Friday, June 17, 2016
Is Poe's RAVEN an Allegory? article in the Literary Digest 1895
IS POE'S “RAVEN” AN ALLEGORY? article in the Literary Digest 1895
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IT is wonderful how many commonplace things can be forced to bear a figurative interpretation. The plainest statements, whether in prose or poetry, have often been fitted with wings by some zealous interpreter and made to perform lofty flights of allegory quite beyond the intentions of their authors. This being so, it could hardly be expected that Poe's mystical raven could escape the same fate. According to Dr. William Elliot Griffis, Poe was writing, in these oft-quoted lines, a lament for his wasted life. This will hardly tally with Poe's own account of the development of the poem in his own mind; but whether or not Dr. Griffis is justified in attributing an allegorical purpose to Poe himself, it must he confessed that he turns the poem into quite a plausible allegory. In Christian Work (New York, July 4), where he expounds his theory at length, Dr. Grifiis first advances the idea that the “Lenore” of the poem is “the transfiguration of Poe's wasted life, of his ideals unfulfilled,” and then goes on to say:
"What is the meaning of this strange poetic creation of Poe?
"Is it not this? The black raven of memory had flown in from the dark night of Poe‘s wasted life, and was perching, like the Norsemen‘s sable bird upon their god, yet not now on Woden, but on the deity which Poe worshiped, Pallas Minerva—the god of literary art, of taste, of knowledge; for Poe's religion was beauty, but not goodness. The marble bust remained speechless, while the bird spoke. Wisdom had almost ceased to warn, but memory, now incarnate as a raven, uttered her complaint, mocking the voice of Lenore, and its burden was the dirge of hope— ‘Nevermore':
“‘But the raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spake only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered, not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered: ‘Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.’
Then the bird said: ‘Nevermore!'"
“Never again the lost opportunities of youth! Nevermore the bright, pure life of childhood and boyhood! Nevermore hope, pardon, peace! Out of the ‘Night's Plutonian shore,‘ only the raven was henceforth to fly, croaking, ‘Nevermore!’ . . .
“This is the reading between the poem's lines. That lover of soot and carrion and contagion was never to leave him. The poet wheels his cushioned seat in front of the ‘fowl whose fiery eyes now burned' into his bosom‘s core. He began to link 'fancy unto fancy.’ Not all is lost yet; the future may be safe.
“While thus brooding, as if to strengthen him in right resolves, Hope that ‘springs eternal in the human breast‘ now rises to open the gates of repentance. The angels of grace, of mercy, of love, troop into the room. They plead with the wayward man to change his life. to leave his cups, his sin, and to have a new mind. Hear him tell the story:
“Then methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer,
Swung by Seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor."
“Strengthened for the moment by these good presences sent from heaven to inspire him with new impulses to right, he now tries to drive away the bitter, black memory; to exorcise the demon from his presence. He says to himself, rather than to the raven:
“‘Wretch! thy God hath lent thee—by these angels He hath sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh, quaff, this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore]
Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.'"
“No, even tho repentance come. memory Will not be quiet. No Egyptian drug of nepenthe, to which the devotee makes himself a slave. no fiery draft in the drunkard’s bowl, will keep down the black shadow of memory or drive it back to the night shore of oblivion. Still on the mind it broods, over all art its fateful presence dwells. as it utters ‘ Nevermore.’ .
“After consummate skill, almost like that of angels dissecting the structure of a soul, with art as with a two-edged scalpel that divides between the mortal and the immortal, the poet concludes this de profundis wail of bitter experience, this Cain cry of remorse, this transcendent vision of memory, thus truthfully, in words whose cadence is as the midnight moaning of winds in a graveyard:
“‘And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Palms, just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming
And the lamplight 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.‘
“No, never out of that shadow was Poe‘s soul lifted while on earth, and, whether in eternity, God knoweth. Sin, suffering, waywardness, sorrow marked his mortal career—a life without hope. Genius, intellect, superb and matchless literary art, availed not to save him from the hereditary taint of infirmity, from the dangers and penalties of a highly sensitive nervous organization, which, without the sternest convictions of right and duty, is a curse; from boon companions who led him, ah, too swiftly, to an untimely grave."
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