For the record the best reading of The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe remains the Simpsons version done in the very first Treehouse of Horror episode. Lisa, Bart, and Maggie are telling scary stories while Homer sits outside and listens becoming steadily more terrified as the episode continues. There was an honest simplicity in those early years, when one could believe that the greatness that was the Simpsons would endure instead of becoming the bloated, soulless capitalist shadow of its former self. However criticizing the Simpsons is quickly becoming a cultural cliche in itself and my interest here is Poe.
Though I wouldn’t want to deny anyone the chance to enjoy this wonderful reimagining so I’ve included a link to it here in case you would like to see the poem done right:
Now my original exposure to The Raven was in middle school when the girl I had a crush on (minor obsession may be the more accurate description of a boy’s middle school crush) performed a dramatic reading with a single orange light illuminating her face while she cackled and I feel steadily into love-drunk madness. However hormones weren’t the only initial appeal of The Raven for me. Like many young men beginning puberty there was a darkness in the man’s writing that spoke to me. Corpses, incest, torture, madness, murder, and the supernatural all just came together, along with my childhood adoration of Tim Burton films. I suspect that just about every introverted person has a “Poe phase” that most of us grow out of. The only reason it has taken me this long to write a review of one of his poems or short stories is because I’m terrified of admitting I enjoy the man’s work. The conflict with enjoying Poe publicly is the company you automatically acquire: hipsters that enjoy smoking their hookah while reading Ulalume, tweenaged angst ridden goths who read The Raven while drinking out of plastic cups shaped like skulls their step-father bought for them to be the “cool parent,” and scores of middle aged men who shop at Hot Topic with their teenage girlfriends who have belly button piercings, passages of The Conqueror Worm tattooed on their calf, and wear black and white tights with blue jean shorts and Alice in Wonderland t-shirts.
If you catch a hint of disdain it’s more out of frustration than actual loathing. Despite this description of his current fanbase I really do love Poe, it’s just that my analyst tells me I try too hard to impress people, but he wears a duck suit during sessions and demands I pay him in crayons. I’m beginning to suspect he’s actually a Freudian.
Despite the public, mass misunderstanding of what Poe is, a truly great poem exists beneath the mountain of crap and my effort will, especially since Halloween season is about to arrive, clear the rubbish away. And if you will please dear Reader, imagine whenever I quote a passage that I have the voice of James Earl Jones. It’s more like a matured Pee Wee Hermin I’m sure, I’m just quoting my wife. Now the poem begins with a nameless narrator brooding in his study:
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 some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.
That damned Raven hasn’t even appeared is the poem and yet its presence haunts the reader’s consciousness. What many may not realize, for I doubt many teachers have their students read Poe’s work anymore other than perhaps The Tell-Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher, if that, is that the Raven does not even appear until the seventh stanza, and the line “Nevermore” isn’t spoken until the next. What has been lost in The Raven is because of that damned bird, and so let my Reader forget it for a moment to look back over these first two stanzas. The speaker mentions a woman named Lenore, and credit be to the English teachers I had growing up, they instilled in us that the Raven is only secondary to this woman. The speaker has lost a woman and while he ascribes to her heavenly beauty, he will never speak her true name. Now some teachers will mention that Poe had recently lost his wife, his cousin Virginia Clemm (before you raise your eyebrow she was thirteen when he married her and he was twenty-six, but given the time period that really wasn’t that unusual, but try telling students that), and while I’m usually not a fan of using events in an author’s life to justify explanations of interpretations in literature, The Raven seems to validate this interpretation.
As the reader continues in the poem, the speaker’s heartache, and desperation to escape the misery that has accompanied the death of his beloved manifests into terror:
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—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.”
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.
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 word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
Merely this and nothing more.
This moment in which the lone man stands facing the darkness that so beckoned him, most surely framed by the orange blades of his fireplace and the weak fading light of a retreating moon, touches the sublime. Now if the reader is ignorant of the term don’t feel bad, I never got a good definition of the term until college. The Sublime is a feeling of awe that couples wonder and terror. As one of my professor’s would explain, observing a hurricane or a tornado would be to feel the sublime, for while there would be the real, raw terror of the power of what you’re observing there would also be wonder at the incredible power you’re witnessing. Some might object, much like Bart did, that anything would have been scarier than darkness, but they would be missing the speaker’s emotion.
No matter what we might feel, the speaker in The Raven was beckoned to the door by a rapping, knocking, and once there perceived in the grand darkness an opportunity to touch a place where perhaps the divide between life and death are no longer so sure. Where perhaps a hand may reach out and drag him in. But into what?
The reader who is expecting a further examination of this poem is, I’m afraid, in for a disappointment because after this point the poem falls back upon the Raven, and as the title of this essay suggests I’ve had it with that damn bird, no matter how interesting it is. The bird is merely the messenger of the darkness that rapped upon the speaker’s door; it’s the physical manifestation of the dark spirit that began the speaker’s torment. The question that is never asked in discussions of this poem is, what has the speaker invited onto himself by summoning his lover’s name? Some might say the raven, but others might fall back and suggest the Sublime.
Poe is a great poet, because as he describes “fantastic terrors never felt before,” a line I envy to my dying breath, a summons the reader to the entrance of a dimension that many of us have only ever felt in nightmares suffered during childhood, or else while reading a Stephen King novel before your roommate, who’s a total dick and that’s why his girlfriend left him, screams right behind your ear when you get to the part with, well…never mind. The point is the man succeeds in this moment because rather than describe demons or monsters that might create a momentary panic in the reader during the first read, he invites the reader into the encounter with abyss. The negative space which defies any and all conventional understanding, and faced with such sublime power, many people would break. Whether or not the Speaker breaks is not really up for discussion. He does. And in his panic to fill the abyss he invites a demon from that space that torments him throughout the rest of the poem.
That damned bird, that raven who defines the term mantra, is too often slapped on the backpacks of rich emo kids trying to freak out their parents, and many teachers may try a dramatic reading of the poem for Halloween in the vein of a “Ooh look at this spooky poem, Happy Halloween, don’t forget your homework on Monday” but few students, teachers, and scholars really seem to be willing to dig into this poem for fear of the cartoon characters that surround it.
They do this poem a disservice then, for the continuation of Poe as cartoon character, rather than a legitimate American poet who was able to summon and inspire real terror, while also creating instances of the sublime in words, will only continue the disrespect that surrounds this brilliant work.
You don’t have to have Jack Skellington tattooed on your ass to be able to enjoy The Raven, though it will give your stepdad a heart attack, so I guess you gotta go with what makes ya happy.
I’ve included a link below to the original poem in case you’d prefer to read the whole work.
I’ve also included here a peace offering to any and all bird lovers who feel I have stepped too far. So here, for your enjoyment, is an actual raven saying “nevermore.” Freaked the shit out of me the first time I saw it, hopefully you’re not wearing white pants. Happy Halloween.