When we seek to understand the context Poe used in writing “The Raven,” our first attempts come up empty. About the second stanza, however, we start piecing together Poe’s subject, himself: “sorrow for the lost Lenore.” We never get concrete evidence of the relation Lenore has with the speaker, but the depth of the speaker’s loss, expressed in various occasions throughout the poem, is most widely associated with a romantic relationship. Having dealt with numerous losses in his life, Poe uses his experiences, rather than force himself into another person’s shoes, to dictate how the poem’s speaker acts. Even the desired outcome is analogous between the two as the speaker “vainly [...] had sought to borrow From [his] books surcease of sorrow.” The brilliance of this piece lies in the unintentional relationship readers develop with the speaker. In other words, where Poe sought only to use himself as the subject of the piece, he stumbled upon an activity system that resonates with countless people.
Of course, it would be a mistake to examine “The Raven” without detailing the many stylistic choices Poe uses to make this poem so incredibly memorable. The very first line uses both internal rhyming and periphrasis to make it musical yet memorable. The speaker isn’t just thinking about groceries late at night, he’s “ponder[ing] weak and weary.” We attach a high emotional charge to this poem without evening knowing what the speaker is thinking about. Also, the poem is riddled with conduplicatio, places where two lines are almost identical to each other with the exception of a few words. The idea expressed in these conjoined lines become radically more important than any other to us in each stanza because we recognize both the repetition and melody immediately.
When we comb this poem for its countless uses of style and the immediate relationship it builds with us as readers, it’s sad to believe this work didn’t receive the praise it deserved until well after Poe’s death. By choosing to write a poem for himself, he managed to bring out the masochist lurking in all of us when we initially deal with grief or suffering. Not only that, but the various rhetorical techniques he uses in each stanza engraves the poem into our mind like a melody.
By Matthew Otto