October Reading: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”

To celebrate the month of October, all the weeks of which are steeped with ghosts and goblins by association, I’ve been delving into my favorite horror reading, and since today is apparently the UK’s National Poetry Day (and the world’s too if Twitter is any indication), today seems like a fitting one to talk about “The Raven,” by Edgar Allan Poe, one of my all-time favorite poems and an exceptionally creepy tale.

Reading the poem aloud is an interesting experience. There’s regularity in the rhymes and mostly in the rhythm- with an emphasis on mostly. It’s not wholly regular, at least not the way I tend to read it. There are repetitions of phrase and jarring moments where the flow created by the enjambment doesn’t quite match up with the cadences of the words. What’s interesting about this to me is that this feels like talking wrapped up in verse. The pauses, the repetitions, and the strange way the syllables fall are all very definitely within the form of the poem, but they feel like a person, a very particular person, is actually talking and getting a feel for a story as it’s being told.

“The Raven” gives the first harbinger of its titular figure after only a few lines: “While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.” As the stanzas go on, we see the narrator has been roused from sleep and subsequently scared out of his wits by… “the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain.” Which makes a certain amount of sense, as the last thing he was doing before nodding off was poring “over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.” The moments of being woken up suddenly are a weird enough sensation on their own; fueled by such things, they get even stranger and can definitely be filled with “fantastic terrors” that have no conscious equivalent.

Of course, that’s not going to touch what takes the narrator’s terror in a few stanzas, but we’ll get there.

Through the first three stanzas, there’s nothing to necessarily indicate horror, unless you count the setting of the bleak December and it being midnight, and as anyone who’s pulled an all-nighter can tell you, this setting isn’t necessarily conducive to terror. In fact the sense I get in the first three stanzas is one of drudgery and neglect. The night is described as dreary, the fire is dying, and this chimes perfectly with why the narrator is pondering strange lore: it’s not for some occult purpose, it’s to forget a lost loved one. There’s melancholy in this, but not really horror, unless you count the fantastic terrors of the curtain- I really don’t, as they seem more like the shock of waking suddenly. But the fourth stanza is where it gets interesting for me. The narrator rouses himself, greets the guest rapping at the door and opens up.

Darkness there, and nothing more.

This line is particularly creepy, because there should be something, and we and the narrator both know it. Anyone who’s been in an old house or empty place by themselves probably knows the feeling of hearing an out-of-place sound definitely was caused by something– and yet nothing seems out of place on inspection. So the narrator is left standing into the black of the hall, and then we get our second element of creepiness, the suggestion that our narrator may have stranger things going on in his head than hearing things: “And the only word there spoken was the whispered word “Lenore!”

We know that this person is dead, so the narrator calling out for them in the dead of night is a little unsettling. It might be one of those outpourings of grief that come when there’s no witness, but it’s still a hint that things may not be fully furnished in the upper story- and that suggestion only gets stronger as the poem goes on. But for the present, the narrator returns to his chamber, hears the tapping noise again, and now being more awake, is able to pinpoint the source as the window. He throws it open and “In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.”

The description of the raven is particularly great:

Not the least obeisance made he; not an instant
stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above
my chamber door,–
Perched upon a bust of Pallas, just above my
chamber door,–
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

This isn’t particularly terrifying, and it’s not really surprising that the sight of this thing would move the narrator to smile. He addresses the raven, jokingly asking it for its name, and we get the first famous line:

Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”

Since ravens are capable of speech, this isn’t the horror that might be expected, and the narrator, though surprised by the bird being so articulate, doesn’t seem particularly afraid of it, not even when it sits motionless on the bust, not even when it gives the “Nevermore” response to his muttering to himself. He pulls up a chair before the bird and starts observing it, wondering what it might mean by croaking that one word, and then his mind tracks back to the lost love. This is where, again, things start to get creepy, but it’s hard to tell if it stems from something that’s actually happening or something that the narrator is imagining. The air seems to grow thicker, and he thinks the bird has been sent to distract him and help him forget his grief. He voices this thought, ending with “and forget this lost Lenore!”

You can guess what the raven’s answer to that is. And this is where the narrator seems to first start losing his grip, addressing the bird as “prophet,” followed immediately by “Thing of evil!” What’s particularly interesting and disturbing about this is that the narrator, having decided that about that raven, decides to question it in the way someone might pray for answers, entreating the raven first if there is “balm in Gilead,” and then if the “sainted maiden, whom the angels name Lenore,” will be clasped in “the distant Aidenn.”

To each the raven answers “Nevermore,” and the narrator fully loses it at the last reply. It’s a moment particularly fun to read aloud, because the rising words peak in a way that that the questioning hasn’t. It’s clear as the narrator leaps from his seat that he’s overtaken by rage at this thing that he invited in, a thing that he won’t be able to get rid of- whether from his house or his mind is anyone’s guess. The ending of the poem is chilling. The outburst did nothing, the prayers were for nothing, and this thing has no intention of departing.

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
that is dreaming,
And the lamplight 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!

One thing that’s particularly interesting about this to me is that the raven perches on the bust of Pallas, or Athena- the goddess of wisdom. If you want to, you can make a case for the raven representing the grief and loss of reality overthrowing the mind of the narrator in a way that he’ll never be able to recover from. He’ll never get out from the shadow of that thing. More horrifying still, it’s always going to supersede his wisdom and reason from this point onward. How he lives his life – the outcome of his soul, if you will- will never be able to get out from the pall cast by this thing of death that can’t be forgotten, set aside, or banished. It’s more than a loss- the absence of Lenore is itself a malignant thing, an entity that can shatter a man as readily as anything corporeal. Losing reason and perception of reality is a horror more plausible and in many ways more lasting than that of any ax-murderer or monster.

But all that said, it’s October, so I think of the rapping, the tapping, the flirt and flutter with which the bird walks in, and its eyes of a dreaming demon. And I think a literal interpretation is pretty terrifying too.

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