Edgar Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of indigent actors. Poe’s father had deserted the family earlier, so at age three, when his mother died, Poe was taken in by John Allan, a merchant from Richmond, Virginia. He attended a private school in England, where he lived with the Allans between 1815 and 1820. After returning to America, he continued private schooling until 1826, when he entered the University of Virginia. However, he was forced to leave after less than a year because of gambling debts which John Allan refused to pay.
As usual with Poe’s poetry, and in accord with his theory, “The Raven” is not a long poem. In its 108 lines, however, are packed a great deal of emotion and literary skill. It can be read on one level for Poe’s impressive choice of words and striking figures of speech. On another level, it can be appreciated for the story contained in the text the true nature of the brief narrative can be understood fully only through careful study. The text of the “The Raven” provides a lesson on the structure of Romantic verse.
As Poe proclaims in “The Philosophy of Composition,” the aim of his poem was to elevate the soul, a goal that could best be reached by the presentation of “Beauty.” For Poe, Beauty is most readily perceived in a mood of sadness, and the most mournful event that the artist could conceive was “the death of a beautiful woman” (an incident that he believed was “the most poetical topic in the world”). So, a sense of loss, with no hope of ever again seeing the beloved is the real topic of the poem.
Probably the first aspect of “The Raven” to strike most readers is the phonetic devices employed by the poet to achieve what he calls “sonorous” effects. Certainly, these devices make the lines memorable. Few readers can forget the internal rhymes and alliterations of the opening lines: 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 someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Critics have suggested that, by taking the bird as such an omen and by reacting to it as he does, the student actually loses his chance of seeing the lost Lenore. Is this reading justified by the text?
Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” explains in detail how Poe created “The Raven.” This essay, written the year after the poem was composed, sets forth a number of interesting principles of poetry to which Poe was devoted. Also, the short lament “Lenore,” first written in 1831, expresses similar themes to those found in “The Raven,” and the name of the dead girl is the same as that which Poe used in the later poem.