Poe TombstoneThis week marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe and the 160th anniversary of his death.  He died alone, insane and absolutely broke which considering he invented both the detective story and the horror genre, was a sad irony.

To memorialize his life and works, Baltimore is giving the author a “do-over” funeral.

I like Poe.  Sometimes it’s difficult to come to the work fresh, because we’ve heard his stories so many time, both retold straight and satirized a thousand different ways.  But I like the rich gothic language.  I like the horror and the humor and the mystery.  “The Mask of the Red Death” fascinated me as a kid.  I didn’t understand all the symbolism, but I felt it, as he walked you through the colored rooms to the single black room with the single ticking clock, the party outside, the plague inside.

And I am possibly the last person left who really likes “The Raven.”

If you follow the story in The Raven, there’s something quite sinister going on here.  First, we have the narrator pouring over “quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore.”  Just what is in those books?  Forgotten lore can cover a lot of ground, not all of it savory.  And he’s mourning his dead love.  How did she die?  We’re never told.  Was it murder?  Was it suicide? And that book, that forgotten lore, what if it’s not his?  What if it’s HERS?  What if that bird, that raven, that familiar, belonged to the lost Lenore?  Or knew her? It clearly knows narrator, and it knows what happened.  What if the narrator had a hand in Lenore’s death?

When we get to the end, when the narrator demands to know if he will meet Lenore in the afterlife, the raven utters its single word; Nevermore.  The implication is clear.  One of them, either the narrator or Lenore, is damned.   Which is it?  Is he damned because he killed her or caused her death?  Is she damned because she killed herself or dabbled in the forbidden? Poe was not a modern horror writer, he was a moralist.  Horrors were visited upon the characters in Poe narration for a reason.  It is not an accident, not a mild or random occurence that the raven is there, and that it will not leave.

All of that, and so much more swirls in the air carried by the relentless rhythm, the lush language, the imagery and the emotional roller coaster from mourning to sad humor to fury to despair, and then you get the last verse:

“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 shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted – nevermore!”




Evermore — 5 Comments

  1. “The Raven” always creeped me out, and your analysis explains why. My best Poe memory is from the Seventh Grade, when one day my wonderful English teacher lowered the blinds, turned out the lights, and read us “The Cask of Amontillado.” In trying to figure how to spell “Amontillado,” I found the story online.

  2. That is indeed one of the best and most iconic.

    I once saw a short film of Vincent Price, before he went totally camp, doing a dramatic recitation of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” OMG. Just when you think all the life, so to speak, has been taken out of a story…

  3. I’ve always loved The Raven. In high school I tried to memorize it. I had missed the meaning of the ending, though. You’ve made a good point!

    I need to go read it again. 🙂

  4. The Raven was my gateway drug to Poe. I can remember my mother reading it to me when I was about 9. After she finished, I took the book away from her and read it all. I’ve been completely warped ever since. I’ve read everything Poe wrote, including essays, most of it multiple times. I took and entire class in Poe when I was in college. (Well, actually it was supposed to be Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson. The professor announced on the first day that he loathed Dickinson and would not be teaching her, and I dropped the class after Poe, because I don’t like Whitman.) I’m looking forward to programming on Poe at the upcoming World Fantasy Convention.

    Also I have a button that says, “I am the Imp of the Perverse. Knowing this won’t help you.”