How Poe Wrote “The Raven”

“The Raven” (1845) is a poem nobody can escape. Whether you had to memorize certain stanzas or just participate in a read-aloud session in seventh-grade English class, it is a classic poem you likely haven’t missed and one you likely haven’t forgotten. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the repetitious words at the end of each stanza: “evermore,” “nothing more,” and “Nevermore!” It is rhyming poetry at its most simple and appealing.

the raven

But why is it appealing? And how did Edgar Allan Poe write “The Raven” and come up with those famous lines? Well, according to himself, this is how:

Never losing sight of the object supremeness, or perfection, . . . I asked myself—‘Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?’ Death—was the obvious reply. ‘And when,’ I said, ‘is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?’ . . . [T]he answer, here also, is 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 equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such a topic are those of a bereaved lover’” (Burke, 1966, p. 25-26).

There you have it. We have “The Raven” because Poe explained that a dead woman is the most poetical topic in the whole world. He might be right. His poem is pretty darn famous.

However, I found Poe’s passage in the Kenneth Burke book I was reading for my comprehensive exams, the one that made me want to poke my eyeballs out. Burke responded to Poe’s claims with this.

The assertion, ‘the most poetical topic in the world’ is that of a beautiful woman dead, suggests answers in either the Poetics department or the Psychiatry department. . . . If a writer keeps returning to a certain morbid theme, we incline to think of his work not merely as a professional accomplishment, but also as the revelation, however enigmatic, of some personal, emotional disorder affecting him outside the orbit of his aptitude as an artist” (p. 26).

While Burke’s reaction to Poe’s method for writing “The Raven” made me laugh out loud, I was struck by the italics of “beautiful woman dead.” If that is the most poetical topic, we probably need to ask ourselves how we are treating the women in our society. It brought to mind the recent controversy over NFL player Ray Rice’s beating of his wife. It also reminded me of the importance of the work Senators Claire McCaskill and Kirsten Gillibrand are doing in addressing college rapes.

I found both passages informative, and Burke’s comments funny and somewhat insightful. I hope you enjoyed them as well.

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