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.
Republished with gracious permission of Crisis Magazine (February 2015).
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay. It has been brightened for clarity.