Personification in Poe's The Raven

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Personification is a literary technique used most often in prose fiction and poetry. Using Edgar Allan Poe's classic poem ''The Raven'', this lesson will explain how personification can add to the impact of a fictional work.

What Is Personification?

Personification is a device used in prose and poetry that gives human characteristics or abilities to a thing, an animal, or an idea. You're probably familiar with personification from children's books that use talking animals instead of people to portray difficult situations or ideas to young readers. It's a small step from children's books to the broader use of this literary device. For this lesson, we will look at examples of personification in Edgar Allan Poe's classic poem The Raven.

The Fire

Poe's poem takes place in the narrator's study as he is reading late at night. He tells us that it is December, and there is a dying fire in the fireplace. The first instance of personification is in stanza 2 when the narrator describes the embers in the fire as projecting their ghosts upon the floor. Of course, embers are inanimate. They do not have souls, so they cannot have ghosts. But this is the literal view of the words' meanings. As you've probably experienced with poetry, words and images are often used differently to give an impression or evoke a subtle emotion rather than a literal message. The statement about the fire and its ghosts, then, is used to set up the spooky, dark atmosphere of this sorrowful poem about despair and lost love.

The Curtains

Like the embers, the curtains hanging in the narrator's study are not sentient (consciously aware) beings with feelings or the ability to act on their own. If the curtains in a room move and make a rustling sound, there's wind moving them, or a person's hand. Yet Poe assigns sadness and uncertainty to the rustling of the purple curtains. Again, the atmosphere is further steeped in the sadness and uncertainty for the future that the poet is expressing in this scene.

The Lamplight Shadow

Skipping ahead to the end of the poem, as the ominous raven still sits above the narrator's door, Poe tells us that 'the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor'. It sounds here as if the lamp takes on human ability to act on its own and literally 'throw' the darkness of the bird's shadow image on the study floor. Then, in the last two lines, Poe goes further with personification as he describes the narrator's own soul 'in' the shadow, where it floats upon the floor. The very last line of this sad poem tells the reader that the narrator expects his soul in the shadowy state to remain under the curse of the raven for the rest of his life.

The Raven

Of course, the most important instance of personification in the poem is the treatment of the raven itself. Poe attributes not only speech but intention and emotions to the symbolic bird. The grief-stricken narrator of the poem, mourning his lost love Lenore, can find no relief once the evil bird has settled himself on the statue over the door.

The narrator is unnerved even before the raven arrives. Earlier he was frightened by mysterious knocking on his door. When he first opens it, there is no one there. You can imagine how spooky this would be! Then, the narrator even thinks, in stanza 5, that the darkness whispers the name of his lost Lenore.

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