Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Raving about "The Raven"

Here's an interesting thought to ponder: What if Poe was kidding when he wrote "The Raven?"

In an essay entitled "Theme and Parody in 'The Raven,'" Dennis Eddings has made a nicely substantiated case for Poe's most famous poem to have been a tongue-in-cheek criticism of the outrageous gothic poetry of his day. Eddings contends that Poe was too good a poet to make the kinds of mistakes that we see all over "The Raven."

Remember, Poe was a literary critic as well as a poet and short-story writer. He was deservedly famous for his acerbic comments about other people's work and some people read his critiques for the pleasure of his cutting remarks. He saved his particular nastiness for the group of poets who later got named -- hysterically, in every sense of the word -- the Spasmodics.

He accused this group of being overly self-absorbed, hystrionic, unreasonable, sloppy, and careless of rhythm, phrase, and tone. By the 1840's Poe was very much dissatisfied with the Romantics and particularly with Romantic poetry.

If we look at "The Raven" as a parody, some things make sense. All of the little mistakes (like uncertain rustlings of curtains and "tinkling" footsteps on carpet), become deliberate mockery of poets who got those things wrong on purpose. The progression of the narrator from merely gloomy to absolutely plunged into the depths of despair, and all this because he's talking to a bird, takes on a new, and far less sinister, meaning. The narrator is one of those ridiculous Romantics, who cannot keep himself from falling into his own navel.

Poe frequently said, in critiquing poetry toward the end of his life, that the unrestrained imagination leads to a "dead end." Eddings makes the case that, for the narrator in "The Raven," this is exactly what happens -- he gets more and more worked up by his own imagination, and winds up stuck in the dark with a talking bird. Hardly a helpful place to be.

Possibly the most conclusive evidence that Poe is satirizing Romantic poetry lies in the form of "The Raven" itself. It is exactly the same form that Elizabeth Barrett (later Browning) used in her poem "Lady Geraldine's Courtship." Poe had reviewed Barrett's poetry unfavorably, so it's unlikely that he copied the poem for purposes of flattery. Instead, he seems to be doing, in "The Raven," everything that he criticized in Browning.

What did Poe say about the poem? He didn't get a chance to say, "Hey, this is satire!" because when it was published, it became a huge hit, and he never had the nerve to say, "Just kidding."


  1. haha i could see this being true. If it is it makes me like poe even more. I feel there's more to poe than his "dark side." It would be a breath of fresh to know that he had sense a humor to write something only to make fun of his own genre. It wolu show how talented he was too.

  2. Corbin Mack

    Whether this assumption is true or not I don't think is relative to anything at all. Poe was a unusual man, however much I would like to entertain the idea of a lighter and funnier side of him it would seem a little too outrageous. He wasn't known for being a comedian for many reasons and to put an incredible amount of effort into "The Raven" as some sort of joke, i think, is unrealistic. With that being said, if it is true, he does get the last laugh in tricking the world and the writers who envied his darkness.

  3. I think it is pretty amazing that people can sit around and come up with this sort of thing, especially without any really concrete evidence like a confession from the author. I love Poe, he is one of my favorite authors to study and I never get tired of reading his works and if "The Raven" is a satire, well then I like him so much more and it shows his talent and it makes him seem more like a human than an alien from planet Gloom and Doom.

  4. Poe.... seemed like a excuse my wording... but a ass, kind of like the simon cowell of his time. I know he was a litterary genius and all but im not the biggest fan of him. However i like the fact that he deliberatly made a satire out of other works because he could pick up on the errors.

  5. I DEFINITELY dislike the idea of Poe as an ass. He seemed to stick with what he knew, and was relatively at ease with putting out his work it seemed. He had a harsh life, and that can make one...quite dismal. As for being comical, who doesn't like someone that's sarcastic? Instead of thinking of him with a funny bone, can't we just think he has a grim dry sense of humor? Which, personally, I think makes him more awesome.

  6. Genny said...

    I believe this, that maybe it was all a joke because it's so diffent than really anything else he has written. Personally this is by far one of my favorites of Poe. But like Gavin said, for me to think of Poe writing this satire to make fun of other writers its quite comical. And, kind of a slap in the face to him. He spent a lot of time saying how these satires were and then when he wrote one it was his best seller...irony at its best.

  7. If one has read "Never Bet the Devil Your Head," then this viewpoint of "The Raven" as a joke makes a whole lot of sense. I had wondered why "The Raven" seems so different from the rest of his poetry.