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Guilt and Regret

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Guilt and regret are two emotions that have transcended time and have constantly been used as literary topics for countless years and countless works. Literature captures the essence of humanity and expresses it in ways that most cannot do, therefore we look to literature as a way to relate and guide us through whatever it is we are trying to deal with, whether it be positive or negative. In this essay I will be exploring Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” to demonstrate the expression of guilt and regret in the form of poetry using different poetic devices to do so. I will be analyzing the idea that the narrator of the poem is not just expressing sorrow over the loss of his “Lenore,” but also guilt stemming from his belief that he could have done more to save her, or in fact maybe even caused the death of his beloved Lenore.

Poe does a good job of separating the poem into two categories or sections, so to speak. One being the hopeful idea that he can get Lenore back or at least see her ghost and possibly reconcile with her so that he can live on happily. The other being the dark and dramatic tone of the poem that takes

overwhelming precedence after the first few stanzas. And the way Poe does that, obviously not having the use of images to aid him, anytime he is talking about Lenore or something positive, he uses positive imagery such as “the white bust of Pallas” to describe his beloved Lenore. What makes this poem more than just a horror story is the way that Poe uses his words and poetic skills to thrust the reader into the narrator’s mind and into his psyche so that you know not only his feelings, but his thoughts too. It is a deep poem on many levels and through the rest of this thesis I will prove that the narrator is responsible in some capacity for the death of Lenore.

The poem is written in a melancholic tone from the very beginning when Poe describes the night that he is visited by the raven as a midnight dreary, also stating that it is during “the bleak December.” (Line 7) He immediately starts off setting the tone of the poem and the setting of the poem as an unhappy and sorrowful atmosphere so the reader gets the feeling of sadness from the narrator from the first line. From that line about December along with the line referring to “dying embers” the reader is thrust into a scene of depression and sadness. December is a month where all things being to decay and die, from the leaves, to the grass along with animals not dying, but fleeing for warmer weather. The dying embers is just another way that Poe creates the scene for the reader so that it is as if he is painting an image of what is going on with the narrator. It does not take long for Poe to give the reader a sense of uneasiness.

It is clear that also from the first stanza that the narrator is on edge, while he reads “forgotten lore” (line 2). The narrator is most likely partaking in some form of black magic to bring back his lost love, Lenore. Poe uses the literary devices, internal rhyme and alliteration to give the first and other stanzas a musical or rhythmic sound that aids the overall tone of sadness for the poem. By giving the poem a structured rhythmic tone, it truly aids the sense of the narrator’s sadness and fear of the situation he is in. Also, the dark musical theme of the first stanza serves as proof that the narrator of the poem is truly performing some type of black magic, because if you look back at mankind’s recollection of black magic, they are almost performed using some type of musical ritual where people are sing-songy in the way that they are carrying out the black magic.

The narrator goes on in the next stanza to talk about how he, “sought to borrow from my books surcease of sorrow – sorrow for the lost Lenore.” This is the first time in the poem that he mentions what he is so sad about, which is the loss of his beloved, Lenore. Now the narrator is putting the pieces together and he clearly is trying to use the forgotten lore, or black magic to bring back or at least connect with his deceased love, Lenore. Poe uses particularly captivating diction and a combination of assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds to create internal rhyme< and alliteration, the repetition of a particular sound in the first syllable, to convey the general tone of depression and regret over the loss of Lenore. The repetition really drills the point that Poe is trying to get the reader to feel the sorrow and the pain that the narrator is feeling about the loss of his beloved Lenore. All the words that he chooses have a tone of darkness and evil, combined with his literary devices provide a very solemn atmosphere that the reader is thrust into.

It was particularly obvious that the forgotten lore is some type of black magic that the narrator is using to bring back Lenore or simply speak with her once again when in the fifth stanza Poe writes, “dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.” (Line 26) Due to the time period that this was written in, 1845, black magic would have been not only looked down upon the way it is today, but most likely imprisonment or death would be the result of being found guilty of practicing it. Why would a man risk that to speak to someone who has passed away, regardless of how much he loved her? Because he feels guilt over the death of Lenore, most likely meaning that whatever she died he felt that he could have done more to help her. You get a sense in this stanza that he is truly doing something that he is even afraid of doing, something that he could lose is his life for, which definitely is a telling fact that he is willing to try anything to rid himself of the guilt that he is feeling over the loss of Lenore. Just one more aid to the notion that he possibly had something to do with the death, or certainly could have done more to protect his Lenore from whatever fate she met.

Once the narrator hears the raven at his door, he believes it is Lenore who has returned from the dead to visit him. When he answers the door, “the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore!”” This clearly means that the narrator believed in his heart that the black magic had worked and he Lenore was here to see him. Once the rapping starts again, this time at the window, the narrator realizes it is a Raven, a bird usually associated with the underworld and the work of the devil. Perhaps the Raven, a bird from the underworld, would be bringing news about Lenore, but that is not the case. Poe chose the Raven wisely, once again, to convey the general tone of guilt and regret to the reader because when one thinks about a raven, one does not think of a hopeful and proud bird, but rather a dark and gloomy bird that brings about negative feelings and vibes. The narrator soon realizes that this Raven is not here to bring good news or to relay a message of hope to him, but rather to haunt this man for whatever it is that he has done, or lack there of, to help his love.

Looking back on historical literature, often times when you read stories, poems or novels about a man being haunted by something, it is a recurring object, person or animal that keeps coming back over and over again as if to let the character, in this case the narrator, know that they will and what has happened under their watch, so to speak. Essentially, the narrator at first experiences jubilance at the thought that the tapping is Lenore, or that the raven is going to be the bringer of news from the underworld about Lenore, but quickly realizes that the Raven is there to humiliate and intensify the feelings of guilt that he is already experiencing. The narrator associates the bird with the Plutonian shore, which is an allusion to the ancient underworld. So this bird is clearly from the underworld delivering the message of the Haiti. Also the bird’s name, according to the narrator, and the only word spoken by the bird, is “Nevermore.” Nevermore is a word that Poe chose carefully because it brings about a feeling of hopelessness and emptiness that other words cannot capture. Soon, the narrator realizes that this bird is delivering dreadful news to him, describing the raven as “grim, ungainly, ghastly and gaunt.” None of these words are hopeful, like the narrator slightly was when he first thought Lenore might be at the door.

However, in the fourteenth stanza is where the reader truly sees that this man, the narrator, is not just feeling sorrow over the loss of his beloved, but also guilt and regret over the way she died. The man cries out begging to forget the sorrow and guilt he feels over Lenore. “Nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!” (Line ) Nepenthe is a drug described in Homer’s Odyssey that is supposed to rid the person taking it of all grief or guilt they are feeling over something that has happened to them in the past and they cannot get over. A man who has lost a loved one and could not do anything about it does not want to forget the memory of this person all together, yet this man seems to wish that he forgets about Lenore all together.

Also, amidst the fear and confusion of the narrator throughout his encounter with the raven,
he asks the bird, “is there balm in Gilead?” (Line ) Balm is an ancient form of lotion that was used to soothe skin, while Gilead is an allusion to the biblical hill of judgment where God would judge humans. Through Poe’s combinations of classic and biblical references, the narrator is expressing his distress over whether or not God will show only mercy or comfort when he is being judged for entry into heaven or hell. A man who has no guilt would not be terribly concerned about this, nor sound so distressed about how he will be judged. Clearly his preoccupation with his judgment, and the hope that God will judge him kindly, the way that balm is smooth and kind to one’s skin is telling that this man is feeling remorse for whatever it is that he did to cause Lenore’s death.

Finally, the poem’s final two stanzas portray the narrator as the most desperate he has been throughout the whole poem. He is screaming at the bird to go away back the Plutonian Shore and not to leave any trace of the bird behind. Clearly the raven has struck a cord with this man and the man is starting to sense his fate. The guilt and regret over Lenore cannot be overcome, which is why he was visited by this evil bird from Plutonian’s shore. Plutonian’s shore is considered to be the shore of the river that leads into Haiti, or the underworld. However, the raven never leaves the man’s house, “still sitting on the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door.” (Line ) This man has clearly done some wrong in his life, clearly associated with the death of his loved one, because why else would a bird from the underworld be permanently with him in his house for the rest of his days? The final two lines read; “And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor shall be lifted – Nevermore!” (Line ) His soul shall never be lifted to heaven to see Lenore again, he is doomed to a life in the underworld with the Raven, and no longer is there any hope of seeing Lenore, nevermore.

A word that Poe clearly uses again and again and again throughout this poem that cannot be overlooked as the central theme to the entire poem is Nevermore, appearing twenty eight times throughout the poem. Why did Poe choose the word Nevermore as the Raven’s sole speaking words of the Poem, or the word that occurs the most frequently? It is because, like the rest of the poem where Poe does a marvelous job of using different poetic techniques to get his message across, he using his brilliant diction, choice of words, to give set the tone of the entire poem. Nevermore does not give the reader any thought of happiness, hope or joy, but rather it gives the reader a sense of never having those good feelings again.

The reader feels the narrator losing hope each time the word is used and knows that as the poem goes on the narrator, although he set out to find his love Lenore and possibly find happiness again, will never again experience that joy, nevermore. It is as if each of the twenty eight times the word is used he is slipping farther and farther away from what he truly wants, Lenore. Until the final line of the Poem where Poe states, “Shall be lifted – Nevermore!” (Line 108) When you think of the word lifted, you think often of good feelings such as lifted spirits or lifted up to heaven, so for the narrator to accept that he will be lifted nevermore is telling of how dark the poem and his spirits have gotten, and ends the poem letting the reader know firmly that no joy came to the narrator throughout his attempts to bring back Lenore.

This poem exemplifies Poe’s uncanny ability to capture the very common human emotions of guilt and regret into literature. The reader can relate to the poem’s themes, while being captivated by the brilliant use of alliteration, assonance, allusion and internal rhyme. Clearly people have different levels of guilt and regret in their lives, but no matter the size everyone still experiences at some point and Poe does a marvelous job of capturing these emotions. This is why this poem has become a timeless classic, because these kinds of emotions and Poe does such a brilliant job of bringing them out. He clearly is portraying a vivid image with his words of the guilt that the narrator feels about Lenore for the reader to indulge in.

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