“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe: The Madness of Nevermore

There is something of the madman in every man. There is something of the sadist in every sinner. Is there something of ecstasy in every elegy?

So it was with Edgar Allan Poe—and he called it Beauty.

It often takes a poet—a poet like Poe—to exhume the mysterious depravity of people. As churchgoers lean into Lent in the last clawing crawl to spring, it is fitting to cling to the gloom. The darkest hour is the one before daybreak, promising that the soul that lies floating in the shadow on the floor, shall be lifted—forevermore! There is nothing like the poetry of the shadows to call for an uplifting from the floor into newness of light and life; unless, of course, the shadows are preferred to the dawn. Of this poetry and this perversity, there is nothing like “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe.

“You will be greatly shocked and grieved,” Charles Dickens wrote to a friend in 1841, “to hear that the Raven is no more!” His pet raven, Grip, had died. At the behest of his children, Dickens wrote poor Grip in his most recent book, Barnaby Rudge, maintaining in its pages Grip’s name and his loquacious powers of imitating human speech. In 1842, Edgar Allan Poe shook hands with Charles Dickens in Philadelphia, and spoke about Barnaby Rudge, which Poe had recently reviewed with the criticism that Dickens should have given the raven a prophetic presence in the story. In 1845, a prophetic raven was penned into existence, this time by the American author. The creation spawned reproach itself, as some judged Mr. Poe as lying in the shadow of Mr. Dickens, as may be derived from James R. Lowell’s journalistic jingle:

Here comes Poe with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge,
Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge.

170 years later, however, nearly everyone knows Poe’s raven, and nearly no one knows Dickens’—or even Barnaby Rudge’s, for that matter. Grip the raven is forgotten; another raven holds the world in its grip: the raven named Nevermore. As Poe purposefully reincarnated Dickens’ merry raven into his macabre ravings, so too do people purposefully reincarnate the relentless madness of Poe’s raven into their own ravings—making them beautiful in their terror.

The tale of “The Raven” is as heavy and strangling as purple velvet drapes, told in mesmerizing, liturgical rhythms with a tempo like a racing heart. “Once upon a midnight dreary,” a forlorn student lingers over books of forgotten lore, trying to forget his lost Lenore. He is startled to hear a tapping at his chamber door. Imagining what guest might be calling at such an hour, he opens the door only to find nothing more than darkness. The tapping resumes at his window. He flings wide the pane to reveal the mystery of this uncanny disturbance, and a stately, solemn raven enters his room, perching upon a bust of Pallas. Amused by this strange appearance, the scholar begins to speak lightheartedly to the bird and is surprised to receive a response to his question:

Tell me what thy lordly name is on Night’s Plutonian shore!
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

Concluding that the creature must have been trained to utter this one word, “Nevermore,” the student draws his chair before it with a playful fascination and continues his questioning—which very quickly ceases to be playful. It is here that depression and despondency take a turn towards the depraved and the demoniac. The nameless narrator asks the contrary raven questions to which a contrary answer is devastating. Though the scholar perceives very clearly that the unreasoning bird only speaks a contradiction, he intentionally frames his questions to receive that contradiction together with the sadness and torment caused by the denial. Each “Nevermore” is one more nail in a psychosomatic coffin. The man revels in his ravings through the raven. Thus he stands for fallen humanity as he sits before the “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore” prompting the croak of “Nevermore” again and again, driving himself to a distraction that is desired. It is a scene of self-torture over acknowledged evils. Personal pain is too often the result of personal creation. Too often people fashion their own demons, persisting in madness—even basking in it. Evil is a thing of false attraction and fierce addiction, making sinners a strange breed of sadists. Man desires the good; but too, too often he knowingly identifies evil as a good—even as a god.

In his dialogue with the raven, the forlorn lover becomes the architect of his own damnation, choosing despair and madness with artistic purpose. He intentionally drapes a pall over his life, and even the afterlife, in his grief over the lost Lenore. He is a fatalist; a brooder who savors sorrow with a mental masochism until that sorrow becomes a malevolent reality, forever denying the chance of happiness or salvation. The bust becomes an immortal mockery of wisdom and an icon of lost love. The raven becomes Odin’s Hugin and Munin—Thought and Memory—chained forevermore to the chamber door with his prophetic, relentless, romantic “Nevermore.”

In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe writes that, despite its desolation, the province of “The Raven” is Beauty:

That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect—they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul—not of intellect, or of the heart—upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the “beautiful.”

There is a great tradition in human history, however, to mistake the pleasures of elevating the soul in the contemplation of beauty for the pleasures of entombing the soul in the contemplation of perceived beauty. Immediate pleasurable effects are not always to be trusted. Though the poem is beautiful, it has about it the beauty which evil uses as a veil. Lent is a time to dethrone the raven from off the chamber door—to deny those things that make men mad with their denials, refusing to succumb to the fascination of evil or capitulate before woe.

The more voice sin is granted, the more it commands the sinner. The more evil is obsessed over, the more it projects itself and dominates consciousness in a maddening plunge of preoccupation and self-propagation. “Take thy beak from out my heart” is not so much the cry of a victim, but of a suicide. “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe is a psychological study in the purposeful application of morbid meaning, by which is occasioned further descent into the depths of despair—which decent is, by many, desired.

Sean Fitzpatrick

By

Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

  • Michael J. Lichens

    Very nice work, Sean. I always had a soft spot in my heart for Poe.

  • samnigromd

    Beauty is the confluence of a being with ascendency….a female transcendental..reminded me of Lepanto of Chesterton

    BOOK REVIEW OF: LEPANTO
    by G.K. Chesterton

    With
    Explanatory Notes and Commentary

    Edited by
    Dale Ahlquist

    Ignatius
    Press, San Francisco, 2003, 124 pages.

    by Samuel A.
    Nigro, MD 2015

    Not
    to know Don John of Austria
    is proof of complete historian malpractice, of insane public relations vapidity,
    and of a universal crime of all educators–further proving the incompetence and
    malfeasance of every Western leader who does not mention Don John of Austria
    at least once in every public pronouncement.
    Don John of Austria is why we are here as we are…It could be better,
    but without Don John, the Islamic State would be controlling us day and night
    ever since the Battle of Lepanto which was fought on October 7, 1571.

    “Lepanto”
    is a poem from pages 11 through 17 of this book–143 lines which tell why you,
    I and all the world have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Absolutely astonishing. No novel or fiction ever surpasses reality–and
    Lepanto is pure reality. Not to know the
    significance of this, is ignorance and a crime of those living the freedoms of
    the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
    NOT HYPERBOLE. Sports
    heroes? Celebrities? Bah!
    One cannot find a better hero than Don John of Austria. I am embarrassed that I never mentioned him
    to my children or grandchildren. Where,
    oh where, is there a children’s book about him?
    A movie?

    After
    the poem, explanatory notes from pages 18 to 47 are academic jewels taken from
    other Chesterton writings which comprehensively detail any possible dated
    obscurities due to our inadequate educations.
    Such is not necessary, but they are intriguing and fascinating
    elaborations on facts about some of the words and themes in the poem. These 143 notes, one for each line in the
    poem give satisfying intellectual impact.

    Then
    three commentaries follow. “The
    Background” by Brandon Rogers lays the political and historical chaos of
    western Europe and the Ottoman Empire (today’s “Islamic State” in the
    sixteenth century)–Western politics has not improved much–corruption,
    selfishness, anti-Catholic bigotry, self-deluded Narcissism, and information
    (press & media) manipulating the people, all reign in the absence of heroic
    troubadours.

    An
    old military navy man, like myself, trembles when reading the second
    commentary–“The Battle”–a military analysis of the 208 Christian
    war galleys versus over 380 Ottoman major war galleys and gun ships containing
    over 100,000 Janissaries and infantrymen to board the Christian galleys. It was written by Special Forces Colonel Buzz
    Kriesel–and I wept memories of a few military aphorisms I learned: “We’ve got them just where they want us”;
    as Virgil said: Facilis est descendet Averni (“Easy is the descent to
    hell”); then “Jesus, Savior, Pilot me./Over life’s tempestuous sea./
    Chart and compass come from thee./ Jesus, Savior, pilot me”; and most of
    all, “Grief is brief–Complete your mission.” But the emphasis on the Rosary–each of the
    over 80,000 Christians at Lepanto had one and used it routinely–put me back as
    medical officer for the first fleet ballistic missile submarine in the early
    1960s when we were at “battle stations missile” every 3-6 days. It was not the movie Crimson Tide with the
    dramatic hesitations to fire missiles.
    It was count down to “fire missile” or
    “bypass.” If the “birds
    flew”, we were “payback” killing 250 million Soviets because
    they had nuked the US. I was in missile compartment and still hold,
    I am sure, the world record for non-Rosary Hail Marys. To learn that October 7, the day of the
    Battle of Lapanto, is Our Lady of Victory Day and Feast of the Rosary ever since was a somber and grateful reminder
    that Hail Marys work.

    A
    third commentary, “The Aftermath” by William Cinfici portrays the
    impact of the Battle of Lepanto and Don John of Austria on the world up to the
    present time–Words fail, once again, because Don John won the battle, but the
    West has forgotten it is still being warred against by the unchanged power-mad
    Islam which never stops metastisizing.

    Then
    Dale Ahlquist provides (in his own words page 8), “…a piece of bosh
    trying to pass itself off as literary criticism, offered by this editor in an
    attempt to fill up some space” (a delightful epigenetic Chestertonism
    endemic to members of the American Chesterton Society). Regardless, the ignoring of Lepanto is
    explained and “troubadours” are understood among other side effects
    of poetry. Overall, one finds Ahlquist’s
    “bosh” to be a paradigm for literary analysis in all education, but I
    digress.

    The
    book closes with two short essays from the master himself: Chesterton’s “The True Romance”
    about a warrior who fought at Lepanto–Cervantes and his psychological recovery: Don Quixote (an true detached alter ego for
    the overwelmed “let us try anything” Don John for whom all turned out
    all right? Can you imagine the
    bewilderment of being in charge of the Christian galleys against the massed
    Ottomans?). The second essay is “If
    Don John of Austria Had Married Mary Queen of Scots” which is a draft, I
    think, of a historical novelette about the outcome of such a marriage. Regardless, both essays bring “Lepanto”
    to a pleasing factual and imaginary close.

    This
    book is an educational masterpiece both in content and form, from poetry to
    history. One’s education is incomplete without
    it.

  • pja

    Thanks for this great article. As Baltimore native (and Baltimore Ravens fan) I have a special place in my (telltale) heart for Poe. The house where he lived for a few years and his burial place are both in Baltimore and well worth a visit.

  • Stephen Fitzpatrick

    Very nice, if a bit dark.
    I never knew the connection between the Poe raven and Dickens’ Grip. If I remember correctly, poor Grip expired after ingesting large quantities of paint.

  • Gail Finke

    I wrote a paper on The Raven for my high school AP English class long ago, arguing that it was a great poem in the epic tradition. Mostly, I wrote it to needly my English teacher. I didn’t think it was a great poem in the epic sense, I just enjoyed saying so, and it was fun to learn to argue that it was in a semi-intelligent way. But I did love it and do still love it. The language is not fashionable anymore but I admit I still get a thrill from, “…and the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain…” And what person of 17 or 18 doesn’t shiver at the idea of a man driving himself mad? Thank you, Poe!

  • thebigdog

    Christopher Walken reads the Raven:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7G_fZYv8Mg

  • Ruth Rocker

    Wonderful article. Here are a couple more wonderful renditions of “The Raven” – one read by Vincent Price and the other by Christopher Lee, both of whom have marvelously evocative voices.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuGZ_wp_i9w
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BefliMlEzZ8

  • Howard

    Poe also wrote a short story, “The Imp of the Perverse”, which provides a serious challenge to the assertion of classical philosophy that every action is directed towards some good. “Induction, à posteriori, would have brought phrenology to admit, as an innate and primitive principle of
    human action, a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness, for want of a more characteristic term. …
    Through its promptings we act without
    comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a
    contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say,
    that
    through its promptings we act, for the reason that we
    should not.” I think he was right.

MENU