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The Raven | Context

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Gothic Literature

Gothic literature explores the dark side of the human condition: death, loss, loneliness, nightmare, alienation, and the supernatural. Many of Poe's poems and short stories deal with one or several of these themes. His speakers and narrators veer into melancholy or outright insanity, and they are usually loners or outcasts living on the fringes of society. Much of his work focuses on death or murder, presented with a creeping, ominous mood of inescapability. Gothic literature generally includes the following characteristics:

  • Mysterious or supernatural plot elements
  • Ominous and personified architectural settings
  • Intense emotion and drama
  • Isolated, moody heroes

In "The Raven," a lonely scholar obsesses over his dead lover until he's visited by a strange raven that speaks only one ominous word: "Nevermore." Poe uses the setting—midnight on a bleak December night—and the speaker's weak and weary mindset, along with intensely sensual language describing death, ghosts, and angels, to evoke a mood of despair, darkness, and slowly encroaching madness.

Poetic Elements

Poe uses alliteration, or the repetition of initial sounds at the beginnings of words, to create rhythm and influence the mood of the poem. For example, "While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping." The repetition of the n sound creates a mood suited for slumber. The sudden tapping startles the speaker as well as the reader.

The meter, or pattern of beats, of "The Raven" is designed to give it a musical rhythm when read aloud. "The Raven" comprises eight stressed-unstressed two syllable feet per line (trochaic octameter). Poe adds to this rhythm by including internal rhyme in each stanza, such as with "weary"/"dreary" and "napping"/"tapping."

Poe uses assonance, or the repetition of a vowel sound, to establish tone. For example, "over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore." The repetition of the long o sound creates a tone that is mysterious.

In addition, Poe uses onomatopoeia, or words that mimic sounds, to great effect. For example, "tapping/rapping/napping" produce a staccato sound that mimics the sound of the tapping present in the poem. It was meant to be read aloud to evoke an effect, and also to reinforce the poem's focus on speech. The raven speaks, providing the refrain of "Nevermore" in many of the stanzas.

The name of the speaker's lost love, Lenore, rhymes with the only word the raven utters, "Nevermore." It ties the woman to the idea of finality, of loss and endings, reinforcing the theme of the poem. With the use of alliteration, meter and internal rhyme, assonance, onomatopoeia, and the refrain of "Nevermore," Poe uses the sounds of the poem itself to evoke his unity of effect and create an atmosphere of melancholy.

Poe's Philosophy of Composition

Poe wrote the essay "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846) after the success of "The Raven" to describe the process of composing fiction.

One Reading, One Effect

Poe believed that to be successful a work should be read in one sitting and produce a single effect on the reader. In order to solidify his desired effect, Poe wrote "The Raven" backward, beginning with the third to last stanza. He chose his subject with the idea that the death of a beautiful woman would be most affecting: "death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, 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." He also believed in the unity of impression, which was why he specified that a poem should be able to be read in one sitting. To step away and come back later would ruin the effect. Many of Poe's works were written with this method.

Sound and Meaning

Poe experimented with tone to produce this desired effect on his audience: "Melancholy is ... the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." He wanted "to produce continuously novel effects, by the variation of the application of the refrain—the refrain itself remaining, for the most part, unvaried." In "The Raven," Poe stresses the monotony of the refrain "Nevermore," as he manipulates its various meanings and possible intonations to bring forth the desired emotional effect of melancholy. Poe also states that the long o is the most sonorous of all sounds in the English language. This deep, ringing sound approximates the low moan of sorrow, loss, and perhaps even the supernatural: "over," "ghost," "only," and so on.

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