Last time here on the Bone Pile I added to my growing collection of Cemetery Dance reviews. Have you read all 5 of them yet?
YOU: “Wait. I only count 4.”
ME: “You must have missed the one published by Cemetery Dance.”
YOU: “Published by…!!!”
ME: [stone face]
YOU: “I can’t keep up with all your blogging.”
ME: “Here’s a complete list, with links.”
YOU: “I’ll get back to you in a month.”
ME: “I love you.”
YOU: “So this time is another CD review?”
ME: “No. ‘The Raven’”
YOU: “I know that one already. Pass.”
ME: “Oh, you’ve studied and memorized it too?”
YOU: “Well… no.”
ME: “Then you’re missing stuff. Lots of stuff. Trust me.”
YOU: “Fine. Fair enough. Ok, I’m ready. Hit me.”
ME: “Let’s take a ride…”
Let me start with this:
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is the greatest work of literature ever written. Period.
Edgar Allan Poe.
-Inventor of the Mystery genre (no, really!)
-Father of the Macabre.
-Author of the greatest literature ever?
Did that catch your attention?
I hope so, because I really think I’m going to prove it to you.
Let me continue with this:
Yes, if we want to have a really good conversation, we’ll have to involve other names like Shakespeare and Chaucer and Hemmingway and Joyce. Probably another two or three dozen, as well. I’ve read many of them. I’ve been impressed by all. But to be perfectly honest, as great as these authors are, for me “The Raven” shines above each and every work by all the other masters. There’s just something genuinely magical about it. There’s something deeply satisfying with how well designed it all is. Admittedly I did have to hesitate in the use of the word ‘perfection’ because in writing there’s really no such thing… but I’ve personally never come across a single written work which comes closer.
Let me finish with this:
“Perfection.” Or in the very least “The greatest ever.”
Today’s post is all about me attempting to prove that magnificent claim. And I going to do it by begging of you one single, imaginary, action. I want suggest that you write a hypothetical ‘perfect poem’ of your own and compare the two.
All you have to do is manage all the feats that Poe manages.
Let’s start with a few stats…
Some cool illustrative wordplay.
-Published in 1845, it vaulted this relatively unknown author from Baltimore, MD into instant fame.
-Nearly a hundred ‘50-cent, high-quality’ words considered well above the vocabulary of the standard reader.
-170 rhyming words
-230 alliterative words
-A prominent U.S. congressman was so impressed with the poem’s beauty that he memorized it so he could recite it to friends & family. That congressman’s name was Abraham Lincoln.
-Poe was only 35 years old when he wrote it.
How are you doing so far?
Can your perfect poem flood the page with that many figurative words?
Can it impress the likes of probably the most respected president our country has ever had?
Can you do it before turning 40?
I’m already past that milestone myself.
Check out the first line. Maybe even speak it aloud if you care to indulge me (it’s worth it)…
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary”
For me, the most notable and impressive aspect to “The Raven” is its stunning yet haunting lyricism. If you’ve ever heard the whole thing read aloud, you have no choice but to feel those melodic cadences. That drumbeat or heartbeat of the macabre. It’s almost like the whole thing is actually a song and the words themselves provide the music.
Why does this happen? Well, the form & meter Poe created is actually quite complicated– it’s called “Trochaic Octameter” (more on that later)– and yet despite its overall complexity the words simply flow from the tongue with very little effort. There’s no doubt Poe used all his efforts & stretched the limits of his vocabulary to make it all move with such fluency. It’s… amazing, to be honest.
Let’s take a look at how this lyricism shapes up through the entire first stanza…
Line 1: Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary (AA)
Line 2: Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. (B)
Line 3: While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, (CC)
Line 4: As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. (CCB)
Line 5: “‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door. (ddB)
Line 6: Only this and nothing more.” (B)
First, hear those rhymes. They’re in bold & I’ve marked the pattern at the far right.
There are 12 rhyming words in all.
Note that Lines 1 & 3 each have words that rhyme in the middle of the line (called “Internal Rhyme”).
More cool wordplay.
Side Note: The words “‘Tis” and “visitor” are kind of cheats in that the rhyming sound comes in the middle of one of those words. This is technically a combination of what’s called “assonance” (repetition of a vowel sound) and “consonance” (repetition of a consonant sound), not “rhyme” (repetition of any sound at the end of a word), but it does the same thing for our ears so I’m including it along with rhyme.
Meanwhile, the most notable rhymes come in lines 2, 4, 5, & 6. They’re easy to pick out b/c it’s always an “-or” sound (“lore”, “door”, & “more”). Later stanzas include: “Lenore”, “floor”, “before”, “implore”, “explore”, “yore”, “wore”, “shore”, “bore”, “outpour”, “store”, “core”, “o’er” (a purposely misspoken version of ‘over’), “adore”, and– most famously– “nevermore.” What’s most striking is that this flurry of “-or” words ALWAYS appear in the lines 2, 4, 5, & 6 and in the exact. same. spots.
For all 18 stanzas.
That’s not easy, folks.
Go ahead and try it in your mythical poem.
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!
Next, there’s the alliteration. I’ve underlined those above.
Note that line 1 has friggin’ FOUR of them.
Line 2 has a pair.
Line 3 has four more.
Line 5 has another pair.
Again, that’s not easy folks. Go ahead and try.
But make sure you haven’t lost those 12 rhymes in the process.
Also, did you notice that ‘weary’ and ‘napping’ are simultaneously both rhymes AND alliterations.
How’s your poem doing?
Mine is… lacking already.
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!
I skipped talking about the meter. It’s called “Trochaic Octameter” & here’s the nutshell version of how it works:
1- Each line except the last has 8 pairs of syllables. (We call it “octameter”)
2- Each of these pairs stresses the first of the syllables. (ONCE-U… PON-A… MID-NIGHT… DREAR-Y) (We call this a “trochee”).
3- Hence: “Trochaic Octameter”.
But, check this out… There’s something not quite right with lines 2, 4, 5, & 6.
(Or is there?)
In each, there is an ODD number of syllables (15, 15, 15, and 7), which means there’s a broken pairing at the end. What has happened is that Poe has left each “-or” word at the ends of these lines hanging all alone without a syllabic partner. Each one then tends to draw itself out in our ears (“As of… someone… gently… rapping,… rapping… at my… chamber… doooooor.”) This is not a mistake. Not when it happens each and every time. It’s purposeful, and Poe is putting extra emphasis on those words, on that sound, because he wants to make it stick. He wants us to feel that sound four times in six lines.
Did you add that to your poem?
Without losing any of your other rhymes?
Or your alliterations?
Just for fun (and because I really want to impress you with Poe’s genius), here’s my favorite pair of lines in the whole poem. Check out how MUCH is going on here:
“Then, methought, the air grew denser, perFumed From an unseen cen–sor
Swung by seraPHim whose FootFalls tinkled on the tuFted Floor.”
That’s 2 rhymes, 4 “t” sounds, 7 “suh” sounds, and 7 ‘F’ sounds.
In 21 words.
It’s not even half a stanza.
In the words of impressed people everywhere:
Now before I make one final statement with which I hope to blow your mind & move on to the less-dense stuff, try to put into your head all of the above:
-complicated rhyme scheme
-loads of alliteration
-purposeful hanging syllablic pairs of the all-important “-or” sound
You got it? Ok. Good.
Here’s that last mind-blowing thing…
Poe does all of this, over and over again, for SEVENTEEN MORE STANZAS.
Yeah. He’s pretty amazing.
And we haven’t even talked about the *story* yet!
(I’m saving that for last).
For now, let’s talk symbolism!
On top of all that lyricism, Poe also manages to work in a bunch of symbolic objects & concepts, each worthy of a paragraph or four of detailed analysis.
I won’t do that here.
Instead, here’s a bulletted list to get you thinking in the right direction…
SYMBOLIC THING (it’s basic meaning)
-NIGHT/ DARKNESS (darkness/ black things in general = fear/ death/ pain)
-LENORE (the narrator’s dead wife/ lover = more death, more pain… later she represents irrational obsession since he wonders if she’s in Heaven even though the raven just told him there IS no Heaven)
-THE RAVEN (narrator treats it first like royalty [“In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.” & “And with mein of Lord or Lady perched above my chamber door,”]… & later like a prophet [“ ‘Prophet!’ said I. ‘Thing of evil! Prophet still if bird or devil!’ ” … it’s also black (see above)… it “speaks” = personification (side note: ravens really do repeat any sound they hear with sickening accuracy. Check Youtube for 5 minutes & you’ll see)… and intelligence (they’re actually very smart birds too).
-BUST OF PALLAS (“Pallas Athena” = Greek Goddess of Wisdom… sometimes referred to as the ‘perfect woman’… is a ‘bust’, aka: sculpture from the chest-up, so more 3-dimentional [aka: real] than a painting… is white, which offsets the very black bird that sits atop it through the back half of the poem)
-PLUTO (Pluto = God of the Underworld, aka: Satan, aka: Hell, aka: more blackness & more grief)
-HEAVEN (the line “balm in Gildead” refers to a healing salve the narrators hopes to find in visiting Heaven… he is also obsessed with learning if poor, dead Lenore has made it to Heaven)
-NEPENTHE (a mythological drug that supposedly makes you forget your pains)
There are others, to be sure. These are just the big ones that stand out.
So go ahead and add that list (plus a few I didn’t dig deeper to expose) to your hypothetical poem.
I’m guessing you’ve probably given up by now.
If not, you’re probably a writer like me.
Either that or just stubborn.
Ok. Not a problem.
Let’s add another couple more pounds of meat to your plate…
The first time I read “The Raven”, I thought it was a story about love.
It’s clearly a story about insanity… about how a sad man misinterprets a serendipitous visit from a semi-tame bird, and loses his mind in the process.
Poe give us more than enough evidence of this, but the best of it is in the constant, macabre tones delivered and accelerated throughout.
The opening stanza sets the tone immediately. Here’s what is gifted to us:
-He’s been pouring over old books of unknown origin.
-And then there’s a knock at the door which, understandably, freaks him out.
-He *hopes* it’s just a visitor (aka: Not a ghost, goblin, demon, or maybe even Satan himself).
As the story continues, we get even more details which continue to add to that creepy tone…
Stanza 2: “Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.”
Stanza 3: “And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me– filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before.”
Stanza 5: “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”
The room this poems takes place in feels like the perfect place to brood over your pains. It’s probably a library or a study with unique, expensive objects on the shelves. It’s all-too easy to imagine a glass of brandy and a pipe on the table under lighting that’s a little too dim.
How about this… there are various objects that denote wealth such as the “silk, purple curtains” and, later, a “wheeled, cushioned seat” with a “velvet lining”. There’s the bust of Pallas– a true luxury item– which just happens to be placed above his “chamber door” (not ‘room’… ‘chamber’).
All of this lavishness in turn suggests this man lead a life of relative leisure… until recently.
Seen now in this somber setting, it emphasizes both what he’s lost and what he still stands to lose.
The first few stanzas set that tone, which means when the narrator opens the door to the outside & sees nothing but blackness (more symbolism… more tone), we are all fully prepared for the big reveal which takes us to Act 2 of our story.
One of several famous steel-plate engravings of “The Raven” by French artist Gustave Doré. Doré died shortly after completing his work on this poem in 1883. The 24 illustrations were published posthumously in 1884.
When the narrator returns indoors & hears another knock, he opens the windows (much to his continued trepidation) and the raven flies inside and perches itself (again, symbolically) upon the bust of Pallas.
The narrator is smitten. He is happy. When he asks it what its name is, though, the raven speaks for the first time, (it will do so 6 times in total, always the same word: “nevermore”), and the poem’s tone returns in full…
“Much I marveled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though it’s answer little meaning, little relevancy bore.”
Then the narrator mumbles to himself that his new pet will probably abandon him the following morning. His sadness returned, the bird’s 2nd response thus catches him unawares and he interprets the situation differently. He tries to reason that maybe the bird only knows that one word (a perfectly logical summation). And yet Poe’s language still creates in us an element of subtle fear…
“Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
‘Doubtless’, said I ‘what it mutters is its only stock and store.”
So now the narrator is curious. He wheels that cushioned seat to give himself a better view. But the raven doesn’t speak again or even move until the narrator thinks perhaps God sent the bird to him as a kind distraction from the death of Lenore. The bird, of course, says “nevermore” and he is suddenly excited to think this is proof of his notion.
“ ‘Prophet?’ said I…”
When he then asks it a direct question, we know what the answer will be. The fact that his question is so loaded (he asks it if Heaven is real) suggests he is already losing his mind. The answer this time is ‘proof’ to him of its clairvoyance.
“ ‘Prophet!’ said I…”
He asks another direct question, but this one is even more loaded than the last: Is Lenore in heaven? When the bird says his predictable answer, the narrator (predictably) freaks…
“ ‘Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!’ I shrieked upstarting.
‘Get thee back into the tempest on the night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! Quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart and take thy form from off my door!’ ”
Going back to the tone for a moment… Can you feel the power of that moment? He’s literally shouting. It’s a potent, visceral image which in itself denotes death.
Is he insane now? Perhaps. Probably.
The final image of Gustave Doré’s “The Raven” homage… and also of his career.
But that’s not the tone we are left with, oh no.
There is one more stanza to go, and that stanza changes everything and leaves no doubt.
When the raven responds to the narrator’s demand to leave with one final iteration of ‘nevermore’, he surprisingly has no reaction at all. Instead, the poem’s next words tell us that great amounts of time have passed, slowing the pace to a crawl and returning us to the opening stanza with all its patient- if not ominous- overtones.
And yet the creepiest notion of all slams home moments later when we are told the raven is still there, still sitting on top of the bust of Pallas, and still watching him with its ‘demon’ eyes. The final line tells us the narrator’s very soul is stuck underneath the bird’s shadow and “will be lifted, nevermore!”
So… about that perfect poem of yours….
Does it tell a complex, multi-layered, fully transformative story?
With strong emotional overtones?
What about that rhyme and meter?
The lyrical nature of the words themselves?
Yeah. When you add to AAAAALLLLLL of the above the fact that the story’s events pick up in both speed and intensity as the story nears its climax…
When we realize the whole thing is designed to build tension to a true crescendo then slam us hard right back from we came yet as mere husks of what we once were…
When we hear the many repetitive rhymes increasing in both speed and intensity until take on the sound of a demonic chant or incantation…
“The Simpson: Treehouse of Horror #1” (1990)
Yes. We have no choice but to see Poe’s masterpiece for what it truly is.
Or in the least, the best thing ever.
Hell, even The Simpsons respects it.
Agree or disagree with any of this?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
-K. Edwin Fritz