I can't resist writing more about "The Raven" today.
I'd like to dispel one major rumor about this amazing poem: it is not scary.
When it was featured on The Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror," Bart and Lisa conclude that people must have been more easily scared in the 19th century. Whether or not that is true, their reading of "The Raven" was absurd. Poe did not intend to write a scary poem.
As his phenomonal (and controversial) essay "The Philosophy of Composition" explains, writing "The Raven" was a step-by-step process. After thinking about length, Poe writes: "My next thought concerned the choice of an impression, or effect, to be conveyed: and here I may as well observe that, throughout the construction, I kept steadily in view the design of rendering the work universally appreciable." So Poe wants to write a poem that everyone would enjoy, while never dismissing his main point in his poetic theory: "the point, I mean, that Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem." Beauty, of course, is the highest form of truth. But using what tone should this beauty manifest? "Its highest manifestation... all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones."
The bold emphasis is mine. Poe sat down to write a poem that was universally beautiful because of its sadness. "The Raven," then is meant to be sad, not scary. Oddly, however, Poe's emotional tone throughout the poem changes. We can probably agree that the first line (and its whopping eight-meter trochee) — Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary — is a sad line. We feel some ominous foreboding in those first couple stanzas, and we feel that the narrator is in pain... until the raven comes in through the window.
After perching on a pallid bust of Pallas, Poe writes this line: " Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling." The narrator is smiling because of how comical the situation is! And it's pretty humorous. Here's this guy, trying to forget his lost Lenore, moping in his melancholy, and suddenly this jet-black bird flies in through the window. The narrator is so amused by it, in fact, that he asks for its name, much like you might say to a recently-found stray puppy. "Quoth the raven, 'Nevermore.'
With each repitition of the word, the narrative within the poem sinks deeper. Poe claims at one point that he thought of the word "Nevermore" first, then built a poem around it (very unlikely). But, here's his line of thinking, now that he knows he wants a sad poem: "I betook myself to ordinary induction, with the view of obtaining some artistic piquancy which might serve me as a key-note in the construction of the poem — some pivot upon which the whole structure might turn." The most obvious pivot to Poe was some kind of refrain (or, as the term was commonly used, a "burden") that focused both on sound and thought. The refrain would not change, Poe decided, only how it was applied. But what word? "To have force, [it] must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt: and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant." With that in mind, how could Poe not use the word "Nevermore"?
Upon its first utterance, the word is supposedly the raven's name. This makes the narrator laugh a bit, as he says:
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blest with seeing bird above his chamber door —
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as "Nevermore."
But for this poem to really be sad, the comical elements have to slide away. And what would really make the reader feel the melancholy in this poem? Well, remember that Poe is trying to be universal — and what is more universally sad than Death? Poe says the answer is quite obvious: "When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world."
And there's Poe's poetic theory, in a nutshell — applied perfectly to "The Raven" (that is, of course, if you really want to believe his "Philosophy of Composition"). This might be a good explanation, however, to his frequent use of dead women in his stories. Sure, you can make the superficial assumption that he wrote about dead women because of all the dead women in his personal life. Or, you can throw out autobiographical readings and look at the text independently and ask yourself if Poe was right: is the death of a beautiful woman the most poetical (i.e. melancholy) topic in the world?
"The Raven" also allows me to dispel another rumor. There's a belief out there that Poe was never successful during his lifetime. I'll clear that up right now: Poe was one of the most successful poets of the 1840s. He was nationally and internationally known after "The Raven" was published (and re-published again and again), and many considered his poem the most perfect poem constructed in the English language. For its publication, however, he received only a token monetary amount. So, success can be gauged in many ways, not always financially.
Admirers of "The Raven," by the way, included Elizabeth Barrett, William Gilmore Simms, Margaret Fuller, and many, many others. Are you one of them?