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The Symbols of Poe
May 24, 2004
What makes literary works considered great? And furthermore, what makes them withstand the tests of time? The answer can be found in the work’s power to evoke ideas and emotions from deep within the reader. Edgar Allen Poe produced many works of morbid and intense melancholy. But, his meticulous application of poetic symbolism as well as his scholarly diction in “The Raven” conjure up images far more compelling than mere grief or despair, and it therefore remains today one of the great symbolic masterpieces of American poetry.
Poe begins immediately with the mention of a “midnight dreary” and a “bleak December”, setting the gloomy tone of the poem right from the start. However, Poe’s mention of this has deeper meanings than to simply set the mood. Both mark the end of a period of time along with the anticipation of a coming change. It is very likely that Poe meant for it to be New Year’s Eve. This anticipation can be heightened by his mention of the “uncertain rustling of each purple curtain”. Also, according to one Poe critic, Kenneth Silverman, the use of the month of December is related to the death of his
mother who died on the eighth of that month in 1811. Poe uses words such as gloomy, ghastly, ghosts, and the repeated mention of darkness to further intensify the tone.
Secondly, there is the obvious Raven itself. Thought by many to be a herald of death, it is used to again develop the dreary disposition we find so often in Poe’s works. It also symbolizes mourning, specifically for the narrators lost love Lenore, as well as his eternal sadness and despair. In addition, Poe himself recalls using the Raven rather than a human being, since the Raven could not reason to answer the questions of the narrator. It is also noteworthy that the Raven was used, rather than Poe’s original though of a parrot, because it illustrates the “ human penchant for self torture” (Poe). What\'s more, is that by only allowing the Raven to utter the word “nevermore” he can change the meaning of the word by simply knowing how to word the stanza that precedes it.
Thirdly, there are numerous mentions of smaller symbols, which are a little trickier to find. The “Balm of Gilead” is mentioned which is an ointment made in a utopia like place (where there is no suffering) in the Old Testament. In comparison to the haven, Aidenn, which is the Arabic word for Eden, is mentioned as well. And adding to the ointment, Nepenthe is referenced, which is an ancient drug given to people to induce the forgetfulness of pain and sorrow. Next, there is the Raven perched on the bust of Pallas. She is the Greek goddess of wisdom. This may, at first, lead the reader to believe that the non-reasoning creature is speaking from wisdom. It also signifies the scholarship
of the narrator. Poe said in his essay Philosophy of Composition, he chose it simply because of the “sonorousness of the word, Pallas itself” (Poe).
Poe’s imaginative literary expressions have fascinated readers for years, and will continue to do so for years to come. He repeatedly invokes his reader into irrefutable realms of fear. But the dark, chaotic, and romantic words he created represent his escape from the real, unromantic miseries of life. And transport the reader through the symbols and words to a place where miseries and grief are transformed into grand and magnificent things.
Nilson, Chrostoffer. “Qrisse’s Edgar Allan Poe Pages”
Silverman, Kennith. Edgar A. Poe: A Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance
New York: Harper Collins ă1991
Poe, Edgar. “Philosophy of Comosition” Graham’s Magazine
Boston April 1846
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Poetry by Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven, The Philosophy of Composition, Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven in popular culture
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