“The silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain, thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before“
–Edgar Allan Poe
Part of the Spiricorps Chronicles
Viktor Shklovsky, in his essay “Art as Technique,” writes that often, the mind has the tendency to ignore the fullness of an object and instead makes note of memorable aspects of the object. Shklovsky claims that the essence of poetry is to make a familiar object strange, arguing that through this process, the observer is able to gain a fuller perspective and understanding of an object than they might otherwise. Poetic speech, therefore, is “created to remove the automatism of perception.” The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe, is essentially a story about a man confronting the cold abyss of death from a place of hopeful delusion. While it certainly isn’t the first creative work to express an existential fear of death, Poe illustrates death in a strangely unique way. Further, by speaking in the first person and using a narrator whose perspective changes throughout the poem, Poe is able to portray an ideological transformation, which ends in a confrontation between the narrator’s hope and his reality.
The voyage between life and the uncertainty of death has been portrayed as everything from heroic, transformative, and honorable to meek, tragic, and frightful. Poe, in The Raven, separates death from abstraction. In the first stanza, Poe presents the narrator, who is sitting in his home reading: “I pondered…over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.” In the second stanza, the narrator describes these “volumes of lore,” as a “surcease of sorrow” from the death of his beloved Lenore. Poe’s narrator acknowledges that hopeful writings on death are a distraction from his grief, not truth. This is essential in establishing the character as one who is not content with his own point of view, perhaps stuck between one belief and another.
But a transformation of the narrator begins with the tapping on his door. His response at first is denial, although he is clearly afraid of the strange noise: “the …uncertain rustling of each purple curtain…filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before.” He ignores his fears and pretends that he is unafraid of what he doesn’t know: “Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door…This it is and nothing more.” Claiming that he was never afraid of the strange sound, he says, to an imagined visitor, “Sir, or Madam… the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping…that I scarce was sure I heard you.” The cause of his delay in answering the door, has nothing to do with the fact that he was sleeping, or that he didn’t hear the tapping, but rather that he was frightened. So, if one were to characterize the narrator’s perception of the unknown, at this point, it would be as a willful and self-imposed ignorance, wherein he chooses to believe that which he is unsure of but comfortable with. This is further exposed in the tenth stanza, where the narrator questions whether or not the raven will remain: “Other friends have flown before…he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before,” clearly indicating the narrator’s attachment to the comfort of his imagination is fleeting, and that he already questions if his hope of seeing Lenore again will ever be realized.
The use of a raven to represent an abstract concept like death is brilliant because it allows the narrator to be perplexed. It seems that this confusion is important to Poe because there are many parts of the poem, in which the narrator remarks on how strange it is for a bird to be in his home. For example, in the 9th stanza, he says “Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl… for we cannot help agreeing that no living human being ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door.” Confusion is essential to this story because it’s the confusion of the narrator that inspires his transformation. It is only after he sits “engaged in guessing,” that he begins to make claims as to the bird’s origin. First he claims that the bird is an angelic force, sent to distract him from Lenore’s death: “thy God hath lent thee…respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore.” This is an interesting choice in that he essentially calls faith a respite, as opposed to a truth, referencing the “surcease from sorrow” in the 2nd stanza. So, even in his dreams that god will let him see Lenore again, the narrator still doesn’t truly believe that there is hope, only nepenthe. Next, presuming the Bird to be some prophet of the devil, he asks the Bird if there is balm in Gilead, a biblical medicine which is thought of as a cureall (15:1), a second plea, begging for some spiritual revelation and confirmation of his hopes. The raven answers “nevermore” and affirms his fear that he will never see Lenore again and that his own life will not continue after death. Finally in the 16th stanza, the narrator explicitly asks if Lenore waits for him in heaven: “Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn, It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore.” With another “nevermore,” the raven’s message is at last clear to the narrator that he will never see Lenore again, and in the 17th stanza, he cries “be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” Still, even by the end of the poem, he has no idea what the purpose of the bird in his life, or what entity sent it to him, but he has nonetheless been condemned by it.
Shklovsky says that the purpose of art is to depict things “as they are perceived, not as they are known.” Poe tackles the subject of grief and death by embracing this artful purpose. He presents death through no other lens than the way it can be perceived, as final. The narrator’s only personal connection to death is through the raven: a bird capable of uttering one word, “nevermore:” a reminder that the only certainty of death is the end of life and all that life entails, that it is irreversible, and that, once concluded, life continues nevermore. While many poets might try to personify death, or describe death as a journey, Poe truly makes unfamiliar the concept of death. There is no other comfort or answer that the narrator can receive, for all his questions about the ”Balm Gilead” and “Aidenn.” By using a raven as death’s agent of disillusionment, Poe denies that one can become acquainted with death beyond its totality. As the narrator becomes conceptually acquainted with mortality, he also, by the end of the poem, must confront the implication of death’s void of his relationship with Lenore, and it is this unfamiliarity that gives meaning and depth to this poem. By presenting his understanding of death through the croaking voice of a mysterious raven, the narrator, as well as the reader, must confront death as something foreign, without the aid of dogma, philosophy, or other nepenthes.
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