Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"The Raven": Demon of Despair (On Poe and Death)

By Presbytera Juliana Cownie

Soon after the death of a loved one come many visitors to the bereaved. Some arrive early, bearing gifts of food and speaking words of consolation and comfort. Others appear late in the day, unable to say anything, but still comforting in their very presence. But when the comforters have gone away and we sit through the lonely watches of the night, pondering our loss, the last visitor arrives. He comes invited, though not to bring consolation; his words are empty of that. No, his purpose is to smother any desire we may still have for life, to snuff out the smallest spark of hope that may yet gleam within our soul. He is the black-winged demon of despair, sent to bring us swiftly to the realm of everlasting pain and to bring the pain of Hell to us while we yet live.

Yes, he is summoned, and no less real for that. A very tangible manifestation of this demon and his influence is described by Edgar Allan Poe in his uncannily beautiful poem, "The Raven." Making masterful use of his gift for consonance and cadence, Poe has, within seventeen stanzas, depicted as powerful a description of a descent into the pit as to be found outside Dante's Inferno.

The poem begins by describing, in the first person, a man distraught with grief. In the midnight hours, caught up in a dark and desolate meditation from which he vainly seeks distraction among his books, he suddenly hears a rapping at the door. His mood, already morbid, is excited into terror. Flinging open the door, he finds only the bitter emptiness he had been trying so hard to shut out moments before. Into this darkness he whispers the name of his beloved Lenore. The terror and wonder that he feels, the daring dreams he entertains, are all expressed in that one name. He has dared to believe that somehow she has returned to him from the dead. The name is echoed back into the stillness of the night and he returns to his room, his soul still burning with the idea of seeing his beloved again.

Poe uses the language so well to describe this chamber wherein haunting grief casts its gloom from the fire's dying embers and clings to each sad curtain, that one finds the man's obsession with death not at all unnatural. Unremitting sorrow has transformed this library into a mausoleum where all wisdom lies entombed with the books, bereft of any power to comfort the living, and the very furnishings seem to be draped with a shroud. The scene is set, the summons has been issued, the emissary of spiritual desolation awaits.

Acceptance of the death of our loved ones is never easy. Though St. Paul cautions us to "sorrow not, even as others which have no hope" (Thess. 4:13), when our world has collapsed around us, Heaven seems a dim, far point of light in a vast universe of darkness. The effort to hold our hands, that Christ might bring us up from the depths, seems too great. His Church was built that "...the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (St. Matt. 17:18). But when we do not seek refuge in the Church, these same gates can swallow us alive. A desire to commune with those who have crossed the barrier from this life into the spiritual realm and to attempt to reconfer our carnal claims upon them is an invitation to evil. What God would never in His infinite mercy allow, Satan would appear to allow, so that this tragic deception might prevent us from seeking the salvation of God through humble acceptance. Elder Nectary of Optina once warned a well-known spiritist of his time:

"Oh, what a perditious and terrible thing! Under the guise of a deep Christian teaching and through his demon-servants who appear invisible to man at spiritual seances, he, Satan, by means of the lie of the ancient serpent, leads man into such pits and such thickets out of which it is impossible to extricate oneself, not even to discern one's state." (1)

The tormented man, rationalizing that some perfectly natural phenomenon has been responsible for the rapping sounds, hears that sound once more, this time from the window. Betraying his emotion by the rapid beating of his heart, he flings open the window and the Raven flies in, alighting on a bust of Pallas above the door. Pallas Athene, pagan goddess of wisdom, is symbolic here of human reason, learning, and the arts. Apparently she is an ineffectual diety whose powers earlier proved insufficient to lift this tragic man, even briefly, from his mournful state of mind. Now the ill-omened Raven sits triumphant above her. Like the allegorical Virgil in Dante's Inferno, human reason is limited and without divine aid and can ultimately be surmounted by evil.

The man's initial response to this black-plumed apparition is one of contrived amusement. Though deceptively light in the tone of his greeting, the man's words belie his seeming indifference from the outset. He hails the Raven as having originated from the "Night's Plutonian shore." Pluto, another pagan deity, was lord of the underworld, the realm of the dead. The Raven comes recognized as an agent out of the land of darkness and death. Upon being asked its name, the mysterious entity responds with the single word, "Nevermore."

"Nevermore" is the haunting refrain upon which the lyrical cadence of this poem is built. Its meaning appears to elude the man at first. He dismisses the word as an irrelevant utterance and wonders aloud whether his new companion will fly, as all his hopes have done before. "Nevermore" comes this time as an apt reply to his despondent query. Despair we know to be the utter absence of hope. Hopes have flown away and despair has taken up its abode in a place of desolate hope. The man conjectures that this bird has perhaps learned its one word form some unhappy master plagued by catastrophe, "til his song one burden bore/ Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore of 'Never —nevermore.' " (2)

Hearing this word intoned as the funeral dirge for the hopes of another miserable soul, this morbid man will not be long in taking the demonic anthem into his own heart. Borne upon the breath of Hell, this perverted hymn to despair will be repeated again and again, until the hearer is driven to madness. The siren song which tempted Ulysses to hurl himself into the sea could not have been a deadlier temptation than this nor could it have required more restraint.

Hope does not fly of its own accord or die a natural death. We starve hope by fixing it on an object which cannot sustain it. When people die or dreams perish, we sometimes wish to bury our hopes with them. Despair comes with our invitation to shovel the first spadeful of earth onto the face of the deceased. As Christ descended into Hell to bring out those who had fallen therein, so will our hopes be resurrected and transfigured. If the demon of despair can drive out our hope in Christ, we are indeed lost.

"God does not insist or desire that we should mourn in agony of heart; rather, it is His wish that out of love for Him we should rejoice with laughter in our soul. Take away sin, and tears become superfluous; where there is no bruise, no ointment is required. Before the Fall, Adam shed no tears, and in the same way there will be no more tears after the resurrec tion from the dead, when sin has been destroyed. For pain, sorrow, and lamentation will then have fled away." [St. John Klimakos] (3)

Contemplating the bird and its strange saying, the man's mind turns once more to thoughts of his lost love. As if in response to his painful recognition that she will not return again to his room, he suddenly imagines that there is an aura of mystical divinity about the Raven: "Then, me thought the air grew denser/ perfumed from an unseen censer/ Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor." (4)

Enraptured by the angelic imagery in which he wishes to enshrine his dark visitor, the man concludes that God has sent this messenger with the gift of forgetfulness. His vision of respite from memories of Lenore is quickly shattered by the Raven's unchanging utterance. He shall taste the cup of blissful forgetfulness "nevermore."

The demon of despair attempts to keep us fixed on the idea that today's fresh grief will renew itself throughout an eternity of tomorrows. Anyone who has passed through this shadowed valley and out into the sunlight again knows that those very memories that cause the most pain become the sweetest with the passage of time. Certainly it does not seem so when living reality first passes into memory. Soon after the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis wrote:

"What pitiable cant to say, 'She will live forever in my memory!' Live? That is exactly what she won't do. You might as well think like the old Egyptians that you can keep the dead by enbalming them. Will nothing persuade us that they are gone? What's left? A corpse, a memory, and, in some versions, a ghost. All mockeries or horrors. Three more ways of spelling the word dead." (5)

Now desperate, the man pleads with the Raven to prophesy his release from sorrow. Pursuing his earlier self-deception that the Raven may be a divine messenger but patently not caring whether it comes from the Devil himself, the man questions the bird twice more. As wretched Saul implored the witch of Endor to summon up the shade of Samuel; as that fallen king did seek the aid of evil to hear the voice of the dead; so does this man call upon darkness to echo his own certain knowledge of destruction. Is there any healing of grief in this life? Despair answers, "nevermore." Will we ever greet our loved ones in Heaven? The refrain of "nevermore" is assured. The demon knows but one answer. Descent into the abyss must follow swiftly.

As the man tries futilely to rid himself of the Raven, he finds despair not so easily thrown off. This demon, when we allow it, fastens onto our souls and relentlessly squeezes every drop of hope from our spirit. The juiceless pulp goes on living then, eternally tormented, eternally thirsting for what can never be, perhaps even for what never was.

Did Lenore actually ever exist? This poem preceded the death of Poe's wife, Virginia, by two years. Many women were Lenore for this romantic poet, and at the same time none of them was. She was an ideal of love created in Poe's imagination. Springing fully grown from the head of her creator, Lenore took on many attributes of a goddess, but proved to be all too mortal. Again and again she died, and as soulless phantom she was raised each time with a new name and face. It was said of Poe: "Only in the imagination could he find ideal satisfaction. Every woman he loved was exalted into the dream angel whom he could worship imaginatively rather than physically enjoy." (6)

The intensity of this poem certainly suggests genuine mourning, passionate grief, and bitter sorrowing. Is it possible to grieve so much over the death of an illusory ideal? Have we not all, like Icarus, flown our dreams a bit too close to the light and heat of reality, and watched as the pinions fluttered away, falling surely to our own destruction? Have we not watched our self-centered ideals rise like fantastic flying machines borne aloft by some capricious breeze and then, unable to sustain their own weight upon such fragile wings, plummet to the ground and perish in flames? Did we not cry and mourn among the ruins and ashes as passionately as though we mourned our beloved? God be praised that in His infinite mercy, He gave us more to hope for than what we are able to create in our imaginations. What is born must die; what is given over to Christ will transcend even death. "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit" (St. John 12:24).

The demon of despair seeks to deprive us especially of this hope. In the last stanza of "The Raven," the unholy messenger is unmasked and his purpose accomplished:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting
—still is sitting

On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;

And his eyes have all the seeming of a
Demon that is dreaming,

And the lamp-light 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.

Poe himself perfectly exemplified the man conquered by despair. A biographer wrote of the relationship of the poet to his poetic masterpiece:

"...Nor was there any hope in the hereafter. The thought burned into his heart with the eyes of a demon, and he could not drive it away. It was al ways there, 'one unvaried emotion' —'that was liable to topple over into delerium.' That at times, it did so topple, is perfectly clear. It is this kind of despair that drives men to suicide and three years later we find the still young man —who found this unhappy bird perched triumphant over the symbol of all his learning and art— trying to commit suicide by drinking laudanum. Those who think 'The Raven' is a mere literary tour de force often disregard its genuine emotion because it is dramatically and logically presented." (8)

Though Lenore was born in Poe's imagination, her smile could only find expression on the faces of real women. Conversely, the very real demon of despair had long been etching its image into the poet's soul. "The Raven" was written as a cry from an inner darkness. To dwell in darkness of the heart as a lost and fallen man was a choice Poe made. The heart is not uncharted territory. Christ descended into these depths, too, that we might be brought forth, out of ourselves, and out from under the shadow of despair.

"Within the heart are unfathomable depths. It is but a small vessel, and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treas ures of grace; all things are there." [St. Macarios] (9)


1. Alexandrova, N., "Elder Nectary of Optina," The Orthodox Word, No. 129, 1986.

2. Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (New York, n.d.), p. 944.

3. The Ladder of Divine Ascent, tr. Archimandrite Lazarus (Moore) (London, 1959).

4. Complete Tales, p. 945.

5. C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York, 1961).

6. H. Allen, Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (New York, 1934), p. 488.

7. Complete Tales, p. 946.

8. Israfel, pp. 488-89.

9. Fifty Spiritual Homilies of St. Macarios the Egyptian, tr. A.J. Mason (London, 1921).

Source: Orthodox Tradition, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1988), pp. 28-33.