Answers To Some Questions On "The Raven"

Author: Eduardo Freire Canosa
(University of Toronto Alumnus)


1. What does the name "Lenore" mean?
2. Which night of December is the poem set in most likely?
3. Why does "the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain" fill the protagonist "with fantastic terrors never felt before" (3.1-2)?
4. The protagonist opens his chamber door (4.5) and discovers only darkness (4.6) unbroken silence and stillness (5.3). Not a hint of the storm raging outside (17.2). What part of the house does the door open unto?
5. Why is the word "raven" capitalized on some verses and not on others?
6. Why doesn't the protagonist simply fling a book at the bird to unseat it?
7. Gustave Doré illustrated the poem. His illustration of the final stanza brings out the impossibility of placing a lamp behind "a bust of Pallas just above" an ordinary chamber door in a convincing fashion. Edgar A. Poe must have imagined a porch. The raven sits on its apex and a lamplight on the house wall behind can cast the bird's shadow more or less satisfactorily down to the floor. If so, to exit the chamber is to enter a house. Whose house?
8. Can you make sense out of the fourteenth stanza? Is the stanza a lark or an omen?


1. The girls' name "Lenore" has a Greek origin and it means "light" as in "sunlight."

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2. Sir Aubrey de Vere's tome of poetry, A Song of Faith: Devout Exercises and Sonnets, spurred Edgar A. Poe to reply with The Raven.

One of De Vere's poems is a paean to Christmas,

Christmas Bells

SWEET-SOUNDING bells, blithe summoners to prayer!
From midnight till auspicious day return
Your far re-echoing melody, wind-borne
From dome and tower comes bounding on the air;
As if the mighty voice of Earth were there,
The jubilant cry of multitudes, to warn
Creation that a Saviour-Lord this morn
For all had birth! Far off, and every where,
Swells the harmonious tumult; billowy sound,
Wild, yet concordant; beautifully blending
With the sonorous organ of the wind.
O fortunate indeed! if there be found
Hearts dutiful as voices—souls ascending
To heaven, with love sincere, faith unconfined!

Sonnets. I. Religious and Moral. 15. p. 149

Edgar A. Poe juxtaposes a tempest to "the harmonious tumult" of Christmas bells everywhere "beautifully blending with the sonorous organ of the wind." The soliloquist of The Raven, averse to "the jubilant cry of multitudes," peruses in quiet solitude volume after volume of forgotten literature (1.1-2) in an effort to forget his lost Lenore (i.e., his lost faith). Unable to do so, he longs for the dawn (2.3) and the end of the quintessential night feast of the Christian faith in the month of December: Christmas Eve.

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3. Edgar A. Poe provides the answer to this question in his short story Eleonora written shortly after De Vere published A Song of Faith: Devout Exercises and Sonnets. Eleonora is partly autobiographical for, like the narrator, Edgar A. Poe married his cousin and she, her mother and he lived under one roof alone.

Eleonora dies peacefully with this promise upon her lips,

And she said to me, not many days afterward, tranquilly dying, that because of what I had done for the comfort of her spirit she would watch over me in that spirit when departed and—if so it were permitted her—return to me visibly in the watches of the night; but if this thing were indeed beyond the power of the souls in Paradise, that she would at least give me frequent indications of her presence, sighing upon me in the evening winds or filling the air which I breathed with perfume from the censers of the angels.

The spirit of the departed cousin keeps her promise,

Yet the promises of Eleonora were not forgotten, for I heard the sounds of the swinging of the censers of the angels and streams of a holy perfume floated ever and ever about the valley; and at lone hours, when my heart beat heavily, the winds that bathed my brow came unto me laden with soft sighs and indistinct murmurs filled often the night air.

The narrator breaks his vow to remain a widower the rest of his life, nevertheless he is forgiven via paranormal communication,

I wedded;—nor dreaded the curse I had invoked; and its bitterness was not visited upon me. And once—but once again in the silence of the night—there came through my lattice the soft sighs which had forsaken me and they modelled themselves into familiar and sweet voice saying...

By analogy with this short story the soliloquist of The Raven hears or is apprehensive about hearing "the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain" model itself into a voice in the silence of the night, a prospect that fills him "with fantastic terrors never felt before."

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4. To guess what part of the house the door of the chamber opens unto requires some foreknowledge of the house's tenants. The soliloquist of The Raven confesses that he is lonely (17.4) has been disappointed by friends (10.4) and lives without hope (10.5). The confession implies that he is the sole tenant of the house. V 15.3, "Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted," confirms the deduction and implies further that the house too is isolated. The speaker is a Roderick Usher without lady Madeline.

Vs 5.4-5 furnish the important clue that the darkness outside the chamber door possesses an echo. A thorough search of all the stories written by Edgar A. Poe yielded the following list of echo-producing locales; offsets printed red are rejected candidates,

It would certainly agree with Poe's temper to have the chamber door open unto an "apartment shrouded in black velvet tapestries" where the corpse of Lenore lies or had lain in estate. This funereal room would abet v 15.4, "On this home by horror haunted," but then the mourner's loitering at his own door bewilders (5.1-2). And how did the raven enter the apartment and start "gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door" (1.4)?

The option of an in-house library is the most attractive. The one featured in the short story Berenice has an inner apartment where Egaeus the narrator was born and where his mother died. The soliloquist's chamber could conform to a similar arrangement. The library would be the repository of the "many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore" (1.2) and the raven could have gotten inside through a window left partly open to ventilate the musty ambiance. As for v 15.4, "On this home by horror haunted," Egaeus draws a parallel between a library's contents and the owner's frame of mind. The association is reaffirmed by the boyhood friend of Roderick Usher who incidentally gives an example of the "quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore" reasonably expected to deck the shelves of the soliloquist's library,

Our books—the books which, for years, had formed no small portion of the mental existence of the invalid—were, as might be supposed, in strict keeping with this character of phantasm. We pored together over such works as [...] His chief delight, however, was found in the perusal of an exceedingly rare and curious book in quarto Gothic—the manual of a forgotten church—the Vigiliae Mortuorum Secundum Chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae.

The third option of a hall is perhaps the most intuitive, but the absence of artificial lighting in the corridor and out in the hall mystifies. Moreover how did the raven get inside?

A definitive resolution is deferred to question 7.

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5. The word "Raven" mulls over the ethereal nature of the bird: a devil (15.1) a prophet (15.1, 16.1) "Tempter sent" (15.2) a fiend (17.1) a denizen of "the Night's Plutonian shore" (17.2). The poem has seven instances of "Raven" (8.6, 12.1, 14.6, 15.6, 16.6, 17.6, 18.1).

The lowercase variant (7.2, 8.4, 10.1) contemplates the raven's material substance only: a bird (15.1, 16.1, 17.1) tempest-tossed (15.2, 17.2).

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6. The previous answer noted that Edgar A. Poe capitalized the word "raven" more than double the times he did not, signalling that The Raven is a "mental or spiritual" poem to be understood figuratively, not literally.

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7. The house of Pallas: a library.

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8. Is the fourteenth stanza a lark or an omen?

14.1 Then methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer

This verse takes up the promise of Eleonora—appertaining to the eponymous short story—to fill "the air which I breathed with perfume from the censers of the angels." It was noted in the answer to question 3 that the narrator "heard the sounds of the swinging of the censers of the angels and streams of a holy perfume floated ever and ever about the valley." This second link between Eleonora and The Raven justifies the presumption that Edgar A. Poe envisaged Eleonora and Lenore as twins or replicas.

14.2 Swung by Seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor.

What an odd choice is this phrase "tinkled on the tufted floor"! Every reader can come up with improvements: "trampled on the tufted floor" or "trudged along the tufted floor" or "tramped about the tufted floor"; but Edgar A. Poe wrote tinkled and since nothing is accidental the reader must ruminate on the reason for his choice.

Let the reader accept for now that a tap between a drinking glass and a bottle tinkles.

14.3 "Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee (respite)"

Two details of this verse verify that The Raven is a sequel to the poem Lenore. First, the archaic British conversational accent has replaced the ordinary American one used at the start on the fourth stanza. The mourner maintains the changeover made on the eighth and references himself in second person with thee's, imitating Guy de Vere's parlance. Second, the speaker calls himself a "wretch," assuming De Vere's affront to hypocritical mourners on v 2.1 of that poem.

14.4 "Respite—respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore!"

A nepenthe is a potion which causes one to forget their troubles. A common nepenthe is any kind of alcoholic beverage.

14.5 "Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"

This verse states plainly that the speaker has started to drink heavily.

The last difficulty to overcome is v 14.3 which states that God had sent the nepenthe to the speaker "by these angels." My thesis is that herein hides Poe's private joke: the final process in the elaboration of brandy or whisky is called the angels' share, defined by Whisky Magazine to be "the amount of alcohol which evaporates from the casks during maturation."

If the thesis is brooked, the reader may also condone the following revision of the twelfth stanza,

Revised Twelfth Stanza        

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Brandy bottle and glass blinking, on the shag beside me sinking,
I betook myself to thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
                                                        Meant in croaking "Nevermore."


The circumstances surrounding Poe's death suggest that he was forced to quaff booze, making v 14.5 an eerie premonition of the event.

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