Born on January 19, 1809, writer, poet, and dramatist, Edgar Allan Poe, appeared to be fascinated with the notions of insanity and surrealism. These concepts laid the foundation for his writings, resulting in his work sticking out substantially among his 19th-century transcendentalist contemporaries. Poe was among the first writers to create works that embraced the then-emerging literary movement that is Dark Romanticism. Inverse to Transcendentalists, Dark Romantic poets concentrated on the inherent evil present throughout nature and society, causing their audience to be terrified of the harsh reality that surrounded them on a daily basis. Though transcendentalist writers were more common in the nineteenth century, Dark Romanticism became more of a popular cultural literary style due to the dread and terrifying portrayals of the grotesque realities that gripped its readers. However, one cannot mention Dark Romanticism without also mentioning its counterpart, Gothic literature. Kelly Hurley defines the Gothic genre as “the loss of a unified and stable human identity, and the emergence of a chaotic and transformative human identity in its place.” (Hurley 1). And with literary themes consisting of death, romance, and mystery, one may have a hard time disagreeing with him. In his genre-defining short story “The Raven” Poe incorporates moody atmosphere, symbolism, and commentary on the human condition to craft what can only be considered a masterclass in both Dark Romantic and Gothic literature.
“Poe appeals to the popular imagination because he scares us to death. The yen for sensation feeds our fascination with terror; just as moviegoers rush to the latest horror film to be frightened out of their minds, so too do they read Poe's hairraising tales of shipwrecks or premature burial to experience the frisson of near-encounters with annihilation.” (Kennedy, 24) So one can see why “The Raven” has arrested the attention of bookworms nationwide. Simply put, “The Raven” is a tale of derangement. It recalls the story of a man who wakes from his slumber because of a tapping noise he heard at his door. Upon inspecting this strange tapping, the man is disoriented at the fact that no one is there; there is only darkness. He whispers the name, “Lenore,” to the darkness, and the only response is the echo of his own voice. The tapping continues, but this time from his window, he opens his window, and at that moment, a mere Raven appears and decides to let itself inside. The Raven flies into his room and lands on a bust of Pallas. He approaches the Raven and asks for its name, and the Raven replies with the word “nevermore”. The man is equally shocked and intrigued at this bird’s remark and spends the remainder of the poem attempting to pick the bird’s brain. The man eventually comes to the conclusion that the Raven is meant to remind him of Lenore or to bring him a message from Lenore -- a lady he, presumably, once adored but who has since died. Poe becomes enraged with the Raven since his only response is “nevermore,” leading Poe to assume that the Raven is belittling him along with his greatest wish to be rejoined with his long-lost beloved. The Raven, still perched, casts its shadow over the man and he says that “[his] soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor Shall be lifted—nevermore!” (Poe, lines 107-108).
One characteristic of Gothic literature Poe chooses to incorporate into this poem is attempting to converse with those who have passed away. The man notices that the Raven is trying to communicate with him, and he quickly suspects that it's his lover seeking to connect with him from the afterlife. This assumption of who the messenger truly is relieves his sorrow by reassuring him that she is safe, but it also brings with it a fresher and deeper agony because now he longs for her even more. Another Gothic characteristic in this poem is the dark and mysterious atmosphere that Poe creates from the very first line. Poe masterfully sets the scene by writing, “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,” (Poe, line 1). In this one line, we already know that it’s a dreary midnight and that our narrator is feeling worn out. He also starts the poem with the words “once upon” which gives it the same mystical feel as a fairytale, but this is quickly contrasted by the eerie imagery to come. Poe purposefully crafts this melancholic world that echoes the sadness of his own character. For our miserable, heartbroken narrator, reality appears dreary and frightening, and everything, including darkness, reminds him of his lost Lenore. Even the lamp, which serves as a light source, ultimately reminds him of his persisting sadness.
A Romantic element in the story is the speaker’s excessive idealism which leads to self-destructive and obsessive tendencies. As the poem progresses one may assume that the speaker almost finds delight in misery. “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before…” (Poe, lines 25-26) Any normal person would’ve seen that there was no one at the door and turned around, but there he stood longing for some sort of answer which reveals his idealism. His constant questioning of the Raven may also strike the reader as odd, again he becomes invested in something which yields no answers to his questions. Another Romantic element that goes hand in hand with idealism is imagination. For the narrator, the very idea of life after death is supported by his own imagination. In the poem, the idea is constructed to comfort the narrator after he is left restless after the loss of Lenore. The speech in the early stanzas of the poem serves to illustrate his imagination. In stanza four, for example, the narrator imagines Lenore knocking at his window and door. “That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door.” (Poe, lines 23-24) This phrase demonstrates the speaker's faith that his departed lady will return to provide him with the warm companionship he had grown accustomed to. However, it was the midnight air that knocked, proving that this situation was merely a creation of his own mind. Poe chooses to accentuate these Goth and Romantic elements to put the reader in a shared state of delirium between both them and the narrator. I stress that he “chooses to” accentuate these elements because Poe’s writing style follows a specific formula that he created. (In reference to “The Raven”) He claims “no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.” (Poe, par. 4).
The first symbol I would like to talk about is none other than the Raven itself. The Raven enters the room with authority and essentially controls the narrator. Death is symbolized by the bird's blackness; as a result, death becomes a perpetual reminder, an insolent visitor. In a larger sense, the poem may be about man's helplessness to escape his eventual demise. The raven's persistent cry of 'nevermore' reminds the narrator of Lenore's death; that he will never be reunited with her again, be it in this world or the next, and that forgetting her is impossible. They never leave because the narrator will never get over Lenore, so there he will remain alone. The second symbol that I would like to talk about is Lenore. Lenore is likely a mere symbol and does not allude to a specific person. Or that appears to be the intention, at least, as Poe makes no attempt to describe much about her. Lenore could symbolize everlasting life, or hope and joy, whereas the raven represents the reality of death and the finality of earthly existence, despite desperately trying to come up with some sort of way of contacting Lenore, the raven never ceases to dominate the room, suggesting that escaping death is impossible.
Through this poem, Poe is trying to communicate the idea that hope does not soar on its accord or vanish naturally. We starve hope by anchoring it to something that cannot support it. When individuals pass and dreams vanish, we often desire to bury our ambitions alongside them, and when the mind is left unkept it can be responsible for leaving a person emotionally paralyzed and unable to live in the present and co-exist with others. I think Poe saw a certain beauty in the darkness, he realized that loneliness is part of the human condition. Loneliness is not to be outgrown or removed but cultivated and understood.