“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.
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.
I love Poe! I got his anthology for Christmas, he was so talented!!
Fun! I have a collection of his stories and his one novel, which I still haven’t read! I need to get on that.
Nicely written. Thanks for sharing! 🙂
I teach this poem every year and it is beautiful in a heartbreaking kind of way, but I must say that I never thought about it this way. I did not focus so much on the death of the woman but more of the pain in the man. Yes, it was caused by her death, but his experiences are so visceral. This was an interesting insight for me. Thanks
You are welcome. Thanks for reminding me of how important the narrator is and how his pain can encapsulate what we all feel during grief.
I look forward to sharing this with my English students! Thanks!
I bet they’ll get a kick out of this!
I tried once to memorize the whole poem. I was only able to memorize the first two pages. Annabel Lee is another great poem about a woman who dies.
Wow! That’s impressive. And yes, he had a few poems about women dying… maybe that’s why Burke was so quick to insist on psychopathy! 🙂
I don’t believe Burke though. I believe that much of Poe’s “diagnosis” is mere conjecture. What a person writes doesn’t always reflect who he is. There are tons of theories as to the cause of his death. From Syphilis to alcoholism to rabies.
Well, Poe did have a life filled with the deaths of women close to him, beginning with his mother when he was about two. When he was twenty, the wife of the couple who had cared for him since childhood died. And he lost his wife when she was only twenty five. Considering this was the height of the Romantic movement, it’s always made sense to me that he wrote what he did. The period was awash in death, unrequited love and wasted beauty – at least in the eyes of the beholder with a pen in his hand.
On a lighter note: there is an enormous blackbird who has lived in a tree outside our window for about 3 years. We named him Edgar!
This is fascinating! I know just about nothing of Poe’s life, so this makes much more sense. And yes, it was the Romantic movement, so there’s that to consider. How cool that you’ve named your blackbird Edgar. Nice!
I agree that if the topic of “a beautiful woman dead” is the most poetical idea, then we are in trouble. It may have been, in Poe’s time, and with what Dale Robards said about his personal story of mothers and wife, it’s understandable. But I do love Poe in all his darkness. Poe is an especially good read in the Fall.
I know what I’m going to read this fall! And yes, I love darkness too. I should probably give him more attention than I have in the past.
Sorry if someone already mentioned this. But in Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition” he goes to great lengths to explain how he wrote “The Raven”. You can find this essay here: http://www.vahidnab.com/philocompo.pdf
This must be where Burke got the passage he used.
Emily, a beautiful woman alive can scorn or shun the advances of a man who believes he is more to her than he is. Maybe this is Poe’s way of saying a beautiful woman dead will behave in his mind, the way he wants her to. She will love him back, in his fantasy. I will vote for the alive part. Life would pretty boring otherwise. Besides, there is lot more poetry about living women. Have a great weekend, quoth the Raven. BTG
🙂 Nice insights! I’m not sure what Poe was saying, but I like your take on it.
I was never a fan of Poe for that exact reasons, all things are poetry, yet he seemed to think death was more so. In my mind it came across as if he held death in higher regard than life, in many ways society does this, though I try to resist some of this reverence. Then again I’m probably mad too.
That is maddening. Life is probably more important to us, as that is what we know and experience and can actually make sense of. I can see how his work reflects a greater regard for or preoccupation with death. Thanks for the comment!
I think the problem is not enough people were exploring the beauty of death, I think it’s been explored enough for now, mainly due to him. He did such a good job it’s no longer needed like reading the diary of a mapmaker, who cares we know where to go? But we know because of him.
I love the connection you made at the end of your post! So right.
Thank you! 🙂
Yes, I read Poe’s quote and immediately thought: So the death of a beautiful woman is poetic… but the death of an unattractive, or even just average woman, is not? It doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the poem, but I’m sad that he thought that way.
Yeah, I wonder if he distinguished, or maybe he thought all women were beautiful and therefore worthy of death… Ha ha.
While I really love that poem with its heavy atmosphere and lyrical power, Poe’s attitude certainly objectifies women. It is not poetical if a beautiful woman dies. If a woman dies it is sad and has nothing to do with if she is beautiful or not. We are real people!
Yes, we are! You tell him! 🙂
The Raven and Annabel Lee are two of my favourite Poe’s poems. I know both of them by heart.
Poe and his story has long intrigued me. He apparently was one of the first solo writers to attempt to make a living off his efforts. He was paid but $9 for “The Raven.” Writing for a living has always been challenging, it seems! I recall reading of the mysterious figure who appeared in the wee hours of every January 19 at Poe’s gravesite bearing a toast of Cognac and a single rose, I believe. After lingering for a moment, the visitor disappeared into the night. This went on every year from 1949 until 2009, Poe’s bicentennial. I always maintain that fact is stranger than fiction, and even Poe seems not to dissuade my thinking.
This is fascinating stuff! It seems like I should look into Poe’s story more than just a few lines in Burke’s book. I wonder who the mysterious figure was? I do know that Poe is alive and well on Twitter! 🙂