Text: Dennis W. Eddings, “Theme and Parody in ‘The Raven’,” Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990, pp. 209-217 (This material is protected by copyright)


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“The Raven” is undoubtedly Poe’s most famous poem, although its defects have not gone unnoticed. The impossibility of footfalls tinkling on a tufted floor is a commonplace, and the detailed remarks of Clement Mansfield Ingleby, Howard Mumford Jones, and Jesse Bier, among others, show that despite its hypnotic effectiveness, “The Raven” abounds in absurdities of situation and poetics.(1) These deficiencies pose a problem in light of Poe’s critical standards and his incisive application of them in dissecting bad verse. He insists, for example, that the passion so prevalent in “The Raven” is “absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty” that is “the province of the poem . . .” (H14: 198). Furthermore, implausibilities and infelicities of phrasing in the poem are of a kind with the excrescences Poe frequently remarked in his criticism.(2)

How, one wonders, can we reconcile obvious flaws in “The Raven” with Poe’s critical dictates? Perhaps the lapses are deliberate, but, if so, to what end? Parody is an evident possibility, but of what and of whom? The answer to this last question, I suggest, enables us to reconcile Poe’s critical standards with the poetic absurdities in “The Raven.” Although the narrative progression of the poem depicts the dead end of the uncontrolled Romantic imagination, the flaws are Poe’s means of ridiculing the bad verse produced by that imagination. Thus what appears to be an aberrant element in “The Raven” is actually integral to its strategy, the vehicle by which form and language satirically reinforce the poem’s theme.

This reading requires us to see “The Raven,” from one perspective, as a product of its narrator. True, the overall poem is obviously Poe’s, for he created its form, setting, and language. We have learned, however, thanks largely to the studies of James W. Gargano, that the cock-eyed perceptions and purpled rhetoric in many of Poe’s tales emanate from their narrators and not from Poe’s daily life.(3) As a dramatic monologue, “The Raven” is a kissing cousin to the tales, and a similar principle applies in all: the narrator tells us what has occurred and he does so in his own language and form. What is overwrought in language results from his overwrought state of mind; what is incongruous results from his inability to think congruently; what is flawed in form results from his failure to control the mode of his expression. “The Raven,” like many other satires, masquerades as a product of its narrator and its absurdities are the means of revealing the error of the narrator’s ways. Seeing “The Raven” as a product of the [page 210:] student, we can appreciate fully the relationship between its serious narrative theme and reinforcing parody.

The narrative progression of “The Raven” graphically depicts the dead end of the uncontrolled Romantic imagination. The student who recounts his fate is a stereotype of the dark brooding Romantic youth Howard Mumford Jones identifies as the nineteenth-century hero-figure of the Anonymous Young Man (p. 133). We see his Romantic proclivities in the gloomy, Gothic decor of his room, in his reliance upon obscure lore as a means of escaping reality, and in his self-indulgent anguish over the lost Lenore. Most typically Romantic, however, aside from using himself as the subject of his poetry, is his insistence upon seeing everything in terms of his own angst, the external world being nothing more than a projection of his psyche. The three six-stanza sections of “The Raven” delineate that projection and, in the student’s fate, its inherent insanity.

Preceding the raven’s melodramatic entrance, the first section introduces us to the narrator’s Romantic posturing and his insistence upon reading external phenomena as reflections of his own being. Seeking “surcease of sorrow” by poring over “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,” he nonetheless reads in terms that enhance that sorrow, indicative of the self-indulgent nature of his grief. Thus the “dying ember” casts its “ghost upon the floor” — not its gleam or reflection (and let us not ask how a “tufted floor” can reflect). The “uncertain rustling of each purple curtain” is “sad” (nor let us ask how rustling can be uncertain — a curtain either rustles or it remains still; the uncertainty is in the mind of the student). Furthermore, that rustling, innocent enough in its own right, thrills the narrator “with fantastic terrors never felt before.” This deliberate cultivation of terrifying sensation for its own sake is repeated when, looking into the darkness outside his room after the gentle tapping has broken through his ponderings, he dreams “dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.” There is more involved here than the perfervid lamentations of a sorrow-laden soul. Such overstatement and indulgence in sensation for its own sake point to the student’s incipient madness and suggest it is grounded in his Romantic posturing.(4)

The next six stanzas bring out the narrator’s progression from bemused witness to devout believer. When the raven enters, the student smiles at its “grim and stem decorum,” but when the bird responds “Nevermore” to the query as to its name, new possibilities arise. The student initially notes that the response “little meaning — little relevancy bore,” and then promptly proceeds to try to find that relevancy. Once again projecting his grief upon the world, he asserts that the raven speaks “That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.” The narrator thus imaginatively links his angst with the [page 211:] raven’s utterance, making it relevant to his own predicament. Consequently, he ceases to be amused by the raven and returns to his ponderings by linking the raven with Lenore. Thus he finds what he enjoys far more than the heretofore comic raven provides — he finds a means of indulging in his anguish. He then murmurs in self-pity: “Other friends have flown before — / On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.” The raven responds “Nevermore.” Immediately struck by the appropriateness of this remark, the student at first accounts for it by noting “what it utters is its only stock and store.” This, of course, is the rational explanation: “Nevermore” is the only word the raven can utter. The student, however, dismisses reason as quickly as it surfaces. Beguiled by linking his fate with the raven and enthralled with the imaginative vistas that link opens before him, he rushes forward to account for the reason “Nevermore” is all the raven can utter. That word, he speculates, has been “Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster / Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore / Of ‘Never — nevermore.”’ At this point the student pulls together bird, former master and himself in a melancholy lament that simply flies in the face of reason. The pivotal point in “The Raven” occurs at this moment when rational explanation of the bird’s “Nevermore” runs head — on into the student’s insistence upon interpreting the external world as an extension of his own sorrowful being. Rejecting reason, ignoring the obvious fact that the raven’s “Nevermore” is merely a conditioned response to any verbal stimulus, the student wheels his chair before the bird to discover what it meant in “croaking” that word. Linking his angst to the raven leads the student into an insane insistence that the bird’s conditioned reflex has existential import.

The final six stanzas follow with inexorable logic. Committed to finding a meaning in the raven’s “Nevermore,” the student does so in terms calculated to exacerbate his sorrow and the resulting sensations. He begins by perceiving the raven as a means of gaining “respite and nepenthe” from his memories of Lenore. The two questions he asks to gain that respite, however, are perversely couched in terms that will produce the opposite effect, given the predictability of the raven’s “Nevermore.” Furthermore, those questions simultaneously confirm his imaginative view of the hopelessness of the human condition, thus intensifying his anguish.

His first question confirms his idea that existence is “Desolate,” a “desert land” that is a “home by Horror haunted.” Having described life in these words, he then asks, “Is there — is there balm in Gilead?” Is there some hope for human happiness beyond this life? The raven’s response confirms his view by denying that hope, as the student knew it would. Now that the prophetic raven has established the validity of [page 212:] the student’s negative perspective, the next question can settle his desire to maintain his anguish: “Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn, / It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore — / Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.” Again, the raven’s predictable response allows the student to see life as hopeless, but it also lets him dismiss all thoughts of ever being reunited with Lenore. As a result, his deliberately cultivated anguish is all but complete. What remains is for him to transfer the focal point of his suffering from Lenore so he can concentrate it totally upon himself. He accomplishes this by imaginatively seeing himself as being cast into the abyss of despair. The raven’s “Nevermore” — so predictable — has pierced him to the heart. The student is now so overwhelmed by the nightmare he has created that he surrenders to it:

“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!”

The image of this final stanza is significant. The raven dominates Pallas, reason, and throws its shadow over the student, symbolic of the student’s abdication of reason and immersion in the black shade of the imagination. The student, a Romantic posturer to begin with, has opted to ignore the voice of rationality so he can pursue his imaginative perceptions and cultivate the delicious, horrifying sensations they arouse. Madness results. Intent upon exploring his sensations, the student subverts reason in order to allow his imagination full sway in that exploration. The consequence is his entrapment of self. Like many another Poe narrator, this one is a victim of his own imaginations despite the evidence to the contrary, he has insanely come to accept as gospel the croakings of a bird with dubious credentials.

The student’s failure to control his Romantic imagination through the balancing power of reason leads him into chaos. He has fallen prey to the force Poe warns of in “Marginalia”: “The Imagination of Man is no Carathis, to explore with impunity its every cavern. Alas! the grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful; but like the Demons in whose company Afrasiab made his voyage down the Oxus, they must sleep, or they will devour us — they must be suffered [page 213:] to slumber, or we perish” (H16: 167). Following in the footsteps of Roderick Usher and the narrators of “Ligeia,” “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” to name a few examples where Poe reveals the destructive potential of the uncontrolled imagination, the narrator of “The Raven” has allowed his imaginative speculation to get the better of him, and has perished. The shadow that overwhelms him at the end of the poem is not, finally, the shadow of the raven, but the shade of his own destructive, uncontrolled Romantic imagination.

The narrative progression of “The Raven” thus treats a theme frequently advanced by Poe. Imagination, unchecked by reason, leads to a dead end. It also has another result — it leads to bad poetry. The student’s rejection of reason so he can indulge his imagination and the resulting sensations represents a type of Romantic posturing Poe found abhorrent. He had little use for self-indulgent Romanticism that exalted the inner light of the imagination over reason. He frequently attacked or satirized it in his tales and criticism.(6) The motive for these attacks is in part esthetic — a self-indulgent, uncontrolled imagination leads to a self-indulgent, uncontrolled art. Robert Jacobs demonstrates how, during the 1840s, Poe had come to deplore “the aesthetic of the romantic period and the expressionistic purpose of much romantic art.”(7) Poe’s attitude toward the poetry produced by such an “inspirational aesthetic” enables him to make “The Raven” more than a depiction of the dead end of the uncontrolled Romantic imagination. By identifying the student with that diseased Romantic temperament, he can not only reveal its dead end; having the poem masquerade as a product of its narrator allows him to parody the bad poetry that such a temperament produces. The deliberate badness in “The Raven” thus becomes a means for ridiculing the verse of those who see art as all inspiration without recognizing the necessity of applying reason to that inspirationa.(8) Interpreting “The Raven” as a parody of the verse produced by the diseased Romanticism the student represents, we can recognize that the parody is not an aberrant element but an integral part of the poem.

We need not go far to find evidence that “The Raven” is indeed such a parody. In January of 1845, the same month in which “The Raven” first appeared in print in the New York Evening Mirror (M1: 363), Poe reviewed Elizabeth Barrett’s The Drama of Exile, and Other Poems, describing those poets later known as the Spasmodics:(9)

From the ruins of Shelley there sprang into existence, affronting the Heavens, a tottering and fantastic pagoda, in which the salient angles, tipped with mad jangling bells, were the idiosyncratic faults of the great original. . . . Young men innumerable, dazzled with the glare and bewildered with the bizarrerie of the divine lightning that [page 214:] flickered through the clouds of the Prometheus, had no trouble whatever in heaping up imitative vapors, but for the lightning, were content, perforce, with its spectrum, in which the bizarrerie appeared without the fire. (H12: 33)

I do not believe we stray in identifying the student with this school, “The Raven” exemplifying its defects. If Poe does not specifically identify Barrett with those “young men innumerable,” the link is still evident. As Jacobs indicates: “It was the school of the Spasmodics that Poe rightly condemned as licentious, and in spite of his admiration for Tennyson and Miss Barrett, he regretted that some of their verse belonged to what he had earlier called the ‘school of all Lawlessness’ that had magnified the errors of the great romantic poets” (p. 390). What is most interesting about this review in relation to “The Raven” is that Poe’s analysis of Barrett’s poetic faults is carried out in terms that reverberate with haunting familiarity in his own poem.

There is, for instance, Poe’s catalog of Barrett’s “multiplicity of inadmissable rhymes,” including “glory and doorway,” “taming and overcame him,” and “Eden and succeeding” (H12: 27). Do we not detect echoes here of some of the more notorious rhymes in “The Raven,” including the progression of “lattice,” “that is,” and “thereat is,” or “evil” and “devil” and “undaunted” and “enchanted”? Poe also speaks of Barrett’s being “not infrequently guilty of repeating herself,” citing as her “chief favorites” the repetition of “down” and “leaning” (H12: 24-25). “The Raven” also abounds in repetition. Not counting the legitimate refrain, “Nevermore,” we must still contend with the recurring “door” (fourteen times) and the “nameless” Lenore (eight times). There is also repetition of phrases in the fourth and fifth lines of each stanza, as in “Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore — / Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore.” In addition, there is substitution of repetition for rhyme, as in “‘Wretch,’ I cried, ‘thy God hath lent thee — by these angels he hath sent thee . . .’.”

Perhaps even more revealing are Poe’s remarks about Barrett’s “deficiencies of rhythm,” for they are directed toward “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” the very poem from which Poe took the form of “The Raven” (Ml: 356). Speaking of Barrett’s trochees, he notes that “the natural rhythmical division, occurring at the close of the fourth trochee, should never be forced to occur, as Miss Barrett constantly forces it, in the middle of a word, or of an indivisible phrase” (H12: 28). “The Raven,” however, contains many examples of such forcing, as in “So that now to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating” and “Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly.” As Poe notes, in such an occurrence “we must sacrifice, in perusal, either the [page 215:] sense or the rhythm” (H12: 28). Are we not justified in applying Poe’s comment in this regard, “Inefficient rhythm is inefficient poetical expression” (H12: 29), to “The Raven”? Furthermore, the resonances of “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” found in “The Raven” — purple chamber, crimson carpet, perfumed air, window casement, “silken stirring,” “With a murmurous air uncertain, in the air the purple curtain,” and “Ever, evermore” — suggest Poe’s sly pointing to Barrett’s poem and his treatment of it as a clue to his parody. The process is identical with that Robert Regan delineates in his demonstrating how “The Masque of the Red Death” is a duplicitous plundering of Hawthorne, with the clue to that hoax being contained in Poe’s second review of Twice-Told Tales.(10)

The Barrett review does draw our attention to many of the deficiencies in “The Raven,” suggesting Poe’s awareness of those flaws and his deliberate incorporation of them into the poem to parody the bad poetry he describes elsewhere. Surely the parallels in terms of time of composition of the poem and the review and the congruence of technical concerns point in this direction. We should also remember that Poe dedicated the 1845 volume, The Raven and Other Poems, to Barrett, for that dedication calls our attention to the review and its applicability to “The Raven.” Although Poe calls Barrett “the noblest of her sex,” he also specifically refers to “The Drama of Exile.” Such direct reference to the poem appearing in the title of his review helps to steer readers to link it with “The Raven.”

Evidence, then, points strongly to “The Raven” as parody. Seeing it as such, we recognize that it is as much about art as about psychological disintegration. The student’s fate reveals the dead end of the uncontrolled Romantic imagination, while the poem reflects the bad art that imagination creates. In the narrative of the poem and in the parody that reinforces that narrative, Poe insists that reason must prevail. Reason would have saved the student. The same reason would have allowed him to write a better poem. Poe’s success in incorporating the parody in a meaningful relation with the narrative is a tribute to his poetic theory and practice. “The Raven,” in its unity of theme and supporting parodic structure, is an example of the proper poetics the student violates, for it reflects the application of reason to imaginative insight the student fails to achieve. Construing “The Raven” as parody does not oversimplify Poe’s art. Rather, it helps us to comprehend how Poe’s penchant for satire works hand in hand with his serious presentation of theme. Only when we recognize the interrelationship of the two do we appreciate the totality of Poe’s work.

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1.  For Ingleby, see Francis F. Burch, “Clement Mansfield Ingleby on Poe’s ‘The Raven’: An Unpublished British Criticism,” AL, 35(1963), 81-83. Among other absurdities, Ingleby points out that “A man who is ‘nodding’ and ‘nearly napping’ can scarcely be engaged in ‘pondering”’ and that “The phrase ‘hesitating then no longer’ is clearly contradicted by what follows; for he does not go directly to the door . . . .” Howard Mumford Jones, “Poe, ‘The Raven,’ and the Anonymous Young Man,” WHR, 9(1955), 127-138, takes exception to W. H. Auden’s negative comments on “The Raven,” arguing that its hypnotic effectiveness overrides its obvious absurdities, including meter and setting. Jesse Bier, The Rise and Fall of American Humor (New York, 1968), points to other problems, including anti-climax, in “The Raven” (p. 68).

2.  In addition to his review of Barrett, discussed at some length in my argument, see also, among many that could be mentioned, Poe’s comments on Brainard (H11: 15-24), Dawes (H11: 131-147), Flaccus (H11: 160-174), Charming (H11: 174-190), and Amelia Welby (H11: 275-281). This last, published in December 1844, also condemns passion in poetry and points to lapses that are suspiciously present in “The Raven,” such as the overuse of “o’er.” I point to comments made between 1840 and 1845, these being representative of Poe’s views at the time of writing “The Raven.”

3.  See “‘The Black Cat’: Perverseness Reconsidered,” TSLL, 2(1960), 172-178; “The Question of Poe’s Narrators,” CE, 25(1963), 177-181; “Poe’s ‘Ligeia’: Dream and Destruction,” CE, 23(1962), 337-342. G. R. Thompson, in “Poe’s ‘Flawed’ Gothic: Absurdist Techniques in ‘Metzengerstein’ and the Courier Satires,” New Approaches to Poe: A Symposium, ed. Richard P. Benton (Hartford, 1970), pp. 38-58, argues that “The first-person narrators of ‘MS. Found in a Bottle,’ ‘Berenice,’ ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ ‘Morella,’ ‘Ligeia,’ ‘The Man of the Crowd,’ and ‘The Oval Portrait’ . . . are involved participants in the action; and their bizarre mental states are integral to the deceptively ironic, seriocomic, and satiric perspectives of the tales” (p. 54). So it is, I believe, with “The Raven.”

4.  The indulgence in sensation and the necessity of “getting it all down” is the focal point in Poe’s satiric “How to Write a Blackwood Article.” The narrator of “The Raven” can be seen as Psyche Zenobia’s brother, for he too revels in his sensations. Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV argues the same for the narrator of “The Fall of the House of Usher”: “Playful ‘Germanism’ in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe, ed. G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke (West Lafayette, 1981), pp. 355-374.

5.  An obvious parallel is the narrator of “Ms. Found in a Bottle.” See the cogent remarks of Clark Griffith, “Caves and Cave [page 217:] Dwellers: The Study of a Romantic Image;’ JEGP, 62(1963), 551568.

6.  See, for instance, Clark Griffith, “Poe’s ‘Ligeia’ and the English Romantics,” UTQ, 24(1954), 8-25; and Kent Ljungquist, “Poe’s ‘The Island of the Fay’: The Passing of Fairyland,” SSF, 14(1977), 265-271. For Poe’s criticism, see n3.

7.  Poe: Journalist & Critic (Baton Rouge, 1969), p. 382.

8.  Such, of course, is the thrust of “The Philosophy of Composition,” which shows the application of reason to the imagination in operation.

9.  Jacobs makes the connection clear on pp. 339-340 and 361-363.

10.  “Hawthome’s ‘Plagiary’: Poe’s Duplicity,” NCF, 25(1970), 281-298.





[S:0 - PHT, 1990] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and His Times - Theme and Parody in The Raven (Dennis W. Eddings, 1990)