An Analysis of Poe’s Theme of Melancholy in The Raven
By Taylor Isbell (Period 5)
Personal tragedy, unfortunately, was a recurring theme in Edgar Allan Poe’s life. Marred by alcoholism, abuse, depression, and rejection by the world around him, Poe created a whole state of mind, for which he is extremely well-known, based on the harsh situations that he experienced. This state of mind is one of gloominess and depression, and is a major theme in his poetry and other works. Poe utilized this theme of “melancholy” in order to portray his ominous perspective of life to the audience, and it is illustrated in one of his most famous poems: The Raven.
To understand Poe’s intention of creating melancholy, one should look to Poe’s well-recognized article titled The Philosophy of Composition, in which he thoroughly analyzes The Raven. When discussing the tone used, he says, “Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.” (Poe, p.3) With this line, Poe is arguing that melancholy is the most logical tone to apply to this specific poem because it clearly articulates the beauty of this poem. One particular way he created this tone was through the connotation of his words. The antagonist of The Raven is mourning the loss of his love, Lenore; thus, he is split between the desire to remember and the desire to forget. Poe cleverly words this poem, though, in order to emphasize the fact that this character will never again see his love. The essential, most evident word in the entire poem is the word “nevermore,” which is repeated in the last line of the last eleven stanzas in the poem. Poe explains:
In Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, “The Raven”, he uses symbols and figurative language to enhance his theme of madness. The theme of madness gives the poem an air of mystery and evokes many questions in the reader’s mind. The reader begins to wonder if the speaker is sane, or even if the Raven is real. The poem starts out fairly normal until the bird speaks, which is definitely out of the ordinary. Up ...
The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that
melancholy which I had predetermined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word “Nevermore.” (Poe, p.4)
He further explains this choice by emphasizing the long “o” as the most “sonorous” vowel sound. The word “nevermore” highlights the somber fact that Lenore is gone, which is quite a gloomy, or melancholy thought.
Another key element that Poe utilizes in this poem is the creature that he chose to speak the word “nevermore.” A raven is, as Poe puts it, “the bird of ill omen,” so obviously the use of this creature would help establish his desired melancholy tone. Interestingly, though, there is more behind the employment of this sinister fowl. In his article, Poe elucidates the previous statement:
…I did not fail to perceive, in short, that the
difficulty lay in the reconciliation of this monotony with the exercise of reason on the part of the creature repeating the word. Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech; and, very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone. (Poe, p.4)
The key to this excerpt lies in the first two sentences—if Poe chose a creature with the intellect to reason, like a human, then the power of the word “nevermore” would be greatly reduced. A “non-reasoning” creature, on the other hand, is much more effective in this situation because without the power to reason, the creature can logically speak nothing but the obvious truth, which in this case is that Lenore will nevermore live.
According to his article, Poe created The Raven based off nothing more than aesthetic values. Throughout the piece, he meticulously explains the use of various elements that he utilized in The Raven. For instance, in the 20th paragraph he discusses the reason behind using death as the base of The Raven:
"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary", is one of the most famous poetry lines in America. Edgar Allan Poe had a life most people would think of as crazy. He wrote a famous poem called "The Raven" that is very strange like most of the poems he wrote. Edgar Allan Poe had a devastating childhood and a dark life as an adult. He was born January 19, 1809, under the name of ...
Now, never losing sight of the object supremeness, or perfection, at all points, I asked myself..Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy? Death was the obvious reply. And when, I said, is this most melancholy of topics most poetical? From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious. When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world. (Poe, p.4)
Poe is arguing that he chose death as the base of the poem simply because, in his eyes, it was the best image to use in order to express the desired mood. This, however, is not completely true. Many experts agree that Poe wrote The Raven much differently than how he described in The Philosophy of Composition. As well-known critic Christoffer Hallqvist puts it,
Whether Poe was as calculating as he claims when he wrote “The Raven” or not is a question that cannot be answered; it is, however, unlikely that he created it exactly like he described in his essay. (Hallqvist, par. 10)
The actual reasoning behind this poem, in fact, comes from Poe’s personal life. Poe had a life that was besmirched with tragedy and instability; in particular, he tragically lost his wife, Virginia Clemm, to tuberculosis only two years after they had been married, which is conveniently similar to the circumstance in The Raven—a young man lamenting over the loss of his love.
Poe’s mindset of gloominess sprung directly from the tragedy that he frequently experienced throughout his life. Therefore, he expressed it in his writing through the establishment of a recurring melancholy tone. In particular, he used symbols, word choice, and plot in his poem, The Raven, in order to establish this tone.
Hallqvist, Christoffer. “The Raven” The Poe Decoder. 1995. Web. 25 Mar. 2010. . Web. This site has various insights on Poe’s poem, The Raven, including symbols, words, background info, and a summary of the poem.
Lawson, Lewis A. “Poe and the Grotesque: A Bibliography, 1695-1965.” Poe Newsletter Apr. 1968: 9. Print. This article discusses several themes that frequently appeared in Poe’s poetry and relates each theme to his life.
The Raven Edgar Allan Poe s The Raven is a fabulous poem that is looked at by numerous students each year. This poem is a dark poem that has a sad tone to it. A man is nearly napping (l. 3) in his chamber when he hears a knock on his door. Instantly he believes it possibly could be his dead wife, which somehow came back from the dead. However, when he opens the door he only sees is Darkness (l. ...
Poe, Edgar A. “The Philosophy of Composition.” Graham Magazine Apr. 1846. Print. This article, written by Poe himself, gives insight on how to compose an effective piece of poetry. He uses The Raven as an example.
Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Print. This book is a highly detailed biography that analyzes his childhood, college years, alcohol problem, etc.