BY DR. AGONSON
Science has at times been likened to the mythological basilisk “which kills what it sees and only sees by killing” (Lewis 80). The worldview which uses science as such a monster is sometimes called naturalism, or even materialism, but will generally be referred to herein as scientism. Edgar Allen Poe, as a prominent member of the Romantics, rebels against the world view of scientism, or as Sanna Dhahir puts it, “he was wary of science and tended to side with the Romantic poets,” and I intend to demonstrate that this poem, The Raven, is a metaphorical narrative showing the innately destitute nature of discounting anything beyond the material world. Which is to say, the poem in question, regardless of Poe’s “consideration of an effect” from his Philosophy of Composition, reflects upon the need of man to find light, Lenore, within the darkness, and that in scientism’s rejection of anything beyond the physical world he invites the titular Raven, and its dread, repetitive call of nevermore, into his consciousness.
The poem opens with the narrator “nearly napping” (The Raven 3) in a study of “lore” (The Raven 2), but being disturbed by someone “gently rapping” (The Raven 4) on the door to his room. The narrator ends the first stanza with a strange expression, for after suggesting someone is knocking on his door, he assures himself that the knocking is “only this and nothing more” (The Raven 6). Here, we get an early sense of some uneasiness in the narrator’s mind. What more should a knocking be? In the third stanza, the narrator builds up his courage by repeatedly (The Raven 15) chanting that the tapping is only someone is at his door before he is able to respond to the call.
Between these two stanzas an inference may be made as to the source of his trepidation, for in the second stanza the narrator makes certain allusions to December—the end of the year—dying embers casting shadows, and his longing for the morning to come (The Raven 7-9). It is soon understood that the study which nearly put him to sleep was in fact something of an anesthetic, his attempt at dealing with this December of his life (The Raven 9-10). The warmth and light—the fire—burning out in him like faded, shadowy memories he has turned away from; he is hiding in vain imaginings, “quaint . . . Lore” (The Raven 2). His longing for day becomes a desire not only for an end to this present darkness, but for his late love, Lenore, a name which begins to represent light.
The fantastic terrors of the third stanza, which the narrator battles by repeatedly declaring that the knocking is “nothing more” (The Raven 18) than some “late visitor” (The Raven 17), are then connected to the rustling of purple curtains (The Raven 13-14). Why? An explanation could be the connection of spirit to wind, an image of material animated by the unseen and invisible. This movement of the curtain is described as “uncertain” (The Raven 13), a word chosen not merely for the rhyme: here we see the narrator’s perspective on spiritual matters, uncertain, and an uncertainty which nearly terrifies him, nearly makes him as inactive as stone.
Fortified by his mantra, his repeated declaration of “nothing more” (The Raven 6 & 18), the narrator finally addresses the unseen visitor behind his door. Ostensibly his greeting is directed to whomever is knocking, but also, following from the previous stanzas, seems to be a further assurance to himself. The narrator apologizes for his delay in coming to the door by saying the knocking was so gentle that he was unsure he heard anything (The Raven 22-23). It may be interpreted that the narrator experienced something and then ascribed it to a so far imagined visitor knocking at his door, an idea later corroborated in the sixth stanza where the continued knocking is attributed to something other than his door. This is to say, the narrator imposes the idea of a visitor onto the sound, and this in some way shields him from some as of yet unexplored dread. Once the apology is made, and once he has spoken aloud what reality he wishes to find, the narrator discovers no one at his door. He finds nothing but darkness (The Raven 24).
Entering the fifth stanza, a definite callback is made to the third by a similar phrase, and possibly, a connection to the first stanza is made as well. At the end of line fourteen, the narrator describes his fears as “terrors never felt before,” and again describing his fear, the fifth stanza uses the phrase, “no mortal ever dared to dream before” (The Raven 26). I see a twofold link to the first stanza: In one hand, the reference to dreaming in the fifth stanza could be connected to the sleep (The Raven 3) of the first; In the other hand, in the first stanza the narrator is reading—using his eyes to stare at words on a page—is studying, searching for something, and this might mirror the narrator’s “peering” (The Raven 25) into the darkness.
The interpretation of the fifth stanza becomes a major part of this paper’s thesis. Both the third and first stanza of this poem express a fear of the supernatural; both end in an assertion that whatever he is experiencing, the knocking, has a natural explanation, some unknown visitor. Yet when he investigates, when he actually sees what is behind the door, he can only see darkness. Yet there is light in the darkness, for he hears “the whispered word ‘Lenore?’” (The Raven 28). But a certain level of ambiguity exists here. Earlier, in lines eleven and twelve, we are told Lenore is dead by the fact that she is “Nameless here.” Line eleven describes angels in the present tense, which is to say they currently, “name” Lenore, or in other words, they are speaking her name.
The narrator is comfortable, if heartbroken, with this idealized image of where Lenore is; however, when he hears, when he actually experiences, her name in the darkness beyond the threshold of his quaint study, he quickly backtracks. He quickly assigns the phenomena to himself, that he was the originator of the sound, and hearing her name in the darkness was only hearing an “echo” (The Raven 29) of his own calling for her. This seems to reflect an idea in scientism used to discredit supernatural experience called wish fulfillment, an idea being embraced by the narrator. Therefore, this is no supernatural event: what he heard he only heard because he wanted to hear it, he called for light within the darkness.
Or to be clearer: In line twenty-seven we are told the silence in the darkness is unbroken only for the following line to “break” this silence. Yet the narrator does not specify that he hears the word, only that the name Lenore is spoken. Line twenty-nine “clarifies” that the narrator spoke this word and then heard the echo of it back, and yet the reader experiences the “echo” before learning of the “original” sound. There is room for interpretation here, but I think the narrator, afraid of some undefined dread, uncertain of the veracity of angels calling Lenore or of any other spiritual truth as is demonstrated by his reaction to the rustling curtains, has a spiritual experience which he explains away by the fact that he wanted to experience it; he called for the experience and thus interprets the experience as an echo of his own desires. The question is, which came first, for in the poem the supposed echo of “‘Lenore’” (The Raven 28) comes before the narrator’s explanation, “an echo murmured back” (The Raven 29).
With his decision made, this impressing of scientism upon his experience, the narrator does not leave his “chamber” but returns to it (The Raven 31). Indeed, the poem ends with the assertion that the narrator’s own soul is trapped in that room (The Raven 107-108), an image somewhat like a ghost. Yet, the tapping continues, and is now “louder” (The Raven 32). The narrator, his soul “burning” (The Raven 31) from his experience at the door, now tries a new interpretation of the sound, claiming that the “wind” (The Raven 36) is causing something to knock against his window (The Raven 33). This somewhat mirrors the earlier naturalistic explanation of a visitor, and yet two things stand against this being an image of the natural. First, he is ascribing the sound to wind, which can be a metaphor for spirit, and secondly the window itself, like the door, suggests a looking out from his chamber, something which is beyond the natural world he retreated to in fear.
In the interest of brevity, I wish to skim over the remaining plot of the poem, focusing on a few key details. Opening the window, the narrator allows a raven to enter his abode, and, promptly, this fowl alights upon a bust of Pallas situated over the chamber door (The Raven 37-42). I interpret this, in relation to what the bird will say, as speaking with the voice of presumed authority, which is the authority of intellect. What the bird says is not revelation, not supernatural; neither is it truly reason, for the bird usurps the bust of Pallas. The narrator muses that the one word the bird knows is “its only stock and store” (The Raven 62), a premise which holds throughout the poem, and if true, disqualifies the raven from intentionally speaking truthfully: The bird will give the same response no matter the question, even if such replies would be contradictory.
The narrator takes to talking with the bird, and in response to three questions, two commands, and a statement, the bird gives its unfaltering reply of, “Nevermore” (The Raven 48, 60, 84, 90, 96, 102). Two of the three questions are similar in essence, amounting to a question of whether or not he’ll find relief from his sorrow (The Raven 89) or if he’ll ever see Lenore again (The Raven 93-95). The two coupled questions are prompted by the raven’s unsolicited testimony regarding the narrator’s command, a command ostensibly to himself, to forget Lenore (The Raven 81-83). The narrator hopes this bird is “respite” (The Raven 82) which “God hath lent” (The Raven 81), the anesthetic he was looking for, but this hope is dashed by the raven’s unsought response, “Nevermore” (The Raven 84) when he commands himself to partake, “quaff” (The Raven 83), of the raven and forget Lenore.
I see the window and door as representations of the same event. The same call, the same tapping, draws the narrator to each. The consequences of the event comes from his decision of how to interpret, or deal, with his loss. Two contrary possibilities are presented by the narrator for how he should progress from his bereavement, reunion (The Raven 93-95) or total dissolution (The Raven 81-83, 89). Through the door was the possibility of reunion, an heaven of sorts, which he turns from as merely his own desire fooling him. However, the nepenthe, the Raven trained to cheaply reply “nevermore” (The Raven 62-66), is invited into his intellectual space when he rejects hope in the hereafter. Nevermore, the raven’s presumed name, fails to provide the contrary freedom from his mourning the narrator expected when giving up hope, for far from forgetting his love, he finds the bird damns him to perpetual desire with no hope of satisfaction.
I cannot find a reliable source for the name Lenore meaning light. However, the website http://www.ohbabynames.com/ describes the general controversy regarding what the name Lenore means, light being a major possibility.
As far as my research goes, wish fulfillment was a term coined by Freud used to describe the unconscious self-fulfillment of one’s own desires.
Albeit a somewhat problematical phrase for my theory regarding the narrator’s scientism. This could simply be a turn of phrase, an expression not in keeping with the narrator’s worldview, or possibly an expression of duplicity, that when the narrator wants there to be a God he believes, and when he doesn’t want to believe claims wish fulfillment.
Burch, Francis F. “Clement Mansfield Ingleby on Poe’s ‘The Raven’: An Unpublished British Criticism.” American Literature, vol. 35, no. 1, 1963, pp. 81–83. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2923024.
Dhahir, Sanna. “Literary Contexts in Poetry: Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven.’” Literary Contexts in Poetry: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” July 2007, p. 1. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=25997849&site=ehost-live.
Lewis, Clive Staples. The Abolition of Man. HarperCollins, 1944.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Raven.” Edgar Allan Poe Complete Tales and Poems. New York: Fall River Press, 2012. 68. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Composition by Edgar Allan Poe.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69390/the-philosophy-of-composition.