet uses to write a poem. The meter of a poem is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. The rhythm is then the measured flow of words that is established through the stressed and unstressed syllables. Now that probably sounds like the same definition for both words, right? Well, it's a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless. To find the meter, we have to look at each syllable in the foot to determine if it is stressed or unstressed. The effect of the meter is the rhythm. Let's look at the first line of the poem.
'Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,'
If we read the line with an over emphasis on the stressed syllables, we can mark which are and are not stressed. When doing this for poetry, we mark the stressed syllables with a line ( / ) and the unstressed with sort of a 'u.'
Once we mark the stressed and unstressed syllables, then we can figure out the meter. To determine the meter we have to look at two things: the stressed/unstressed pattern and the foot count in each line. The first line starts with a stressed syllable, followed by an unstressed syllable, and the pattern continues. This pattern of stressed followed by unstressed is called trochee. Then we can count each foot in the line. There are eight, which is called octameter. So, the meter for this line of the poem is trochaic octameter.
But that's just the first line. Most poets like to change it up and use different meters throughout the poem, to add emphasis to different lines or to reflect the content of the poem. Poe changes the meter in the last line of the stanza, which only has seven syllables instead of eight.
'On-ly this, and no-thing more.'
The rhythm creates a sort of sing-song quality that grows increasingly sinister as the poem progresses.
In addition to the rhythm and meter, Poe uses internal rhyme, or rhyme within a line of poetry, to add to the 'unity of effect.'
'Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.'
The words 'remember' and 'December' are both located in the same line and rhyme. They also rhyme with the word 'ember,' which is in the middle of the next line. This adds to the rhythm as well as creates a sort of beat, like a heart, with the repetition of the 'b' sound.
Which leads us to alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds. Poe uses this throughout the poem for different effects. Take for example:
'And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain'
'Silken,' 'sad,' 'un-certain,' and 'ru-stling' all have an 's' sound, like a curtain itself might have as it rustles in the wind - a likely intentional effect for a poet who believes that each element of a poem should be used for unity.
Of course, repetition in and of itself is a poetic device that Poe uses liberally. Repetition, using the same word or phrase over and over, is most obvious with the Raven's 'Nevermore.' But we see it elsewhere in the poem too, such as when the narrator is trying to calm himself as he is jolted in the night by a knocking on the door:
'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,'
The repetition in these two examples is used quite differently: the first to create suspense and to illustrate the eventual madness that takes over the narrator and the second to show nervousness.
So did Poe achieve 'the unity of effect?' Sure! He is using standard poetic devices to add to the overall quality and effect of the poem. Look at the last stanza of the poem.
'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!'
Dark Romantic writers often use elements of the supernatural to reinforce the dark side of the human mind. In this case, Poe uses a supernatural messenger, the Raven. Of course, a raven, in general, is not supernatural; however, a talking raven is. And not only does the Raven talk, it reminds the narrator of the one thing his mind does not want to know: that Lenore will never return. We watch as the narrator slowly begins to accept this reality, quite unwillingly, and in the process he goes mad with grief as the dark side of his psyche takes over.
'The Raven' is probably the most well-known poem of all time. His creepy bird has been spotted in many parodies, spin-offs, and areas of pop culture. Poe uses a variety of poetic devices, including rhythm, meter, internal rhyme, alliteration, and repetition, to show the narrator's descent into madness as an unforeseen visitor reminds him that his Lenore will return 'nevermore.' The overall impact of the plot combined with Poe's poetic devices creates what Poe calls 'the unity of effect,' where each piece of information and every word chosen is carefully selected to create a Dark Romantic poem enriched with the supernatural that appeals to both critics and commoners, not just in Poe's time, but in our time as well.
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Back To CourseEnglish 102: American Literature
13 chapters | 130 lessons | 11 flashcard sets