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The Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe

Text by: Polite Society Writers


The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
Analysis By Amy Carpenter
Nevermore: when paired with the concept of death, it is the saddest, most frightening word in the English language. Never to hold our loved ones again. Never to hear their laughter ring in our ears again. Never to see their eyes light up again. Never to talk to them again. Never to be with them again. Nevermore.

When Edgar Allan Poe sat down to plan out his most famous poem, "The Raven," he decided to write a poem about the beauty of sadness. This was because poetry is about the beauty of language, and to him, beauty was best expressed through what he termed "melancholy." When he thought of sadness and beauty, he instantly thought of a beautiful woman lost to death. Poe decided to express the main idea of his poem through a one-word refrain — a singular word repeated at the end of each stanza of his 100-plus-line poem. And this word, which embodied all the melancholy and despair of a man who had lost his beautiful lover, would be the haunting, echoing Nevermore.

© Jessica Ceason Photography

"The Raven" comes from the first-person view of the man who has just lost his love, Lenore (note that the name "Lenore" comes from "Eleanor" or "Helen" and means "compassion" or "light"). It is midnight, and he is nodding off as he reads a kind of story book which he hopes will distract him from his burning sorrow. He is awoken by a knocking at his door, but no one is there. Then he hears a tapping at his window. As he throws open the shutter, a raven hops in and sits itself upon a bust of Pallas (Pallas Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom). At first the man is amused by the precocious bird. He thinks perhaps it is like a parrot, repeating whatever it heard its unfortunate, long-lost master utter many times. The raven seems to know only one word and makes only one sound: the monotonous, resounding Nevermore.

The lovesick man begins asking the raven questions. What is its name? Nevermore. Why has it come to him? Is the raven a messenger from God and his angels, come to give him relief from anguished memories of his lost Lenore? Can he drink from the drug of forgetfulness that the raven has brought and forget his sorrow? Nevermore. Is there any balm in Gilead, any relief for his hurting soul? Nevermore. And finally, will he again see his lovely Lenore in that paradise, that Eden of the spirit world? Nevermore.

In response, the man rages and orders the raven to get off the bust of Pallas, to leave his heart and home. As always, the raven answers Nevermore. The man's soul can never get out from under the shadow of the raven and its eternal Nevermore.

Poe built his entire poem around the word Nevermore. He began with the climax — the question of whether the man would ever see his Lenore again — and wrote the preceding questions backwards. His purpose in doing so was to make sure the other stanzas would not overshadow the language of the climactic stanza. Everything built up to the climax, beginning with the somewhat light mood of the man's first impression of the Raven, moving to the question of its existence and purpose, and leading to the poem's most tortuous conclusion. Everything was built around the finality of death, the Nevermore.

As with any poem or work of art, interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. Many have speculated that "The Raven" is simply a nightmare. Others have asserted it is a ghost tale. But ultimately, the poem Poe created is a superb psychological thriller. The man digs his own mental grave. He frames his questions to fit the raven's answer. He could ask his questions in such a way as to find relief in the word Nevermore. If he did, the raven would become a friend and steadfast companion. Instead, he asks questions so that the word Nevermore will cut off all hope, all salvation. He remains in his love, in his world of loss and mourning, out of choice. It is not the pointing finger of God or the heavy chains of fate that make him prisoner in that lonely place. He is the prison guard and author of his own Nevermore.

Definition of terms for "The Raven"

Craven - fainthearted
Night's Plutonian Shore - Pluto was the Roman name for Hades, god of the Underworld. The phrase may also refer to the Underworld's river Styx and its shores.
Nepenthe - a drug or potion used to forget grief
Quaff - drink heartily
Aidenn - a derivation of the word "Eden"
© Jessica Ceason Photography

Dream Within A Dream

by Edgar Allan Poe
Analysis By Beth Bennion

Even after first read, A Dream Within A Dream by Edgar Allan Poe leaves one feeling small. Individuals can read and reread this poem and still be at a loss in knowing how they fit into the universe. Published very near the end of his life, the work serves to argue that Poe thought on another level than plain reality, standing out amidst those other authors and poets who lived during his time. Some will say this is giving him too much credit, though I'm sure anyone who admires Poe's works will see the validity in this suggestion. Nonetheless, we can see Poe's influence even in modern media, such as the recent movie, Inception, which is reminiscent of the odd chord Poe is able to strike with us through his gothic poetry.

© Jessica Ceason Photography

It is easy to see how grief has played into Poe's poetry. Those who have experienced tragedy know how difficult it can be to differentiate between what is real and what is not. The narrator's inability to hold on to even a single grain of sand can be related to the death that seemed to claim Poe's loved ones so often throughout his life. Though as a reader it is also easy to see those few "grains of the golden sand" as time or perhaps mortality. The symbolism of day and night could mean life and death or dreams and reality. What about the afterlife? Is this poem trying to provide hope or prove that there is no hope? The narrator's own questioning throughout the whole second stanza goes to show that such questions are plaguing them as much as the readers. Sometimes we don't want to, or simply can't, accept something tragic. A Dream Within A Dream could be nothing more than that sense of denial we all experience at one point or another. When we have something bad happen in our lives, seeing it as a dream can help relieve the pain and nurse us back to reality.

In actuality, it may not be so complicated at all. Maybe it is Poe's strong narrative voice that leaves us expecting grand answers and profound knowledge if we could only understand the true meaning behind his cryptic words. One of the most enchanting things about this poem is not only the whirlpool of meanings one can gather from it, but how the meaning will change for the reader personally depending on their own life experiences. No matter how you choose to interpret this poem, we are all left with the deep and unanswerable life question: "Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?"