These same people also think, “Well, a poem definitely can’t be scary. With all that rhyming and what have you, it’s more geared toward getting ladies to sleep with you than sending chills up and down your spine (unless those ‘chills’ are erotic in nature).” Ordinarily I would agree with this assessment, no matter how stupid it is (and it is stupid), but in this case I have to disagree because it is just plain wrong. There is such a thing as a “scary poem,” and just in time for Halloween I am finally getting around to analyzing it. The poem is one of the most famous of all time, “The Raven,” by Edgar Allan Poe.
First, here is the poem:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore--
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visiter," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door--
Only this and nothing more."
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;--vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow--sorrow for the lost Lenore--
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore--
Nameless here for evermore.
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me--filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
"'Tis some visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door--
Some late visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door;
This it is and nothing more."
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you"--here I opened wide the door--
Darkness there and nothing more.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore?"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!"--
Merely this and nothing more.
Back into the chamber turning, all my sour within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping something louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is and this mystery explore--
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;--
'Tis the wind and nothing more.
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he,
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door--
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door--
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then the ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore--
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning--little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door--
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as "Nevermore."
But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if its soul in that one word he did outpour
Nothing farther then he uttered; not a feather then he fluttered--
Till I scarcely more than muttered: "Other friends have flown before--
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before."
Then the bird said "Nevermore."
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore--
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
But the Raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore--
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking "Nevermore."
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er
She shall press, ah, nevermore!
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee--by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite--respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil!--prophet still, if bird or devil!--
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate, yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted--
On this home by Horror haunted--tell me truly, I implore--
Is there--is there balm in Gilead?--tell me--tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the Raven, "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."
"Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting--
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul has spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!--quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadows on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted--nevermore!
The first thing that most scholars recognize about this poem is its length. It is over 1,000 words long! (And some of those “words” aren’t even words-- seriously, “upstarting”? Please.) This is before they read it. Once they finally get around to reading it, scholars then notice just how truly terrifying it is, despite the fact that it contains a rhyme scheme, rhythm, and exclamation points-- in other words, all the familiar trappings of the classic “poem.”
But, as we shall see, the genius of the poem is that it exploits the traditional erotic elements of the poem to create something that is quite terrifying and horrific.
“The Raven” tells the harrowing tale of a man who talks to a bird. That is a quite fanciful idea, and one that has inspired many romantic and even comical notions, such as the story of “Dr. Doolittle,” and “Tweetie Pie.” But here, the author lets us know right in the first line that his intentions are the exact opposite of comical. First of all, it’s midnight, and funny things don’t happen at midnight. Nor do comforting things. People typically engage in the coital act around that time, but the narrator is not doing that. He is “pondering,” which is a poetical way of saying “thinking,” but his usage of the word “pondered” as opposed to “thought” invokes the word “ponderous,” which gives the idea of the thinking being burdensome, because the author is burdened by his thoughts, which are ponderous. Also, he is weak and weary, so we get the idea that he has been weary by activity, perhaps even the ponderous activity of thinking very hard about something burdensome.
He’s been made tired by his examination of literature (“quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore”). Speaking as someone who is right this very minute writing an explication of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic poem “The Raven,” I totally understand what he means! This is difficult, and it’s making me feel “weak and weary,” and I’m only on the second line. Imagine if I’m still doing this at midnight! I’m going to be all like, “What a ponderous night it’s been!”
Understandably, the narrator starts to nod off, and he thinks he hears something, but then he convinces himself that it’s just the wind. He is so tired, in fact, that he rhymes “rapping at my chamber door” with “tapping at my chamber door,” which is arguably the laziest line in all of literature. But the author has the narrator make the rhyme on purpose, because the narrator’s feeling so “weak and weary.” We know the author is capable of doing actual rhymes that aren’t so lazy, because he has already written a lot of other poems that don’t have such lazy lines. But here, the narrator is tired.
In the next stanza we’re told that this weakness and weariness occurred in a cold December. As if we needed to be told that it was in a cold month! But remember-- the narrator is trying to impart to the reader a sense of his ponderous weariness, so he has to reiterate things. We also learn that he was doing all of his studying of classic literature so as to take his mind off the fact that his girlfriend is dead. In this stanza, he rhymes “Lenore” with “Lenore,” which is just as lazy as his “chamber door” rhymes in the previous stanza (see above), but the reader gets the sense that he is still tired and sad, and will cut him some slack because the rest of the poem is so good and scary.
Finally, in the next stanza, we get some sex! “Purple curtain” is clearly a euphemism for the folds of a woman’s vagina. Thinking of his lost Lenore’s vagina thrills him, and he probably thinks about her tender embrace, and the shuddering of his body’s skin against hers, as he presses himself into that warm and wet purple curtain betwixt her legs (see, I can get poetical, too). The reader feels really good for the narrator in this case, on account of we know that he got some at some point, even if he’s not getting some right now, and is stuck reading some boring old books.
Anyway, he starts to feel guilty, remembering how he used to have coitus with Lenore. He has an erection (“stood”), but to keep from masturbating (“to still the beating”), he decides to fixate on the sound he heard not from the curtain, which is vaginal, but from the door, which is the opposite of vaginal. This causes the narrator to use another lazy rhyme, but in this case it’s because he’s distracted by his boner.
But as so often happens when a guy gets a boner at midnight and there’s no strange around, eventually the narrator ends up pleasuring himself. There is nothing wrong with that; it’s natural, and everyone does it, especially when there’s purple curtains in the room. (Most scholars agree that if Poe were alive and writing this poem today, he would probably substitute “internet pornography” for “purple curtains.”) The fourth and fifth stanzas talk about the narrator’s masturbating, and he climaxes by whispering the word “Lenore,” and then when he ejaculates, it almost as if his member is whispering back to him the same word, “Lenore.”
By now the reader realizes that the narrator is having a conversation with his own penis, which clearly denotes a mind that is, while not necessarily deranged, certainly not completely well. I mean, masturbating is fine, everyone does it, and everyone talks to his penis now and then, too-- it sometimes needs encouragement-- but having it answer back is really, really weird.
Now that he’s ejaculated, he is drowsy. Poe leaves it up to us to decide whether or not the narrator falls asleep, as most men do when they’ve spent their seed, or if he literally does turn his attention away from the door and back toward the windows (the same windows behind the purple curtains!). Given the fact that he is dreaming of Lenore’s vagina, I would tend to agree with most scholars that it is the former, although I cannot remember which is the former and which the latter, and I do not want to go back and re-read my previous sentence. Given the fact that the narrator mentions “flirting” in the next stanza, I think we all know where his mind’s at, anyway.
Finally, the Raven of the title makes its appearance. It is a bold move to wait seven full stanzas before introducing the main character of your poem, and ordinarily I would be against it, but in this case it works because the narrator did not waste those six stanzas; he set the mood, and masturbated. That takes a lot of energy. And now that he has relaxed a little bit, we get some comedy, as the Raven walks into the room. We think, “Maybe it’s just a man in a Raven suit,” which would be hilarious, if this crazy guy who’s just pleasured himself opens his window and in walks some guy dressed as a bird (I like to imagine the Raven suit being a chicken suit painted black-- have you ever tried to buy a raven suit? they don’t even make them!); but then the Raven perches (as a bird would) on a bust of Pallas above the chamber door. No man could do that, unless the “bust of Pallas” was gigantic! I admit that would be funny, but it is improbable, and as we’ve already seen so far, this is a poem that deals earnestly with the traumas of real life. Still, it would be funny to watch a man in a black-painted chicken costume trying to climb up the side of a giant bust of Pallas! (By the way, do you know who Pallas was? Because I don’t.)
Anyway, whether it’s a man in a bird suit or an actual bird, the narrator thinks he’s funny (“beguiling my sad fancy into smiling”), and with real rhetorical flourish that is so full of rhythm that the reader is left dizzy and confused by what’s said, he asks the raven what his name is. The raven is apparently just as confused as the reader by the narrator’s drowsy talking, because he answers, “Nevermore.” That’s not much of a name, as the scholars who study this poem are often heard to remark. In that sense, they agree with the narrator, who is genuinely perturbed by the raven’s answer to his question.
In the next stanza, the narrator gets all worked up about the situation. Not that there’s a raven perched above his chamber door, or even that it’s speaking to him-- no, what’s really got him in a lather is that this talking raven claims his name is “Nevermore,” which is just nonsensical.
To this I would reply, “You are a character in a poem. This kind of shit happens in poems all the time.” Alas, there is no way for the reader to speak directly to a character in a poem; only through reading the poem and experiencing it for ourselves can we carry on a sort of metaphorical conversation with the author of the poem (“Poe”), the narrator (“the guy irritated with the snotty raven perched above his chamber door”), and himself (“the reader”).
Now we’re up to the tenth stanza, and the narrator is finally starting to see that the raven, while actually a real bird that is talking to him, is also a metaphor. The raven is described as “lonely,” and that is definitely a word that can be used to describe the narrator. In this case, it would probably be handy to be able to speak directly to the narrator, to warn him that that raven is about to start masturbating, since he’s obviously a metaphor for the narrator, but the reader holds his tongue for two reasons: the first reason is that you can’t speak to a character in a poem, and the second reason is that the raven might end up only metaphorically masturbating, not literally masturbating. Anyway, he hasn’t started masturbating yet (“not a feather then he fluttered”), so let’s leave it alone for now. Besides that, the narrator has already started feeling sorry for himself, passive aggressively mentioning that all his friends have left him, and this raven, his new best friend, will probably up and leave him, too, in the morning. Cue the world’s smallest violin.
Of course, if I were the raven, I would leave right then, because I can’t stand to be around someone who’s being passive aggressive. But the raven tells the narrator he’ll never leave. Kind of. It turns out that this raven might only know one word, “Nevermore.” This means the narrator can ask him anything, and get just the answer he wants. For instance, he could say to the raven, “Will I not win a million dollars in the lottery? If not, then answer with any word other than 'nevermore',” or “If I’m the most awesome poetry character ever, say the word ‘nevermore,’” and the raven will tell him what he needs to hear. And at first you think that the narrator is going to be okay with it, because he’s back to being beguiled into smiling, but then he starts talking to himself.
See, that is the problem with this guy. He’s got a talking bird (granted, it only says one word, but still), and what does he do? He starts talking to himself. He convinces himself (“link fancy unto fancy”) that the raven is actually some horrible beast and is out to get him, somehow. It had seemed so comical and caused him to smile, but now it’s all gross and scary. He starts ranting and raving about how evil the bird must be and, tellingly, about being drunk (“quaff!”). To my knowledge, having read the entire poem at least once before starting off on this explication, this is the first time in which the narrator has mentioned being drunk, but it makes sense, considering how gloomy he was at the beginning of the poem, and all of the weird language he uses in the eight, tenth, and eleventh stanzas. No one should drink alone; he should be at a pub with his friends. There should be people around who can tell him, “Hey, narrator, slow down a little bit, dude! Pretty soon you’re going to start hallucinating (hic!) about talking birds!”
Scholars have long wondered why it is that Poe waited until this stanza (I’ve lost count) to tell us that the narrator is a drunk, but Poe would probably say, “The guy is talking to a freaking bird! Do you want me to spell it out for you?” Anyway, the narrator clearly starts slurring his speech, when he starts mispronouncing the word “quote” as “quoth.” Moreover, his paranoia gets the best of him, as he continues to ascribe to the (formerly) comical raven nefarious intentions. He calls it a “prophet,” which denotes an ability to foresee something, and then he adds the epithet “thing of evil,” which denotes something that is evil. He accuses the raven of foreseeing something evilly, which is a chilling prospect, especially for someone who loves God, the way the narrator claims to.
The narrator then, apparently (he’s drunk and paranoid) accuses the raven of having sex with Lenore. At this point, the reader hopes that the bust of Pallas is big enough to support a human man in a black-painted chicken suit, because the thought of a woman having sex with an actual bird is just too horrific for words. And therein lies the chilling effect of Poe’s masterpiece. The reader is forced to imagine this “prophet,” this “thing of evil” that is an actual bird engaging in the coital act with a human woman.
Unless-- horror of horrors!-- Lenore herself was a bird, and it was the narrator who had sex with a bird!
Poe leaves the question unanswered. In fact, the question of whether it was the narrator who had sex with an animal, or Lenore who had sex with an animal, will never be answered “Nevermore.” It is this wonderful mystery of which character had animal sex that makes Edgar Allan Poe’s classic poem “The Raven” such a classic. It is also why people consider it to be so chilling, even though it is a poem that has rhythm and rhyme, and masturbation.
See other "Notes of Classic Literature" here, here and here.
Manet illustration pic source.
Poe pic source.