Last night I volunteered to work at the Scholastic Book Fair at my daughter’s school. While I was there, I had a discussion with Laura, the school librarian, about why it’s important to re-read books and poems that you have not read in a while, how your perspective changes and you notice nuances that you missed previously. After that discussion, I knew it was high time for me to read “The Raven” again, even though I had read it so many times before. It was no surprise that I discovered things about the poem I had never noticed before.
This is the quintessential work by Poe. Whenever someone mentions Edgar Allan Poe, the image that usually is conjured is that of the raven. In fact, I would argue that “The Raven” is probably the most recognizable American poem ever written.
The first thing that struck me on this reading is the fact that the protagonist suffers from insomnia. He is up at midnight, deep in thought, and he does not mention that he almost falls asleep. He clearly says that he nearly napped, implying that he no longer sleeps at night, but only catches brief moments of napping during his long nights of obsession.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
The long, sleepless nights and the obsessive thoughts begin to take their toll on the person’s mind. Fantasy and imagination begin to flood the psyche and affect his sense of reality. At first, it is exciting. One almost gets a sense of an adrenaline rush as the speaker succumbs to his imagination.
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before:
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating;
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
He then becomes trapped within his own mind. In the fifth stanza, he describes staring into the darkness. This darkness represents the shadow part of his consciousness, where his dark thoughts lie hidden from himself.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared dream before;
By this point in the poem, Poe has already begun using alliteration in conjunction with his rhyming, which works very well. But as the poem begins to climax near the end, the alliteration becomes more pronounced, adding to the frenzy that the protagonist is experiencing as he loses himself in the fear and obsession which he creates within his own mind.
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil! —
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore
Desolate, yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted, —tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead? —tell me—tell me—I implore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
So this seems like the appropriate place to unveil what I think is the coolest discovery I made regarding this poem. As I was looking at images of covers and trying to pick one for the post, something about the word “Raven” was gnawing at me, and I kept looking at the word, trying to figure out what it was. Then it struck me—Raven spelled backwards (nevar) is phonetic for “never.” It is not a perfect anagram, but I would consider it a phonetic anagram. I have no idea whether this was intentional on the part of Poe, but it does seem more than a coincidence to me. It is like the Raven is the physical manifestation of the word Never. I feel like I have stumbled upon an aspect of this poem that has gone unnoticed. I for one have never heard a mention of this before, even when we studied this poem in my American Literature class in college.
I admit feeling ambivalent about covering this poem on my blog, since I feel it has been analyzed to death, but I am glad that I did. I feel like my understanding of this poem has reached a new level. So to conclude, I will once again quote the Raven, “Nevarmore.”