Edgar Allan Poe. The master of the macabre. Best known for his short stories and poems, imbued with mysticism and mystery, from the tell-tale heart to murders in the rue moruge. But it’s The Raven which serves as his most interesting and important work. Fusing all of his genius and inner darkness into a poetic narrative that’s as enchanting as it maddening (psychotic screams).
It begins, as many stories do, on a dark mysterious night. The poem’s opening lines set the stage - “Once upon a midnight dreary.” It’s immediately interesting to note what Poe achieves here. Juxtaposing the classical stock phrase “once upon a time“ that's prevalent in fairytales, with the dark dreary ominous setting the narrator finds himself in, reading forgotten lore in an attempt to find some surcease of sorrow. Because of this stark contrast we’re able to quickly come to the understanding that what we’re in store for is not in fact a fairytale, but a dark fairytale perhaps.
Poe continues, setting the scene of this evening. The narrator, grieving over the loss of his love, Lenore attempts to retreat into stories, into lost lore, to forget her and finally become free of his sorrows. The quaintness of the evening is broken when he’s compelled into action by the sound of rapping and tapping (rapping and tapping sfx) at his chamber door and the rustling of curtains that thrill him to his very core. It’s almost as if he’s been sub-planted into one of the stories that he's been reading, he’s even giddy about it at first. And it's in those following moments, his soul growing stronger, him hesitating then no longer, that he opens the wide the door------(open door) to find darkness there and nothing more.
What’s revealed to the narrator is that not even an imaginary story can surcease the sorrow of a love now long gone, and when retreating from a darkness that is world defining, searching for some semblance of an answer to the pain evoked by our harrowing memories we often get-- nothing, no answer capable of soothing us. a realization scarier than the worst horrors of fiction we could imagine. A loneliness that within the confines of a soul so empty and barren, can’t help but echoe (echoe)
These themes of loneliness and loss persist throughout the poem, but it's their use within the context of Poe's stylistic choices and literary devices that truly add to the allure of what makes this narrative so evocative. The Raven is a ballad, constructed of 18 six line stanzas. It’s metrical form is distinctive, with its use of trow-kay-uhk octameter; a meter this poem practically invented. Because of the length of the line, trow-kay-uhc octameter is great for heavy use of internal rhyme and alliteration - techniques Poe uses heavily throughout the piece. That coupled with the consistent ABCBBB rhyme scheme, and it's easy to see just how meticulous Poe approached crafting his poetry. His words and by extension the themes they represent can't help but make their lasting impact on our minds and understanding
But It’s his use of caesura (suhzeera), the poetic insertion of pauses through meter or punctuation in the middle of the line that’s almost entirely what gives this poem it’s whimsical driving nature. Caesuras serve to break up the monotony, forcing readers to focus on the meaning of the phrase preceding it. It’s use in this poem is dramatic and ominous in a way that mirrors the dramatic encounter the narrator faces with the divine and supernatural. But what caesura also does is it seeks to mirror the phrasing of natural speech. It literally breaks us from the often surgical tightness found in metrical form and It’s an effect that makes the language feel more realistic and personal. An effect Poe found extremely important to achieve. We’ll get back to this in a moment.
Enter the raven. A grim and ghastly raven wandering from the nightly shore that immediately situates itself on the bust of Pallas, the roman epithet for Athena, the Goddess of wisdom. This juxtaposition of the ancient Plutonian described bird and it’s position on this bust of Pallas highlights the dark wisdom within the bird itself. And it’s arrival signifies the narrator becoming increasingly privy to this wisdom. At first he speaks to the bird in jest, humored by its stern decorum and countenance, and proceeds to ask for his lordly name. To which the bird replies “Nevermore” and that’s all he’ll ever say. A simple word that quickly turns from humorous, nonsensical coincidence, to haunting and eternally soul revealing. A word that literally burns itself deep into the contours of the narrator’s heart and mind.
When met with a terrifying truth, something that pecks and claws at our inner psyche we often might reject it, it may even come across as laughable. We can be blind to the commentary it makes so readily on our direct reality. But when you’re a soul, as laden with inescapable sorrow as the narrator is, you almost have no choice but to consider it, apply it to your own life and circumstances. And it’s that single decision, that single act of allowing that truth to invade the central corners of our mind that doesn’t mask our grief but amplifies it. The Raven doesn’t come to the narrator as a friend, but neither does he an enemy. Rather than curse the narrator he merely serves as a reflection of pain within that the narrator already knows all too well. And just as those feelings of loss have grown to become inescapable for the narrator; unable to leave him, so too will this bird. Serving as a permanent grim and ghastly reminder that these feelings don’t so easily fade.
I think the Raven Poe wrote the raven at a dark time in his life, suffering at the hands of publishers, struggling to make money from his work. And while the poem launched him into a higher literary status it did little to quell the demons that had already burrowed deep within Poe from very early on. Abandonment by his father and the early death of his mother, alcoholism and racking up gambling debts, his wife, who was also his cousin, who was also 13 when they married (not gonna even try to justify any of that) would go on to die two years after the poem’s publishing from tuberculosis. Poe himself would go on to die a few short years later. All of this is to say that it was obvious Poe was dealing with a type of all consuming tragedy and torment that’s hard to put into words, but for a man of his genius and brilliance easy to put into prose, and story, and poem. Maybe that's why so many of his own sorrows we can see mirrored within the narrator, he even locks himself in with his POV. Two people familiar with loss, isolation, love, and memory, both consumed by stories. Hoping that through them they can find some respite from the realities of this horrific world and tragic existence. Both at the haunting mercy of a dark wisdom that doesn’t leave our presence so easily. It’s in this way the macabre reality blends in with the fiction, blurring the lines between his tragic life and the tragedy of his works. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding the extent of Poe’s struggles with addiction and trauma, much of which has been exacerbated by critics like Rufus Griswold, whose diatribes about Poe after his death aided in crafting this grizzly portrayal of Poe as a debaucherous, coke ridden, gambler driven to all manner of perversions. Many of these facts have since been rebuked. I think that’s why so many look to his works to make some sense of the man who made them. It’s impossible to know all the lurid details but what we do know for certain is that there was an eeriness that prevaded Poe, one he sought to capture in his works. An eeriness that spoke not only to his personal brand of darkness but the darkness in all of us. A blackness that’s inescapable.
In the Raven we’re trapped in this poem, with no way out, the same as the narrator, the same as Poe. With no promise of balm in gilead or happily ever after. No rest from the painful twinge of memory and love loss that eventually becomes character defining. Souls, trapped beneath the shadow of horrors, to be lifted- nevermore.
Mind Theater is produced and written by me, Ayo Akingbade. For updates on the show as well as upcoming episodes follow mindthearpod on twitter, instagram, and tiktok. If you wanna show monetary support the kofi link is in the show notes. Thanks for listening, ill catch ya next time.