A'alaa AlMajnouni

Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” as an Anti-Transcendental Poem

In My Research Papers & Essays on June 9, 2011 at 6:46 pm

The Law of Newton’s Action-Reaction“…The direction of the force on the first object is opposite to the direction of the force on the second object…”applied on physics. Yet, this law is partially applicable to some literary movements too. For each movement emerges as an action there is the reverse reaction towards. Transcendentalism as an Action is a famous American movement or a philosophy based on the ultimate reality of God, the Universe, and the Self. It is idealistic and optimistic because it could find the answer to any existential question through intuition and observation of the natural world (Harmon & Holman 527). However, its Reaction formed the Anti-Transcendentalism, or ‘Dark Romanticism’ which is based on the total diverged from the first, mainly about the destructiveness of the human race. For the reason that Anti-Transcendentalism revolves on pessimistic beliefs and believed that Transcendentalism was naïve, selfish, and unrealistic. It viewed nature as vast and incomprehensible, a reflection of the struggle between good and evil (Harmon & Holman 458). Therefore, this paper seeks to present a concise attempt to analyze the elemental aspects of Anti-Transcendentalism applied on the poem of Edgar Allen Poe “The Raven”.

The perspective of Anti-Transcendentalists towards the world is viewed as evil as an entity, and the sin as an active force within. They believed in a higher authority, and humans could not understand the nature of which in a complete individualism. Hitherto this proposition by them would lead to selfishness and man’s fall into wickedness. Moreover, and on the artistic level, their works reflect these beliefs and often include either an allegory of the fall of man or supernatural intervention and man’s depravity. Accordingly, Edgar Allan Poe considered by many critics as one famous Anti-Transcendentalist for his prevalence of human depravity through all his works (RTA). However, the works of him are noticeably coherent with his personal aesthetic beliefs and judgments. The thematic tales of Poe are commonly connected with fear and terror where they present the elemental aspects and emergence of ‘American Gothicism’. Furthermore, James Lowell stated to support:

Mr. Poe as a great master of imagination has seldom restored to the vague and the unreal as sources of effect. He has not used dread and horror alone, but only in combination with other qualities, as means of subjugating the fancies of his readers.  (qtd. Rasmus 23-24)

Although Poe did not publically mention Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder of Transcendentalism, but he relentlessly attacked his ideas and American Transcendentalism in general. In short, Edgar Allen Poe meant to jeopardize the ideal of nature all through the nineteenth century (“The Domain of Artifice” 1) and in the United States in particular. Besides, they were constructed on a base of deep rejection to his transcendentalist’s contemporaries on their ethical and aesthetic myths (RTA).

“The Raven” is Edgar Allen Poe’s most popular poem and it was first published in the New York Evening Mirror on January 29, 1845. Yet again, “The Raven” as an anti-transcendental work is as well a renowned category of finest example of Gothic poetry! Poe meant not to have a meditation on death nor a philosophical examination of how death affects our lives after the loss of our beloved in this world, but he made Death as a crucial part of its existence (Campbell & Ford 19). In “The Philosophy of Composition” Poe’s own essay about “The Raven” describes it as one that reveals the human weakness for “self-torture” as evidenced by the speaker’s tendency to weigh up himself through grief (qtd. Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine). For Poe in order to establish the proper extreme of grief in the poem’s speaker, he needs to be absolutely drained of any tiny hope of seeing her again, ‘Lenore’. Wherever, only death could provide such an absolute!

“The Raven” is opening with an exhaled of ‘Ah’ and agitated emotions of the narrator on a cruel day of December, with the bitter coldness, and lifeless isolated house, where the atmosphere is so dark death-like and so horrifying. Poe starts:

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; – vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow – sorrow for the lost Lenore –
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore –
Nameless here for evermore.  (7-11)

It is assumed that the narrator to be a scholar, who might be Edgar Allen Poe himself. The narrator is sitting alone at this night lamenting and trying to read volumes alone forgetting the death of love the gloominess of love the struggle between remembrance of love and forgetting. Here, he is trying to forget to deny living, as nothing happened to overwhelm oneself with books and reading to pass the time to take the mind of problems. As the Poetic tale continues the landscape quickly broadens with fear and uncertainty in where the poet in the prison catastrophic richly furniture room heard a gentle tapping on his chamber door. Filled with excitement and fear, the poet decided to open the door as the essayist Dana Gioia assumed:

He thinks at first it is a late night visitor, but opening the door, he finds only “Darkness there, and nothing more.” (This initial glimpse into black nothingness will prove prophetic of his ultimate fate.) Half afraid, half wishful, the speaker whispers the name of his dead lover. Irrationally he hopes the visitor is her ghost. There comes no reply, however, except the echo of his voice. Soon the tapping resumes-now at his window, Opening the shutter, he finds a Raven.  (33)

The next stanza hold up more anti-transcendental portions shown clearly on the Gothic atmosphere, and once the narrator began to have a hysteric thought about his love; he is so moved by remembering her, his Lenore! Poe wrote:

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, `Lenore!’
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, `Lenore!’
Merely this and nothing more.   (25-31)

He whispered her name he is wishing that the late mid-night visitor will be his Lenore. He fears he wonders and he still loves. He is living in hopes and dreams of everlasting love. The Raven the omen of bad things or the angel from heaven might be seeking shelter from the coldness of winter into the room with the dead amber. Yet, the Raven might represent nothing maybe it is all inside the mind of the narrator the images he seeks or desire the most. But B. J. Bolden in his essay of “Poetry for Students” said:

Though logic tells the young man that the raven’s “Nevermore” is merely a rote response, he is beyond reason. Having experienced a turbulent shift in his emotions, from dreamy melancholy to irrational hope, by the second half of the poem, the young man is precariously perched on the brink of insanity. As though the raven can divine the source of the young man’s grief over the lost Lenore and the desperate hope that he will once again “clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore-,” the raven continues to utter only the solitary word “Nevermore.” The young man’s spirit sags over the finality of Lenore’s death, yet he proceeds to indulge in sweet torture by his rhetorical interrogation of the stoic raven, as if his desperate questioning keeps her precious memories alive.  (qtd. Gale 28-29)

The narrator now is in a situation that can’t be described he is in a state of hysteric to madness. He first thought the bird as a messenger from heaven as a ghost of his passed lover as a joyous memory later in the second half of the poems his mind swung completely as he now think of the eternal vision of nothingness or as bad omen. Once again on what Dana Gioia supposed:

A devil sent to claim the speaker for the underworld. The speaker’s dawning awareness of his hellish doom is reflected in the poem’s changing refrain, which begins as “nothing more” and “Evermore,” but darkens once the bird speaks his prophetic “Nevermore” By the poem’s last line, the narrator has accepted the bird’s dire prophecy. Echoing his shadowy tormentor, he declares his soul “Shall be lifted-nevermore.”   (34)

As the narrator now in a agitation and because he needs to cling to the memories of his lost Lenore, the young man experiences inner turmoil as he tries to face the thought of life without her. Finally, he chooses the torture of past memories over the pain of present emptiness. As a plot device, this works fine, because the reader is assured that there is no way they could ever be reunited. The poem’s weakness, though, is that the bald fact of death is not used to generate any new understanding. Grief is an honest, basic response to death, but Poe does not take it anywhere. The speaker does not think about his own death or life, nor about what his time with Lenore was like or whether her life was full and significant in the short time she did have: he just grieves and grieves and grieves. The reader would be right to question whether this is a realistic response to death, and whether in real life people do respond to death with such perpetual and chronic sorrow. It is a characteristic of Romanticism, the literary movement that Poe is associated with, to stretch a human emotion beyond the shape that we are familiar with in real life: beauties are stunning and unforgettable beauties, suffering is agony, and grief is uncontrollable. Death is one of the few things that cannot be fixed or reversed, and the enormity of it is therefore entirely appropriate for the exaggerated emotions in Poe’s work (BR).

Thus, we can understand that he has quite lot of deep meaning behind the surface of horror poem alone. So, What is the main idea behind the text? What is the major aspect? What does Poe want to tell us? Are the images the main source behind the text? Or is it the persona? Is it the atmosphere? Or they are all combined together to show us the hidden meaning between Poe compositions. Poe with his creative imagination spellbound readers and he as well confuse scholars and critics for they can not decide of what is the real meaning behind it or who is the persona who represents Poe, maybe none or both N.P Williams in the death of Edgar A. Poe said: ” The Raven was probably much more nearly than has been supposed, even by those who were very intimate with him, a reflection and an echo of his own history.

He was the bird’s

Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster

Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore

Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore

Of ‘Never-nevermore.'”

A harsh master treated the bird just like his harsh experiences deprived Poe of all faith in man or woman. It might suggest that he was a hard worker and not being appreciated by society and getting low wages and money for his great works. On the other hand some critic like Dave Smith said that:

Poe is the narrator himself the lonely gloomy figure who permits the witness to Some close to his creature and yet keep safe, a glimpsed but not engaged threat. Still, having summoned the raven, Poe cannot so easily deny or repress it: he tells us the bird sits in the forever of that last stanza, a curse neither expiated nor escaped. Poe loved women who died, often violently, diseased. His mother went first; he was two and an orphan. He was taken in and raised as ward of John Allan and his wife Frances, a sickly woman who would die on him, but first there would be Jane Standard, on whom he had a fourteen-year-old’s crush. She was thirty-one when she died insane. Poe suffered the death of three women before he finished being a moody teenaged boy.  (40)

To sum up, Edgar Allan Poe is one of the major influences of Dark Romanticism. As an anti-transcendentalist he not only addressed the central question of nineteenth-century romantic symbolism, or that of reality over illusion or the power of the imagination (Gale 31). Indeed, Poe in his narrative “The Raven” transported Romantic symbolism to new heights, and envisioned the Dark side of Nature as pessimistic, evil and dark mystery if not centers on the Death as a main premise.

Works Cited

Baym, Nina. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2008.

B. J. Bolden, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.

Campbell, Killis, The Mind of Poe and Other Studies, New York: Russell and Russell, 1962.

Dana Gioia, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.

Dave Smith, “Edgar Allan Poe and the Nightmare Ode,” in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 29, No. I, Winter, 1995, pp. 4-10.

Harmon, William, C. Hugh Holman, and William Flint Thrall. A Handbook to Literature. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Hastrup, Rasmus. A Crack in the Mirror. Echoes, Reflections, Doubles and Confined Space in the Life and Work of Edgar Allan Poe. København, 2001.

Poe, Edgar Allan, ‘The Philosophy of Composition,” in Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. XXVII, April, 1846, reprinted in Literary Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Robert L. Hough, University of Nebraska Press, 1965, pp. 20-32.



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