Edgar Allan Poe: Interpretation of his poem "The Raven"

Seminar Paper, 2006

20 Pages, Grade: 1,2


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Biography

3. Romanticism and Gothic

4. Analysis of the Poem “The Raven”
4.1 The headline
4.2 The Verses
4.3. Musicality and the Philosophy of Composition

5. Summary


1. Introduction

The power of literature is a great one indeed. It absorbs us, transforms our environment, changes our way of thinking. For a moment we are able to live another life, try different opportunities and imagine fantastic worlds. Especially poems seem to touch us within our deepest soul. A poem can often say things that might never be said in any other way. It gives us goose bumps and butterflies in our stomach; it makes us cry, makes us laugh, makes us feel better- makes us think. Poetry expresses not only love, or disgust, but also giddy elation, mild bemusement, wild imagination and any other feelings we can or cannot imagine.

Throughout the years many authors have expressed their opinions, hopes and critics in magazines, in books filled with pages and pages of poetry. Nevertheless some of them clearly stand out with their life and their work. Some of them are authors that made great contributions to the world of literature and that are still unforgotten. One of them is Edgar Allan Poe. Edgar Allan Poe did not only have a great influence on the development of horror and fantasy genres, he also stands (with Mary Shelley) for a new strain in literary Romanticism, later called Gothic. Poe is known as the father of the American short story and the detective story, but furthermore he wrote wonderful pieces of poetry. (Magistrale 2001: xiii) Tony Magistrale writes in his book “Student Companion to Edgar Allan Poe”:

“Poe was one of those rare literary geniuses who not only labored successfully in multiple genres- poetry, fiction, the essay- but also went on to contribute significantly to defining and exploring the fullest range of possibilities inherent in these genres.“ (Magistrale 2001: xii)

One of his most famous poems that spread out through the world and got translated into many languages is “The Raven”. This essay offers a summary and an interpretation of “The Raven” and tries to respect Poe’s own analysis in “The Philosophy of Composition”. Nevertheless, when reading or analyzing a poem it is always profitable to read about the life of the poet, too. Some of his biographical facts may be the link to understand his way of writing. That’s why this essay also deals with Edgar Allan Poe’s life and the time he grew up.

2. Biography

Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts. At the age of three Poe lost his mother, the famous actress Elizabeth Poe on Tuberculosis. His father David Poe had already disappeared right after his birth. Soon Poe was sent to live with his new foster parents John and Frances Allan, a successful tobacco merchant family in Virginia. Although he was never legally adopted Edgar took the last name of the Allan family as his middle name to show his appreciation. In 1815 the family moved to England where Poe was sent to private schools. Five years later he had finished school and went back to New York with the Allan family. When Poe was 17 years old he visited the University of Virginia and studied Spanish, French, Italian and Latin. (Kennedy 2001: 17) Although he was an excellent student Edgar Allan Poe got right away into difficulties because of excessive card game playing. His foster father refused to pay for his gambling debts and Poe had to drop out university. This event caused a deep gap in their relationship. In 1827 he enlisted in the army under the name Edgar A. Perry and quickly rose to the rank of sergeant major. In the same year his fist book “Tamerlane and other Poems” was released. (Magistrale 2001: 3- 4)

In 1829 Poe published his second book “Al Aaraf” but this was also the year in which Frances Allan, his foster mother, died. At her funeral both her husband and Edgar became reconciled again. They met and David Allan helped Poe to discharge from army and to enlist in the United States Military Academy. But soon after, Poe started to disobey orders and missing classes. He was court-martialed and dismissed from school. Since then his foster father repudiated him until he died in 1831. He even disowned him because of the quarrel they had. Edgar Allan Poe had to stand on his own feet and although he succeeded in publishing a new edition of his poems he had problems finding enough jobs to survive. Poe moved to his aunt Mrs. Clemm and his cousin Virgina Eliza Clemm in Baltimore and wrote poems and short stories in order to make a living. In 1835 his story “Ms. Found in a bottle” won a contest and finally Edgar did not only get attention for his work but he also received money as a reward. In the same year Poe was employed as an editor of the “Southern Literary Messenger” in Richmond and published a large number of stories, articles, reviews and sharp criticisms. (Kennedy 2001: 26- 35) Nevertheless the money he got was never enough to become financially safe. The main reason for this was the fact that there was no copyright law at that time. Leonard Cassuto writes in his book “Edgar Allan Poe- Literary Theory and Criticism”:

“American authors, Poe included, found themselves in the unenviable position of having to beg American publishers to issue their work. The publishers treated these requests with disdain, generally demanding financial guarantees against loss- money the authors would supply if they had it; otherwise their manuscripts remained in their desk drawers.” (Cassuto 1999: v)

In 1836 Edgar Allan Poe married his 13 year old cousin but soon Virginia started to cough blood, a sign for Tuberculosis. Poe drank more and more alcohol to ease the pain, dropped out his commitments with the newspaper and rapidly changed to new ones from there on. Nevertheless one of his most famous poems “The Raven” was written at that time and was published in the Evening Mirror in 1845. Two years later Virginia died. Edgar Allan Poe tried to build up new relationships but they all failed sooner or later probably because of his drinking habit and his addiction to Opium and other drugs. On October 3, 1849 Edgar Allan Poe was taken to the Washington College Hospital after he was found unconsciously on the street. Four days later he died. There are many stories and theories around the mysteries of his death but none of them could be confirmed. Some people say he died of a brain disease or an overdose. Others say that he might have been murdered. (Kevin J. Hayes 2002: xix) Even beyond his death Edgar Allan Poe still causes much ambiguity and great controversy. Critics see him as a drug and alcohol addict and his disputes with famous poets and magazines tightened the idea of him being extravagant and complicated. One man, Rufus Griswold, supported this view out of personal interest. Because of the fact that Poe had cynically attacked him and his work, Griswold made up treacherously facts in his “official” biography and helped to fortify the picture of Poe as a sinner. Griswold calls Poe a “dreamer – dwelling in ideal realms – in heaven or hell, […] a lost soul who […] walked the streets, in madness and melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses.” (Carlson 1996: 25)

Edgar Allan Poe’s life is filled with tragic circumstances, the loss of many beloved ones and the steady fight to survive. Nevertheless he became one of the most important writers in American literature and a key figure in world literature. Even today Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most widely read authors. All over the world universities and schools deal with his short stories and poetry.

3. Romanticism and Gothic

Edgar Allan Poe lived in the 19th century, a historical era that was defined by Romanticism. The people were tired of the ideas of the Enlightenment period, of their rationalisation of nature and their authoritative systems. Romanticism was dominated by the concept of the Sublime, a greatness and beauty that nothing else could be compared with. It was time to stress emotions and personal feelings, to underline the importance of love and the significance of beauty in nature. Especially the literature emphasized imagination, intuition and that the sublime is all around us (www.bartleby.com/24/2/107.html). Famous poets of that time are for example Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, William Wordsworth and William Blake. The Romantic period was also deeply affected when the French absolute monarchy was replaced by the power of the common people. But the French Revolution (1789-1799) bought along not only a change in the social system but also great violence and fear. Thousands of people were slaughtered and beheaded by the guillotine. Europe’s whole aristocracy was scared that the idea and the killing could spread throughout all the other countries, too. (Buttler 1981: 55) By that time another romantic kind of literature occurred. Novels, poems and books that were written in the style of what we now call the Gothic literature.

Gothic literature is a genre that tries to evoke terror and fear in the reader. It deals with emotional extremes, supernatural elements, ghosts, haunted castles, death, madness, hereditary curses and darkness. The first gothic novel was probably “The Castle of Otranto”, written by Horace Walpole. Nevertheless it was Ann Radcliff who established the genre and made the English society addicted to her work. (Magistrale 2001: 16-17) But why was Gothic literature such a success? It might be that the fear of the French Revolution and its consequences finally found a way out of the subconsciousness of the people right onto the paper. However Gothic novels are the predecessor of modern horror fiction and they form an important part in world literature.

But Gothic literature was not only read in Britain or Europe, it even spread out to America. Edgar Allan Poe was the main introducer of Gothic to the American society. In his novels all forms of horror can be found: insanity, melancholy, graphic violence, supernatural elements and many more. Although Poe has never written any longer pieces, many of his short stories and poems are considered to be masterpieces worldwide. Edgar Allan Poe is truly a master of this genre.


Excerpt out of 20 pages


Edgar Allan Poe: Interpretation of his poem "The Raven"
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Anglistik/ Amerikanistik)
Proseminar: American Poetry
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Edgar, Allan, Interpretation, Raven
Quote paper
Anja Frank (Author), 2006, Edgar Allan Poe: Interpretation of his poem "The Raven", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/127464


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