"The Raven"

Mourning as those who have no hope

By Mark King

Sometime in the middle of September, you start to see Halloween decorations and costumes show up in the stores. As Halloween gets closer, it is highly likely that you will see in the popular culture some reference to Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem "The Raven." It is a perennial favorite at this time of year and one of the most famous American poems of all time.

If you have never read the poem, I would encourage you to do so — or listen to it as many famous orators (like Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and James Earl Jones courtesy of The Simpsons) have recorded it and you can find multiple renditions on-line. If you like words and reading, you will no doubt find it fascinating. The cadence, rhyme, and alliteration just flow so very nicely. It is extremely clever; written by a literary genius. From a purely phonetic standpoint, it is a lot of fun to read.

The first stanza will give you a taste of what I mean:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more."
I encourage you to read the poem for yourself. It is included here if you want to take a look at it now. Let me summarize the storyline for you if you are not familiar with it.

The author is in despair over the death of his true love named Lenore. He is up late trying to forget her in his reading but is unsuccessful. Then he hears someone knocking at his door. Although not explicitly stated, it seems that, even though she is dead, he thinks or hopes it could be Lenore. He opens the door and no one is there, but he whispers her name as if calling to her.

Closing the door, he now hears tapping at his window. He opens it, and in comes a raven. He is fascinated by the bird and asks it what its name is. (Ravens, like parrots, can be taught to "talk.") At this point we get the most famous line of the poem: "Quoth the raven, 'Nevermore'."

The author likes having the raven but he muses almost inaudibly
Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before."
Then the bird said "Nevermore."
This answer startles the man. Could the raven actually be responding to his murmurings? He decides that this must be the only word that the bird can say. But he is encouraged by the presence of the bird and thinks that perhaps the bird has come to help him — been sent by God in fact — to give him a distraction and to help him overcome his sorrow. The raven in contradiction says "Nevermore." Again, a startling response.

So then he asks the raven directly if his soul will ever find peace.
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?*—tell me—tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."

*Balm in Gilead—see Genesis 37:25; Jeremiah 8:22, 46:11
So now, he is certain that the raven is a supernatural messenger. He has just been told that he will not find rest for his soul in this life, but there is one more question he has to ask. Will he see Lenore in heaven?
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn*,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."

*Aidenn is a middle English word for heaven or paradise (from the word Eden)
So now the raven has told the author that there is no balm for his soul here and now, and that he will not see Lenore in heaven. His hopes are dashed. The final stanza ends in utter despair.
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!
Although I am not aware that Edgar Allan Poe ever claimed that this poem was autobiographical, it seems clear that he wrote out of his life experience.

His mother died of tuberculosis when he was very young and his father had already abandoned the family by that time. He was taken in as a foster child by Mr. and Mrs. Allan (thus his middle name). Although he was never adopted, Mrs. Allan loved him like a son but Mr. Allan never fully accepted him. When he was a young man, Mrs. Allan contracted tuberculosis and died. He was bereft of his second mother. After her death, Mr. Allan rejected him. A few years later, on his death bed, Mr. Allan called Poe back only to totally repudiate him and tell him that he should expect nothing in his will.

In his mid-twenties Poe married Virginia Clemm who became the love of his life. Although the circumstance surrounding their marriage is a bit odd by today's standards (you can research that on your own), by all accounts, in her he seemed to find the love and acceptance that had escaped him so far. (Not only was he bereft of two mothers and rejected by two fathers, he was always living on the edge of poverty; despite the wild success of "The Raven," he was paid about $14 for it as a submission to a magazine.) He was a devoted husband and they were an extremely happy couple — almost inseparable. After about 8 years of marriage, Virginia contracted tuberculosis. For the next 5 years, Poe nursed her and did everything possible to prolong her life. Half-way through this 5 year period in 1845, he wrote "The Raven."

With Virginia's death in 1847, Poe plunged into despair. He lost all focus and began drinking heavily. On September 27, 1849 Poe left his native Richmond to travel to his home in New York. He never arrived. On October 4 he was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore and died 3 days later at the age of 40. He was buried in Baltimore (thus the meaning behind the name of Baltimore's NFL franchise.) The cause and circumstances of his death are mysterious and he was never coherent enough to explain what happened.

Edgar Allan Poe, as well as the nameless bereft lover in "The Raven" are portraits of men grieving as "those who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Although Poe lived in a world of "cultural Christianity" and his writing (even "The Raven") is filled with biblical allusions, he simply did not know the hope that Paul spoke of in 1 Thessalonians.

At Halloween, there is a lot of focus on death — gory scenes, skeletons, ghosts, cemeteries, etc. Although there is some controversy about how much Christians should participate in this "celebration," I think we should take the opportunity in whatever way possible to share the hope that we have of eternal life beyond the grave in Jesus Christ. We don't fear death. When a beloved believer dies, we do grieve. We miss them. Death is still an enemy. But in Christ we know that there is balm in Gilead — we can find comfort here and now. And "within the distant Aidenn" we will embrace them again.

Image Credit: twistedravens; untitled; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Christian-Life  | Eternity-Forever  | Hardships

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Published 10-6-2015