Edgar Allan Poe and the Mind

“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe is wrought with symbolism of the mind, specifically the subconscious and the conscious aspects of Mind. The poem is an interesting one, in the sense that one can argue that the events of the piece are not happening to the narrator himself, but rather, within him, specifically, within his mind. This is reminiscent of Poe’s poem “The Haunted Palace ,” where the mind is described as “monarch Thought’s dominion”, and hair is described as banners, and the mouth painted as “pearl and ruby glowing”, from which thoughts flow. Perhaps “The Raven” is also describing the dominions and outpourings of a deranged and depressed mind.

The poem initiates with a dark tone, “…midnight dreary…”, which sets the proverbial stage of the tenor of the piece. The first stanza also sets up the idea that perhaps the narrator is on the boundary between sleep and wakefulness, as evidenced by the line “While I nodded, nearly napping…” The narrator, though nearly asleep, is clearly aware of certain happenings around him. However, the happenings are more in his mind, rather than outside his body. This could be considered a sort of lucid dreaming, where the sleeper is aware of his dreams, at least to a certain extent, and may be able to control certain aspects of his dreams, but is still subject to the power of his subconscious. The narrator is said to also be pondering “forgotten lore”. This forgotten lore could be suppressed memories. The fact that the narrator is pondering over them could mean that the narrator is trying to learn the truth of his mind and perhaps trying to figure something out, something that may be bothering him and something that was suppressed and is now bubbling up to the surface of his consciousness.

The second stanza includes the line “…bleak December”. December, in literary arenas indicate depression, melancholy, and death. Poe is clearly setting the stage for introducing the death of his long-lost Lenore. He also writes “…each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor…”. ‘Dying ember’ is reminiscent of the light of life being blown out. Poe is further setting the landscape of death and darkness. The dying embers could also be symbolic of a dying sanity. The narrator states that the dying embers wrought ghosts on the floor. These ghosts can be the remainders of sanity, and the floor can be the mind, which is the foundation for thoughts.
The third stanza Poe writes about the rustling of the curtain filling him with terror never felt before. Women’s dresses also rustle, so perhaps the curtains sounds are reminding him of his maiden’s movements when she was alive, thus filling him with terror, not in the sense of fright, but in the sense of memories that invade and cause much grief in him. The narrator states that sounds heard at his chamber door must be some late visitor. The chamber door can be symbolic of the mind itself, much like the symbolism wrought in “The Haunted Palace”. The visitor could be the thoughts trying to be suppressed by the narrator during the day. However, since the narrator is in the mental state between wakefulness and sleep, he is aware of these thoughts, but is not so aware that he can try to suppress them, as he might do if he were fully awake.

In the fourth stanza, the narrator states that his “soul grew stronger”. Perhaps now the narrator is entering a deeper state of sleep, where even the strangest things can be ascribed to the nocturnal wanderings of the mind, which cannot harm the dreamer. So since now the narrator is in the safety of his dreaming mind, he is more comfortable and is not as frightened of what his subconscious might try to bring to the surface of his consciousness. The narrator opens the door and states that darkness greeted him. This could be tantamount to the narrator trying to open wide the doors of his subconscious, but, being in a dream state, is not able to understand what his subconscious holds, and therefore his consciousness, not being able to understand the symbols of the dreaming mind, ascribes darkness to the subconscious’ outpourings. The narrator here seems to want to learn the truth of his mind, but is not able to because he is either not fully prepared to handle to truth, or is not able to perceive and understand it. This is a throwback to the first stanza, where the narrator states that he was pondering forgotten lore. This forgotten lore could be symbolic of his suppressed memories.

In the fifth stanza, the narrator continues that he stood in the darkness looking around but perceived nothing, the silence was unbroken, except by the whisper of “Lenore”. This is further evidence to the idea that the narrator is trying to both unearth and suppress memories, memories that are depressing because they are memories of death and grief, but memories that are there nonetheless.

The narrator is back is his chamber and hears knocking at his window. In “The Haunted Palace”, the eyes were described as luminous windows. Perhaps windows in The Raven are also symbolic of eyes, but not the physical ones of the face, but rather, the mind’s eye. When the narrator opens the window, he finds a raven. Ravens are usually bad omens; they are harbingers of death and darkness. In a literary context, finding a raven, or some other black bird, is a sign that something is wrong or something bad will happen. Here, in “The Raven”, the bird can be symbolic of dark and depressing thoughts in the narrator’s mind.

The bird flies upon the bust of Pallas, which is the goddess Athena, symbol of wisdom. Here again, the bird can be viewed as a harbinger of the thoughts of the narrator’s subconscious. The bird is trying to enlighten the narrator of the workings of the gears of his subconscious. This idea is further evidenced by the bird perching upon the narrator’s chamber door.

The chamber is a symbol for the mind, while the door can be symbolic of the conscious mind. Therefore, the bird if flying from the depths of the narrator’s subconscious, and trying to reveal its truth to the conscious mind. The narrator states that the raven is from “Night’s Plutonian shore”. Hence, the bird can further be viewed as coming forth from the narrator’s mind’s nocturnal wanderings. Also, the fact that the bird is talking and the narrator is not finding it too strange that an animal is speaking, can be evidence for the fact that the narrator may be dreaming.

This is another throwback to the idea that the narrator may be lucid dreaming and is aware on some levels of the workings of his subconscious mind. However, the bird, when asked of its name, states that its name is “Nevermore”. Here, Poe is using personification in the bird; animals do not normally speak, and if an animal is given a human quality such as speech, the animal is sometimes a symbol of something else. This ‘something else’ could be the narrator’s subconscious. The fact that the bird said its name was “Nevermore”, could perhaps be foreshadowing the narrator never truly learning about his suppressed memories or what his subconscious is trying to tell him.

The narrator then tells himself that the bird will leave him on the morrow. Perhaps, then, the narrator has embarked in lucid dreaming before to try to ease out suppressed memories and thoughts, but that upon waking up in the morning, loses the information that he has gained, as his conscious had not had time to fully grasp any meanings from dreams. Therefore, the narrator is lucid of the fact that he is dreaming, but is not able to truly take advantage of his opportunity—he can’t fully grasp the outpourings of his mind.

The narrator then speaks that the bird is only able to say “nevermore”, and that the bird is from an “unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster followed fast…”. Therefore, the bird is again symbolic of the narrator’s thoughts, and the narrator is now concretely describing himself as unhappy and having unfortunate things happen to him. The fact that the bird can only say “nevermore” is perhaps evidence that the narrator feels that he can never feel happy again.

This is further substantiated by the line that states “the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore….” Dirges are sung at funerals. Since the narrator is connecting dirge and hope, then the narrator feels no hope for the future—he is truly depressed and has no hope for the future. However, the narrator has not completely lost his ability to smile, and thus, feel some happiness within the darkness of his depression. He also still has hope that he might figure out things—-he sits in front of the bird and bust and door. Again, the bird is symbolic of his subconscious, the bust, of wisdom and truth, and the door (chamber door), his consciousness. Therefore, the narrator has not lost the hope and energy to try to figure out the truth his subconscious is trying to bring forth onto the surface of his conscious mind.

The bird is described as having “fiery eyes”, which are reminiscent of demons. The bird, then, though perhaps some hope for the narrator, also is bringing with it the demons of the mind. This is further demonstrated by the narrator describing the bird as a “thing of evil”, and as a “fiend”. The narrator both wants to understand the bird, but at the same time, realizes that the bird can also shackle the narrator in the hell of his mind. Demons can trick humans into feeling powerful and feeling as if they are in charge, but, in fact, shackle them in darkness and evil. Perhaps Poe is trying to draw this parallel to the outpourings of the subconscious mind. Perhaps the mind knows what it is doing when suppressing certain things, things that may be best left unearthed.

The last stanza states that the raven still is sitting. The emphasis in the line is on ‘still’, hinting that the subconscious seems to want to break through to the conscious level, but that the narrator may not want that anymore. However, the narrator seems not to have the power to suppress his subconscious anymore. Now, the narrator views his suppressed thoughts as demons and perhaps hurtful, and will never leave him, as stated by the line “and my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor shall be lifted—nevermore”.

2 thoughts on “Edgar Allan Poe and the Mind

  1. I’m not so sure the reader is to be under the impression that the narrator is dreaming, although it’s definitely a possibility. I think it’s more supposed to be just a suspension of disbelief, in that this bird is granted the ability to speak in the reality of the poem. Interestingly, the narrator’s initial impression of the raven is comical and sarcastic. As you pointed out, the raven perches on the bust of Pallas Athena, standing for wisdom, and the narrator remarks in the eighth stanza on how humorous he finds it that such a proud bird would decide to land in such a location. That being said, his initial inquiry, before discovering that the bird can speak, is made in jest. With that in mind, he holds a similar opinion that the assumed reader would have: skepticism. He then progressively becomes more desperate and descends into madness. Because the descent is progressive, and because the raven’s ability to speak is the only real impossibility, I am hesitant to say that the narrator is necessarily dreaming, but, as I said before, he may well be. If he is, then hopefully when he wakes, he can move forward instead of falling into the maddening despair of his dream.

    • That’s an interesting perspective, one I hadn’t thought of. I didnt see it from the humorous POV, so I will keep that in mind. Thanks for your reply!

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