Text: David H. Hirsch, “The Raven and the Nightingale,” Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990, pp. 194-208 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 194, unnumbered:]



T. E. Hulme observes that “ . . . the whole of the romantic attitude seems to crystallize in verse round metaphors of flight,” and that for the romantic, “man’s nature is like a well, . . . a reservoir full of possibilities . . . .”(1) Edgar Allan Poe, generally considered a Romantic, does not fully fit Hulme’s description. At his most characteristic, Poe seems to conceive man as a paradoxical well, a “reservoir,” not of possibilities but of limitations. Thus we find in Poe myriad images of shrinkage, of infinite narrowing. Sometimes the image of narrowing is subtly displaced, as in “William Wilson” (where the protagonist wanders the world only to return to his mirror image) and “The Man of the Crowd,” where the protagonist wanders away the night, only to return to his starting point. More often the image is direct, as in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” with Roderick Usher, house and all, sinking into the infinite center represented by the miasmic and presumably bottomless tarn. In “A Descent into the Maelstrom” the protagonist is drawn into, and then ejected out of a bottomless vortex. Or, again, in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” the narrator starts out either in a courtroom or in a dream of a courtroom, then loses consciousness, or dreams of losing consciousness, only to awaken in a dungeon in which the closing walls of his cell finally force him toward what he imagines or fears to be a bottomless pit. This Poesque movement from a circumference into a devouring infinite center or vortex is at the antipodes of the pure Romantic vision. In crossing the Atlantic, British Romanticism undergoes a sea change. The change, however, is more noticeable in Poe than in his Transcendentalist contemporary and rival, Emerson. In the opening paragraph of “Circles” Emerson wrote that “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end . . . Around every circle another can be drawn; . . . there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning . . . .”(2)

Emerson’s circle, with its fluid circumference moving endlessly outward from a central Ego, reflects the great sage’s confidence (at least in 1839) in man’s expansive possibilities. The circle is Emerson’s version of the Romantics’ metaphor of flight; it is his way of asserting that man is a reservoir full of possibilities. Poe did not share Emerson’s confidence in man’s expandability, though, and consequently he inverted the outward movement of Emerson’s circle image. Retaining the Romantic sense of dynamics, he nevertheless presents a dynamics of contraction instead of expansion. As Poe inverted [page 195:] Emerson’s metaphor of the circle, so he transformed the Romantic metaphor of flight. I suggest below that the true progenitor of Poe’s raven is that quintessence of “the metaphor of flight,” Keats’s nightingale. Before doing so, I should like to point out that the raven as “metaphor” has a history as long as the nightingale’s. Perhaps the most widely known early appearance of the raven occurs in the biblical story of Noah. After forty days in the ark, “Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made. And he sent forth a raven, and it went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth” (Genesis 8:6-7).

The significance of the raven in the Noah story had been commented upon by the nineteenth-century Hebraist, George Bush.(3) In his Notes, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Genesis (1838), Bush noted that the “raven would have stayed away to feed on dead bodies [cf. Poe’s “Take thy beak from out my heart”] according to its natural instincts, Proverbs 30:17.” Moreover, “[f]rom the raven’s emission and return Noah could of course learn nothing favorable, and from this circumstance, the raven has ever been considered as a bird of ill omen . . . .” Poe’s familiarity with this commentary is suggested by the fact that Bush’s epithet for the raven is repeated exactly in “The Philosophy of Composition”: “I had now gone so far as the conception of the Raven — the bird of ill omen . . . .”(4) Three corvine characteristics stand out in Bush’s explication. First, the raven is described as a repulsive scavenger of dead flesh; second, the raven does not bring the desired information (“nothing favorable” is to be learned from a raven); finally, the raven is linked to chthonic forces.

Preceding his announcement in “The Philosophy of Composition” that he had gotten “so far as the conception of a Raven,” Poe described the process by which he had arrived at this conception as one of elimination: “Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech: and, very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone” (H14: 200).

The “idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech” is in itself absurd, self-contradictory, and abhorrent to reason, since speech is by definition an enactment of communication which assumes the participation of reasoning creatures. What H. P. Grice says about “meaning” may well be applied to speech in this context: “. . . For A to mean something by x . . ., A must intend to induce by x a belief in an audience, and he must also intend his utterance to be recognized as so intended.”(5) Precisely what we cannot know, however, is whether the raven in Poe’s poem “intends” to “induce a belief’ in the bereaved lover. [page 196:]

In this sense, then, an ordinary raven is not a creature capable of speech at all, but one that may be described more precisely as a creature capable of reproducing speech-like sounds. Speech involves intention. Whether the intention can ever be adequately articulated, or, if articulated, whether it can ever be adequately interpreted or understood by a second party we do not, and probably cannot, know. What is important in Poe’s poem is that neither the speaker nor the reader can be certain that the raven intends anything. It is the lover’s madness or folly that he is determined to discover “intention” in the sounds pronounced by the raven, thereby brilliantly or madly converting noise into speech. Enriching as is Roman Jakobson’s analysis of the poem as an experiment in communication, he nevertheless permits himself to be bounded by Poe’s presumed psychological limitations. He accepts the “theme of the poem as the ‘bereaved lover,”’ a theme which he points out “haunts all Poe’s poetry and prose. In ‘The Raven’,” Jakobson continues, “this theme displays a particular ‘force of contrast,’ expressed in a pointedly romantic oxymoron: the colloquy between the lover and the bird is an anomalous communication about the severance of all communication.”(6)

Although Jakobson is accurate in describing the noncommunicative nature of a naturalistic zoological raven’s speech, he underestimates the raven’s communicating power as a symbol. In spite of Poe’s later pronouncement in “The Philosophy of Composition,” that the theme of his poem is the “bereaved lover,” the larger theme is the wanderings of the human soul in search of eternal salvation, and this theme is conveyed, not by what the raven says (i.e., “nevermore”), but by the dialectic between the meanings encoded in the raven as symbol by centuries of Western usage, and the sublime message that the speaker tries to extract from the bird’s utterance. The encoded meanings are elucidated by Bush in his commentary on Genesis 8:9:

Found no rest for the sole of her foot. For though some of the mountain tops were bare, yet they were either at so great a distance, or so far out of the course she took, that she did not now alight upon them. Besides, it is well known that in general doves fly low and are perhaps on that account called Ezek. 7.16. ‘doves of the valleys,’ as ravens also are called ‘ravens of the valleys,’ Prov. 30.17, from their usually finding their prey on the low grounds. The vain and weary wanderings of the soul in quest of rest are strikingly shadowed forth in the disappointment of the dove. No solid peace or satisfaction can it find in this deluged, defiling world, till it returns to Christ as to its ark, its Noah. The carnal heart, like the raven, takes up with the world, and feeds on the carrion it finds there, but [page 197:] the gracious soul still sighs out its ‘Oh, that I had wings like a dove,’ that I might fly to him and be at rest; and, as Trapp remarks, ‘if that ‘Oh’ will not set her at liberty, then she takes up that ‘Wo’ to express her misery; ‘Wo is me, that I sojourn in Meshech, and dwell in the tents of Kedar.’ Let our language then ever be, ‘Return thou to thy rest (Heb. limnuah, to thy Noah, as it were), O my soul!’ Ps. 116.7.7

It seems that Bush’s commentary may have activated not only the image of the raven, but also the larger theme of the poem. The raven does not represent the “severence of all communication”; his message of “nevermore” in answer to all the speaker’s questions about the immortality of the soul are negative because the raven has been coded by Western symbol-making as the symbol of “the carnal heart.” The grotesqueness of the poem lies in the speaker’s asking of a raven questions that are inappropriate to its encoded symbolic meaning. It is as if the speaker is the dove seeking “solid peace and satisfaction . . . in this deluged, defiling world. . . . “

If the situation of a bird bearing messages were unique to Poe, then the psychological inferences might be sufficient in themselves. Poe’s talking bird, however, invokes echoes not only of the biblical raven; it suggests further associations with two other widespread figures: the caged bird as a metaphor for the soul entrapped in the body, and the nightingale, Keats’s bird “most musical, most melancholy.” Among the British Romantic poets the soul-bird was most often a nightingale, stripped of its melancholy and represented “as a happy bird singing of summer in full-throated ease.”(8) Instead of calling on the singer out of Greek mythology, melancholy or happy, Poe turns, rather, to the biblical scavenger bird symbolizing the “carnal heart.” Poe’s disjunctive imagination exchanged the Romantic metaphors of flight and Dionysian song for metaphors of stasis and monotony. Poe converted the traditional symbol of the flesh into a wished-for harbinger of immortality. The innovativeness of these exchanges is in no way diminished by the many possible sources of the poem that have been documented by Poe scholars. The full richness of Poe’s poem, however, does not lie merely in his disjunctive and unsettling adaptation of the repulsive and unclean raven as a “love messenger” taking precedence over both the dove and the nightingale. Poe reverses the panting vision of the Romantic poets by converting what Leo Spitzer, in his explication of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” calls the “age-old theme of world harmony”(9) into a theme of world silence. [page 198:]

Poe’s “The Raven” is a rejection of this age-old theme of world harmony, and specifically it is a direct reaction against the Romantic metaphorical structures set in motion by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley, and a reversal of the time honored uplifting meaning of the image of the soul-bird in Western poetry.(10) Instead of using this powerful long-lived metaphor of the singing bird to convey the idea of “world harmony,” Poe uses a chthonic talking bird to convey the idea of world silence. Whereas Matthew Arnold, three years after the publication of “The Raven,” still refers to the nightingale as a “wanderer from a Grecian shore,” singing a song of “eternal passion, eternal pain,” Poe arranges for his ancient raven to come “wandering from . . . Night’s Plutonian shore . . . .” And whereas Shelley’s skylark (1820) is addressed as “bird or sprite,” Poe’s raven is addressed as “Prophet. . . . thing of evil.” Whereas the speaker in Keats’s ode apostrophizes the nightingale as a symbol of positive immortality, “Thou wert not born for death, immortal bird,” Poe’s speaker apostrophizes the raven as a symbol of negative immortality: “And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor / Shall be lifted — nevermore!” Poe’s speaker experiences immortality as agony.

We may, in fact, think of “The Raven” as a poem of reversals. For example, Poe reverses the raven imagery of the Noah narrative by having a raven fly into the window, rather than having his narrator, like Noah, send forth a raven from his window. There is also a similar reversal of the situation in Keats’s poem. If we agree with Brooks and Warren that the speaker attempts to enter the world of the nightingale unsuccessfully,(11) then it is clear that Poe reverses this procedure by having the raven attempt to enter, and succeed in entering, the world of the speaker. Also, Keats’s speaker fords himself outdoors, surrounded by lush Nature, while Poe’s speaker is enclosed in a chamber, which itself seems to enclosed in a vacuous wasteland.

Keats’s lushly singing nightingale remains invisible; its ecstatic song ravages the listener, transports him (if only momentarily) to the realm of the transcendent, but to a realm of the transcendent that he later comes to realize can be reached only through death: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die, / To cease upon the midnight with no pain, / While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy.” The listener yearns to follow that ecstatic song to its mysterious source. His soul tallies (as Whitman was to put it) the song of the bird. The speaker’s gaze is fixed upward. The only movement the nightingale makes (and we can only infer this from the description given by the speaker) is upward and outward (like Noah’s raven).

Here we have the paradigm of Hulme’s description of the Romantic attitude that “seems to crystallize in verse around metaphors of flight.” In Keats’s ode, the speaker himself longs to move upward and outward [page 199:] to join the soul-singing bird, but he is weighted down by his mortal clay. Like Hamlet at his most melancholy, Keats’s speaker would like his “too too sullied flesh . . . to melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,” to “Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget / What thou amongst the leaves hast never known . . . .” Instead of soaring, he starts by sinking into death-like sleep: “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk . . . .” In “The Raven” this melancholy extravagance is also reversed. In place of a lushly singing ethereal bird there is a croaking, fluttering, black raven that is all too physically present. Instead of a speaker who wants to dissolve himself so that he can fuse with the song of the bird, we have a speaker who is possessed by the bird which will not release him: (“And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor / Shall be lifted — nevermore!”).

It may also be observed that although Keats’s speaker opens his statement with an emotional outburst, “My heart aches,” Poe’s speaker chants in a disaffected monotone: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary, / Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore —.” Poe also makes it clear that his narrator’s experience is nocturnal, whereas Keats, as critics have pointed out, seems unable to decide between a summer day with “shadows numberless” or a “midnight” in which “darkling” the speaker listens.

Although Keats’s speaker sinks into his deathlike sleep as a result of what seems to be an excess of pleasure, an overdose of concentrated joy in the face of beauty (“ ‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot / But being too happy in thine happiness . . .”), Poe’s narrator is being lulled to sleep by his excessive study of forgotten lore: “While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, / As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.” We may say that the raven’s first venture into communication occurs in this tapping and rapping rather than in his initial utterance of the word “Nevermore.” This tapping prevents the narrator from nodding off and represents an indication of either a real or imagined force outside the narrator’s chamber seeking to enter.

Unlike Keats’s speaker, Poe’s bereaved lover does not start by responding directly to the Beautiful (the song of the bird) with emotions of joyful pain. Rather, the first quotation that the narrator attributes to himself (“Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door — / Only this and nothing more.”), suggests the reverse. That is, instead of responding emotionally to a stimulus that can be linked to the Beautiful, he responds analytically to a stimulus that is qualitatively neutral. Moreover, the speaker’s ratiocination must give the reader pause. The speaker does not do what someone in his position might [page 200:] normally be expected to do: get up and see who, if anyone, is tapping at his door. Instead, he continues absurdly to ponder the imponderable.

When “The Raven” appeared in the American Review it was prefaced with a short prose explanation, probably written by Poe himself, which spoke of “the curious introduction of some ludicrous touches” into the poem. That this mention of “ludicrous touches” was not a momentary aberration is confirmed by Poe’s assertion, in his later analytic and highly calculated essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” that “. . . an air of the fantastic — approaching as nearly to the ludicrous as was admissible — is given to the raven’s entrance. He comes in ‘with many a flirt and flutter”’ (H14: 205).

Poe justified this flirtation with the ludicrous in a poem whose dominant tone was to be “Melancholy. . . . the most legitimate of all the poetical tones,” by appeal to the need for “force of contrast, with a view of deepening the ultimate impression.” I would argue, however, that the ludicrous enters the poem, not as Poe suggests, in the middle, but is there throughout, except that I would add that we should translate the concept of the ludicrous into its twentieth-century incarnation, the Absurd. In fact, Poe has been quoted as saying that “he wrote his poem ‘to see how near the absurd I could come without overstepping the dividing line”’ (M1: 369).

The root of the absurd in “The Raven” lies not only in Poe’s inversion of the bird-flight imagery but also in his parody of the Romantic meditative poem. In Poe’s poem, the speaker’s imagination focuses with fierce and unwavering intensity on one object and on that alone. Neither a vision of glory nor of the ordinary world does this imagination grasp. It is that inability to bring anything else within the compass of his imagination that results in the touches of the ludicrous that Poe talks about: Keats’s speaker starts from a presumed physical location and then proceeds to launch out into the poetic-mythic world of Provencal song, the world of Greek mythology, the physical world of decay and death. But the imagination of Poe’s bereaved lover remains fixed always on the raven.

The meditation on a fixed object in the hope of forcing the object to yield its meaning is a common Romantic obsession. Keats’s urn, that “still unravished bride,” is such an object; so is his nightingale, Blake’s Tiger, Coleridge’s frost, and so are the ruins at Tintern Abbey. Among the British Romantics, though, a dominant element in the poems is what may be called a rich language of reference-to-nature, or a language of reference to strongly positive human feelings. It may be, as Keats’s friend Charles Brown asserted, that Keats wrote the “Ode to a Nightingale” after hearing an actual nightingale sing, while the poet rested under an actual plum tree. Yet were it not for Brown’s intrusion, the actual nightingale and plum tree would be lost, for it is not as [page 201:] description that we value the poem. We value it because Keats fuses nature-referential words and feeling-referential words and myth-referential words in such a way as to create a symbolic structure so powerful that it ultimately overshadows the descriptive structure. What Poe does is similar except that the feeling-referential words are words of disharmony and terror instead of harmony and joy, while the nature-referential words are replaced by language that can only be described as non-referential or pseudo-referential.(12)

In fact, Keats’s speaker does not describe the bird or its song, but rather his reaction to the latter. He tells us that his “heart aches,” and describes his own “drowsy numbness,” yet he avers that these are not symptoms of “envy of thy happy lot, / But being too happy in thine happiness . . . . . . And again, he avers: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die, / To cease upon the midnight with no pain, / While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy!” By mixing the diction of death and ecstasy with the diction of nature-description, the speaker moves toward a discovery of vision. The imagination seems to be expanding into an “intimation of immortality” (‘ Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!”). As so often happens in British Romantic poems, however, at the very moment of rapturous discovery the “imagination” fails, the vision dims, the world of uncertainty, death, and physical decay eclipses the world of visionary joy and beauty (“Was it a vision, or a waking dream?”).

Poe moved beyond this poetics of alternating vision and failure to an uncannily twentieth-century poetics of immediate failure. The major British Romantics soared Icarus-like before they fell to earth. They kept probing the limits of imagination by soaring upward on a language of muted (as in Wordsworth) or ecstatic joy and then plummeting downward on the language of sorrow and despair (“Forlorn! the very word is like a bell / To toll me back from thee to my sole self!”). The speaker in the “Ode” descends from ecstasy to that “Forlorn!” Poe’s bereaved lover starts with the “Forlorn” in its phonemic and semantic variant of “Nevermore.” (It is instructive, too, to consider the aptness with which the “forlorn” fits Poe’s description of the ideal sound of a single-word refrain: “That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted of no doubt: and these considerations led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant” [H14: 20].) If we can take Poe at his word when he describes the writing of the poem, then his two starting points were the melancholy tone, and the word “nevermore” as the ideal refrain. In other words, he started with the imagination confronting a blank wall.

In addition to his reversal of the Romantic evaluation of imagination, Poe also renders another noteworthy inversion of [page 202:] symbols. Whereas Keats’s nightingale, singing in “full-throated ease,” is associated with Dionysian ecstasy, Poe’s raven, with its one-word croak of “Nevermore,” is linked, rather, with what can only be called a parody of Apollonian decorum. Poe’s is an Apollonianism gone sour. Ordinarily, Apollo and the Apollonian are associated not only with control and form but with a world of sunlight, moderation, and sweet reason. “The Raven,” however, presents us with the paradox of Apollonian darkness. Although it is a cliché of literary criticism to say that art redeems by bringing order out of chaos, for Poe, at least, order was not in itself redemptive.

One final reversal I would like to underscore. The British Romantics shifted the burden of Transcendence from God to Nature and then to Imagination, which eventually became synonymous with God. If there was a “beyond” that could give meaning to man’s life on earth, the imagination either was that “beyond” or could discover it. Joseph Warren Beach, in his now much neglected study, The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth-Century English Poetry, points out that “a growing dualism shows itself in Wordsworth’s emphasis on imagination as a spiritual faculty necessary to the reading of nature, and he ended by virtually giving up nature and deriving man’s spirit directly ‘from God, who is our home’.”(13) Coleridge made a similar derivation in his famous definition of the primary imagination as “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”(14)

Keats did not make this derivation. He tried to retain faith in the ability of the expansive imagination to negate the limiting fact of human mortality. So his greatest ode, perhaps his greatest poem, is centered not only on the metamorphic myth of the nightingale but also on the myth of Orpheus. In the speaker’s effort to conquer death (escape from it according to Moms Dickstein) he is re-enacting the archetypal quest of Orpheus, who, through the power of song, won the privilege of descending to the underworld to bring back his beloved Eurydice. Keats, too, would conquer Death through song. He projects the power of orphic song into the bird and in a sense assigns to himself the role of Eurydice, so that he is almost saved from death by the bird’s ecstatic outburst. Poe, too, renders a displacement of the orphic myth. As in the traditional story, we have in Poe’s poem an earthly lover who seeks to be rejoined to a loved one now dead. But instead of winning his way to the underworld on the wings of song, he finds that an apparent messenger from the underworld breaks in on his consciousness. From Ovid to Keats to Poe the orphic power of song declines. Orpheus, charming his way into the underworld, almost overcomes death. Keats’s nightingale chants a powerful music that almost charms his speaker into immortality. But Poe exchanges nightingale for raven, real or illusory song for real or illusory croak. [page 203:]

Neither Nature nor song, not vision nor myth nor imagination will suffice. The beauty of song is transmuted into the croaking “nevermore!” of the raven. Nature, with its “soft incense” hanging “upon the boughs,” its “fruit tree wild,” its “white hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine,” its “fading violets” and “musk-rose,” and ,’murmurous haunt of flies,” has given way to a darkened room decorated with Gothic trappings and enveloped in a lightless vacuum. Imagination yields only emptiness, silence, and a mocking message.

Two parallel, yet contrasting, passages may help to focus the thoroughness and deliberateness of Poe’s reversal of Keats’s poem and of the orphic motif. Listening to the nightingale’s song, the Keats speaker feels, “Now more than ever seems it rich to die / To cease upon the midnight with no pain / While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy!” [my italics]. The bereaved lover, describing the raven to his audience, at once borrows and reverses this image of the bird pouring forth its soul in ecstatic song: “But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only / That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour” [my italics]. Thomas Weiskel has recently remarked that “the essential claim of the sublime is that man can, in feeling and in speech, transcend the human.”(15) Whether the nightingale’s song is a vision or a waking dream, there can be no doubt that in describing his moment of overflow the poet is reaching for a description of the experience of the sublime in Weiskel’s sense. The nightingale is “transported” and the speaker yearns to be “transported” too.

Poe, however, converts the exploding ecstasy of nightingale and speaker into a collapsing despair. He even reverses the verbal construction “pouring forth” to “outpour.” Moreover, the word “outpour” itself is excessive in relation to the events that are being described. The automaton-like raven can hardly be said to overflow with emotion. Parodying the Romantic metaphors of flight and the Romantic predilection for the language of “overflow,” Poe undermines the Romantic sublime and replaces it with the Existential absurd.

This undermining of the Romantic sublime is achieved in part by a disjunction between form, sound, and semantics in the poem. W. H. Auden takes note of this disjunction when he comments that “the trouble with ‘The Raven’ is that the thematic interest and the prosodic interest, both of which are considerable, do not combine and are even often at odds,”(16) While the form is strictly contained (Hulme’s bucket), the sound constantly pushes toward overflow. At the same time, the meaning belies both the contained form and the lushness of sound. Clearly, the containing form is one source of the poem’s power — a pounding sound pattern of trochees and dactyls intensified by multiple internal vowel and consonantal, full and slant rhymes. Poe [page 204:] himself describes the tightness of the form rather elaborately in “The Philosophy of Composition”:

Of course, I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of the “Raven.” The former is trochaicthe latter is octameter acatalectic, alternating with heptameter catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrameter catalectic. Less pedantically — the feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short: the first line of the stanza consists of eight of these feet — the second of seven and a half (in effect two-thirds) — the third of eight — the fourth of seven and a half-the fifth the same — the sixth three and a half. (H14: 203-204)

Out of this strictly controlled form emerge verbal alignments that in the context of the rhyme and meter are semantically absurd. Consider, for example: “ ‘Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven, / Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore — ‘ [.]” The interweaving of sounds is rich: the consonants “though” “thy,” “thou”; “crest,” “craven,” “grim”; “shorn,” “shaven,” “shore,” “sure,”; “ghastly,” “grim”; vowel rhymes “shorn,” “shore”; “shaven,” “craven,” “Raven,” “ancient.”

But given the richness of sound there is what can only be called a hollowness of meaning. I should emphasize that I am not repeating the oft-leveled charge of meaninglessness. Rather, Poe deliberately creates a gap that underlines the absurdity of man’s dual nature — physical and spiritual — and of his aspiration to transcendence. This hollowness is carried by the narrative and imagery which contend against the sonic richness. Consider stanza four.

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,

“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;

But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,

And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,

That I scarce was sure I heard you” — here I opened wide the door;

Darkness there and nothing more.

We cannot apprehend Poe’s sense of the comic Absurd unless we bear in mind that the student is addressing this highly formal apology, with its attendant pedantic explanation, to a closed door with nothing and no one, it turns out, on the other side. He makes his courtly and elaborate [page 205:] explanation to a blank wall. This ludicrous (Poe’s word) action presents a most shattering image of the human form. The bereaved lover offers his courtly and servile gesture to a wholly uncaring, absolutely indifferent universe: “Darkness there and nothing more.”(17) The next stanza is in the same vein:

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,

And the only word there spoken was the whispered work, “Lenore!”

This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”

Merely this and nothing more.

Again we have the absurd image of man peering out into the darkness — looking for what? Encountering no “objects” for his mind to meditate over (no urns, no ruins, no wintry scenes), his mind performs its operations upon nothing, simply doubting and dreaming. Only a whispered word, the name Lenore, is spoken, and that, we learn from an afterthought, is spoken by the lover himself. What he projects out into the blank universe comes right back to him in an echo. The eleventh stanza continues the bitter, mocking humor:

But the Raven still beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,

Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;

Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking

Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore —

What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore

Meant in croaking “Nevermore”.

Did Poe intend the reader to react to this description with total solemnity? This student who is so overwhelmed by sorrow has to do his suffering in the luxurious confines of a cushioned velvet sofa. Again, we might compare him with the agitated listener in Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” Instead of responding with an overflow of emotion to the rapturous song of an invisible ecstatic singer flying freely through the natural air, Poe’s student sinks himself into a cushioned seat and tries to back-construct an intention into the sounds [page 206:] generated by a non-reasoning creature in order to coerce a sublime message out of the croaking bird. Here again we can perceive Poe’s fascination with cryptography. The lover is determined to break the code, decipher the message. In this instance, however, there is no message, and the thing to be decoded is not just the word “nevermore,” but the raven itself.

Poe, if he is not signalling the death of the poetic imagination as a source of cognition, is anticipating, at least, its eclipse by the scientific mode of inquiry. Thomas S. Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, comments that “Effective research scarcely begins before a community thinks it has acquired firm answers to questions like the following: What are the fundamental entities of which the universe is composed? How do these interact with each other and the senses? What questions may legitimately be asked about such entities and what techniques employed in seeking solutions?”(18) The British Romantics and their American counterparts (Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman) still wished to believe that poetic inspiration could provide answers to those questions; they asked, and all of them were eventually frustrated. They believed that somehow the poet could use metaphor to wrench out of nature a design that would give meaning to human existence, whether that design were benevolent or, as Frost was later to put it, a “design of darkness to apall.” By 1845, though, Poe had already discarded a belief in any design at all. Poe perceived that the new science would relegate the poetic imagination to the status of the decorative. So instead of having language and poetic imagination provide a springboard to ecstasy, as Keats had apparently hoped they would in his “Ode to a Nightingale,” Poe makes language and the poetic imagination become the blank wall itself. Absurdly pressing the bird for a language message from “the beyond,” the bereaved lover can manage to extract only the repeated utterance, “Nevermore!”

[page 206, continued:]


1.  “Romanticism and Classicism,” Speculations (London, 1924), pp. 117, 120.

2.  “Circles,” Selections From Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher (Cambridge, Mass., 1957), p. 168.

3.  Poe had written about Bush in the “Literati” papers in 1846.

4.  Bush, Notes (New York, 1859), p. 144.

5.  “Meaning,” Zabeeh, Klemke, Jacobson, eds., Readings in Semantics (Urbana, 1974), p. 507.

6.  “Language in Operation,” Mélanges Alexandre Koyre (Paris, 1964), pp. 276-277.

7.  Notes, pp. 144-145.

8.  See C. L. Finney, The Evolution of Keats’s Poetry (1936; rpt. New York, 1963), p. 622. Finney gives a useful survey of the changes in the nightingale image in English poetry.

9.  Essays on English and American Literature, ed. Anna Hatcher (Princeton, 1962), p. 14. Spitzer also surveys the changing image of the nightingale in linking it to the Western concept of world harmony.

10.  Poe’s awareness of the British Romantics may be inferred from an assertion uttered by the speaker of the story “The Landscape Garden,” (1842): “We may be instructed to build an Odyssey, but it is in vain that we are told how to conceive a ‘Tempest,’ an ‘Inferno,’ a ‘Prometheus Bound,’ a ‘Nightingale,’ such as that of Keats, or the ‘Sensitive Plant’ of Shelley” (M4: 269). What does this assertion tell us about “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which Poe claims to be instructing us “to build” a “Raven”? Moreover, Thomas Holley Chivers reports the following conversation with Poe: “‘What do you think of Keats,’ asked I. ‘He was the greatest of any of the English poets of the same age, if not at any age,’ answered he, with the air of a man who was not only conscious of his own consummate ability, but who had long before deliberately formed his opinion. ‘He was far in advance of the best of them, with the exception of Shelley, in the study of his themes. His principal fault is the grotesqueness of his abandon”’ [Richard Beal Davis, ed., Chivers’s “Life of Poe” (New York 1952), p. 48].

11.  Understanding Poetry, 3rd ed. (New York, 1960), pp. 426-431.

12.  Although it is customary to think of Poe as a monolithic writer, the poetic imagery of the 1845 poems is quite different from the imagery of the poems published in 1827 and 1829. Certainly, the rich floral imagery of B. 41-82 of “Al Aaraaf,” whatever its meaning, is nowhere to be found in “The Raven.”

13.  New York, 1956, p. 13.

14.  Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross, 2 vols. (1907; rpt. London, 1965), 2: 202.

15.  The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence (Baltimore and London, 1976), p. 3. [page 208:]

16.  The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Ann Arbor, 1966), p. 225 [orig. 1950].

17.  See Edward H. Davidson’s observation on “the pompous and inflated rhetoric of (the student’s) query . . . ,” Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, Mass., 1957), p. 87.

18.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago and London, 1974), pp. 4-5.





[S:0 - PHT, 1990] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and His Times - The Raven and the Nightingale (David H. Hirsch, 1990)