Today few genres are parodied as much as the Gothic. Books such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula have become superbly cheesy and widely known parts of popular culture in the west, and have therefore long since lost their impact, which was to scare and create unease. The American author Edgar Allan Poe’s works however, retain a sublime creepiness which has stood the test of time and earned him lasting recognition. The Raven, a haunting poem of loss and madness, is the most famous of all his works.
Poe’s own short, violent and unhappy life adds to his mystique. After a youth dominated by rebelliousness, poverty and alcoholism, he married his thirteen-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm in 1836, and died at the the age of forty thirteen years later. Despite the lasting and immediate fame that The Raven brought him, he was one of the first western writers to try and make a living out of their literary works alone, and was always destitute as a result. During The last four years of his life, however, he was a celebrity in the USA and beyond, and was known by many as “the Raven” in honour of the poem. His own sepulchral pale and dark-haired appearance only added to the air of the Gothic around him in an age where photographs were starting to become popular.
The Raven has been analysed to death in the century and a half since its publication, and an almost limitless number of “hidden meanings” have been read into it. What is certain, however, are the themes of loss, creeping madness, and the terrible human desire to both forget and remember what we have lost at the same time. The protagonist, an unnamed scholar, is driven to despair by a black raven which perches upon a classical bust in his room and answers his hopeless questions about whether he will see an deceased lover again with the single and terrible word “nevermore.” The poem’s sonorous and inexorable metre is one of the main reasons for its fame, for it gives it the feel of a pagan chant.
On a related note, it also marks a shift from the era of neo-classicism to that of the Gothic, with its focus on older and barbaric rituals, superstitions and evil spirits. Europe, and by extension the US, was a place obsessed with the orderly, rationalistic legacy of Greece and Rome in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and as a result philosophy and popular thought were dominated by science and logic. It is no coincidence, therefore, that in the poem the Raven, a timeless symbol of Paganism and superstition rests upon a bust of Pallas, an ancient Greek purveyor of wisdom. For this and many other reasons, The Raven fully deserves its place in the west’s cultural legacy.