The Raven, the masterpiece of the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, was first published on 29 January 1845 in Evening Mirror and American Review. Certainly, the term masterpiece used with regard to the poem must be explained since it lies in the core of the thesis, which will be elucidated in this text. In April 1946 in Graham’s Magazine, the author published a critical essay entitled The Philosophy of Composition whereby he elaborated on the creative method he used to created his emblematic work. The text is very interesting because it completely achieves its implied intentions through argumentation of its explicit ostensible objectives. In the introductory section, Poe declared that he wrote his famous poetical work in order to demonstrate that the creation of a good piece of art satisfactory both to mass taste and higher critical requirements was nothing more than a well-considered methodological process that could have been, or rather could be, implemented by a professional. To this end, creative work, the literary object, was presented as a professional product rather than an act of inspiration – idea which, by the way, is consistent with the meaning of the ancient Greek term τέχνη. The thing that Poe, for reasons of diffidence, had to leave out in that essay, was that the presented method offered expertise not just for creation of a work of art but of a real artistic achievement, of a perfect artistic product. A more assiduous look into the methodology explained in The Philosophy of Composition will reveal that each and every element has been developed separately in numerous versions in author’s previous poems. (I shall only mention his preferred use of the long resonant ‘o’ and the extreme frequency of the lexemes ‘nevermore’, ‘ever more, ‘Lenore’). In this context, it could be said that The Philosophy of Composition is a well-thought-out theory of poetry resulting from a long process of creative gropings and first applied, in its entirety, in the creation of The Raven. However, if this text is an artistic methodology generated in the process of long creative wanderings and experiments, its deliberate and immediate association solely with Poe’s poem published in the preceding year aims at one thing only – to show that the author considers that poem the completeness and perfection of his efforts, i.e. his masterpiece.
A more thorough review of Poe’s essay may reveal an attempt for finding absolute values of a perfect poem, such as length, tonality, poetics, theme, means of expression, tropes, symbols, etc. Thus, the essay offers not just a normative theory of poetry but the theory of poetry of a masterpiece. For instance, the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, defined as the most poetical topic in the world — “and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover” (The Philosophy of Composition, Poe). If we should pursue the poem deeper or if we reread it bearing in mind the poetics suggested a year later, we will be surprised to find that there is no object of beauty in it whatsoever, nor there is an image of a beautiful dead woman. The only thing we could learn about the beautiful heroine, apart from her being rare and radiant, is her name – Lenore – and nothing more. The name Lenore, however, as a lexeme and a sound composition is sufficiently poetic and beautiful per se to invoke the notion of a beautiful woman in the reader. Thus beauty becomes a purely poetic fact and poetic event, phenomenon, which poetry creates in itself solely with its own means of expression and not a fact it is imitating by employing the normative classic aesthetics of art mimesis.
One very important accent in Poe’s essay or, as we call it – masterpiece poetics, is the concept of the Raven contained therein. The text reveals that the author’s strive for a most exquisite poem results in the development of a Raven concept, which requires, at the end of each stanza, pronunciation of the lexeme ‘Nevermore’, which is considered extremely poetic. In this context, we should point out that the topic of the dead beloved is necessary in so far as it could further the so-called Raven concept – and nothing more, i.e. it is not imminent, not the main element, which gives rise to the poem.
Our observations so far seem to allow us to perceive The Philosophy of Composition as a poetic project, with working, or implicit, title “The Raven”, which aims at establishing a perfect poetic mood. This project must be developed so as to justify and validate the use of certain pre-discovered phonetic and lexical concepts in the poetic text, including the ‘Nevermore’ refrain. If we analyze carefully The Raven poetics, we could notice that the poem seems to have been created specially to repeat exactly specified lexemes and vocal-semantic combinations. The structure of each one of the 18 sestinas, is such that an open ‘o’ rhymes in four verses (72 altogether in 108 verses), with the last verse having specific poetic structure built of katalektikos tetrametros with ‘more’ as the final vocal combination. Thus, with this scheme only, we have extremely frequent use of the following lexemes: ‘more’ (6 times, and always preceded by ‘nothing’ in the first seven verses; the ‘evermore’ lexeme appears only in the second verse), ‘nevermore’ (in the last 11 verses,) ‘Lenore’ (8 times and the form is always doubled in the last but one verse of the stanza,) the vocal-semantic root ‘lore’ – once used as independent lexeme (meaning ‘science’,) three times as part of the lexeme ‘implore’ (meaning ‘beg, plead’,) twice in the lexeme ‘explore’ (meaning ‘guess, deduce’) and four times in ‘floor’ – all containing part of the phonemic structure of the title, The Raven. In addition to the stringent rhythmic structure, the poem’s text is experimenting with various vocal poetic techniques such as alliteration, assonance, internal rhyming. For instance, most often the following phonemes are alliterated: ‘n’ (While I nodded, nearly napping,) ‘m’ (I remember it was in the bleak December,) ‘d’ (Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before). In conclusion of this brief poetic review of the poem’s vocal structure, I will only mentioned that the conceptual lexeme ‘Raven’ is found 10 times in the whole texts, while the most frequently used phonemes include ‘n,’ ‘m,’ ‘o,’ ‘e’ and various combinations with ‘r’.
Certainly, the analysis of the phonological “execution” of the poem is not accidental. It shows that the lexeme ‘more’ has the strongest position in the so-called ‘The Raven’ Project and then always in combination with the prefix ‘never’ – ‘Nevermore’. However, if we experiment and replace the prefix ‘never’ with the vowel ‘a’, we could regard the lexeme ‘more’ as part of the word ‘amore’ (‘love’). On the other hand, the lexeme ‘Raven’ reveals an incorrect anagram of ‘never’ (if we read the lexeme ‘Raven’ backwards, we have the transcription of the word ‘never’). The rhythmic composition of the poem, however, is almost devoid of rhyme structures involving the vocal phoneme ‘a’. The sound ‘a’, as well as the lexeme ‘love’ (lΛv) are missing, at the expense, for example, of the semantic expression ‘the lost Lenore’. The idea of the Missing is expressed both on semantic level – by the hesitant expectation ‘nothing more’, and on poetic level – by the final catalectic verse in each sestina, which is missing one step of the tetrameter. In this sense, The Raven text may be perceived as poetic composition of love performed in a minor poetic tonality. It embodies all sounds of the main tone of the lexeme ‘amore’, but the major vocal ‘a’ is replaced by the minor semantic prefix ‘never’ (or ‘The Raven’ concept) to obtain the melancholic tonality, which Poe was looking for.
Before proceeding any further, I would like to ask the following question: Is it possible for a poetry disregarding the mimesis principle not to be melancholic?
I believe it is appropriate, necessary even, to compare the mood of the hero in the poem written according to the normative requirements of The Philosophy of Composition, with the mood of the poet, who wants to create his masterpiece with a poetics having melancholy as its most sublime poetic tonality. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones. (The Philosophy of Composition, Poe) Thus, the poet needs to justify poetically the use of lexemes in minor tonality such as ‘Nevermore’, and his hero must be in such a mood so as to insist on listening to their continuous articulation, i.e. to provoke the raven always to respond in the same way – ‘Nevermore’. In “ravenology”, attention has often been drawn to the fact that the hero is aware that the bird can only pronounce one sound and one sole message – ‘Nevermore’ and thus he may not ask questions whereto the terrible answer is such. Nevertheless, the bereaved lover dares to ask the fateful question: whether he ever be able to hold his beloved in his arms in heaven. And here comes the answer that is expected to preserve both the hero’s melancholic mood and the aesthetic requirements of the poem: ‘Nevermore’.
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that heaven that bends above us — by that God we both adore –
Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore —
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."
Certainly, we should be very careful with the analysis of such a hypothesis. First of all, we could say that by writing of the poetic essay The Philosophy of Composition, which is a scientific treatise, the author of The Raven actually declared his identity with the hero, who was a scientist that had lost his beloved (Moreover, both texts employ a first-person narrative modality). Thus, after the death of his beloved, the life of the poem’s character has acquired extremely poetic dimensions and, from that point of view, violation of the poem’s melancholic tonality, or violation of the ‘Nevermore’ invariant, is completely precluded. Only the awareness of total, absolute and irreversible loss of the beloved, the disposition of remembrance may sustain the minor poetic tone but also the sublime sensuousness established in the chronotopes of the text.
Thus the fateful question asked in the 16 sestina could be regarded as a tragic act of final escape or retreat to poetry, total curse on life in all its forms where the beloved’s body could not be found. Here it may be appropriate to make a small association with a text from Matthew’s Gospel, where asked by Sadducees, who had no faith in resurrection, whose wife shall be the woman, who had been married seven times in her life, Jesus answered: ‘Nevermore’ (or, literally: in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven. (Matt.22:23-30) It seems as if the hero prefers a virtual melancholic existence in poetry, of which he complies a whole aesthetic system denouncing the promised angelic life where he will not be able to hold his beloved on a purely sensuous, sexual level. In this sense, we could talk about the presence of an implicit act of curse characteristic of all life forms as dead matter known in Gothic literature. Certainly, such hypothesis cannot be substantiated with example from Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula where the curse of the heavenly Kingdom turns the count into vampire since this Victorian texts is of much later origin than The Raven. But before The Raven classic literature knew a very interesting German ballad, which bears the name of Poe’s favorite dead heroine – Lenore (1773.) written by Burger. It tells about the young Lenore who, after failing to find her beloved amongst the noble warriors back from the war, cursed the God’s world. On the same night, there was a knock on her door... and nothing more. When she opened it, her beloved appeared on the threshold and urged her to come with him immediately. She mounted his horse. They rode. Shortly before dawn they arrived at his grave and Lenore realized that he was dead and that she was in the arms of a skeleton who was carrying her to his grave.
Some researchers regard the “forgotten lore”, wherewith the hero was engaged before the raven’s knock, as black magic that he employed in an attempt to be reunited with his beloved Lenore. After the publishing of The Philosophy of Composition, however, the assumption seems feasible that, in the “bleak December” night, the poet was writing his poetics of the sublime, which postulate that there is not a more beautiful poetic image than the death of a beautiful woman. Black magic and melancholic poetry alike are equally “anti-Christian” or at least equally important in denial and non-acceptance (curse) of life as it is, equally resolute in refuting its beauty. (I would like to point out that, in the Greek version of Genesis, the expression “very good” (And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. (Gen.1:31) is translated as kala lian, ‘very beautiful’, i.e. the creative act of God is perceived in aesthetic categories).
It should be reminded, of course, that our deliberations reached this point based on the assumption that after the hero noticed that the raven could only say one vocal-semantic tone, ‘Nevermore’, he deliberately asked the fatal question about the possibility to see his beloved again in afterlife (in resurrection) as if to definitely lose the hope for at least a little light (Darkness there and nothing more). But such question contains something else, too – it contains the remains of a reckless hope of a miracle. The state of the bereaved lover is such that the possibility for him to meet with his beloved again, in any form whatsoever, is just as miniscule as the possibility for the raven to say anything different from what it really is – a bird of despair. In this sense, analyzing the nearly hysterical act of the hero, we could conclude that he, on the contrary, desperately hoped for a miracle.
Lady Macbeth. The raven himself is hoarse
(Macbeth, William Shakespeare)
The raven could say nothing more than what it is itself.
Generally, the raven is regarded as a cursed bird. However, this in no way means that it is a demonic or infernal creature. It is no chance that in Poe’s text the incorrect association of the raven with the devil is emphasized by the single case of incorrect internal rhyme in the poem. In the first verse of 15th and 16th sestina, the lexemes ‘evil’ and ‘devil’ do not form a rhyming pair ("Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil!). Some legends have it that the raven was believed to be a messenger bird or a bird of the secret knowledge of the world. Not accidentally, when entering the hero’s room, the raven alighted on the statue of Athens – the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom where, traditionally, an owl should perch. Some Judean sources claim that the raven (Hebrew 'oreb) was the first bird sent by Noah to see if the water had receded from the earth. The bird was white then. But since it failed to return for too long, Noah cursed it and the bird became black. Only the second bird sent by “The Undertaker”, (pardon my “Pushkin-ism”) was the dove. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the raven become black after it brought to Apollo the news about the infidelity of his beloved Coronida. Ovid even presented the raven as a bird equal in eminence to the dove and the swan. Thus, it could be concluded that the raven is not a thing of evil, does not lie but was cursed by man, or Apollo, for its aptitude to reveal inconsistencies between the cherished perfect world and reality. So, in the capacity of messenger, he was replaced by the dove, which represents God’s presence on earth. Suffice it to mention here the returning dove with the olive branch in beak in Noah’s legend and the descend of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove during Jesus’ baptism in Jordan River. What is impressive about the new white heavenly symbol, however, is that the dove unlike the raven cannot speak. It represents a certain current state here and now, for instance the Divine presence but is unable to share fatalistic facts from the future in respect whereof man could have the opportunity, illusory though it might be, to respond. And not by chance in his essay, Poe drew attention to the fact that the raven was chosen as a talking bird “…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.” (The Philosophy of Composition, Poe)
John Adam, one of the reviewers of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, pointed out that the raven in modern culture was not an authentic symbol of desolation, on the contrary, in the past it used to be a symbol of hope. He substantiated his thesis with the argument that the sound emitted by ravens in Latin and Greek was transcribed as "cras", which meant ‘tomorrow’. In English, however, the word ‘raven’ contains, as already mentioned, anagram of ‘never’ and to this end, the sound emitted by Poe’s bird is nothing more but its name:
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
The raven in Poe’s poem is nothing more than minor tonality, negative pronoun, negative suffix used by the poet to build his gloomy poetry of the Beautiful and Sublime. The character, or the poet, who is actually a poeta doctus, fills himself this sound with essence, includes it himself, with semantic value, in the speech flow, in the discourse of his melancholic poetry and himself builds the tragic semiotics of his existence or, in other words, himself “positions” the dismal fatal bird in the somber landscape of his existence, forlorn with the death of his beloved.
In the light of the aforementioned fact that the poet used the raven as part of his monologue or even as evidence of his poetics, I would like to discuss the second very important question he asked the black prophetic bird:
Till I scarcely more then muttered: “Other friends have flown before –
On the morrow he will leave me as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said, “Nevermore.”
Actually, we should say that such question was devised as a rhetoric one (“Till I scarcely more then muttered”). In the proposed syntax structure, the raven was compared with the poet’s Great Hopes (“as my Hopes”) and, in this context, it seems that its image contains a nostalgic component because, in the morning, it will fly away. On the other hand, raven’s departure was somehow associated with morrow as a new existence for the hero, which the hero, more or less, did not desire. In fact, this verse explicitly demonstrates the classic interpretation of the raven’s speech, transcribed by John Adam as "cras", which, as already mentioned, means ‘morrow’ in ancient Greek. If we assume that, despite his great erudition, poeta doctus would hardly apprehend literally the meaning of the word uttered by the Latin-speaking bird, and, in the use of the ‘morrow’ lexeme, would be prone to search for a new meaningful existence for himself where he would not mourn his beloved anymore. From this point of view, if the morrow was undesired by the hero, its coming predicted by the raven in the capacity of ancient bird of hope would have been the final loss of the poet’s most cherished hope – to be able to keep forever the memory of his lost Lenore. There ensues the following semantic transcription of the quoted verse: ‘If the raven is the prophetic bird of hope announcing the coming of the morrow, which for the hero could only happen as oblivion of the pain for his beloved, then with the coming of the next physical morrow, and nothing more, the presaged hope of a new existence would have passed (as “other friends have flown before”), too since nothing would change in poet’s mood and he would suffer again for his Lenore’. Generally, the rhetoric question from the 10th sestina could be re-formulated, as follows: ‘Is it possible to live without the beloved, is it possible to survive the demise of the beloved, is the appearance possible of a vita nova in a romantic conscience?’ To this, the raven answers in English: “Nevermore”. Man as the bearer of the beautiful, as a sublime being, as a poet should not be capable of surviving the demise of his beloved and would not accept an alternative form of living without her. In this sense, the answer to the proposed rhetoric question is negative – the loss of the beloved must be mourned through the rest of life; the prevailing mood could only be absolute world melancholy.
If we apply this approach to the other sestinas of the poem, we could regard each of poet’s questions to the raven as rhetoric ones. In this context, it seems that the black prophet symbolism attributed to the raven could also be perceived as a purely rhetoric manner. The poet himself decides how to address the raven – whether as an angel, as a prophet or as something evil. It is him and him only who defines the raven, which, as shown above, can say nothing more than what it is itself, first, in the poem, as a “prophet”, and then – in The Philosophy of Composition – as “the bird of ill omen”. Before asking his fatal question about the possibility to hold his beloved in his arms in afterlife, the author pre-defined, assign certain symbolism to, the bird: “Prophet, thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil”. But certainly this could be a merely rhetoric manner since the bird is nothing more than what it is itself.
In any case, the main performative function of the lyrical act described in the 16th sestina is the announcement of the total loss of Hope, the rueful finding that the loss of the beloved is absolute, final and infinite. It could be described with the expression ‘Lasciate ogni speranza’ (Inferno, Canto III, vv. 1-9). In the light of the above deliberation on the rhetoric form of questions, however, we could say that the poet himself put his fate in such tragic dimension. It seems that he tried to imagine his bereaved lover’s state as a total failure of his living potential, and nothing more. I would dare suggest the following semantic transcription of the question in the 16th sestina: ‘Is it not true that I am doomed never to see my beloved again?’ – Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.' Thus the act of speech may be perceived rather as the expression of total despair, of complete loss of hope of the existence of any meaning in afterlife, of any alluring heavenly prospect, as well as of feeling of forsakenness.
But certainly there is something else here, too that I would like to mention in the end. The idea of forsakenness, of abandonment, of curse implies the notion of punishment and of tragic guilt. Poeta doctus seems to set things so as to assign to his state the meaning of chastisement, of anguish for some transgression of his. The only blame, however, that the text allows to be alleged, is love (amore), and nothing more. Love which eats at the poet’s heart and for which there is no balm even in Gilead. Such love, however, is unproductive; it is filled with back, mordant sexuality that kills the beloved in order to create from her poetry… and nothing more.