Disturbing Sound Effects in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”

In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” the speaker recounts a dark and gloomy night in which he tries to forget the painful loss of a woman named Lenore. A raven flies into his chamber through a window, startling him. Each time the man asks it a question concerning his happiness, the raven says “Nevermore.” The speaker, infuriated at the raven’s repetitive answers, demands that the fowl leave him alone and return to where it came from. But the raven continues to sit above the speaker’s door. With each negative response by the bird, the speaker becomes even more emotionally distraught. The poem represents psychological dispositions, and through musical devices, creates those states in the listener.

            The speaker suffers from the gloom of a melancholy spirit that the auditor can feel. The tone of the poem presents itself in the very first line: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary” (line 1).  The time of the poem’s event occurs at midnight, right in the middle of nighttime; the speaker compares it to a sense of dreariness. The auditor finds that the speaker’s spirits are low due to the words “weak” and “weary.” He has been trying to borrow relief from his sorrows of losing Lenore, but in vain (lines 9-10). The first line presents itself in the form of trochaic octameter. There are eight pairs of words in the line that alternate with stressed and unstressed syllables.  The beginning two words “Once upon” are troches. The stress falls on the letter o in “Once” while a stress doesn’t occur on the vowel u in “upon.” With the stress on the first syllable in every other word, the auditor experiences the emphasis on the actual feeling of dreariness the speaker holds in himself. Each accent enhances the gloomy tone that pervades the beginning of the poem, and which will run throughout. When one reads the words aloud to his or herself, they hear the words evoke the actual emotional sense of the line.  The speaker’s emotions at this moment remain dormant, not having risen in intensity. It remains to be seen how he will overcome them (or if he will at all).  But at least at this point the listener now knows the emotional tone of the poem itself. 

            The auditor senses suspense due to the speaker’s uneasiness in the poem.  Before the raven visits him, the speaker seems anxious at even the slightest movements in his house: “And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain/ Thrilled me-filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before” (lines 13 and 14).  If the movements of the curtain are “sad” and “uncertain,” then they can represent the speaker’s feelings after the loss of Lenore; he is not simply low in spirits, but not sure if he will overcome his melancholy. There arises a general feeling of suspense for the auditor because what occurs next seems to be left in question. Anything can happen.  Yet the auditor gets an even deeper impression of the speaker’s somber emotions by the caesura that occurs between the words “me” and “filled.” The pause allows the impact of the words to sink in, giving the listener a deep insight as to the intensity of the man’s sorrows. His pause emphasizes his disturbance; it can be compared to a quick breath of fear, a sudden gasp of suspense.  The words are “singled out,” as it were, by the sudden pause within the line.  The word “thrilled” expresses the emotions he has towards the “fantastic” terrors. Yet why does he use the word “fantastic?” It seems as if the speaker thinks his fears to be more of a joy ride than a burden. What he dreads may be more exciting than horrific. Is he not thinking straight? Whatever the conclusion, the listener anticipates something dramatic happening in the upcoming stanzas.   

            The auditor begins to feel the intensity of the speaker’s ever-present despair rushing violently. When the raven arrives, the speaker wonders as to why it only speaks the word “Nevermore.”  While staring at the bird, he says: “…what it utters is its only stock and store/ Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster/ Followed fast and followed faster” (lines 62-64).  The auditor can compare the speaker’s feelings of anguish to his description of the raven; he feels “unhappy,” being affected by “Disaster”. The tragedy of Lenore’s death leaves no room for mercy. This calamity overwhelms the speaker. Alliteration occurs in the phrase “Followed fast and followed faster.”  Disaster comes to the speaker in a progressive fury.  The “f” sound in each word gives the auditor the sense that, as they read the sentence aloud, turmoil approaches at a swift rate. The stresses in the words sting like a bee, hitting with the anxiety that the speaker endures. The word “faster” actually conotates its own meaning by the consonant sound it holds.  The speaker slowly progresses from a state of low-key melancholy to a high sense of anguish, one that wells up inside of him.  His own pain follows him wherever he goes, no matter what he does to try and escape it.  What the speaker feels rushes to its own terrible climax later on in the poem.  The listener is now caught in the same emotional turmoil, being pulled along by the sounding unity of the poem’s words.

             With suspense comes a longing of both the speaker and the auditor for emotional relief. However, the wish fails to be realized. As the speaker thinks about his curious visitor, his sorrow for Lenore has lost none of its potency.  He speaks of the furniture in his house: “On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o’er/ But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o’er/ She shall press, ah, nevermore” (lines 76-78).  Line 77 almost mimics line 76 except for one crucial element: the subject. First, the speaker sits and thinks about the raven, but then he begins to think about how Lenore will never sit on the furniture again. This would be considered incremental repetition in the sense that the lines are almost exactly the same, yet have minor changes; in this case, the change is significant. The emphasis falls on “she” not only so it can stand out in the stanza but also emphasize the speaker’s longing to see his loved one again.  The italics on the word express the speaker’s sorrow over Lenore. With such a change in the line, it feels like the auditor is being hit with the force of a single word.  Lenore weighs heavily on the speaker’s heart, and the anguish becomes the target of his thoughts. When the auditor reads, they are stopped short by the change in words to where they will pay closer attention to what is going on in the poem.  The impression on the listener implies that the speaker longs to be released from a seemingly hopeless depression. 

            The speaker’s sorrow over Lenore also contains mixed feelings.  There comes a point where the speaker begins to swear at the raven by calling it a “prophet,” “devil,” and “thing of evil” (lines 85 and 91).  His frustration at the bird has reached its peak.  Yet he still speaks concerning his emotional state. He describes himself and his home to the raven: “Desolate, yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted-/ On this home by Horror haunted” (lines 87-88).  He confesses that he is lonely due to Lenore’s death and that even the place he lives in has become a place of torture. But something strange occurs in these lines. The speaker uses internal rhyme with the words “undaunted,” “enchanted,” and “haunted;” they each end in “ed”, giving the lines a musical quality to them, and they are internal in the sense that they do not rhyme at the end of the lines but rather within them. Each word emphasizes a different feeling, and, enough, they somehow contradict one another. If the speaker is “undaunted”, then that means he refuses to succumb to fear, even though there are “haunted” feelings within him.  The auditor expects the opposite, that is, for the speaker to be ruled by his fears. But that appears to not be the case. Maybe he hasn’t reached the point of insanity, where his emotions break all restraint. “Enchanted” suggests that the speaker experiences magical thrills while being alone without Lenore. What if the feelings he has are illusions, or, even more intriguing, what if the raven’s visit to him is an illusion? Maybe it is the product of an overworked mind? The emotions that the speaker experiences are now contradictions from a burdened soul, and those feelings impress themselves on the auditor.  He suffers so much that he can no longer use his reasoning.

            When the depression weighs on the speaker the most, the emotions reach their peak.  When the raven speaks to the man about how he will never see his beloved Lenore ever again, the poem’s tone reaches its highest pitch of sadness.  The speaker ecstatically denies the raven’s reply and demands that it leave his house: “ ‘Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!’ I shrieked” (line 97).  The source of the man’s pain centers on Lenore.  When the raven denies his frantic imploring of whether or not he will see Lenore again, his melancholy overflows. Specifically, the word “shrieked” connotates a scream in the air directed at the bird itself.  The word can be seen as onomatopoeia, since the word actually sounds like what it implies. The stress in the word’s syllables affects the auditor with a powerful force of horror and madness.  The speaker vents his anguish at the bird, tormented by not only Lenore’s passing but also by the fact that he cannot seem to escape her memory. He will never be able to rid his mind of her.  Yet why become so angry at a bird? Wouldn’t it be better just to chase it away? It seems as if the speaker is no longer thinking or acting rationally. He feels trapped by his own melancholy, but wants his loneliness to remain “unbroken” (line 100). That phrase is quite ironic, seeing as loneliness brings him so much pain.  Maybe the speaker attempts to forget Lenore, but since the raven has come to his house, it has served as a grim reminder of what he has lost. When the bird denies that it will leave the speaker alone, the auditor captures the utter hopelessness that weighs the speaker down, the terrible truth that Lenore’s death will torment him forever.   

            The speaker in “The Raven” has been progressively going mad throughout the poem.  His rationality fails in the face over the sorrow he has over Lenore; not only does he talk to a bird that randomly visits him but also becomes more incensed by it.  The assumption falls on the idea that the speaker will be able to maintain a clear head, even in his sorrow. But this belief doesn’t explain why the speaker has a conversation with an actual bird. Clearly, the speaker has lost all sense of control over his mind. Since the word “dream” occurs in other sections of the work, the one who reads this popular poem can’t help but wonder if the speaker is seeing only a symbolic manifestation of his despair (notably the raven) in a dream?  Poe could be one of the earliest pioneers of psychological realism in this case. In fact, Poe famously incorporates psychological extremes in to many of his poems and short stories.  His characters often progress to extremes in their thinking, and the speaker in “The Raven” is no exception. Many who suffer from loss and depression find it difficult to overcome their pain. They can even be susceptible to the overworking of the mind. And indeed, the speaker no longer knows reality from dreams. He comes to the conclusion that he will be trapped in himself forever: “And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/ Shall be lifted- nevermore” (line 108). With such a speaker’s tale of insanity, Poe establishes one of the darkest poetic contributions in all of literature.     








One response to “Disturbing Sound Effects in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”

  1. Pingback: Disturbing Sound Effects in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” | The World According to Devin Stevens

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